- Letters of Ted Hughes edited by Christopher Reid
Faber, 756 pp, £30.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 22138 7
Between leaving school and going to Cambridge, Ted Hughes did his National Service in the RAF. Writing from RAF West Kirby, in the Wirral, to a friend, Edna Wholey, in 1949 – characteristically there is no date on the letter – he exults in the wild weather:
Edna, I’ve seen rain and I tell you this isn’t rain, – a steady river, well laced with ice, tempest and thunder, covers all this land, and what isn’t concrete has reverted to original chaos of mud water fire and air. Morning and evening its one soak and the sun’s more or less a sponge, and lately comes up frozen quite stiff.
This love of chaos, motion, process, which is the energy of his best poems, and often makes them resemble action paintings, is brought to a halt by the strong stresses on the last three words so that the stretched perception is completed. And there is a heightened exultation in chaos in a much later letter (23 October 1983) to the painter Barrie Cooke, where he describes fishing on Lake Victoria with his son, Nicholas:
Nick & I went across one night – a biggish sea, a very big load of fish, sailing into the most incredible display of lightning I ever saw. Truly like a thunderstorm on an electrified planet in a space fiction film. We got into a race with another canoe. I expect that was about the most exciting half hour of my life, under those great vertical 15 second rivers of orange or blue or green lightning, & great skyfulls of blazing thorns, & continuous overhead thunder, with great long swells coming along the gunwales, pouring in on both sides, one man bailing like mad, the rest paddling & yelling, & our sail like a map of the world in giant rips and holes, and those fish, unbelievable, their eyes glaring like orange torches – colour of the orange on traffic lights & just as bright, actually lit from the inside, very eerie & mysterious, hours after they were dead – well, I’ll tell you, it was like the greatest impossible dream. And two of those fish were Nicholas’s – one weighed 68 lbs, the other 82. We won the race.
Although the space fiction and the traffic light similes introduce a slightly processed, jarring quality to this ecstatic moment, we have here the poet as a latter-day Yeatsian fisherman (Hughes knew Yeats’s collected poems off by heart). Again there is the ghost of a Hopkins-style argument from design in the orange, man-made traffic lights, in which as often in his poems Hughes links nature to human processes. The sail like a great ripped map of the world adds to the sense of vast, tumultuous space.
Hughes’s prose in his letters is always urgent and compulsive, but there are moments of tender observation, as in a letter to Edna Wholey in 1950, where he says he
heard a commotion in the hedge, and after a while, out trundled a hedgehog, merry as you like, and obviously out for a good time. I thought he might make a jolly companion for an evening so I brought him in. After a while I noticed he had disappeared and later heard a noise just like the sobbing of a little child, but very faint, and it continued for long enough. I traced it to a pile of boxes, and there was my comrade, with his nose pressed in a pool of tears, and his face all wet, and snivelling and snuffling his heart out. I could have kissed him for compassion. I don’t know why I’m so sympathetic towards hedgehogs.
Such moments are like dummy runs for poems, and they remind us of the animist tenderness in Hughes’s writing, a tenderness that plays against his celebration of feral power. It’s like the last line of a short early poem ‘Snowdrop’ – ‘Her pale head heavy as metal’ – where nature and human artifice come gently together.
Inevitably, though, it is biographical interest that these letters stimulate. We catch Hughes’s early undergraduate life at Cambridge in 1952, when, writing to his sister, Olwyn, he says that sometimes he thinks Cambridge is ‘wonderful’, at others ‘a ditch full of clear cold water where all the frogs have died. It is a bird without feathers; a purse without money; an old dry apple, or the gutters run pure claret.’ This sounds very like Lawrence, except for the balancing, divided attitude. Hughes, it’s clear, is the most important writer to emerge from English Nonconformism since Lawrence. Like him Hughes writes to the moment with a voracious intensity. Yet in an unusually assured comment on the Anglican Swift (he was only 22) he tells Olwyn that Swift is the ‘only stylist’. Swift’s excellence is a talent for ‘clarity simplicity and power’ (note the lack of commas as in ‘mud water fire and air’). Swift’s writing is ‘the bedrock from which every writer must start’.
This has a vigorous certainty – Lawrence wouldn’t have agreed with it – that shows Hughes’s driving ambition always to reach bedrock, and his insistence on what he calls ‘clarity simplicity and power’. Largely, he holds to this aesthetic in his letters and it enables him to write about everything in a spontaneous, direct, unforced and unflinching manner in keeping with his Nonconformist background. Writing prose was essential to him; in another early letter to Olwyn he says that he only writes poems when he is busy writing prose at the same time. He was a compulsive letter-writer and his enormous study of Shakespeare, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, began from a series of letters he wrote to the theatre director Donya Feuer. His other important prose work is the collection of essays and reviews that make up Winter Pollen. In the letter to his sister about prose being essential to him, he says that he hopes to write poems quite different from ‘the meanness and deadness of almost all modern English verse’. But he mentions, praises and encourages many poets in these letters (one of his weighty cultural legacies is the amount of translation he set in train both through contacts with publishers and through the journal Modern Poetry in Translation which he founded with Daniel Weissbort).
It is, however, his letters to Plath that are the outstanding feature of this volume. The first letter (March 1956) is very brief:
That night was nothing but getting to know how smooth your body is. The memory of it goes through me like brandy.
If you do not come to London to me, I shall come to Cambridge to you. I shall be in London, here, until the 14th.
And bring back Brandy. Two bottles – broach one to please the customs.
The reference to the broached brandy bottle is characteristic of Hughes’s practical canniness. Two months later (22 May 1956) he is telling Olwyn:
I have met a first-rate American poetess. She really is good. Certainly one of the best female poets I ever read, and a damn sight better than the run of good male. Her main enthusiasm at present is me, and she thinks my verses are as good as I think they are and has accordingly and efficiently dispatched about twenty five to various immensely paying American Mags. So. She has published stories and poems in some of the top American journals.
He then says that she is ‘Scorpio Oct 27th, moon in Libra, last degrees of Aries rising and has her Mars smack on my sun, which is all very appropriate’.
The astrological interest is a running theme; in October he designs an astrological chart for Plath which he draws out in another letter to Olwyn. It shows, he explains, Saturn ‘on the cusp of the twelfth, which is suicidal’. A letter to Plath earlier that month begins ‘Darling Sylvia Puss-Kish Ponky,’ and tells her that he has bought a ‘HOROSCOPE’ and predicts ‘you will be famous and … come into vast fortunes and happiness by marriage to an amazing strange provider of these’. Later in the letter he says that silent reading lacks an ‘emotional charge’, and this explains ‘Amis and Wain and the rest’. Hughes feels alienated from and hostile to the Movement poets: his exulting whap beats against their rational and ironic forms which are unable to address the original chaos he delights in. In the same way he tells Plath that Robert Graves has ‘a kind of disinfected enunciation, a crumb accent no less, states everything so far under that nothing at all is heard’.
In these letters his love for Plath, for her ‘ponky warmth’, is absolute; in one letter he moves from describing a weasel or a stoat running across a field to filling in the football pools for them both, to saying: ‘Goodnight puss, goodnight little puss, little soft places little puss, I wish you were still here or rather I wish I was still there I would kiss you slowly from toe up.’ Then he says that he neglected her, that one of his most tormenting thoughts is that ‘I didn’t suck and lick and nibble you all night long.’ He finishes: ‘I love you everything and you write terrific letters. Love love love love Ted.’ Another letter ends: ‘All all all all all love Your Ted.’ And in another he says: ‘I love you from your toes to your ankles to your knees to your thighs to your hips to your navel to your nipples to your shoulders to your throat to your mouth to your nose to your eyes and then in to the end of you. All my love every minute.’
Reading these letters we are thrown into the opening act of the lovers’ tragedy. Writing to his brother, Gerald, and his family in Australia, Hughes says in May 1957:
Well, my life lately is splendid, wonderfully repaired from what it was. Marriage is my medium. Also my luck thrives on it, and my productions. You have no idea what a happy life Sylvia and I lead or perhaps you have. We work and walk about, and repair each other’s writings. She is one of the best critics I ever met and understands my imagination perfectly, and I think I understand hers. It’s amazing how we strike sparks.
Then he describes squealing to make rabbits come out, and how an owl rose in his face and tried to land on his neck. His happiness in the intense relationship with Plath and in their shared literary life zigzags through these early letters.
But a month after writing to his brother, he tells Olwyn, to whom he is obviously very close, that their days at his parents’ house were ‘ill-starred’. He asks Olwyn not to be too critical about the way Plath ‘got up and came after me’. She was nervy after her exams, he says, and admires Olwyn more than any Englishwoman she’s ever met. Then in a tone that is both objective and informed by love and sympathy, he says:
Her immediate ‘face’ when she meets someone is too open & too nice – ‘smarmy’ as you said – but that’s the American stereotype she clutches at when she is in fact panic-stricken. Or perhaps – and I think this is more like it – her poise & brain just vanish in a kind of vacuous receptivity – only this american stereotype manner then keeps her going at all. She says stupid things that mortify her afterwards. Her second thought – her retrospect, is penetrating, sceptical, and subtle.
The analysis continues with Hughes saying that she’s ‘no angel, but there’s a balance to her worst side’. A note to this letter tells us that during a visit from Hughes’s former schoolteacher and his wife, Plath had upped and left the house mid-conversation in silent rage. It is clear from Dido Merwin’s account in an appendix to Bitter Fame, Anne Stevenson’s biography of Plath, that she could be intensely demanding and jealous. And in a letter to his brother after the break-up of the marriage in 1962, Hughes refers to ‘Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality’, before saying that they are now better friends than they’ve been since they first met.
Much earlier, in 1957, writing from the United States, he tells his brother that they have had a bad week in which Plath lay helpless ‘with sheer depression’, but then it cleared and they have suddenly begun ‘to write like angels and apply our brains like the bits of electric drills’. The letters that follow do not document the disintegration of their relationship – one feels in some sense intrusive in wishing that they did.
The marriage fell apart in the summer of 1962 when David Wevill, a Canadian poet whose work Hughes admired, and his wife, Assia, visited Court Green, the house in Devon where Hughes, Plath and their two young children were living. The Wevills stayed over the weekend of 18 to 20 May, and it was during this visit that Hughes and Assia fell in love. Sensing this, Plath saw her visitors off, Reid notes, ‘in a mood of tension and unvoiced rage’. Hughes and Assia would afterwards meet clandestinely in London, until an argument during a visit by Plath’s mother, Aurelia, caused Hughes to leave Plath. In the late summer, Hughes writes to Olwyn that ‘things are quite irrevocable,’ and recounts a dream – a frequent subject in his letters – in which ‘Hitler came to me, furious, demanding that I carry out the commands instantly.’ This is obviously a guilty dream, but it is much later that we learn what his feelings were.
Yet he and Plath still managed to communicate with each other and two months after he left her, they visited Ireland hoping to find a house where she could spend the winter (their difficult stay is recounted by Richard Murphy in his autobiography The Kick). Hughes’s letters appear cheerful and engaged and free of guilt. At this time, curiously, he concocts a plan to send poems out under one or two pseudonyms. He wants to invent a rival poet, ‘or perhaps two’, who will gradually become much better than him – then the people who resent him for one reason or another ‘will line up to support one of my rivals (i.e. me)’. What became of this scheme we don’t learn – it’s rather like his earlier scheme to open a mink farm in Australia and make his fortune.
Hughes is in many ways a literary entrepreneur who always ‘sells’ poems to magazines, and whose reputation, he says in a letter to his cousin Vicky Watling, attracts ‘lucrative commissions’. The most complete example of this streak is his masterpiece, Moortown Diary, where, to quote Marx out of Shakespeare, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ In that volume the poems have a dawncold, intense, adrenalin-charged risk and rapidity: the verse is direct, active, intensely to the moment and in-the-face, with an at times gruelling spontaneity, while in Crow his attempt at myth is insistently repetitive and unlocated, so that the poems which make up the sequence are, paradoxically, both flaccid and insistent. There are relatively few mentions of Moortown Diary in these letters and this serves to minimise its importance, while Crow, though a failure, is often referred to.
We can see, glancingly, the entrepreneurial nature of his imagination in this passage from a letter to Olwyn (10 February 1963): ‘I drove up to London, ran over a hare (by pure chance – it’s impossible to do it deliberately) sold it to a butcher’s in Holborn and he gave me five bob. I spent it on roses – 4 I got for 5/-, smashed two, & gave 2 to Assia.’ It’s a moment that demands to be isolated as a short poem in prose, and is not unlike something Hardy, that master of prolepsis and superstition, might have invented. The next letter to Olwyn – short and bleak – is written later that month:
On Monday morning, at about 6 a.m. Sylvia gassed herself. The funeral’s in Heptonstall next Monday.
She asked me for help, as she so often has. I was the only person who could have helped her, and the only person so jaded by her states & demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it.
He then says, ‘I’ll write more later,’ which leaves us waiting for a follow-up letter to Olwyn, but either it wasn’t written or it hasn’t been included.
Hughes’s feelings are again apparent in a letter to Daniel and Helga Huws: ‘Sylvia killed herself on Monday morning. She seemed to be getting in good shape, was writing again, she was making enough money, getting all sorts of commissions, good reviews for her novel.’ Then, he says, a series of things such as solicitors’ letters got to be too much: ‘she flared up, and the doctor put her on very heavy sedatives.’ In the gap between ‘one pill & the next she turned on the oven, and gassed herself’.
The next letter in the sequence is to Aurelia Plath:
We were utterly blind, we were both desperate, stupid and proud – and the pride made us oblique, she especially so. I know Sylvia was so made that she had to mete out terrible punishment to the people she most loved, but everybody is a little bit like that, and it needed only intelligence on my part to deal with it. But the difficulties caused by that, the fact that on the surface the situation was no more difficult than the normal one for separated couples – it was better than most in that she had money, fame, prospering plans and many friends – all these things delayed the workings of our reconciliation.
This is heartfelt and should be pitched against those writers who have sought to demonise Hughes in his relationship with Plath and at whom this selection is partly aimed. More moving is the next paragraph, where he says:
I don’t want ever to be forgiven. I don’t mean that I shall become a public shrine of mourning and remorse, I would sooner become the opposite. But if there is an eternity, I am damned in it. Sylvia was one of the greatest truest spirits alive, and in her last months she became a great poet, and no other woman poet except Emily Dickinson can begin to be compared with her, and certainly no living American.
By this time Hughes was in a difficult relationship with Assia Wevill, which produced a daughter, Shura, and then another tragedy: Assia killed herself and Shura seven years later, on 23 March 1969. Writing to Assia’s sister, Celia Chaikin, he says that he’s gone through the past weeks in a daze. ‘Everything has become horrible to me, I cannot believe how I never knew what was really happening to her.’ He then says that their life together was very complicated, with ‘old ghosts’ and dozens of near separations over the years, but they belonged together so completely ‘that her repeatedly testing me, saying that we’d better separate for good, were just like a bad habit, part of our old difficulties, and so when she repeated it on that last day over the phone, it was nothing new, nothing we hadn’t got over dozens of times before’. This does not fit his poem ‘Dreamers’ in Birthday Letters about the weekend they fell in love. With her ‘Kensington jeweller’s elocution’ and ‘gaze of a demon/Between curtains of black Mongolian hair’, Assia is portrayed simply as dangerous, too foreign and unstable. She is ‘slightly filthy with erotic mystery’ and has nothing like the presence of Plath in the volume.
Looking at the letters he wrote to Assia, one may feel that he writes lovingly, but that there is perhaps something overdone, as in the opening to a letter he wrote on 18 August 1965: ‘Dear sweet little love sweet Asseeke sweet love sweetness & sweetest’. The letter ends, ‘Sweetness lovely sweetness’, which is terser but still not quite convincing. And yet to say this is to face the central problem of reading letters: they are not written to convince us – we may see ourselves as prurient intruders touching and testing something we were never meant to see or to pass judgment on.
The same is true of his and Plath’s life together. Hughes’s long rebuke to Al Alvarez speaks against the account of Plath’s suicide Alvarez published in The Savage God, which was serialised in the Observer:
It is humiliating to me, & to her mother & brother, to have her last days exhumed in this way, as you do in your memoir, for classroom discussion. Whatever motive or intention you put upon your writing of that piece, what you have done is supplied it to classroom discussion, you know there is no other real audience for it.
Alvarez was ‘sticking electrodes’ in Plath’s children’s brains. Hughes was obviously devoted to Nicholas and his daughter, Frieda, as we can see from a number of long, supportive letters to them.
Many years after rebuking Alvarez, he addresses the cult of Sylvia Plath, and his sense of having colluded in it. Writing to Lucas Myers (14 February 1987), he says that Plath managed to present her ‘diabolical streak’ as the voice of her suffering and martyrdom:
And protecting Aurelia, I colluded – and promoted the cult which interpreted my continued silence in the blazing martyr-light shed by Sylvia’s consecrated image. In which light I could only appear as a demon, the villain, the cause of all Sylvia’s pains.
Plath, he says, was a lot more complicated, and in no small measure ‘a deal more perverse, than the popular saintly doll purveyed to students & literary tourists’. The enduring trauma to Hughes and his family is clear.
He did everything possible to publish Plath’s work and advance her reputation, but, among many other criticisms, had to face the accusation of allowing her grave to fall into neglect. Again and again, Plath’s married name was prised from her gravestone in Heptonstall, and Hughes had it replaced. These acts of vandalism are the subject of a long letter to the Guardian (20 April 1989) in which Hughes criticises a pair of Plath scholars who had wrongly stated that Plath and he had signed divorce papers. He speaks of a critical ‘Fantasia’ which obscured Plath’s life and death and grieved him deeply.
While the relationship with Plath generated the most powerful and compelling letters, they are all remarkable for their verve and spontaneity; for the glimpses we get of Eliot’s ‘huge thick hands’; Louis MacNeice talking like ‘a quick-fire car salesman’; Pound’s ‘dead button eyes’; Lowell’s manic fits; Auden’s ‘strangely wrinkled face, like a Viking seaman – that sort of tan & wrinkles. Like a reptile – though not squamous, not unpleasant. Lively brown eyes.’ Henry Williamson, whom Hughes admired, he describes in a letter to his brother, Gerald, saying he made a mess of his life ‘with Hitlerism’, but has an amazing knowledge of wildlife, ‘though he is a bit of an old sod.’
He is more critical of Donald Davie, saying in a sympathetic letter to John Montague apropos of a bad review that Davie is a ‘grotesquely shrunken silly imitator of Pound’, the receptacle of every other critic’s ‘dud cartridges & empty cases’, ‘the mincy mean know-all kind of little office snot’. His poetry is ‘all creak and no cart’. This type of vituperation – unfair in Davie’s case – is rare, though he writes to Daniel Weissbort in early 1958 that England is ‘a vicious doghole for the most part. One half has a bellyful of acid and old iron, that’s the articulate part, and the mass, the proletariat, is a great senile toothless hairless white ape, blind, tied, etcetera.’ America, where he was happy with Plath, he describes as ‘glazed’, ‘boundless suburbia’, ‘plastic cellophane’. He is severe on Larkin, saying of his prose miscellany, Required Writing, that ‘the whole book’s outrageous propaganda for his own tastes & limitations & prejudices’. Believing that Larkin must have refused the laureateship (he later realised Larkin wasn’t asked), he writes to Leonard and Lisa Baskin that ‘his general all-purpose No seems to me not so admirable, & there were attractions in turning mightily to my advantage what he’d shied from.’ Again we see his canniness. Learning that Larkin has cancer, he writes with details of a healer whom in several long paragraphs he encourages Larkin to consult. (Larkin didn’t, and died a month later.) But when Larkin’s letters are published he says: ‘All that self-loathing, at full spurt, bubble, ooze & drip. His tribe laps it up.’ The letters are ‘stinking bile-green weeds’.
Like Larkin, Hughes was a devout monarchist, and this shows in a letter to the Queen Mother thanking her for having him and his wife, Carol, to stay at the Royal Lodge in Windsor. It also shows in his account of meeting the Queen. A letter to Prince Charles is signed ‘Your loyal and humble servant Ted Hughes’. In a heartfelt letter to Nick Gammage (15 December 1992), he claims that the monarchy has ‘deep psychological significance for the union’. He took attacks on the monarchy personally, and of course he had to take attacks on his laureate verses. This did not prevent him from admiring the work of that arch-republican William Hazlitt, as is clear from a letter he wrote to me just two months before his death from cancer, and which is included here.
The impression these letters give is of an imagination on a kind of ecstatic alert, along with a talent for running with an idea, as in this 1962 letter to Charles Tomlinson where he celebrates the vegetables he’s planted at Court Green:
my potatoes are rumbling in the earth like contented elephant herds, my beans full of bear’s nests & cottages, my peas wandering the neighbourhood & assaulting the local beauties, my turnips groaning, my radishes booming like bitterns in the dew, my onions threatening the house, my spinach singing quietly.
This sounds contented, but the next letter but one contains the account of his Hitler dream and the fact that things between him and Plath are irrevocable.
This is a thick volume – more than 700 pages – but it serves as a taster for the many volumes of collected letters which I hope are still to come. When those letters are published Hughes should be established with Keats, Hopkins, the early Yeats and Elizabeth Bishop as one of the most important letter-writing poets. The Selected Letters is sensitively and meticulously edited by Christopher Reid (the one mistake I noted is the attribution of Antigone to Euripides), and in his introduction he says that an edition of three or four volumes, each just as big, could have been assembled. He has excluded letters that deal with environmental issues because their technical complexity and ‘immersion in the unresolved political moment’ would have made them impossible to annotate except at inordinate length. He also notes that often the letters end exactly at the bottom of the page, and yet appear to say as much as, and no more than, the occasion warranted. It is only when we have the whole, no doubt unwieldy, mass of the letters before us that we can begin to make sense of the driven, joyous, intent imagination they portray. Obviously there is too much rawness, intimacy, distance, difficulty, weight and mass to have a collected letters nine years after Hughes’s death, but we need to recognise that it is from the collected letters that we must hew the selected.