Getting Over Sylvia Plath

Her husband, Ted Hughes, drew on his childhood to create powerful poetry.

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Her husband is the title of a previous book about the English poet Ted Hughes, reflecting the odd asymmetry of his fame. Hughes, who died of cancer in 1998 at the age of 68, is best known in the United States for his six years of marriage to Sylvia Plath—perhaps the most closely examined marriage in English literary history. He’s even better known for the end of that marriage, in 1963. Plath—separated from Hughes, who had begun an affair with the translator and advertising copywriter Assia Wevill—plugged the kitchen doors of her London flat with towels and turned on the gas oven, leaving bread and milk out for their two young children, safe in a nearby room. Relatively few American readers are aware of Hughes’s prolific subsequent career as poet laureate, writer of children’s books, translator of Ovid and Seneca, playwright, anthology editor, and author of more than a dozen collections of strikingly original poetry. In England, Hughes and Philip Larkin are ranked among the greatest post–World War II poets. And who in the U.S. would guess that Prince Charles, with whom Hughes became quite close, maintains a private shrine in his memory?

Putting the poetic career into sober balance with the messy life has never been easy. Plath and Hughes’s relationship, as reported by friends (such as A. Alvarez in The Savage God) and in her own histrionic letters, is the stuff of melodrama. Their intensely autobiographical poetry further fuels the fraught portrait. Plath’s magnificent Ariel, written mostly during the final months of her life and assembled posthumously by Hughes, takes the notion of confessional poetry to verbal and imaginative extremes. With their promiscuous fusing of Holocaust imagery and the turmoil of modern marriage (“Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you”), poems such as “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” have acquired a cultlike status, read by some as an indictment of Hughes’s treatment of Plath. (There’s even a Sonic Youth song, “J’Accuse Ted Hughes,” echoing the feminist writer Robin Morgan’s 1972 poetic “Arraignment” for murder: “I accuse / Ted Hughes.”) Wevill’s suicide in 1969, under circumstances similar to Plath’s (though Shura, Wevill and Hughes’s 4-year-old daughter, died too), intensified the case against him. A rejoinder of sorts, Hughes’s autobiographical collection Birthday Letters—withheld from publication until 1998, shortly before his death—became the fastest-selling book in the history of English poetry.

Good luck with that!, one feels like saying to Jonathan Bate, the latest to enter these emotionally charged precincts, as he lays out the “cardinal rule” he aspired to follow in tackling a new consideration of Hughes: “The work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work; the biographical impulse must be at one with the literary-critical.” An Oxford professor and a Shakespeare scholar who has written a highly regarded biography of the Romantic poet John Clare, Bate approached his task with dutiful care, winning the cooperation of Hughes’s formidable sister and longtime literary agent, Olwyn Hughes. He was also granted permission to quote unpublished material from the gigantic archive of Hughes’s work, a large part of which had been sold to the British Library by Hughes’s widow, Carol.

And then, abruptly, permission was revoked in 2014, when Bate was nearly finished. Messy life could not be kept at bay. Bate claimed that the estate pulled back because he had turned up evidence, in Hughes’s private journals, of things unknown to his wife and sister, presumably relationships with other women. The estate put it differently, voicing impatience at his resistance to sharing his ongoing work, and concern that he was straying from his professed focus on Hughes’s writing. The result has been double-edged. Bate had to rewrite the book, losing some immediacy as he resorted to paraphrase and made do with short quotations of copyrighted material. But he’s also gained a certain cachet with that Unauthorised now in his subtitle. It’s a badge of honor for anyone treading on Plath-Hughes terrain, evidence that an uncompromising biographer hasn’t been swayed by interested parties (read: Olwyn Hughes).

Was the Hughes estate right to be worried? Not really. The book is magisterially respectful of Hughes, treating him throughout as an unquestionably great poet. Bate is particularly good on Hughes’s working-class childhood in rural Yorkshire, and the deep involvement with wild animals that anchored his imaginative life until the end. “There are all sorts of ways of capturing animals and birds and fish,” Hughes wrote in his book Poetry in the Making. “I spent most of my time, up to the age of fifteen or so, trying out many of these ways and when my enthusiasm began to wane, as it did gradually, I started to write poems.” Hughes found a complementary source of wildness studying archeology and anthropology at Cambridge, where he met Plath in 1956. Her diary entry is legendary: “That big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me … came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes.”

Bate tends to adopt a Hughesian view of events in the poet's life, as well as of women, whether “staggeringly beautiful” or “dumpy.” He’s inclined to withhold moralizing judgment, which leads him to a rather strained assessment of Hughes’s post-Plath history of womanizing, suggesting that “his infidelity to others was a form of fidelity” to Plath and her memory. As for their relationship, where others have played up the turmoil, Bate stresses their youth—Hughes was 32 when Plath, then 30, died—and the intimacy of their marriage, the two of them “becoming one soul.” Bate notes the feverish overlap in their work. Plath begins a poem, “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here,” while Hughes, in his more lurid way, writes in his journal, “The red tulips—hearts terrifyingly vivid terrible. Organs pulsing something red and uncontrollable.” Bate plausibly suggests that Plath’s vivid sequence of poems about her father’s beekeeping might owe something to Hughes’s interest in animals. Her suspicions about Otto Plath’s supposed sympathy for Hitler might in turn have infiltrated Hughes’s often anthologized “Hawk Roosting,” with its very Plathian line “I kill where I please because it is all mine.”


In Bate’s view, the sheer intensity of the relationship placed constraints on both poets, a couple simultaneously reveling in and chafing at their shared isolation. Evoking the cultural mood, he cites “The Jaguar,” from Hughes’s celebrated first book of poems, The Hawk in the Rain (1957). The caged beast is seen “hurrying enraged / Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes / On a short fierce fuse.” And yet, Hughes writes, “there’s no cage to him … His stride is wildernesses of freedom.” According to Bate, “This is the fate of the human spirit confined in dreary Fifties Britain.” For her part, Plath, on the brink of a big career, felt cut off from literary London by Hughes’s rural, solitary preferences. “I miss brains,” she wrote to her mother. “Hate this cow life.”

Such tensions marked Hughes’s later life as well. After the disastrous relationship with Wevill, a talented and ambitious translator but no match for the brilliant Plath, he embraced the “cow life.” With his second wife, Carol Orchard—a much younger woman, without literary aspirations of her own, whom he had hired to take care of his children—he purchased a working farm and raised sheep. All along, Hughes refused the comforts and predictability of an academic position. He supported himself through reviews, translations, and work in the theater with the avant-garde director Peter Brook, who shared his interests in mythology and violence. Amid the time-consuming commissions and recurring reminders of the grim past—successive Plath biographies were “a perpetual smoldering in the cellar for us,” according to Hughes—he often felt his own poetry was shunted to the side. Yet somehow the poems kept emerging to the end. (Hughes mercifully didn’t live to endure yet another horror: His and Plath’s son, Nicholas, killed himself in 2009.) Of Hughes’s own death, Bate can’t resist a melodramatic summation: “The jaguar was at rest in his cage.”

In Hughes’s life, with its echoes of Greek tragedy, Bate finds grist for a new perspective on his work. Not every literary biography has an argument, but this one does. Bate believes that Hughes is best understood as a poet who was divided between two ways of feeling and writing. On the one hand, he was steeped in an impersonal notion of poetry as primarily myth-driven, the tradition inherited from T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. On the other hand, he was attuned to an openly personal approach to poetry, exemplified by Thomas Hardy’s elegies for his wife. Hughes, in Bate’s estimate, was drawn to confessional poetry, but this true voice was continually suppressed and postponed by the calamities of his life, which he felt he would be unable to address in poetry without further censure and scandal.

Hughes’s work drew on divergent sources: his study of rituals and shamanism, his fascination with the occult, his explorations of the darkest corners of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry—the latter a lifelong obsession about which he wrote a hefty, turgid book. For Bate, however, the drama of Hughes’s personal life is what ultimately matters in his poetry. It’s clear why a biographer who is under orders to draw on the life only to illuminate the work would end up foregrounding autobiography as the “true voice” of Hughes’s writing. But that misses the underlying power of Hughes’s best poetry.

Especially in his late work, myth and confession converge. Bate mentions only in passing that Hughes’s autobiographical poems in Birthday Letters are just as stylized as his famous mythic animal poems on fox, crow, and pike. In “Epiphany,” the hybrid voice and vision gather startling force. Crossing a bridge in London, Hughes is offered a fox cub by a passing stranger. “How would we fit it / Into our crate of space?” he wonders, thinking of Plath. “What would you make of its old smell / And its mannerless energy?” Hughes is tempted to take it anyway: “My thoughts felt like big, ignorant hounds / Circling and sniffling around him.” Reluctantly, Hughes decides to let the fox go. “Then I walked on / As if out of my own life,” he remarks ruefully.

If I had grasped that whatever comes with

     a fox

Is what tests a marriage and proves it a


I would not have failed the test. Would you

    have failed it?

But I failed. Our marriage had failed.

If I were writing the story of Ted Hughes’s career, my account of his “failure” would be somewhat different from Bate’s. There was no late breakthrough into elegy, into real life. The real life was there from the beginning, in the childhood years on the outskirts of industrial towns in Yorkshire spent, as Hughes described, “capturing animals.” This, one might say—adopting Schiller’s famous distinction—was the “naive,” or unreflecting, part of Hughes’s life. Self-consciousness (Schiller called it sentimentality) kicked in with adulthood and the attempt to recover, in poetry, the lost immediacy of childhood. This is what capturing animals really means.

In Hughes’s marvelous “The Thought-Fox,” from his first collection, the conception of a poem arrives stealthily, an intruder in the dark, “till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox / It enters the dark hole of the head” and “the page is printed.” Hughes’s close friend Seamus Heaney referred to this act of recovery (in a poem that Bate thinks is indebted to “The Thought-Fox”) as “digging.” The test of poetry, as of marriage, is to find ways—Hughes tried mythology and the occult, theater and children’s books—to keep the old childhood wildness, embodied in the fox cub, alive in the new world of adult responsibility. The test, for biographers and for ordinary readers, is to read the ensuing poetry at the right distance, to register the imaginative life in the words, with their often mannerless energy, while resisting the temptation to relentlessly stuff them back into the rigid cage of real life. To fully understand Ted Hughes as a poet means plumbing a world he inhabited long before he knew Sylvia Plath and, in his best poems after her death, continued to live in.