“What is not in question is that Birthday Letters is the artistic flowering of more than thirty years of pent-up emotion: this is the tidal force that gives the poems their power.”
When Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters was published in 1998, it was greeted with astonishment and acclaim, and immediately landed on the bestseller list. Few suspected that Ted Hughes had been at work for a quarter of a century on a cycle of poems addressed almost entirely to his first wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath.
In Ariel’s Gift, Erica Wagner explores the powerful and destructive relationship between these two poets through their lives and their writings. She provides a commentary to the poems in Birthday Letters, pointing the reader toward the events that shaped them, and, crucially, showing how they draw upon Sylvia Plath’s own work.
This is a comprehensive guide and literary companion to the poems that constitute one of the most powerful volumes published in the 20th century, and a tribute to the poetic genius of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Elaine Feinstein, The Times Literary Supplement, Friday March 31, 2000
Erica Wagner has set the poems of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters in the context of his marriage to Sylvia Plath with great delicacy, and, for all the restraint in her use of biographical material, her book is informed not only by Plath’s journals and letters, but, more significantly, moonlit throughout by Plath’s poetry. Ariel’s Gift is as elegant a piece of work as Janet Malcolm’s Silent Woman (1994). Yet Wagner’s cool approach does not reduce the urgency of Hughes’s own voice.
Wagner gives a succinct, uncontentious account of the history of Plath publication, Hughes’s reasons for changing the order and content of Ariel, and the ironies of US copyright law that drew The Bell Jar, Letters Home and the edited version of The Journals into the public domain. Though she can only guess when individual poems of Birthday Letters were written, Wagner knows, as Literary Editor of The Times, which of them Hughes would not allow to be used outside the context of his book as a whole. Some of these, even in the sequence as finally published, were indeed picked on by hostile reviewers as evidence of his need for self-justification, and it is salutary to be reminded of the risk Hughes must have felt he was taking.
Wagner has made a point of not going back to those friends who knew Plath and Hughes at the time of their marriage, but she is particularly good at unpacking the poems where Hughes’s awareness of Plath’s inner world — gained often through a posthumous reading of her journals or her poems — plays back into his memory of events: “Now I see, I saw, sitting the lonely girl who was going to die.”
It is perhaps surprising that Plath emerges from Birthday Letters for Wagner as a more vivid figure than any she finds of Hughes. Sylvia’s eyes dazzle like “a crush of diamonds”, her animation astonishes. In contrast, Wagner sees Hughes as helpless, puzzled and essentially passive, from the first dramatic meeting with Sylvia on the night of the famous St Botolph’s party: “That day the solar system married us whether we knew it or not.” Hughes’s convinced fatalism reinforces Wagner’s reading of his character quite as much as the poems which insist that Plath’s suicide in the snows of 1963 was an inexorable outcome of her long fascination with death. Hughes confesses to his own ignorance, at first, of the desperate terrors that lay beneath his wife’s American glow of health, though Wagner quotes a letter to his sister Olwyn in which Hughes explains Sylvia’s overly open expression as “the American stereotype she clutches at when she is in fact panic-stricken”. Her rage and her sulky “steel helmet” frown remained incomprehensible to him for rather longer, since she concealed her blackest insecurities from him, while confiding them to her diary. Even so, quite early in the marriage he understood that “each of us was the stake impaling the other”.
Hughes attributes Plath’s obsession with suicide most frequently to her Oedipal fixation on her father. Sometimes, he blames himself for isolating her by moving to Devon. Sometimes he wonders if a stronger magician could have saved her. The inconsistencies in Hughes’s poems are honest, the troubled thoughts of a man who does not have all the answers. Wagner points up Hughes’s bitterness in ‘The 59th Bear’ at the hurtful use Plath made of their travels across America . But his bewilderment at her choice of material goes deeper.
Hughes had spent years at Plath’s side teaching her to bypass her own self-censorship. His readiness to coax monsters from Plath’s memory, in the name of poetry, sprang in part from a belief that writing of poetry was part of a psychic healing process. Birthday Letters themselves testify to the release he found in speaking aloud of his own grief after so many years of silence. Yet the most poignant possibility he voices in Birthday Letters is that Plath’s own pen ought to take the blame for the loss of her husband and her life. The poetry in Ariel may have been exactly the creature he had been trying to free and launch, “But it dawned on me only in the last months which way it wanted to fly”. All through their life together, what Plath appeared to fear most were the rivals for Ted’s affections whom she saw everywhere, recognizing the most dangerous of them at once in Assia Wevill’s huge, beautiful eyes. Yet it is in ‘Epiphany’ that Hughes writes of his own realization of the failure of his marriage. The poem refers back to a time long before Assia Wevill’s sexual temptation. For all Plath’s hysteria and sulks, he was still so closely linked to her then in every aspiration and thought that he would later speak of the two of them working side by side almost like a single mind. Yet something in himself, some wildness embodied in a fox cub nearly bought on the bridge of Camden Road in the spring of 1960, could not be accommodated in the constraints of Plath’s domestic world.
For a biographer, there is much to ponder in that single poem. Hughes writes openly of falling in love with Assia Wevill, yet he also writes of his parting with Sylvia as a cosmic disaster. Again and again, he comes up to a threshold or looks behind a door and there she lies, dead, irrevocably. In Euripides’ Alcestis, a play Hughes worked on brilliantly — and very freely — in the months before his own death, a dead wife is sweetly restored to her husband by Hercules. In contrast, Hughes had been accompanied for most of his days by the risen ‘Lady Lazarus’. The “gift” of Erica Wagner’s title suggests both Plath’s genius and the torment of living alongside so powerful a ghost.
Lisa Allardice, 17 April 2000, New Statesman
In the last year of his life, Ted Hughes broke his more than 30 years of silence on the subject of his first wife with the publication of Birthday Letters on 29 January 1998. Hughes chose this date as astrologically auspicious for poetry. The collection has since received several awards and was an instant bestseller. Perhaps there is something in the stars, after all.
In her engaging companion, Ariel’s Gift, Erica Wagner, the literary editor of The Times, argues against reading the poems as Hughes’s final word, or as his answer to the accusations that have raged against him since Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963. For Wagner, Birthday Letters is first and foremost a work of art, rather than a biography or memoir, and should not be judged simplistically “as a kind of headstone over Hughes’s long career”.
The media interest surrounding the first publication in England of Plath’s complete journals, edited by Karen V. Kukil, is testament to her enduring fascination. With the poems as her framework and her constant point of reference, Wagner tells the story of the 20th century’s “best-known and best-loved poets” as she feels Hughes wanted us to hear it, guiding us towards his feelings of tenderness and incomprehension.
Wagner’s cross-referencing reveals how Hughes sometimes reinvents past details to add meanings. In his re-creation of his first passionate meeting with Plath in ‘St Botolph’s’, he steals her “blue” headscarf, although he cannot have been unaware of the “lovely red hairband” she describes in her journal. As in the work’s first, questioning line – “Where was it, in the Strand?” — Hughes is reminding us of the fallibility of memory.
‘Child’s Park’ relates, as Wagner has it, an incident when the couple saw young girls heedlessly picking rhododendrons, which provoked Plath to write a furious diary entry and her ‘Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers’. Hughes asks: “What did they mean to you, the azalea flowers?” By choosing azaleas, he recalls Plath’s ‘Electra on the Azalea Path’ and the ghost of her dead father. Wagner places the poems – especially ‘The Shot’, ‘The Table’ and those that echo Plath’s — in the context of Hughes’s belief that all Plath’s work stemmed from her Oedipal love for her father, who died when she was eight.
Wagner is especially sensitive to the movement and shape of the collection as a whole. She leads us chronologically through the poems and their changes in tone: those of the couple’s hopeful, early years; the turning point halfway through, when the balance of life and death in ‘Remission’ tips over in the dark ‘Isis’; and the more abstract final poems after their separation.
The portrait that emerges of Plath is the familiar one of a woman divided between the optimistic girl of 1950s America as revealed in Letters Home, and the darker, self-doubting personality of the journals. Wagner does not disguise what Janet Malcolm, in her excellent polemic The Silent Woman, calls Plath’s “not-niceness” — which is the overriding characteristic of the Ariel poems. But unlike almost all Plath’s previous biographers and documenters, Wagner maintains a cool detachment (despite the similarities between her own situation as an American writer living in England and that of her subject). This is a generous, respectful study, which, like its design, elegantly complements Hughes’s Birthday Letters.
Hugo Williams, The Daily Telegraph, Saturday April 1, 2000
For 34 years, Ted Hughes kept silent about his seven-year marriage to Sylvia Plath, which ended in the American poet’s suicide. Then, in 1998, he published Birthday Letters out of the blue — 88 longish poems telling of an enduring one-way conversation with his dead wife. In Ariel’s Gift, Erica Wagner performs the useful task of relating the imagery of the poems to the details of the lives.
In the first poem, for instance, Hughes remembers seeing in a newspaper display in the Strand a photograph of the 1955 Fulbright intake, one of whom may have been Sylvia Plath, and recalls eating his first peach on the same day – “I could hardly believe how delicious./At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh/ By my ignorance of the simplest things.” This sets up one of the book’s themes, the protestation of innocence through naivety. Wagner savvily notes that “in his ‘ignorance’ he is taking up the challenge of the poetic endeavour: his eating of the peach can be set against the nervous caution voiced by T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who hesitates at this sensual commitment”.
Hughes’s father was a carpenter, one of only 17 men of his regiment to return from Gallipoli, a diary in his breast pocket having stopped a bullet. Wagner shows how the memory of war will condition Hughes’s life and work. On honeymoon in Paris, while Plath is mooning after literary ghosts, Hughes sees only “café chairs where the SS mannequins/Had performed their tableaux vivants” and the waiters’ eyes “Clogged with dregs of betrayal, reprisal, hatred”. Wagner points out that Plath would later appropriate Nazi imagery to shocking effect in ‘Daddy’. But if Plath seemed to treat the traces of mass death as “an anecdotal aesthetic touch” and her “lingo” was “a thesaurus of cries”, Hughes’s poem goes on to admit that this shallowness is a mechanism of protection: for Plath, Paris is the memory of fruitlessly hunting for her former lover, Richard Sassoon, who gave her the slip there a few years earlier: “Your Paris/Was a desk in a pension/Where your letters/Waited for him unopened.”
After two weeks there, they leave for Spain, where the chaos of their feelings starts to find metaphors in that country’s dark imagery. To counterpoint Hughes’s response, Wagner offers Plath’s record, in jolly letters home and bleaker journal entries. Plath tried to make Spain bright and breezy in her bad poem ‘Fiesta Melons’. But in ‘You Hated Spain’ Hughes sensed her fear, her anger and a kind of terrible recognition: “Spain/ Was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver/You dared not wake with, the puckering amputations/No literature course had glamorized.” Reading about this doomed couple, you cannot help thinking of the stone-paper- scissors game — not happily wrapped in one another on honeymoon, but blunted, blinded and cut. The hypochondriac Plath gets sick and panics for the medicine cupboard of America. Hughes is sceptical of her fuss. “The stone man made soup,” he wrote in ‘Fever’; “The burning woman drank it.” Ted looked strong and wrote strong but, as Wagner makes us ask, supposing he was not an iron man after all, but made of flesh and blood like the rest of us? Given the horrific facts of his life, could there be any peace for him outside poetry?
The final sequence of poems becomes increasingly desperate as they seek absolution from memory. For Hughes, her suicide, her poems, her “last stand” letters decrying his behaviour to friends, “all those words you struck me with” would be easier to bear if he believed she was moved by some force outside herself. And so there are poems such as ‘The Hands’: “Sometimes I think/Finally you yourself were two gloves/Worn by those two hands” — simultaneously comical and untrue. Hands, like mirrors, are dodgy territory for poetry, but Hughes doesn’t hesitate; he needs them to forgive him too much to worry about literary taste. Andrew Motion has said that this final sequence will be seen as the great achievement, but even with Wagner’s sympathetic coaching I draw back when the language enters the unbreathable air of psychological speculation.
Ted Hughes is the patron saint of creative writing. He pushed his own talent no less than that of would-be writers at the Arvon Foundation and conventional wisdom has it that he pushed the talent of Sylvia Plath over the ‘Edge’. She wrote: “The woman is perfected./Her dead/Body wears the smile of accomplishment.” Wagner does not apportion blame, but draws out Hughes’s confusion, professed and otherwise, of the depths they were skating over: “I could no more join you/Than on the sacrificial slab/That you were looking for.” Blame, if any, is laid at the door of ignorance and incomprehension. “But how could he understand it,” Wagner reasonably asks, “if she did not either?”
The fascination of the book is in the way it demonstrates the two poets’ influence on each other, “the ecstasy of influence” as she calls it, illustrating, in minute detail, what Hughes always claimed were “two parts of one operation”. If, as Hughes insisted, Birthday Letters is a kind of dialogue with Sylvia Plath – “a direct, private, inner contact with my first wife” — then this work is a dialogue with Birthday Letters and with Ariel itself.
The book makes for slow reading; no sooner have you opened it than you are back to the poems, going “aha” rather foolishly, which in turn entails dreaming. It seems unlikely that much of Birthday Letters has escaped the scouring New York energy of Ariel’s Gift, and I should think their complementary colours and jacket design will cleave together on many people’s shelves.