Reviews — From the January 2016 issue

Same Mistakes

Ted Hughes’s evasions

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Discussed in this essay:

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, by Jonathan Bate. Harper. 672 pages. $40.

Among those who knew Ted Hughes — friends, rivals, lovers, wives — it was universally agreed that, his other qualities notwithstanding, he was very, very good-looking. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and floppy-haired, his face lantern-jawed and slightly concave, he was almost a caricature of manliness. At Cambridge in the 1950s — where, a romantic competitor claimed, Hughes was “the biggest seducer” on campus — he favored an old black corduroy jacket and unbelted trousers. He hunted and fished and hiked and cooked (masculine meals: fried herring in oatmeal, black pudding in a skillet, goat stew). He was graceful, self-possessed, and kind. His voice was uncommonly resonant. He gave off, wrote his first wife, Sylvia Plath, a “queer electric invisible radiance.” The first time she saw him, she bit him on the cheek. A psychoanalyst who encountered him at a party found him so attractive that she went to the bathroom to vomit. After meeting him at a reading, Erica Jong returned home and had sex with her husband while “imagining Ted.” “Half the beauty of listening to your poetry is watching you, your body and your hands and your face move with all the rhythms of the words,” sighed an Australian interviewer, shortly before going to bed with him. “He stared at you, as if he’d forgotten there was anyone else in the world,” says the narrator of a roman à clef written by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, one of Hughes’s friends. The novel is called Poison.

Ted Hughes, 1971 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Ted Hughes, 1971 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Literary biographers tend to cloak their curiosity about their subjects’ sex lives in art talk (you can’t have light without heat, etc.), and Jonathan Bate, the author of an ambitious new biography of Hughes, is no exception. His book’s prurience, Bate is at pains to make clear, was a matter of analytic necessity. To judge from the strength of his protests, he seems to have internalized the anxieties of the notoriously cagey Hughes estate, with which he’s had a complicated relationship. It began well enough: his presentation of the project as a “literary life,” one primarily concerned with Hughes’s writing, appealed to Carol, the poet’s second wife. She told Bate that she didn’t want to be another Valerie Eliot, who closely guarded her husband’s archives, and as evidence of her good faith she offered small favors, such as photocopying documents that Bate would otherwise have had to travel to obtain. Nonetheless, four years of research and composition later, when Bate was about to hand over a draft for approval, he received word that the estate would no longer cooperate. They didn’t explain why.

Bate was not the first to meet with such resistance. The estate withheld its blessing from Hughes’s previous biographer, Elaine Feinstein, even though she had been a friend of the poet’s. Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (1989), the one semi-authorized biography of Plath, emerged only after a protracted struggle with Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s older sister, who as her brother’s agent steadfastly defended his reputation. (Her remarks about Plath were lit by periodic flares of spite; it’s not unusual to see her call her former sister-in-law a “monster.”) Faber and Faber, which took over Olwyn’s duties in the 1990s, was more courteous, if no less unbending. The estate’s choices about which material was released, and where and to whom permission was granted, reflected different, at times conflicting, goals: on the one hand, to protect a family’s privacy; on the other, to ensure that facts and interpretations were not gotten wrong.

In 2014, Bate told the Guardian that the estate’s reversal was due to concern about material he had uncovered — material that Carol and Olwyn may have wanted to suppress. (Carol dismissed the idea as “ridiculous” and said that nothing Bate found surprised her.) Without the estate’s backing, Bate was unable to quote Hughes’s words — letters, journals, even poems — at length. The decision had a paradoxical effect: Bate was forced to abandon his original project, with its “pages and pages of detailed analysis of the multiple drafts of the poems,” and was left, instead, to bear down on the particulars of Hughes’s personal life — precisely what the estate had seemed to dread.

By Bate’s account, the reversal was good for him. Unable to “fall back on big blocks of quotation,” he had no choice but to “weave” his voice with his subject’s. He had his notes and could use what he’d learned; he was limited only in how he could tell the story, not in what he could say. Unfortunately, the weaving results in blankets of awkward paraphrase whose main effect is to make you long for the originals. As John Updike wrote of Peter Ackroyd’s life of T. S. Eliot: “But for a few phrases from his letters and an odd line or two of his verse, the poet walks gagged through his own biography.”

In Hughes’s case, the gag order suppresses, among other things, the direct report of tragedy. Two of the women Hughes loved, Plath and Assia Wevill, killed themselves, and no one, least of all Hughes himself, could help wondering what role he played in their deaths. Plath and Wevill were both tremendously unhappy with Hughes; both gassed themselves. These ugly congruities have figured in every study of his life and work. Indeed, scholarship and gossip have so closely orbited the question of Hughes’s guilt that it’s difficult to separate his abundant output — the Collected Poems (2003) weighs in at more than a thousand pages — from the twin suicides.

Hughes’s life, as Bate reminds us, began well before he met Plath, in 1956, and lasted long after Wevill died, in 1969. Yet the years preceding seem to rush toward the traumas, the years following to collapse backward into them. Hughes sometimes talked of being stunted, of an “odd estrangement” he felt from himself. “My best 7 years have passed in error and futile strife,” he wrote to a friend after Wevill’s death. To another, a dozen years later, he said the same about the 1970s: “I’ve just piddled about — everything except make a stand and confront the real thing in a concentrated way.” In 1984, the year he became Britain’s poet laureate, he described the suicides as “giant steel doors shutting down over great parts” of him.

If Hughes tried to evade or repress his lovers’ deaths, the public could not get enough of them. Our embrace of the Plath myth over the past fifty years has been avid, emotional, and more or less unceasing. Biographies of Plath number at least fifteen. Add to this the memoirs by friends, former lovers, and family members of both halves of the couple (Gerald Hughes, Ted’s older brother, published his reminiscences in 2012), the newspaper articles (confessions, accusations, corrections), the middlebrow blockbuster movie (Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, from 2003), the pop songs (by Tears for Fears, Belle and Sebastian, Ryan Adams), and the Internet shrines, and it’s not hard to see why Hughes would have felt that his life had stopped belonging to him. As he once complained to W. S. Merwin: “The dogs in the street seem to have more ideas about me than I have.”

Hughes’s need for privacy and solitude, while no doubt compounded by the scrutiny he faced, may as well have been bred into him. He was born in 1930, the youngest of three children, in the hamlet of Mytholmroyd, in Yorkshire. His parents, Billie and Edith, worked in a clothing factory owned by Edith’s brother. Billie quit when Hughes was eight, and he moved the family to the larger town of Mexborough in order to become a newsagent. Mytholmroyd was remote and beautiful, Mexborough a “dark dirty place,” his mother recalled. “My first seven years seems almost half my life,” Hughes told an interviewer when he was thirty-one. “It was sealed off . . . and became a sort of brain — another subsidiary brain.” In grammar school, he would “sit around in the woods, muttering through” Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, and Yeats, whose visionary supernaturalism may have left the greatest impression; Hughes later claimed to have memorized the Irishman’s complete works. Urged on by the praise of a teacher, John Fisher, he decided to become a poet. His earliest attempts at verse were, for the most part, raunchy doggerel. “Bawdry Embraced,” probably written to amuse his friends, opens with an animal metaphor that hints at the prolific sexual — if not the poetic — career that lay ahead:

Great farmy whores, breasts bouncy more
Like buttocks, and with buttocks like
Two white sows jammed in a sty door
Are no dunghills for Bawdry’s cock.

With a recommendation from Fisher, Hughes won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied English before losing patience with the “foolish game” of Leavisite academic criticism and switching to anthropology. (As he liked to tell it, the decision came after he was accosted in a dream by a wounded creature, half-man, half-fox, who placed a bloody paw on a page of his unfinished essay on Samuel Johnson and raved that Hughes was “destroying” him.) He read Robert Graves, whose classic survey of mythology, The White Goddess, proposes that all “true” poetry invokes a maternal cosmic force — that eternal object of “fright and lust” — and identifies as poetry’s foundational theme a struggle for life against death in which the poet must compete with a sort of dark double for the affections of his muse. Alive with these ideas, Hughes listened to quantities of Beethoven and fell in with a group of student poets, who gathered to drink, sing folk songs, and recite verse. After graduating, he worked as a rose gardener at a nursery, as a security guard at a girder factory, and for a film-production company, writing up short treatments of books that might be adapted for the screen. He began seeing an auburn-haired Cambridge student, to whom he brought armfuls of roses from the nursery. In early 1956, he and his poet friends published a magazine, Saint Botolph’s Review, named for the rectory in whose garden Hughes sometimes camped. To the launch party, with a number of Hughes’s poems already committed to memory, came a young American poet: Sylvia Plath.

Hughes emerged from their drunken meeting with his cheek bleeding; Plath stumbled off to casual sex with someone else. The encounter seeded all the intensity and violence that was to blossom later on. Hughes left the Cambridge redhead; Plath promptly forgot about a writer with whom she’d been in an on-again, off-again relationship. In June, the two poets wed in London, with Plath’s mother as their only witness. During the six years they were married, they had two children, Frieda and Nicholas (who would also kill himself, in 2009). The couple were rarely apart, and their closeness, it seems, verged on the airless. From the start, Plath was plagued by jealousy. Two months after meeting Hughes, she was already telling herself that if the price of enjoying his “big iron violent virile body” was the “whistling void in guts when he leaves,” she must pay it, that if he left her for “hundreds of other women, other poems,” she must “let him go.

Some have speculated that Plath was also professionally envious, but there is little evidence of this. With a generosity perhaps born of faith in her own talents, she typed up Hughes’s first book, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), and submitted it to the contest that led to its publication. She was convinced of her husband’s genius — and sure that W. H. Auden, one of the judges, would agree. (He did.) Hughes’s subsequent ascent owed a great deal to his unlikeness to anyone in his milieu. He had little in common with the Movement poets, such as Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn, who were urban where Hughes was earthy, disenchanted where he was mystical. Many of the poems in Hawk and Lupercal (1960), Hughes’s second book, are about animals, plants, weather, stone — features of the dumb world that he had known intimately as a child and now sought to ventriloquize. As the critic Al Alvarez put it in the introduction to The New Poetry, his influential 1962 anthology, Hughes’s tone wasn’t self-conscious or ironic or — crucially — genteel. Alvarez criticized English poets of the time for their docility, for complacently assuming that “to be modern was merely a matter of sounding modern,” and he prominently featured Hughes, whose voice, by contrast, was energetic, elemental, sometimes purposefully ugly in its force. Hughes’s poems praised the coldness of natural processes, the amoral straightforwardness of instinct. “There is no sophistry in my body,” proclaims the bird in one of his best-known poems, “Hawk Roosting”: “My manners are tearing off heads.” Even a flower, in “Snowdrop,” knows about violence:

She, too, pursues her ends,
Brutal as the stars of this month,
Her pale head heavy as metal.

Bate devotes much of his book to Hughes’s poetic career, but, in part because of the restrictions on quoting, his passages of literary analysis are less vivid than his retellings of familiar scenes, in which he obliges the reader’s appetite for ever more detail. He points out that Hughes was faithful to Plath until he met Wevill; Olwyn, her brother’s constant defender, has cited that period as proof that Plath’s suspicions were irrational. By this theory, Plath drove Hughes to Wevill. But given what happened later, it doesn’t seem so remarkable that Plath should have worried. The border between the possible and the actual, in any case, can be hazy. During his first few months with Plath, Hughes slept naked in a bed — but did not have sex — with a female volunteer at the soup kitchen in whose attic he was staying. Bate is oddly keen to emphasize this ambiguous episode of self-restraint, which Hughes later memorialized in the poem “Fidelity” — evidence, apparently, of Hughes’s capacity to keep his sexual power in check.

In the summer of 1961, Plath and Hughes sublet their Primrose Hill flat and moved to Court Green, a thatched house in rural Devon. Their tenants in London were another literary couple, David and Assia Wevill, who visited Devon in late May. Plath almost immediately sensed the mutual attraction between Hughes and Assia, a glamorous, vivacious Jew who had been married twice before. (“It was cruelly unfortunate that the one woman Sylvia envied for her appearance should happen to get tangled up in my departure,” Hughes wrote to his brother.) Olwyn says that a friend of Assia’s phoned Plath to tell her that she had been betrayed. According to one rumor, Assia herself made the call, disguising her voice as a man’s, and Plath inferred the rest. Others say that Assia asked a male friend to do the deed. (Two poems recall the moment: Hughes’s ominous “Do Not Pick up the Telephone” and Plath’s anguished “Words Heard, by Accident, over the Phone.”) At any rate, when Plath confronted him, Hughes confessed his attraction to Assia and left. Hughes went to London to sleep with her the next day.

During the last seven months of her life, on her own and wildly angry at her husband, Plath wrote her best poems, which would be published posthumously, in 1965, as Ariel. For his part, Hughes seemed to feel more relief than regret in the first months of the separation, though he later claimed that he’d tried to reconcile with her. (Olwyn, characteristically, accuses Plath of being unforgiving.) Whatever the case may be, a rapprochement could not have gotten very far under the circumstances. Hughes was still seeing Wevill, and Plath was still infuriated and hurt. One theory has it that Plath was driven to suicide after learning that Wevill was pregnant with Hughes’s child. (Wevill had an abortion after Plath’s death; she and Hughes had a daughter, Shura, in 1965.) Yet on the February night that Plath killed herself, Hughes was in bed not with Wevill but with one Susan Alliston, another poet. After Plath died, he broke things off with Alliston in order to “try” with Wevill, but by the following Christmas he’d revived the affair, all the while assuring Wevill that Alliston was “out.” He blamed Alliston and her friend Tasha Hollis for telling people that he was spending every weekend with them, although it seems he was doing exactly that. “Assia Assia Assia — you’re always telling me to believe you why don’t you believe me,” he wrote. “I love you & as far as I’m concerned no other women exist.”

Hughes triangulated women in this way for the rest of his life. After his relationship with Alliston ceased to be romantic (they remained friends until she died, of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, in 1969), he moved between Wevill, Brenda Hedden, and Carol Orchard, or “A, B, & C,” as they are in his journal. Carol was a nurse nearly twenty years his junior who had been helping him care for his children; Hedden was a social worker who lived near Court Green, had two young daughters, and was in an open marriage. Out of economy, or a lack of imagination, Hughes gave Wevill and Hedden heart-shaped gold bracelets that were each inscribed with their name, together with the same love poem. At once a hymn to erotic possession and a horrified protest against it, “Lovesong” reads, Bate suggests, as though it were written for Plath: “In their entwined sleep they exchanged arms and legs / In their dreams their brains took each other hostage.” A year and a half after Wevill killed herself and Shura, Hughes married Carol Orchard. To Hedden, he reported the nuptials at first only by saying that something terrible had happened. He considered buying a house in which to install her and her daughters, changed his mind, then sent a series of letters lamenting his mismanagement of the situation. Eventually, Hedden stopped writing back.

Hughes’s “folly” — his regular word for his romances — continued into the 1970s. For four years, he was involved with Jill Barber, an Australian he met at a literary festival in Adelaide; during this time he also dated the writer Emma Tennant, who liked to refer to herself as a “sub-mistress.” The liaisons seemed to subside in the 1980s, but three or four years before his death he began another affair, with an unidentified woman — “his last great love,” according to Bate — whom he lived with part-time in South London. Was this relationship one of the things that Bate thought might surprise Carol? Is it reasonable to think that a woman married to a man for almost thirty years is surprisable? Bate condescends to Carol, emphasizing her shyness and lack of intellectualism and intimating that she was, on the whole, ignorant of her husband’s doings. He refers darkly to “other encounters, some of them friendships, others rather more,” that “went below the radar even of his close friends.”

Bate argues that Hughes was torn between a symbolic, Coleridgean poetic mode and a confessional, Wordsworthian one. This is to identify a real divide in Hughes, but — as Bate surely wouldn’t dispute — many of Hughes’s mythic poems can be read autobiographically, and many of his autobiographical poems rely heavily on symbol. Hughes himself explained that Crow (1970), which recounts the adventures of a trickster bird with a bleak view of life, gives voice to his sense of an eternal war between the sexes (at times rather baldly: “Woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened”). Throughout his work women promise transcendence but deliver ruin, like the maiden in “The Lamentable History of the Human Calf,” who demands body parts from her lover one by one in order to feed them to her puppy. The man ends up “nothing but a soul.” “Lady,” he cries, “are you satisfied?”

Hughes once said that poetry originates from injury: the deeper the cut, the better the art, which could be both “anaesthetic” and “healing.” Yet some of his best poetry predates his worst wounds, and some of his weakest poetry takes them on directly. Bate implies that had Hughes not been attempting to repress the trauma of the 1960s and to keep the public in the dark about his life, he would have more naturally favored the confessional mode; his outward-looking gaze thus became as much a matter of psychological defense as of aesthetic choice. By these lights, Hughes’s final book, the overtly confessional Birthday Letters (1998), published less than a year before his death, might be seen as a personal and artistic breakthrough. The book promised an end to Hughes’s long public silence about his marriage to Plath — an open cleansing of wounds — and was received with panting attention, going immediately to the top of the bestseller list. But as a work of self-revelation, to say nothing of poetry, it is far from satisfying. Hughes assumes, even depends on, readers’ prior knowledge of the terrible story. The red headband he ripped from Plath’s hair when they met, the phone Plath tore from the wall: the details, already so worked over by the Plath–Hughes industry, have become mute, talismanic. Saddled with biography, they fail to communicate fully as poetry, and read instead like the exhibits for the defense that they are.

Hughes’s “The Rabbit Catcher,” for example, follows Plath’s poem of the same name. Hers is an appalled meditation on a hunter and his snare, and has been interpreted as an indictment not only of Hughes but of masculinity itself: “How they awaited him, those little deaths! / They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.” His is the story of a day trip to the coast that recasts her outrage as unworldly and sentimental: “You saw baby-eyed / Strangled innocents, I saw sacred / Ancient custom.” Birthday Letters, intended to correct Hughes’s negative public image, more often confirms it, especially the angrier verses, which appear to align him and Plath against Wevill or to blame the two women — even women at large — for the sequence of calamities. He too eagerly accepts the idea of an Electra complex, inherited from Plath and one of her psychiatrists, and prefers to see what happened as inevitable, fated (“That day the solar system married us / Whether we knew it or not”) — even as elsewhere, in his letters and journals, he knows his grief better than that. Perhaps the book was meant to throw us off the scent, to send us crashing through the brush — and to leave Hughes, for once, to himself.

The rationale behind literary biography’s ordinary hierarchy of concerns is familiar and, generally speaking, correct: the books are the reason a writer’s life is worthy of study. Yet in a few cases something like the opposite happens, a sort of phase change, wherein a writer’s life attains, in the imagination of his audience, no less than a literary intensity. Now the books appear as adjuncts to the biographical legend; the deeds cease being backstory and emerge as the main event. The most astonishing thing about Hughes’s conduct, in a romantic career as indelible as any of his poems, was his willful repetition of scenarios that had already proved unlivable — literally — to the people involved in them. He was hardly unfeeling. If anything, it was the seriousness with which he treated women that led to the difficulty. He was always promising to move in with them. He made them feel special, singular, until they discovered they were not. For all his grief and regret, he never seemed to get anywhere new. Take “The Lovepet,” which imagines eros as a devouring creature:

It ate into their brains
It ate the roof
It ate lonely stone it ate wind crying famine
It went furiously off
They wept they called it back it could have everything
It stripped out their nerves chewed chewed flavorless
It bit at their numb bodies they did not resist
It bit into their blank brains they hardly knew

On the one hand, this is a credible portrayal of love, and of the familiar experience of being helpless before its might, which showcases some of Hughes’s virtues as a writer. The unpunctuated, forward-leaning lines, one clause skidding into the next, offer no bloodless observation; the impression is one of immersion, channeling. The creature, its appetites enumerated in a booming litany, is eerie where it could be silly. On the other hand, however, Hughes’s metaphoric reasoning is naïve or disingenuous. The lovers give up logic, thinking, their most human qualities; the pet owns them and not the other way around. Who inhabits these bodies, who directs these minds? Somehow, one suspects, “it” isn’t the culprit.

Reading Plath’s Ariel, you feel that her genius was called forth by looking straight into things. The realization of her worst fears disclosed a strength of will, a ruthlessness not in victory but in defeat, that would result in some of the most ragefully eloquent poetry of the postwar period. Hughes, despite his best efforts, tended to look away; he was always “excluding the real thing,” as he put it in one dejected letter. Throughout his life he was drawn to the strangely comforting violence of folklore and myth. Nature offered a vision of the world in which his actions were determined by some greater design: nature’s rules, dark and inevitable, promised moral simplicity. Nonhuman animals aren’t faced with choices, as we are; they do what they must, what they can’t avoid doing. They never overpromise or disappoint, and are never asked to atone. If there was in Hughes’s romantic repetitions a stubbornly hopeful bid to alter the pattern, it was accompanied by the expectation that change would emerge by itself, and not through volition.

Of course he didn’t kill Plath or Wevill, as people take a grim thrill in saying: their deaths belong to them. But to ascribe responsibility for the mess of his personal affairs to inhuman forces, to view men and women in love as helplessly enacting some fatal game, as Hughes did, seems in the end an evasion; he had meant it to be courageous. He presented himself as a teller of savage universal truths, but he failed, or refused, to learn from the defining events of his own life. More or earlier confession wouldn’t have freed him emotionally, or arrested his poetic decline. The “real thing” he needed to accept wasn’t violence but its mundane aftermath — reflection, reparation, a different way of behaving.

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