Review of Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet by Elaine Feinstein
Nothing would ever be the same. Ted Hughes, still married to poet Sylvia Plath, fell in love with Assia Wevill’s marvellous, unnaturally huge, grey eyes resembling, as he put it, those of a “Black Forest wolf”. He wrote her a letter, and, as he recounts in one of his most beautiful poems, by way of reply: “She sent him a blade of grass, but no word / Inside it”. The affair, which began in June 1962, six years into the Hughes-Plath marriage, is often held responsible for Plath’s suicide by gas poisoning in February 1963. Six years later, fearing rightly that her beauty – “slightly filthy with erotic mystery” – had lost its hold on Hughes, Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter, Shura.
Nothing would ever be the same. Ted Hughes, still married to poet Sylvia Plath, fell in love with Assia Wevill’s marvellous, unnaturally huge, grey eyes resembling, as he put it, those of a “Black Forest wolf”. He wrote her a letter, and, as he recounts in one of his most beautiful poems, by way of reply:
“She sent him a blade of grass, but no word / Inside it”.
The affair, which began in June 1962, six years into the Hughes-Plath marriage, is often held responsible for Plath’s suicide by gas poisoning in February 1963. Six years later, fearing rightly that her beauty – “slightly filthy with erotic mystery” – had lost its hold on Hughes, Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter, Shura. Although Elaine Feinstein points out – a wry understatement – that Hughes “was not the only man in England to commit adultery”, he has undoubtedly paid the highest price.
Hughes lived most of his adult life as the target of vicious gossip and feminist rage. As Plath’s cult status turned legendary after her death, accusations against Hughes of domestic abuse and Nazi proclivities abounded, as did violent threats of revenge. Wevill’s death only confirmed his detractors’ misgivings.
His instinct in the face of the wildest accusations was to remain silent, just as his instinct in the face of physical threat was to refuse confrontation. Rightly, he did his best to avoid Plath’s native America. But his 1976 visit to the Adelaide Writers Festival was just as rancorous as any American encounter might have been. Women in the audience held up placards accusing him of Plath’s murder and hurled abuse at him.
Hughes’s reading was notably more stilted than usual, but none of these humiliations stopped him from initiating an affair with the festival’s then press co-ordinator, Australian novelist Jill Barber. His literary reputation in England, however, remained high, and Hughes was appointed Poet Laureate in 1984, an honoured position he held until his death, and Andrew Motion succeeded the post.
There’s no getting around Hughes’s womanising, but Feinstein doesn’t try to. Hughes made it plain that one woman was not enough for him and he maintained his multiple “entanglements” throughout his second marriage to Carol Hughes. Feinstein hints, but goes no further, at misogyny as a possible basis for Hughes’s philandering when she cites the lyrics to his favourite Irish ballad: “If it wasn’t for my mother I’d hate all women”.
To her credit, Feinstein debunks many of the myths surrounding the Hughes-Plath marriage. She stresses, for instance, that Hughes happily took care of his children for four hours every morning so that Plath could write, and she takes pains to remind us of how atypical this was of a 1950s husband. She also rejects the allegation that Hughes left Plath and their two children with no money in a freezing London flat the year of Plath’s suicide. It is true that 1963 was England’s worst winter for 150 years, but Plath was not poverty-stricken as her many biographers have imagined. Hughes had given her all the money in their joint saving account, and he had not frittered away their savings as some had charged: He had the cheque stubs and statements from the period, he assured Plath’s mother, to prove it.
Feinstein also defends Hughes against critics who accused him of making money out of his dead wife’s work. As Plath’s literary executor, Hughes changed the order of the poems in the carbon typescript of Ariel that she left behind (a not unusual editorial practice) and published the collection posthumously. In addition, he republished two more collections, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, as well as a Collected Poems, which won for Plath the Pulitzer prize in 1982.
His detractors were further incensed when Hughes allowed The Bell Jar – Plath’s “queer, slangy novel” as she described it – to be published in the US. Feinstein argues that Hughes had been reluctant to permit this as he was sensitive to the book’s hurtful portrait of Plath’s mother, Aurelia.
However, Feinstein explains that his hand was forced when he learned that US copyright law gave only seven years protection to a book published abroad by an American citizen. It was likely that a pirated US edition would soon appear, so Hughes decided that it was only common sense to secure future royalties for himself and his growing children. He could not have foreseen the royalties that The Bell Jar would bring him: a sum in excess of ₤50,000, an astronomical fortune in 1970.
But why did Hughes not defend himself and tell his side of the story sooner? Feinstein guesses at a couple of reasons. One is that Hughes went numb. The death of Plath, followed by the deaths of Wevill, Shura and then his mother only a few weeks later left him in a torpor he compared to a lobotomy.
But regardless of the reason, Hughes saw himself as a survivor. And although his own tragedies were domestic rather than political, he aligned himself with Eastern European poets who understood the damage that human beings inflict on one another in a cruelly indifferent world: Vasko Popa, Yehuda Amichai, and Miroslav Holub. These poets were not, in Hughes’s words, “the spoiled brats of civilisation, disappointed of impossible and unreal expectations. They [had] got back to the simple animal courage of accepting the odds”.
Feinstein’s biography is eminently readable, but how could it not be with a plot like this one? All told, its most disappointing aspect is that we are left with little more insight into Hughes’s psychology than we could gather from his poetry.
Although Feinstein knew Hughes for nearly 30 years, she writes with more conviction about the inner worlds of Plath and Wevill than that of Hughes. Perhaps it is because Hughes’s deep interest in astrology, spiritualism, and the occult – he regularly consulted the ouija board and astrology to schedule appointments and used numerology to structure his collections – is difficult to discuss without a working knowledge of the arcana.
Nevertheless, Feinstein does offer a balanced view of Hughes. While many biographers fall in love or hate with their subject – either of which can make for engaging reading – Feinstein sees the complexity of Ted Hughes. She rejects all “Heathcliffe” comparisons and characterises Hughes as a Yorkshire lad who loved the countryside: a generous, large-spirited, and brilliant poet struck down by naivete, sexual philandering and bad luck.
Feinstein’s critical analyses of the poems are lightweight, but they do tease enough to make you want to read more. Most of Hughes’s poetry is readily available, particularly his best-selling Birthday Letters, which chronicles his troubled but loving marriage to Plath. Unfortunately Capriccio, the poems in which Hughes recalls his love affair with Wevill, was printed in an edition of only 50 copies. At $US4000 ($7850) a copy, it will never reach more than a small audience.
Hughes died of a heart attack on October 28, 1988, in London Bridge Hospital, a private clinic close to Guy’s Hospital where he had been receiving treatment for metatastic cancer of the colon. He was 68.
Review of Ted Hughes: The Life of A Poet by Elaine Feinstein first published under the title ‘Poor Sylvia, Poor Ted’ in the Courier–Mail 16 Feb 2002: BAM 5.