(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 589 words.)