I first remember hearing about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in an English lesson after reading an extract from Plath’s The Bell Jar. I was sweet sixteen, it was an all-girls school, and my teacher was young, female, and romantic; Ted Hughes (we all agreed) was not a nice man.
Thirty years on, I’m old enough to know that life and love is far, far messier than I ever imagined when sitting in that classroom. Birthday Letters, winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 1998, gives Hughes’ ‘side’ of the literary love story. In eighty-eight poems he charts his relationship Plath: how they met; their romance, wedding and honeymoon; their marriage; their break-up; Plath’s suicide; and her memory and literary legacy.
The collection is dedicated to his and Plath’s two children, Freida and Nicholas. The ‘Letters’ themselves, though, are almost exclusively addressed to Plath. From the first poem (“Maybe I noticed you”) to the last (“Red was your colour”) Hughes converses with his dead wife. Rooted in the physical geography of their marriage – nine of the poems take their names from places the Hughes’ either lived or visited together – they are also strikingly symbolic.
Animalistic imagery features heavily. Trophies compares falling in love to a savage animal attack (“The panther? It had already dragged you/ As if in its jaws, across Europe.”), The Owl introduces sinister overtones into their romance (“Suddenly it swooped up, splaying its pinions/ Into my face.”), and Epiphany has the end of their marriage epitomised by Hughes walking away from a captured, wild, fox-cub (“If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox/Is what tests a marriage and proves a marriage – /I would not have failed the test.”)
Even more striking is imagery conflating death, writing, Sylvia’s dead father, Otto Plath, and Hughes himself. In The Shot, Hughes tells Plath “You ricocheted/ The length of your Alpha career/ With the fury/ Of a high velocity bullet” while Otto, “your real target…/The god with the smoking gun” hides behind Hughes. In The Table, the writing desk Hughes makes for Plath is “a door/ Opening downwards into your Daddy’s grave.” And in A Picture of Otto, one of the few poems not addressed to Plath, Hughes tells his father-in-law “Your ghost inseparable from my shadow/ As long as your daughter’s words can stir a candle.”
Was Sylvia’s fate fixed, aged ten, when her father died? My English teacher would sniff at the idea, I’m sure; after all, ‘Team Plath’ and ‘Team Hughes’ have been publically appropriating a private tragedy to fit their own world views for forty years. “It is only a story,” Hughes tells Plath in Visit, “Your story. My story.” And, in the end, the poems capture a simple, raw humanity that it’s hard not to be moved by – whichever team you’re in.
*** Highly recommended