Reading Jonathan Bate’s new biography of Ted Hughes has set me reviewing my own encounters with the poet’s work at intervals over most of my literary life since I bought his first book, The Hawk in the Rain, and gave it to Kay for her 24th birthday in 1957. We still have that now badly foxed first edition which I had inscribed with quotations from the poems themselves:
Who sees straight through the bogeyman,
The crammed cafés, the ten thousand
Books packed end to end
This mildewed island
Rained on and beaten flat by wind and water.
Karl, Bristol, 24.12.57
At the time I was doing a PhD on poetic Modernism, so my attention was focussed on the early years of the 20th century, on the impact of Yeats, the Georgians, the poetry of World War I, and the arrival of Eliot and Pound on the scene. As for contemporary British poetry of the 1950s, I had discovered two years earlier the poems of Philip Larkin and had been keenly interested and impressed; and now here was Hughes. I soon found him an alien temperament. In the back of the book I noted (as was my habit at the time, thinking always of how many poems and lines my own first collection might have to be) ‘41 poems, 974 lines’ – and put it aside. Larkin was more interesting among British contemporaries; and beyond work on the PhD, my keenest contemporary focus remained always on what was happening in New Zealand.
But Hughes is such a large presence he is not one I could go on ignoring forever. Reading this Jonathan Bate biography I’ve felt again that I’ve been resisting Hughes most of my life. There’s an anxiety about this, a habit of critical conscientiousness learned when young, a feeling almost of guilt as if, as a serious reader of poetry, it’s my duty to have an opinion. This is slightly absurd; but these literary-critical questions are worth exploring – there’s usually something to be learned from them, if not about the poet then about oneself.
Aspects of Hughes’s life have been impossible to ignore – most notably his marriage in 1957 to the American poet Sylvia Plath, the birth of their two children, the break-up of their marriage when he left her for the beautiful, thrice married Assia Wevill, Sylvia’s suicide in 1963, and then the impact of the post-mortem publication of her poems. I have that first Faber edition of Ariel, Plath’s posthumous collection which was a sensational public success, with its dark malevolent images of the male, sometimes father, sometimes husband, often both. Ted appears there as ‘the vampire’ who ‘drank my blood’ for seven years, and her own suicide is foreseen and celebrated:
Is an art, like everything else
I do it exceptionally well
The two books, his of 1957 and hers of 1963, seem to match one another, both with yellow and blue dust-jackets now, after almost sixty years, falling apart. Whereas my reaction to his poems had been one of failure (his or mine) to engage, with hers I felt the force of them, a sense that it was a raw force, rough, even rough-shod, with an edge of hysteria and self-dramatisation. The sense of immediacy was what was most striking, and that made Ted’s poems by comparison seem muffled.
For all of 1965 (the year of T.S. Eliot’s death) I was on leave in London and took part in the Commonwealth Festival readings at the Royal Court Theatre. One of the poets I read with was the Canadian David Wevill, whose wife Assia had left him for Ted, and had borne Ted’s child Shura. Rumour and gossip surrounded him and one looked for lines of distress and thought they were there. His book of poems, Birth of a Shark, published only the year before, was dedicated to her. They had not divorced, and the rumour was that he looked after the Hughes child some of the time, and wanted to preserve the marriage. There were eighteen Commonwealth poets at the Festival and each was commissioned to write a poem. David Wevill’s began
Carries a scandal
At his heart.
The woodpile hides
A baby or
A dead wife’s bones
Down the same darkness
Retrieve my lost diamond.
The alliance of Ted and Assia (David’s ‘lost diamond’) we now know went through many ups and downs until 1969 when she too killed herself. Sylvia in her suicide had taken special care that the gas did not reach the children asleep upstairs. Assia on the other hand took her and Ted’s little daughter Shura with her – curled up with her on the kitchen floor so they died together.
When word of this got about, Ted, already in disfavour because of Sylvia’s death, and because of the way she seemed to present herself as his victim, became the object of a feminist vendetta which over the next two decades increased in volume and nastiness. He was reviled, his books stolen and savaged in bookshops, his house set on fire and archives damaged; he was hounded in public places and attacked at poetry readings as Plath’s murderer. Plath’s grave in Yorkshire, where Ted’s family came from, was attacked again and again and his name chiselled off the stone that identified her as ‘Sylvia Plath Hughes’.
Ted’s infidelities were indeed multiple and complex – the woman he was in bed with the night Sylvia died, for example, was not Assia but another; but he was also by now a grieving father and husband, and no feeling was spared for him. His life had become, for the time being, thoroughly politicised; and though there had been no sign of him at the 1965 Festival he continued to publish new work. We lived on Prince Albert Road that year, in sight of the Zoo that figures in his poems, and in ear-shot of the occasional lion roar or wolf howl. Within easy walking distance was the house, blue-plaqued because W.B. Yeats had lived there, where Sylvia died. Our G.P. was Dr Horder who had described Sylvia as ‘a model patient’ and who had phoned Ted with the (surely intended to be accusing/punishing) words, ‘Your wife is dead.’
By now my own first book of poems had been published in New Zealand and my first critical book, The New Poetic, in the U.K. with a U.S. edition pending. Insofar as contemporary British poetry interested me, Auden, the senior figure, was still producing new work, and Larkin seemed the junior, weird and wounded perhaps, but a star. At least equally important, in America Robert Lowell and John Berryman were filling the frame. Lowell, whose Life Studies had so strongly influenced Plath, would soon be moving on to the liberation that his sequences of ‘open’ sonnets represented.
I was conscious of new work by Hughes, but didn’t look closely until Crow (1970, dedicated ‘To Assia and Shura’), whose raw energy I tried hard to like and admire, but which made me wonder sometimes whether he was trying to match Ariel for impact. If he was, he was not succeeding. You can’t manufacture desperation on that scale. Only circumstances in combination with temperament can give it to you; and though Ted may well have had (indeed had created) the circumstances, his temperament was curiously British and unruffled. The wildness of Crow struck me as what the French call voulu – willed, trumped up, meretricious.
Something grabs his arm. He turns. A bird-head,
Bald, lizard-eyed, the size of a football, on two staggering bird-legs
Gapes at him all the seams and pleats of its throat,
Clutching at the carpet with horny feet,
Threatens. He lifts a chair – fear lifts him –
He smashes the egg-shell object to a blood-rag,
A lumping sprawl, he tramples the bubbling mess.
The shark-face is screaming in the doorway
Opening its fangs.
Who was he trying to frighten? Himself perhaps. Now here are some lines by Larkin written around the same time. The poem begins typically, ‘Groping back to bed after a piss’, and has the poet parting the curtains to look up into the interchanging moon-and-clouds of the night sky. It ends
One shivers slightly looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
The writing is not perfect – the movement of the lines, especially the last, is slightly awkward. But in their tentativeness they seem truthful and don’t aspire beyond the level of the human and fallible. Craig Raine writes that ‘Ted had more charisma than anyone I’ve ever met’, and that he was ‘a spell-binding talker’. I never met him, nor Larkin either, so didn’t experience the ‘charisma’ of the one nor the reputed stammering insufficiency of the other. In the end, as always, it’s the poems on the page that matter – in Hughes’s case so many, and in Larkin’s so (relatively) few.
|Two books; 'The Hawk In The Rain - poems by Ted Hughes' and 'ARIEL - Poems by Sylvia Plath'.|
Meanwhile the Plath dispute raged on, clouding the critical climate. Nothing said about Hughes as poet could seem to stand entirely separate from Plath; and Plath the poet was difficult to separate from Plath the ‘victim’ of Hughes. There were those who took Plath’s side, notably the British critic and Hampstead Ponds swimmer Al Alvarez; and those who took Hughes’s – including the American poet Anne Stevenson, despite the fact that she had been at College with Sylvia. And then there was Janet Malcolm who stood brilliantly between, striking a balance in her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I once in the 1980s travelled in a tour bus at an academic conference with Anne Stevenson, who turned out to be deaf in one ear – so on the return journey I positioned myself on her hearing side and we had our previous conversation over again, filling the gaps. When I told this a few years later to Alvarez he said (of course) that Stevenson was deaf on the Plath side.
In 1984 the poet laureate John Betjeman died, and it was assumed the post would go to Larkin. It was offered, but poetry had deserted Larkin in recent years and he declined. It was then offered to Hughes who accepted – embraced it with an eagerness many found bizarre. The Plath affair had slowly faded from public consciousness, and the poems he now produced as laureate gave new and quite different grounds for anxious attention. As Bate writes, ‘With his belief in the poet as shaman of the tribe and the royal family as embodiment of the land, he took the role more seriously than any of his twentieth century predecessors.’ He was soon the Queen Mother’s favourite fishing companion, and regarded by Prince Charles as a ‘guru’. His 1992 collection of laureate poems, called Rain Charm for the Duchy, had the little rhyming epigraph
A Soul is a wheel.
A nation’s a Soul
With a crown at the hub
To keep it whole.
The title poem of the collection had the sub-title ‘A Blessed, Devout Drench for the Christening of His Royal Highness Prince Harry.’ There was no irony here – this was serious right royal, loyal British stuff.
But while the critics gasped, the wider public embraced him. If he was good enough for the Royals he was good enough for Britain. So now with confidence that many – probably the majority – were on side with him, he began to feel he could return to the subject of that first marriage and Sylvia Plath’s suicide. The result was the 1998 collection Birthday Letters in which he goes over that painful ground in memory. My feeling when I reviewed the collection in the New Zealand Listener was that it was as if we had all been hearing about, and even perhaps attending seminars on, the Hughes/Plath story for two or three decades, and that Hughes had been attending them too – but with the advantage that he had access to the diaries, his and hers, that had kept the record. The poems didn’t strike me as sharp new insights, but as pieces written by someone who knew what we all knew, but knew it better, and was versifying. I also had the memory of Verlaine having said, on reading Tennyson’s In Memoriam, written to commemorate the death of his friend Hallam, ‘When he should have been heartbroken he had many reminiscences’. There was good writing, it was accessible, human, sometimes touching, but lacking economy and the intensity economy brings; or perhaps that should be reversed – lacking the intensity that enforces economy. It was autobiography in verse, on a par with something like Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal of 1939, but without the historical interest.
But the success of Birthday Letters with the buying public was extraordinary. It was said a book of poems had never sold in such numbers since the days of Byron’s fame. What can match celebrity gossip for attracting public attention? The Times greeted it as
The Greatest Book by our Greatest Living Writerand reported that ‘Hughes gives his account of one of the century’s most celebrated and tragic love stories.’ All around the Anglophone world the news was that a great poet had ‘broken his silence’. Almost overnight the devil Hughes became Saint Ted, royal favourite and sad rememberer. The British poet Anthony Thwaite, who had just published his Selected Poems, complained that it received no public attention at all: ‘Taddeo Grande [Great Ted] has swept the board.’ Once again, and more dramatically even than usual, the ‘Faber poet’ sucked all the oxygen from the poetry scene and left it otherwise depleted.
Bate acknowledges that critical (as distinct from journalistic) responses were mixed; but his own tone is reverent. He rates Hughes high among the English poets, alongside Wordsworth, sometimes with Shakespeare. One has to take this opinion seriously; but it seems to me there is little or nothing critical, analytical, detailed, to support it. He appears on the whole to be in the grip of a very English kind of nationalistic awe.
Birthday Letters is the collection that gives this biography its shape. Bate takes a line here from Hughes himself – that the whole Plath debacle had deflected him for many years from ‘the true voice of feeling’. ‘Everything I have written since the early 1960s’ Hughes wrote in a letter, ‘has been evading. It was a kind of desperation that I finally did publish them. […] If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago I might have had a more fruitful career.’
So Sylvia figures in the end as both the cause of a major interruption to the career of a great poet; and yet at the same time, as the subject of his major work. Perhaps there is not a contradiction buried somewhere in this, but to me it feels as if there must be. And when Bate, seeming to follow hints from Hughes, suggests ‘his infidelity to others was a form of fidelity to [Plath]’, I felt there was something shabby either about the poet, or his biographer, or perhaps both. Not that sexual fidelity is a necessary moral principle; but to make it a principle observed by non observance seems devious in the extreme.
When Hughes died in October 1998 there was a funeral service at which Seamus Heaney, Irish Nobel Laureate for literature and professional/international charmer, spoke of ‘a rent in the veil of poetry’. Hughes was cremated and his ashes scattered in a spot he’d chosen on the Duchy of Cornwall, equidistant between three fishing rivers, where his name and dates were chiselled on a slab of granite. The following May, Bate reports, ‘the great and the good of the nation’, including Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Prince Charles, gathered in Westminster Abbey where Hughes was to be remembered in Poet’s corner. Heaney delivered ‘another silken eulogy, comparing Hughes to Caedmon, father of English poetry, and to Wilfred Owen, to Gerard Manley Hopkins and to Shakespeare. The Prince of Wales described his poet as the incarnation of England.’
I suppose Queen Victoria might have referred to Tennyson as ‘her poet and the incarnation of England’, but I doubt there is another precedent.
- C.K Stead
- C.K Stead