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Syvlia Plath’s husband will be enshrined at Westminster Abbey

March 24, 2010

Ted Hughes

In America, Ted Hughes is still best remembered (reviled?) by many as the husband who drove Sylvia Plath to suicide. Even in Britain, news he will be given a plaque in Westminser Abbey’s Poet’s Corner brings out expressions of revulsion from some readers.

Such reaction is understandable, if uncharitable and lacking in sophistication. After all, Plath, who killed herself in 1963, gained posthumous fame for her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and for the “Ariel” poems she was working on at the time of her death.

The “Ariel” poems, which can be read, in part, as a deeply personal challenge to patriarchy, made Plath a feminist icon and Hughes a villain. The blow to Hughes’ reputation in some quarters worsened when the woman he left Plath for, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their four-year-old daughter in 1969.

Personal tragedies (and culpability for them) aside, Hughes led a long and productive life as a major poet and children’s author. He served as Britain’s poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. In 2008 the London Times named him fourth on its list of the 50 most important British writers since 1945.

John Burnside published an evocative essay in praise of Hughes in Sunday’s Guardian, recalling the first time he heard the poem “The Thought Fox:”

Sylvia Plath

“[G]iven how thoroughly Hughes has infiltrated our imaginations over the last half-century, it takes something of an effort to recall how surprising and fresh it seemed, in the early 1970s, to someone who hadn’t read anything much past Rupert Brooke. Yet it was surprising, and it was fresh, and I remember thinking, even then, that everything would be different from that moment on.”

Indeed, Hughes’ poetic achievements would seem above discussion. Yet some of the early comments in response to Burnside on the Guardian website are vicious. “Are you on drugs?” writes someone called “Happymeerkat,” while “goldgathers” claims “Hughes and his works have had zero impact on ‘my mental and spiritual habitat,'” and “rosettastoned” says flatly, “Absolutely loathe the man. Plath outshone him.”

Impassioned as the naysayers may be, Hughes is beyond doubt a major poet, easily deserving inclusion in the Poet’s Corner alongside the likes of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth, and Blake. He is, says the Independent, the first poet accorded the honor since John Betjeman in 1984.

The Guardian even produced an editorial in praise of Hughes, expressing hope that the commemoration at Westminster “may lift the long shadow cast over his reputation by the suicides of both his first wife, Sylvia Plath, and his subsequent partner. As the pall fades, the sheer power of Hughes’s talent can be enjoyed afresh, and without distraction.”

Assia Wevill

I hope so, too, but Hughes’ life is too big to ever elude public fascination. Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, authors of a just-published biography of Assia Wevil (A Lover of Unreason), tell her story in this Guardian essay. By taking her daughter with her, Wevil seems monstrous. Yet in one of his few statements on the matter, Hughes said that while Plath’s death was inevitable (she was subject to depression), Wevill’s was “avoidable.”

Some families — Ernest Hemingway’s is Exhibit A — seem to bear a burden of suicide. A sad coda to the Hughes-Plath-Wevil saga came in 2009, when Nicholas Hughes killed himself. The son of Hughes and Plath, Nicholas was a 47-year-old evolutionary biologist teaching at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

As for Hughes, I’m persuaded he’s the great poet the Brits generally hold him to be, well deserving of the new honor. I think he’s probably a more important poet than Plath (sorry!), and has been saddled with more responsibility for the deaths of two women than he really deserves.

What do you think? Any Plath partisans want to correct me?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2010 2:21 pm

    Kudos, Chauncey. I share your estimation in thinking Ted Hughes the more important poet, in comparison to Plath, in much the same way Diego Rivera was a greater artist than Frida Kahlo.

    But personal tragedies and the cult of personality tend to trump talent in the sentimental (and often uninformed) court of public opinion. In fact, the less the public seems to know, the more they are “red in tooth and claw.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 24, 2010 2:34 pm

      Yahia, as always, a delight to hear your voice, so to speak. Of course, I agree completely, even though I do admire the poems of Plath and, especially, the pictures of Kahlo. I’m also not without sympathy for the sentimental rage of the feminists who have demonized Hughes, however undeserving he was. No one can bear the entire burden of recent Anglo-American patriarchy, and even if he was a bit of a cad, his huge and hugely influential body of work redeems him. Personal tragedy feeds the human hunger for story, and gossip, and hero worship, and hero destruction. It’s as predictable as the hammer to the knee…

      • March 24, 2010 3:08 pm

        Well put. Yes, he was a cad and she volatile. Also, I should add that I much admire the works of both Plath and Kahlo, on account of their white-hot intensity & navel-gazing: products of their temperaments, unfortunate illnesses and talents thrown in the mix.

  2. rachel permalink
    March 24, 2010 2:23 pm

    First of all, I find it annoying and disgusting that people feel like they can say whatever they want on the internet because they are anonymous. This really allows people to be petty and downright mean, when if they had to put their name to their words they wouldn’t be. I went to a college that required that we put our name to everything, even a note on the refrigerator would have to read: “Please stop eating my pizza.” – So and so, room 113. I found this to be highly effective – it kept us responsible for our words. I found that people were more polite and would refrain from using profanity when they actually were connected with their words.

    Back to the matter at hand, I think that Hughes is a very important poet and probably more “important” than Plath. (Not to say that Plath isn’t important. Because she is). It is unfortunate that he had to carry all that weight around his entire life. But one, it’s a great story. And two, I think it’s amazing he kept on plugging along rather than letting it destroy him. Maybe his major downfall was that he attracted crazies, not that he drove them crazy.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 24, 2010 2:47 pm

      Rachel, my reply to you somehow got knocked down the ladder of comments. You can find it a few rungs below.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      March 24, 2010 7:06 pm

      Why do you not attach your last name to your comments?

      While I also find the “Internet Tough Guy Syndrome” distasteful, anonymity gives people the ability and courage to say things they might be afraid to communicate if their names had to be attached. So I must disagree with your belief everyone should be forced to attach their names to their comments. Of course, some meditation about what a person is going to say beforehand never hurts.

      On Plath and Hughes: I have read works by Plath and none by Hughes so personally Plath is more “important”. Hughes just got added to my list of poets that I need to investigate.

      On crazy: We all find our own level of pathology.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      March 25, 2010 6:11 pm

      No answer?

  3. March 24, 2010 2:35 pm

    It’s too bad Hughes has been blamed as in instrument leading to Plath’s suicide.
    Plath had that propensity from birth as a victim of a psychiatric illness that can create a chemical imbalance in the brain.
    The same story goes for some of the Hemingway family, and many other high-achieving creative types across the board. Check out the book “Touched with Fire” by Kay Redfield Jamison. Amazing research shows the commonality of certain mental illnesses in very creative people.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 24, 2010 2:56 pm

      Plath’s mental illness does not altogether absolve Hughes, who is guilty of some caddish behavior — both with Plath and Wevill. But if every man who behaved badly in a relationship resulted in a woman committing suicide, there’d be few women left in the world. Kay Redfield Jamison is not the only scholar to notice the role of mental illness, especially what we call today “bi-polar disorder,” in the lives of high achieving people throughout history. D. Jablow Herschman and Julian Lieb were writing about it back in the 1980s. See The Key to Genius: Manic Depression and the Creative Life (1988), or A Brotherhood of Tyrants: Manic Depression and Absolute Power (1994).

  4. March 24, 2010 2:36 pm

    Typo from an editor! First comment should say AN instrument.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 24, 2010 2:46 pm

    What a great idea, Rachel! If we all had to affix our names to our Internet comments, how the quality of discourse would improve! I propose we put it to the Governing Council of the World Wide Web immediately. There is a council, right?

    I agree that Plath is a significant poet, whose work gives pleasure (and disquiet), and deserves to be read and discussed forever. But Hughes was probably the bigger talent, and he certainly achieved more, if only because he had more than 30 additional years in which to continue writing after Plath’s death. It is amazing that he persevered in the face of so much scandal and public hatred — a testament to his fortitude and character, don’t you think? He was a cad (as what man wasn’t, by our standards today, in 1963?), but that should not be an unforgivable sin.

  6. Candice permalink
    March 24, 2010 3:01 pm

    I love Plath. But Hughes should not suffer in public opinion when it comes to his poetry. You can’t always judge the poetry by the poet. Or something like that.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 24, 2010 3:52 pm

      Absolutely not. If you could, no one would read many poets, including Byron, Eliot, Pound…

  7. March 24, 2010 3:39 pm

    Thanks for the heads up on the other books dealing with the subject. Have you seen the Jamison book? Iam not familiar with the two books you mentioned, but I may check them out today when I return several overdue Sookie Stackhouse novels to the Boynton Library. Have not had overdue books for years – fee was a dime each then. Not looking forward to today’s payment.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 24, 2010 3:54 pm

      I’ve not read the Jamison, Brenda, although I am aware of it. I felt like I already had a good grasp of the idea from the Hershman and Lieb books. But thanks for recommending Jamison. I hope some readers find all these books, and like them as much as we do. I also hope you don’t have to mortgage your home to get out of library debt…

  8. March 24, 2010 5:23 pm

    It is a sad story, but I wanted to note 2 things: Frieda Hughes (Plath’s daughter) has become a major poet and there is a new book of poetry called “The Plath Cabinet” by Catherine Bowman that Plath lovers would love. The Hughes estate made lotsa bucks on Plath and was most uncooperative with biographers.

  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 24, 2010 5:50 pm

    I don’t think I can blame the Hughes estate for declining to cooperate with biographers, most of whom were out to vilify Ted. I refer you to Janet Malcolm’s short book, The Silent Woman, for a provocative examination of Plath’s afterlife and Hughes’ control of her image.

    Thank you for telling us about the acheivements of Frieda Hughes, though I’d like to point out that she is Ted’s daughter, as well as Sylvia’s…

  10. Tommy Smart permalink
    March 24, 2010 7:38 pm

    I do not understand Hughes comment that Plath’s suicide was inevitable. Being diagnosed as suffering from a depressive disorder is not death sentence.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 24, 2010 10:45 pm

      He used the word “unavoidable.” As I read it, Hughes was taking responsibility for his part in the two suicides, but more responsibility for that of Assia. He felt, if I read correctly, that given Plath’s lifelong struggle there was little he could have done to save her (though she could possibly have saved herself), but there were more positive things he could have done to save Assia, if he had been paying attention. As for depressive disorder, while not every depressed person commits suicide by any means, almost every suicide is suffering from depressive disorder. Almost.

  11. March 27, 2010 6:20 am

    “…given Plath’s lifelong struggle there was little he could have done to save her (though she could possibly have saved herself)”.
    A statement like this belittles the fact that his wife, in a time when the 60s was not yet the 60s (and role models in that kind of situation were not yet common currency), was stuck in a freezing cold country (a country not her own), with two small children – one not yet a year old – struggling to cope with the fact that her husband was having the kind of wild sex that one does at the beginning of a relationship whilst she was still in the throes of the 24 month hormonal imbalance that is the aftermath of having a child.
    And the fact that you are still peddling this quote without a shred of post 60s awareness of the utter coldness of it, whilst smugly pitching us all into a Plath vs Hughes argument with all the sensitivity of a brit male engaged in a full on soccer match mentality does you little credit.

  12. Amy permalink
    March 27, 2010 9:50 pm

    I used to stand in line with all of the TH haters out there. Then I decided to look at the situation from all angles. Recently, I’ve completed several books on TH, Sylvia, and Assia. I’m a firm believer that Sylvia had her hangups, personality quirks, and idiosyncracies that would drive anyone nuts after awhile. Having said that, TH did have an affair on her which would hurt anyone. In the end, I believe that it takes two to tango. It’s both sides. If I could go back in time and befriend SP I would. I think she needed a friend to vent to.

    As far as TH being put in Poet’s Corner…is it well deserved? For my tastes, I think his best out put ended after Crow (although I did enjoy his bird poems in the Collected Poems..from “River”?). Personally I think all of this is to shut Seamus Heaney up. I say that nicely. 🙂

  13. May 26, 2010 8:50 pm

    Heh I’m literally the first reply to your incredible post?


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