Suzi Feay: A literary collaboration that began with love

Sunday 19 December 2004 01:00

The published version of Ariel (1965), the volume of poetry that made Sylvia Plath's name, was substantially different from the manuscript she left on her desk after her suicide in 1963. She had tinkered with the book obsessively, and went through several different titles - The Rival, A Birthday Present, The Rabbit Catcher and Daddy - before she hit upon Ariel.

The title page of the new facsimile edition (Ariel: The Restored Edition, Faber £16.99), shows the furious scribbling out, in Plath's hand, of the discarded alternatives. This new edition also features Plath's own corrections. At the top of "Cut", the poem about almost severing the top of her thumb, Plath has inked in a dedication. On the page with the title poem, she has noted its publication in the Observer: 27 October 1962. It's slightly eerie to see her handwriting.

So this, in easily readable form, is Ariel as Plath always intended it. After her death, Ted Hughes, faced with this material, began to move the poems around, dropping some of them. The changes were not evident until Hughes himself drew readers' attention to them in the Collected Poems (1981). There he included all the poems he had excised and indicated the original running order. As Frieda Hughes notes in her foreword, the luckless Hughes "was much criticised for not publishing Ariel as my mother had left it".

As Frieda Hughes notes, Hughes always claimed that the couple were working towards a reconciliation when Plath died, thereby underlining his moral right to control of his estranged wife's estate. Distancing herself a little from this claim, Frieda Hughes now says: "Except through him, I have no way of knowing the real likelihood of this."

But why did Hughes tamper with Ariel? One reason is that in late 1962, Plath had embarked on a frenzied burst of writing which continued almost up to the week of her death. Some of Hughes's substitutions were the result of a preference for these later, extraordinary poems for what he saw as the weaker ones in Plath's own selection. Whether the editor's preference for one poem over another should have taken precedence over the author's is a moot point. (As her friend Ruth Fainlight once said to me: "Of course she wasn't Sylvia Plath then.") But other poems were deemed offensive to people still living, like Hughes's wealthy Uncle Walter, who featured in "Stopped Dead". Some were (and still are) weird and unpleasant, like "Thalidomide": "Negro, masked like a white // Your dark / amputations crawl and appal").

Most controversial was the decision to remove poems that demonstrated Plath's furious anger against Hughes himself, like "The Rabbit Catcher", a sinister piece touching on his fondness for hunting and trapping. This poem later elicited a furious three-way row between Hughes, his sister Olwyn, and Jacqueline Rose, who wrote a controversial and, to Hughes, deeply offensive commentary on the poem in her book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1992).

What ultimately is the effect of the restored Ariel, and what does it say about Plath's poetic reputation? The original version is seemingly the work of someone who expected to live: as Plath herself noted, it began with the word "Love" and ended with the word "spring". ("The bees are flying. They taste the spring.") By including the later, despairing poems, Hughes changed the narrative of Ariel to that of a writer doomed to die (this is the myth he explores chillingly in Birthday Letters). But it could very well be argued that by sexing it up, making it sadder and madder, Hughes did indeed make Ariel a better book - as well as kick-starting the Plath myth that was eventually to overwhelm him.

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