– By Sahir Avik D’souza
“Suddenly I read all this –
… It is only a story.
Your story. My story.”
– Ted Hughes, “Visit”.
In 1956, a twenty-three-year-old American poet named Sylvia, studying at Cambridge University on a Fulbright scholarship, met and married a twenty-five-year-old British poet named Ted. The two of them honeymooned in Spain and then spent the next few years teaching in America and England, as well as writing poetry extensively. They would go on to become two of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century. They had two children, Frieda Rebecca in 1960 and Nicholas Farrar in 1962. Later in 1962, Ted had an affair, and he and Sylvia separated in October. She moved into another flat with her children. In the months after she and her husband split up (they were never formally divorced), Sylvia produced a large number of poems. She had always been prolific, but this spurt of creativity was quite unparallelled. In January of 1963, her first novel, The Bell Jar, was published. On February 11th, she killed herself.Embed from Getty Images
In the years after her death, Ted published several compilations of Sylvia’s poetry, such as Ariel and Winter Treesand, in 1981, The Collected Poems. Feminist critics of the 1970s and 1980s began to mine Sylvia’s often very confessional poetry for clues about her marriage with Ted. They became convinced that his affair and their separation were only part of the story of his ill-treatment of her. Some went so far as to blame Sylvia’s suicide on Ted. (Sylvia, however, had suffered bouts of depression for many years: she had even tried to kill herself ten years previously.) While Ted did not ever speak in detail about his wife in public, some of his actions – such as destroying her last journal – seemed suspicious. In 1998, a few months before his own death, Ted published Birthday Letters, a collection of over eighty poems addressed to Sylvia. On October 28th that year, Ted died aged sixty-eight, a day after Sylvia’s sixty-sixth birth anniversary.
This is the story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, poets, lovers, spouses. I look at their attitudes to their relationship through their poetry.
Before I get to the poems Hughes and Plath wrote about their marriage, I would like to begin by talking about a poem each wrote about the other, describing the early stages of their relationship. On 21st April, 1956, two months before they were married, Plath wrote a poem she titled “Ode for Ted”, which describes a walk the two of them took where he awed her with his knowledge of and felicity with their natural surroundings. (Anyone familiar with Hughes’s large number of animal and nature poems will know of this.) Calling herself “this adam’s woman”, Plath writes,
For his least look, scant acres yield:
each finger-furrowed field
heaves forth stalk, leaf, fruit-nubbed emerald;
bright grain sprung so rarely
he hauls to his will early;
at his hand’s staunch hest, birds build.
Plath was obviously very taken with this young British man she’d just met two months previously. She paints him, in this poem, as some sort of nature god, able to bend flora and fauna to his will. Her fascination with him (which we can, in hindsight, interpret as deepening love) is mirrored in Hughes’s poem “Drawing”. In this poem, Hughes addresses Plath and describes to her a scene from their honeymoon in Benidorm, Spain. However, unlike Plath’s poem, it was not written at the time the events in the poem took place, but rather years later; it is one of the poems in Birthday Letters, all of which were written after Plath’s death. Just like “Ode to Ted”, though, this poem captures the narrator’s awe at his beloved’s great skill – this time with drawing:
Everybody crowded to praise your drawing.
You drew doggedly on, arresting details,
Till you had the whole scene imprisoned.
Here it is. You rescued for ever
Our otherwise lost morning. Your patience,
Your lip-gnawing scowl, got the portrait
Of a market-pace that still slept
In the Middle Ages.
Hughes is drawn to Plath’s deep concentration and skill. He draws for us the scene around them, the market-place, the shopkeepers coming over to make sure she drew them well, and his quiet devotion to her. For Plath, in her poem, Hughes brought to her notice his endless fascination with the natural world; the poem’s tone is almost surprised at the variety of nature and Hughes’s easy familiarity with it all. Hughes, in his poem, is not surprised, but moved: the last few lines read,
And the contemplative calm
I drank from your concentrated quiet,
In this contemplative calm
Now I drink from your stillness that neither
Of us can disturb or escape.
The “stillness” refers now, of course, not to Plath’s posture as she drew, but her death. It is an arresting passage: we see the effect Plath had on her future husband. Truly, the two of them appeared to have found soulmates in one another.
This seemingly fairy-tale romance and marriage lasted six years before it began to show signs of strain. In 1962, Hughes had an affair with a German woman named Assia Wevill. She was a guest of his and Plath’s. He describes it in a poem titled “Dreamers”: “… I saw / The dreamer in her / Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it. / That moment the dreamer in me / Fell in love with her, and I knew it.” Hughes’s rapturous description of the inception of the affair was probably true to life, but hindsight no doubt gave him insight, because the poem also contains a line addressed to Plath, “Warily you cultivated her”, suggesting Plath’s mistrust of Assia.
At one point, he refers to Assia as “Lilith”. This is an interesting allusion: in the Jewish faith, Lilith is a demon of the night, who attacks men, harms women as they give birth and kills children. The legend says that after Adam and Eve separated, Adam was borne children by various spirits, including Lilith. If Hughes identifies Assia with Lilith (at least when he writes through Plath’s perspective), then that makes him Adam and Plath becomes Eve – and here we have a brilliant reference to Plath’s self-identification as “this adam’s woman” in “Ode for Ted”. It is unclear whether this was intentional, but given Hughes’s careful study of his wife’s work and that several of the poems in Birthday Letters are direct responses to Plath’s poetry, it is unlikely to have been a coincidence.
In a poem called “For a Fatherless Son”, written on 26th September that year, Plath addresses her infant son Nicholas, no doubt in awareness of her husband’s infidelity. She writes,
You will be aware of an absence, presently,
Growing beside you, like a tree,
A death tree, color gone, an Australian gum tree –
Balding, gelded by lightning – an illusion,
And a sky like a pig’s backside, an utter lack of attention.
It is ironic and deeply tragic that just over four months later, Nicholas would be motherless for good. After Plath and Hughes separated in October that year, she wrote a significant amount of poetry, bringing her total output for 1962 to fifty-seven poems (where she was averaging twenty-five a year before that). I will now look at two poems from this period.
On 11th October, Plath wrote a poem called “The Applicant”. She introduced it for a reading of it on the BBC, writing, “[T]he speaker [in the poem] is … a sort of exacting super-salesman. He wants to be sure the applicant for his marvellous product really needs it and will treat it right.” On reading the poem, we find it is a very sarcastic appraisal of the objectification of a wife as the “marvellous product” and a husband as the “applicant”. Plath writes about the product-wife, “A living doll, everywhere you look. / It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk. // It works, there is nothing wrong with it”. This reduction of a wife to an object, “it”, in a poem written in the thick of a crumbling marriage, tells us of Plath’s disgust at the way she’d been treated. Throughout the poem, the “super-salesman” (god? The father of the product-wife?) anxiously utters the refrain, “Will you marry it?”; that, after all, is the ultimate use of this reliable product.
Five days later, Plath wrote a poem titled “The Jailor”. This poem is also about a husband and a wife, except it is narrated in the first person from the woman’s point of view. In general, this poem is taken to be a hyperbolic view of the trauma she experienced in her marriage; she uses images of torture to describe the relationship. The poem contains some disturbing lines, such as, “I have been drugged and raped. / Seven hours knocked out of my right mind / Into a black sack” and, later, “I die with variety – / Hung, starved, burned, hooked”.
Both “The Jailor” and “The Applicant” paint pictures of troubled, unhappy, regimented marriages. It can, of course, be no coincidence that Plath wrote them – and several others like them, including the well-known “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” – in the wake of a decayed marriage. These post-Ted poems, if I may so label them, were so startling and numerous that after her death, Hughes (who compiled and published all her posthumous collections) felt inclined not to release them all at once. He writes in his introduction to the 1981 Collected Poems, which included all her mature work, “Several advisers had felt that the violent contradictory feelings expressed in those pieces might prove hard for the reading public to take”, so he chose to “[introduce] her late work more cautiously, printing perhaps only twenty poems to begin with”. No doubt this was one of several of his actions that led feminist scholars and Plath-admirers to be suspicious of his intentions after her death, but that is a discussion for another time.
I’d like to finish this essay with a brief look at Hughes’s poem “Fidelity”. This poem is about the period of their lives before he and Plath were married: as he writes, “I was / Just hanging around, courting you”. Hughes goes on to describe how, in his poverty, he shared a mattress with a young woman. He writes, “Naked and easy as lovers, a month of nights, / Yet never once made love”. He claims that this sleeping in close proximity was always chaste, that the woman never tempted him nor tried to go beyond his self-imposed boundaries. “I was like her sister”, he says; however, “I still puzzle over it”. He even says that later when he moved into another lodging, the woman there tried “all she could to get me inside her”, but he claims to have remained faithful to his burgeoning courtship with Plath. He ends the poem with the following lines:
In their early twenties, I laid them
Under the threshold of our unlikely future
As those who wanted protection for a new home
Used to bury, under the new threshold,
A sinless child.
This is a powerful image, but it seemed to me like a slightly guilty man trying to convince his beloved that he’d been faithful to her. It is possible that Hughes never had sex with these women, but then why sleep naked next to them at all? The poem never defines the term “fidelity”, but the poet appears to have a sketchy definition of it.
Was Hughes perhaps a little intimidated by Plath (and the aftermath of her death)? After all, Plath wrote ferociously of herself that fateful October,
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air. (“Lady Lazarus”)
All quotes are taken from the following books:
Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1981.
Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters, Faber and Faber, 1998.
Sahir Avik D’souza is a student and writer based in Mumbai. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter @sahiravik