After all the books I have been reading on Plath, I have at last found the one that is worthwhile. All of this reading was for my project called “The Plath-Hughes Project” which is part of my Web site. I’ve been seeking that thing that has made Sylvia Plath and her late husband as well, Ted Hughes, the mythical persons that they became, especially Sylvia, in death.
It’s hard to pinpoint why they, especially she, became so mythical, and I’ve learned that a great deal of it had to do not with Sylvia’s dramatic death by suicide (she gassed herself, as we know), but more with the way she lived. Sylvia was a great self-mythologizer, which meant that she was probably both great and awful company, depending on the moment. She had a way of dramatizing her life so that events took on proportions far beyond what would be considered ordinary by anyone else’s standards. What’s more, Sylvia, like her husband Ted, was when she wanted to be, a phenomenal and cool poet, and I say cool as in “icy” in her later work especially, in Ariel, published post-humously.
Still all these books I read about her none have gotten to the nitty-gritty as much as Ariel’s Gift, written by Erica Wagner. It is, as she calls it, the “Story of Birthday Letters” which is the name of Ted Hughes book in which he finally broke the silence about his much maligned marriage with Plath.
Long the target of extreme feminist groups, who were, no doubt, in some ways well-meaning toward Sylvia at least, Hughes had kept silent on the matter, allowing his voice to be heard through the works of the Plath estate that he allowed to be published – or didn’t allow as the case may be, and turning the estate over to his sister Olwyn Hughes, who ran the estate with an iron fist in a velvet glove, carefully doling out pieces of information that left the reader and the authors always panting after more.
What Wagner does here is smart. She takes Birthday Letters – the Hughes Poems – and places them alongside Plath’s last work, Ariel. Read them side by side and they sound like both sides of a conversation at last. Finally, Hughes has answered all of he questions and accusations that were so damning in Ariel.
For context, one must remember that most of the Ariel poems were written in the last months of Plath’s life and these were not happy months or months during which she felt particularly loving to a husband who had been unfaithful with the infamous Assia Weevil. Sylvia was betrayed, furious, hurt, and desperate and made no secret of it with her friends and with Ted’s friends or anyone who would listen. But the real voice came from the Ariel poems and to his credit, Ted saw to it that after Sylvia had died, the poems would be published, whether they damned him or not, they were the best work she had ever written. His publication of them is in many ways selfless, for he does not come off in them as a loving or kind husband or person. In fact, based on the Ariel poems alone, it is almost understandable why so many people and groups of young girls in particular would see to it that Ted Hughes would stay forever maligned.