The Slate Gist

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

In 1963, the 30-year-old poet Sylvia Plath killed herself, placing her head on a folded cloth inside an oven and turning on the gas. Posthumously, Plath became a feminist icon. A slew of memoirs and biographies argued that the arrogance of her macho husband Ted Hughes, Britain’s current poet laureate, precipitated her suicide. For 35 years, Hughes maintained a calculated silence about Plath’s death. Last month, he finally published his side of their story in Birthday Letters–an autobiographical collection of 88 poems, written over 25 years. Hughes’ friends predicted the book would exculpate him and silence his critics. But the debate remains as shrill as ever. What is the case against Hughes? How have Hughes’ opponents and proponents exploited Birthday Letters?

First, the background: After an acclaimed start as a poet and while an undergraduate at Smith College, Plath attempted suicide. At age 20, she took 48 sleeping pills during a stint guest-editing Mademoiselle. She was hospitalized, recovered, and went on a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge. There, in 1956, she met Ted Hughes, also a “promising” poet. Four months after their first encounter, in which Plath bit a chunk out of Hughes’ cheek, they married. Each pursued careers as poets, and she bore two children. In October 1962, Hughes moved out of their house to pursue an affair with Assia Gutmann Wevill, a family friend. Four months later, Plath killed herself.

Here are the major points of contention:

1 Did he kill her? Only college students and the most radical of feminists explicitly accuse Hughes of murder. But a set of memoirs by Plath’s friends appeared in the early ‘70s arguing that Hughes’ infidelity and cruelty drove Plath to suicide. This has become the standard. From the start of their marriage, Hughes mistreated her. He left her at home to care for the children and type his work while he schmoozed at London literary parties. Because Plath was especially sensitive–the quality they say made her poetry great–Hughes’ gallivanting belittled and destroyed her. Another version of this argument accuses him of a crime of omission: While Plath suffered from mental sickness and cried out for help, Hughes cruelly left her to fend for herself.

Aside from anecdotal accounts of abuse, these arguments rely on testimony from Plath herself–in her journals and poems. She calls Hughes her “jailer” and compares him to a Nazi: “Man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw.” Hughes also has a bad track record: In 1969 Wevill killed herself and her 2-year-old daughter, by sticking their heads in a gas oven.

Despite Birthday Letters’ seeming tenderness toward Plath, feminists argue that the poems unwittingly show Hughes’ true stripes. Some, such as Princeton Professor Elaine Showalter, say that Hughes tries to exonerate himself by arguing that Plath was fated to kill herself. And he denies his power to save her: “I was a fly outside on the window pane/ Of my own domestic drama.” Others, such as Plath’s psychoanalytic biographer Jacqueline Rose, argue that Hughes continues to write condescendingly about Plath by figuring himself her “nurse and protector.” Hughes, they say, doesn’t understand his wife’s resentments.

2 Was she nuts? Hughes’ defenders, especially his fellow British poets and friends, such as James Fenton and Blake Morrison, contend that Plath’s craziness caused her death. They cite her unsuccessful suicide attempt and chalk her problems up to obsession with her dead father–this is also Birthday Letters’ position. “Though your father/ Was your God and there was no other …” (The day her father died, Plath made her mother sign a contract vowing never to remarry.) Hughes, the argument goes, deserves credit for sticking with Plath for as long as he did. And Birthday Letters, they argue, once and for all proves “beyond all doubt that he loved Plath with all his heart” (Stephen Glover, the London Daily Telegraph).

3 Did he cover up? Feminists say Hughes’ tormenting of Plath continued after her death. They accuse Hughes of abusing his authority as Plath’s literary executor to obfuscate his misdeeds. Hughes admits to destroying the journals Plath wrote during the last, most tumultuous year of their marriage and “misplacing” other journals. He also edited her poetry to exclude sections that supposedly document his abuse. Meanwhile, Hughes’ sister Olwyn, the literary agent for Plath’s estate, refused to cooperate with biographers critical of her brother–that means all biographers except one, Anne Stevenson (Bitter Fame)–forbidding them to quote at length from Plath’s works. (Damning story: Hughes only authorized the publication of TheBell Jar in 1971–it had been published pseudonymously before–to fund his purchase of a country home.) Hughes responds that he didn’t want the publication of materials that would prejudice his children’s impression of their mother.

4 Were they both to blame? Birthday Letters has produced a revisionist school of Hughes defenders–ex-Plath hagiographers who now feel they were too hard on Hughes. On the New York Times op-ed page, Diane Wood Middlebrook, biographer of Plath’s friend Anne Sexton, applauds Hughes for accepting at least partial responsibility for Plath’s death–“the role of Fatal Husband.” In The New Yorker, A. Alvarez, the British poet whose 1972 memoir, The Savage God, provides the basis for most of the anti-Hughes attacks, praises Hughes’ honesty. The revisionist line comes in two parts: 1) As in most bad marriages, both parties were at fault. 2) It was Plath’s demons–her illness and irrational anger–that made her poems powerful.

5 Who is the better poet? Because several poems in Birthday Letters are explicit rewrites of Plath’s poems, critics have decided to take up this question. Some of Plath’s feminist defenders say Hughes’ “lax and digressive” verses “serve mostly to remind us of what a great poet she was” (Katha Pollitt, the New York Times Book Review). Hughes’ defenders use the occasion to restate their case against Plath’s greatness: Her poetry was humorless and hyperbolic and would not be remembered had she not committed suicide. Any good poems she did write were derivative of Hughes’ style.

Critics also divide along national lines. American critics, with such exceptions as Slate’s Christopher Benfey, say that Hughes’ poems are not very perceptive and not at all introspective. They especially take him to task for blaming Plath’s suicide on fate and astrology. Britons, however, trumpet their poet laureate as worthy of the ranks of “Blake, Keats, Hardy and Auden” (the Times of London). They like that Birthday Letters combines Hughes’ trademark violence–dying animals, stormy moors–with his compassion for Plath and introspection. Others take more pot shots at Plath defenders. James Fenton in the New York Review of Books says, ” ‘Plath lovers’ will never forgive Hughes for having been Plath’s lover–a role which in their fantasies they would much better fill.”