For better or verse?

November 27, 1998

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. United in marriage and now in death. ButHughes's is the poetry that will endure, argues Valentine Cunningham.

The pairings-off that the canon loves so much - Homer and Virgil, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Yeats and Eliot - are marriages brokered mainly in the classroom. But what about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath? Married, never divorced, united now in the death that ghosted all their life and work: are they a case of those whom death hath joined together let no man - or, since feminist criticism has been so eager to claim her and spurn him, no woman - put asunder?

Plath - it has often been said - was a poet already, as it were, posthumous even before she put her head in the gas cooker. Now Hughes is dead too the question of posthumous reputation - his and hers - arises with all the more force. Who will last? Ted or Sylvia? Sylvia and Ted? Together? Apart?

The knives and the chisels have been out for Ted Hughes ever since his wife killed herself in early 1963, and they are no doubt being sharpened up again. The literally contested site of her burial place - desecrated by women admirers who chipped off the unwelcome part of the memorial name Sylvia Plath Hughes and then made off with the stone - is doubtless to be contested all over again since it now has, so to say, two people in it.

What is not least piquant about all this, of course, is the sudden change in Hughes's role. Death demotes him as manager of Plath's memory. A striking feature of the bitter war over Plath's reputation was just how much Hughes was central to it. He destroyed her last diary, arranged her poems for publication, pruned her papers for public access, fought with revisionist biographers and interpreters. He suffered demonisation, naturally, for his pains, got turned into Big Bad Ted, overbearing Male Controller, memory adjuster, fascistic eraser, vile archivist, eager to blot out all unauthorised versions of his dead wife's work. He kept on trying, though, right to the end.

His last volume of poetry, Birthday Letters, has him, yet again, striving to have the last word. Once more, though now at the hour of his own death, his poems came still enlivened by a death, by Plath's death. Parthian shots were never more emotionally argued. The last word from the valley of the shadow of death. The old guard dog rousing himself to snap and snarl against the critical grave-robbers. If Plath's awfulness comes through in many of these poems, academics and critics such as Jacqueline Rose, professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, are presented as the very devil.

Hughes's poem "The Rabbit Catcher", for instance, seeks in effect to revise Rose's offending reading of Plath's poem of the same name. (Rose suggested Plath's "The Rabbit Catcher" revealed confusion about sexual identity). As for Otto Plath, the pervasive German Daddy of Plath's writing, the obsessing father-figure for ever ousting Hughes from his wife's attentions, he is hardily wrestled with in Hughes's extraordinary poem "A Picture of Otto" - a magnetic reprise of Wilfred Owen's famous attempt in his poem "Strange Meeting" to come to terms with the German friend-enemy he had killed. "I was a whole myth too late to replace you," Hughes complains to Daddy, while still trying to kick him out of the way.

Meanwhile Hughes keeps presenting himself polemically to any feminist who will listen as Plath's devoted defender. He pleads for belated recognition as Plath's long-suffering nurse. She has held him in a lifelong jail sentence. Her poems notoriously carried sympathy for her Holocaust-haunted life, but Hughes was, in fact, the more haunted one. In "Your Paris", while she is the Jamesian ingenue abroad exclaiming over toits and Hemingway's traces he is truly overwhelmed by the city's wartime memories, the Camps, the "reopened/Mass graves at Verdun". The pressing subtext of the poem is that while her father was a Nazi only in her bed dreams, Hughes's really did scrape out of Gallipoli only by the skin of his teeth.

Birthday Letters tries hard to shift the spotlight away from Plath to give definition to Hughes's own trials, but never quite succeeds. What it keeps bringing home is a truth that will not be shifted, that Hughes's own torturedness has never not been inflected through a defining subjection to his wife's life and death, her Daddy fixation, her biographers' efforts. Birthday Letters is a crowning reminder of the symbiosis of two imaginations. It underscores a certain sense that if Ted and Sylvia survive it may indeed be as a pair. For theirs is a violent mutuality programmed in that smash-banging, stamping, ripping, biting, crushing first kiss that she recorded. They are utterly possessed by death, see skulls beneath every skin. They are predatory birds of a feather. They flay skins off the living, haruspicate, lust for blood. Admittedly she flays her own skin and pokes about in her own entrails while Hughes prefers other creatures' bodies for his attentions. But still a narrow, fixated morbidity keeps their work married. Does her "Sow", for instance, feed his "View of a Pig" or vice versa?

No wonder he spent a lifetime representing their relationship as a sort of self-consuming gothic picnic, an orgy of mutual cannibalism, a cohabiting in the same "dark intestine" (as in "Theology"). "His kisses sucked out her whole past and future"; "She bit him she gnawed him"; that's some "Lovesong". But then, as her poem "Daddy" has it, in an assertion no amount of feminist spin has been able to transmute into anything other than shocking, "Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute of a brute like you".

But for all the constant visceral intussusception of these two that Birthday Letters cannot help but underline, the collection is also, in the end, unfailingly successful in marking real difference - making distinctions that also indicate where the superiority of Hughes as poet might lie. A main point of "Your Paris" as of its neighbour poem "You Hated Spain" is to mark the difference between the displaced American tourist in her bobby sox all fresh from "college America" and quite alienated from the long bloody European traditions of Bosch and Goya, and the English narrator of these verses, son of the Gallipoli veteran, who is absolutely at home among such dreadfulness. "No literature course had glamorised" such "amputations", he alleges. Plath's Ariel poems would, though, do just that. "Lady Lazarus", "Getting There", "Daddy", would pose as the nightmares of a Nazi's victim, a person whose skin has been used for a lampshade, a Jew. But Plath's oppressive Daddy was not a Nazi, nor was sizzling in the volts of her own electric shock treatment the same as frying on the electrified German wire.

"I began to talk like a Jew." "I think I may well be a Jew." "I may be a bit of Jew," wrote Plath in these poems. But not really. These are mere fantasies of suffering, 20th-century horrors at some literary remove, European identity and nightmare as metaphor only, an aggrandisement of real but lesser distresses by baptising them in someone else's tears.

Whereas Hughes's tortured apprehensions, his eye for the malignity of creation, for the natural as red in beak, tooth and claw, are not so much fantasy as myth. He has really, you feel, been there, as his father really was at Gallipoli. He is not regarding an epoch's brutalisms through the windows of the tourist bus. Bosch's Europe is his own residence. So is Ovid's. The legendary grinning malevolence of Hughes's "Pike", his great early poem makes us feel, is as old and "as deep as England". His England. To know, encounter, invent, mythicise, such creatures, as his poems repeatedly do, is to register a kind of transcendence, something necessary and aweing for modern men without God. It is a kind of prophetic vision of an ancient English selfhood that indeed brings Blake to mind. It is a truth marked by the poems' perpetual rootedness, deep in the provincial places of this Yorkshireman's northern, dissenting imagination - a form of poetic being registered particularly in that astonishing tone, the kept-up hard-mouthed consonantals of what Michael Schmidt has called Northeron speech. It is, of course, what Gerard Manley Hopkins attempted and Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin achieved.

Watching Louis Armstrong perform, Adorno once said, was like watching a man committing suicide on stage. So it is with Plath's writing. Fantasy keeps tipping her poetry over into pathology. Hughes was not, of course, himself unattracted to fantasy. He could not ever have been Plath's partner if he were not. But the consolations, the tidiness, the dead-end orderliness of fantasy were not finally for him - as they were, of course, for the fanatically orderly Plath. Myth, as Hughes's poems keep proving, is by contrast messy - and is the more provoking to the imagination for it. Which is why Plath will be turned to more and more merely as a case, while Hughes will be read more and more as a poet. Mr and Mrs Hughes. A marriage of related minds and imaginations - but decidedly on the rocks.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English at the University of Oxford.

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