Death of a Poet
Ted Hughes died 25 years ago. But not before he shared "Birthday Letters" with the world—88 pieces written for Sylvia Plath "mainly to evoke her presence to myself and to feel her there listening.”
By Michael Judge
Tragically, a quarter-century after his death in October 1998 much of what you read about England’s then-poet laureate, Ted Hughes, still focuses on the controversy surrounding the suicide of his first wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath. One U.S. journalist, writing shortly after Hughes’s death, unilaterally declared that “Plath’s posthumous fame threatened to completely overshadow Hughes’s own career.”
Anyone familiar with Hughes’s life and work knows that’s utter nonsense, and that the poet who died in his late 60s of heart failure while undergoing treatment for colon cancer was never one to confuse “fame” and “career.” Plath, on the other hand—at least early on—seemed to have an acutely American desire for the limelight. Unfortunately, her hard-fought battles with bipolar disorder and depression fueled her sometimes public highs and lows, and the press corps (and tabloids) gobbled up the fascinating couple’s every move, and movie-star good looks.
Indeed, before she ever met Hughes she received a great deal of press as the “disappearing debutante” when she dropped out of sight in New York and was reported missing by family and friends. As still happens, parents and spouses are often cruelly blamed for the mental illnesses that torment their loved ones, something my family experienced when my two oldest brothers were diagnosed with schizophrenia and one, John, took his own life. Whatever Plath’s diagnoses, her work is shot through with the lyrical genius and cosmic connections of Emily Dickinson—as well as her playful puns, elisions, and need to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Nowhere is this more powerful than in Plath’s furiously lyrical “Daddy,” first published posthumously in her 1965 collection Ariel, which condemns her father—and some would say, by extension, the patriarchy—for what was later discovered to be his real-life “morbid disposition,” and “pro-German sympathies” during the Nazis’ genocidal rise to power. Otto Plath died when Sylvia was just 8 of complications from untreated diabetes. “Daddy,” whose unforgettable opening stanzas are below, was written on Oct. 12, 1962, four months before Plath’s suicide and one month after her separation from Hughes.
You do not do, you do not do Any more, black shoe In which I have lived like a foot For thirty years, poor and white, Barely daring to breathe or Achoo. Daddy, I have had to kill you. You died before I had time⸺ Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, Ghastly statue with one gray toe Big as a Frisco seal And a head in the freakish Atlantic Where it pours bean green over blue In the waters off beautiful Nauset. I used to pray to recover you. Ach, du.
It was this post-war, post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima need to make the private public that gave rise to the “confessional” movement in American poetry, of which Plath was a part. The confessional poetry of the 1950s and 60s was born out of the overwhelming grief and self-examination that followed World War II and the desire to shatter what poets like Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Plath saw as the conformity of the age with intensely personal imagery.
Hughes, until very late in life, avoided this, though there must have been some temptation. The tragic suicides of two wives and the loss of a daughter would be enough to drive most men to self-pity if not self-destruction. Ted Hughes endured. He did not confess. He did not fall silent. He published numerous collections of poetry and wrote more than a dozen children’s books over a career that spanned four decades. He wrote essays and plays and was one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare, Ovid, Elliot and countless other poets and writers whose hearts and words he translated with great dedication. (Full disclosure, I wrote a master’s thesis in the early 1990s on Hughes’s collection Crow, which he considered his “masterpiece,” and a signed children’s poem by him on English “football” hangs on my 11-year-old son’s wall—a cherished gift from a dear friend.)
Hughes’s poetry was never sentimental, always precise. The son of a carpenter, he preferred the English countryside, the “porridge of earth,” to the spotlight of London or the stuffiness of British academia. He was a farmer who saw harsh lessons in nature—in the servitude of the farm animals, the survival instincts of the scavenging crow. From these lessons he crafted poems that resurrected the dark images and rhythms of his Celtic ancestry, and at the same time provided England with a new mythology, grounded in the present, yet overflowing with tradition. As he once described the ancient Celtic seer or fili, “he was the curator and re-animator of the inner life which held the people together and made them what they were.”
Hughes was an intensely private man, but I don’t think he thought of himself as a “recluse,” as he has been described in the press. His devotion was to the people and land where he lived—and, of course, to his art. The last three stanzas of his poem titled “The day de died,” written during his early years as a farmer in southwestern England, capture Hughes’s intense relationship with the place where he chose to live, and could well serve as the poet’s epitaph:
The bright fields look dazed. Their expression is changed. They have been somewhere awful And come back without him. The trustful cattle, with frost on their backs, Waiting for hay, waiting for warmth, Stand in a new emptiness. From now on the land Will have to manage without him. But it hesitates, in this slow realization of light, Childlike, too naked, in a frail sun, With roots cut And a great blank in its memory.
Ted Hughes, the poet, died of cancer 25 years ago this week on Oct. 28, 1998, at his home in Devon, England. He was 68. He survived one of mankind’s bloodiest centuries and the tragic death of two wives and a daughter. But it wasn’t until just months before his death, with the publishing of Birthday Letters, a collection of 88 poems written for Plath, that he finally broke his 35-year silence on his private life.
In Birthday Letters, Hughes said he had “tried to open a direct, private, inner contact with my first wife, not thinking to make a poem, thinking mainly to evoke her presence to myself and to feel her there listening.”
The book has since sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide and proved to even Hughes’s greatest critics that he was not the monster they believed him to be. But I don’t think Ted Hughes, wherever he is, gives a damn. He did not write the poems in Birthday Letters for you, me, or any critic, for that matter.
He wrote them for a woman he loved.
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