Ted Hughes Avoids the Subject In Birthday Letters

In the early morning hours of Feb. 11, 1963, as much of the serious reading public now knows, Sylvia Plath

In the early morning hours of Feb. 11, 1963, as much of the serious reading public now knows, Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the age of 30 by gassing herself in the kitchen of her London flat. She had struggled with manic-depression since she was a teenager and had recently sunk into a life-threatening depression because her husband of seven years, a poet by the name of Ted Hughes, had left her for another woman, a dark-spirited poet named Assia Gutmann. Gutmann herself was married to another poet, David Wevill. Of the lot, Plath was the great one, a fact brought to light in 1965 when Mr. Hughes released Ariel , a book that contains poems about her father, who died when she was 8, and her widowed husband, the object of her rage and the source of her despair. Besides establishing Plath as an important poet, Ariel helped create a myth around Plath and Mr. Hughes. That myth-that the two young poets were caught up in a love as all-consuming as that of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning before them-got a strange twist in 1968 when Assia killed herself and the daughter she had had with Mr. Hughes. Gutmann committed suicide in the same way that Plath had-with gas, in a kitchen. Mr. Hughes’ only public response to these deaths came in 1970 with Crow , his collection of strikingly original poems, many of which concern the destructive nature of relationships.

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Over the years, Mr. Hughes has kept quiet about his relationship with Sylvia Plath. Now, 35 years after her death, he has finally broken that silence with Birthday Letters , a volume of 88 poems, all but two of which are addressed to her. Rarely has a book of poetry received such hype, meriting front-page articles in both The New York Times and The Times of London. Indeed, the press coverage has been so intense that Birthday Letters has landed on several best seller lists, one of the few times in recent memory a volume of poetry has done so.

After such a long silence, many readers have been looking anxiously to Birthday Letters for Mr. Hughes’ commentary on Plath. They will be disappointed, however, for the book provides little new information. Readers will learn that the couple met at Cambridge University, dated briefly, married, honeymooned in Paris, vacationed in Spain, traveled across America and ended up in England to live. But all of this has been covered in much more detail in the biographies of Plath that have appeared through the years. (Full disclosure: I come to this conclusion having written one of those biographies myself.)

In fact, what many readers-not to mention the literary community-have been waiting for for 35 years now is some admission from Mr. Hughes about the role he played in Sylvia Plath’s suicide or, failing that, some insight into why she did what she did. After all, of all the figures in Plath’s life, the one who should know what was happening to her in those early weeks of 1963 is Mr. Hughes. Instead of providing an explanation of the events that lead up to her suicide, however, Mr. Hughes offers only one reason as to why their marriage broke up, the singular event that precipitated Plath’s final emotional decline.

According to Mr. Hughes, Plath was disturbed because of painful memories of her father. Anything could trigger these memories. When Mr. Hughes made her a desk, the wood reminded Plath of her “daddy.” “With a plane/ I revealed a perfect landing pad/ For your inspiration,” he writes in “The Table.” “I did not/ Know I had made and fitted a door/ Opening downwards into your Daddy’s grave.” As these memories took over, Plath apparently projected her disturbed emotions onto Mr. Hughes. “You were the jailer of your murderer-/ Which imprisoned you,” he writes in “The Blackbird.” “And since I was your nurse and protector/ Your sentence was mine too.” To help her cope with her feelings, Mr. Hughes, his wife’s “protector,” hypnotized her (“Each night/ I hypnotized calm into you”). Ultimately, it did no good. Mr. Hughes could not control her, Plath could not control her emotions, and he moved on. Or at least that’s the version of events he offers in Birthday Letters .

So that’s it? Readers have waited three and a half decades to hear Ted Hughes make the earth-shaking revelation that he left Sylvia Plath because she was disturbed by upsetting memories of her dead father? What an anticlimax! Then again, Mr. Hughes has lived much of his life in denial, which is evident in Birthday Letters . Except for one veiled reference that is so convoluted most readers will not understand it, Mr. Hughes never discusses the reality: that he did not leave Plath to be alone, to get away from her craziness, as he would have readers believe, but to be with Assia Gutmann. Much of this is made evident in the correspondence Plath carried on with her mother in the last months of her life. (These letters are part of Plath’s literary papers housed at the Lilly Library at Indiana University.)

“I found Ted has been building a secret London life all this summer-a flat, a separate bank account, this woman, who I am sure will now leave her … husband & marry Ted,” Plath wrote to her mother, Aurelia Plath, on Oct. 9, 1962, referring to Mr. Hughes’ affair with Assia. “He gave me no time, no inkling, to make any plans of my own.”

In Birthday Letters , Mr. Hughes never mentions Plath’s fear of him. “He is not only infantile,” Plath wrote to her mother on Sept. 24, 1962, “but dangerously destructive, and I feel both the children & I need protection from him, for now & forever.” At no point in Birthday Letters does Mr. Hughes discuss the contempt he and Assia quickly developed for Plath. That abhorrence apparently became so strong that they taunted Plath, a woman known to them to have a history of suicide attempts, to kill herself. “Ted and his woman … have already wistfully started wondering why I didn’t commit suicide, since I did before!” Plath wrote to her mother on Oct. 16, 1962. “Ted has said how convenient it would be if I were dead, then he could sell the house & take the children whom He likes. It is me he does not like.” (Not surprisingly, the quotes from Plath’s letters included here were edited out of Letters Home , a collection of Plath’s letters to her mother; Mr. Hughes had final editorial control over that book.)

This disdain did not end with Plath’s suicide. Several weeks after her death, Assia Gutmann sent the final gas bill for Plath’s flat to one of Plath’s best friends with a note that read, “You were her friend. You pay the bill.”

None of these extreme emotions is even alluded to in Birthday Letters . Instead, readers get homogenized fragments of Mr. Hughes’ memories of his life with Plath-a car trip here, a daffodil-picking expedition there-in poems that are advertised as having been written over a 25-year period but are so similar in tone, and so comparable in construction, they feel as if they were written in one sustained burst of energy. Ironically, the poems themselves exhibit no energy at all, which ultimately underscores the tragedy of Plath’s death and the travesty of Mr. Hughes’ failure to explain his connection to it. With Birthday Letters , Mr. Hughes proves once and for all that Plath was the greater poet; only with Crow did he approach writing pieces of literature that will last. Finally, this current spree of media hype cannot obscure the fact that, even after publishing a book about her, Mr. Hughes has said nothing relevant about his former wife, her death or the loss to literature her death represents.

Ted Hughes Avoids the Subject In Birthday Letters