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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

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Birthday Letters, a popular best seller, earned Hughes critical acclaim, receiving the Forward Poetry Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the Whitbread Prize for Poetry, and the Whitbread British Book of the Year Award. This collection of eighty-eight poems, written over a period of twenty-five years and published just months before the poet’s death, created a literary sensation because of its depiction of intimate details of Hughes’s life with Sylvia Plath. After Plath’s suicide, Hughes remained stoically silent regarding her death. The publication of this book, thirty-five years later, broke that silence.

The book is arranged chronologically, and its first poem, “Fulbright Scholars,” illustrates Hughes’s initial glimpse of Plath. As its title suggests, the poem re-creates an uncertain memory of seeing a photograph of Fulbright Scholars, in which Plath would have appeared. Hughes places Plath on a pedestal in the poem, unapproachable: “Maybe I weighed you up, feeling unlikely.” He describes her “American/ Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.” Finally, at poem’s end, Hughes quietly compares this first vision of Plath to the taste of a first peach: “It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted./ I could hardly believe how delicious.”

“St. Botolph’s” chronicles Hughes’s first meeting with Plath at a party celebrating the publication of a literary magazine. He devotes much space to a physical description of his future wife. Again, he describes her as “American,” comments on her long fingers, her hair, her smile, and a scar from her earlier suicide attempt while still an undergraduate. Hughes ends the poem with the effects of their first kiss, “the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks/ That was to brand my face for the next month.”

Hughes incorporates the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus in “Life After Death,” a poem recounting his, and their children’s, grief after Plath’s suicide. The eyes of the couple’s son show a remarkable similarity to those of Plath and become “wet jewels,/ The hardest substance of the purest pain/ As I fed him in his high white chair.” Similarly, “his sister grew/ Paler with the wound/ She could not see or touch or feel.” The family is comforted by the sound of wolves from a nearby zoo: “The wolves lifted us in their long voices./ They wound us and enmeshed us/ In their wailing for you, their mourning for us.” At the end of the poem, Hughes compares his two children to the mythic founders of Rome, “two babes, who have turned, in their sleep,/ Into orphans/ Beside the corpse of their mother.”

The second-to-last poem in the collection, “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother,” is one of only two poems not addressed to Plath. This poem is addressed to the couple’s children, Frieda and Nicholas, to whom the book is dedicated. The poet warns his children: “Protect her/ And they will tear you down/ As if you were more her. . . . Let her be their spoils.” However, the poem ends on a note of hope: “Imagine/ These bone-crushing mouths the mouths/ That labour for the beetle/ Who will roll her back into the sun.”

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXVIII, March 21, 1998, p. 33.

The American Poetry Review. XXVII, September, 1998, p. 11.

Commentary. CV, May, 1998, p. 74.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 15, 1998, p. 7.

The Nation. CCLXVI, April 20, 1998, p. 25.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, March, 1998, p. 7.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 1, 1998, p. 4.

Newsweek. CXXXI, February 2, 1998, p. 58.

Poetry. CLXXII, June, 1998, p. 154.

Time. CLI, February 16, 1998, p. 101.