A life haunted by Sylvia’s death

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James McNa­mara

Ted Hughes: The Unau­tho­rised Life By Jonathan Bate HarperCollins, 662pp, $49,99 (HB)

‘M ore scan­dal is at­tached to the life of Ted Hughes than to that of any English poet since Lord By­ron.” So judges bi­og­ra­pher Jonathan Bate. Hughes’s mar­riage to Sylvia Plath is core to this. Her sui­cide in a bit­ter English win­ter, af­ter Hughes left her for As­sia Wevill, made him in­fa­mous.

When Hughes’s pa­pers be­came avail­able through the 2000s, Bate, a pro­fes­sor of English at Ox­ford, be­gan writ­ing a “lit­er­ary life”. He wanted to study the ge­n­e­sis of Hughes’s re­mark­able po­etry, avoid­ing cra­dle-to-grave bi­og­ra­phy and its con­tro­ver­sies.

That proved im­pos­si­ble. Read­ing Hughes’s pa­pers led Bate to con­clude that “Sylvia Plath’s death was the cen­tral fact of Ted Hughes’s life. How­ever he tried to get away from it, he could not; how­ever the bi­og­ra­pher broad­ens the pic­ture, it is her im­age that re­turns … Plath re­mains the most vivid pres­ence in his men­tal world.”

As the project shifted, nec­es­sar­ily, to­wards bi­og­ra­phy, Hughes’s es­tate stopped co-op­er­at­ing, and Bate’s (and Hughes’s) pub­lisher, Faber, can­celled the book con­tract. Bate was lim­ited to quot­ing the bare min­i­mum of Hughes’s work. As I write, there is heated cor­re­spon­dence be­tween the es­tate’s lawyers and the book’s pub­lisher, HarperCollins.

Bate over­comes th­ese lim­i­ta­tions in a bi­og­ra­phy of ex­cep­tional power and last­ing value. Ted Hughes: The Unau­tho­rised Life is only the sec­ond Hughes bi­og­ra­phy, and the first to use the new archival ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing Hughes’s scat­tered pri­vate jour­nals. Bate takes a mea­sured but un­flinch­ing ap­proach, nei­ther apol­o­gist for Hughes nor moral critic. Rather, he presents facts drawn metic­u­lously from the ev­i­dence and in­vites read­ers to make con­clu­sions.

Bate brings bal­ance to the of­ten re­duc­tive Plath/Hughes mythol­ogy, do­ing ser­vice to both po­ets by show­ing them in com­plex de­tail. He ranges wider than Hughes’s first mar­riage, but the book cen­tres on the ar­gu­ment that Hughes never stopped lov­ing and mourn­ing “Sylvia, the po­etic other half of his youth­ful self”.

Hughes was a “poet of claws and cages”. His early work evokes the wilds of his na­tive York­shire with vis­ceral im­me­di­acy: the “hot stink of fox”, “woods crash­ing through dark­ness”. Bate de­picts the youth that in­spired them: roam­ing fields and ponds in search of hawk, owl, pike. Hughes’s deep con­nec­tion to the land stayed for life, both in po­etry and his con­ser­va­tion work.

Hughes met Plath at a 1956 Cam­bridge party to launch the po­etry mag­a­zine Saint Bo­tolph’s Re­view. She was an Amer­i­can Ful­bright scholar, he a re­cent grad­u­ate. Bate weaves his ex­cel­lent prose with Plath’s and Hughes’s rec­ol­lec­tions to draw a vivid pic­ture of the fa­mous night. There was jazz, “Luke My­ers danced the ‘ hot-wild jit­ter­bug’ ”, “ev­ery­body was drunk”. “Shout­ing to be heard above the band and the crowd, Sylvia en­thused to Ted about his po­ems”:

I was stamp­ing and he was stamp­ing … and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth … I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was run­ning down his face.

Four months later, they mar­ried. Their short mar­riage was one of pas­sion and close lit­er­ary col­lab­o­ra­tion. “From 1956 un­til the sum­mer of 1962,” Bate writes, “Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath lived and worked to­gether with ut­ter loy­alty and ex­treme in­ten­sity. They wrote joint let­ters to friends and fam­i­lies, they wrote po­ems and prose on the re­verse sides of sheets filled with drafts of the oth­ers’ writ­ing.” Each “be­came the other’s best critic”, achiev­ing “syn­chronic­ity of vi­sion through their shared imag­i­na­tion and ob­ser­va­tion, their con­ver­sa­tion, their healthy com­pe­ti­tion, their daily and nightly bond of love and work”.

Bate cap­tures their ten­der­ness — Hughes bring­ing Plath “cold orange juice to quench sleep-thirst”, help­ing her fight “soul-bat­tles”; Plath submitting Hughes’s po­ems, which led to the pub­li­ca­tion of his first book, The Hawk in the Rain. There were two years in the US, lit­er­ary life in Devon, and chil­dren — Frieda and Ni­cholas. But the mar­riage broke down. Plath, a “manic-de­pres­sive ge­nius”, flew into vi­o­lent rages, burn­ing Hughes’s work and books. He found the in­ten­sity of their shared life sti­fling and de­struc­tive to his writ­ing: “the strain of liv­ing with her volatil­ity was such that it was ‘her or me’. He would die if he stayed.”

Hughes be­gan an af­fair with a friend, Wevill, and he and Plath parted. Seven months later, she died.

“When a mar­riage breaks down,” Bate


writes, “the truth is usu­ally some­where be­tween … two com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives”. That is aug­mented when one party dies — her cause adopted by third par­ties — and the other stays silent. “There have been many tellings of the last days of Sylvia Plath,” Bate writes. Us­ing Hughes’s jour­nals, he re­veals Hughes’s ver­sion, show­ing that he vis­ited Plath of­ten in her last week to com­fort her, distressed by the “volatil­ity and un­pre­dictabil­ity” of her men­tal ill­ness: “Plans for re­union in one breath, de­mands for sep­a­ra­tion in the next.” Bate also iden­ti­fies the woman Hughes spent Plath’s fi­nal night with: a girl­friend, Su­san Al­lis­ton, not Wevill.

Hughes damned him­self for Plath’s sui­cide. “She asked me for help, as she so of­ten has. I was the only per­son who could have helped her, and the only per­son so jaded by her states and de­mands that I could not recog­nise when she re­ally needed it.” Im­pos­si­bly, it got worse: Wevill later gassed her­self — as Sylvia had — killing her as well as Hughes’s four-year-old daugh­ter Shura.

Hughes went on to a life of var­ied lit­er­ary out­put — po­etry, drama, trans­la­tions, crit­i­cism, broadcasting and chil­dren’s books. He shielded Ni­cholas and Frieda from their mother’s in­creas­ing fame and the scan­dal sur­round­ing her death, while dili­gently (but con­tro­ver­sially) cu­rat­ing Plath’s lit­er­ary legacy. And he jug­gled women, re­fus­ing, Bate shows, ever to com­mit wholly again. He scrab­bled to earn money, lament­ing con­stant in­ter­rup­tion to his writ­ing. When he was later ap­pointed poet lau­re­ate, he used his plat­form to sup­port eco­log­i­cal causes and en­joyed the ex­cel­lent fish­ing that royal friend­ship af­forded.

As Plath bi­ogra­phies and The Bell Jar so­lid­i­fied the “Plath nar­ra­tive”, Hughes re­mained silent. Robin Mor­gan’s 1972 poem

Ar­raign­ment ac­cused him of rape and mur­der. Bates writes that the “Hughes name was vil­i­fied”. “Plathi­ans” de­faced Sylvia’s grave, chis­elling “Hughes” off. Loath to fan pub­lic­ity, Hughes “im­posed upon him­self a vow of si­lence that would en­dure for more than two decades: no pub­lished po­ems about Sylvia (un­less suf­fi­ciently oblique …) ”.

Hughes, Bate re­veals, be­lieved he was “blocked”, po­et­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally, from Plath’s 1962 death un­til the 1998 pub­li­ca­tion of Birth­day Let­ters — the sear­ing po­etry col­lec­tion in di­a­logue with Plath’s, his story of their re­la­tion­ship, a love song to his dead wife.

It is hard to read: Hughes’s friend Sea­mus Heaney de­scribed it as “the psy­chic equiv­a­lent of ‘ the bends’ ”. Hughes broke, there, from an im­per­sonal po­et­ics steeped in myth to the sub­jec­tiv­ity of Plath’s con­fes­sional mode.

The ac­claimed po­ems, Bate’s archival work shows, were no “late flow­er­ing”. They drew on nearly 30 years of drafts, jour­nals, and pub­li­ca­tions that sought, obliquely, to work through his grief. Many more ex­ist, un­pub­lished.

The “price was high”. “Every­thing I have writ­ten since the nine­teen six­ties has been evad­ing,” Hughes wrote. “If only I had done the equiv­a­lent 30 years ago, I might have had a more fruit­ful ca­reer — cer­tainly a freer psy­cho­log­i­cal life.” Birth­day Let­ters brought Hughes “in­tense … lib­er­a­tion” and “cathar­sis”. He died less than a year af­ter the book’s re­lease. Bate’s bi­og­ra­phy is an ex­quis­ite trib­ute to Hughes’s mem­ory, his po­etry and grief.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Bos­ton in 1958

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