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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 29 April 2016
Birthday Letters is not an easy book. The poems are very well executed, so it is possible to read them just for the poetry alone. However, there is so much biography underlying these poems that, to get the full value from them, it is necessary to do some pre-reading.
The good news is that Erica Wagner has done much of this for us. She has read her way through Sylvia Plath’s surviving diaries and letters; she has read the memoirs of friends of the couple; and she is familiar with the prose and poetry of both Hughes and Plath.
I note that some of the reviews on Amazon criticise her book for being a rather superficial, “sixth-form” level analysis. I did not come to the book expecting high-level academic poetry criticism. I took it to be a simple handbook for the general reader, helping her or him identify and comprehend the biographical and poetic references hidden in Hughes’s poems.
If the book was intended as the latter of these two alternatives then it succeeds very well, certainly so far as the biographical references are concerned. I feel, now that I have read Wagner’s book, I am not missing much through not knowing the facts - the names of family members, the key events of Sylvia’s life, her father’s interest in bees, etc.
As Wagner points out, Sylvia Plath herself often gave up to three different versions of the same event – firstly in her diary, then a self-censored one in her letters to her mother and finally one or more fictional takes in her prose. Add to this her poetry, which draws heavily on her life, and the memoirs written by friends and acquaintances, and it is clear that Ted is laying his late-arriving version of events on top of several others. With due archaeological diligence, Wagner sifts through all of this on our behalf, uncovering consistencies, highlighting differences of emphasis and pointing out the odd outright discrepancy.
Wagner is good on the biography, but she is less so on the poetry. Birthday Letters is full of references to Plath’s work. No-one knew her prose and poetry better than Ted, who was her literary executor and editor. He deliberately draws his poem titles from those already used by Plath and relies heavily on symbols, metaphors and phrases borrowed from her poems. Wagner points out some of these, but there are many more.
Ariel’s Gift was published within two years of Birthday Letters, so one can say Wagner did a wonderful job unravelling the biographical threads in the time. Fully unravelling the poetical links and resonances will take longer and will probably keep academic critics in grants and awards for years to come.
Thank you, Erica Wagner, for helping me get more out of Birthday Letters than I would have done otherwise. Here’s a well-deserved four stars, plus a hearty recommendation for your book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 22 December 2014
Published in 2000, just two years after the appearance of Hughes' Birthday Letters and his subsequent death, this is a popular account of the Plath-Hughes relationship, both the marriage and the poetic dialogue which exists between his Birthday Letters and her poetry.

Wagner tries to be balanced but tends more to the Hughes than Plath side of what has become almost a confrontation. Her readings of Hughes' poems are not particularly scholarly but do draw on biographical material and will likely be helpful to the A level/undergraduate student, general reader or anyone unfamiliar with the story of this most volatile of marriages.

Anyone with a more advanced academic interest in Plath-Hughes may well feel that they can't ignore this book, but while it's an interesting read, it doesn't offer anything new.
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on 13 August 2003
This book may be useful for general readers as a background for the Birthday Letters poems, grounding each in the biographical facts of Plath and Hughes life together and providing reference points in an easy to read format, but it has many failings. Anyone who has read Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame Plath biography will not need to read this book; it becomes obvious that Wagner's book was written using only three texts as research - Birthday Letters, Ariel, and Stevenson's book. It is a lazy reproduction of anothers argument, little more than a sixth formers essay. Anyone who has read the three books mentioned is wasting their money on this; every point it makes becomes obvious if you know the biography. Use it as a quick reference, not as a good book in it's own right.
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on 24 April 2000
This is the first book to deal with the literary sensation that appeared only eight months before the death of its author, Ted Hughes. Although I doubt that this will be the last book to deal with his relationship with the American born poet, Sylvia Plath, I have no doubt that this will remain one of the best. It carefully examines the poems while pointing out the references to their life that litter the poems and pointing out the references to Plath's work as well. Wagner does not take sides,unlike many of the critics and biographers who have gone before her and this is a refreshing change. The introductory chapter, The Ecstasy of Influence, examines the reasons why the book has become such a sensation on both sides of the atlantic and Wagner may well become one of the world's most quoted critics on the subject.
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on 5 December 2012
I am doing a dissertation on Ted and Sylvia and this book wasn't extremely helpful. It ok for a quick glance not worth the buy, you can find most of this type of info on york notes. Not really for the academic.
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on 31 July 2009
I bought this book to gain some insight into the stories behind the poems in The Birthday Letters. Teaching Hughes' poems for the first time, it was a helpful piece of background reading, and followed the same chronological structure as the collection . At times certain interesting poems were glossed over- the emphasis is very much here on the context of the writing rather than the writing itself, and as always Plath dominates the story. Its a well written, highly readable text though, and certainly presents an interesting set of interpretations. Definitely a recommended book for anyone reading The Birthday Letters.
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on 15 December 2015
Brilliant, Ariel revealed Plath's original and fearsome talent.
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on 25 November 2013
I purchased this as a gift to myself,I have already read one of Syliva's books,and have bought
this for my Christmas stocking,looking forward to reading it.!!!!
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on 9 October 2014
Very good!
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