Ted Hughes. Birthday Letters.

Ted Hughes

Birthday Letters
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

In his foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982), Ted Hughes admitted that he destroyed the notebook that covers the last months of Plath’s life “because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival).” [1] More important, as I detailed in my essay “The Two Ariels: The (Re)Making of the Sylvia Plath Canon,” [2] Hughes also tampered with the Ariel manuscript itself. By his own admission, he eliminated “some of the more personally aggressive poems from 1962.” [3] But he also changed the sequence of the Ariel poems so as to heighten and dramatize the poet’s final dark days and impending suicide. Plath’s own projected sequence, in contrast, had concluded with the “Bee Poems” and their hope for possible survival.

Now, sixteen years after the Collected, Hughes, who has since become Poet Laureate of Great Britain, has delivered the unkindest cut of all: his new book Birthday Letters, which tells, according to the publisher, “one of the most powerful stories of postwar literary history: the romance of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, from their first meeting in 1956 until her suicide in 1963.” An instant best seller, both in the UK and the U.S., Birthday Letters has been hailed in review after review as “at last” providing us with Hughes’s side of the story, his own sufferings as bereaved widower, single father, and innocent victim of the feminist plot to blame him, at least in part, for Plath’s suicide.

The eighty-eight poems in Birthday Letters were ostensibly written over a twenty-five year period, and a few have been published before. But stylistic evidence suggests that the bulk were written very recently and, I would guess, in one fell swoop. I say this because, much as I have never taken Hughes to be a major poet, the real story of Birthday Letters is one of the loss of poetic power, a kind of farewell to the Muse. At his height in Crow (1971), after all, Hughes was a master of startling condensation, controlled violence, and barbed wit; his lyric mode was a fusion of myth, beast fable, Biblical narrative, and up-to-date technological discourse. Take, for example, “Crow ego”:

Crow followed Ulysses till he turned
As a worm, which Crow ate.

Grappling with Hercules’ two puff-adders
He strangled in error Dejanira.

The gold melted out of Hercules’ ashes
Is an electrode in Crow’s brain,

Drinking Beowulf’s blood, and wrapped in his hide,
Crow communes with poltergeists out of old ponds.

His wings are the stiff back of his only book.
Himself the only page–of solid ink.

So he gazes into the quag of the past
Like a gypsy into the crystal of the future,

Like a leopard into a fat land. [4]

Crow” as unscannable black page, Crow, in an elegantly alliterating and assonantal line, “Like a leopard into a fat land”–here was the signature of the young Ted Hughes. This poet would have never written anything as slack as:

You had a fever. You had a real ailment.
You had eaten a baddie.
You lay helpless and a little bit crazy
With the fever. You cried for America
And its medicine cupboard. (p. 46)

The insistent repetition of “You” clauses can’t disguise the truth that this is no more than slack prose, chopped into line lengths. Hughes’s ability to manipulate voice and mythic parallel, to choose the mot juste like “quag,” and to enter the consciousness of the Other, the alien–all these seem to have vanished. Indeed, Birthday Letters is less poetry than journalism–an easy read that brings lyric down to the level of the Sunday Supplements. And even these might want an epithet more substantial than “baddie.”

I shall have more to say of the poetry in a moment, but what about the book’s purported value as biographical memoir? Here the first thing to say is that Hughes’ presentation of his dead wife is surprisingly nasty. According to the poems, the English poet first hears of the American one through a “Girl-friend / [who] Shared a [Cambridge] supervisor and weekly session / With your American rival and you. She detested you” (p. 7). Look, the poet immediately implies, I’m not the only one who had problems with this woman!. And the put-down is confirmed by Hughes’ “first snapshot isolated/ Unalterable” of Sylvia:

Than ever you were again. Swaying so slender
It seemed your long, perfect, American legs
Simply went on up. That flaring hand,
Those long, balletic, monkey-elegant fingers,
And the face–a tight ball of joy. . . .
The loose fall of hair–that floppy curtain
Over your face, over your scar. And your face
A rubbery ball of joy
Round the African-lipped, laughing, thickly
Crimson-painted mouth. And your eyes
Squeezed in your face, a crush of diamonds,
Incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears. . . (p. 15)

Love at first sight? Attraction? Admiration? Who would like to be recalled by her future lover as having a face like a “rubbery ball of joy,” with those thick “African” (a little racial slur, here) lips and overly bright eyes squeezed into the facial ball? And Hughes is careful to mention the “scar” that should have been an early warning of Plath’s “sickness”–a scar he refers to again and again in the poems. Again, who would like to be memorialized for her “monkey-elegant fingers,” or even her “long, perfect, American legs,” “American,” turning out in later poems, to be the ultimate signifier of conformity, shallowness, the inability to take France and Spain in one’s stride, and so on.

Reading Birthday Letters, one wonders why in the world Hughes ever had an affair with Sylvia, much less why he married her. Love never seems to be at issue: in “18 Rugby Street,” which records their first sexual encounter, Hughes describes Plath as a “great bird” of prey, “Surg[ing] in the plumage of your excitement” (p. 22); he remembers, not sexual pleasure, but “Your roundy face, that your friends, being objective, / Called ‘rubbery’,” “your nose, / Broad and Apache, nearly a boxer’s nose, / Scorpio’s obverse to the semitic eagle / That made every camera your enemy.” And again, he mentions Sylvia’s facial “scar / Like a Maker’s flaw” (p. 23)

This caricature is doubly surprising because, as many readers have noted, in photographs Sylvia Plath was nothing if not the conventionally pretty blonde college girl–so pretty it was regularly remarked that the “real” Sylvia was ever so much “deeper” than her Mademoiselle image. In exonerating himself, Hughes evidently feels he has to put Plath in a bad light, his trump card being his diagnosis of her psychological problem. In “The Shot,” we read:

Your Daddy had been aiming you at God
When his death touched the trigger. . .
your real target
Hid behind me. Your Daddy,
The god with the smoking gun. (p. 17)

Why was Plath so troubled, why the suicide attempts, the manic bouts, the irrational behavior toward friends and relatives? The answer given is depressingly banal: she was in love with her father who died when she was eight, the “Daddy” of Plath’s most famous poem. The poet had an Electra complex: no wonder she drove her husband round the bend.

Such reasoning is, to say the least, one-dimensional. Anyone who has read Ariel, The Bell Jar, Letters Home, and so on, knows that Plath’s “problem” was at once much simpler and more complex than a fixation on Daddy. Simpler, in that we now understand the psychoses as being essentially chemical disorders and hence treatable with drugs and often largely manageable. And more complex in that Hughes’ “explanation” ignores the cultural constraints and forces of the fifties that surely had something to do with Plath’s particular predicament. To reduce, in any case, the anxiety and pain that makes poems like “Fever 103” and “Tulips” so terrifying, to the Electra complex, the fixation on a father mawkishly metaphorized as “the god with the smoking gun,” or, in the later poem “The Table,” as a “Blue-eyed . . . German cuckoo,” is, to caricature the author of Ariel.

It is, moreover, a cruel caricature– cruel to the Hughes-Plath children who, long protected by Hughes’s silence, are now exposed to lines like the following about their mother’s writing habits:

Your typewriter,
Your alarm clock, your new sentence
Tortured you, a cruelty computer
Of agony niceties, daily afresh–
Every letter a needle, as in Kafka.
With your nightmares and terrors, Inside your Bell Jar
I was like a mannikin in your eyeball. (p. 72)

This refers to the Hughes’s Boston year, when Plath was supporting the couple by teaching English at Smith and was trying to shuffle the endless grading chores with her need to write poetry. Yet in the passage above, Hughes belittles her efforts: her compulsiveness, her writer’s block, her mental instability, her neurotic overdependence on Hughes himself.

If these are meant to be “Birthday Letters,” one rejoices that Hughes didn’t “send” them sooner. Furthermore– to turn now to the poetic–the passage cited above is also very badly written. The phrase “cruelty computer / of agony niceties” (which, incidentally, dates this poem, since there were no computers when Plath was writing), is in apposition to “new sentence,” but seems more properly to refer to “typewriter”: in either case, it is not a metaphor that makes the blanket statement about agony and pain any more graphic or nuanced. “Every letter a needle” is a cliché, as is the image of Hughes haunting his wife like a “poltergeist fog” or like a “mannikin in your eyeball.” And when Hughes addresses his wife as being “Inside your Bell Jar,” the reference to Plath’s auto-biographical novel is so obvious it really does bring Time-speak to mind, although I doubt even Time would characterize Plath so tritely.

Indeed–and this is the great irony of the publication of Birthday Letters— despite Hughes’s best-seller status and the praise he is receiving at the moment, it is Plath who clearly has the last word in this book. For the attempt to write these particular poems in versions– some serious, some parodic–of Plath’s own style and substance, only serves to remind the reader how much better a poet she was. Compare Hughes’s “Sam” (p. 10) and “Night Ride on Ariel”(p. 174) to Plath’s “Ariel”; compare his “Picture of Otto,” to her “Daddy,” or his “Fever” (already cited above) to her intensely dramatic “Fever 103,” and you have a textbook illustration of how and when metaphor works, and how voice and address can create resonance. Here, for example, is the opening of the first of Plath’s “Bee Poems”: “The Bee Meeting”:

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers–
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice,
They will not smell my fear, my fear my fear. [5]

These lines powerfully convey the poet’s fear of engulfment, her sense that she doesn’t so much as exist, so that, in her “sleeveless summery dress” she can be swallowed up by the “gloved and covered” others. But “Who are these people at the bridge to meet me,” these “villagers”? In the stark dream landscape of the poem, the mysterious “rector,” “midwife,” “sexton,” and “agent for bees” parade silently before her, isolate figures who represent different facets of her daily life in Devon. The second stanza begins with what Freud describes as the most ordinary of dreams–the dream of being seen naked in a crowd and unable to cover up –but Plath gives that dream a strange twist as the “secretary of bees with her white shop smock,” rather like a surgeon in the operating room, “button[s] the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.” The image is of a shroud (“I am milkweed silk”), just as later in the poem the white bee box becomes the poet’s coffin. Yet in stanza 2, the poet irrelevantly comments “the bees will not notice,” a comment that turns out not to be irrelevant at all for in the poet’s hallucinatory state, even the bees seem to be watching her, smelling her fear, eating her “honey.”

If “The Bee Meeting” is starkly unsentimental, no doubt it is because the poet never comments on what is seen, heard, smelled, and felt; she merely describes it as happening to her. In this context, it doesn’t matter whether Plath is “right” or “wrong”: this is, quite simply, how she feels. Now compare the opening of Hughes’s “The Bee God”:

When you wanted bees I never dreamed
It meant your daddy had come up out of the well.

I scoured the old hive, you painted it,
White, with crimson hearts and flowers, and bluebirds.

So you became the Abbess
In the nunnery of the bees.

But when you put on your white regalia,
Your veil, your gloves, I never guessed a wedding. (150)

For Plath’s hallucinatory, fevered vision, Hughes substitutes explanation: the beehive the woman wants is only a fetish, a substitute for her missing daddy (Otto Plath was a bee keeper). The painting of the hive in the second couplet is a reference to Plath’s own “Stings”–

And the hive itself a teacup,
White with pink flowers on it,
With excessive love I enamelled it. . . .(Ariel, 61)

In “Stings,” we don’t know why she feels this “excessive love”; in Hughes’s “The Bee God,” Plath is presented definitively as “the Abbess / In the nunnery of the bees” (the rhyme “”Abbess / bees is curiously forced), capable, that is, only of loving her father. Her “white regalia,” far from being a complex form of self-protection against an unknown threat, as in Plath’s poem, is the insignia of her death wish, the longing of virgin bride to have a “wedding” with her absent “groom.”`. In case the reader doesn’t “get” it, the seventh couplet informs us that “you bowed over your bees / As you bowed over your Daddy,” and the poet-husband realizes “I saw I had given you something / That had carried you off in a cloud of gutturals” (p. 150).

The beehive, so real in Ariel, is only a device for Hughes, a convenient vehicle for a set of prior “ideas,” stated flatly and directly. Hence the poem’s particular blandness, the thinness of its metaphors as when the buzzing of the bees is called “a cloud of gutturals.” Quite simply, Hughes doesn’t believe in his images– images borrowed from Plath–as he believed in Crow, fox, or raven, creatures into whose worlds he could enter poetically. Rather, he stands outside Plath’s world and sneers, justifying his own actions as a natural response to her evident self-absorption. Such justification rings curiously hollow vis-à-vis Plath’s pain: she, after all, does not justify herself in these poems; she is simply trying to survive.

What an irony that now, when Hughes has finally dared to speak out about their rela tionship, when he has finally decided to tell it like it was, he should be capable of no more than this rhetoric of empty self-justification. What an irony that the decision to write a poetic sequence on Plath’s own themes, written in a version of her own language, should backfire quite so thoroughly? For the greatest irony is that Birthday Letters, far from redistributing the guilt and blame as to Plath’s fate, makes the whole question of blame and guilt somehow irrelevant to the larger question of relative poetic strength. Never before has the Poet Laureate made it so clear that there was only one great poet in the family and that he was not the one. And for this recognition, belated as it is, we may be grateful that Birthday Letters has been published.


The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Frances McCullough; Ted Hughes, consulting editor; foreword by Ted Hughes (New York: Dial Press, 1982), p. xiii.

Marjorie Perloff, “The Two Ariels: The (Re)Making of the Sylvia Plath Canon,” in American Poetry Review, 13 (November-December 1984); rpt. in Poems in Their Place, ed. Neil Fraistat (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 308-34, and in Perloff, Poetic License: Essays in Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, pp. 175-98.

See Ted Hughes, “Introduction,” The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 14-15.

Ted Hughes, Crow (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 50.

Sylvia Plath, Ariel (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 56.