Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers, a recent book by Lesley McDowell, includes as its final chapter the marriage between the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which led me to revisit all things Plath, who has fascinated me since my teens. Her Ariel poems simply stunned me (still do) with their raw emotion, and for a teenager engulfed in adolescent angst, Plath’s life represented the epitome of the anguished (female) artist ahead of her time, feminism in Plath’s era only then beginning its stirrings in the mainstream consciousness.
Her husband, Ted Hughes, I didn’t know so much about. Superficially, Hughes was always vilified as the monster who tripped the final switch on Plath’s sanity with an affair begun a few months before her suicide. But after also reading Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook, the contours of this complex pairing are clearly not as simple as all that. From their first meeting in 1956, when Hughes kissed her, in Plath’s words, “bang smash on the mouth” (they married four months later), to the time of Plath’s suicide in February 1963, this marriage of poet-partners was anything but categorizable.
The discovery for me lies in the brilliant Birthday Letters, the Hughes collection from 1998 that details his side of the story, poem-wise, in most powerful fashion. In “St. Botolph’s”, Hughes replies to Plath’s “bang smash” of their initial meeting (she followed by biting him sharply on the cheek) with:
And the swelling ring-moat of tooth marks
That was to brand my face for the next month.
The me beneath it for good.
In “Fidelity”, the initial attraction:
I was focused,
So locked onto you, so brilliantly
Everything that was not you was blind-spot.
And nails her intrinsic and futile search for father (see Plath’s “Daddy”) in “The Shot”:
Your worship needed a god.
Where it lacked one, it found one.
(The staccato lines recall Plath in “Lady Lazarus”: “Dying Is an art, like everything else I do it exceptionally well.”)
Hughes was always vilified as the monster who tripped the final switch on Plath’s sanity, with an affair begun a short while before her suicide.
One must assume that Birthday Letters was cathartic for Hughes, after so many years of ostracization by Plath aficionados. Much of which of course was justified; Hughes did destroy Plath’s journals of the last days of her life, depriving posterity of what was going on in that troubled mind in the period before her demise; likewise, the callousness of his affair with Assia Wevill — who ironically also later committed suicide, taking her and Hughes’ child with her — cannot be understated.
Nevertheless, Birthday Letters in many ways is redemptive of Hughes for me, no easy feat considering my idolization of Plath. And his greatness as a poet was unquestionable.