Elegy for Sylvia: Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters

Featured Image: Sylvia Plath’s grave in West Yorkshire, England
(Flickr/ UncleBucko ) via WNYC (desaturated for this blog post).

Red was your colour

If not red, then white. But red

Was what you wrapped around you.

Blood-red. Was it blood?

Was it red-ochre, for warming the dead?

-from “Red” by Ted Hughes

One of my favorite books of poetry remains Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, however skeptical I was at beginning it. I first saw its grey-blue cover on a Blackwell’s shelf when I was studying abroad for a short summer in Oxford. After my purchase, I spent many a nights in gloomy pubs, sipping cloudy English cider, devouring Hughes’ transfixing words.

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I find myself coming back to this book frequently, and so naturally found it in my hands yesterday, as it was Hughes’ birthday  (1930-1998). The former Poet Laureate of England, he was also married to Sylvia Plath, which was what initially drew me to Birthday Letters, the heart-wrenching elegy to his brilliant wife.

The relationship between Hughes and Plath was one built on intensity, christened with one night at a Cambridge party:

And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face. His poem ‘I did it, I.’ Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists. – from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

The blood bound them like an old ritual, and they were married on June 16th, 1956 in London. Sylvia would be dead just seven years later.

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Plath and her children at Court Greene, July 1962. Photo via the poetryfoundation.org.

Their relationship, passionate but fickle, crumbled. Hughes was the accomplished spouse as Sylvia struggled to gain the recognition she deserved for her poetry. She was a perfectionist and Hughes was a womanizer, and Sylvia was tormented by his affair with Assia Wevill. Hughes soon abandoned Sylvia with their children, leaving her to face one of the coldest winters in England alone as an isolated expat, in a flat whose heat went on and off, as her depression continued to metastasize. After her death, Hughes would destroy her later journals, forever obliterating the thoughts that would perhaps shed light on the nadir she would never emerge from.

Then in 1969, Assia Wevill killed herself and the daughter she shared with Hughes.

This man, for all of his sins, has endured an unfathomable amount of pain.

I believe Birthday Letters is Hughes’ atonement, as much as it is his salvation. I had so many reservations before allowing myself to fully and deeply absorb his poetry, but I did, and I was swallowed whole by the themes of death and mourning, as transfixing and punishing to Hughes as they were to Plath, who was forever haunted by the death of her father.

His ghost lurked within their marriage like a cancer, something Hughes chose to ignore:

But I never looked, I never saw

His effigy there, burning in your tears

Like a thing of tar.

-from “Fairy Tale” by Ted Hughes

Sylvia’s ghost does not linger in the text of Birthday Letters; she possesses it. Her aura, her body, her mind, all are a corporeal presence in these poems, stunningly aflame, immortal as her words. Hughes tries to preserve her forever in his own bell jar of ink and pen.

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