Historical Context

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The premise of “Perfect Light” makes it clear that Hughes based the poem on a photograph taken in 1962, judging from the ages of his children in the picture. When he actually wrote the poem is anyone’s guess, as the so-called “Sylvia” poems were written over a twenty-five- to thirty-year period. This particular poem, however, never appeared in any other collections during those decades, as others from Birthday Letters did, and may well have been penned later in his career. Hughes’s incessant privacy makes it difficult to put an exact date on much of his autobiographical work, and it is unlikely that any social, cultural, or political events of the time had any effect on the poems inspired solely by his relationship with and love for his first wife. Nonetheless, despite his reclusive behavior, Hughes was certainly a citizen of the world while preparing this collection for publication in the 1990s, and that decade brought significant changes to his native Great Britain as it did to many nations across the globe.

From the outset, the British government was undergoing a shake-up as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 after her economic policies resulted in decaying inner cities, and her opposition to greater British intervention in Europe caused a revolt within her own Conservative party. The Conservatives, however, managed to hold onto power in the 1992 elections, as John Major came to power, bringing with him more moderate, middle- of-the-road policies than those of his predecessor. A central focus of Major was the ongoing conflict between the government and the Irish Republican Army of Northern Ireland. A peace initiative led to a cease-fire in 1994, but by 1996 renewed violence had erupted again. Peace talks began again in 1997 and within two years both sides had reached an agreement to end direct rule by the British government in Northern Ireland.

The early 1990s also saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the official end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. These events also had a positive impact on Great Britain, America’s staunchest ally, particularly with a greater unification of Europe. But being an ally also meant supporting the United States in a time of war and in 1991, when the Americans bombed Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, the British were there as well.

Another critical development in Great Britain during the 1990s was the nation’s participation in the European Union, or EU. While some Britons called for a limited role, others said the country should be vigorously active in the organization, but previous disputes with other member nations did not always make that possible. In 1996 an outbreak of mad cow disease in England worsened relationships when other EU nations banned the import of British beef. By 1999 the ban was lifted when the EU approved Britain’s plans for controlling the disease, but France continued its own ban, further straining British-French relations. The two nations experienced an on-again-off-again relationship throughout the decade, with one high point being the completion of the Channel Tunnel project in 1994, which began in France eight years earlier. This tunnel linked England not only to France, but to the entire European mainland.

Still another point of contention in Great Britain was the proliferation of the “Euro” monetary system in the late 1990s, which some European countries embraced immediately and others more reluctantly accepted. A supporter of the new European currency, Labour Party leader Tony Blair became prime minister of Great Britain in 1997. Blair’s move to decentralize the government was greatly supported, and Scotland and Wales established their...

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own legislative bodies, giving them a more independent voice in their domestic affairs. Both houses of Parliament also voted to strip most hereditary peers of their right to vote in the House of Lords, a tradition of British government deemed impractical under the Blair administration. The popularity of Blair’s government was made evident again a few years later when the Labour Party handed the Conservatives a sound defeat in the 2001 elections.

It is doubtful that the affairs of government or the economy bear any significance on Hughes’s “Sylvia” poems, and just as unlikely that any gossip about Royal divorces or marriages, the tragic death of Princess Diana, or the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep in Scotland were any source of inspiration for such personal poetry. And while one can never completely discount the effect of culture or society on any individual, those who maintain a highly private life and derive creativity from within seem less susceptible to either. As poet laureate, Hughes was compelled to meet his public duties, but when it came to Plath, he was definitely one of the private ones.

Literary Style

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Contemporary Free Verse
The style of “Perfect Light” is contemporary free verse, but that does not mean it is totally without any structured format. While the voice is conversational and the language is unadorned, the poem is driven by the force of repetition. This work revolves around three central, repeated words and ideas: the word “daffodil” is mentioned five times, “innocence” is mentioned three times, and the notion of inevitable failure appears twice in the second stanza. The first stanza becomes almost rote with daffodils and innocence, but the technique is very effective in driving home the speaker’s frame of mind. He relates both flowers and tender naiveté to every aspect of his subject, and manages to keep the repetition from becoming monotonous by using the repeated words in ironic places. Both “daffodils” and “innocence” are paired with expected and unexpected partners, the daffodils expressing both physical beauty and a short life and innocence, foretelling a haunting, lifelong struggle to understand and overcome past misery.

In the second stanza, the technique of repetition is more somber and concentrates on the frustration of failure. “Failed to reach” and “never reached you” are phrases that are already effective by themselves, but they are made more forceful by appearing only three lines apart. In a relatively short poem, this technique works especially well, and in an otherwise typical free-verse effort, it adds cohesiveness where there may not seem to be any. Beyond the technique of simple repetition, “Perfect Light” is in line with ordinary contemporary free verse, containing no direct rhyme and following no pattern of meter or poetic form.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Auden, W. H., “Musée de Beaux Arts” in Collected Poems, Random House, 1991.

Bere, Carol, “Owning the Facts of His Life: Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters,” in Literary Review, Vol. 41, No. 4, Summer 1998, pp. 556–61.

Emerson, Bo, “In a New Light,” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 19, 1999.

Firchow, Peter, Review of New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 407–08.

Merwin, W. S., “Something of His Own to Say,” in New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1957, p. 43.

Further Reading
Hughes, Ted, New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, Faber and Faber, 1995. When Hughes came out with this collection, many readers were surprised to find a selection at the end of this book of previously unpublished poems that were unmistakably written to and about his late wife Sylvia Plath. This comprehensive book provides an excellent overview of Hughes’s entire career and a first glimpse of the much-sought “Sylvia” poems.

Plath, Sylvia, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil, Anchor Books, 2000. Kukil, the supervisor of the Plath collection at Smith College, has carefully transcribed the journals Plath kept between 1950 and a few months prior to her suicide. There is perhaps no better way to try to understand her thoughts, emotions, and feelings about Hughes than to read them in her own words.

Scigaj, Leonard M., ed., Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, G. K. Hall, 1992. This book contains close to twenty essays by various critics, scholars, and poets and provides a good variety of Hughes analyses. Discussions include Hughes’s performance as poet laureate, his poetic style, and several articles on his major volumes of poems.

Wagner, Erica, Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of “Birthday Letters,” Faber and Faber, 2000. Wagner’s exploration of the intense, destructive relationship between Hughes and Plath is considered one of the fairest, most comprehensive looks at the lives of these two poets. She includes commentary to the poems in Birthday Letters, pointing out the actual events that inspired them and explaining how they relate to Plath’s own work. This book is both a guide and a literary companion to Hughes’s final collection.

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