Hugo Williams, The Daily Telegraph, Saturday April 1, 2000
For 34 years, Ted Hughes kept silent about his seven-year marriage to Sylvia Plath, which ended in the American poet’s suicide. Then, in 1998, he published Birthday Letters out of the blue — 88 longish poems telling of an enduring one-way conversation with his dead wife. In Ariel’s Gift, Erica Wagner performs the useful task of relating the imagery of the poems to the details of the lives.
In the first poem, for instance, Hughes remembers seeing in a newspaper display in the Strand a photograph of the 1955 Fulbright intake, one of whom may have been Sylvia Plath, and recalls eating his first peach on the same day – “I could hardly believe how delicious./At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh/ By my ignorance of the simplest things.” This sets up one of the book’s themes, the protestation of innocence through naivety. Wagner savvily notes that “in his ‘ignorance’ he is taking up the challenge of the poetic endeavour: his eating of the peach can be set against the nervous caution voiced by T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who hesitates at this sensual commitment”.
Hughes’s father was a carpenter, one of only 17 men of his regiment to return from Gallipoli, a diary in his breast pocket having stopped a bullet. Wagner shows how the memory of war will condition Hughes’s life and work. On honeymoon in Paris, while Plath is mooning after literary ghosts, Hughes sees only “café chairs where the SS mannequins/Had performed their tableaux vivants” and the waiters’ eyes “Clogged with dregs of betrayal, reprisal, hatred”. Wagner points out that Plath would later appropriate Nazi imagery to shocking effect in ‘Daddy’. But if Plath seemed to treat the traces of mass death as “an anecdotal aesthetic touch” and her “lingo” was “a thesaurus of cries”, Hughes’s poem goes on to admit that this shallowness is a mechanism of protection: for Plath, Paris is the memory of fruitlessly hunting for her former lover, Richard Sassoon, who gave her the slip there a few years earlier: “Your Paris/Was a desk in a pension/Where your letters/Waited for him unopened.”
After two weeks there, they leave for Spain, where the chaos of their feelings starts to find metaphors in that country’s dark imagery. To counterpoint Hughes’s response, Wagner offers Plath’s record, in jolly letters home and bleaker journal entries. Plath tried to make Spain bright and breezy in her bad poem ‘Fiesta Melons’. But in ‘You Hated Spain’ Hughes sensed her fear, her anger and a kind of terrible recognition: “Spain/ Was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver/You dared not wake with, the puckering amputations/No literature course had glamorized.” Reading about this doomed couple, you cannot help thinking of the stone-paper- scissors game — not happily wrapped in one another on honeymoon, but blunted, blinded and cut. The hypochondriac Plath gets sick and panics for the medicine cupboard of America. Hughes is sceptical of her fuss. “The stone man made soup,” he wrote in ‘Fever’; “The burning woman drank it.” Ted looked strong and wrote strong but, as Wagner makes us ask, supposing he was not an iron man after all, but made of flesh and blood like the rest of us? Given the horrific facts of his life, could there be any peace for him outside poetry?
The final sequence of poems becomes increasingly desperate as they seek absolution from memory. For Hughes, her suicide, her poems, her “last stand” letters decrying his behaviour to friends, “all those words you struck me with” would be easier to bear if he believed she was moved by some force outside herself. And so there are poems such as ‘The Hands’: “Sometimes I think/Finally you yourself were two gloves/Worn by those two hands” — simultaneously comical and untrue. Hands, like mirrors, are dodgy territory for poetry, but Hughes doesn’t hesitate; he needs them to forgive him too much to worry about literary taste. Andrew Motion has said that this final sequence will be seen as the great achievement, but even with Wagner’s sympathetic coaching I draw back when the language enters the unbreathable air of psychological speculation.
Ted Hughes is the patron saint of creative writing. He pushed his own talent no less than that of would-be writers at the Arvon Foundation and conventional wisdom has it that he pushed the talent of Sylvia Plath over the ‘Edge’. She wrote: “The woman is perfected./Her dead/Body wears the smile of accomplishment.” Wagner does not apportion blame, but draws out Hughes’s confusion, professed and otherwise, of the depths they were skating over: “I could no more join you/Than on the sacrificial slab/That you were looking for.” Blame, if any, is laid at the door of ignorance and incomprehension. “But how could he understand it,” Wagner reasonably asks, “if she did not either?”
The fascination of the book is in the way it demonstrates the two poets’ influence on each other, “the ecstasy of influence” as she calls it, illustrating, in minute detail, what Hughes always claimed were “two parts of one operation”. If, as Hughes insisted, Birthday Letters is a kind of dialogue with Sylvia Plath – “a direct, private, inner contact with my first wife” — then this work is a dialogue with Birthday Letters and with Ariel itself.
The book makes for slow reading; no sooner have you opened it than you are back to the poems, going “aha” rather foolishly, which in turn entails dreaming. It seems unlikely that much of Birthday Letters has escaped the scouring New York energy of Ariel’s Gift, and I should think their complementary colours and jacket design will cleave together on many people’s shelves.