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:
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...
(The entire section is 1850 words.)