Regina Marler on Ted Hughes’ Letters
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. 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.”
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.” He also offered increasingly penetrating analyses of the creative process, as shaped by his own engagement with—and artistic avoidance of—his psychic dramas. In another letter to Merchant, he confesses a belief that “whatever we work at, in the way of imaginative creation, operates as a conjuration, a ritual summoning of all energies associated with the subject matter—from levels that our normal activities can rarely tap. And those energies are good or bad for us—helpful or destructive—almost in the style of demonic entities—according to our subject matter, & the moral-imaginative interpretation we make of it.”
From my experience editing “Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell,” I can attest that the hardest part—after deciphering your subject’s handwriting — is shaping a fluid narrative from the surviving manuscripts, a plausible “life in letters.” This is the story you defend from your publisher’s red pen. But Christopher Reid regards his task differently. In his introduction, as we’ve seen, the editor posits the “Letters” as part of the Hughes revival—a counterattack against four decades of sniper fire. Crucially, he also makes it clear that his book is not “a biography in disguise. … The story is above all that of Hughes the writer.”
This gets Reid off the hook in three ways: He isn’t required to present a biographical introduction or adequate chapter introductions; he doesn’t have to shape a biographical narrative from the surviving letters; and he isn’t obliged to present what he or the Hughes estate might regard as extra-literary material — for example, letters to Hughes’ several girlfriends after (and overlapping) Assia Wevill and later, during his marriage to Carol Hughes. The women are speaking out (to biographers, in memoirs, on the Internet) now that the charismatic Hughes is gone, but Hughes—as presented by Reid—is silent. We have, for that matter, no letters here to Carol Hughes, his wife of 28 years.
It may be that Reid feels that Hughes’ letters to his long-term girlfriends are of no literary importance—a valid decision if it is based on an examination of whatever letters may survive. Or such letters may be omitted in deference to the feelings of Carol Hughes. Why not state this openly? Few critics could argue that Hughes’ relationships with women have no bearing on his poetry, which frequently hinges on the male-female dyad playing out in mythology and life. But a reader from an alien planet—and maybe only a reader from an alien planet, given the publicity surrounding Hughes—would assume from these “Letters” that Hughes’ indiscretion with Wevill was a single regrettable mistake, not part of a lifetime pattern or a personal philosophy.
One of these girlfriends, Brenda Hedden, is mentioned in a footnote, but during a period safely between Wevill’s death and Hughes’ 1970 marriage to Carol Orchard. The larger story—untold in the “Letters” but explicit in Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Hughes—is that she overlapped both relationships. Another letter here that would have revealed this has the relevant paragraph neatly deleted. If a Hughes revival has any chance, it has to admit the whole truth about the man. He’s already waist-deep in controversy. Too late to guard his fishing tackle now.
There are other hints of editorial whitewash in the “Letters.” Reid includes an angry and aggrieved letter to A. Alvarez, a friend of both Plath’s and Hughes’ who had published the details of the poet’s suicide, but he does not include the ferocious, less articulate follow-up letter from Hughes, which would raise blisters on the hands of anyone who touched it. Both letters are quoted in “The Silent Woman.” Perhaps Reid felt that the first letter adequately got the point across. And just as well, for Reid’s larger purpose, since the second letter suggests a bullying streak in Hughes.
Reid also includes a kind and sensible letter to Aurelia Plath, written July 1, 1968, about the possible film adaptation of “The Bell Jar” (the film was released in 1979; there is a new one in preproduction) and publication of the book in America: “As for publishing it over there simply as a book—again, I think not. I imagine you seeing it on the bookshelf of everybody you know, as it would be, and it seems to me I should ask you not to think about whatever the book might earn for the children—the money is as likely to do them harm as to do them good.”
Interestingly, there are no further letters here from Hughes about his later financial decision to go ahead and publish “The Bell Jar” (with its brutal depictions of many living people) in America over Aurelia’s objections and despite her feelings. Reid doesn’t even footnote the eventual outcome. I’m not faulting Hughes for changing his mind, or for his decision to publish, but including this letter alone misrepresents his conduct as executor and the nature of his relationship with Plath’s mother, who developed such resentment toward Hughes that she kept a file of unsent letters to him, now in the Sylvia Plath archive at Smith College.
Nor does Reid include a stunning, accusatory letter to the poststructuralist critic Jacqueline Rose, discussed in “The Silent Woman.” Rose had the temerity to advance a lesbian interpretation for a critically resistant passage in Plath’s poem, “The Rabbit-Catchers.” Hughes responded with rage, suggesting, among other things, that Rose’s joie de texte was likely to deeply damage Plath’s children (then in their 30s). Any editor fond of Hughes would be tempted to omit the letter. He sounds like a wing-nut. But he also remarks movingly on his merciless treatment by Plath critics, a particular formulation found nowhere else in the “Letters”: “Critics established the right to say whatever they pleased about the dead. It is an absolute power, and the corruption that comes with it, very often, is an atrophy of the moral imagination. They move onto the living because they can no longer feel the difference between the living and the dead. They extend over the living that license to say whatever they please, to ransack their psyche and reinvent them however they please” (quoted in Malcolm).
The varied and exciting archive of drafts, letters and working journals that Ted Hughes sold to Emory a year before his death (his remaining papers have just been sold to the British Library) contains a sealed footlocker, not to be opened for many years. This is roughly what Reid has given us in the “Letters”—so much, but with a sealed footlocker shoved into a back corner. To honor Hughes, Reid seems to argue, is to protect him from another generation of harpies and detractors, to keep his less than commendable traits out of public view.
My advice to future editors: Let the sky fall. You may release a “gigantic, upheaval transformation” rather than a model of editorial decorum.
Regina Marler is the editor of “Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell” and “Bloomsbury Pie: “The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom,” both published by Pantheon. She is working on a re-examination of the life and loves of Edgar Allan Poe.Wait, before you go…
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