But Hughes's silence, it turns out, was an active, engaged, noisy silence. Within his own walls, within his own head, he was hard at work, communing, memorialising, analysing, exorcising, trying to understand. To have issued poems about Plath during the various controversies of the last three decades would have looked like a press release, a "statement", a placation. He needed to do things in his own time, and on his own terms, which meant waiting - till the public was ready to listen and, more important, till the poems were ready to be heard.
There are no dates to the 88 poems in Birthday Letters. It may be that some lines here go back 20 or 30 years. But to judge by the unifying intensity of the sequence, the headlong integrity, most of the writing has been done recently, in the same prodigious burst that has brought us Hughes's critical writings on Shakespeare and Coleridge, a children's book (The Iron Woman), two anthologies, and the wonderful Tales from Ovid.
The why and when of it don't greatly matter, since the Birthday Letters, as Hughes well knows, won't be read like any of his other books. His marriage to Plath has long been the stuff of legend. "It is only a story. / Your story. My story", he says, addressing her in her grave, but many others have told the story already and it comes as a shock at first to find Hughes broaching material that has been gone over so often before: the first kiss (which left him a "ring-moat of toothmarks / That was to brand my face for the next month"), then courtship, marriage, travels in Europe and the US, high ambition and pitiful earnings in London, the move to a dream home in Devon, the crumbling of the marriage, London again and the last throw of the dice during the cruel winter of 1962-3. Hughes's bitterest charge against biographers and critics is that they've turned this story into a Fantasia, as remote as Ancient Egypt, ignoring the feelings of people who are still around. Now he wants to reclaim the story, for her and for himself and for their children.
The book begins circumstantially, even prosily, by Hughes's standards. We're not used to him making unabashed personal appearances in his poems (his Moortown farming diary is the one precedent), yet here he is, with Plath, in a recognisably quotidian and often urban world. She meets him at King's Cross. They sit in a Yorkshire pub, wondering where to live. They go on holiday - to Spain (which frightens her), to Paris (where she's agitated and he "like a guide dog"), to Yellowstone Park, where a bear breaks into their car at night to steal the goodies from the freezer box. They muck about on a Ouija board, and the prankster-spirit they summon up gives them useful tips for that week's pools coupon. They sell daffodils they've grown at 7d a dozen. Sylvia takes up beekeeping, and Ted gets stung, "flung like a headshot jackrabbit" as the bees plant "their volts, their thudding electrodes" in his head.
Throughout, memories swarm back, sometimes as snapshots, sometimes as whole episodes, meticulously recalled. The manner is discursive but also, for that reason, authenticating. What she wore, the things they did together, her "actual words as they floated / Out of [her] throat and tongue": such details remind us that Hughes was there and the biographers weren't. "Remember how we picked daffodils? / Nobody else remembers, but I remember." "Who will remember your fingers?... / I remember your fingers. And your daughter's / Fingers remember your fingers / In everything they do." He even lists her bric-a-brac: "Your mantelpiece mermaid of terracotta. / Your coppery fondue pan. Your linen. Your curtains."
But these enumerations and anecdotes are deceptive, skin-deep. As the story unfolds, it isn't facts Hughes offers but myth - myth such as Ovid, Dante or William Blake wrote, thick with classical references but also steeped in folklore and fairytale. What gives the poems their extraordinary power is that Hughes is an active protagonist inside the myth - like Jonah in the whale, or the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Yet he must also stand outside, looking back in love and agony down history's long lens, his actions frozen, as if "permanently / bending so briefly at your open coffin". Though full of lived particulars, the events described seem to be happening on a frieze, with Hughes (as he puts it himself) like "a fly outside on the window-pane / Of my own domestic drama". The tone is warm, feverish even, but not intimate or confessional; there is passion but no pretence at present-tense immediacy. Hughes uses hindsight, as well as insight. He doesn't just see, or feel. He interprets a vast pattern of events.
Here, for example, is how he begins "The Table":
I wanted to make you a solid
That would last a lifetime.
I bought a broad elm plank
two inches thick,
The wild bark surfing along one edge
Rough-cut for coffin timber.
I revealed a perfect landing pad
For your inspiration. I did not
Know I had made and fitted a door
Opening downwards into
your Daddy's grave.
The Birthday Letters often present Hughes in domestic mode, making and mending, buying and spending, nursing and tending. It's a side of him not often seen in earlier poems, but it was easy to guess at (and glimpsable in Plath's journals), and there's no New-Man special pleading about it here, no justifying of the ways of Ted to those who suppose him to have been cold or remote. Indeed, he even feels relaxed enough, in a poem about looking after her during an illness, to afford something like a joke about their respective stereotypes: "The stone man made soup. / The burning woman drank it."
In this case, his good intentions rebound, paving the road to hell. The table inspires Sylvia's poetry, but also leads inexorably to her expiry, at the hands of her jealous, possessive, long-dead father, Otto. In any other poet, the image of the table as a coffin, or trapdoor, would be a metaphorical flourish. Hughes means it seriously. Though not responsible for what happened - he couldn't have known where that plank of elm would lead - he resonates with pain and guilt.
The myth he constructs in the Birthday Letters has several levels. One is Jamesian, a story of England and America. It's about a girl who arrives in Cambridge with straight As, vaulting hopes and high ambitions - even her legs "simply went on up" - and who bedazzles a Yorkshireman as yet so narrow in his horizons that he hasn't, at 25, tasted a peach. The couple sweep each other off their feet, and go "in a barrel together / Over some Niagara". There are communication problems: the man can't easily follow the woman's words and moods, and the woman, coming from the "wild original greenery of America", finds 1950s England grubby, dingy, "part nursing home, part morgue". For a time they live in Boston, Mass, "dream-maimed" and with nerves inflamed. When they move to Devon, his own "dreamland", "the orchard in the West", it's in the hope that this will calm her "terror- flutters". But it's cold and rainy, and she's restless still. There's a heartbreaking visit to Woolacombe Sands, where he hopes to show her a beach that will elate her like "beautiful Nauset". But the dull, placid sea won't perform. The special relationship begins to fail.
The Birthday Letters are also a myth about the price of art. Hughes depicts himself and Plath as big-game hunters, on the trail of the panther of poetic greatness, unaware that it's they who are being hunted down. Early on, Plath is seen struggling to find her voice in a panic of emptiness: the only sounds she makes are strangled and thesaurus-thick. When she finally finds that voice, in the poems that would make her famous, she is destroyed by it, just as a whisper from the Ouija board (so Hughes imagines) had warned her:
"Fame will come. Fame
especially for you.
Fame cannot be avoided. And
when it comes
You will have paid for it with
Your husband and your life."
Hughes reveres Plath's work, but he raises the question, as she - dying at 30 - never had chance to: is the Alpha- perfectionism of great poetry worth the human suffering it entails? Remembering a happy day they once spent catching flounders on Cape Cod, he imagines the goddess of beauty reproaching her sister, the goddess of poetry, for not allowing them more such days. But "poetry did not tell us. And we / Only did what poetry told us to do."
The book is full of omens - of vampires, demons, witches, genies, owls, bats and oracles; of Ouija and juju; of magic, dream, hypnosis, possession and trance. Early on in the relationship, a voice warns Hughes: "stay clear". A gypsy in France, angered by Plath, puts a curse on her - "Vous creverez bientot". Otto Plath invades her dreams with his gangrenous leg. These premonitions aren't mere rhetorical devices in a dramatic sequence: Hughes seems to have believed them at the time (he tried to "neutralise the venom" of that gypsy, for instance), and still does. There are many darkly beautiful images of stars: "the solar system married us", "the love that moves the sun and the other stars", the "fixed stars at the bottom of the well". There are similarly fatalistic images of Plath and Hughes as puppets, or as "dead frogs' legs touched by electrodes". Towards the end, Furies appear demanding Plath's sacrifice, forcing her to break her promises to life. More than anything, the Birthday Letters are a myth about the forces that ordained she take her own life. Where these forces are located in the real world at all, they go back to her childhood - Otto's early death, Aurelia's pushiness, "Mummy Daddy Mummy Daddy".
Some will feel they half-know this version of events already, from Anne Stevenson's biography Bitter Fame. Others will object that to believe in fate is too easy and exculpatory. But it's not as if there's anything new about Hughes's deterministic world-view, or that he isn't hard on himself, or that he doesn't concede that he made choices and mistakes. His poem about moving to Devon is called "Error". He sees he wasn't always good for Plath, hard though he tried to protect her: "I folded / Black wings round you, wings of the blackness / That enclosed me." He traces precisely the moment at which her "telescopic sights" conflated Otto and himself ("She could hardly tell us apart in the end"). And he sees how her joy in motherhood, "the you you shared with the wild earth / ... your membership / of a sorority of petals and creatures", almost helped her to escape death. His poem about Assia Wevill, the woman for whom he left Plath, a disturbingly malevolent poem, presents the three of them as helpless dreamers, but Hughes is less unwitting than Assia ("the dreamer in her / Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it. / ... the dreamer in me / Fell in love with her, and I knew it"), and the positioning of the poem in the sequence leaves no doubt of the affair's place in Plath's downward spiral. This doesn't sound like a man letting himself off the hook. Indeed, in the extraordinarily beautiful "Life After Death" Hughes depicts himself, in the aftermath of his wife's suicide, as a "Hanged Man", his neck seemingly torn from its shoulder-root, as if "I were hanging in the spirit / From a hook under my neck-muscle".
Interpretations can be disputed, but you can't argue with images. Hughes's images aren't interested in mounting a PR operation on his behalf. They have more important things on their mind, like truth and beauty - or like the deeper mind they tap into, which is secret, animistic and the source of poetry's best lines. One of the finest poems here is "Daffodils", which observes the flowers that come up each March - "Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers / In the draughty wings of the year" - and mourns the scissors which Plath used to cut them with, lost now in the earth, "an anchor, a cross of rust". Another haunting poem describes Hughes going back to their empty Devon house after he and Plath have separated, and seeing the glow from nearby stained-glass windows, "as if the sun had sunk there, inside the church". Hughes is too robust a writer to tinkle the chimes of passive suffering. But there is a deep toll of elegy in the Birthday Letters, as haunting as the wolves he hears calling from Regent's Park Zoo in the days after her death:
The wolves lifted us in their
They wound us and enmeshed us
In their wailing for you, their
mourning for us,
They wove us into their voices.
We lay in your death,
In the fallen snow, under falling snow.
Almost always, Hughes addresses Plath as "you". So it's a shock, late on, with a poem called "The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother", to realise that the mother is Plath, the "you" are her two children, and the dogs her critics and biographers. The poem is consumed with rage against the scavengers. But it also makes a gesture of letting go - "So leave her. / Let her be their spoils" - as if the mouths that feed on her might one day "roll her back into the sun."
Hughes's mourning of his wife invites comparisons with Thomas Hardy, but the Birthday Letters are much more of a sequence than Hardy's Poems 1912-13, not just chronologically ordered but dramatic in structure, with an arc of tragic inevitability, like Othello or King Lear. It goes without saying that they are moving poems. But if "moving" suggests something gentle, and even soppy, then it's misleading. There is tenderness ("Your temples, where the hair crowded in", "Your eyes / Squeezed in your face, a crush of diamonds, / Incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears"), but also fear, awe, anger, pain, bewilderment and animal terror. Frissons of romance don't interest Hughes; there's too much else that lifts the hair on the back of his hands. He wants to immerse us in the turbulence of his marriage, then bring us out, in daylight, on the other side. It's a journey he has made himself. It has taken him 35 years.
One of the maps he uses along the way, perhaps the most important map, is Plath's own poetry. He uses it to understand who she was, how she thought, what their marriage was, why things ended as they did. He quotes her lines. He borrows her titles. He offers his own complementary versions. In "The Rabbit Catcher", Plath famously connected rabbit snares with the tensions and constrictions in her marriage. In "The Rabbit Catcher", Hughes goes back over the same Cornish ground, to the incident, one May, when she discovered the snares, tore them up and threw them away, leaving him, a countryman to whom rabbit-catching was a sacred, ancient custom, exasperated and aghast:
In those snares
You'd caught something.
Had you caught something in me,
Nocturnal and unknown to
me? Or was it
Your doomed self, your tortured,
Hughes doesn't know the answer to these questions. He only knows that Plath made great art out of such material: "The poems, like smoking entrails, / Came soft into your hands." Her poems are all that remain of her now - like "fingerprints inside empty gloves". His poems aren't written in rivalry or appropriation. They're not meant to be his 'n' hers, verses as versuses. They're not even hommage. Homage puts it too low. Awe at what she achieved would be more like it.
The Birthday Letters are big news. Will they stay news, as only great literature can? As I write, I've lived with them for only a few days, in a glare of astonishment that they exist at all - not the best state in which to reach a settled judgement, especially since several of the poems are extremely complex. But a number - a good number, a dozen or more - are plainly magnificent. What they cost Hughes to write can scarcely be guessed at. In one poem he recalls his young daughter asking him one night "Daddy, where's Mummy?", and of the frost all around him then, "And somewhere / Inside it, wanting to feel nothing, / A pulse of fever." The frost and the fever, the instinct to feel nothing and the triumph of passionate articulation: all are here. The poems are unappeasing. But by getting them out, something in Hughes will at last have been appeased.
8 'Birthday Letters' is published by Faber, pounds 14.99.Reuse content