(This appeared in The Hindu, in 2009. One of the best pieces I think I wrote for the Literary Supplement on two of my favorite poets)
The doomed relationship of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath continues to hold morbid fascination for their admirers across the world. There have always been two distinct camps owing allegiance to each of them. The discord between the fans and admirers of the two has not even spared the grave of the unfortunate Plath. It has been repeatedly desecrated by her grief-crazed fans who did not want Hughes’s name on it along with hers. After she killed herself, Hughes was to bear the cross of being “her husband” for the rest of his life although many critics consider him to be the more superior poet.
Plath’s suicide coincided with the rise of feminism in the west. Because so many of her poems were scathing criticisms of domesticity and motherhood, she became an icon for the movement. This further contributed to the hysteria against Hughes. Germaine Greer was to confess later, “Ted Hughes existed to be punished — we had lost a heroine and we needed to blame someone, and there was Ted.” Plath had a history of depression and attempted suicide numerous times even before Hughes came into her life. In her poem “Lady Lazarus” written a year and a half before her death, she documented her failed trysts:
“I am only thirty./And like the cat I have nine times to die./This is Number Three./What a trash/To annihilate each decade.”
Her unfortunate history did little to dispel the anger against Hughes. What further turned the tide against him was that within a few years of Plath’s death, Assia Wevill, the woman who had caused the breakdown of their marriage, committed suicide after murdering the daughter she had with Hughes. There have been speculations that Hughes’s mother died of shock after learning about the deaths of his mistress and her daughter. Hughes had faced universal condemnation and notoriety after Plath’s suicide. The shock of another two lives being lost over her son was too much for the ailing woman.
Hughes maintained a stoic silence in the face of the recurring allegations that he drove his wife to her death. Barely a year after the tragedy his mistress inflicted on herself and their daughter, he married again, a nurse, who played mother to the two children he had with Plath and put up with his life-long philandering. Much as we love his poetry, it is difficult to condone the inhuman side Hughes seemed to display towards the women in his life.
The ambiguity lies in the literary gems penned by him that owes to her and the luminous poems she wrote that wouldn’t have been possible without his encouragement. In the early part of their marriage, she had long non-productive spells of writing. A kind of literary collaboration made home in their togetherness where she took on the responsibility of typing his works and sending them to publishers while he seemed to have helped her whenever she was stuck. One of her early masterpieces came about because of the intervention from him.
“The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,/White as a knuckle and terribly upset./It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet/With the O-gape of complete despair.” (The Moon and the Yew Tree, Sylvia Plath)
At her best
The separation from Hughes may have done irrevocable damage to Plath’s self-esteem as a woman and a wife; but it went on to enrich her productivity. She was clearly at her best when dogged by misery. In her depression over the betrayal, she was averaging three poems a day. When she sought closure for the two relationships that were to define the course of her life and her poetry, with her father who died when she has only eight and the husband who left her devastated, her rage spilled out in “Daddy,” one of the most potent poems to be ever written.
“There’s a stake in your fat black heart/And the villagers never liked you./They are dancing and stamping on you./They always knew it was you./Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” (Daddy, Sylvia Plath)
Hughes partially redeemed himself by putting his promising career on hold for a number of years after her death, editing and bringing out a volume of her collected poems that introduced a much more mature voice than the world had met in her first and only collection of poems to be published when she was still alive.
There is evidence to suggest he wrote poems dedicated to her every year on her birthday after she died. He brought them out in a collection of 88 poems “Birthday Letters,” shortly before his own death.
“It’s at night/Sometimes I drive through. I just find/Myself driving through, going slow, simply/Roaming in my own darkness, pondering/What you did. Nearly always/I glimpse you — at some crossing,/Staring upwards, lost, sixty year old.” (The City, Ted Hughes)
The personal lives of Hughes and Plath would always be up there for public scrutiny. What matters to lovers of poetry however is that these two creative souls completed each other in their lives and deaths in ways outside the construct of conventional morality. The poems they wrote because they had each other are enduring literary monuments to outlive all the negativity they brought to their personal relatedness.
For those interested in literary trivia, Plath’s birth anniversary and Hughes’ death anniversary fall just a day apart on October 27 and October 28 respectively.