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Non-Fiction: Ted-time Letters

Ted Hughes, Christopher Reid, ed., Letters of Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)

Christopher Reid, who edited Ted Hughes, has done a painstaking and meticulous job of assembling and annotating the poet’s selected letters. He thanks Hughes’s wife Carol for “watching benignly and patiently over the entire operation,” and it could have been no small patience to choose these three hundred dense letters from several thousand that are archived.  

Candor and exquisite precision guide the expressions that Hughes practiced as a letter writer; even as a twenty-one-year-old student he composes long, erudite, and sometimes intellectually precocious disquisitions on artistic aesthetic that allude to the poet he will become.  In school he writes to his sister Olwyn, “Sometimes I think Cambridge is wonderful, at others, a ditch full of clear cold water where all the frogs have died. It is a bird without feathers; a purse without money; an old dry apple, or the gutters run pure claret.” 

Many will no doubt buy the book for what his early letters to Sylvia Plath might unveil; in this volume fourteen letters from 1956, the year of their four–month courtship and quick marriage, are included—they take up thirty type-set pages. Pet names are often invoked (‘Darling Sylvia Puss-Kish-Ponky’) with closing sentiments of love that Hughes will repeat, often in patterns of four. It’s clear; the mailbox with Plath’s address was one that gave him compelling energy and voice.   

Different influences can be felt in his brief-by-comparison letters to his mistress Assia Wevill, whom he was already seeing when Plath committed suicide in 1963. Their relationship, often conducted from afar, has a claustrophobic feel, with cryptic layers of convoluted backtracking, rehashing of weekends spent out of sorts, and chronicling and inquiring of illness by way of excuse for having caused yet another disappointment. The couple’s peevishness is often felt. “Sweetmouth, all of our difficulties blow up out of these long absences. And out of your occasionally tactless doings—you’ll have to admit that. And out of mine sometimes. But you mustn’t get depressed about it—you’re all chemical & fagged & warped around the infant at present, so don’t trust your reactions.” 

Later, in the same letter, Hughes writes self-consciously to Wevill, “Do you know what oppresses me?  the thought that you save my letters...Assia, I’m foolishly oppressed enough as it is with bloody eavesdroppers & filchers & greedy curiosity, & if you’re going to sit on all that for some Suzette suddenly to lay her hands on, then I can’t write freely.” It illustrates the ceaseless attention that surrounded Hughes following Plath’s death, and how he was keenly aware his private letters would probably find public place. 

 It seems incomprehensible, but in 1969 Wevill will take her own life and the life of their young daughter, utilizing a gas oven just as Plath did. Two weeks later Hughes writes to Plath’s mother, “this last horror has taught me one thing. Sylvia’s death threw my whole nature negative. I now see the senseless cost of that, for others as well as for myself, and I must in some ways set everything behind me if I’m to carry on at all.” The next year he would marry Carole Orchard, a farmer’s daughter from Devon “not very interested in literature,” but “exceedingly good for me.”

In the years that follow, there are many letters to poets, including Sexton, Merwin, and his friend Seamus Heaney; his own work is often referenced, along with a fascination for mysticism, astrology, and folklore. These passages help excavate the private person behind his ever–rising stature in the poetry world. 

Moving through the letters, it is impossible not to marvel at the breadth and scope of subject, and the consistency of tone that Hughes masters. In themselves, the letters are a colossal body of literature, but when grouped with the thirty books Hughes wrote and published—not to mention those he edited, including much of Plath’s work—the effort is monumental. 

The last letter of the book, to his elderly Aunt, is sadly triumphant; he proudly writes to her of receiving the Order of Merit from the Queen: “It’s the one everybody wants,” and he underlines the word every, then sketches a small but detailed likeness of the medal. Seriously ill by now with colon cancer, Ted Hughes will die a few days after posting the letter; nine days after receiving the prize that he believes we all covet.


Jackson Taylor

Taylor helped found the Graduate Writing Program at The New School. He is the associate director.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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