Arts: Hughes breaks silence with secret poems to Sylvia Plath

The Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, today breaks his silence over the life and suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, with a volume of poems that few knew existed. Clare Garner reports on the poetic account of his days with Plath.

It is one of the century's most celebrated and tragic love stories, but for 35 years Hughes has said virtually nothing, except to correct errors of fact. He has, however, been confronting the pain of his past in poems, which he has decided to share with the public.

The 88 poems, written at intervals over the decades, have been collated in a book called Birthday Letters and published by Faber & Faber. They are certain to reignite the controversy over both poets' lives and reputations.

Hughes has become a much- maligned figure among Plath disciples, who blame him for the fact that she gassed herself in 1963, after the couple parted. This hostility was fortified by the suicide five years later of Assia Wevill, with whom Hughes had a relationship after Plath.

The poet and critic Andrew Motion, writing in the Times, describes Hughes's poems as "a thunderbolt from the blue". "Anyone who thought Hughes's reticence was proof of his hard heart will immediately see how stony they have been themselves. This is a book written by someone obsessed, stricken and deeply loving. This is his greatest book, as magnetic as Browning's poems for Elizabeth Barrett, as poignant as Hardy's Poems 1912-13.

Birthday Letters is strongly narrative, and takes the poet from his first sight of his future wife to the time of mourning and reflection that followed her death. The sequence begins in 1955, when Plath arrived in England as an exotic American migrant. In "Fulbright Scholars", he writes:

"Maybe I weighed you up, feeling unlikely./ Noted your long hair, loose waves - / Your Veronica Lake bang. Not what it hid./ It would appear blond. And your grin./ Your exaggerated American / Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners."

In another poem, "St Botolph's", he again writes about her hair - and makes reference to a scar, which was the relic of her suicide attempt in 1953. "I see you there, clearer, more real - / Than in any of the years in its shadow - / As if I saw you that once, then never again./ The loose fall of hair - that floppy curtain/ Over your face, over your scar".

In writing of his first sexual encounter with Plath, Hughes refers again to her scar and to "a long poem about a panther". The poem was "Pursuit", a piece in the style of William Blake, which Plath wrote after her first meeting with Hughes. "It is not bad," she noted in her journal. "It is dedicated to Ted Hughes."

The existence of Birthday Letters has been among the best-kept literary secrets. Even many of Hughes's closest friends did not know he would give his side of the relationship.

Both Hughes and Plath are among the most read and studied of post-war poets. After student life in Cambridge and London, depicted in the newly published book, Hughes became a critical and commercial success and was appointed Poet Laureate in 1984.


And your hotel. Opposite the entrance

On a bombsite becoming a building site

We clutched each other giddily

For safety and went in a barrel together

Over some Niagara. Falling

In the roar of soul your scar told me -

Like its secret name, or its password -

How you had tried to kill yourself. And I


Without ceasing for a moment to kiss


As if a sober star had whispered it

Above the revolving, rumbling city: stay


A poltroon of a star. I cannot remember How I smuggled myself, wrapped in you,

Into the hotel. There we were.

You were slim and lithe and smooth as a


You were a new world. My new world.

So this is America, I marvelled. Beautiful, beautiful, America!

Closing lines of '18 Rugby Street' in Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes,

(Faber & Faber, pounds 14.99)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Semi Senior Accountant - Music

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

    English teachers required in Lowestoft

    £21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

    Business Development Director - Interior Design

    £80000 - £100000 per annum + competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment...

    Sales Director, Media Sponsorship

    £60000 - £65000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A globally successful media and ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits