Ted Hughes, The Life of a Poet, Elaine Feinstein, Weidenfeld & Nicholson £20.00 hbk 273 pp
Candy Cotton Kid and the Faustian Wolf, Sandra Lester, Q.Q. Press (COLLECTIONS) £3.00 12pp
Like Ariel’s Gift, Erica Wagner’s gloss on Birthday Letters, Life of a Poet is most interesting when Hughes speaks — the astrologically informed ‘the light is disastrous’, his confession on Birthday Letters ‘strange that we have to make these public declarations of our secrets’. One would sooner have the publication of his correspondence with Seamus Heaney, locked in the archives at Emory until 2022, or the wider publication of the limited edition volumes Capriccio and Howls and Whispers than a biography. Like Yeats, Hughes wrote at his best towards the end of his life.
Elaine Feinstein, a friend of Hughes, does give a 3D portrait of Plath and Hughes’ relationship together and makes an excellent job of chronologically matching his poems to real-life events. There are plenty of revelations throwing light on poems like ‘Pike’ and ‘The Last of the 1st/5th Lancashire Fusiliers’. We also get a sense of his affectionate long-distance relationship with his brother Gerald who took him hunting as a child, and his sister Olwyn. Yet, Hughes documented the most pivotal events of his life, both in verse and prose, as collected in Winter Pollen. Feinstein can chronologise and she links things capably, but she can’t write Crow.
Hughes’ was a poet’s life; from his birth in Mythlmroyd he seemed to belong in a folktale. Navigating the text, loaded phrases abound; Hardcastle Crags, the Stubbings Wharf pub. Hughes is reliably idiosyncratic throughout. At his father’s funeral in 1981where freesias were dropped into the open grave, Ted threw in ‘a handful of wet, horrible, Heptonstall soil’.
However, for all the enjoyable anecdotes and vignettes, there is far more to be gleaned of Hughes’ character from his poems. He possessed a strange mixture of shrewdness and superstition that Feinstein mentions but does not examine. After a frugal upbringing in the ‘30s he developed an interest in psychic phenomena that would include astrology, the tarot, Jung and cabbalistic and hermetic mysticism. These arcane practices created legends even by the time he attended Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1951 to study English, and they foreshadowed both the view of Hughes in the eyes of his dissenters — a Heathcliffe – after the suicide of his first and second wives, and the extremes of psychic experience that he would undergo.
His insistence on folklore and apparently outdated beliefs, however much he overplayed them, is strange. Hughes linked his body’s health to that of his psyche, switching to Archaeology and Anthropology after a dream of a burnt fox persuaded him of the damage his prose-heavy English course was wreaking on him. Later he would blame ‘too much prose’ for giving him cancer. There is madness in his advising a fellow student to ‘emulate the actions of the weasel’ to avoid unduly distressing his mother. It is as if Hughes read the wrong books and brought his own nightmare to bear on him, like the autodidact Dr Frankenstein, to hound them both to their death.
The eccentricities were the by-products of an independent mind; Hughes went by past example not present opinion, hence his distance from The Movement (the failings of which Al Alvarez brilliantly encapsulates in his autobiography Where Did It All Go Right?), his pioneering publication of poets in translation (including Miroslav Hollub) and his sponsorship of the Arvon writers courses to which he donated his property in Lumb bank.
It was meeting Plath in Cambridge which focussed his writing. He refused to take a job apart from poetry, believing writing to require as much study as dentistry, unsustainable on a part time basis, which meant much doing without. He felt his way towards ‘a language that would break the taboo against dialect, a poetry that would be concrete and honest’, that avoided gesture.
Intensity of purpose coupled with a calm methodical approach was a trait Hughes kept until the end of his life. Feinstein demonstrates well the two sides to the man, both instigator and fortune’s fool; his ‘white-hot silences’ that could kill a mood and his often baffled reaction to unfolding events, the side that would write ‘for some reason I had settled on Woolacombe Sands’ in Birthday Letters.
Hughes’ empathy with animals led him to give up hunting and he rarely used his physical size to advantage. If anything, unlike the stolid brute who he appears to his accusers, Hughes is guilty of not standing up for himself, which created problems later. He never wanted children, although they grew to be a major part of his life. Instead of setting the course of things, Hughes was too passive. He admits as much in ‘The Inscription’ (Birthday Letters) where, meeting Plath after their separation, he ‘reeled when [he] should have grabbed’, telling her:
Do what you like with me. I’m your parcel.
I have only our address on me.
Later, Feinstein describes how he stood by as his sister interfered with Anne Stevenson’s biography of Plath, Bitter Fame, despite his feelings.
At one point he wrote to his brother Gerald, ‘All I’ve been interested in is simplifying my existence so that I can write, and all I’ve ever done is involve myself with other people so that now I can’t move without terrible consequences on all sides.’
When it comes to the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath it seems that the book has entered a second stage. Their lives become entwined; ‘Your story. My story’ as he writes in ‘Visit’ (Birthday Letters).
Feinstein restores the balance of the Hughes’ marriage. Far from being heartless, friends thought Ted Hughes had the patience of a saint. He calmed Plath and gave her four hours a day to write, looking after Frieda in a period when most fathers felt little responsibility for the care of their children. Plath interrupted his writing 104 times at one count and his friends thought him too tolerant of his wife’s rudeness. Both her mother and Hughes were appalled at her unjust comments in both fiction — the Bell Jar —, journals and her letters — published in Letters Home. Yet when asked why he didn’t stand up to her he answered that ‘she couldn’t be helped that way’. He made no fuss although some saw him as a prisoner in his own marriage. Feinstein does not paint in black and white, carefully citing Plath’s compassionate note to a friend who had suffered a miscarriage as evidence of her compassion.
However, again as documented in Birthday Letters, after 6 or 7 years he believed the marriage risked killing him. While once he dreamed of a burning fox, he now believed heart fibrillations based on nerves threatened his life, and he took a mistress, Assia Weevil. ‘It was her or me’ he commented after Plath’s suicide.
It was Plath who got Hughes’ publishing career started. In a similarly direct way she informed Assia’s husband that she was having an affair.
For all those who read the journals and poems for clues to the relationship, ultimately there is no clear-cut answer or apportioned blame. Hughes and Plath were both basically good people under a lot of strain. As Feinstein points out, ‘He was not the only man in London to commit adultery, and although his infidelity had caused pain, he had never behaved with cruelty towards Sylvia.’
After their split, while Plath was often feverish and had lost twenty pounds in weight, Hughes was tricked into thinking she was happy with the break-up. She was a born actress. Only just prior to her death did he realise her feelings when she broke down before him. His instinct in the face of the wildest accusations following Plath’s suicide was to remain silent and avoid confrontation.
Feinstein balances the opprobrium with calm exegesis. She often presents a statement and lets the reader think ‘But hang on a second!’ before addressing it in the next paragraph. The only time my confidence in her even-handedness wavered was during her account of the days following Plath’s death. She seemed to omit Hughes’ self-damning comment ‘It doesn’t fall to many men to murder a genius’; yet this is later quoted in a different context.
Hughes and Weevil lived in the wake of her suicide and they blamed each other. Both were haunted by Plath, and even saw her, as poems in Howls and Whispers attest. ‘I hear the wolves howling in the park and it’s very apt’ said Hughes at the time. While writing Crow his comments to Assia leave the reader dumbfounded at his bluntness and are almost beyond Feinstein’s rescuing. It is damning that she could not join her sister, although severely depressed, for fear of Hughes finding another woman in her absence. Yet damned is what Hughes appears to have been. The episode seems like something out of Thomas Hardy’s bleak Jude the Obscure. Assia and Ted’s daughter, Shura, is described as ‘weeping with no immediate cause, crying in her sleep, the wailing of nightmares’. In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm writes that the feelings of Hughes after the death of Assia and Shura can hardly be imagined. Nowhere does Feinstein approach such levels of understanding.
She whizzes through the late seventies and entire eighties like an encyclopaedia reference with interesting quotes. In 1984 Hughes’ laureateship accorded with his dedication to writing and belief in its power to heal the human spirit. Starting in 1989 he spent five years writing an analysis of Shakespeare and began to explore myth to see how man lives. Shakespeare had similar preoccupations as Hughes: the hatred of puritanism, and a passionate interest in occult neoplatonism and Rosicrucian mysteries. Come the 1990s he was ready to address the subjects in his life that he had kept to himself. Capriccio was written on the subject of his love affair with Assia Weevil. He claimed his cancer began during the writing of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, a spiritual malaise which may have spurred him to address his private psyche. As Auden said, ‘cancer’s a funny thing’.
He went from strength to strength. He leant on Ovid, finding an understanding that human passion, taken to an extreme, engages with an experience of the supernatural. It was his first hand experience of tragedy that so qualified his version of Pyramus and Thisbe, with its lovers speaking through a ‘crawlspace’.
Finally, in 1997 he published Birthday Letters, an act which left Germaine Greer ‘so excited [she] almost couldn’t speak’. Never one to boast about his good deeds, his continued loyalty to Plath was shown within these pages. It told the truth of their relationship in a way in which, in the words of John Carey: ‘responsibility became a figment valid only in a world of lawyers as moralists’. Hughes was better placed to comment than his critics and for all their attacks on the accuracy of the poems, the impression of things and what can be learnt from reflection may be more important than what actually happened. Poetically it is true.
Feinstein brings a correct emphasis on the excellence of his uncelebrated late work collected in New Selected Poems 1957 – 1994. When he came to look back over the past 30 years in 1990, Feinstein compares him with his father, one of seven survivors from a legion in Gallippolli; a writer of grief.
Let not the Plath mythos loom over Hughes’ achievements. He created a huge volume of work and, as demonstrated by the congratulations he received on his Laureateship, meant a lot to a lot of people. Feinstein makes a good job of repairing some of he damage Hughes’ reputation has suffered by people who used the basic facts of his life as a projecting post for their concerns. A poet, her prose is readable and concise (Thom Gunn differed from Hughes in enjoying ‘the enclosed-greenery of parks’). Hughes had an interesting life, yet his achievement seems so vast that it may not be possible to encapsulate it in a book as slim as this (the bibliography at the end of this book is a good guide for those wishing to seek out his extraordinary articles on fishing and hunting). Rather, in the vein of Anne Skea’s specialist work on his interests in cabbalistic and hermetic mysticism, or Paul Bentley on his interest in shamanism, separate books will be written on his children’s books and his plays, exactly the subjects which are not adequately treated here. Like books on Bob Dylan or Shakespeare, each angle will reveal rich seams.
As such, this is a portrait of the life of a man, not the poet that it promises. And he proved very human. His publishing of Plath’s poems pilloried him, as did his kindness in allowing Aurelia Plath to publish her daughter’s letters that included often downright lies about himself, while attempting to clear her name. It is such extremes of fortune and mixed blessings which informed his work in the 90s. Ultimately, like Erica Wagner’s book, we have another work that is mere padding, not a complement, to the man’s work. Beautifully bound, on inspection the writing behind the wax-jacket reveals Feinstein’s script, not Hughes’.
Hughes wasn’t blanket-dismissive of anything, appreciative of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, one of the better books about his first wife. Yet, Candy Cotton Kid and The Faustian Wolf is just the kind of thing that haunted him.
In lieu of the artistic correspondence between Hughes and Plath we now have echoing speculation about their relationship, as if every reminiscence, article, diary-entry or poem about them could provide a vital clue to what really went on. This brings out the amateur detectives.
Sandra Lester has a history of treating adults abused as children and it colours this work. In ‘Life of a Poet’ Feinstein criticises the dangerous hyperbole of Robin Morgan’s ‘The Arraignment’ thus; ‘even Hughes’ angriest critics did not believe that he had murdered Sylvia’. Lester takes this as a jumping-off point, manipulating the reader; ‘we cannot exhume Sylvia Plath’s frail body’ she writes, drawing up sides between the saintly ‘Sivvy’ and ‘Hughes’ the ‘black-eyed, conscience free notherner’, in terms of demonisation and spleen.
One can understand why such a subject could stir up strong feelings, yet this is a wrong-headed venture written to fit in with her belief. She assumes the facts and writes from them. And it is poorly expressed – ‘To all abuse victims: turn up your silent scream’ reads the inside cover, which would only result in silence.
Lester does not go for the reasoned approach — one wonders how far it would get her. But then Plath did not either. In Birthday Letters, Hughes’ ‘Fever’ corrects the hyperbole of her ‘Fever 103°’ but hyperbole did not make it any less powerful as a poem. By mixing her media it is difficult to know whether to judge the work as a poem or a premise. Poetically speaking, Lester does get it right, capturing what Feinstein refers to as Plath’s discomfort among ‘hills of indifferent iron’ as ‘the ocean bouncing, a senseless, liquid witness’. Musically alive, the word ‘Sivvy’ echoes its accompanying words, ‘conviviality’, ‘lasciviously’. Kiddy phrases such as ‘huckaback’ abound.
Some passages however, read as a précis of her journals. Plath made better stuff of her vivid life than ‘poisonous crabmeat, botulism, hell’ and the shrill hyperbole is a little wearing; her uncle’s penis a ‘laryngoscope phallus, all seeing eye’.
In terms of content, there is a barrier. According to Lester’s ‘study’ of Plath over the last year she supposes she may have been abused as a child. This begins as a slanderous question: ‘Did Uncle Frank violate Candy Cotton Kid?’ but later turns to assumption: ‘Sivvy re-lived vile rape.’ Hughes can speculate in this manner, as in ‘Totem’ (Birthday Letters), as he was there. And despite Lester’s claims, he has talked about Plath, if rarely, as in 1989 to Carolyne Wright published in Poetry Review.
Even more contentiously, Lester believes Hughes could have taken the chance of his last meeting with Plath to hypnotise her and suggest suicide. Why he would wish to do this is not explained. Hughes used hypnotism to ease the birth of her first child, which apparently worked after a 4 _ hour labour with no analgesics. Plath also wrote the marvellous ‘Mushrooms’ under hypnotism.
The trouble with this premise is that it completely strips Plath of any decision-making faculties of her own, while Assia Weevil is described as just ‘a second dupe’;
Amoral wolf, the highbrow mystic,
nose-picking slammerkin skald,
ensnared a second dupe.
By any standards, Plath and Weevil were self-possessed characters. Also, Hughes was not amoral; he was pagan but he respected nature and was loyal to Plath’s memory. She continues,
Wolf, green fanged, hot breath,
dribbled his auto-suggestions and flimflams,
raised the Bell Jar, wafted in gas
the unconscious programmed perfume.
Do we believe Hughes was evil? To anyone vaguely familiar with his work the regret and pain he has felt is evident. Wasn’t the cruellest event in his life his second wife’s murder of her child? Do we presume to know? Plath had attempted suicide before meeting him.
Lester may have written ‘with great passion’, yet consideration is missing. Ultimately, Hughes’ fate is far more interesting a myth than The Faustian Wolf and a lot more complicated. Sylvia’s letters to her ‘Dearest of Mothers’ — which Lester takes at face-value – often disguised the fact that she felt liberated by a psychiatrist who encouraged her to admit hatred for her mother. How does Hughes’ ‘merciless infidelity’ compare to Plath’s merciless suicide? If Hughes is the ‘odious destroyer of memoirs’ how does Lester account for Plath’s burning his work in progress on a false suspicion of his unfaithfulness? Hughes, the ‘hoodlum pilferer’ collected and published Plath’s work, despite its damaging effect on him, out of loyalty and respect for her. He raised their children well and it is clear he loved her.
Most damningly, the facts at the back of the book are wrong. When Plath and Hughes met, they did not admire each other’s poetry. Hughes made reference in Birthday Letters to how he was unimpressed by her work, and one of her poems had been roundly mocked in Broadsheet magazine.
Like ‘Pearl Harbour’ or ‘In the Name of the Father’, it is difficult to allow the manipulation of material to pass by and accept the work at face value; and worse than those two, it is a private matter. In the Silent Woman Janet Malcolm finds herself spying outside Ted Hughes’ house in Devon before coming to her senses and realising what she is doing. Here, Lester’s righteous anger seems to entitle her to trample all over the lives of two people she has never met, like ‘some occult pickpocket had slit the soul’s silk and fingered us’ as Hughes writes in ‘Ouija’ (Birthday Letters), misappropriating them to her ends. The danger of psychiatry is that everything has to have a discernible reason behind it, when that is not the way in life.
‘Pity’, begins the final verse, and it is missing from this poem. Lester goes on to describe the problem;
Veracity? Still buried among schistose tectonic plates,
shifting with each new theory.
If she had read more of Hughes’ work she would have more pity.
In their own ways, both these books suggest it is time to move beyond the Hughes vs Plath approach to biography.
York , UK
Monday, November 18, 2002