Why Hughes broke silence

ADMIRERS of the poet Sylvia Plath expressed surprise yesterday at the revelation that the poet laureate Ted Hughes has written a series of confessional poems about his relationship with his late wife.

They hailed Birthday Letters, the sequence of 88 poems to be published next week by Faber & Faber, as one of the great literary discoveries of our times. The poems tell Hughes's side of the story of the relationship he had with Plath, the extraordinarily talented but tormented American poet, who committed suicide in 1963.

Until now we have had to interpret their life together through the poems, letters and diaries of Plath. Hughes has often been vilified by feminist critics for his treatment of her.

Although Hughes has written occasionally about Plath in the past, and was the shadowy figure behind Anne Stevenson's controversial "authorised" biography, Bitter Fame (1989), the existence of a full poetic sequence describing the relationship is an unexpected end to his long silence.

"Some of the poems have been printed in the New Yorker over the years," said A Alvarez, a friend of both Plath and Hughes in their early days as young poets in London, "but I had no idea he had a whole book of them."

Hughes's New Selected Poems 1957-1994, published in 1995, ended with a series of "Uncollected" works clearly addressed to Plath, among them "You Hated Spain" (the scene of their honeymoon) which explains: "Bosch/ Held out a spidery hand and you took it/Timidly, a bobby-sox American." "The God" begins "You were like a religious fanatic/ Without a god - unable to pray./ You wanted to be a writer... 'God is speaking through me,' you told me./'Don't say that,' I cried, 'Don't say that. That is horribly unlucky!'"

Speaking to himself, now, in "The Error", Hughes muses: "Maybe they wouldn't stone you/If you became a nun/And selflessly incinerated yourself/In the shrine of her death."

Now, added to these are poems revealing, for example, the couple's first sexual encounter: "You were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish./You were a new world. My new world./So this is America, I marvelled./ Beautiful, beautiful, America!"

The new sequence tells the whole story, from the night they met in Cambridge to the poems of mourning for her death.

Twenty five years in the making, the sequence was begun sometime in the late Sixties, and completed in the mid-Nineties. At times the poems echo Plath's own short, staccato lines and cadences: "The story of your God/Who embraced you/And your mummy and your daddy/ Your Aztec Black Forest/God of the euphemism Grief".

Looser, almost adolescent in fervour and more intimate than his famous works, they will come as a surprise to anyone who still associates Hughes with blunt, bloody animal poems.

On a more biographical level, the passion and pain evident in the work should put paid to the simplistic "St Sylvia and evil Ted" myth which presents a fragile wife dominated and then deserted by an unfeeling husband.

Fuelling the myth were lurid tales such as the one suggesting Hughes had held a wild party in the flat where Plath gassed herself; a party involving, of all things, celebratory playing of bongo drums.

"I certainly never got the impression that he was anything other than totally devastated by what Sylvia had done," said Mr Alvarez.

Of Hughes's long, patient silence, he remarks: "There is a new media morality now. Whereas in the past these things weren't spoken of, now you're considered a bit suspect if you don't talk about them publicly." Why did he think Hughes has chosen to break his silence now? "You only have to look at the calendar. Ted is coming up to 70. He can't keep it to himself for much longer."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high