Elaine Feinstein, The Times Literary Supplement, Friday March 31, 2000
Erica Wagner has set the poems of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters in the context of his marriage to Sylvia Plath with great delicacy, and, for all the restraint in her use of biographical material, her book is informed not only by Plath’s journals and letters, but, more significantly, moonlit throughout by Plath’s poetry. Ariel’s Gift is as elegant a piece of work as Janet Malcolm’s Silent Woman (1994). Yet Wagner’s cool approach does not reduce the urgency of Hughes’s own voice.
Wagner gives a succinct, uncontentious account of the history of Plath publication, Hughes’s reasons for changing the order and content of Ariel, and the ironies of US copyright law that drew The Bell Jar, Letters Home and the edited version of The Journals into the public domain. Though she can only guess when individual poems of Birthday Letters were written, Wagner knows, as Literary Editor of The Times, which of them Hughes would not allow to be used outside the context of his book as a whole. Some of these, even in the sequence as finally published, were indeed picked on by hostile reviewers as evidence of his need for self-justification, and it is salutary to be reminded of the risk Hughes must have felt he was taking.
Wagner has made a point of not going back to those friends who knew Plath and Hughes at the time of their marriage, but she is particularly good at unpacking the poems where Hughes’s awareness of Plath’s inner world — gained often through a posthumous reading of her journals or her poems — plays back into his memory of events: “Now I see, I saw, sitting the lonely girl who was going to die.”
It is perhaps surprising that Plath emerges from Birthday Letters for Wagner as a more vivid figure than any she finds of Hughes. Sylvia’s eyes dazzle like “a crush of diamonds”, her animation astonishes. In contrast, Wagner sees Hughes as helpless, puzzled and essentially passive, from the first dramatic meeting with Sylvia on the night of the famous St Botolph’s party: “That day the solar system married us whether we knew it or not.” Hughes’s convinced fatalism reinforces Wagner’s reading of his character quite as much as the poems which insist that Plath’s suicide in the snows of 1963 was an inexorable outcome of her long fascination with death. Hughes confesses to his own ignorance, at first, of the desperate terrors that lay beneath his wife’s American glow of health, though Wagner quotes a letter to his sister Olwyn in which Hughes explains Sylvia’s overly open expression as “the American stereotype she clutches at when she is in fact panic-stricken”. Her rage and her sulky “steel helmet” frown remained incomprehensible to him for rather longer, since she concealed her blackest insecurities from him, while confiding them to her diary. Even so, quite early in the marriage he understood that “each of us was the stake impaling the other”.
Hughes attributes Plath’s obsession with suicide most frequently to her Oedipal fixation on her father. Sometimes, he blames himself for isolating her by moving to Devon. Sometimes he wonders if a stronger magician could have saved her. The inconsistencies in Hughes’s poems are honest, the troubled thoughts of a man who does not have all the answers. Wagner points up Hughes’s bitterness in ‘The 59th Bear’ at the hurtful use Plath made of their travels across America . But his bewilderment at her choice of material goes deeper.
Hughes had spent years at Plath’s side teaching her to bypass her own self-censorship. His readiness to coax monsters from Plath’s memory, in the name of poetry, sprang in part from a belief that writing of poetry was part of a psychic healing process. Birthday Letters themselves testify to the release he found in speaking aloud of his own grief after so many years of silence. Yet the most poignant possibility he voices in Birthday Letters is that Plath’s own pen ought to take the blame for the loss of her husband and her life. The poetry in Ariel may have been exactly the creature he had been trying to free and launch, “But it dawned on me only in the last months which way it wanted to fly”. All through their life together, what Plath appeared to fear most were the rivals for Ted’s affections whom she saw everywhere, recognizing the most dangerous of them at once in Assia Wevill’s huge, beautiful eyes. Yet it is in ‘Epiphany’ that Hughes writes of his own realization of the failure of his marriage. The poem refers back to a time long before Assia Wevill’s sexual temptation. For all Plath’s hysteria and sulks, he was still so closely linked to her then in every aspiration and thought that he would later speak of the two of them working side by side almost like a single mind. Yet something in himself, some wildness embodied in a fox cub nearly bought on the bridge of Camden Road in the spring of 1960, could not be accommodated in the constraints of Plath’s domestic world.
For a biographer, there is much to ponder in that single poem. Hughes writes openly of falling in love with Assia Wevill, yet he also writes of his parting with Sylvia as a cosmic disaster. Again and again, he comes up to a threshold or looks behind a door and there she lies, dead, irrevocably. In Euripides’ Alcestis, a play Hughes worked on brilliantly — and very freely — in the months before his own death, a dead wife is sweetly restored to her husband by Hercules. In contrast, Hughes had been accompanied for most of his days by the risen ‘Lady Lazarus’. The “gift” of Erica Wagner’s title suggests both Plath’s genius and the torment of living alongside so powerful a ghost.