Friday, July 30, 2010

Ted Hughes, We Hardly Knew Ye...

"Ambition, like talent, is a gift," according to Joyce Carol Oates, in an essay about Sylvia Plath. Anyone who has read Plath's journals knows just how ambitious she was, a quality that rates high with me. I don't pretend to have any particular insight into who she was, or why she did what she did; I only know that she was one of the very best poets I've read, and I wish things had turned out differently. Besides, what she represents to me may have nothing at all to do with her. Just as the words of the dead are modified by the living (as Auden said about Yeats), their substance is given over to the "foreign codes of conscience" they affect. Like so many others, I am moved by her seeming contradictions, by her talent and her drive, and what I perceive to be her vulnerability. There was a hardness about her sensibility, though, and a stern, almost cruel quality to her intelligence which belied any ideas of softness at her core. In the end, what mattered most was her poetry, which was startling—no, fuck, that's not enough—it was lacerating. It was tough, and dagger-sharp, and brilliantly crafted. As much as any I have read, it took my breath away. I don't know how much of her is revealed in her work, but what I imagine is enough for me to love her.

And because I love her, I hated Ted Hughes for a very long time.

I was wrong. It happens.

I'm not attempting to justify Hughes' behavior in their marriage, or after, with Assia Wevill. There's no defense to be made, beyond the certain fact that people are complicated animals, who often do stupid, destructive, totally fucked-up things, for reasons they don't even remember once the dust settles. Hughes behaved abominably. Plath was difficult, I have no doubt, and formidable. She was also the mother of his children, and his greatest champion. And the love of his life. He should have done things differently—less piggishly, and with greater understanding of the implications. Anyone who's read Birthday Letters knows that Hughes loved her, enormously. And in spite of some of the rather easy self-justification in those letters—the surmises regarding her relationship to her father's death, etc.—I believe that he shouldered much of the blame for her death (read The Offers, a poem published a few days before he died, if you doubt it). Of course, it was a thing impossible for Hughes to admit during his active life; the admission would've seemed to him to be a surrender to those who picketed his readings, calling him a murderer, and who repeatedly chipped his name off her tombstone. Perhaps it was his gigantic egotism, or perhaps just a blind spot where Sylvia was concerned—but he could never engage the very real blame Plath's admirers directed toward him, to the point where it seemed he could not comprehend it. How different things could have been, if he could've simply revealed his feelings—his guilt, his shame, his loss—but then, Ted wouldn't have been Ted, would he? It just wasn't in his nature to reveal himself so nakedly, or even to concede an inch of ground; she was his goddamm wife after all, and it was private.

From reading Plath's letters and journals, and some of the biographical material, as well as Hughes' poems, I've formed a theory about the dynamic between them. When they famously met that February evening in 1956, Hughes had only published a few poems. His career was going nowhere, it seemed, and he was actually on a wait-list to join his brother in Australia—to find adventure and fortune, or whatever they were doing down there—and working a dead-end, subsistence level job for the Arthur Rank Company. Plath knew pretty much immediately that he had greatness in him, and her faith changed everything, centered him and caused him to see himself as the man he wanted to be. The standard she held him to may have felt like a yoke, sometimes; and in Birthday Letters, I often sense what I can only describe as a kind of self-recrimination, attached to bitterness—the result, perhaps, of an egotistical, chauvinistic man who was dominated by a woman, and his love for her, and who is still in her thrall—unsure of how to deal with it long after her death, still flailing about in the vicissitudes of many thousands of his own dark nights, for answers.

It is a remarkable document.

Early on, Hughes, the Rube from Yorkshire, tells us that "At 25 (he) was dumbfounded afresh/By (his) ignorance of the simplest things" (Fulbright Scholars)—stumbling about, it seems, all fidgety talent and uncertainty, unaware he "was being auditioned/for the male lead in (her)drama." In Sylvia's world, which Ted merely inhabited, "Ordinary jocks bec(a)me gods/deified by (her) infatuation/that seemed designed at birth for a god" (The Shot). It was a fruitless endeavor, for both she and whoever she annointed, because "a god/who was not (her) father/was a false god" (Being Christlike). What remained for him was the recognition that reality—or rather, the reality of him—would never be enough:

"In my position, the right witchdoctor
might have caught you in flight with his bare hands
Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other.
Godless, happy, quieted.
I managed
a wisp of your hair, a ring, your watch, your nightgown"
(The Shot)

Among my favorite verses, and most telling, I think, appears at the end of Ouija, a poem literally describing their experience fooling around with a ouija board:

"...Once, as we bent there, I asked:
'Shall we be famous?' and you snatched your hands upwards
as if something had grabbed it from under.
Your tears flashed, your face was contorted,
your voice cracked, it was thunder and flash together:
'And give yourself to the glare? Is that what you want?
Why should you want to be famous?
Don't you see—fame will ruin everything.'
I was stunned. I thought I had joined
your association of ambition
to please you and your mother
to fulfill your mother's ambition
that we should be ambitious. Otherwise
I'd be fishing off a rock
in Western Australia. So it seemed suddenly. You wept.
You wouldn't go on with ouija. Nothing
I could think of could explain
your shock and crying. Only
maybe you'd picked up a whisper that I could not.
Before our glasses could stir, some still small voice:
'Fame will come. Fame especially for you.
Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes
you will have paid for it with your happiness.
Your husband and your life.' "

These are the thoughts Hughes was left with, in the intervening years, between their deaths. Perhaps it is no real wonder that he succumbed to Assia's seduction—a beautiful, far less complicated woman, who desired him, I would wager, more specifically, or so at least it seemed to him. The "dreamer in (him)" fell in love with her "black Mongolian hair" and "many-blooded beauty"—the dreamer in him, the very real man who lived outside the expectation, and inevitable disappointment, of his strange and brilliant—and at the level he probably desired, unattainable—futurely famous wife.

From Fever, a poem describing Plath sick with a virus when they were in Spain:

...You cried for certain that
You were going to die.
                                      I bustled about.
I was nursemaid. I fancied myself at that.
I liked the crisis of the vital role.
I felt things had become real...

In the end, according to Ted Hughes' version of The Truth, it seems that was all he wanted.


  1. If we were to judge all people by the douche-ish things they did in interpersonal relations, there would be no heroes left. Even Ghandi beat his wife. Nobody can deny that the liberation of India was necessary, even if it was done by a total dick.

  2. This is true...MartyPants...No one's life could stand up to certain levels of scrutiny...

    (In the case of Gandhi's wife, though, the bitch had it comin--you know what i'm sayin?)...