On June 16,1956, Ted Hughes married Sylvia Plath in London. He was a recent graduate of Cambridge University, working for the J. Arthur Rank Organization; she, a Smith College graduate at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship. Both were poets. The marriage lasted six years and produced two children. In late summer 1962 the couple separated, and on the morning of Monday, February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath, acutely depressed, committed suicide in her London flat.

In the 35 years since then, during which both their poetic reputations have prospered independently, the tragic aftermath of their marriage has kept them linked in people’s minds. Both have their partisans. To some people—most of them probably women or American—Sylvia Plath was a martyr, and Ted Hughes is a villain. To others, who believe that Plath was chiefly the victim of her own mental instability, Hughes is a more sympathetic figure entitled to take some credit from his marriage and the long, often grueling, aftermath—even if everyone would agree that a man who leaves a wife and two small children, for whatever reason, is open to some criticism.

Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters consists of 88 poems written for the most part in a kind of free blank verse, all but one of them addressed to his dead wife. According to the jacket copy, he began writing them shortly after her suicide; their composition therefore extended over more than 25 years. Readers familiar with Sylvia Plath’s life and writing will recognize many of the poems’ subjects: her meeting and marriage with Hughes, their travels across America, their life in Devonshire, and the birth of their children. Here too is her ride on the runaway horse, the time she smashed her husband’s table, and the one when she shocked him by destroying an unknown countryman’s rabbit snare, found during a walk. The sequence, then, is an extended lyric commentary on a story which will be familiar in outline, and sometimes in detail, to many of its readers. It has been told often enough at second, third, and fourth hand, but this is the first time Ted Hughes, who has maintained strict silence on the subject, has commented upon it.

Writers in newspapers and pundits in colleges, speaking about the volume’s appearance, have tended to assume that the author has published his side of the story in poetic form to vindicate himself. This is unlikely, since Ted Hughes knows better than anyone that vindication is impossible, while anything he publishes on the subject will be taken in some quarters as provocation. This, presumably, is why he has refused to be interviewed about his book. Besides, if vindication were his intention, a volume of poems would not be an effective way to achieve it. Many of the people with the strongest views on the Plath-Hughes story could not construe a poem accurately if their lives depended upon it.

Ted Hughes is a poet, and he has published a book of poems. That much we know; somehow, despite the notoriety of the subject, we ought to try to read his poems as poetry. Birthday Letters is not a poetic diary or a versified file of newspaper articles, though some people seem to think that it is something of the sort. The New York Times, for instance, quoted an English professor as saying that the poems fail to answer crucial questions about the months leading up to Plath’s death. That professor is evidently in the wrong business, but she is not alone in it.

Hughes has arranged the poems pretty much in the chronological order of the events they refer to, but it would be surprising if he had written them like that. The arrangement is a work of retrospection. One imagines a man drawn back continually, no matter what his other occupations, to memories of a time when he found himself playing a part in a strange, very disturbing, private narrative that was turning out differently from the one he had thought he was in. “Nor did I know,” he writes in “Visit,” about his first encounters with Plath,

I was being auditioned

For the male lead in your drama,

Miming through the first easy movements

As if with eyes closed, feeling for the role.

As if a puppet were being tried on its strings.

Poem by poem, over many years, he has brought his memories into focus until, the process finished and the poems arranged, he has the whole narrative in his control. It is still a strange and frightening one, but he has mastered it; now he knows what happened to him, to his wife, and family.

What emerges from this knowledge is a portrait of a relationship stalked by death from its beginning, despite the apparent happiness and suitability of the couple. Plenty of young couples start marriage with an idea of themselves as deliverers and preservers of their mates. Hughes’s imagery of labyrinths, minotaurs, and other monsters, implying a version of himself as a failed Theseus or St. George, suggests that he was perfectly normal in this respect. What was not normal was that, given a choice between St. George and the dragon, his beautiful, clever, aggressively competitive wife chose the dragon. Some of the best poems in the book are on that subject, among them “The Minotaur” and “The Shot,” which imply that Hughes’s present understanding came only with hindsight. At the time, he felt bewilderment and apprehension, feelings rendered sometimes with great power as in “Setebos,” a poem taking its metaphors from The Tempest, or with self-parodying humor, as in “Moonwalk”:

I was the gnat in the ear

     of the wounded

Elephant of my own


He now seems to believe that, quite early on, his wife was lost to him, caught in a web of obsessive personal fantasy from which no one could free her, and which eventually led to her death: at the center of it lurked the memory or image of her dead father.

The poems encompass a wide range of feeling, from exaltation and joy to terror. As anyone who knows Hughes’s work would expect, in some of the most effective writing animals appear as bearers or harbingers of meaning, among them bats (“9 Willow Street,” “Karlsbad Caverns”), owls (“Owl”), rabbits (“The Rabbit Catcher”), and bears (“The 59th Bear”):

I saw a big brown bear and a
smaller, darker.

Romping like big rubber toys,

Bouncing along, like jolly

Among the tents and tables.

Some of the first poems evoke, besides forebodings, the romantic excitement of the young couple’s first meetings, when

It seemed your long, perfect,
American legs

Simply went on up. That flat

Those long, balletic, monkey-
elegant fingers.

And the face—a tight ball of joy.

But besides memory, reflection, and diagnosis, there is also anger in this book. Some of it, muted to irritation, hovers about the figure of Plath herself, who must have been a difficult woman to live with. In “Wuthering Heights,” visiting the ruins of the Brontës’ world, she “breathed it all in / With jealous, emulous sniffings. Weren’t you / Twice as ambitious as Emily?” he asks. In “The Rabbit Catcher,” she “despised England’s grubby edges . . . / That day belonged to the furies.” And driving through Yellowstone, her spirits “as usual had gone right down with / The fuel gauge to the bottom.”

Hughes’s more forthright anger, though, is directed at those who, in his opinion, were cruel to Plath or exploited and misled her. Marianne Moore, for instance (“The Literary Life”), sent back some poems uncharitably:

“Since these seem to be valuable
carbon copies

(Somewhat smudged) I shall not engross them.”

I took the point of that “engross”

Precisely, like a bristle of glass.

Snapped off deep in my thumb.

“Night-ride on Ariel” and “Telos” excoriate the culture of school and college that made a precocious performer out of her for its own good rather than for hers; here Smith College and one of its faculty are among the targets. The angriest poem in the book, however, is “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother.” Next to last in the book, it is about the Plathcidtists who, besides despoiling (literally) her grave, have done their best to make Hughes’s own life as miserable as possible. It is a very angry poem indeed.

Birthday Letters is a most imusual kind of volume, comparable in form, really, with Tennyson’s In Memoriam or Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Whatever the world’s final verdict upon it as verse, it is a serious, ambitious work: intense, moving, often vivid and brilliant, it improves with repeated readings.


[Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 198 pp., $20.00]