Birthday Letters

by Ted Hughes
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1850

Sylvia Plath was a pretty, blond American girl with a seemingly placid exterior when Ted Hughes first met her at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, in the winter of 1956. Plath was also an aspiring poet who had won a scholarship. Hughes, too, was an aspiring poet. At first glance one might think it was this mutual interest that brought them together. Their biographies indicate that it was that—and something more. Hughes revisits their first encounter in the seventh of the eighty-eight poems that make up Birthday Letters:

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You meant to knock me out
with your vivacity. I remember
Little from the rest of that evening.
I slid away with my girl-friend. Nothing
Except her hissing rage in a doorway
And my stupefied interrogation
Of your blue headscarf from my pocket
And the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks
That was to brand my face for the next month.
The me beneath it for good.

Plath had, apparently, shocked him by biting his cheek—hard. As the poem “St. Botolph’s” indicates, this violent gesture was a portent of things to come.

The two married in the summer of 1956. They spent the next three years shuttling back and forth between England and the United States, where Plath taught for a year at her alma mater, Smith College. They returned to England in 1960, settling into a seemingly perfect existence. The two poets—both handsome, ambitious individuals—divided their time between London, where they became known in literary circles, and a country house in Devon. Besides beginning their writing careers, they had two children together, a daughter, Frieda, in 1960, and a son, Nicholas, in 1962.

Then, for reasons still in dispute and perhaps finally inexplicable, Hughes began seeing another woman, Assia Wevill. Separated from Hughes, Plath spent a bitterly cold winter alone in Devon with the children before returning to London to face an equally cold winter. It was during this period that she began writing the shatteringly personal poetry that would appear after her death. On the morning of February 11, 1963, after leaving milk out for the children, she turned on the gas.

It was not Plath’s first foray into suicide. In 1953, she suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted to kill herself, an experience she would later fictionalize in her novel, The Bell Jar (1963). Looking back on his life with Plath in Birthday Letters, Hughes indicates that the first attempt (there were almost certainly others) made the last one inevitable—just as it made the breakup of their marriage inescapable:

We walked south across London to Fetter Lane
And your hotel. Opposite the entrance
On a bombsite becoming a building site
We clutched each other giddily
For safety and went in a barrel together
Over some Niagara. Falling
In the roar of soul your scar told me—
Like its secret name or its password—
How you had tried to kill yourself. And I heard
Without ceasing for a moment to kiss you
As if a sober star had whispered it
Above the revolving, rumbling city: stay clear.

One might say that Hughes has read too much Greek tragedy were it not for the fact that Plath herself was filled with a sense of tragic inevitability. Left alone with two small children, she saw herself repeating her mother’s experience. Her father, Otto Plath, was a German immigrant who became a professor of biology. He was also an autocrat who, after he developed diabetes, refused treatment because he believed that he was dying of cancer. For several years he demanded—and got—his family’s complete attention. Then, when his daughter was eight years old, Otto Plath died, leaving his wife penniless with two young children to support. The loss seemed not to have affected the young Plath very much, but then came the suicide attempts and a recognition of her deep attachment to and hatred for her father. Toward the end, when she was writing furiously—turning out almost one ferocious poem a day—Plath identified Hughes with her father and damned them both as oppressors. In “Daddy,” composed in October, 1962, she wrote:

I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.

It comes as little surprise, then, that after Plath’s death Hughes had little to say publicly about the whole nasty business. That did not mean, however, that he did not try to influence the public debate about her life and work. Plath died without leaving a will, with the ironic result that it was Hughes who inherited control over her literary estate. One of his first acts was to destroy her last journal, because, he said, he did not want their children to read it. That act may have been somewhat understandable, but when he continued to censor her life by bowdlerizing some of her poems and suppressing others and obstructing literary critics as well as biographers, the voices of his antagonists and accusers grew deafening. Hughes remained aloof, using his formidable sister Olwyn as a go-between; she was charged with defending Plath’s honor and—not incidentally—his own. It is hardly an accident that Olwyn helped shape the first full Plath biography, Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (1989), or that the portrait of Hughes that emerges from it presents him as something of a martyr.

It is largely as a martyr—or perhaps just a helpless, innocent bystander—that Hughes presents himself in Birthday Letters. His wife, the lovely girl with the “long, perfect, American legs,” turns out to be fatally flawed, doomed by her obsession with her dead father. With Hughes, we watch her struggling with her poetry, struggling with her sanity, struggling to stay alive. In something approximating chronological order, the eighty-eight poems trace key episodes in their lives together, as the seeds of her instability blossom into hysterical despair. Hughes can do nothing but doggedly attend her as the drama of her life plays itself out. According toBirthday Letters, Plath’s true antagonist was not an uncaring husband but an oppressive father.

Once, in one of the volume’s few really powerful poems, “Epiphany,” Hughes half admits fault, and it is telling that he does so in the context of describing an animal—nature having always been his forte. Once, in London, he encountered a young fellow carrying a fox cub inside his jacket. The fellow offers to sell the little fox to him for a pound, but Hughes rejects the offer, thinking of how it might inconvenience his wife and new baby. But then he wonders

Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage—
I would not have failed the test. Would you have failed it?
But I failed. Our marriage had failed.

Mostly, however, Birthday Letters seems meant to answer his critics, to justify his reasons for leaving Plath. From the outset, he indicates, it was Plath and her destiny that controlled events. Hughes claims in “Visit” that when the two met in 1956 he was already unwittingly “being auditioned/ For the male lead in your drama.” And indeed, throughout the traumas that follow—the illnesses, the pregnancies, the breakdowns— Hughes portrays himself as acting the part of the nurse, the dogsbody, the able but hamstrung assistant. In “Suttee,” he declares that he was midwife to the “deity” resurrected after her first suicide attempt. When Assia Wevill enters the picture, in “Dreamers,” she does so as an agent of Fate, joining the cast of a fable as just another one of the “inert ingredients/ For its experiment.” It was all, Hughes would have it, preordained:

The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her, and I knew it.

One cannot help but wonder how Plath would have responded to such representations. Birthday Letters, however, is a one- sided conversation, with all but two of its poems addressed to a “you” that does not answer. Clearly Hughes believes that Plath—through her poetry and her journals—has already had her say about what went wrong in the marriage. However, it is probably her version that will remain longest in readers’ minds. Whereas the poetry in Ariel is harsh, original, and memorable,Birthday Letters is filled with uninspired, mostly narrative verse that suits Hughes’s sense of himself as a passive participant but does little to make his case. He surely has one—few believe that his relationship with Plath was filled with casual bliss—but these lukewarm recollections of long ago and far away cannot begin to compete with the hellish vision conveyed by poems like “Daddy.”

The appearance of Birthday Letters made headlines in both America and England. The publication of few books of poetry has commanded so much public attention in the twentieth century. Although the poet in question is England’s highly respected poet laureate, the media has paid attention to Birthday Letters not because of its craft but because of the scandalous events that occasioned it. Some of these events date from more than three decades ago, while others—such as Hughes’s seeming attempts to quash certain aspects of Plath’s biography—are more recent. After the many years during which he maintained an Olympian silence on the subject of his relationship with Plath, Hughes’s version of events was met with breathless expectation.

Unfortunately, his attempts to explain himself fall rather flat. Perhaps it was inevitable that Birthday Letters would be filled with self-justification, but few could have expected it to be so uninspired, so uninvolved. The last poem in the collection, “Red,” describes Plath’s obsession with the color of blood, an obsession born of her fear of death. Blue, says Hughes, was better for her. If only Plath had had a little more of his coolness, she might have survived—or at least been able to hang on to him:

But electrified, a guardian, thoughtful.

In the pit of red
You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.

But the jewel you lost was blue.

Perhaps it is not fair to read so much biography into what is, after all, poetry. Yet Hughes clearly expects—even invites—readers to do so. In the end, however, the verse fails to measure up to the life, and we are left with a feeling of gratitude that Plath was not able to temper her wrath.

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.

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