Crow Steered, Bergs Appeared:
A Memoir of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
by Lucas Myers
Review by Elaine Connell
Lucas Myers, Ted Hughes’s life long friend, has written a challenging, interesting and at times controversial memoir of Hughes and Plath which ranges widely over a celebration and defence of Hughes as a poet, friend, husband and seer, matters of historical fact, an evaluation of Plath’s life, personality and work intertwined throughout with some insightful comparisons of their poetry from his own Buddhist influenced perspective.
Above all, this book is a testament to the great friendship, admiration and devotion the late Ted Hughes inspired. Myers writes that Hughes: “attended to and developed his inner life more consistently than anyone I have ever encountered apart from advanced Buddhist practitioners.” Possessing a “capacious mind” Hughes had the ability to see beyond the person or their work to what they might be if they could achieve their potential and developed their inner lives as well as he had. This characteristic tended to lead him to overestimate others, obscuring their reality.
Myers believes that this was particularly noticeable in relation to Plath. Hughes was passionately in love often defending her in the face of what friends and family saw as aggressive and manipulative behaviour. From his own and others’ observations coupled with entries in her Journals, Myers maintains that Hughes was effectively Plath’s prisoner throughout much of their marriage. He implies that Sylvia’s jealous rages unconsciously pushed Ted towards Assia. He also makes a spirited defence of Hughes against the charge that he was a “destroyer of women.”
Far from being relieved by Plath’s death, it seems to have haunted Hughes for the rest of his life., The suicide/murder of Assia and their daughter Shura caused similar anguish. Hughes wrote that he was entirely to blame for both suicides — in Sylvia’s case because of “insane decisions” and in Assia’s because of “insane indecision”. The Hughes who emerges from this book is far removed indeed from the triumphant “Man in black with a Meinkampf look” of Plath’s poetry.
Myers presents Hughes as rising above circumstances which might have destroyed lesser men, dealing with many personal crises and maintaining a dignified silence in the face of what Myers labels the “Red Guards”, militant feminists who disrupted his readings, holding him directly responsible for the tragedies. Amidst all this disorder Hughes continued to produce great works.
Myers seems as if he has been perturbed by misconceptions about his relationship with Sylvia Plath. He is eager to assert that he was not Hughes’ rival for her attention particularly as he disapproved of her “bourgeois values” and “commercial instincts”.
He corrects a variety of other writers including Hughes himself in their accounts of the past. He is also highly critical of and eloquent on what he sees as the distortions and half truths promoted by the “hi-jacking” of the couple’s lives after Sylvia’s death and its effects on the Hughes family.
All of us have had friends who choose a partner we find it hard to like. In spite of his efforts to be fair, Myers cannot conceal his dislike of Plath. Consequently, for her admirers this may make for some difficult reading.
This distaste began as soon as he met her when, as a fellow American, he recalls being embarrassed by her pushy behaviour and his girlfriend’s comments on her red shoes. Such a small detail reveals a great deal about the limitations of British culture in the 1950’s and Myers’ desire to blend in with its insular, provincial mores. Myers felt that Plath pursued Hughes relentlessly and refers to the “subterranean” feel of their relationship. Most of Hughes’ close friends shared Myers’ reservations and even composed a comic drinking song regretting the relationship. Plath must have recognised this antipathy which may well have deepened her sense of insecurity.
Myers describes Hughes as being nearly as much a mother/nurse to Plath as a husband.
Indeed the stress of the situation in the later part of their marriage led to Hughes developing heart fibrillations from which he feared he might die.
Myers believes that a major problem was that where Hughes had a rich inner life Plath had a “blank.” In Birthday Letters Hughes himself writes of her heart: “mid-Sahara, raged/ In its emptiness.” This deficiency united with producing poetry for publication rather than a commitment to creating it led to the concentration of the introspective forces which killed her. One cannot help wondering how anyone can be quite so adamant about the content of another person’s inner life and also if it would have been possible to produce the startling imagery of Plath’s poetry and prose if she was so deficient in this sphere.
He makes guarded attempts to account for her “inappropriate” behaviour and subsequent suicide, raising the question of whether ECT had done damage and quoting his psychologist daughter’s diagnosis of “borderline personality”. Unfortunately, neither of these explanations is expanded upon. I feel sure that many readers will be intrigued by these ideas and would have welcomed more information about Myers’ reasons for making these statements.
Myers is not alone amongst commentators on Plath in remarking upon the unacceptability of her behaviour. However, one wonders if her personality would have been judged quite as harshly if she had been a man. Male writers have not been particularly well known for their performances as good husbands, fathers and friends. Madness, anger, alcoholism and frank violence have been common within their ranks and yet Plath’s faults seem to have attracted far more censure than anything meted out to the likes of Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer.
Myers sees Plath’s poetry as an extension of the vacancy of her inner life. Unlike Hughes, whose poetry he regards as originating from a healing impulse, Plath’s work is portrayed as: ” the illusory voices of the ego on the way down the clear drop.” This uncontested egoism did not acknowledge the lives and feelings of others which led to the creation of outstanding poetry out of the resentments which eventually destroyed her. A practising Buddhist, Myers maintains that if Sylvia had investigated the meaning of the ego with the energy she used for subjects which interested her she might have been saved from suicide but literature would have suffered as Ariel would not have been produced.
Whilst he sees Plath’s poetry as a “unique and valuable possession” containing lines as “memorable as any in recent poetry” Myers warns that if the reader identifies with their speaker there is the danger that they will become: “a vehicle for regression and resentment.” Once again the position of women in society at the time the poems in Ariel were written is ignored. Female anger and fury has always been regarded with terror and as potentially far more threatening than male rage. At several points in this book Myers does not seem aware that he may be reacting to this fear rather than the poetry itself.
I feel that Lucas Myers possibly has yet another book to write about Plath and Hughes, one which might concentrate entirely on their poetry developing further some of the differences he has outlined in Crow Steered: Bergs Appeared. This memoir is a valuable contribution to the study of Hughes and Plath and provides a stimulating read even if the author has made some uncomfortable observations.
Hebden Bridge , UK
Monday, June 3, 2002