Complete Death | Ariel’s Birthday Letters
Poor Ted Hughes has taken one for the Plath team of shrill girls who go about crucifying him at every turn, every freshman year, that I imagine his life to have been in many ways a living hell. Still now, though a bit less so, he has borne the brunt of the blame for the death of his wife Sylvia Plath.
As anyone here who has been reading me knows, this has been the Plath Hughes month in which I have undertaken to review all books about Sylvia Plath – biographies, etc. and Hughes as well as read the original work of both poets, but in particular and what I’d like to focus on are Hughes’s Birthday Letters and Plath’s Ariel, which are, no matter where you stand, two of the most impressive volumes of poetry from what would be considered “modern” poets and younger poets.
As part of my project, I’ve been doing as you can imagine, not only a great deal of reading but also a tremendous amount of research. I recently came across an article entitled “Ted Hughes – A Talented Murderer.” Unfortunately, it’s the point of view that a lot of self-professed Plath defenders seem to have taken and I find it a sad and curious one. After all, no matter that in the end we all know she killed herself, we also know that she had tried e and almost succeeded. This was no baby cry for help. Sylvia bent on death and suicide long before Hughes came into the picture. So then the issue becomes that knowing this, knowing her fragility in certain terms – her deep fear of abandonment that stemmed after the death of her father, which frankly, although this is hard, is a normal part of life and her reaction to it seems out of proportion to the actual event. We lose fathers, we lose mothers and brothers and lovers and we do not all go about killing herself. I’ve read Otto Plath’s work on bees and know a little about him as a person since I live in the town where Sylvia or Sivvy as she is known here, spent her formative years. Otto was German, typically removed and distant and more interested in his bees and his studies than in his daughter who deeply wanted his attention and affection.
No doubt, this is hard or was hard, and hurtful, but it seems that this happens to a great many people; what was it about Sylvia that made it hurt so much more? It’s a good question and one I ask myself over and over again. And I have found that it is the intensity of her feeling that made things so poignant. She has been diagnosed manic-depressive, bipolar, borderline etc etc and I disagree with all of the diagnoses. The one diagnosis that I never heard was epilepsy, yet Sylvia has the typical traits of a person with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Geshwind’s syndrome, which are a cluster of personality traits that are often used in diagnosing epilepsy when one is first learning; some of the traits are “stickiness” – an inability to drop an issue or let it go and to stick to it for years and obsess over it; hypergraphia — excessive writing; religious fixation without a definite religious belief – so this means an interest in the trappings of faith, but not in faith itself — and this imagery comes up a great deal in Plaths work with words like “Communion” and stigmata and faith and incense etc. – her language takes a great deal from the trappings of faith; other characteristics include a heightened intensity of emotion – both high highs and low lows; a much higher suicide rate that the general population – I believe the number is something like 35% of people with temporal lobe epilepsy have thought about or made a gesture or effort to suicide (and lets not discount all those famous suicides who were epileptic like Van Gogh and Seneca and even Woolf, who here again, there is dispute about her condition, but let’s not get off course too much).
If Plath was epileptic, then this would explain a great deal about why she was the way she was and why it is that she ultimately took her own life. This is not to absolve Hughes of any wrong doing.
To be involved with a person who is fragile in this way, to know their Achilles heel (or hell) and then go for it is a massive betrayal of the first order. It is no different from saying if I eat peanut butter it will kill me and someone then spoonfeeeding it to me daily. Surely that would kill me given the givens. The analogy holds. Sylvia’s one condition seemed to be that he chose only her – given that the two were not exactly easy people, a request for fidelity seems fair, given the marriage vows that neither was forced to take and accepted willingly. There is no question that Hughes broke the deal, which he knew it would hurt or possibly kill Sylvia (though perhaps he had his doubts about the literal death), he knew enough. And this is why Hughes is so universally hated by so many. Even our Sivvy’s tombstone, which said “Sylvia Plath Hughes” which, by the way, is what she called herself in daily life, was defaced time and again, with the Hughes chopped off or crossed off that today, there is no tombstone and a local Devon person made a cross and someone put a sign that says Sylvia Plath. Often, people make their pilgrimage and leave flowers. But how curious that this man whom Sylvia obviously loved and had great respect for as both a person and a poet, should be the subject of such vitriol and hatred. How can anyone say they respect or love Sylvia and not respect her choice of husband, the one she believed truly to be her other half and soul mate.
Hughes screwed up. He abandoned Sylvia in the worst way possible. He could have done it neatly, said things were not working, gotten a normal divorce, but instead, the excitement and the stealth of sneaking around like a “wild cat” or one of his jaguars after his fox was too much to resist. Assia Weevil had set out to bag (or bed) her big game and she succeeded. It was sexual and it was strong and undeniable and Sylvia picked up on it right away. Hughes would have done better to just come clean and get it over with then have the affair — or perhaps move out for a while and work out his issues – lord knows, many marriages have been saved by doing just this, but no. He did what she feared. He disappeared, went to London without telling her where or why, left her Iwate two small children, abandoned and after she had done, undeniably, a great deal for him as a wife and as a sort of agent who saw to it that his work was seen and therefor published. It was good, no question, but would it ever have seen the light of day were it not for Sylvia’s tireless efforts to publish her husband’s work above her own. Her work took back burner while she played wife, mother and agent, and in the process, somehow, he lost respect or desire for her and wanted simply a lover again and he found this in Assia, who, for the record, he also cheated on and left with a small child and who, then killed herself and their child (“Shura”).
What a head-trip for Hughes. Now he had the deaths of three on his shoulders and surely it was a great deal to bear. To say that Hughes wanted this is too absurd to entertain. I find it hard to believe that he could be so monstrous – that he would literally want his wives dead to prove that he had some ultimate trump or power – you know, “women die for me” kind of shit. I find that hard to swallow, so I do not.
Instead, I have sat down with his book that after years of silence, finally addressed Sylvia again and they would be his only and his final words about his wife and really, more to the point to his wife, which one can only understand by knowing that both Hughes and Plath believed that they could communicate with the dead – more on that later.
Birthday Letters, published in 1998, is a series of poems that read as responses to Plaths’ final book (and her best, for the record), “Ariel” published posthumously (Hughes made sure the poems were published, despite the fact that he was great disparaged in the book and made out to be a real villain and who can blame her. Shit, I’d do the same thing; my poems would be just as cutting and brutal, but this is what made Sylvia a great writer. There was no sense of what was “right:” or “wrong” or socially acceptable. Those rules seemed not to have applied to her and she did as she pleased and wrote what was her truth. There was never any holding back at the end and Ariel is the book, sadly the last and only, in which we see the real potential of this incredible poet – the other stuff that had come before seemed like baby stuff by contrast.
Ariel reads like a telegram from the grave and it is addressed to Ted Hughes. Here, the voice is eerily calm and the woman behind these poems is strong and icelike – a kind of teutonic and strong goddess figure. She can also be fire and all consuming – our Medea – a figure she came back to several times, but however you cut it and no matter what you think of the work that had come before, this poetess in Ariel is brutal. She builds bonfires of love letters, she eats men like air, she burns acetylene blue, she is unstoppable and on her mission to die and to die blank and expressionless and perfect with everything in order.
And this is exactly what she did in real life; first she made a decision, and it seems that that decision allowed her to write about something that for most would have been fiction but in her case, were all too real. Read the poems and see Sylvia’s last months, her last days, her last day and know what grief is.
but now take Hughes’s Birthday Letters and read it side by side. Just so we do not get confused, Hughes has named a great many of the poems by the same title that Plath uses in “Ariel,” and while some had a real issues with this and accused him of plagiarizing and stealing, to me it seemed more like a way of clearly answering each accusation or each call in turn so that the reader is easily and quickly oriented. So that anyone who had read Ariel and was familiar with the poems could turn to Birthday Letters and see the other side of the conversation.
I’ve read many reviews of both books, yet none have said read them side by side, nor have they given much attention to the power of the two way communication between the living and the dead. This is important for many reasons – first, as a device it is incredibly effective and more, Hughes was a great believer in Ouija as was Sylvia and both believed that you could communicate with the dead. His poems, then, in this context, are not answers for us so much, for the reader, but finally, answers for Sylvia – the answers that he was afraid to give or could not give or was ashamed to give -whatever the reason, he finally saw to it that he need to respond to his wife.
Birthday Letters was not written to calm some shrill feminist who has gone off the deep on her Plath defending spree and has long stopped making any sense. No: this book is for Sylvia herself and I believe if you could ask Hughes today (he died quite recently), then he would say the same thing; that these are responses to Sylvia, and a sort of echolocation, as I’ve said before, the way certain animals make a call or a whoop and the other echoes back as if to say “I am here…” It is the language of the loved, of lovers, a secret language full of private references known only to them, but we feel the power nonetheless, in the presentation and the way it is given to us.
These are the ways of love. It is the spoken litany we live, and each day, we create a greater part of this new language with the one we love. I believe that as painful as the separation and subsequent events was for Hughes, for Sylvia for anyone even on the outskirts looking in, the whole ordeal has left us with work that will always show us the true color of grief. That for all we can say about Sylvia being histrionic and overreacting, there is no doubt that her grief was real and palpable and that is what counts at the end of the day, not whether she should or should not have felt it; such judgments are harsh and useless anyway. The real issue is that she did and what know now from Birthday Letters is that for all that he did and all of the betrayal, Hughes never stopped loving Plath ever. That for all of the women he had, and it would seem there were many, none touched him the way Sylvia did and perhaps that is why he ran so far away and so quickly.
He writes in “Robbing Myself”
“I peered a while as through the keyhole
Into my darkened, hushed, safe casket
From which (I did not know)
I had already lost the treasure.”
Hughes also speaks in other poems of falling “into the abyss” with her when she dies, as if he too is dying and gone. There is nothing left for him here.
There is a fear of meeting one too much like yourself. Something slightly or not so slightly unnerving about that, as if your two souls are one and you are kindred and twin. When this happens, great things are possible, but should one twin not be able to handle the symbiosis, the beautiful co-dependency (co-dependency, I’m convinced, gets a bad rap. It’s a good deal and can work beautifully and find me someone who isn’t co-dependent in some way. Hughes, like Sylvia, had met his match in every way; she was as passionate, as talented, as brilliant, and as attractive to the opposite sex when she wanted to be. Both were incredibly charming and gifted, yet Sylvia chose to put this in her marriage and Hughes took his fame and the attention of young adoring students and placed a value on that, which is cheap and not worth much, which ultimately he know.
Too bad he found out so late that ego validation is cheap and just because someone fucks you doesn’t mean you’re great or a good person or a better person. We can all do those things; the real trick is finding your match and living up to that challenge every day. I’d put a helluva lot more stock in what that person thought of me and my work that some Sloane Ranger publicist like Assia Weevil who was all about proving something for her ego. It’s too pathetic and I’d like to believe, too beneath Hughes, yet he did it.
Still, I read Ariel and Birthday Letters side by side and I feel that there is some kind of reconciliation going on. A reunion and a taking stock and that the end result is resolution.
Read both together, and see what it means to love so deeply that it hurts.