Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate, book review

A controversial biography of Ted Hughes draws our minds to his work, but his excesses too says Jonathan Gibbs

Jonathan Gibbs
Thursday 01 October 2015 15:16
Fullest account yet: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Massachusetts in 1959
Fullest account yet: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Massachusetts in 1959

Any book about Ted Hughes is bound to come freighted with controversy. For this one, the second major biography of the late Poet Laureate since his death in 1998, it's in the relationship with the poet's estate, which is controlled by Hughes's widow Carol. Jonathan Bate was originally given the nod for an “approved” (rather than “authorised”) “literary life”, but this was later revoked.

The reason given was that the author was straying too far from his remit; presumably there was too much “life” and not enough “literary”. In practice, this means that Bate was refused permission to quote at length from Hughes's archive, the drafts and journals held in the British Library and abroad, and it was this material – the 100,000 pages of what the author calls “the richest personal archive in the history of English poetry” – that was to furnish the main critical thrust of his argument.

There is no direct comment on the spat in the text, but it's hard not to detect a tone of peevish self-justification in a note to a late chapter, where Bate says that one of the book's aims is “to explicate, celebrate and immortalise the writings of Ted Hughes, both published and unpublished, so as to bring him new readers at a time when knowledge of his work and even his name is rapidly declining, and to further the interests of his Estate”.

Whether Hughes's name is truly in decline is debatable, but it could hardly be higher than it was in the year of his death, when, stricken with the cancer that would kill him, he published Birthday Letters. This was the book of poems about and addressed to Sylvia Plath, the poet-wife who had killed herself 35 years before, following his affair with Assia Wevill, and over whom he had kept a very public silence. Whether this was from a guilty conscience, or to protect himself and their children from the attacks of the “Women's Libbers” who had claimed Plath as martyr to their cause, is a moot point.

The picture Bate gives us is a noble, tragic one

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Bate doesn't explicitly convict or exculpate Hughes for Plath's death, but this is broadly a redemptive book. The section covering those fateful days in the bitter winter of 1963 is based on those previously unseen journals and draft poems; it is, in Bate's words, “Ted's telling”. This is certainly the fullest account yet of that time, with Hughes shuttling between Plath, Wevill and, unknown to both of them, another woman, Susan Alliston. Sometimes he and Plath seem close to reuniting – she cooks him dinner; they talk of being together in Devon in the summer. The next day she phones him to tell him he must leave the country. Seven days later, she's dead.

Whatever the personal reasons for Hughes's infidelities, which continued after his marriage to Carol in 1970, and included a “serious affair” in the last decade of his life, Plath's death would mark him for life. At one point Bate suggests that “his infidelity in later relationships was partly a function of his fidelity to the memory of Sylvia”, which makes a brilliant kind of sense if you squint at it for long enough.

Birthday Letters was a shock, but in retrospect it shouldn't have been. It was not the sudden, late outpouring of grief from a dying man, Bate argues, but the product of half a lifetime's writing. Hughes had long wanted to write confessional poetry – to make the same breakthrough that Plath made in her final months, when she wrote the Ariel poems. He wanted to respond to the facts of his own life with the vigour and facility he found when writing about the natural world, about pikes, hawks and jaguars, the wilds of the Yorkshire and Devon moors.

Following Plath's death, and the bleak, brilliant poems that went into Crow, he may have been on the point of doing just this, when he was hit by a further quartet of deaths. Wevill gassed herself, like Plath, along with Shura, her daughter by Hughes; then Hughes's mother Edith died (killed, he thought, by the revelation of Wevill's suicide) and then Alliston – all within six months of each other.

Throughout the book, Bate traces the moments when Hughes was not silent on private matters: not just in the Birthday Letters poems that he sneaked into his New Selected Poems in 1995, but in the quiet epilogue poems to the otherwise lurid Gaudete (1977) and in poems about his own family in Wolfwatching (1989) and Elmet (1994). Then there are the private press collections that, because of their small runs and high prices, wouldn't become widely known. Hughes wasn't silent, but he muttered.

What Bate gets most excited about is the sheer amount of writing about Plath in the Hughes archive, sometimes poetry, sometimes journal entries, sometimes hard to tell which. One artefact, a “4,000-line blank verse autobiography” called “Black Coat: Opus 131”, he describes as the equivalent of Wordsworth's The Prelude, a serious, extensive and poetical self-reckoning. What if Hughes had had the guts to publish this stuff in the 1970s, Bate wonders? How would it have been received? How would it have affected his poetry? Would we have avoided the decades of “patchy” and “pedestrian” collections? The turgid Laureate poems?

The picture Bate gives us of Hughes is a noble, tragic one, of a poet kept from truly expressing himself by forces within and without. To be sure, anyone wanting confirmation of Hughes's virility and promiscuity, the “extreme vigour of his lovemaking”, and his personal charisma, will find it here, for example in the description, from a “personal communication”, of a woman who was “so viscerally attracted to him” when she met him at a party “that all she could do was go the ladies' room and vomit”.

Hughes's environmentalism is bound to seem mundane in comparison. The rightwards creep of his politics is not really interrogated, nor his cosyness with the Royal Family, beyond the fact that it provided him “fishing rights to die for”. The Queen Mother, with whom he fished, was apparently especially fond of Hughes's second collection, Lupercal. Bate agrees, calling it his best, while Elmet is his most underrated.

Clearly, this isn't the book that Bate wanted to write. Quite how good the archival material truly is, rather than merely revealing, remains to be seen. It will come out eventually. If it is not revelatory, then Bate may look a little foolish. Even Birthday Letters, though good enough to rescue the reputation of a poet, was not, I think, good enough to make the name of one.

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