Arts: Hughes breaks silence with secret poems to Sylvia Plath

Clare Garner
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:17

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)

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