Syvlia Plath’s husband will be enshrined at Westminster Abbey
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.
“[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.”
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?