‘Siamese-twinned, each of us festering’: Sylvia Plath and the Haunting of Ted Hughes

In this questioning and provocative essay, undergraduate David Lowry looks at Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters, and tries to understand what the poet was trying to achieve by - after a long period of silence - portraying his relationship with Sylvia Plath.

Ted Hughes first met Sylvia Plath at a launch party for a poetry magazine that he had set up with friends, and after only a few months of courtship they were married on June 16th 1956. After Cambridge both embarked on careers as poets and academics, having two children. Hughes became critically acclaimed for his first collection of poems, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), whilst Plath found it difficult to get published. This, along with Plath's history of mental instability (she had undergone electroconvulsive therapy following a suicide attempt in 1952) and Hughes' affairs, including one which led to a pregnancy, placed strain on the marriage and the couple separated in late 1962.

Plath committed suicide in 1963, and in the following decades Hughes himself was often blamed at least partially for her death. Plath was buried in a grave which read 'Sylvia Plath Hughes', at Hughes' insistence, and it has been the target of vandals removing his name. Plath's poems became widely admired after her death, yet Hughes retained editorial control over both them and her diaries, and numerous academics have criticised him for editing the texts to downplay his role in her mental breakdown. Indeed, whilst writing her seminal critical analysis, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, Jacqueline Rose was contacted by Hughes threatening to sue over some of the book's conclusions. Against this background, many were surprised when, in 1998, Hughes published Birthday Letters, a series of poems mostly addressed to Plath in which he discusses their relationship and life together. In this article I will look at how this relationship is presented in Birthday Letters and try to reach a non-partisan conclusion about the issues this raises.

At the start of Birthday Letters, Hughes describes his life before meeting Plath. In the two 'Caryatid' poems, Hughes is prompted into an analysis of his life by remembering the first Plath poem he read, which was of the same title. Caryatids are female statues used in place of pillars in classical buildings. This could be an apt metaphor for Hughes' life, suggesting reliance on the support of female admirers to bolster his esteem. The in the two poems gives the section a feeling of great space and temporal length, matching the 'airy emptiness' of Hughes' life. The use of slightly pretentious student vocabulary ('cornucopia', 'dramaturgy') adds to ironic sense of dullness.

This impression of Hughes' life before meeting Plath is very different from the one he presents as being hers before she met him in 'The Tender Place', in which several effects create a strong sense of pathos on the reader's part around the addressee of the poem, who is presumably Plath: 'the unknown agency' ('Somebody wired you up'), the reduction of Plath by metaphor to just another piece of wire in the electrical grid after they 'crashed / The thunderbolt into your skull', and the sad thought that the only effect noticed by others would be a dipping of the lights. The aggressive, curt short lines and the strong verbs in the active voice (rather than the less violent-sounding 'you were wired up') create an idea of Plath as a victim. Thus, it seems that Hughes figures the pre-psychology of his relationship with Plath in terms of her being a victim and him just being bored. It is debatable whether this enhances our view of Hughes by making the speaker appear concerned or even empathic or whether the speaker comes across as patronising. However, it is beyond doubt that the early poems of Birthday Letters establish that the following relationship and poems will be dramatic and emotionally complex.

Following this dramatic build up, the poem in which the pair meet, 'St. Botolph's', is similarly fateful. Hughes opens with a long discussion of astrology and then brings in the figure of who

would have assured us, shaking his sorrowful head,
That day the solar system married us.

The meeting, therefore, is engineered not only by fate, but also by poetry, and the reader gains a fuller sense of Hughes' sense of inevitability about the relationship. When the pair finally meet, Hughes describes it as a dramatic 'snapshot' in a 'hall / Like the tilting deck of the Titanic'. At the key moment the narrative is interrupted to tell the reader that 'Lucas engineered it' (it seems that a friend, Lucas Myers, one of the contributors to St Botolph's Review, arranged their meeting), so we are aware of yet another layer of pre-design, and grammar seems to break down. The sentences lack active verbs, giving the image a sense of timelessness and portraying it almost like the photograph which serves as a metaphor for Hughes' memory of the moment.

Hughes then embarks on a long . This again shows the poetic influence on their relationship and allows him to present a series of beautiful comparisons such as 'monkey-elegant fingers' or 'eyes [...] a crush of diamonds', which read almost like in-jokes. The tone of the whole poem is rather private, focussing on memory, and it is odd to consider that the poem was written long after Plath's death. By going back to the moment of their first meeting, Hughes recreates successfully the love which first encouraged their relationship. Without it, Birthday Letters would lack the true reason behind the suffering which comes in later poems.

After a courtship and marriage, which in the poem 'A Pink Wool Knitted Dress' is presented as a low-key but tenderly loving affair, things start to go wrong for Plath and Hughes in the poem 'Ouija'. Plath and Hughes use a Ouija board to contact a spirit who discusses literature with them and then talks to Sylvia, saying 'fame cannot be avoided', and that it will come at a price:

You will have paid for it with your happiness,
Your husband and your life.

The short sentences and the group of three ('your happiness, / Your husband and your life') in the final sentence give the prediction a decisive, authoritative feel, but the reader feels impelled to question the poem. It seems unlikely that Plath and Hughes actually contacted a spirit who told them this, which means that it is a piece of self-conscious fiction. Its fictionality makes us question the role of the author who is writing it, especially as he is part of the story he tells. Is Hughes expressing his views on Plath vicariously?

In later poems it becomes clear that he thinks Plath's ambitions were a factor behind the failure of their marriage; for example, in he asks, 'Weren't you / Twice as ambitious as Emily [Brontë]?' However, many biographers and critics have pointed out his own early success came at the cost of Plath's: she was left running a household whilst he wrote and made public appearances. The device of expressing his own views through the spirit of the Ouija board (which obviously has the effect of making them seem more authoritative) seems to backfire and constructed façade crumbles away. This gap between text and the apparent intention behind it seems to mirror the crumbling away of their relationship and the complex intentions and wishes behind it. Thus, whilst it may be easy to accuse Hughes of deceit in assigning his own feelings to the Ouija board, it actually creates a complexity in the text which conveys the problems in their relationship.

As the series of poems moves inexorably towards Plath's death, Hughes becomes more obsessed with the differences between himself and her. He is particularly motivated by her father, who is a shadowy presence hanging in the background. In her poem 'Daddy', Plath confronts her feelings towards her father, a German immigrant who died when she was a child. In the poem 'Being Christlike', Hughes discusses the issues involved candidly: 'a god / That was not your father was a false god'. In a series of short statements, Hughes aims to establish some of the facts, as he perceives them: 'you did not / Want to be Christlike'. The direct address contributes to a sense that Hughes is creating his own Plath: his opinion of her. There has been a tendency amongst some critics to idolise Plath and view her as a sinless victim of Hughes' inconstancy. In 'Being Christlike' this view is utterly dismissed. Through bizarrely religious language, Hughes sets up a 'reading' of Plath as a Freudian mess with incest fantasies.

In many ways, Hughes' obsession with Otto Plath is his explanation of everything that went wrong in the relationship and caused Plath's suicide. He is the only figure to appear in the final poem, 'Red', as Plath's fixation with the colour red is blamed on ', that your father named you after'. This one intervention in Plath's childhood caused the red-fixation which, Hughes suggests in the poem, caused her suicide. Red functions as a signifier for blood and anger in the poem, with Plath's red 'throbbing cell' a place where no good can happen. The final line, 'but the jewel you lost was blue', read alongside the colour link to Plath's father, suggests that things might have been different, had everything been different. Ultimately, this is the message of Birthday Letters. Hughes has been haunted by Plath for thirty years. In Birthday Letters he seems to have accepted this haunting and tried to capture things as they were, hoping perhaps to move on.

Further Reading

  • The biographical information underlying this article can be found in more detail in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (entries for Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath), and yet more in biographies of one or the other.
  • Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese - Robert Browning (himself a great poet) fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett after reading her first volume of poetry. Despite the fact that she was six years older than him (something considered shocking in Victorian society) they fell in love and 'Portuguese' was her nickname for him. These poems document her developing feelings towards him over two years.
  • Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath - Although mainly a literary criticism of Plath's work, Rose cannot ignore the influence of Ted Hughes on her subject's poetry and details it in a balanced and insightful fashion.
  • Sylvia - This film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, should be approached with caution. It is not always accurate, but it conveys well the atmosphere in which Hughes and Plath fell in love, lived and (in her case) died.

Further Thinking

At times, David Lowry (the author of the essay) thinks that the poems do not succeed in justifying Hughes' actions and making him a sympathetic character. On some occasions this seems deliberate - perhaps Hughes is trying to explore a complex situation in which nobody is perfect. Do you think these poems are attempts at self-justification? If so, do you think they work? Bear in mind that they were aimed at a world in which many interested observers already had strong opinions.

David Lowry mentions that the photograph is a metaphor for memory, and the whole collection is involved in remembering things that happened a long time before. What other metaphors for memory are there? Do you think they make remembering seem easy or difficult?

The continuation of a clause or sentence across line breaks.
Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, two of the greatest works of Medieval literature, also wrote a treatise about the use of the astrolabe, an astronomical instrument used by astrologers.
A form of description popular amongst Renaissance love poets, in which the whole of a woman is described through the detail of her features.
Wuthering Heights is a novel by Emily Bronte, written in 1847.
A type of plant, sometimes red.

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