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
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
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

    Recruitment Genius: Weekend Factory Operatives

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is curr...

    Recruitment Genius: FP&A Analyst

    £40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A market leading acquirer and m...

    Recruitment Genius: Electricians

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fully qualified electricians re...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

    Day In a Page

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific