on 29 April 2016
The first thing to say about this book is that it comprises predominantly a series of poems addressed to Sylvia Plath. Consequently it assumes complete knowledge of the biographical details of the two main protagonists and of Sylvia’s parents. Reading the poems, I was forced to resort to Wikipedia more than once and even then, when I had finished, I went back to check I had not missed anything by consulting Erica Wagner’s excellent guide, Ariel’s Gift (Faber, 2000).
It is probably best also to read Plath’s late poems in her Collected Poems published by Hughes in 1981. This allows the reader to compare directly Hughes’s and Plath’s versions of the same events – for example Hughes’s The Bee God and Plath’s Stings. Ted deliberately borrows the titles of several of his poems from those of his wife, almost daring the reader to read them side by side. And he references images, phrases and symbols taken from her poems throughout (“…crackling and dragging their blacks”). No-one was as intimate with Plath’s poems as her literary executor and editor.
Plath’s prose and poetry is notoriously autobiographical; Hughes’s less so, apart from this work. Not only are the poems here autobiographical, but they are ordered chronologically, so they are deliberately designed to tell a story – the ballad of Ted and Sylvia. There are no chapters, but it is easy to divide the poems into the stages of the relationship: expectancy of meeting; courting, marriage and honeymoon; settling down together; gradual unravelling; catastrophe; and aftermath.
Plath’s later poetry gives the impression of being written straight from the Id, although I am sure it was much more considered than it may at first appear. The poems in The Birthday Letters, written with the benefit of hindsight, are much more reflective and controlled. He reveals little of his own feelings at the time, although these are hinted at by means of tone and choice of metaphor. His feelings towards Sylvia are mostly hidden, although he clearly admired her cleverness and he does make sure the reader knows that she looked good in a bikini.
Princess Diana famously said, “”There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” According to Ted, the Hughes marriage seems to have had a similar problem. Long before Assia Wevil arrived on the scene, there was Otto, Sylvia’s father, who died when she was ten. Over and over Otto pops up in the poems – the man in the black coat, the lodger, a figure in Sylvia’s dreams, a German cuckoo in the marriage bed and a wraith under the desk on which she composed Ariel. Is Hughes implying that his wife, the author of Daddy, had a father fixation and that this was the cause of the failure of his marriage? Or is blameless Otto merely a symbol of death and the suicidal thoughts that haunted Sylvia?
Otto aside, Hughes does not hide the fissures appearing in the marriage, almost from the very beginning. They honey moon in Paris. Sylvia has a Romantic view of the city, looking for Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein, while he can see only the ghosts of the SS lording it over the city. They go to Spain and it is similar. He unsympathetically recalls her hypochondria. The poem Fever presumably references her poem Fever 103˚, rather cruelly setting up the reader to compare her self-pitying response to a local tummy bug to her later vision of herself as an acetylene virgin.
Hughes has a surprise encounter with fox cub in a London street. The fox is an important Hughesian symbol. On seeing the cub he has an epiphany; the marriage is over, at least from the point of view of hindsighted Ted. Then the anger attacks begin. Sylvia smashes a mahogany table-top and tears up Ted’s copy of Shakespeare. He tells her to channel this anger into her poems. There’s another existential stand-off over rabbit traps and then a catastrophic trip to the beach, but by then Assia is about to appear.
The poems work well as biography because, rather than giving every event in every day as seems to be the trend in the over-researched literary biographies that weigh down our shelves, critical moments like those above are singled out and analysed for their deeper meaning. They also work because Hughes has such a strong sense sense of time and place. His pictures of the bright young things in Cambridge, of fifties Paris still scarred by the war, of the dinginess of his London digs, of the homes he and Sylvia set up together in Cambridge, Boston, London and Devon, and of the greyness of Woolacombe Sands in the November rain feel so real. I particularly liked the atmospherics of Robbing Myself, where, close to the end, Ted drives down to the now empty house in Devon. It is the height of the endless 1963 snows and the empty, cold building, now closed and locked up, stands for the marriage. Ted rummages for apples and potatoes; he does not know that the gladioli bulbs are dying of cold.
The poems are good enough be read over and over. With each reading new meanings reveal themselves. After my first reading, I was impatient with Ted; his lingering on Sylvia’s physical characteristics (“your long, perfect, American legs”) and focus on her fixation with Otto, seemingly attempting to absolve Ted from responsibility for the failure of the marriage. In subsequent readings I found more respect for Sylvia’s other attributes and more regret for his inability to preserve their relationship.
The last poem, Red, is a little odd. Colour is important in Plath’s poems. Ted adopts her flags for the poem. Sylvia wore red, painted the walls of her houses red, and she liked poppies and red roses. Red was her colour and, in her poems, it symbolised blood, anger and rebirth, keeping her from the white, which represented the moon, bone and death.
Ted asserts that blue should have been her colour – calmer, maternal and jewel like. For Ted it recalled her blue headscarf that he kept from their first meeting in Cambridge. Except that Sylvia recalls that the headscarf was red (“Ah, yes, I remember it well.”) Then, chillingly, Ted links blue to “electrified”. Surely he cannot be referring the electro-shock treatment that relieved her depression following her suicide attempt at her mother’s house when she was twenty?
I do not think that this is Hughes’s greatest work; that would be Crow. It is a poignant memoir of a failed marriage and ensuing personal tragedy, written by a poet of great ability and subtlety. It seems sincere, but is of its very nature a one-sided view. As poetry, several of the poems stand above the psychodrama. As autobiography, it is unique.