Becoming Her Husband
Ted Hughes met Sylvia Plath at a wild party in February 1956 and married her four months later. He was English, twenty-five years old; she was twenty-three, an American. For six years they worked side by side at becoming artists. Then Hughes initiated an affair with another woman, and the marriage collapsed. Hughes moved out and, exactly four months later, Plath committed suicide, leaving behind their two very young children. One of the most mutually productive literary marriages of the twentieth century had lasted only about twenty-three hundred days. But until they uncoupled their lives in October 1962, each witnessed the creation of everything the other wrote, and engaged the other’s work at the level of its artistic purposes, and recognized the ingenu-ity of solutions to artistic problems that they both understood very well. This kind of collaboration is quite uncommon between artists, especially if they are married to each other, and after the publication of Hughes’s prizewinning first book, The Hawk in the Rain, the marriage began attracting the attention of journalists. In January 1961, Hughes and Plath were interviewed for a radio broadcast on the BBC, Two of a Kind, that displays them at the apex of their compatibility. The interviewer, Owen Leeming, asked whether theirs was “a marriage of opposites.” As if in a movie by Woody Allen, Hughes said they were “very different” at the same moment Plath said they were “quite similar.” Explaining “different,” Hughes allowed that he and Plath had similar dispositions, and worked at the same pace—indeed, so deep were the similarities that he often felt he was drawing on “a single shared mind” that each accessed by telepathy. But he and Plath drew on this shared mind for quite different purposes, he said, and each of their imaginations led a thoroughly “secret life.”
Explaining “similar,” Plath said that though she and Hughes had very different backgrounds, she kept discovering unexpected likenesses. Hughes’s fascination with animals, for example, had opened up for her the subject of beekeeping, which was one of her father’s scholarly pursuits. More of her own history had become available to her poetry because Hughes was so interested in it, she said: that was how the similarities were developing in their work—though the work itself was not at all similar, she insisted. Did she too believe they had a single shared mind? No, Plath laughed. “Actually, I think I’m a little more practical.”
Just such a dance through the minefield of their differences characterized their partnership at its best. It succeeded because each of them invested wholeheartedly in whatever the other was working on, even when the outcome was of dubious merit. In the late 1950s, Hughes helped Plath develop plots for stories she could publish in women’s magazines, even though he regarded fiction-writing as a false direction for Plath. At the time, he saw, accurately, that only conventional plots in which people got born, married, or killed released her distinctive “demons,” so he encouraged her to invest in whatever mode was most productive of tapping these unique sources of energy. Plath, for her part, loyally defended the incoherent and unmarketable plays in which Hughes promoted the esoteric ideas he was hooked on, beginning in the early 1960s—she was as interested in his artistic strategies as she was in the results. Paradoxically, their intimate creative relationship enabled each of them to conduct better the “secret life” expressed in their art. The rupture in their marriage closed down this literary atelier. But poetry had brought Hughes and Plath together, and poetry kept them together until Hughes’s death in 1998. Hughes inherited Plath’s unpublished manuscripts, appointed himself her editor and made her famous. In 1965, when he brought out the volume titled Ariel, which contained Plath’s last work, he said proudly, “This is just like her—but permanent.” By that year, the world was ready to agree with him about Plath’s importance. Poets rarely become cultural icons, but Plath’s suicide had occurred just when women’s writing was beginning to stimulate the postwar women’s movement. The posthumous publication of Plath’s poetry, fiction, letters and journals added her voice to a swelling chorus of resistance to the traditional positions women occupied in social life. The more celebrated Sylvia Plath became, the more people wanted to know what role her marriage to Ted Hughes had played in the catastrophe of her decision to die—especially after it became widely known that the woman Hughes left her for, Assia Wevill, had also committed suicide and had killed the daughter she had borne to Hughes.
Hughes spent the rest of his life quashing public discussion of these painful episodes in his private life. But shortly before his death in 1998, he released two books of poems that explore the subject of what it meant to have been the husband of Sylvia Plath. One was titled Birthday Letters. Speaking to Plath as if she were looking back with him from the vantage of their middle age, Hughes reflected on the array of circumstances that drove them together in 1956, and kept them together for six years; and he also proposed an explanation of the psychological issues behind her suicide.
Birthday Letters became a huge commercial success, but most people never even heard about the other book, Howls and Whispers, which was published in an expensive limited edition, and was never reviewed in the press. To make Howls and Whispers Hughes had reserved eleven poems from the manuscripts that became Birthday Letters, as a winemaker sets aside the choicest vintage for special labeling. In its keynote poem, “The Offers,” the ghost of Sylvia Plath appears to Ted Hughes three times. On each visit she tests him; on the last visit she warns, “This time don’t fail me.”
That startling phrase sends a pulse of light back through every page Hughes had published since Plath’s death. It points our attention to the theme in Hughes’s work of how marriages fail, or how men fail in marriage. Sometimes his work contains a representation of himself as the character who fails, as in Birthday Letters. In other writings, such as the translations of the grand works of Western literature with which Hughes occupied himself toward the end of his life—Racine’s Phèdre, Tales from Ovid, the Alcestis of Euripides—Hughes brings empathy to the theme of marriage under duress. His versions of these were all produced for the stage, and audiences were quick to intuit that a second passionate story—Hughes’s own story—was being explored, inexactly, within the dynamics of a venerable classic.
Though only 110 copies of Howls and Whispers were printed, Hughes acquired a large audience for its most important poem, “The Offers,” by releasing it in the London Sunday Times on October 18, 1998. Ten days later, Hughes died. Whether by accident or design, that sentence spoken by Sylvia Plath through the medium of Ted Hughes would be on record as his last words. Birthday Letters offers us a way to see Ted Hughes from inside his partnership with Plath; “The Offers” requires that we see them as inseparable, even in death. “This time, don’t fail me” is the voice of poetry itself, which Plath embodied; the persona created in his work is her husband; and that persona is his contribution to the history of poetry.
Hughes began developing this autobiographical persona, her husband, when he was nearly fifty years old. After years of attempting to avoid autobiographical writing, Hughes had come to believe that the voice in poetry had to issue from a human being situated in historical time and place, engaged in attempting to “cure” a wounding blow to his psyche inflicted by an historically significant conflict. The struggle conducted in a poet’s art was his way of participating in history. Hughes also saw that no single work of writing stood alone, that a strong writer’s work proceeded by accretion over time. Hughes observed that the poetic DNA expressed itself in single, definitive images or a “knot of obsessions” produced early in the poet’s career and repeated in variations thereafter. Like the cells of a developing foetus, each work contained the DNA of the whole man, that is, the whole image of the persona.
“The Offers” is the central poem in Hughes’s work of self-mythologizing. It marks the turning point in his creative life, showing in a set of images how the poet’s powers were summoned back to him following the two successive personal disasters of the suicides of women close to him. What would it mean not to fail the claims that Woman had made on his psyche from childhood on? How could he negotiate the urgency of contradictory needs for separation from her, and for dialogue with her? During the last two decades of his career, these questions informed works of lasting importance by Ted Hughes. These included Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, in which he investigated the conflicted “way of loving” to be found in Shakespeare’s writing; and the autobiographical poems wherein Hughes provided himself with a mythical childhood, much in the manner of Wordsworth, setting forth an account of the growth of the poet’s mind. But in Hughes’s account, marriage was the culmination of that developmental path. And marriage forced a man into the underground of his own darkness. In “The Offers,” he is stepping naked back into the world, no longer in the form of a man, but as a persona.
This is the myth that can be pieced together from its scattered manifestations in Hughes’s published works and private papers; and Hughes made sure that it could be found. The year before his death, he sold a very large collection of his manuscripts and letters to Emory University in Atlanta. And during the latter years of his career, anxious about his relationship to posterity, he responded generously to inquiries from scholars and critics interested in his work, and granted interviews about his beliefs and practices, and about his personal life.
In just such ways did Ted Hughes insure that his persona as a poet would survive him and would slowly work its way into the consciousness of posterity. He said as much to Sylvia Plath’s mother, Aurelia, back in 1975 while they were editing some of Plath’s correspondence for publication. Hughes requested that many references to himself be excised from this book. Aurelia Plath protested that Hughes was asking her to leave out too many informative details. He responded in a long letter, of which he made a carbon copy that he placed in his own archive. “An impartial scholar will eventually—no doubt—put all these notes in quite pitilessly,” he assured her. “In time everything will be quite clear, whatever has been hidden will lie in the open.”
Hughes was speaking, specifically, about his relationship to Sylvia Plath. He understood that after his death the story of their marriage would belong to the cultural history of the twentieth century. As he knew, the totality of his work contained a unique and poignant account of how they struggled together to become writers: what each gave, what each took; how their marriage floundered and their art did not. Her Husband threads together the story Hughes told and the history that surrounds the story. Drawing from his books and papers, it follows a single line of inquiry through the maze of Hughes’s life as he enters into the partnership, struggles and prospers in it, loses the partner but not the relationship, and turns the marriage into a resonant myth.
Ted Hughes believed that destiny had singled him out to become the husband of Sylvia Plath. “The solar system married us,” he claimed, when he re-created their meeting in Birthday Letters, locating the astrological coordinates very precisely. The date was Saturday, February 25, 1956, under the sign of Pisces, in the zodiac; the place was Cambridge University, from which Hughes had graduated a year and a half earlier. During the week he was living in a borrowed flat in London, working at a glamorous-sounding day job as a reader of fiction submissions at the film company J. Arthur Rank. But he continued to spend his weekends in Cambridge, hanging out with friends, mainly poets who were still enrolled at the university. They were ambitious, idealistic, apprentice artists, and that winter Hughes joined them in putting together a very small, very literary magazine, St. Botolph’s Review. One of the contributors, an American named Lucas Myers, lived in a repurposed chicken coop behind the rectory of St. Botolph’s Church, off campus. His residence inspired the cheeky title—these poets were ultra-anti-establishment. Friends began peddling copies of St. Botolph’s Review around the Cambridge colleges on publication day, spreading word that a launch party would be held at rooms in Falcon Yard that night. Sylvia Plath bought a copy from an American cousin of one of the poets, and he invited her to the launch.
Plath accepted immediately; here was an opportunity she had been waiting for. She was studying literature at Cambridge on a two-year Fulbright Fellowship after graduating from Smith, a prestigious women’s college in New England. Her writing had won minor literary prizes in the United States and was beginning to appear in such American magazines as Harper’s, Mademoiselle, The Nation, and Atlantic Monthly. Arriving at Cambridge, she had quickly learned that the literary world was tightly networked in Britain; even the limpest student publications were scouted for new talent by London publishers, who were often themselves Cambridge graduates. She immediately began submitting work to college publications. In January, two of her poems had been printed in a little magazine called Chequer—and not only published but, to her amazement, scoffed at, in a fierce little low-budget paper called Broadsheet, which was produced every two weeks on a mimeograph machine by some of the St. Botolph poets. The men who reviewed Plath’s poems disliked on principle the formal verse at which she was very skillful, and on principle they derided what they disliked. “Quaint and eclectic artfulness,” the reviewer labeled Plath’s style, then added, “My better half tells me ‘Fraud, fraud,’ but I will not say so; who am I to know how beautiful she may be.”
The stapled pages of Broadsheet were read avidly by the local poets, and Plath was mortified at being so manhandled. This had been her first exposure to the blokishness of English literary culture. What bothered her most, though, was that little refrain “fraud, fraud.” Plath was aware of her shortcomings and didn’t like them to be noticed by others. Yet the critic’s rhetoric gave her an opening. Did he want to see whether she was beautiful? She would introduce herself. She put on a pair of red party shoes and smoothed back her pageboy with a red hair band, then went to a bar with her date for the evening, where she fortified herself with several whiskeys. But before getting high she had fortified herself another way: she had memorized some of the poems in St. Botolph’s Review.
The party was well under way by the time Plath arrived in Falcon Yard and climbed in her red shoes up the stairs to the Women’s Union, where a jazzy combo hammered music into the babble of raised voices. Plath started working the room, getting noticed. She immediately sought out the reviewer who had called her a fraud; he turned out to be a little chap, “frightfully pale and freckled,” quite unimposing in person, after all—Plath too judged poets by their looks. She cut in on men she wanted to dance with, bantering at the top of her lungs. At the end of the long hall, she spotted a good-looking fellow, and learned his name: Ted Hughes, one of the two poets whose work she had memorized that afternoon. He caught her watching him and slouched across the room, staring into her eyes. She began yelling over the dance music, and he recognized that she was reciting lines from a poem he had written. He shouted back, “You like?” He steered her into an adjoining room where they could talk, and refilled her glass with brandy, apologizing, lamely, for the bad notice in Broadsheet, though privately he shared the reviewer’s opinion. They sparred a bit, Plath nervy and exhilarated. He suddenly kissed her, hard, and she retaliated—she bit him on the cheek until blood ran. He snatched off her hair band and her silver earrings, and walked out.
Ted Hughes left the party with his current girlfriend. He didn’t know, yet, that the solar system had married him. But he was wearing a wedding ring of tooth marks, and for the next several weeks, one of his cheeks would display a scar as did one of hers, a scar just under her right eye, about which he would learn much more during the ensuing months.
Hughes wasn’t looking for a wife that night. Quite the contrary—he was in a profound dither about where his life was heading. At the time of his graduation from Cambridge, Hughes had decided somewhat impulsively that he would apply for immigration to Australia, where his older brother, Gerald, had settled. The Australian government provided free passage to British men who agreed to work there; Hughes envisioned taking up a life of shooting and fishing with Gerald, an avid sportsman. But Hughes deferred his application for the allotted period of two years—he was in no hurry. In March 1955—maybe between jobs—he suddenly wrote to Gerald that he was coming “without delay,” but again he delayed. By February 1956, the deferral period was almost up, so Hughes reactivated the application, hoping that the long waiting list would give him as many as nine more months in England. Nonetheless, he knew he could be assigned a ticket at any time, and the question came home to him, urgently: What was he actually going to do, in Australia, anyway? Work as a teacher? or a day laborer? On the other hand, how much longer could he tolerate the hand-to-mouth existence he was leading in London and Cambridge? Given these unmanning worries, Hughes may have been especially receptive to the kind of flattery Plath lavished on him at the launch party. She had plucked from St. Botolph’s Review a poem that glorifies male aggression. It opens with the line, “When two men meet for the first time,” and goes on to observe that (male) strangers sometimes attack each other on slight provocation, as animals do, because the animal is still alive in them:
their blood before
They are aware has bristled into their hackles
Plath had thrown herself at Hughes chanting the poem’s last words: “ ‘I did it, I’ ”—Hughes’s first experience of Sylvia Plath was hearing her voice pronouncing his words as knowingly as if she had written them.
She had not written them, but she knew where Hughes was coming from: in the poem’s DNA lay works of Sigmund Freud and D. H. Lawrence that were fundamental to a literary education in those days. Hughes had read Lawrence avidly in his teens, and Lawrence’s notorious celebration of “blood consciousness” appears undisguised in this poem that Plath picked out to memorize. Plath had read the same books, and had undergone a similar literary infatuation with Lawrence—she couldn’t miss the allusion. The first, telegraphic exchange that passed between Plath and Hughes that night was both a party game and a discovery scene in six syllables. “ ‘I did it, I.’ ” “You like?” When he kissed her, when she bit him, they were acting out a scene of primitive impulsiveness that would have been at home in one of Lawrence’s novels.
Ted Hughes may not have been looking for a wife that night, but Sylvia Plath was looking for a husband, and Ted Hughes met her specifications exactly. “That big, dark, hunky boy,” she called him, in her journal the next day, “the only one huge enough for me.” He was a striking man, more than six feet tall, and he normally weighed around 195 pounds. In winter he liked to wear a heavy, brown leather army-issue topcoat that had survived the Great War, which gave his shoulders extra bulk and cloaked his shabby clothes in a bohemian glamour.
An extremely unkempt appearance was unusual at Cambridge in his day. Hughes was acutely aware of the class anxieties expressed in bizarre clothing at Cambridge: grammar school boys like himself attempting to counter the contempt of public school boys through displays of eccentricity. Hughes’s contemporary Karl Miller recalled that the most spectacular students “dressed in a weird exacerbation of Edwardian chic—pipe-stem tweed trousers, lapelled and brocaded waistcoats, wilting bow-ties, wafer-thin flat caps.” Winter and summer Hughes wore the same shapeless black clothes. He bought his corduroy cheap from a factory owned by one of the prosperous members of his mother’s family, up in West Yorkshire, and dyed it black himself. His classmate Glen Fallows thought he looked “as though he’d just climbed out of a fishing smack after a stormy night.” A fellow poet, Philip Hobsbaum, was less charitable: “Ted was appalling. He had smelly old corduroys and big flakes of dandruff in his greasy hair.”
Hughes was actually quite self-conscious and shy in company, but he hid his unease behind mesmerizing talk. For sociability, he gravitated to the Cambridge pubs where students passed their time singing folk songs. Hughes had a big, distinctive voice, rich and sonorous, the mannerisms of his native Yorkshire detectable under the influence of his elite education. Many anecdotes about this voice appear in the memoirs of people who knew him when he was young. The American writer Ben Sonnenberg tells one of the best stories, about being invited to dinner with Hughes sometime during the early 1960s at the home of the American poet W.S. Merwin. “I felt like Hazlitt meeting Coleridge for the first time: bowled over by his warmth and energy,” Sonnenberg writes. While listening to Hughes, “I did indeed fall off my chair. When he helped me up from the floor, I wrote in my notebook, ‘He didn’t stop talking and I felt the vibration of his voice running down his arm.’ ” The English writer Emma Tennant tells another good one, about finding Hughes sitting immobile in the middle of a lively London party in 1976, broadcasting a rambling fairy tale to anybody who would listen; she dragged him onto the dance floor, interrupting him long enough to initiate an affair with him. Over the years, a lot of women would want to interrupt Ted Hughes long enough to initiate an affair with him. According to some, Hughes was “the biggest seducer in Cambridge”—it was the chief topic of gossip about Hughes at the time Sylvia Plath met him, and she heard about it the night she met him, from the man who accompanied her to the party.
But even before she laid eyes on the man, Plath thought she had learned something essential about him by reading his work, and she was right. He had published only a few poems and essays, only in the smallest magazines, and usually under pseudonyms. But from the time he was sixteen, Hughes believed he was destined to become a poet on the grand scale. He wanted to be a poet like W. B. Yeats, whose work he studied passionately, beginning in grammar school and right through his years at Cambridge. After discovering D. H. Lawrence, Hughes wanted to be a poet like D. H. Lawrence too; eventually he fulfilled both wishes in a highly original way. In 1956 he was still feeling his way toward his vocation—it was the sense of having a vocation that underlay his friendship with the somewhat fanatical undergraduates whose work appeared in St. Botolph’s Review.
One of these was the poet Daniel Weissbort, with whom Hughes later founded a journal to publish translations of poetry. At the time they met, Weissbort recalls of himself that he was awkwardly attempting to imitate Dylan Thomas. “I went up to Cambridge the year after Thomas died and I very much remember trying to write like him,” Weissbort said. “And of course the idea of the poet as a bohemian wild boy was very attractive, even though I didn’t really know what it all meant.” For Hughes, the ideal artistic wild man was Beethoven—he often said that the most intellectually useful thing he did at Cambridge was listen to Beethoven. The poet Peter Redgrove recalled his first encounter, as an undergraduate, with Hughes’s Beethoven obsession. “A strange yowling was coming out of this doorway of a kind that I had never known before—I was not at that time musical. I knocked and entered. In the brightly lit room a hand-wound gramophone was playing a black disc—this was the yowling. My puzzlement was complete. Hughes’s own physical presence was also of a kind I had never encountered before. It was decisive—very few people in my experience had the ability of showing by their physique a kind of knowledge.” Hughes told Redgrove that they were hearing Beethoven’s last quartet. “ ‘It is as if the whole of the music is crushed into the first few bars, which are then unraveled,’ ” Hughes explained. “ ‘Look! This is the author’—and he unhooked a frowning kindly plaster mask off the wall. ‘This is how he walked’—and he waddled this face towards me at chest-level. ‘This was his height and how he walked.’ ” Hughes introduced Sylvia Plath to Beethoven with the same thoroughness as soon as they began spending time together.
Yet on the whole, Cambridge University figures negatively in the myth of himself that Ted Hughes extracted from the facts of his life once he had become an established poet. Cambridge was “almost a deadly institution unless you’re aiming to be either a scholar or a gentleman,” he said. Hughes was not born a gentleman and did not wish to become a scholar—only some good luck and special pleading got him to Cambridge in the first place. He’d had the good luck as a boy of eleven: after he failed the preliminary exam for admission to the excellent grammar school in Mexborough, the mining town where he grew up in South Yorkshire, his mother had persuaded the headmaster—a customer at the Hughes family tobacco shop—to permit her boy to sit for the actual exam, which he got through by writing an essay on his desire to be a gamekeeper. Eight years later, he performed badly on the exam for entrance at Pembroke College, but his grammar school teacher sent a sheaf of Hughes’s poems to the master of Pembroke, and the poems won Hughes admission as a “dark horse.”
Hughes had arrived at Pembroke in 1951 after serving his compulsory term of National Service, as a ground wireless mechanic for the RAF. He was posted to Fylingdales, a three-man station on the North York Moors, where he had little to do but read, and he tried to use this time to widen his taste in literature. He says he tried the poetry of Walt Whitman, but couldn’t make his way into the rhythms, and also tried without success to read Rilke. He was equally at a loss with the collections of contemporary verse that he brought along. What he did read was his mother’s Bible, and the works of Shakespeare. At Pembroke he intended to study English literature, to prepare himself for the profession he envisioned as a poet.
However, the university education he undertook was designed to make him into a literary critic. The chief literary man at Cambridge in those days was F. R. Leavis, who achieved a lasting influence on Hughes’s generation through practicing the analysis of literature as an elegant form of savagery. Hughes had a gift, himself, for the sadistic side of Leavis’s intellectual style, so he understood the attraction. But Hughes had little taste for the coteries that formed around the scholars whose influence would later be essential to professional promotion. Nor did he join clubs or play team sports. “He was already fascinated by the Ouija board and the occult,” said Brian Cox, who became a writer and good friend of Hughes. “There were Pembroke stories about the frightening intensity with which he engaged in these activities.” These included his interest in astrology, which was advanced enough to be used as the basis of a memorable paper on “The Scope of Horror,” which he presented at Pembroke. Hughes had learned astrology from his sister, Olwyn, before he entered Cambridge, according to his friend Lucas Myers. “He loved the opulent lexicon of symbols, the convergences, oppositions, planetary solar and lunar influences, the cusps and houses with which it organized a description of the human character and destiny,” Myers says; but was not a literalist about it. “Ted saw astrology not as a science but as an instrument for the vivid expression of intuitive insights.”
But he was an indifferent student. His tutorials in English literature felt to Hughes like mere time-serving, and did not feed his hunger for wildness in art, at all. During his second year at Cambridge, he reached a crisis in his studies that culminated in a fabulous and prophetic dream. He had been working late on an essay for a tutorial on eighteenth-century literature, when the door opened and a man in the shape of a fox entered the room. The animal was singed and bloody, as though he had stepped out of a furnace. He strode to the desk and placed his hand, palm down, on the paper Hughes had been writing, and told Hughes he must stop. When the apparition lifted his hand, Hughes saw that the page bore a bloody palm print.
Hughes told versions of that story time and again throughout his life, and eventually wrote it down, for publication. Not surprisingly, the story changed significantly over the years, but the purpose of telling it didn’t change: this was Hughes’s explanation for dropping English literature for the study of archaeology and anthropology. It was a practical decision, because he had already absorbed much of the required material on his own. From early childhood he had been fascinated by folktales, and at Cambridge had been drawn to the anthropological literature that had influenced the modernist poets Hughes admired, especially T. S. Eliot, Robert Graves, D. H. Lawrence, and W. B. Yeats.
Hughes graduated from Cambridge in July 1954, having achieved a rank of II.1 in his exams. This was a high second-class degree, roughly equivalent to an American B+; Sylvia Plath would achieve the same rank, in 1957—“respectable but not dazzling,” as her chilliest biographer put it—when she completed the course in English literature that Hughes had abandoned. But artists didn’t need to achieve “firsts,” and Hughes wanted to be an artist. He moved to London and continued writing poetry, picking up one job and another while undergoing the typical postgraduate jolt of discovery that his higher education was economically useless.
He resisted moving back to his parents’ home in Yorkshire, where his worried mother was waiting to take him in, possibly with the idea of bringing Ted into the family textile business. It was run by his rich uncle Walt, who invited Hughes to be his driver on a trip to the Continent, shortly after Hughes left Cambridge. They visited battlefields; his uncle had been wounded on the Somme, when he was Hughes’s age, and the visit impressed Hughes deeply, later surfacing in a number of poems. They also tasted wines on that trip, and discovering the taste of claret became synonymous in Hughes’s imagination with the promise of prosperity that might await him. But he didn’t want to work for his uncle. Returning to London after this holiday, he took a job as a dishwasher in the cafeteria at the London Zoo. Next, he found work as a security guard; in his off-hours, he entered newspaper competitions, and sometimes won a spot of cash. He wrote to his brother, Gerald, that what he really wanted was to ship with a North Sea trawler for the winter, but he knew their mother would collapse with dismay if her son the Cambridge graduate did such a thing.
But all along Hughes was reading and writing poetry. During his cigarette breaks at the zoo, he studied the big cats, and got one of them rather quickly into a poem titled “The Jaguar” that Sylvia Plath admired in a Cambridge literary magazine before she even met Hughes, and that Hughes always remained proud of. When he became a security guard, he took a late shift so he could write and read while earning eight pounds each night. Whenever he was free, he was a regular at evenings organized by the poet Philip Hobsbaum, whom he had known slightly in Cambridge. Hobsbaum had a bed-sitter off the Edgware Road, where poets gathered to read aloud and discuss the minutiae of poetics. Hobsbaum recalled that on one occasion Hughes spent hours reading passages from the medieval English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into Peter Redgrove’s tape recorder.
Actually, Hughes greatly coveted a “respectable” job in television or film, the sort of work a swank Cambridge graduate might expect to hold—Philip Hobsbaum held such a job. But Hughes’s scruffy bohemianism was a liability in that world, where appearances counted. In a memoir, Hobsbaum recalled the strikingly bad impression Hughes made in the glitzy environment of a TV studio on a day when Hughes met him at the office before going out to “drink lunch” together. “Ted in his hairy overcoat presented a contrast to the tinsel starlets and be-blazered leading men who populated the foyer,” Hobsbaum recalled. “His habit of sitting sideways while waiting for me, and squinnying askance at our clients, perturbed our statuesque receptionist, Miss Westbrook. She asked me once, ‘Do you think Mr. Hughes is quite right in his head?’ ” It was Hobsbaum who arranged for Hughes to be employed at J. Arthur Rank, commuting by train to the Pinewood Studios in Slough, to write summaries of novels that had been submitted for possible development into films—then commuting on weekends to Cambridge, to sleep on the floor of Lucas Myers’s chicken coop, and put his new-minted poems into St. Botolph’s Review. Which led him to Sylvia Plath.
Many of these details about Ted Hughes would have been circulating in the pool of Cambridge gossip when Plath began inquiring about him, after the party in Falcon Yard. Plath had acquired a certain notoriety herself, even before the party. The male undergraduates outnumbered the females by ten to one, and all of the women came under close scrutiny. It is recalled in various memoirs that Plath was considered flashy and pushy, even in comparison to the other American women enrolled at Cambridge—it is recalled that even Ted Hughes considered her too “forward,” at first. She was opinionated, impatient, sometimes arrogant, and always on the move, even when seated, as one of her housemates at Cambridge remembered. “One foot . . . was always kept swinging impatiently and the fingers of her two hands were always actively interacting—the fingers themselves interweaving, locking and unlocking, the two thumbs rather hostilely opposing each other, stabbing each other with their nails.” Riding her bicycle, Plath “would pedal vehemently, head and shoulders straining forward, as though pure will power rather than her legs propelled her.” The vehemence was not dependent on the urgency of trip, no. It was typical. “She rode, say, like a passionate little girl.”
Plath was not a little girl, she was a big girl: five foot nine, slim and well-proportioned, with a long waist and broad shoulders. Though she indulged a big appetite for food, her weight normally hovered around 140 pounds. Her most striking characteristic was a physical vitality that, by all accounts, a camera couldn’t capture; people who knew her, including Hughes, thought that no photographs of Plath did justice to her looks. She didn’t like her nose: “fat,” she thought, and squashy, prone to sinus infections that left the internal passages revoltingly clogged with thick mucus, which she perversely reveled in annotating for her journal, more than once—the opening of James Joyce’s Ulysses had licensed her to write about snot. She had a manner of testing the air with her tongue as she talked, and a habit of gnawing her lips raw, when she was nervous. She often rebuked herself for hanging on to habits she considered childish. But overall she seems to have liked her own looks, didn’t obsess about her flaws, and carried herself proudly; her good posture was commented on by at least one of her teachers. One of her boyfriends recalled that she used to gloat a bit about her “hard muscles” and preened over enjoying “athletic sex.” Plath referred to herself as “athletic” in her journals and letters, but people who witnessed her in action recall more drive than grace or coordination in her movements. Plath comments about her fictional surrogate Esther Greenwood, in The Bell Jar, that she was not a good dancer, for example, and that is what other people remember about Plath too. Perhaps Plath meant by “athletic” that she possessed a lot of physical daring. Back in 1952 she had broken a leg her first time out on skis, having launched herself at top speed down a slope reserved for advanced skiers. During her first year at Cambridge she rode a horse for the first time, a purportedly mild-mannered stallion named Sam, who bolted. Plath lost her grip on the reins and stirrups, but she had the physical strength to hang on to his neck as he galloped onto the highway into the path of cars and bicycles, then up onto a sidewalk, scattering pedestrians. She was exhilarated by the fright and danger, and it made a good story, which she embellished in letters to her boyfriends back home.
Nor was Plath averse to showing off this able body. At Cambridge she wrote an article about fashion for the university newspaper, Varsity, and posed for several cheesecake shots to be used as illustrations. One of these was published on the front page, another ran with the story: Plath in a halter-neck swimsuit, shot at angles that give maximum column inches to her long shapely legs. They show strong definition in the quads and calves, probably from the vigor of her cycling. When Plath sent home the clipping, she captioned it for her mother, “With love, from Betty Grable.” But here was another of her distinctive traits: Plath was oblivious to the way her self-display jarred the British sensibilities around her and bothered her fellow Americans at Cambridge, who were trying to avoid being noticed for their nationality. To the British, Plath was the caricature of an American girl, loud, overdressed, and gushy. Entering new surroundings, meeting new people, her first response was to exclaim and ooh and aah, to be effervescent. Plath thought she was just being friendly. She had always been alert to the advantage of making a good impression, since she had always been dependent on scholarships such as the Fulbright Fellowship that was supporting her at Cambridge. Indeed, she had taken pains to tone down her appearance before crossing the Atlantic. Plath’s hair was naturally a light brown that she referred to euphemistically as “German blond”; during summer holidays from college in the United States she bleached it to a shade she liked to call “platinum.” This label was Hollywoodese—Marilyn Monroe’s hair was “platinum”—and Plath reveled in the image of herself as a “giddy gilded creature” having fun, fun, fun. But before boarding the ship that would carry her to England, Plath had redyed her hair to light brown; she thought this made her look studious and earnest.
It was the mobility and intensity of her facial gestures and her expressive dark brown eyes that made the greatest impression and eluded the camera. Her skin had an unusual color and sheen that made some people think of translucent wax, others of cellophane. She had thick, juicy lips that she emphasized with brilliant red lipstick. She had an unsettling way of gazing with a scowl as she listened. Plath’s Cambridge tutor remembered the first time she caught sight of Plath in the lecture hall. Not knowing anything about Sylvia Plath, the tutor was struck by “the concentrated intensity of her scrutiny, which gave her face an ugly, almost coarse, expression, accentuated by the extreme redness of her heavily painted mouth and its downward turn at the corners.” Accustomed to the reserved deportment of English girls, the tutor added, “I distinctly remember wondering whether she was Jewish.” One of her Cambridge housemates recalled Plath’s face as “invariably lit by interest in or attention to something or someone. . . . Either she was talking or listening animatedly . . . or she was silently reading something with eyes very alive and attentive.” All in all, Plath was a decidedly unrelaxing person to be around, though not everyone found this unpleasant.
The “Diary I”
Plath had left the party in Falcon Yard with the man who was a casual date for the evening and had accompanied him to his rooms for sex, returning to her own bed very early Sunday morning. She woke six hours later with a nasty hangover. She couldn’t concentrate on the essay she was supposed to prepare for a tutorial that coming week, on Racine’s Phèdre. Instead, she spent most of the day on a very long, very literary journal entry.
Ostensibly, the journal-keeper is making notes about daily life. But the journal of the writer is often more like the barre of the ballerina: she works out in front of a mirror, watching an ideal version of herself attempting difficult moves, trying to get them right. Trying to sketch a character. Compose a scene. Describe her surroundings: food, clothing, noise, furnishings, weather. Or, turning inward, anatomize a grandiose fantasy. Grope around in the muddle of her conflicts. Encourage herself. Plath didn’t write poems in this journal. Her most frequent aim was to compose passages that might someday find their home in a certain kind of novel. Plath’s model was J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, with a first-person narrator of the sort that Plath called the “diary I,” a character who must be “in her way, limited, but only so she can grow to the vision I now have of life.” Note how Plath separates the “I” of the written character from the views of the author here. She is specifying that the writer’s vision would be deployed through the use of a female character not identical with the author, though this character would need to be constructed out of the author’s experiences: “that blond girl. . . . Make her a statement of the generation. Which is you.”
In February 1956 two aims occupied the “diary I” of Sylvia Plath. One was to fall in love; the other was to become a writer. So when Plath undertook a description of the St. Botolph’s Review launch party, she was making notes on scenes, characters, and atmosphere—telling the story of the search for an ideal love—and heightening the story by deploying a range of writerly tricks of the trade. “It’s hopeless to ‘get life’ if you don’t keep notebooks,” she would scold herself.
The drama of her search for a mate was already far advanced in the pages of that journal, where Plath had been keeping notes about her affair with a young American who was currently studying at the Sorbonne, Richard Sassoon. She had met Sassoon during the spring of her senior year at Smith College, when he was a senior at Yale. He was enrolled in a creative writing course when he first began writing to Plath, using his letters as drafts of work he submitted for credit. Sassoon was intellectually vivid and sophisticated—his abundant letters are full of references to painting, poetry, and things best expressed in French. Plath thought of him even then as “Parisian” and enjoyed his outrageousness, his worldliness, his exoticism. His family lived in North Carolina, but his family tree had an attractive British branch as well: he was a distant cousin of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. As their relationship deepened, Sassoon became passionate, confiding, open in his desire and poetic in its expression (“part of me sleeps at your throat, pressing pleasure at the passage of life,” he wrote after one of their weekends together). His letters also imply that he was fond of sex games that included spanking. He treated her to restaurant dinners and theatre tickets, when they began meeting for glamorous weekends in New York. Plath’s journal keeps detailed records of what they ate and drank on their nuits d’amour.
Sassoon went on from Yale to the Sorbonne in the autumn of 1955, at the same time Plath went to Cambridge. During the Christmas holidays, she crossed the Channel to see him on her first-ever visit to Paris, which she remembered later as a romantic reunion with her “nervous boy & figs and oranges,” in a “smoky Paris blue room like the inside of a delphinium.” They spent several days in Paris—Plath preserved the appearance of respectability by staying in a hotel—before traveling together to the Côte d’Azur, which they toured by motor scooter, another romantic episode that Plath wrote up for publication as soon as she returned to Cambridge.During their holiday in France, some kind of quarrel caused Sassoon to draw back, however, and Plath became apprehensive that he would jilt her—even though, throughout their affair, Plath had been strongly ambivalent: allured by Sassoon’s mind, but put off by his body. She disliked feeling that she dwarfed him physically: he was just her height, which meant that she couldn’t wear heels on their glamorous outings. And he was slight of build, while Plath preferred the looks and manners of a he-man—one of her erotic fantasies was to be lifted and carried in a man’s arms. She tortured herself with a fantasy of ending up married to some thin, weak man whose intelligence attracted her but whose lovemaking would make her feel as if she were a mere outsize female body “being raped by a humming entranced insect,” then giving birth to “thousands of little white eggs.” Plath was acutely conscious of her prospective fertility, and was dismayed by her attraction to men whose intellects were their principal erotic assets.
When Plath returned to Cambridge after her Christmas holiday with Sassoon, she resolved to stop writing letters until he signaled again that he needed her. Beginning in the New Year 1956, Plath began writing as if to Sassoon in her journal, planning to analyze her conflicts and possibly to cannibalize these letters for her creative work. Lucky for us, because we get to watch Plath framing her own life as “a statement of the generation” with regard to choosing a mate.
Partly because Plath fears she has been deserted, the sexual feelings she records during those weeks are perversely keen. She is also trying to choose her life’s work. At the opening of the winter term, she begins mulling over what she labels, using capitals, “the dialogue between my Writing and my Life.” She cannot justify the choice of writing unless she can prove herself by publishing steadily. Should she give greater priority to Life, then, and relegate Writing to her spare time? As for marriage, she’s now worried. Emotionally invested in Richard, she has failed to play the field at Cambridge. In mid-February, she resolves to accept dates from anybody who asks her. Just before getting dressed for the party in Falcon Yard, in fact, she jotted a cost-benefits analysis in her journal, criticizing herself for being too prestige-conscious, and giving herself a pep talk: “The fear that my sensibility is dull, inferior, is probably justified; but I am not stupid. . . . I long so for someone to blast over Richard.”
All of these conflicts were waiting in the wings of Plath’s journals that Sunday morning after the party, when she settled down with her hangover and her typewriter. Plath took up where she had left off the preceding day, pursuing the theme of her twin quests: mating and writing. This time, not the anxious jilted female but the experienced writer goes to work on the material. Eight men are sketched rapidly, each in the chiaroscuro of a single phrase, the better to highlight the attractive American, Lucas Myers, who gets a paragraph to himself, complete with fashion note: “dark sideburns, rumpled hair, black-and-white baggy checked pants, loose swinging jacket, doing that slow crazy english jive with a green-clad girl.” Plath doesn’t mention that he was tall, but he was tall. Plath tells how she cut in on the green-clad girl, and how she began declaiming his poem “Fools Encountered” while they danced. They were both awfully drunk, but—she admonishes herself in the journal—Lucas at least had won the right to his tipsy behavior by publishing poems in St. Botolph’s Review, “sestinas which bam crash through lines and rules.” We can see that on February 26, 1956, Lucas Myers has quite evidently (bam, crash) made it onto the short list for the position so recently abandoned by Richard Sassoon.
Dramatically, Ted Hughes now makes his entrance in the journal. Plath spotlights his size and his physicality (big, dark, hunky, etc.), delivering the lines with which she and Hughes enter the history of literature together: “I started yelling again about his poems and quoting . . . he yelled back, colossal.” The scene goes on: they stepped into another room, they talked, and then, “He kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off . . . and my favorite silver earrings: ha, I shall keep, he barked. 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.” She immediately imagines making love with him, “crashing, fighting.” He’s the only man she’s met since coming to Cambridge “who could blast Richard.”
In this morning-after session, Plath is not—quite—falling in love, she is looking for a way to typecast the men she met at the party. “Blast”—the word she takes up from the preceding day’s entry—gives her the keynote. Plath riffs on the theme that writing is sexy, sexy is violent, writing is violent. In her morning-after notes, “bang,” “blast,” “crash,” “smash,” “wind,” and “hunger” become interchangeable terms for lust and for writing, and as we see, she applies them in turn to both Lucas and Ted, foils for Richard, who has generated this term in her erotic vocabulary. But “bang” is a new one: Plath may well have picked it up from Hughes’s poem “The Jaguar” (he calls its vital energy a “bang of blood in the brain”)—she would have seen “The Jaguar” in a recent issue of Chequer. Plath confesses that she had been prompted to memorize the poems of Hughes that she found in St. Botolph’s Review because they were violent in a way she found sexually arousing: “I can see how women lie down for artists.” The scale of the poems matches the brawn of the man, “strong and blasting like a high wind in steel girders.” Plath strokes in memory the way he pronounced her name: “Sylvia, in a blasting wind.” In a daydream about seeing him again, she and he are “banging and crashing in a high wind in London.”
Plath had now fixed a set of associations that will roil in her journal entries for the next month whenever she tries to characterize herself as a heroine. Sometimes it is, again, the memory of Richard Sassoon that generates the flow of associations. She envisions “a life of conflict” with him, where writing and food and kids and housekeeping thrive in a tumult of violent energies, “banging banging an affirmation” in every moment, but especially “in bed in bed in bed.” Sometimes it is the thought of Hughes—as on the first weekend he was rumored to be in Cambridge after their meeting. “[M]y black marauder,” she calls him, “oh hungry, hungry.” Sometimes it is her own vocation of writing that calls forth the crash-bang metaphors: “I have powerful physical, intellectual and emotional forces which must have outlets”—promiscuous sex, or writing that reproduces “the flux and smash of the world,” even in the small-scale grids of her verse.
In short, that journal entry of Sunday, February 26, the day after Ted Hughes entered her life, shows Plath developing a vocabulary and a point of view for “the diary I of the novel,” the activity that is competing with her course of academic study to define the profession she may take up. But what sort of story might she devise around this “character,” her surrogate self? This post-party entry contains an inkling—it contains Plath’s very first recorded thoughts about writing the first-person novel that in 1963 would be published as The Bell Jar. She will put her protagonist in a situation Plath knew well—“shock treatment”—and compose the scene in a style that no one could dismiss as quaint artfulness: “tight, blasting short descriptions with not one smudge of coy sentimentality.”
“Blasting.” “Shock treatment.” It was bold of Plath to settle on those metaphors and themes. Three years earlier, she had been released from McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where she had been undergoing psychiatric treatment for clinical depression, following a nearly successful suicide attempt. In August 1953, immediately after returning from a stint as guest editor on Mademoiselle magazine’s annual college issue, Plath had suffered a sudden, debilitating psychological disorganization. She couldn’t sleep, eat, or read. It was not merely a reaction to the stress and excitement and letdown of her hectic weeks in New York, but an all-encompassing sense of worthlessness and hopelessness and meaninglessness. Plath was very likely predisposed to this illness; it ran in her family on both sides. On August 24, despairing, terrified by the deterioration of her mind, obsessed with suicidal thoughts, she had crept into a dugout under the family house, where no one might think to look for her, and taken an overdose of pills. Sometime during the two ensuing days of unconsciousness she had vomited them, and had abraded her face against the dirt floor; the scar on her right cheek was the legacy. She was rescued by her brother, Warren, who overheard her faint, semiconscious groans.
During the five-month run of her illness, Plath was put through two courses of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)—“shock treatment.” The first course, administered before her suicide attempt, had, apparently, been botched. The second was overseen by a young female psychiatrist with whom Plath formed a lifelong bond: Dr. Ruth Beuscher. Plath recovered fully, and by early February 1954 was able to return to Smith College, where she had brilliantly completed her degree, written an honor’s thesis, and led an active social life.
The remaining challenge of that near death experience, from Plath’s point of view, was to make it into a story about her generation, in a first-person novel based on herself. In Plath’s journal, “blasting” lays the track along which her associations zoom toward subject matter uniquely her own and—like Hughes’s poetry—unsentimental. Shock treatment is the centerpiece of the plot of The Bell Jar, and did indeed make Plath’s heroine the statement of a generation. Plath presents Esther Greenwood’s madness not as an illness but as a response to social pressures that condition the choices and stifle the ambitions of middle-class women in the 1950s—coincidentally, The Bell Jar was published in England only weeks before the publication, in America, of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a nonfiction polemic on some of the same subjects.
And once she has settled on the formula for such a novel, she thinks of testing it on Hughes: “I would like to try just this once, my force against his.” By “force” she means, along with the force of her sexuality, the force of her writing. More: she wants to be accepted as a writer by Hughes, by Myers, and by the whole pack of men from whom she has singled him out. “I could never sleep with him anyway, with all his friends here and his close relations to them, laughing, talking, I should be the world’s whore as well as Roget’s strumpet. . . . Perhaps at dinner they will be laughing at me.” Then she asks herself, “Shall I write, and be different? Always, I grab at it, the writing, hold it to me, defend, defend.”
She slept on it; and the next day—Monday, February 27—still agitated, she again put off writing the paper on Phèdre for her tutorial, skipped her classes, and spent many hours composing and revising a poem based on themes in Phèdre. Plath opened with an epigraph from the play: “Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit”—“In the depth of the forests your image pursues me.” “Pursuit,” she called her poem; she is being stalked by a panther:
hungry, hungry those taut thighs . . .
And I run flaring in my skin
Plath later noted that the essay she finally got around to writing on Phèdre received low marks for being too focused on the theme of lust. But in the poem, immoderate emotion paid off. A few months later, “Pursuit” was accepted for publication in Atlantic Monthly, one of Plath’s big breakthroughs as a poet. And as luck would have it, the acceptance letter arrived while she was on her honeymoon—now, that was the sort of thing that should happen to the heroine of this story Plath is writing. At the end of his life, when Hughes wrote his own version of Racine’s Phèdre, he had read those journal entries and watched Plath’s imagination seize on Racine’s theme of passion as destiny, and apply it to the two of them. He was fastening the end of a personal chain of consequences into its first links.
In Plath the writer, lust is a stimulus to writing, and, as we have seen—as Hughes would see, when he read her journal many years later—the men who could evoke it in February 1956 were easily interchangeable. Sylvia Plath’s journal during the ten weeks between her return from the Christmas holidays in mid-January and her departure for the Easter holidays in late March is one long erotic fidget. She frankly appraises every man she meets for sexual compatibility. Sassoon stayed on the back burner, but the flame could easily be turned up; Lucas Myers greatly intrigued her; and Hughes held the status of a great prize just out of reach. That’s the short list, but there’s a long list to be found in those pages too.
And though her excitement over Hughes stimulated the desire to write “Pursuit,” once she began writing, the poem itself took over—writing poetry “eats up the whole day in a slow lust which I can’t resist,” she noted. Writing “Pursuit” seems to have been a way of making room for Hughes in the imaginative space previously reserved for the “Parisian” Sassoon alone, for Plath associated Sassoon with the French language and it was partly her study of French that kept him alive in her erotic imagination while their actual relationship withered. “You speak to me through every word of French, through every single word I look up bleeding in the dictionary,” she mourned in her journal, shortly after composing “Pursuit,” thinking of Sassoon. “My poems are all for you.”
Ironically, it was to be those journal entries themselves—not poems, not stories, not novels, not even The Bell Jar—that fulfilled the literary aim that Plath the writer brought to her desk on February 26, 1956. Plath was by then such a practiced diarist, her erotic feelings had been so deeply stirred by their meeting, her ambitions were so clear to her that Sunday, that she captured in writing something that needed no further enhancement by generic retouching to achieve its power of communication. Once Hughes released the journals into the public sphere of a library archive, these paragraphs began a slow drip into the public consciousness, to become—along with a few lines from “Daddy,” a few lines from “Lady Lazarus”—among the most quoted passages Plath ever wrote.
But that, of course, was much later. After the party in Falcon Yard, Hughes went back to his job in London. In another fortnight he was again in Cambridge for the weekend, and on the Friday night, after drinking late at the Anchor, he went with Lucas Myers around to the house where Sylvia Plath lived with other female students from abroad. Throwing clods at what he thought was her window, he called out her name, but she was out with another man, and anyway he was calling at the wrong window. Saturday night he and Lucas were back, again throwing clods at the wrong window at 2:00 a.m. This time they wakened the tenant, who dutifully went looking for Plath, but Plath was deep asleep and couldn’t be roused.