May 22, 2013
Regina Marler on Ted Hughes’ Letters
Posted on Nov 21, 2008
Eight years ago, after poring over the Ted Hughes archive at Emory University, scholar Diane Middlebrook said she would “love to be around in 50 years’ time when Hughes’ collected letters are published. I think he’ll be remembered as one of the great letter writers of the 20th century.” Three hundred of these vivid and endearing letters are now available in “Letters of Ted Hughes,” edited, selected and slightly sanitized by Christopher Reid, the poet laureate’s last editor at Faber & Faber. Initiated and authorized by Ted Hughes’ widow, Carol Hughes, “Letters” is described by Reid as part of the “process of restitution” needed for this “most crudely vilified of writers.” As an intellectual autobiography, the book is unmatched. As an entry in the Hughes Recovery Canon, it is a smash hit.
Are we ready to forgive Ted Hughes? For many readers, this is in the nature of surrendering a gnarled, beloved pair of boots, out of style but molded exactly to the foot. As the faithless, domineering ogre who sparked the fury of the “Ariel” poems, Hughes inspired a delicious resentment in a generation or more of Sylvia Plath enthusiasts. His name was repeatedly chipped off of Plath’s gravestone in Yorkshire; his poetry readings and public appearances marred by feminist protesters chanting the likes of “You murdered Sylvia!” In a much-quoted summary of a heady era, Germaine Greer said, “Ted Hughes existed to be punished—we had lost a heroine and we needed to blame someone, and there was Ted.”
Later, when it was understood that he had reordered the poems in Plath’s “Ariel” manuscript before publication (and omitted what he called “some of the more personally aggressive poems”) and when he declared that he had lost one of Plath’s late journals and destroyed the other, Hughes came in for a higher, finer degree of anger—especially in America, where he is best known not for his poetry but his marriage to Plath. It was one thing to fail Plath in life, another to tamper with a great poet’s literary remains.
The destruction of her final journal felt to Plath’s readers like a re-enactment of her death—this time with no doubt of Hughes’ guilt—and became such an engaging motif in scholarship and journalism that Ted’s protective older sister, Olwyn Hughes, who had regarded Plath as “pretty straight poison,” tried to quell the uprising. “The final Journal covered the last few weeks of Sylvia’s life, spiralling down, in 1963, to death wishing, grey depression, much of it searing, some of it ugly,” she wrote to The New York Review of Books. “Can I use your columns to ask commentators to give this eternal recourse to jibes about these missing journals a rest? Their loss is regrettable, but there is nothing that the Estate can do about them.”
From only a few months after Plath’s suicide, Hughes’ letters begin to touch on his public relations problem—greatly exacerbated by his publication of “Ariel” in England in 1965 and in America the following year—and one can sense dismay and annoyance vying for primacy among his emotions. He battened down the hatches. Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s grieving mother, would have to stop prying into his private affairs or “forego a close relationship to the children.” To his girlfriend, Assia Wevill—the third party in his breakup with Plath—he said, “Do you know what oppresses me? The thought that you save my letters.” If she was going to leave them available for “bloody eavesdroppers & filchers & greedy curiosity,” he couldn’t write freely.
This anxious patrol of his boundaries is everywhere in Hughes’ “Letters.” He wanted Plath’s earliest rapturous letters about him to her mother deleted from the collection “Letters Home.” He asked that scholars of his own work keep “the biographical element” to a bare minimum. Even photographs could do harm: “This concerns me directly,” he told Keith Sagar, author of “The Art of Ted Hughes,” in 1974. “This mass exposure intensifies my sense of being ‘watched’—(which maims all well-known writers, & destroys many.) It sharpens, in any readers, their visual image of me, making the telepathic interference correspondingly more difficult to counter.”
While Hughes assiduously cultivated Plath’s reputation—promoting her work through reprints and new editions and trying to shape critical discourse through his introductions to these volumes—he kept a famously tight grip on Plath biography, chiefly through denying permission to quote from her writings, but also by pressuring friends not to expose personal history, ostensibly because of the harm it could cause Plath’s children.
Partly as a result of his chill hand as executor, corrective narratives hostile to Ted Hughes began to appear in the late 1980s. These unveiled for the public the staggering second tragedy in Hughes’ life: that Assia Wevill had also killed herself, in 1969, at the same time killing her daughter by Hughes. The chain of association beginning with Ted Hughes’ name now led to two suicides, an infanticide, adultery, diary-burning, editorial meddling and the suppression of scholarly inquiry—all complicated by the violence in his poetry. Eventually, Hughes discouraged friends from asking for book jacket blurbs, since he felt that any praise from him only drew fire.
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