Just before his death in 1998, British author and Poet Laureate Ted Hughes published Birthday Letters, a compendium of autobiographic poetry written, for the most part, to his late wife, American-born author Sylvia Plath. One poem in particular, a dramatic monologue entitled “Fever,” finds a reflective Hughes confessing, in often fraught and forthright detail, his ignorance in not acknowledging the depth of his wife’s depression and his ineptitude at taking effective measures to ameliorate the symptoms that fueled her suicide.
In “Fever,” Ted Hughes tells Plath of his failure to recognize the severity of her mental illness during their marriage over 35 years prior. As I perceive it, he was emotionally unequipped at the time to comprehend his wife’s immense depression, and so, as he reflects in the poem, he had wrongly associated her “ailment” with a common cold (Hughes 46). “I was nursemaid. I fancied myself at that,” Hughes says, recalling the time he had spent at her bedside (Hughes 46). In assimilating Plath’s affliction to something he could understand and rationalize, Hughes writes of how he had attempted to coax her back to health with conventional cold remedies like vegetable soup (Hughes 46). When he recounts each ingredient he put into his homemade soup, it seems like a guilt-ridden Ted Hughes not merely recounting food items, but rather separate, futile efforts on his part to defeat an unconquerable force. Upon this stark realization, he appears to concede that nothing he had done at the time helped his wife combat her depression because he had failed to acknowledge the scope of the problem.
Given that Ted Hughes had not understood or accepted the depth of his wife’s depression, it astounds me just how tormented he seems in the poem that he had not adequately addressed the symptoms that eventually led to her suicide. In fact, as he recalls it, he had grown more irritated by rather than tolerant of Plath’s abnormal behavior. Remembering her desperately crying, “’I’m going to die,’” Hughes recalls his internal response (Hughes 47). “’Stop crying wolf,’” he remembers thinking (Hughes 47). “’Or else I shall not know, I shall not hear when things get really bad’” (Hughes 47). Little did he know at the time, but circumstances could, and very soon would, get much worse. It strikes me as outrageous that when witnessing his wife growing overwhelmed and enveloped by some obvious affliction (whatever he wanted to call it), Hughes appears to have considered the situation his nuisance rather than her emergency.