Getting Out of the Flames

Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2008, 758 pp., $45. Published originally, Faber & Faber, UK, 2007, £30.

Original, generous, intimate, witty, brilliant, and occasionally batty, the Letters of Ted Hughes may be one of the most extraordinary collections of letters to be published in many years. At over 700 pages, this represents only a portion of Hughes’s letters, yet more than enough to provide substantial insight into Hughes the man, the poet, the sources of his art, and his enduring role as the husband of Sylvia Plath in a mythologized, endlessly debated marriage. There’s generally a bit of performance art in letter-writing, and there’s probably some in Hughes’s letters, but what is consistently apparent is the immediacy or “nowness” of the letters, the sureness of Hughes’s voice, his sheer energy, and imaginative approach to discussions of poetry, nature, mythology, and his lifelong obsession with fishing. What is also clear is Hughes’s substantial capacity for friendship and the individual consideration given to the recipients of his letters—whether relatives, editors, writers, friends, theater directors, or students looking for guidance. Critics may question the esoteric nature of some of Hughes’s poetry, his relatively complex interpretation of Shakespeare’s mythos, or his interest in the occult—and there is even a horoscope here for Philip Larkin, who probably took a dim view of the enterprise–but Hughes’s views are thoughtful, often provocative, and he is never dull.

“I’ve discovered one thing—and that is the only sort of life I can lead is to do exactly what I want, which means to write,” Ted Hughes writes to his parents in early 1956. Later that year, recently married to Sylvia Plath—although living apart while she continued her studies at Cambridge—Hughes writes: “All the good ones [writers] have invented their own manner in their own private rooms. If you write whatever attracts you, and you write it as hard as you can, and as rich, then you can’t miss.” Simple enough comments of a young man, perhaps even somewhat naive, but they also reveal quite a bit about Hughes. He never second-guessed his early decision to become a writer, never lost his determination to write in his own way. Where or how Hughes developed his innate self-confidence is something of a mystery, but from the beginning he established his own path, both in his reading and his writing. He devoured the works of his chosen pantheon, headed by Shakespeare, Yeats—particularly the Yeats of Irish folklore and myth—Robert Grave’s The White Goddess, Jung, Blake, D.H. Lawrence, myth, shamanism, and the occult. And Hughes’s poetry was written on his own terms, from the early celebrations of the individuality of animals in The Hawk in the Rain, the “global” enterprise that became Crow, to the more meditative lyrics of Remains of Elmet, about his native West Yorkshire, and River, perhaps his most fully realized sequence of nature poems. Hughes was ultimately awarded all the big prizes and honors, including Poet Laureate of England (a position that he seemed to enjoy more than the current laureate, Andrew Motion), but throughout his career, critical assessment of his work was often divided, and praise for his work in general was often undercut by criticism of some of his more ambitious, esoteric projects. The well-reported events of his personal life (the deaths of Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath) certainly short-circuited his approach to his poetry for a time, and influenced critical reception of his work further, to the point where Christopher Reid, editor of the Letters, describes Hughes as “the most crudely vilified of writers.” Yet throughout his life, Hughes kept going, continued to write poetry, plays, children’s literature, translations, criticism, and, fortunately now for readers, letters and more letters.

Here, Hughes the student writes of his initial impressions of Cambridge: “Sometimes I think Cambridge wonderful, at others a ditch full of clear water where all the frogs have died.” Then there is the ever resourceful young Hughes devising a variety of outlandish schemes for making money including a mink farm—yes, a mink farm business proposed to his brother in l954 as a potential family enterprise; or the young lover writing to Sylvia Plath after she first visited him in London in March 1956: “That night was nothing but getting to know how smooth your body is. The memory of it goes through me like brandy.” Particularly interesting are Hughes’s letters to Plath, which reveal the young couple in the early stages of their careers: encouraging each other, offering suggestions, endless plots for stories, analyzing each other’s poems, here, Plath’s “Spinster.” Hughes questions a word choice (later revised by Plath), and comments, “It’s about the most accomplished poem you’ve ever written . . . . I bet you get it published first try. Your verse never goes ‘soft’ like other women’s.” Hughes’s letters often appear spontaneous, tossed-off, with no suggestion of arrogance, but certainly with opinions. In one letter, he instructs Plath on the best way to get her degree at Cambridge:

Bill with these antiquities, and coo over them, if only to deceive a degree . . . . The minor Elizabethans are interesting and all alike . . . . Note the artificial complexity of Donne’s followers . . . . You will never understand a poet unless can imagine the exact cast of popular temperament. And you only pick this up by nibbling in all kinds of seemingly useless places.

Or after seeing Harold Pinter’s early play, “The Caretaker,” in l960, Hughes, the self-appointed drama critic, dismisses the future Nobel Prize winner in a letter to W.S. Merwin: “The failure of Pinter’s plays . . . lies in his utter lack of any imaginative dimension, the obviousness of his Jungian ego-id formula, the triteness of his language, or rather the triteness of the experience of his characters.”

The young Hughes is also rather cavalier in his observations of established writers: “Hart Crane is a frayed over-strained single string no longer able to give out a sound.” Eliot is “whimsical and pleasant . . . at the same time very remote . . . . His smile is that of a person recovering from some serious operation.” Auden “has a strangely wrinkled face, like a Viking seaman . . . . Lively brown eyes. The impression was pleasant.” But all is not negative criticism. Hughes considers Lowell “as easily the best of all the Americans [poets] under fifty,” and he is completely taken by his rediscovery of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, “the most unself-conscious poetry ever, the most intensely occupied with her thought—Shakespearean language and genuine.”

These are just some early samples, but as Reid rightly suggests, one of the pleasures of the letters in general can be found in Hughes treatment of them, “if not as an art form, then as a pretext for the exercise of his artistic instincts.” Subject, mood and tone may vary but Hughes is always fully engaged, for example, in his generous, scrupulously detailed responses to scholars and students; his continued requests to Faber & Faber to publish his next collection on an astrologically favorable day, which were generally ignored; or in his devoted, encouraging letters to his children (which are worth the price of the collection alone); his descriptions of current projects—poems, plays, criticism—and in the moving letters in which he speaks of his relationship with Plath, her poetry, and his need to publish Birthday Letters.

Yet with an enormously prolific letter writer such as Ted Hughes, with an admittedly controversial history, editorial calibration becomes a fine art. Where to place the emphasis, what to omit, and how to develop the desired “portrait of the artist” most effectively become governing issues. Christopher Reid, a poet, and Hughes’s editor at Faber & Faber during the last eight years of his life, cautions that the collection, which is arranged chronologically, is not “a biography in disguise,” but rather the story of Hughes the writer from the early work to the later stages of his career, and “from project to project, from book to book.” One might describe the collection as a type of highly selective biography, which necessarily includes material about Hughes’s relationships with Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill. Restitution of Hughes’s reputation was also one of Reid’s major objectives. The acclaim for Birthday Letters, published some months before Hughes died in l998, may have generated some understanding or at least greater acceptance of Hughes, but Reid felt that the process was still incomplete—hence, the publication of the judiciously edited Letters.

Not all areas of Hughes’s life are covered in the collection. His environmental activism has been probably one of the least reported areas, yet in the l980s, Hughes became deeply involved in campaigns to clean up the polluted rivers of Devon, studying the scientific research, lobbying, answering questions at public inquiries. Reid decided against including some of this material, which he felt was too technical, but there are some hints in the Letters of Hughes’s burgeoning interest in ecology. As early as l958, while in America, he reported being impressed by Rachel Carson’s books, including The Sea Around Us; and, in a letter to Terry Gifford, Hughes scholar (not included here), Hughes credits Carson’s now classic Silent Spring, which he read when first published in l962, for clarifying his thinking, and essentially awakening him to the critical state of the rivers in Devon where he lived. In l979, Hughes praises the Sixties—surprise—for “producing the whole idea of our ecological responsibility . . . maybe the crucial awakening.” But long before ecology became trendy, Hughes published a review in l970 of Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution (collected in Winter Pollen) in which he wrote, “His [Nicholson’s] pages about the interrelationship of Nature to the inmost psychology of man . . . go beyond all sciences, and leave psychology in a vacuum. They display tremendous imaginative grasp of the true life of the earth, the inner spiritual unity of nature.” These are the convictions that underlie Hughes’s poetry, from his early collections to River, with its brief moments or visions of the sacred in all living things, to his writing in general—in other words, Hughes is very much a poet for this time.

Hughes’s massive study, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, also had its origins in a series of letters written in l990 to Donya Feuer, a director at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, who was interested in exploring Hughes’s ideas on the various plays with Swedish actors. Reid includes an early prototype for the later correspondence—here, an analysis of Measure for Measure written in l979—with some interesting commentary by Hughes on the growth of an artist, in retrospect, perhaps even his own: “Measure for Measure is usually put after Hamlet . . . and certain passages of verse (“But man, proud man,” and “Be absolute for death”) seem to be post-Hamlet. The emergence of works of art way out of sequence in the progress of a developing artist’s work is one of the mysteries. Usually, the anomaly is a work far in advance of what the artist is currently producing, a work that anticipates a much later stage of development.” But it is in a letter written to Bishop Ross Hook at Lambeth Palace in l982 that Hughes clearly sets out his views of poetry, the role of the poet, and the relationship between poetry and the body:

Poets would like to feel their talent is some sort of a bonus—like physical strength, or swiftness, or even aptitude for mathematics. I submit that it is very likely something quite different. I think we get a closer description of the way it has always operated if we regard it as nothing more than a facility for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction—whether our own or that of others whose feeling we can share. The inmost spirit of poetry, in other words, is at bottom, in every recorded case, the voice of pain—and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry is the treatment by which the poet attempts to reconcile that pain with the world.

There are only a few letters from Hughes to Plath in the collection, but she is referred to in many other letters. And the letters chosen by Reid from what was no doubt a large selection are compelling as Hughes, the protective father, husband (and critic) attempts to cope with what he referred to as Plath “Fantasia,” publish her work, and although he was incredibly productive, come to grips with the realization that in the l970s and l980s, perhaps even later, his own poetry had been seriously derailed by the Plath phenomenon. The letters trace the trajectory from the early over-the-top passionate letters to Plath to the collapse of everything, including the death of Assia Wevill in early l969, and are particularly affecting. Several letters to relatives and friends reveal Hughes at his lowest, most guilt-ridden. A few lines from the notes for an uncompleted poem, written about May 1969, held in the Hughes archives at Emory University (not included in the collection), give some indication of Hughes’s distress, as he assumes blame for the deaths of “those I have loved best / of those who have loved me best, and who were my life,” and searches for some sort of relief through his poetry: “I am not composing poetry. I am trying to get out of the flames.”

Although the Plath letters can only be touched on briefly here, Hughes’s shifts in gear are particularly impressive. In a blistering classic attack, Hughes rages at friend and critic A. Alvarez for his portrait of Plath’s suicide published in his book, The Savage God, then being serialized in The Observer. Hughes believed (correctly so at the time) that Alvarez had created the established, retailed story of Plath’s death: “For you she is a topic for intellectual discussion, a poetic/existential phenomenon . . . . before your details, it (Plath’s suicide) was vague, it was a mystery. But now you have defined the whole thing, and handed it to the public.” A brief note from Alvarez in the Emory archives (October 10, l977) suggests that Hughes eventually simmered down a bit. Alvarez thanks Hughes for sending him a book, saying that the “dedication is generous and welcome. It’s been a six-year stupidity on both of our parts . . . . if it’s over, I’m very glad.” And after a gap in communication of over twenty-five years, he ruefully assesses his life in a letter to W.S. Merwin in l988:

I’ve had a double sort of existence—one as typecast in the Plath drama, one trying to ghost along somewhere close to the life I might have had. Problem with the Plath drama, it has gradually infiltrated the collegiate generations with its generic bits and pieces, till now everybody under 40 carries all the assumptions of hereditary law . . . . It’s served one purpose—made the literary life, especially the U.S. territories, enemy country. Too bad my own verses have to creep about out there.

Then there are the few compelling letters in which Hughes discusses Birthday Letters, which are a definite bonus of the collection. He had published a couple of the poems that later became part of the sequence as early as l980, and eight poems in New Selected Poems 1957-1994, but with his diagnosis of cancer in April l997 (known to very few when Birthday Letters was published in January l998), Hughes’s need to write more poems and publish the full sequence assumed urgency. There’s also the sense in these letters that Hughes is beyond concern about critical reception of the poems. In July 1997 he told friend and critic Keith Sagar that he was putting together some poems about “SP & me,” and was using the model of a letter. “Poetic effects incidental. Very self-exposing, I suppose, unguarded—my attempt to write about things without aesthetic exploitation or concern for my artistic reputation. I no longer give much thought to that.” And shortly ahead of publication, he wrote to friend and poet, Seamus Heaney, with a slight amplification: “Given the funny old physical corner I’ve got myself into, and the mysterious role in my life that SP’s posthumous life has played—and that our posthumous marriage has played—publication came to seem not altogether a literary matter, more a physical operation that might change the psychic odds crucially for me . . . .” There’s always the question when considering collections such as this whether the letters were written with posterity in mind. Perhaps. Hughes certainly knew the value and possibilities of letters. But with these late letters, Hughes was, to use his phrase, just trying to “set things down.”

When the Letters were published in late 2007 in the UK, critics were quick to make comparisons with Keats’s letters. Perhaps at some point, Hughes’s remarkable Letters will become one of the standards of judgment. In the short-term, the x factor is whether the collection will translate into increased interest in Hughes’s poetry—particularly in the U.S. where his work has generally been considered primarily or only within the context of his relationship with Plath.

About Carol Bere

Carol Bere, a freelance writer, taught English literature and writing at New York University (where she attended graduate school), and at Rutgers University. She was also an officer in a New York investment bank. Her articles and reviews have been published in several venues including the Washington Post Book World, the Boston Review, The Literary Review, Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, Ariel, and in many international finance magazines.
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