He is probably better known (at least to American audiences) as the husband of modern poetry’s most famous suicide. But long before he met Sylvia Plath and long, long after, (Poet Laureate) Ted Hughes was celebrated and admired for his own powerful, animistic verse. Born in Yorkshire in 1930, the wild life and landscape of his childhood were profound influences. Brutal, bloody and unsentimental, his was a pantheon of old gods. At a time when literary taste veered toward the domestic and ironic, Hughes drove his verse toward a feral purity – its pleasures and pains undiluted by reason. He studied mythology, anthropology, zoology, shamanism and hermeticism, always seeking the sources of universal truth – the is beneath more polite poetry’s seem.
Although it far from defined him, one cannot talk about Hughes without mentioning his marriage to Sylvia Plath. They met at Cambridge while Plath was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The intensity of their relationship from first encounter to tragic end is the stuff of legend – and several thousand feminist treatises – yet the foundation was and remained poetic. In Hughes, Plath found a partner whose literary abilities and life experience exceeded her own. He introduced her to astrology, paganism and the natural world. He helped her to temper a formal perfectionism with something organic and less controlled ultimately allowing her to release the language and imagery that would define her legacy. In Plath, Hughes found a woman who empowered and guided his own work with talent, intelligence and an unshakeable faith. She was ambassador and embodiment of the New World with all of its vast, primal energies. It is fair to say that neither would have found the fullness of their own gifts without the other.
Hughes was frequently criticized for the editorial decisions he made regarding Plath’s literary estate, and more personally, for never addressing the public’s morbid curiosity about what role he played in her life and death. He wrote prolifically until the end of his life – poetry that was muscular, totemic, and epically brutal – rarely personal. However, shortly before he died he released Birthday Letters – a collection of poems written to and about Plath in the years after her suicide. It was not his best work, but it was certainly his most moving, and it finally silenced many of his critics.
Not dreams, I had said, but fixed stars
Govern a life. A thirst of the whole being,
Inexorable, like a sleeper drawing
Air into the lungs. You had to lift
The coffin lid an inch.
(A Dream; Birthday Letters)
Before he became Poet Laureate, before his long illustrious career, before he met Plath or even set foot on Cambridge grounds, 19-year-old Edward James Hughes wrote the poem Song . Dismissed by some as overwrought juvenilia, there is a power and eerie prescience in its imagery. Like the unworldly light of fixed star, it seems to have revealed a future that was yet to unfold.
O lady, when the tipped cup of the moon blessed you
You became soft fire with a cloud’s grace;
The difficult stars swam for eyes in your face;
You stood, and your shadow was my place:
You turned, your shadow turned to ice
O my lady.
O lady, when the sea caressed you
You were a marble of foam, but dumb.
When will the stone open its tomb?
When will the waves give over their foam?
You will not die, nor come home,
O my lady.
O lady, when the wind kissed you
You made him music for you were a shaped shell.
I follow the waters and the wind still
Since my heart heard it and all to pieces fell
Which your lovers stole, meaning ill,
O my lady.
O lady, consider when I shall have lost you
The moon’s full hands, scattering waste,
The sea’s hands, dark from the world’s breast,
The world’s decay where the wind’s hands have passed,
And my head, worn out with love, at rest
In my hands, and my hands full of dust,
O my lady.
Ted Hughes, Collected Poems
If you can find it, the recording of Hughes reading this poem (much later in his life) is absolutely shattering.
*** This week – an unpublished draft was discovered of a poem written by Hughes about Sylvia Plath’s suicide. The complete manuscript has not yet been posted online, but actor Jonathan Pryce read the work in its entirety for (UK)Channel 4 News. It is posted above.