The most notorious, politicized and doomed literary couple in history.
Sylvia Plath was charmed into hunting out Ted Hughes after reading his poem ‘Hawk in The Rain’, and in 1956 she met his powerful and imposing presence at a party in Cambridge, ‘kiss me, and you will see how important I am’ she wrote in her journal. Their union was a collaboration of the haunting past, accurate premonitions of the future and a radioactive, almost occult intensity; the passion between them was so fierce and fast-pace they married the same year.
‘Oh, he is here; my black marauder; oh hungry hungry. I am so hungry for a big smashing creative burgeoning burdened love: I am here; I wait; and he plays on the banks of the river Cam like a casual faun’
– The Unabridged Diaries of Sylvia Plath
Their joint process of creativity helped maintain a sustained social and individual satisfaction between them, together they started teaching at institutions; they travelled to Spain, took a camping trip around the States then spent months purging ideas onto paper at a Writer’s Colony. After four years of free-roaming they settled in London to have their first child. Over the next few years of their marriage Plath published her first collection, finished her novel, suffered a miscarriage and went on holiday with Hughes to recover, returning home to give birth to their second child.
But from here things started to deteriorate: motherhood exhausted Plath, domesticity was stifling, she lost weight, spawned fevers, grew manically jealous of Hughes’s fanfare of female students and attempted to drive her car off the road. Depression faded her into abstraction, she was anxious and vulnerable, governed by nerves, and now without hesitation in public. Their marriage was soon under threat. ‘Tending to her insecurities was like trying to protect a fox from my own hounds while the fox bit me‘, said her husband.
Plath was very superstitious and she believed she conjured the arrival of an intruder. Sure enough Assia Wevill and her unscrupulous dark charm appeared on the scene, ‘here she comes, her perfumes before her‘. When this affair was clear, Plath banished Hughes from the house, steeping into a cathartic state of scribbling, writing Ariel in only a few months with what Alvarez (her editor) described as a hotness, and ‘full of venom‘.
Hughes was happy to leave, though he shuffled between the two women for some time, ‘in bed he smells like a butcher‘ said Wevill in her journal (she was a writer too and collaborated on a script with Hughes, though she had no real artistic ego to publish). At the point when Hughes stopped visiting Plath and the children, she settled into the status of a severely depressed American single mother all alone in cruel cold London with two kids and few friends- it was so painful to her that in the year of 1963 her only option was to take her own life, if only to escape the misery and isolation.
‘God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of “parties” with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering‘
– Sylvia Plath
Plath and Hughes had a rocky, tumultuous run. They moved around a lot as most couples do when the batteries of matrimony need a boost: they made bookshelves, moved furniture, tended to gardens to take root and build their nesting ground. But Hughes seemed to circulate more freely than Plath, verse came easy to him, critics (and women) were fond of him, and he was a natural seducer – but this was all part of what attracted her to him in the first instance. Whereas Plath was more of an introvert, she spoke about his work with pride but never mentioned her own, she struggled with inner crisis, the act of writing, and was only praised posthumously for her contribution to literature, despite her technical mastery and breakthrough in modern verse.
‘I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life. I can’t be satisfied with the colossal job of merely living. Oh, no, I must order life in sonnets and sestinas and provide a verbal reflector for my 60-watt lighted head’
– Sylvia Plath
They had been married six years before Hughes’s known infidelity, and in spite of all the disruptions and feuds, the smashing of furniture and burning rituals of manuscripts, all the exorbitant demands they enforced on each other, their relationship had been astoundingly close. They seldom separated for more than half a day at a time despite their temperamental unravelling, and they truly gained so much from their early shared love.
For example, Hughes encouraged her to invoke trance-like states for inspiration because he knew what she needed in order to help her write, to stay productive they practised hypnoticism and methods of the cabalistic together. He was attracted to her air of pseudo black-magic, and if they weren’t summoning spirits by drumming and spell-singing, they brought out the Ouija board for some serious sessions. For Plath channelling like this was a means of becoming in contact with herself, and her psychic gifts, at almost any time, Hughes said were ‘strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them’.
Hughes may have flirted assertively with women, taunting Plath until the approach of Assia’s lips became to much of a devilish temptation to deter attraction.
She sat there in her soot-wet mascara,
In flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,
Slightly filthy with erotic mystery –
Russian Israeli with the gaze of a demon
Ted Hughes, ‘Fidelity’, Birthday Letters
But Plath never mentions desire for any other man whilst in a relationship with him. In fact her journals rarely flare up anything negative about his character at all – Hughes only nemesis was death.
‘Living with him is like being told a perpetual story: his mind is the biggest, most imaginative I have ever met. I could live in its growing countries forever’.
– Sylvia Plath, Unabridged Journals
However, after Plath’s death Hughes censored and cut out a lot of her work, even the correspondences between Plath and her mother were edited by his hand. He was stubbornly reluctant to grant interviews or help research biographies for fear that the material (or ‘the sensational fabrications‘ as he called them) would be viciously used against him. He even destroyed the final volume of her journals, leaving no comment at all on her death until the summer of 1998 when he published Birthday Letters, finally speaking out about his ‘uncontaminated’ feelings for Plath.
What knighthood possessed me there? I think of it
As a kind of time that cannot pass,
That I never used, so still possess.
Ted Hughes, ‘Fidelity’, Birthday Letters
Hughes mentions her beauty, but not lustfully or lovingly, it’s almost as if he imagines her still alive, sleepwalking perhaps, pacified, but only to give her into trouble, camouflaging his own shame about the situation.
But inside your sob-sodden Kleenex
And your Saturday night panics,
Under your hair done this way and that way,
Behind what looked like rebounds
And the cascade of cries diminuendo,
You were undeflected.
You were gold-jacketed, solid silver,
Nickel-tipped. Trajectory perfect
As through ether.
‘The Shot’, Birthday Letters
Hughes said the right time to tell the truth was just before he was going to die, and right enough, he died that winter suffering a heart attack after almost two years of surviving cancer. Plath and Hughes’s second child was so devastated by this news, and already dealing with depression, he eventually hung himself years after the event.
After the leak about the verity of Plath’s suicide, her authorship of The Bell Jar and the severity of the strain between them as a couple, Plath was deemed a martyr, a heroine under tyrannical pressure, and Hughes was heckled at readings and punished as a wife killer. Some six years after Plath’s passing Wevill also took her own life, and that of her young daughters in what she called Plath’s ‘ghost house’ where she was staying at the time in Clapham Common.
In his later life Hughes felt cursed, he trusted a lot of his faith in mediation, shamanism and self-healing to cure his suffering of loss, acute illnesses and harbouring guilt. He was a very prolific writer and was Poet Laureate from 1984 right up until his death.
It is easy to find faults in the relationship between Plath and Hughes considering how tragically it cupped into closure, but Plath truly believed that she couldn’t live without him – they were astrologically fated, a rare conjunction of talent and focus.
‘How we need another soul to cling to, another body to keep us warm. To rest and trust; to give your soul in confidence: I need this, I need someone to pour myself into’
– Sylvia Plath
She needed his smell, his poetry, his force and encouragement, she needed someone to listen to her poems but also to take care of her. Plath needed Hughes’s unconditional love, his acceptance of her heart, as she believed that once you gave it to someone else, you simply could never retrieve it.
‘I desire things that will destroy me in the end”
– Sylvia Plath
I really enjoyed reading this,Janette, you’ve presented a very balanced view of Ted and Sylvia’s relationship. Just one quibble: Nicholas Hughes committed suicide some 11 years after Ted’s death not “shortly after”
Fantastic Sheila, I’m glad that you feel this, as it was something I wanted to be careful with when writing about this couple – the balance. And Re: Nicholas, yes, I double checked and you are right, just over a decade is not ‘shortly’ at all! – so thank you for this correction.
You’re very welcome re.the date and my comment about balance,Janette,I was glad you didn’t turn Ted into total monster!
Thank you for this article, Janette. I’ve read both Hughes and Plath since I first picked up Crow on its publication (1970 I think) for no other reason than my dad’s name was also Ted Hughes. I loved the biblical perversion of that book and started to do some back-reading. Of course I fell in love with Hawk in the Rain and all Hughes’s work. But when I discovered Sylvia Plath, it was like a conversion. I’d never read anything like it. How her writing avoided sounding like the rantings of a miserable, moody teenager and how she managed to turn confessional poetry into high art, mixing pain and humour and intelligence and insight, I can’t even begin to guess.
What tragedy their lives contained, and what unfulfilled promise – they were more Antony and Cleopatra than Burton and Taylor.
Whereas I marvelled at Hughes’s skill and enjoyed his use of imagery, Plath’s poems left me stunned. You know how you can walk out of a cinema after a truly great film and be unable to hold a conversation or even speak? Well, Plath’s poetry affected me like that – like Schiele’s paintings, like Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, like watching an eclipse.
I enjoyed the quotes from Plath’s diaries and extracts from Birthday Letters in your piece and, like all good writing, it’s inspired me to go and find out more.