Sorrows of a Polygamist

Mark Ford

  • BuyTed Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate
    William Collins, 662 pp, £30.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 00 811822 8

So much in the life and work of Ted Hughes was weird and transgressive that even now, 18 years after his death, it is hard to feel confident that his actions and beliefs and literary achievement can be judiciously and authoritatively assessed. For a start, he wrote and published at such a rate: Jonathan Bate’s bibliographic tally of Hughes’s books runs to more than seventy items, while the various Hughes archives contain nearly a hundred thousand pages of manuscript material. The vast Collected Poems edited by Paul Keegan and published in 2003 presents a poet who insistently ‘o’erflows the measure’, to borrow a phrase from Antony and Cleopatra, veering, rather like Shakespeare’s Antony, between the sublime and the bathetic, the uncannily sure-footed and the hysterically overblown. Is early, nature-fixated Hughes best, red in tooth and claw, or the minatory spinner of parables in Crow of 1970, or should the palm go to the bestselling Birthday Letters, in which Hughes told his side of ‘the most tragic literary love story of our time’, to borrow the headline on the 17 January 1998 front page of the Times, which paid £25,000 for the privilege of breaking news of the book to the world? All that Hughes enthusiasts can really agree about is the wisdom of drawing a veil over royal poems such as ‘The Song of the Honey Bee’, written for the short-lived marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, or ‘A Masque for Three Voices’, composed in honour of the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday. Yet even at his worst, as in these lines from the survey of 20th-century history he includes in his tribute to the Queen Mum, one can’t help marvelling at the sheer unlikeliness of what he’s up to:

Einstein bent the Universe
    To make war obsolete.
Ford swore his wished-for wheels would rush
    The century off its feet.
The Soviet Butcher Bird announced
    The new age with a tweet.

The butcherbird is in fact native to Australia, but that doesn’t stop Hughes punning on its name in his off-kilter search for a way of introducing the massacres that followed the Russian Revolution.

There’s a pun in the subtitle of Bate’s biography as well, ‘The Unauthorised Life’. The book was initially to be issued by Faber, Hughes’s main publisher and rights holder, but in March 2014 Bate learned that the Hughes Estate, run by his widow, Carol, was withdrawing its co-operation. So he had to find a new publisher, and his right to quote Hughes’s own words was severely curtailed, resulting in long passages of paraphrase that one senses have been carefully scrutinised by legal counsel. This withdrawal didn’t, however, stop Bate from detailing the priapic Hughes’s multiple affairs in the decades after his marriage to Carol in 1970, although he does withhold the name of his final lover, a property developer based in South London – in ‘Brixton, say’, as Bate carefully puts it – with few literary interests, but who apparently got him to play golf, thereby much diminishing his stature as a ‘savage god’ in the eyes of his fishing buddies. Ted Hughes measuring up a putt … it’s like trying to imagine Heathcliff playing tiddlywinks.

Revelations like this are more likely to do damage to Hughes’s reputation than Bate’s salacious accounts of his complex juggling of simultaneous affairs, a number of which had already been revealed by Emma Tennant in her memoir, Burnt Diaries (1999), and by Elaine Feinstein in her biography of Hughes from 2001. Like his hero Robert Graves, Hughes tirelessly pursued the White Goddess, or the Goddess of Complete Being as he called her in his study of Shakespeare, both in his imagination and in the forms that she assumed in the women whom he met and slept with. Few, it seems, took much persuading: Bate’s book is full of accounts of women going weak at the knees in the presence of the ‘fiercely sexy’ Hughes, to borrow from a Mills and Boon-style account of him by Erica Jong, who only just managed to resist the ‘vampirish, warlock appeal’ of this ‘wildman-from-the-moors’: ‘He hulked,’ she recalls, and ‘reeked of virility … You could inhale the man’s pheromones across the table, this stink of masculinity and musk that must have worked on countless girls.’ One unnamed woman apparently confided to Bate that when she met Hughes at a party she found herself so violently attracted to him that she had to go to the toilet and vomit.

Should these anecdotes and others like them be included in what Bate initially told Carol Hughes that he meant to write, a ‘literary life’? She felt not, and shortly after the book was published in October the estate issued a complaint about Bate’s numerous factual errors and penchant for ‘tasteless speculation’. Its style and approach, it’s true, bring Kitty Kelley to mind more often than Richard Ellmann: it is aimed squarely at an audience conceived as wanting its close readings of ‘Pike’ and ‘The Thought-Fox’ leavened by details of Hughes’s ‘vigorous’ love-making, and likely to be impressed by pseudo-profound sentences such as ‘Hughes’s poetry was the history of his own soul,’ or would-be moving ones, such as the eight-word paragraph with which Bate invites us to grieve over Hughes’s death: ‘The jaguar was at rest in his cage.’ Particularly significant pronouncements or developments are delivered breathlessly, as so often in biographies that pander to a hunger for the sensational, in sentences that lack a main verb: ‘Then a row, an explosion of anger. Sylvia, a trapped animal, brought fresh from the shining shore of the New World and confined in Yorkshire cold, Yorkshire grime, Yorkshire ways she does not really understand.’ How could a book written in this way, I frequently found myself wondering, be the work of a critic knighted for his services to literary scholarship?

Still, if the life of any English poet of the postwar era lends itself effortlessly to the genre of the mass-market biography, it is obviously that of Hughes. His relationship with Plath has for decades exerted a powerful fascination across the cultural spectrum, generating both sophisticated psychoanalytical readings, such as those put forward by Jacqueline Rose in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), and the schlock movie Sylvia (2003), in which Hughes was played by Daniel Craig and Plath by Gwyneth Paltrow. From the early 1970s more or less until his death Hughes was a major hate figure for those he and his sister, Olwyn, derisively called ‘women’s libbers’, who vilified him as the murderer of a great and courageous feminist poet. In 1972 the American poet and activist Robin Morgan published Monster, a book that included a piece in which a gang of Plath aficionados are imagined castrating Hughes, stuffing his penis into his mouth and then blowing out his brains. In Britain a militant anti-Hughes faction took to chiselling his name off the headstone erected in Heptonstall churchyard above the grave of ‘Sylvia Plath Hughes’. The penultimate poem in Birthday Letters, ‘The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother’, presents Hughes’s response to such attacks: he figures his antagonists as ravening hyenas battening on Plath’s body, eager to ‘Bite the face off her gravestone,/Gulp down the grave ornaments,/Swallow the very soil.’ It was, however, only when he knew that his own death was imminent that he felt able to denounce his detractors head-on in this way, and to publish his own version of the events leading up to the early morning hours of 11 February 1963.

Although even-handed in its retelling of the Plath-Hughes courtship and marriage – much more so than, say, Anne Stevenson was able to be in her ‘authorised’ biography of Plath, Bitter Fame (1989) – Bate’s book may well go some way to appeasing the ire of those who sought to arraign and convict Hughes for an unspeakable crime. As Bate tells it, Hughes had no need of others’ vitriol to feel haunted and tormented for the 35 years that followed his first wife’s death. He suffered as much as they could have wanted. And while some may find specious Bate’s theory that Hughes’s serial infidelities were in fact a way of staying faithful to the memory of Plath – an argument that certainly pushes to a new level of sophistication the Cole Porter lyric ‘I’m always true to you darling in my fashion’ – it’s hard not to feel that Hughes never escaped the baffling labyrinth into which his relationship with Plath led him. It is to the doomed Minotaur rather than the heroic Theseus that he compares himself in ‘Paris 1954’, which opens his last collection, Howls & Whispers (1998). The poem begins with a recollection of a trip to visit Olwyn in Paris shortly after he graduated from Cambridge: drinking wine, eating Gruyère alone in a café, he feels ‘ready for anything’. Unknown to him, however, and wholly unsuspected, a scream is slowly but steadily approaching:

It resembles a white mask with spread fingers
That will grab and drub and wring his heart
Like a bandage impossible to clean.
A scream
Resembling a nuclear melt-down
That will render his whole world untouchable
Or touchable only with a penalty
Of radio-active burn. A scream
That will lock him up in a labyrinth
Made of ordinary streets
As if he were the Minotaur.

This scream is approaching disguised ‘in the likeness of a girl’, and it will initially sound like laughter and hope, ‘like all happiness, all hope’.

Here, as in a number of poems in Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers, Hughes presents himself as an unwitting victim who happened to get caught up in the impossible Plath family romance, as a mere stand-in, or a pawn to be sacrificed in her quest to resurrect or punish her unreachable dead father. But it was the affair with Assia Wevill, on which he embarked in the summer of 1962, that was the most obvious catalyst for the breakdown of their marriage, and the vertiginous see-sawing emotions, captured so brilliantly and originally in her late poems, that eventually resulted in her suicide. While at times he tried to think her early death was inevitable, that he played only a minor part in driving her to the ‘Edge’, to borrow the title of her final poem, in which ‘the woman is perfected’ and ‘her blacks crackle and drag’, Bate provides much diary and manuscript evidence suggesting that his urge to exonerate himself was only a partial response to his overwhelming feelings of guilt and the prolonged, tortuous pain he endured in the wake of her suicide. However active and varied his sex life, he still felt marooned in his ‘doubled alive and dead existence’, as he put it in another Howls & Whispers poem, ‘The Offers’, which records three dream meetings with Plath in the months after her death. Her ghost addresses him only on the last of her appearances, which occurs just as he is lowering himself into the bath. ‘This time,’ she sternly admonishes him, ‘Don’t fail me.’

Bate’s researches tend to make Hughes’s behaviour seem even more ‘unauthorised’ than had previously been suspected. On finally freeing himself, after six years of strict monogamy, from the bonds of marriage, he took up not only with Assia Wevill but also with a woman called Susan Alliston, who is mentioned in ‘18 Rugby Street’, in Birthday Letters, as ‘holding me from my telephone/Those nights you would most need me’. Alliston, who also wrote and published her own poetry, and was interested, like Hughes, in anthropology, was working as a secretary at Faber when she met him in November 1962. The Saturday before Plath killed herself, Alliston spent the night with Hughes in his pied-à-terre on Cleveland Street, just off Tottenham Court Road. Her diary of the following day records his reaction to Plath’s late night and early morning phone calls:

Ted leaned over the telephone, saying ‘Yes, yes’ – being non-committal, saying ‘Take it easy Sylvie.’ He came back to bed, turned his back, clasped his head in his arms, ‘God, God’, he said. And said how she seemed drugged or drunk and wanted him to take her away somewhere. ‘But if I go back, I die,’ he said.

Perhaps to avoid these calls, they shifted quarters to a flat belonging to a friend of Hughes’s at 18 Rugby Street in Bloomsbury, which happened to be the house in which Hughes and Plath had spent their first night together back in March 1956. In the unfinished ‘Last Letter’, intended for Birthday Letters but not published until 2010 (when it appeared, to great fanfare, in the New Statesman), Hughes grimly wondered how often Plath had called his Cleveland Street number on the freezing night of Sunday, 10 February, calls she would have had to make from a payphone on Primrose Hill since her Fitzroy Road flat still had no phone. When Hughes eventually returned to Cleveland Street on the Monday, he lit his fire and settled down at his desk:

And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.

Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead.’

In a letter to Olwyn he later reflected: ‘I was the only person who could have helped her, and the only person so jaded by her states and demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it.’


In the months following Plath’s suicide Hughes started work on a peculiar narrative that was to develop into what is, to my mind, his most compelling book, as well as his strangest, Gaudete (1977). It began life as a screenplay that transposed the Dionysian frenzies of Euripides’ Bacchae into a rural English context. He initially hoped to interest Ingmar Bergman in the project, and it’s possible that the scenario’s exploration of the clash between guilty repression and erotic abandon might have appealed to Bergman had the script, which was completed by January 1964, ever reached him. It didn’t; Hughes put the screenplay aside, but decided a decade later to use it as the basis for a long poem – though much of Gaudete is in fact in prose – detailing the exploits of an Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Nicholas Lumb, who convinces all the women in his parish that he is to impregnate one of them with a child who will grow up to be the next Messiah.

Actually, it’s more complex than that: the book’s Argument explains that the rampant reverend who proves so sexually irresistible to his female parishioners is in fact a changeling made out of an oak-log. The original Reverend Lumb has, for some unexplained reason, been whisked away by elemental spirits, who have left in his place a duplicate filled with ‘elemental spirit life’. It is this log-changeling-Lumb who drives all the parish women mad with desire, even though he himself is rather tiring of servicing them all, and feeling ‘nostalgia for independent, ordinary human life, free of his peculiar destiny’. There are overt phallic implications in Hughes’s choice of surname for his vicar, a lumb being a Yorkshire term for a factory chimney, plus a biographical hint too: in 1969 Hughes had bought a property in Yorkshire called Lumb Bank. The reverend’s first name, Nicholas, invites us to ponder the extent to which he serves as a means of dramatising Hughes’s ‘doubled alive and dead existence’: the 17th-century Nicholas Ferrar, founder of the community at Little Gidding, was an ancestor on Hughes’s mother’s side, and the subject of a poem in Lupercal. His importance to Hughes was signalled by his and Plath’s choice of name for their son, Nicholas Farrar Hughes.

Gaudete opens on the day on which the spirits have decided that the changeling’s time is up; it describes both his frenetic coupling with various members of his sex-coven, and the violent punishment meted out to him by the cuckolded husbands of the parish. The narrative culminates in a ritualistic orgy, one that also involves human sacrifice, organised by the village’s highly irregular Women’s Institute, and the immolation of Lumb, as well as a pair of his maenad-parishioners, on a pyre in the church basement. The changeling’s death in turn releases the original Lumb from the fairy world, and he shows up in the West of Ireland, ‘where he roams about composing hymns and psalms to a nameless female deity’.

While certainly Hughes’s oddest attempt to explore his own peculiar destiny, the result is a mesmerising fusion of provincial English life with the realm of ancient cults and pagan sacrifices: imagine an episode of The Archers morphing into an account of Jungian archetypes acting out libidinous compulsions or thirsting for gory revenge. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land and Auden’s The Orators, Gaudete deploys the anthropological as a means of rupturing the surfaces of contemporary reality, but Hughes is less of a social satirist than Eliot or Auden, more in thrall to the acts of violence and possession the narrative depicts. The initiation ritual by which the log is turned into Lumb’s double involves extensive whipping of Lumb’s bald head and the sacrifice of an enormous white bull. The scene combines the lineaments of a modern torture chamber – a windowless room, a concrete floor, unnamed men wielding whips ‘hard and heavy as a lump of wire cable’ and brandishing electrified clubs – with the arcane rituals of a primitive religious offering: his flogging finally over, Lumb is forced to shoot the bull in the brain with a pistol, then spreadeagled beneath its corpse while its belly is split open down to its testicles:

Half a ton of guts
Balloon out and drop on to Lumb.
He fights in the roping hot mass.
He pushes his head clear, trying to wipe his eyes clear.
Curtains of live blood cascade from the open bull above him.
Wallowing in the greasy pulps, he tries to crawl clear.
But men in bloody capes are flinging buckets of fresh blood over him.

The visceral, throughout Gaudete, has the unexpected effect of enabling the visionary and the absurd to co-exist, rather than to cancel each other out. There is very little interpretation offered of the forces that compel the poem’s actors or action; the effect of Lumb, or rather of the fake Lumb, on his female parishioners is as inexplicable but impossible to resist as an Ovidian transformation: ‘Inside Felicity a solid stone-hard core of honey-burning sweetness has begun to melt/And she knows this is oozing out all over her body.’ Casting all other considerations aside, the women become ‘cells in the glands of an inconceivably huge and urgent love-animal’, and assume, at the climactic ceremony, the trappings of real animals, such as the fox and badger, while Lumb’s bald head is fitted with stag antlers, and the ‘russet bristly pelt of a red stag’ is tied across his naked back. The unfortunate Felicity has the ‘blueish pale-fringed skin of a hind’ placed on her shoulders by the foxy Maud; she knows she is to be sacrificed, but not until after she has played her part in proceedings very far removed from standard WI celebrations of Jerusalem and jam. Amid pipe and drum music that is like ‘the tumbling and boiling of a cauldron’, Maud straddles Felicity’s neck, grips her hair, and forces her forehead to the floorboards, allowing Lumb to mount her ‘from behind like a stag’. But, as in any tabloid fantasy of cultish doings, sex must lead on to murder:

And Lumb’s mouth stretched open, like a painted mask,
Utters a long cry inside the cry
That is now torturing all of them
As they all cry together
As if they were being torn out of their bodies
And Maud’s scream rips out the core of the sound
As she drags Felicity, by the hair,
Simultaneously forward and out
From between her knees.
Tries to stand
As Maud, lifting both fists locked together above her head
Brings them down with all her crazy might on to Felicity’s bowed nape.

In her locked fists is Lumb’s dagger. Maud eventually commits suicide, and Lumb, attempting to escape his pursuers by hiding in a lake, is shot by one of the village’s outraged husbands. The three bodies are laid side by side on a pyre in the church basement, doused with petrol, and set alight. Meanwhile, some girls playing by a lough in the West of Ireland are astonished when a man with a scarred bald head invites them to witness a miracle: he makes a weird whistling noise, and out of the lough comes an otter-like creature that scares and amazes them, before sliding back into the water. (Hughes was, incidentally, a big Tarka the Otter fan, and once characterised the Oswald Mosley-loving Henry Williamson as a Devonian shaman, ‘a North American Indian sage among Englishmen’.) The man leaves behind a notebook full of poems, which the girls take to the local priest. These poems, which make up the epilogue to Gaudete, turn out to have been inspired by Hughes’s reading of various South Indian devotional lyrics that he had come across in a Penguin Classics anthology in 1973. Bate persuasively argues that Hughes found in these poems a fresh template for his ongoing quest for a poetic mode that would combine the archetypal and the personal – that is, one that would allow him to write about his anguish without being overtly confessional. But the sequence reads more like an elliptical series of jottings for poems than a convincing imaginative breakthrough; while they may mark the start of the odyssey that would lead to Birthday Letters, they also show that vatic indeterminacy didn’t really suit Hughes’s particular poetic gifts.

The ‘veteran of negatives/And the survivor of cease’ is how Hughes characterises the ‘half a man’ introduced in the first of these lyrics. It was in 1969 that the ‘negatives’ in Hughes’s life multiplied each other most gruesomely. In March that year Assia gassed both herself and her four-year-old daughter by Hughes, Shura, in her flat in Clapham. She had grown tired of sharing Hughes with his two women down in Devon, Brenda Hedden (a social worker) and Carol Orchard, a local farmer’s daughter and nurse, who would become his second wife. Hughes did, on occasion, explicitly question the implications of his Lumb-like behaviour in his private journal, noting, for instance, of this particular erotic triangle: ‘3 beautiful women – all in love, and a separate life of joy visible with each, all possessed – but own soul lost.’ The sorrows of the polygamist … Although less jealous and possessive than Plath, Assia had her own moments of despair and fury: in a will she made in April 1968 she left to Hughes only ‘my no doubt welcome absence and my bitter contempt’. As the errant poet struggled to manage his handily alphabetised commitments to A, B and C, as he referred to them in his journal, Assia battled with the complexities of the situation in which she found herself after Plath’s suicide. Hughes’s ‘The Error’, from the suite of Assia poems collected in Capriccio (1990), presents her subsequent death as almost a direct consequence of Plath’s:

When her grave opened its ugly mouth
Why didn’t you just fly,
Wrap yourself in your hair and make yourself scarce,
Why did you kneel down at the grave’s edge
To be identified
Accused and convicted
By all who held in their hands
Pieces of the gravestone grey granite
Proof of their innocence?

The parable in John of the woman sentenced to be stoned to death after being taken in adultery receives a new twist in Hughes’s figuration of the stones being of granite as grey as the first wife’s gravestone.

It was, or so Hughes firmly believed, the news of this second catastrophe that hastened his own mother’s death. Assia had been far from popular with Hughes’s parents and Yorkshire relatives, who disliked her Mayfair manners and upper-class accent, and, like the stone-throwers of ‘The Error’, held her responsible for the break-up of his first marriage. Hughes, according to Bate, was convinced that his parents’ hostility to Assia had played a major part in fomenting her gathering resolve to put an end to her misery. Although he initially managed to keep news of this ghastly repetition of events from his mother, who was herself in hospital following a knee operation, she eventually learned of it from Hughes’s father, and she died a few days later. ‘I’ve no doubt that the shock and the agitation was fatal,’ he wrote to Plath’s mother, Aurelia – whose feelings about her son-in-law, and the father of her grandchildren, were also, to put it mildly, radically conflicted. And then, in August, to cap things off, Susan Alliston died, a victim of Hodgkin’s disease. Hughes visited her in the last stages of her illness at University College Hospital, in whose morgue he had identified Plath’s body some six and a half years before: ‘Felt her hopelessness & loneliness,’ he observed in his journal, ‘her despair about future. I feel hollow and fake – since I betrayed her too, though not drastically.’

The grand guignol aspects of Hughes’s life put anyone who attempts, as Bate sometimes does, to sit in judgment on his behaviour in an awkward position, and liable to outspoken attacks from those who disagree. The reception of this book, which has been roundly condemned not only by the estate but in reviews by such as Craig Raine and Janet Malcolm, is yet further evidence that accusations of betrayal and threats of violence are likely to engulf anyone who tries to interpret the Hughes-Plath saga and its aftermath. Jacqueline Rose inspired a ferocious epistolary assault from Hughes for suggesting that Plath’s ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ included various cryptic references to oral sex. Although only on occasion fussy or disapproving, Bate’s book frequently made me feel that anyone intrepid or naive enough to think that they can do justice to all parties caught up in the Hughesian force field is likely to come across like a hapless Lockwood blundering into Wuthering Heights.

Hughes was never a protean poet, one liable to subdue himself, ‘like the dyer’s hand’, to the material he was working on: pretty much any Hughes poem is instantly recognisable as one of his, which is what makes his work so easy to parody. He was, nevertheless, a wonderful translator when put together with the right originals, as Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun discovered when they commissioned from him versions of three episodes from the Metamorphoses for their compilation After Ovid, published in 1994. One might initially have thought that Ovid’s wit and sophistication would clash disastrously with Hughes’s directness and immediacy, and indeed the jokes tend to fall by the wayside, casualties of the muscular, utterly engrossing manner in which Hughes focuses on the narratives that he brings so spectacularly to life. Recognising the potential of the marriage, and o’erflowing the measure as was his wont, Hughes produced versions of 21 further passages, and all were collected in his glorious Tales from Ovid (1997). It’s one of the great poetry books of the 20th century, and illustrates the superb timing as well as the extraordinary force of which his poetic idiom was capable. Like Pound’s Cathay, it takes complete and uninhibited possession of the characters and landscapes and stories that it reworks, offering a late but startling reminder of what the great shaman could do when fully in the grip of his demon. While it didn’t outsell Birthday Letters, issued in the publishing world’s equivalent of a coup d’état the following year, some nine months before his death, it may well outlast it – although perhaps only once, or if, what Hughes liked to call the Plath fantasia at long last joins the jaguar in his cage, and comes finally to rest.