The Ted offensive

This review of an upcoming collection of letters by the great poet Ted Hughes confirms something for me: that his unyielding silence about the suicide of Sylvia Plath, broken only by the publication of Birthday Letters just before his death, and his combative stance against ax-grinding scholars eager to go trolling through her journals for evidence of martyrdom, were acts of heroism that should weigh heavily in Hughes’s favor in any accounting of his personal life.

I don’t dismiss feminist scholars, but I’m not the only one who found something rather creepy in the victimization fantasy that swirled around Plath during the 1970s and 1980s, and the way it inflated Plath’s reputation to a degree that her own work did not support. Ariel remains a powerful collection of poems, but The Bell Jar is all but unreadable. Plath was certainly an artist with the potential for greatness, but that potential was cut short by her own hand as she succumbed to her personal demons. Hughes knew that whatever role he played or failed to play in that struggle would be analyzed in great detail after his death; his first and last concern was that his children, already wounded by a horrible loss, would not be further damaged by the literary equivalent of the Kennedy assassination-theory cult:

For Hughes, poetry was a matter of archetypes and of dreams transcribed — the account here, years later, of the dream which inspired ‘The Thought-Fox’ is mesmerising. A powerful spirit, he confidently engaged with the ouija-board which has destroyed less committed minds, and took professional advice from his spirit guide, called Pan. (Apparently, Pan gave him the numbers for the pools draw, one number out from top to bottom). He thought, as these letters and Birthday Letters clearly imply, that poetry, once written, creates as much as inspires a situation, and he may have been right. Crow, that terrifying statement of nihilistic madness, was not, as we all thought, driven by the terrible suicide of his lover Assia Wevill and her murder of their daughter, Shura; it was finished on the day before Assia’s final act.

That belief in immutable dark forces which weren’t, especially, worth trying to understand, just to accept, had good and bad effects on Hughes as a person. At his worst, and silliest, he wrote a long letter to Philip Larkin, a month or two before his death from cancer, telling him all about an Okehampton faith-healer who could cure him: ‘It isn’t absolutely necessary to meet him. All he seems to need is name, details of place — but best of all contact over the phone.’ It is all too easy to imagine what Larkin thought of this suggestion.

But he is seen at his best and most instinctive when dealing with the fall-out from Plath’s suicide. If, in retrospect, the letters written to friends immediately before her suicide seem self-deluding — ‘Sylvia and I are great friends’ — the letters subsequently are utterly clear-sighted. He takes on, even writing to Plath’s mother, what blame is due to him. What concerns him above everything else, especially as the Plath industry over the years takes on a sort of madness, is not that he should not be blamed, but that their children should not be affected. Every literary biographer ought to be required to read his excoriating letter to A. L. Alvarez on the publication of his suicide-enchanted study The Savage God, making Alvarez understand for what petty reasons he was dabbling in the stuff of other people’s souls.

I want to read more about that dream, since “The Thought-Fox” is one of my all-time favorite poems, but I’m not all that sure I want to know more about Hughes’s passion for the ouija board. I think the best time to start poking into information about a writer’s life is after his art stops speaking to you, and The Hawk in the Rain and the black rainbow of Crow still have plenty to say whenever I open them.

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