Anne Stevenson’s review of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters appeared in MQR’s Winter 1999 issue. Our dear friend and longtime former Editor Lawrence Goldstein knows the journal’s publishing history like an intimate library, and he reminded us of this treasure from the archives.
In the United Kingdom, Ted Hughes is recognized as an outstanding—even the definitive—English poet of an unorthodox generation of postwar mythmakers, but in the United States the miasma blown up around his reputation after Sylvia Plath’s suicide still to some degree persists. Let’s hope that in the next century “The Ted and Sylvia Show,” as one of Britain’s cynical reviewers was pleased to dub it, will fade away into yesterday’s hype (“The Princess Di Show” has already to some extent replaced it), and that the credible, very painful story Hughes tells in Birthday Letters succeeds in making itself understood. As a study of Plath’s genius, fierceness, and terrified “weirdness”—a word she repeatedly used to describe herself—Hughes’s unleashed sequence has to be the best that exists. Hughes has always said that if he were to write about his life with Sylvia Plath, he would do so in poetry. Writing poetry, for Hughes as once for Plath, means disciplining the imagination as it gropes through fogs of inarticulate, uncontrollable experience until it lays hold of just the right acid-strong vocabulary to secure a convincing shape or design. Birthday Letters is bursting with such poetry, though occasionally the struggle for forceful articulation shows, while one or two of the letters (all except two are addressed to Plath) sacrifice lucidity to “getting right” something that is probably not communicable to uninformed readers. Still, the sequence is surprisingly easy to read, written, for the most part, in free metrical verse that in places lapses into prose—though it soon tightens up again in lines that reach out and hit you: “Your Daddy had been aiming you at God / When his death touched the trigger”; or, “Gagged in the hush. / Titterings of horror / And the bead of sweat in the spine’s furrow.”
Birthday Letters, of course, tells Plath’s story from the point of view of the poet she chose for a husband and lived with for nearly seven years before she killed herself. Until now, Hughes has kept references to his marriage resolutely out of his work, preferring to treat his personal experiences allegorically, within a parabolical or mythological framework. Just the same, there are bitter passages in Crow and Gaudete that anticipate more understanding ones in Birthday Letters; for example, “Lovesong” from Crow.
Her eyes wanted nothing to get away
The fairy palace in “Lovesong” reappears in the “Fairy Tale” of the forty-ninth room in Birthday Letters. This time the Ogre Father, ruler of the underworld of Plath’s obsession, usurps the role of all her former lovers, but when her pursuing husband opens the forbidden forty-ninth door with a blade of grass (once a sign between Hughes and his own forbidden love), the bewitched heroine falls dead at his feet as father and husband plunge together into the abyss. Again, in “Lovesong” the woman’s smiles are “spider bites”; in Birthday Letters, “Moonwalk”—one of four poems that replay scenes from a spellbound honeymoon in Spain—has Plath’s words strike out
Throughout Birthday Letters, the “beautiful, beautiful America” Hughes fell in love with in shabby postwar London doubles as a demon-daemon who cannot help nourishing herself “in the bosom of her own Guardian Angel.” Her story entails the flinging off, again and again, of rejected selves in a continuous attempt to achieve perfect rebirth. In “Child’s Park,” for example, Hughes watches Plath boldly ascend the “stairs” of a seven-veiled fountain to climb right “into the mouth of the azalea” (Otto Plath’s grave was on Azalea Path in his Massachusetts cemetery). She expects to be born again not more than a step from Paradise, but there at the bottom, “in the nuclear core” of the flower, her father (Father) lies in wait; the “glare” of his daughter-bride’s marvellous striptease, “the flinging [of] old selves off like underthings” leaves the whole Eden of her radiant poems “radioactive.”
As the speaker of all eighty-eight Birthday Letters, Hughes appears consistently in the role of a bewildered captive, a willing enough knight-at-arms bewitched by a magically empowered but mysteriously helpless Belle Dame Sans Merci. Instead of carrying her knight off to the underworld and, after enjoying him, deserting him, she desperately tries to amalgamate him both with herself and with the underworld’s king, her father—the only man in eternity who can heal and prepare her for rebirth. The Hughes marriage, these poem-letters tell us, died not because one of the partners fell in love with someone else and was unfaithful, but because, like Siamese twins, the two poets had grown inseparably into each other, conceiving and giving birth to a monster that devoured them. Toward the end of the sequence, in “Suttee”—a somewhat clumsy poem that is nevertheless central to the story—Hughes makes it as clear as he can that this monster was the long awaited “deity” of Plath herself to which she had ached to give birth ever since her “death” by electrocution years before. In the poem, tended by her husband-midwife, she does at last deliver her old self of a new self (her Ariel self), but it issues forth as a burning babe in a torching flood of flames that consumes both husband and wife.
You can read passages like the above (there are lots of them) as hooey and mythical madness if you so wish. To me—though I doubt that the myth Plath lived and died for would have been quite so potent had she been married to someone less given to mythologizing himself—it makes poetic sense. It sounds like the kind of creative frenzy that a psychoanalyst might define and write up in clinical language much less effective than Ted Hughes’s poetry. The plot of Plath’s personal psychodrama—however you choose to read it—certainly cast her husband in far too many roles: lover, husband, midwife, magician, astrologer, and, most difficult of all, “Daddy”—the long dead Otto Plath to whose image she, his daughter, gives birth in a ghoulish poem called “Cast”: “His whole distorted statue / Like a shard of shrapnel / Eased out of your old wound.” In “The Bee God,” a different scenario has the bee-keeper Otto return disguised as a lone, furious bee soaring over the housetops, calling forth his “Fanatics for the God, the God of the Bees” to retrieve his lost daughter.
The story-line, then, that propels Birthday Letters to its partially but never completely resigned conclusion puts it to the reader that Plath spun her helpless soul-womb-cage out of her own psychological material (“Mummy, Daddy, Mummy, Daddy”) while Hughes, despite misgivings, could not help helping her. At the end of “18 Rugby Street,” one of the more realistic poems in the sequence, Hughes describes their first night in a London hotel as going “in a barrel together / Over some Niagara” and falling “in the roar of soul” into the story of her scar and first suicide attempt. “Stay clear,” he says some “sober star” whispered to him, but of course he could no more listen to it than he could repudiate the “new world” that had miraculously fallen into his arms.
It is second nature for any story-teller, especially one informed by a lifelong study of anthropology, to make the most of myth and myth-making. It is no secret that Hughes’s strongest books—Wodwo, Crow, Gaudete—strive to realize and revive for modern readers some of the universals of the spirit that he sees as having been lost, suppressed, or sentimentalized in our present over-civilized western culture. Hughes’s particular obsession with possessed souls who are forced to endure excruciating ordeals of suffering must at first have been stimulated by Plath’s excited susceptibility to his ideas. As Hughes conceives their mutual story in retrospect, Plath at some point in their marriage psychologically “became” the “machine” that drove her—a machine persuasively tagged as a “lithe grotesque mask of your Mummy-Daddy / Half-quarry, half-hospital, whole / Juggernaut, stuffed with your unwritten poems.” In Devon, this machine caught up with Hughes and bodily took him over. (See the poem called “The Lodger.”) Finally, the “otherworld interior” that Plath struggled desperately to be reborn out of became his deathly otherworld, too. We are not told whether Plath ever realized what was happening to her husband (or what he believed was happening) while she was undergoing the underworld transformation and rebirth that turned her into the author of Ariel.
This spellbound, machine-like takeover of Plath by the myth that killed her is the root subject of BirthdayLetters; and the book as a whole does open up a new shaft, as it were, into the workings of Hughes’s imagination. Yet, for all his shift of emphasis from the allegorical mode of Wodwo and Crow to the frankly self-exploring method of Birthday Letters, Hughes’s approach to his art remains, I think, fundamentally unchanged. Ever since The Hawk in the Rain, Hughes’s poetry has leaned heavily on the beliefs of his readers; it is, above all, a poetry of unrelenting persuasion. The packed, unstoppered, monolithic pour of his lines, harsh and frequently dissonant, but capable of sonorous beauties, is an acquired taste and not one that recommends itself to skeptics—among whom, I suppose, I count myself. Still, for fiction-making, Hughes’s rough handling of the language serves Birthday Letters well. The book is persuasive; the poetry never does forfeit its claim to be a private sequence of letters written to his dead wife and dedicated to their grown children. It makes no concessions to readers who don’t want to believe him, and none, either, to literary gossips. The very fact that these letters are poems, that all the lines are short, packed with imagery and pitiless in their spell-like rendering of events, suggests that even when Hughes appears to be writing intimately of his domestic memories, he still, like a latter-day Prospero, places himself at a distance from his readers, and even from the “you” and “I” who are his chief dramatis personae. The mythology that persuades us to “believe” this book is Sylvia Plath’s; Ted Hughes casts himself mainly as a witness and victim of a magic-worker stronger than himself.
In so far as Birthday Letters is a life story, in addition to a myth, it draws more from the tap of John Berryman than from the “confessional” spout of Robert Lowell. Occasionally Hughes even allows himself a patch of black humor. “I was the gnat in the ear of the wounded / Elephant of my own / Incomprehension” (“Moonwalk”). Incomprehension, indeed, is the narrator’s key word, a note struck again and again as the drama moves from the scenery of a Shakespearean Romance (see “Setebos”) into a nightmare rendition of The Tempest as it might have been dreamed by Seneca. The entire second half of the book depicts an enchanted, sleepwalking existence out of which neither poet could wake. In one of the later Devon poems, for example, Hughes describes the elm plank he had made into a writing desk for his wife as a “Coffin elm”; almost immediately it transmogrifies into a door “Opening downwards into your Daddy’s grave.” When Daddy resurrects from that grave and steals into the marriage bed, it is Hughes’s incomprehension that numbs him into a sort of puppet helplessness. “And I sleepwalked / Like an actor with his script / Blindfold through the looking glass.”
Again, in Hughes’s version of “The Rabbit Catcher” he asks, “How had it started? What / Had bared our edges? What quirky twist / Of the moon’s blade had set us, so early in the day, / Bleeding each other? What had I done?” Fleeing from their hell-home to the sea, the two poets find a “gorse cliff” on which to picnic that seems perfect to him, but as he looks at his wife feeding their babies, he recoils once more into incomprehension. “Your Germanic scowl, edged like a helmet, / Would not translate itself. I sat baffled. / I was a fly outside on the window-pane / Of my own domestic drama.” After that, Plath’s tearing up of the rabbit-catcher’s snares becomes a reenactment of a marriage that is once again incomprehensible. “You were weeping with a rage / that cared nothing for rabbits. You were locked / into some chamber gasping for oxygen / Where I could not find you, or really hear you, / Let alone understand you.” Nothing in this poem or in other poems like it accuses Sylvia Plath of anything she can help herself doing. She, like Hughes, is caught in an incomprehensible snare, one from which Plath’s bell-jar-doomed fingers snatch a poem “like smoking entrails,” that comes “soft into [her] hands.”
Incomprehension, then, sleepwalking, psychological drowning, dreams “clogged with corpses,” an oneiric, paralysed half-life shared by Hughes, Plath, and inevitably by Plath’s equally helpless Jewess rival: such are the images that give viable substance to Birthday Letters. There is no doubt that over the years Hughes has been hurt badly by his ideological attackers. In a poem addressed to his grown children called “The Dogs are Eating Your Mother,” Hughes allows his bitter, teeth-gritted anger one display and one display only. The dogs in this poem are the hound-women whose hunger for revenge against patriarchy (presumably) tears Plath’s corpse apart, “Pulling her remains, with their lips / Lifted like dog’s lips,” even “Biting the face off her gravestone” in the churchyard in which Hughes had buried her and where her children used to play around her grave. “We arranged / Sea-shells and big veined pebbles / Carried from Appledore / As if we were herself.” Now, writes Hughes, the hyenas have battened on “the cornucopia of her body”; it is best to leave it, “Let her be their spoils.”
No doubt Plath herself would have preferred to be devoured by beetles and rolled back to the sun than to be dismembered and scattered in a soul-destroying, job-developed graveyard of contemporary Ph.D. theses. Still, “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother” is the only poem in Birthday Letters that I wished, on a third reading, had been excised. It seems out of place in a sequence of love poems (which, on a personal level, Birthday Letters is), as if the superb anger that energized the poems of Ariel had found an answer in many of Hughes’s sad, harsh, articulate re-evaluations. The book ends without having blamed or attacked Sylvia Plath once in the course of its lantern-show of memories; rather, it’s as if each poem were still straining to recreate her, to understand her better and to forgive her in the light of the myth-driven tragedy that both poets believed held them in thrall. Otto Plath, too, is forgiven in “A Picture of Otto,” the single poem Hughes addresses, with ambivalent feelings, to his unwitting double.
Nearly all the poems of Birthday Letters seize upon and rework Sylvia Plath’s own imagery and color symbolism; no doubt a Ph.D. thesis will soon be written on just how and where Hughes introduced references to his wife’s poems into his own. But I will end simply by pointing out how the poem called “Red” that completes the sequence brings Plath to life and lays her to rest, or nearly to rest, in the colors she herself chose to present herself to the world.