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Regina Marler on Ted Hughes’ Letters

Posted on Nov 21, 2008
book cover

By Regina Marler

(Page 2)

      The story of Hughes’ helpless entanglement in Plath’s afterlife—as ripping a yarn as the tale of their marriage—was first told by Janet Malcolm in “The Silent Woman” (1994) and by Diane Middlebrook in “Her Husband” (2004), a study of the two poets’ intertwined creative lives, the “call and response” that characterized their intimate collaboration. Readers of either book will relish the “inside dope” in Hughes’ letters that he had been at such pains to suppress during most of his lifetime, and also perhaps empathize with his impossible position as the gatekeeper to Plath’s memory. “I seem to have been populated by the deceased,” he wrote to an old friend, Peter Redgrove, a year after Assia Wevill’s suicide, “who go on requiring God knows what of me & permit me very little.” 

      Hughes came to believe that Plath’s fame and his quiet collusion in her complicated legend had made it impossible for him to process her loss “naturally”—for a poet—by letting it fade enough to write about symbolically. Thrumming beneath his “Letters” is the toll exacted on him by his own silence, his determination not to parade his private dramas before the eavesdroppers and filchers that are the reading public. “My high-minded principal [sic] was simply wrong—for my own psychological and physical health,” he told Keith Sagar in 1998, a few months before Hughes’ death. “It was stupid. The public interference later was just bad luck.”

      The most poignant letters in the book are those in which Hughes realizes that finally publishing “Birthday Letters” (1998), the informal verses he had been writing about Plath for 25 years, did not bring down the sky: “So I did it, and now I’m getting the surprise of my life. What I’ve been hiding all my life, from myself and everybody else, is not terrible at all.” With these poems off his back, his last months were full of a “sense of gigantic, upheaval transformation.” 


book cover


Letters of Ted Hughes


By Ted Hughes


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 784 pages


Buy the book


        In “The Silent Woman,” Malcolm confessed to “a feeling of intense sympathy and affection” for Hughes as she read a letter he had written the Plath biographer Anne Stevenson: “Other letters of Hughes’s that have come my way have had the same effect, and I gather that I am not alone in this reaction; other people have spoken to me in awe of Hughes’s letters. Someday, when they are published, critics will wrestle with the question of what gives them their peculiar power, why they are so deeply, mysteriously moving.” 

      Part of the appeal of Hughes’ letters is that he has no small talk. He plunges immediately into candid, shapely, vigorous discussion of his writing, others’ writing, the fishing conditions on his last trip. His personal warmth translates immediately on the page. Poetry is the most concentrated medium, and Hughes clearly enjoys expanding on those few words. Reading what Plath called his “elaborate metaphysical explanations” of his work—in letters to friends, critics, collaborators—is like watching a big shaggy dog bounding around a field of gopher holes. These are high-spirited, voluble letters, stuffed with his theories and enthusiasms. They give the impression he had all the time in the world to write them, in fact that the meeting on the page between himself and his correspondent was the best thing that could have happened to him that day.

      The twin threads running through these letters are Hughes’ poetic concerns—his money-making schemes as a young writer, his interest in translation (he was one of the founders of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation),  his verse plays, his writing for children, his collaborations with Leonard Baskin, Peter Brook and others—and, after “the events of ’63 and ’69,” as he refers to them, his attempt to come to terms with the tragedies. Students of his work will find rich material here: not only the recounting of Hughes’ childhood and education in York and at Cambridge, but explications of his complex mythologies in “Crow” (1970) and “Gaudete” (1977), his attraction to astrology and the occult, and his experiments with language. 

      Considering how anxiously he guarded his every public utterance, Hughes was remarkably open to biographical exegesis of his work. An important 1990 letter to his friend Moelwyn Merchant on animals, folklore and shamanism could serve as an introduction to almost any collection of Hughes’ verse. “It occurred to me—fairly recently—that my preoccupation with animal life, which was obsessively there waiting for me when I became conscious, was a natural gravitation towards whatever life had escaped the cultural imprint,” Hughes explains. “Because everybody else ignored it (in those days, I couldn’t have felt the same now) I felt I had the animal world absolutely to myself. I could indulge a total self-identification with all wild-life. … I made the association, somehow, between the world of animals, which is excluded by culture, & persecuted (killed & eaten) & the ‘real thing’ in human beings—the part which our own culture tortures, i.e. sacrifices, crucifies.”

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By brenda hedden, April 7, 2010 at 12:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Jill Barber’s version of my relationship with Ted Hughes is fictitious. The authentic account is found in Hughes’s many letters to myself at the time.  This record proves it was a positive and successful transition.  As Hughes writes of his many visits to Sussex to see me, Jill Barber’s imagined construction is exposed as absurd.

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By Paracelsus, November 24, 2008 at 11:49 am Link to this comment

Well if you are going to end it all, I think it is always the polite and nice thing to do if you go out with a song.

Also be considerate enough not to make a big mess. I like how Jean le Carré‘s character in A Perfect Spy, Magnus Pym, drew down the dénouement to his own life: he wrapped a towel around his head before shooting himself so as to spare his landlady any additional aggravation in cleaning up his leavings. So much of time suicides do the inconsiderate act by inconveniencing others in their thanatic quests. For example, Anna Karinna of Leo Tolstoy slowed down a locomotive when she contrived her exit. It must be the holidays for I have taken a journey down a moribund path, much like the forest trek that Virgil took with his sightseeing guide. Enough of of that, I am going to listen to some happy music.

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By Paracelsus, November 23, 2008 at 3:04 am Link to this comment

A Second Thought

He doesn’t sound like a nice guy at all.


I had believed him when he told me in 1977: ‘If you f*** another man I will never see you again.’ His sex drive was unquenchable and he was definitely attracted to unstable women. He told me with glee of how he had driven a previous lover, Brenda Heddon, to near madness.

When he broke off their relationship, he would wake up in the morning to find her hair twined around the front doorknob and the doorhandle of his car.

He loved women to be obsessed with him, even if he did not love or care for them any more.

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By diamond, November 23, 2008 at 12:59 am Link to this comment

Whenever I read any of Hughes’ forewords to Plath’s writings, or essays he’s written on her poetry, which seem, on the face of it, to be so civilized and so objective, I remember what Hughes is supposed to have said when he turned up at Helder and Suzette Macedo’s “totally devastated” after learning of Plath’s suicide:  “Helder,” he said, “you must know it was either her or me” . Even taking into account grief and shock this is a cruel and curious thing for him to have said. The Macedos were Hughes’ friends and seem to have remained his friends so it’s hard to imagine they had any reason to make this up.
  To say Hughes had a hidden agenda in nearly everything he writes about Plath is to understate the case. Whatever he discusses he is simply pursuing his vested interest in finding that Plath was in love with death.  Would a woman who was in love with death have taken a tonic to help her appetite? Would she have sought medical help when she realized how ill she was? So much of what Hughes writes about Plath in the guise of literary theory is sheer nonsense when seen in the light of compassion and commonsense. Racked with guilt after Plath’s suicide he wrote to her mother in 1963 that his affair with Assia Wevill was “madness” and even went so far as to claim that if there is an eternity he “would be dammed in it” for what he had done.  He probably meant it at the time, but it has to be remembered that he continued to sleep with Wevill for at least five years after this.

  What really lifts this story into the realms of the fantastic is what eventually happened to Assia Wevill.  After Plath’s suicide, Wevill was defiant and contemptuous of critics of her relationship with Hughes, but it couldn’t last. She moved to Devon and into Court Green after giving birth to Hughes’ daughter (while still living with her husband David Wevill); but by the end of 1967, “Ted had decided that the only way to engineer some peace for HIMSELF was for Assia to move back to London”. Wevill had wanted marriage but Hughes refused to commit himself.  Wevill went back to work as a copywriter in London, put on weight and had to live with the fact that Ted Hughes had another woman in his life: Brenda Hedden, another married woman and mother of two pre-school age children. With bitter wit Wevill described Hedden as “an emaciated Marilyn Monroe”.  The novelist Fay Weldon, who was Wevill’s friend at this time, remembers that Assia’s life revolved around Ted Hughes’ phone calls. 

  By 1969 Wevill, like Plath before her, was seriously depressed. She had put all her hopes into buying a house with Hughes on the outskirts of Newcastle but when she phoned him to discuss it on the last day of her life, there was an argument on the phone. Not surprising when Hughes was planning to marry Carol Orchard, a woman many years his junior, after refusing to marry Wevill for five years. The most likely explanation for the argument is that Hughes told her about the upcoming nuptials. Elizabeth Compton Sigmund also believed that Plath suicided after Hughes told her that Wevill was pregnant.  Apparently this pregnancy was later terminated.  After putting the phone down Assia Wevill sent her German au pair out to do some shopping, gave her daughter Shura sleeping tablets in a drink, took some in whisky herself and lying down with Shura in her arms, she turned on the gas. She was forty years old.

It never ceases to amaze me that people talk about Plath’s selfishness but not about Hughes’ egomaniacal behaviour. No one was more responsible for the myth of the death crazed harpy of Court Green than he was. And no one was more responsible for Plath’s suicide. He felt as if he was in court and only one of them could be found guilty and by God it wasn’t going to be him. Losing one woman to suicide could be bad luck: losing two to suicide starts to look like carelessness. Or something worse.

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By troublesum, November 22, 2008 at 4:32 pm Link to this comment

Three of the greatest poets of the confessional school - Plath, Ann Sexton, and Robert Lowell - all committed suicide within a seven year period.  Their penetrating examination of self ended in self loathing and disgust for life.

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By Paracelsus, November 22, 2008 at 1:08 pm Link to this comment

I don’t now true this is in the case of Sylvia Plath, but many suicides comfort themselves in sorrow they cause their friends and relations. It is a sort of vengeance. I find it interesting that many women faced with the same troubles would endure for the sake of the children. I suppose Ms. Plath had her depressions and her bruised ego, but her solution was a selfish one. A good many artists and poets have a certain narcissism that impels them to think that they are unique their deuil, their grief. Narcissism is the thorn we must accept for the fruit of the muse, I suppose. I think though I could respect Plath more if she was blatantly evil in narcissism, then to take a path that reflects shame and guilt upon her husband, Ted Hughes. After all if Picasso could be ungrateful and vile to his ex-lovers, then I see no reason for Plath not taking the same path. I could respect her audacity, her ego manic pluck for being a bad girl. True her children may hate her, and Ted Hughes would have a good sheen to his aura, but the people concerned would not be plagued by especial grief of a suicidal mother. They could go on without the horrid chains they have now.

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By troublesum, November 22, 2008 at 10:39 am Link to this comment

Allen Ginsburg’s letters were also published this year and may be of more interest to people here, but I think it’s probably hopeless to get these people interested in poets or poetry.

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