HER HUSBAND - Hughes and Plath - A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook




October 14, 2003


Dedicated Poet, Fond of Escape and Freedom


Hughes and Plath: A Marriage

By Diane Middlebrook
361 pages. Viking. $25.95.

Her husband. That is how the late poet Ted Hughes is best known today. Not as England's former poet laureate or as the author of such estimable collections as "Lupercal" or "Crow," but as Sylvia Plath's husband, whose infidelity helped spur her to grief and suicide, as the man who presided over her literary estate and shaped her fame, as the man who played Ferdinand to her Miranda, Leonard to her Virginia.

As Diane Middlebrook points out in her highly theoretical, highly didactic reading of Ted Hughes's life, "her husband" was also the phrase he used to describe himself in his annotations of Plath's "Collected Poems" — her partner, in Ms. Middlebrook's words, who was "present at the creation," half of a creative partnership that became "one of the most mutually productive literary marriages of the 20th century."

Ted Hughes - Sylvia Plath


In "Her Husband," Ms. Middlebrook follows what she calls "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."

The portrait that emerges is that of a selfish artist who "lived for poetry, with single-mindedness of the sort he had long ago discerned in W. B. Yeats, the first poet who ever seized his imagination." Together, he wrote in a letter quoted in this book, Plath and he found a way to "sacrifice everything to writing.' Without each other, he contended, he would probably have wandered off to Australia, and she would have become a professor and written books on the side. He told a friend that the marriage had been "marvelously creative" for him for half a dozen years.

But he found it surprisingly easy to move on then, leaving Plath and their two children, when he "wanted to be out from under her watchfulness," in Ms. Middlebrook's words.

Because the marriage was an emotionally fraught and artistically productive relationship, the narrative of "Her Husband" cannot help but fascinate, providing new tidbits of information and insight to anyone who has followed the melodrama of the poets' relationship and the scholarly deconstruction of their art and their lives.

The problem is that Ms. Middlebrook insists on subjecting Hughes's life to a relentlessly Freudian and often highly speculative reading, not dissimilar to that in her 1991 biography of Anne Sexton. And in placing Hughes on the couch she demonstrates an unfortunate tendency to overemphasize the autobiographical elements in his poems (at the expense of his imaginative transactions) and to gloss his actions and choices with a thick patina of psychological determinism.

She writes that the Hughes poem "Song" is "quite evidently a poem about the impact of Sylvia Plath on Ted Hughes, even if it was inspired by another woman and written more than half a dozen years before Hughes met Plath." And she predicts that "Hughes's access to poetic inspiration was eventually going to require two specific forms of rebellion against domesticity." Both "would be enacted against the women in his life, selfishly and sometimes cruelly": the first being an "escape into solitude," the second being what she calls "the hunter's freedom to roam," a need nourished, she contends, in his childhood, when he would escape his mother's suffocating hold by going out on the moors to hunt with his older brother, Gerald.

Hughes was a devotee of Robert Graves's book "The White Goddess," which held that poetry evolved from masculine rituals of devotion to the Goddess thereby preserving humanity's connection to nature's cycles of birth and destruction. It is Ms. Middlebrook's theory that he found his muse in Sylvia Plath and that he saw their marriage as "the doing of the White Goddess," which he was powerless to resist.

When Ms. Middlebrook turns from such theorizing to the day-to-day lives of Plath and Hughes and their struggles to balance the demands of domesticity and art in their marriage, the results are considerably more persuasive. She shows how their interests and work habits meshed but how each of their imaginations, in Hughes's words, led a "secret life."

She describes how the two poets shared and reinvented each other's images and ideas, how their work often took the form of a kind of "call and response" that continued long after Plath's death with Hughes's masterwork, "Birthday Letters," a collection of poems memorializing their marriage. We see how Plath's practice of "submitting everything around her to relentless scrutiny" awakened Hughes to the possibilities of reimagining his own childhood, and we see how their contentious marriage forced her "to find a creative pathway into the negative emotions that stirred her eloquence."

During their six years together, Hughes achieved maturity as a writer and Plath began to find her way into the imaginative core of her art. By the time Hughes left her for Assia Wevill (who, in a terrible act that echoed Plath's suicide, later killed herself and her daughter), she had begun to throw off his influence and crystallize the ferocious, highly compressed style of her late and most celebrated poems.

Ms. Middlebrook writes that Plath knew that her collection "Ariel," which Hughes published after her death, "would be read by insiders as a brilliant declaration of independence from the man who had humiliated her."

As for Hughes's collection "Birthday Letters," published shortly before his death in 1998, it was a kind of reunion of the two poets, recreating their severed but enduring partnership through the aegis of words and myth.



Whose Plath is it anyway?

England's longest-running literary soap opera enters a new chapter, as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes' daughter wages war against ghouls, obsessives and the makers of "Sylvia" (as well as novelists like me).

By Kate Moses

Oct. 17, 2003 | A few months before her father's "Birthday Letters" and her own first collection of poetry, "Wooroloo," were to be published, the daughter of literary icons Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes consented to a rare interview in which she discussed her childhood, her parents' famously failed marriage, and her own life as a visual artist and writer. "Readers," a poem by Frieda Hughes published alongside the November 1997 interview in the Guardian, was an indictment of those literary groupies of her mother's who had been "fingering her mental underwear" since Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963, when Frieda was 2 years old.

Following a gruesomely detailed description of how "they" dug up and roasted and ate her mother's corpse (an image fueled, unfortunately, by the real Plath fanatics who regularly defaced Plath's grave over the years, even stealing the pebbles left as decorations by Frieda and her younger brother, Nicholas), Frieda Hughes' poem ends:

They called her theirs.
All this time I had thought
She belonged to me most.

There was no denying that "Readers," particularly its conclusion, was the raw, anguished cry of a child. It seemed curious that the poem's final two lines were dropped when it appeared the next year in "Wooroloo": as if even Frieda Hughes' claim to ownership of her mother, let alone ownership itself, had been stripped away.


Sylvia Plath, 18


Hughes' anguished cry turned to bitter fury earlier this year when she responded to news that "Sylvia," a major feature film about her parents, was in production. To explain her poem "My Mother," which was published in the British magazine Tatler, Hughes suggested that she had been all but stalked by producers of the film in pursuit of a "collaboration" -- maybe a daughterly endorsement, or at the very least permission to quote from her mother's poetry in the film. "My Mother" was her response: a blistering, scornful attack not just on the makers of the film but on its viewers, who, she imagined, might make themselves a quick cuppa while leaving the video paused with her mother's head in the oven.

This is where I showed up. As the author of "Wintering," a novel about Sylvia Plath during her final cold London winter, I walked straight into the British media's ice storm of proprietary outrage on behalf of the late Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and their very much alive children, who were raised in England. In London, Cambridge, Reading and Bath, and on radio and television airwaves all over the U.K., people wanted to know if I had considered the children's feelings, and how I came by the cheek to think I was entitled to tell Plath's story.

My chilliest critics were those who seemed to forget that the "children" are now in their 40s, no longer fragile, impressionable tots; others were sure that by virtue of my being an American woman, my only motivation for writing "Wintering" was to "get" the unfairly maligned Ted Hughes, so successfully rehabilitated worldwide by "Birthday Letters" and his death a few months after the book hit international bestseller lists. Interestingly -- especially because my book came out at the height of the Iraq war protests, when Tony Blair was contemptuously termed "Bush's poodle" and Americans abroad had (as they still do) every reason to cringe when they pulled out their passports -- I had my own rehabilitation in the eyes of some wary English critics when they noticed in my bio that my father had been a Brit. Oh, well then, she might be all right ...

The literary editor of the London Sunday Times, Erica Wagner, sniffed that while she could concede that I was a "good writer" and sometimes "interesting" (damned with the faintest of praise!), she also wondered what the point of my close attention to Plath might be, and "when the eternal raking over of Plath's life will pall," suggesting finally that it was about time to leave poor Sylvia and her descendants in peace. Wagner deemed my novel about Plath "trivial" and "reductive," and insinuated that I was perhaps a bit nuts for writing "Wintering." The final lines of her dismissal explained, in scrupulous detail, how one might go about purchasing, over the phone or online, discounted copies of the very same Erica Wagner's book of microscopia on Sylvia, Ted and "The Birthday Letters."

What did Frieda Hughes think of "Wintering"? I don't actually know, and surely never will. All I do know is that the Guardian's weekend magazine had requested permission to use a photo of Plath as illustration for a feature article I wrote on her obsessive love of baking. The notoriously uncooperative Plath estate had been contacted and had given a preliminary (and unexpectedly blasé) OK. By the time the photo editor went back to the estate with a formal permissions contract, the film storm had blown up, Frieda Hughes had denied the filmmakers permission to use her mother's poetry, and for good measure (following the lead of Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts: "verdict first, trial afterwards!") denied the use of the photograph for my Guardian article. It was relayed to me that Hughes disliked the very idea of my having written "Wintering," as its subject was "private."

Private? Sylvia Plath's creation of the "Ariel" poems and her assembly of the "Ariel" manuscript -- the work that she rightly predicted would "make her name," and which became one of the bestselling books of poetry of all time -- is private? The creative process of the most famous female American poet, whose unmatched artistic gaze was directed most pitilessly at herself, is private?

Well, I guess Ted Hughes might have argued that his destruction of his estranged wife's final journal, which presumably detailed her thoughts and feelings as the "Ariel" poems were being written and their marriage fell to pieces, was justified because it was "private" -- though he put it in other words, saying that he destroyed the journal because he never wanted his children to have to read that "sad" document. But if Plath's life, creative and otherwise, is truly private, how does one account for Hughes' subsequent decision to publish Plath's remaining journals, with all their extra-literary personal details and acidic sniping? Or Hughes' thoughtful critical writings on Plath's poetic legacy, which both compared her in stature to Emily Dickinson and stressed the vital importance of understanding her creative development within the context of her domestic life during her last two years?

How does one explain the Plath estate (then controlled by Ted Hughes but agented by his sister, Olwyn) strong-arming Plath's mother, Aurelia Plath, into consenting to the U.S. publication of "The Bell Jar," her daughter's semi-autobiographical novel? Aurelia Plath was mortified by "The Bell Jar," as so many of the novel's distasteful characters were thinly veiled caricatures of the Plath family's dearest friends, relatives and neighbors; the Plath estate resorted to a sort of irresistible blackmail by simultaneously dangling the possibility of overseas visits with Plath's children while offering Aurelia Plath permission to publish her daughter's letters in return for her promise not to interfere with "The Bell Jar's" U.S. release. (Hughes published the abridged "Journals of Sylvia Plath" in 1982 as a corrective to the chirpy "Sivvy" depicted through Aurelia Plath's 1975 "Letters Home by Sylvia Plath," just as Aurelia Plath put together "Letters Home" as the corrective to the black-humored malice of "The Bell Jar": a calculated game of familial one-upmanship.)

How to justify the Plath estate's sale of the poet's archive to Smith College, making not just manuscripts and poem drafts available to the public but also personal memorabilia, such as Plath's Girl Scout uniform, or doll furniture she hand-painted as a gift for Frieda's second Christmas? Indeed, how does one account for Sylvia Plath's ransacking of her own life and psyche for literary ends, or Ted Hughes breaking his official silence about his dead first wife with the release of "The Birthday Letters"? Has it never occurred to Frieda Hughes that the only reason anyone's had the chance to finger her mother's "mental underwear" is because her family, beginning with her mother and father, made it available?

Since taking on the responsibility of active control of her mother's literary estate (shared with her reclusive brother) shortly before the death of Ted Hughes in 1998, Frieda Hughes has done a single-handedly remarkable job of further muddying the Plath privacy waters while protesting against public intrusion into her "personal" history at the same time. Frieda and Nicholas Hughes' first significant act as literary executors of the Plath estate was to arrange for the preparation and publication of their mother's "Unabridged Journals," a literary event deemed so newsworthy that galleys of the book were embargoed until the very last minute. Recognizing the international interest the "Journals" were guaranteed to generate, both the Guardian and the New Yorker serialized the book upon its U.K. publication, though the U.S. edition was almost a year from release. Among other revelations, the "Unabridged Journals" included what must surely be considered the most "private" of writings by Sylvia Plath: Her vivid description of Nicholas' 1962 home birth. Given that Nicholas was barely a year old at the time of Plath's death, his mother's candid account of his arrival could be considered a precious family heirloom made public.

In June 2002, Frieda Hughes further complicated her proprietary stance over her family's story by accepting an $80,000 grant to be distributed over three years from Britain's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Hughes' NESTA grant, which is funded through national lottery money and is therefore rightly considered a public charity, is intended to give her the "opportunity and means" -- apparently without regard to the fact that she is one of the two sole copyright holders and financial beneficiaries of the works of her mother, whose poetry and fiction has been in constant, vigorous print around the world for four decades -- to write her life story, charting her first 40 years through poetry and painting. Just four months later, Hughes announced her bitter rift with her stepmother, Carol Hughes, over control of the income from her father's estate, said to be worth $3.5 million at the time of his death.

A strange, tortured feature by Frieda Hughes in the Sunday Telegraph -- published with advantageous timing upon the 70th anniversary of her mother's birth, the fourth anniversary of her father's death, and the occasion of the British release of her third poetry collection -- explained in wounded detail how her father's widow refused to honor a letter intended to make her brother, her aunt and herself equal beneficiaries of the earnings from the copyrights to Ted Hughes' poems. Hughes explained that the dispute over her father's money left her "not only without my father, whose loss devastated me, but also without the stepmother whom I had loved, and trusted, as my father did." "I walk into bookshops and see my father's astonishing works on the shelves," Hughes continued, "and have to acknowledge that I now feel they have been disconnected from me." Hughes' pained airing of relational dirty laundry ended with an apologia on her newly published book (complete with "how to purchase" info, á la Erica Wagner), lending the entire article an opportunistic, advertorial whiff.

The familial umbilicus, for Frieda Hughes, seems not to be simply the convenient notion of "privacy" but the distribution of money. From the time of her death the income from Sylvia Plath's estate has been designated for her children's benefit. Having lost her mother before she could have more than the haziest memories of her, Hughes has known Sylvia Plath's tangible maternal attention only through the good schools, ability to travel, and material comforts her mother's estate made possible. All children feel a sense of "ownership" of their mother's corpus -- but in this case that corpus was nothing but words on paper and quarterly statements tallying the sale of those words.

Like the baby laboratory monkeys who clung desperately to sharp metal edifices substituted for their warm monkey mothers, it seems that Frieda Hughes, lacking a living embodiment of Sylvia Plath, projected her daughterly emotional need onto the financial comfort provided by her mother's (and now her father's) lucrative writings. Those writings, however, have to be shared with others in order to get the "mothering" that the Plath estate's income symbolizes. Yet Plath's daughter seems to maintain a psychic disconnection between the financial security supplied by the estate she controls and the book buyers whose investments in Sylvia Plath find their way into her checkbook.

It's not surprising that Frieda Hughes -- who claimed in an article on Britain's National Poetry Day that "poetry is for everyone," only to deny access to her mother's words a year later when approached by the "Sylvia" filmmakers -- maintains such a disdainful stance toward her mother's readers. Children and art require the same resources of ceaseless, undivided attention and wholehearted commitment; it is part of Sylvia Plath's audacious brilliance that she so successfully, though for so regrettably short a time, juggled the competing needs of her tiny children and the demands of her muse during the first 34 months of Frieda Hughes' life. Nevertheless, Hughes' continuing antagonistic, distrustful rivalry with Plath's readers reminds me of my 5-year-old daughter's response to how my attention was divided for a time between the writing of "Wintering" and herself: On the last day of kindergarten, which followed the day I finally overnighted my novel's manuscript to my publisher, my daughter announced to her class, "I want to share that my mommy finished her book, and I'm pleased to announce that Sylvia Plath is finally dead."

I don't mean to belittle the genuine harm and lasting scars inflicted on Frieda Hughes and her brother by losing their mother in their infancies, and by stupid people who demonized her father or crudely politicized and misunderstood Sylvia Plath. It must, in fact, be hell to know that one's loved ones and remote, unremembered past are relentlessly scrutinized and that one's parents' most humiliating flaws and fatal mistakes remain the subject of public attention long after their deaths. Surely there have been insane, grave-robbing readers of Plath and unjust, hysterical accusers of Hughes. But they are, for all their vituperations and loud-mouthing, the minority, especially as our cultural understanding of and appreciation for Sylvia Plath has matured with time, moving away from the prurient voyeurism that accompanied Plath's meteoric launch into the public literary arena with "Ariel" in the 1960s.

Rather than obsessing over Plath's suicide and her biographical apocrypha, contemporary readers of Plath tend to be interested in her life in context, to better understand her artistic achievement. My experience in meeting and hearing from hundreds of Plath and Hughes readers has been that by far the vast majority of them are drawn to the story of Frieda Hughes' parents because of the immediacy and vigor of their literary gifts, rather than the sordid details of their failing of each other. Plath's readers are not ghouls; they revere the written word as Plath and Hughes did, and respond to the power and complexity of the poetry. They struggle with the frustration and helplessness they feel at the premature loss of Plath, and for her unearned sense of failure, and for Hughes' bravery in trying, however late in life, to understand his culpability and guilt. And as with the reports of Mark Twain's death, their potential for diverting income from the Hughes children to themselves is greatly exaggerated. I can attest personally to the fact that the residual benefit of writing about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, no matter how well received (outside of, ahem, England), is modest at best; the real money belongs to the copyright holders of the poetry and prose -- the words that, for all Plath's ultimate loss of faith in herself, have never become "dry and riderless."

The exception to this rule, however, may be the makers and stars of a major feature film about Sylvia Plath, which is perhaps why "Sylvia" elicited Frieda Hughes' ferocious outrage while my novel, virtually contemporaneous to the movie, merited no more than Hughes' frowning grumble. The job of judging the artistic success of this film is for someone more objective than I can be. However, there is no denying that "Sylvia" will make money off the lives of Plath and Hughes, which is where Frieda Hughes' prickly stance becomes most problematic. No one can fault Hughes for distancing herself from a project that will depict her mother's death, or, in her own words, blame her for not wanting to be "involved in moments of my childhood which I never want to return to."

But every major player in the making of "Sylvia," from producer Alison Owen to screenwriter John Brownlow, from director Christine Jeffs to stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig and even composer Gabriel Yared, has characterized his or her part in this film as a "labor of love" born of admiration for the works of Plath and Hughes. Owen, Paltrow and Jeffs have been lifelong readers of Plath; Brownlow switched from math to English at Oxford University because of Plath's poetry. Craig was given a copy of Ted Hughes' book "Crow" when he was 12 years old and remembers sneaking into a Hughes reading when he was in grammar school. Yared wrote the elegiac score with a sense that he was composing "for" Plath. In an interview during her recent stop in San Francisco for the premiere of "Sylvia" at the Mill Valley Film Festival, director Jeffs revealed that she, like Paltrow, would read Plath's poetry late into the night before a morning film shoot, selecting individual lines from Plath's "Ariel" poems to focus the tone and emotional temperature of the next day's filming.

It is difficult, then, to find fault with the impulse behind the film, despite Frieda Hughes' claim that the filmmakers refused to take her objections or her "feelings" into consideration. One has to wonder if Hughes' feelings might have more to do with the siphoning off of income from the Plath estate than with the sensitivity or fairness or accuracy of the film itself.

Is it reasonable for an artist -- or in "Sylvia's" case, a group of artists and investors -- to benefit financially from the work, or even the reputation, of another artist? Isn't that exactly what Frieda Hughes is doing by accepting her fat NESTA grant and writing her life story? Would NESTA have given Frieda Hughes $80,000 if she hadn't been the daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath?

Hughes has every right to feel proprietary over her mother as her mum and her father as her dad. But it is foolhardy for her to attempt to control either the general reader's response to her parents' work or to prevent the creative interpretation of her parents' work by other artists. As Hughes is a poet and artist herself, it is confounding that she seems to refuse to acknowledge the natural attraction that artists feel for the works of other artists, often to beneficial effect for both the subject and the interpreter.

It is doubly confounding that Hughes seems to believe that by clinging to a misapprehended sense of nepotistic "privacy" she alone has the right to artistic response to one -- two -- of the major literary figures of the 20th century. This is the kind of schizophrenic attitude that has characterized the Plath estate for many years: The desire to realize the income created by making Plath's works available to the public, coupled with active distaste at the possibility that those same works might elicit some response other than A) a narrowly circumscribed, family-approved interpretation, or B) the ringing of a cash register.

What might "Sylvia" be like if Frieda Hughes and her family had granted the filmmakers liberal use of Plath's words, placing poetry at the heart of the relationship of their version of Sylvia and Ted, as it was in real life? "I know the bottom," Plath wrote in the poem "Elm" in April 1962, when Frieda had just turned 2 years old. "It is what you fear." What Frieda Hughes may continue to fear is that letting go of the stranglehold the Plath estate maintains on Plath's work will force her to forever revisit the terrible specter of her mother's death and the nasty spectacle that followed for her family when that death became the crux of public knowledge about Plath. But Frieda Hughes' mother continued, almost prophetically, in that same poem: "I do not fear it: I have been there." The genius of Sylvia Plath was her courageous willingness to face her inner demons, excruciating as it was, and to come to know herself profoundly in the process. Her poetry continues to resonate far beyond her personal struggle to become, as her daughter recognized in September 2000, "her own woman, defined not by others, but by the words she left behind."

In those last anguished, exhilarating, fruitful months before Plath's suicide, she became a woman whose sole proprietor was herself. That's the Plath her readers know, and that's the Plath who will last: the ardent, defiant, fierce and nimble writer, not the miserable woman who inscrutably and with hopeless finality took her own life. All secondary Plathian roads, whether biographical or critical or fictional or celluloid, will lead surely and inevitably back to the genuine article. As an artist and a poet, but most important as Sylvia Plath's daughter, it's time for Frieda Hughes to trust not just her mother's readers but her mother's words, and the profound power they have to transcend her death. Until she does, Sylvia Plath will never be truly hers.

About the writer
Kate Moses, a former editor at Salon, is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath," just published in paperback by Anchor Books.



Creative Differences
A portrait of a star-crossed union.

Reviewed by Nancy Schoenberger

Sunday, December 14, 2003; Page BW05

HER HUSBAND: Hughes and Plath -- A Marriage

By Diane Middlebrook. Viking. 361 pp. $25.95

When Sylvia Plath committed suicide in February l963 and vanished into myth, the poet Anne Sexton envied her friend what she considered a good career move, as Diane Middlebrook points out in her latest biography, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath -- A Marriage. Plath had accomplished what Sexton had planned for herself: She died young and left a beautiful corpus.

Forty years after Plath's death, the story still intrigues: Two good-looking and highly ambitious young poets -- an American and a Yorkshireman -- meet at a party in Cambridge. They marry, work side by side producing poems that first establish Hughes's reputation as an important poet; they live the literary life of postwar Britain while Plath -- the intense American alpha student -- churns out poems, stories, a novel and bears their two children. Plath publishes her first book, The Colossus and Other Poems, and a novel, The Bell Jar, a disguised tale of her own depression, caused by her father's death when she was 8, and her suicide attempt while a student at Smith College. Ted's adulterous affair with the beautiful and seductive Assia Wevill and his abandonment of Sylvia are followed by her suicide in a frigid London flat in the grip of one of England's coldest winters.

And then the second act: Publication of Plath's Ariel -- the searing, white-hot poems she had written just prior to her suicide -- transformed her into a feminist icon and Hughes into an oppressor who drove her to her death. (A mob of Plath's devotees once met Hughes at an art festival with a placard that read "You murdered Sylvia"; others scratched out the name "Hughes" from her headstone.) Hughes's destruction of Plath's last journal, and his stony silence in the decades following her death, further demonized him, while her literary fame eclipsed his.

Act Three: Ted's sudden release of Birthday Letters, secretly written over 25 years and published in 1998, the year of his death, which described in beautifully lucid, uncharacteristically confessional poems the six-year saga of their fated union.

In fact, so much has been written about Hughes and Plath (we now think of them as Ted and Sylvia) that one wonders why Middlebrook has followed up her bestselling biographies (Anne Sexton and Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton) with a book about the Hughes-Plath marriage. Why now, following closely on the heels of Birthday Letters, Erica Wagner's analysis of those final poems (Ariel's Gift, 2000), and Elaine Feinstein's measured and exculpatory biography, Ted Hughes, The Life of a Poet (2001)? Not to mention the plethora of Plath works already in existence or about to emerge: three major biographies; several memoirs; numerous critical works; Paul Alexander's play ("The Edge"); and now a film, "Ted and Sylvia," based on Hughes's Birthday Letters, with Gwyneth Paltrow in the golden role. What can Middlebrook's new book possibly add to this industry?

With Her Husband, it's not so much that Middlebrook brings new material to the now familiar saga. (Hughes's archive, bought by Emory University and made available for scholars after his death in 1998, is also utilized in Wagner's and Feinstein's books.) But by choosing the aperture of their marriage through which to tell their story, Middlebrook manages to give us not just a double life but a distilled life: a sense of the everydayness of Plath and Hughes's extraordinary marriage, as well as an understanding of the psychic -- one might say occult -- lives that catapulted these two souls headlong into their poetry and into their terrible fates. She gives us their human marriage and their alchemical marriage -- one Hughes believed was fated, as expressed in Birthday Letters when he wrote that "the solar system married us." Hughes (and Plath, to a lesser degree) took their immersion in astrology and shamanism seriously, so Middlebrook gives us their natal astrological charts, and she interprets for us the signs and omens that fill their poetry and darkened their lives. She illustrates how imagery -- both in poetry and in the occult -- opens the mind to the flow of meaning.

Middlebrook also delves into Hughes's belief in Robert Graves's depiction of the poetic muse as the White Goddess, symbolized by the moon. For Hughes, Plath embodied the Moon-goddess Muse -- she was his silvery path. For Plath -- whose work abounds with moon imagery -- Hughes's role was to open the door to her deepest self. Tragically, that door led to her unresolved grief-worship of her dead father, Otto, a force that unleashed her greatest poems but contributed to her final breakdown (at least in Hughes's view, given some credence here as well). "I did not/ Know I had made and fitted a door/ Opening downwards into your Daddy's grave," Hughes wrote in Birthday Letters. On a more mundane plane, Middlebrook describes the ways in which two creative geniuses were able to work side by side, without rivalry -- inspiring, encouraging, influencing each other, scribbling on the backs of each other's discarded drafts.

Through readings of Hughes's earlier poems, Middlebrook charts his self-image as a hunter -- a predator -- for whom domesticity was, finally, stifling. The turning point in his marriage to Plath -- as recounted in Birthday Letters and resurrected here -- came when a boy he met by chance offered him a fox cub and Hughes couldn't bring himself to take it home to the cramped household in which their first child, Frieda, had just been born. The fox was Hughes's totemic creature (which appeared to him once before, described in "The Thought-Fox," to claim him for poetry); to deny what it signified for him was a kind of soul-suicide.

Folded into the heart of this book -- as in every text about Sylvia -- is the mystery of her suicide. Middlebrook does not take the simplistic approach of blaming Hughes for Plath's death, though she is clear about his infidelities and litany of lovers (beginning with Assia Wevill and continuing throughout his life) and Plath's intense jealousy. After having written a life of Anne Sexton, who was, like Plath, bipolar and suicidal, and -- controversially -- having had access to Sexton's taped psychiatric sessions, Middlebrook brings a great understanding of clinical depression to her material. The reasons for suicide? Yes, it was Hughes's infidelity and abandonment, his predatory need for "wildness." Yes, it was the obsessive pull of her unresolved grief for Otto, reopened as a theme for poetry. Yes, it was London's bitterest winter in years. But it was also -- and chiefly -- clinical depression, which can claim the lives of the talented and untalented alike.

Middlebrook keeps us amazed by the ironies of that marriage, beginning with her title: In the truest sense of the word, Hughes was unable to properly husband Plath during her lifetime. However, he husbanded her posthumously. He became the executor of her entire body of work because they were still married at the time of her death. He has been roundly condemned for his destruction of her final journal, his reassembling and omitting some of the poems that made up Ariel, the book upon which her great reputation rests, and his unwillingness to release material to scholars. Middlebrook describes those acts, but she also illustrates Hughes's canny and careful husbanding of what would become an extremely valuable literary archive, culturally as well as financially. If he could not devote himself to her in life, he devoted himself to her posthumous life, his very secrecy and parsimoniousness in hoarding her words adding luster to her reputation -- and protecting his own. The irony at the heart of Hughes's dilemma is that he was an intensely, almost morbidly private man who found himself thrust into the pitiless light of public scrutiny and scorn. And, in Plath's journals and letters, he had to confront himself as her betrayer while at the same time acting as her literary executor (and, some claimed, executioner.) His natal chart, Middlebrook points out, revealed that "good and evil fame" would come at the expense of his truest nature -- he would become the hermit exposed (or "The Hanging Man," the Tarot Card he identified as himself).

One of the deep pleasures of reading Her Husband is Middlebrook's gifts as a storyteller. She uses her discoveries and insights in the service of her story ("Your story. My story," Hughes wrote), which has by now taken on the gravitas of Greek tragedy. Yet she undercuts the tragic voice by a familiar -- almost cheery -- writing style. She's adept at turning phrases and making her own metaphors, as in: "Through long use, their catastrophes have been softened into anecdotal shapes as homely as carpet slippers." The bloody mark left on Hughes's face when Plath, on their first meeting, bit him on the cheek, is "a wedding ring of tooth marks."

Middlebrook doesn't hide behind the biographer's impersonal mask. Her buoyant style, devoid of pretension or jargon, serves as a life raft in the deep pull and drag of the marriage. When she describes Plath and her friend Clarissa Roche "hooting with laughter" over some of the "rap-lyric" rhymes of her poem "Daddy" (do, shoe, blue, you, Jew), Plath is humanized, and one can suddenly see with fresh eyes that poem -- to many her most sacred text -- shorn of its decades of scholarly and feminist critique. Elsewhere, Middlebrook uses her literary acumen to show how their poems and their lives fed off each other, could not be parted, and to demonstrate the telepathic closeness of these radiant twins. Hughes's work would be influenced by Plath for the rest of his life.

Finally, Middlebrook is not ashamed to acknowledge the inherent voyeurism of biography, inviting us to "put our eye to a crack in the door to Hughes's life." This is a deep, rich, and satisfying biography of a marriage -- harrowing and ironic, playful and grave. •

Nancy Schoenberger, a poet and biographer, is the author of "Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood." She teaches creative writing at the College of William & Mary.




A relationship once removed

Examining the artistic alliance of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and the dialogue between personas it engendered

By Laura Ciolkowski. Laura Ciolkowski teaches literature at New York University

October 12, 2003

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath--A Marriage
By Diane Middlebrook
Viking, 361 pages, $25.95

Four decades after the brilliant young poet Sylvia Plath famously ended her life by sticking her head inside the oven in her London kitchen and turning on the gas, making sure to leave cups of breakfast milk and helpings of bread for her two young children before she sealed off their bedroom with masking tape, the sensational story of Plath's life and the cultural significance of her work are still subjects of debate.

Plath's losing battle with depression and the intensity of her struggle to combine the demands of great art with the myriad obligations of domestic life have posthumously remade her into an iconic figure of postwar American femininity. Her turbulent artistic and emotional relationship with her philandering husband, Ted Hughes, a brilliant poet in his own right who would be named poet laureate of England in 1984, has been enlisted by many literary critics as one of the raw ingredients in a tragic story of male infidelity, female victimization and death.

The tale of Plath and Hughes is enormously complex, ultimately resisting the simple interpretive models that critics and biographers, filmmakers and playwrights have so enthusiastically imposed upon it. From the time of Plath's suicide in 1963 to the present day, the details of Plath's life with Hughes and the largely unflattering saga of his dealings with the literary legacy she left behind have been unfolding through the slow drip of scholarly studies and letters and manuscripts from Plath's and Hughes' literary archives. But for literary critic and biographer Diane Middlebrook ("Anne Sexton," 1991), Hughes' publication of two volumes of poetry--the commercially and critically successful "Birthday Letters" and the limited-edition "Howls and Whispers"--just months before he died in 1998 contributed the key piece to the puzzle of Plath and Hughes' magnificent artistic alliance.

In "Her Husband," Middlebrook's revealing return to what she dubs, without hyperbole, "one of the most mutually productive literary marriages of the twentieth century," Middlebrook is chiefly interested in Plath and

Hughes' unique literary collaboration and in the tangle of characters, plots and grand mythic structures that it engendered not just for Plath but, especially, for Hughes throughout his long and illustrious career as a poet. From the time Hughes was a young boy, he desperately wanted to attain the stature of a W.B. Yeats or a D.H. Lawrence. A fatalist in most things, including his relationship with Plath (" 'The solar system married us,' he claimed, when he re-created their meeting in Birthday Letters, locating the astrological coordinates very precisely," Middlebrook writes), Hughes also believed it was his destiny to become a great poet. After Plath's suicide, he found himself caught in the web of a distressing personal scandal that turned his audience from a fixation on his poetry to a fixation on his private life, and he was forced to come to terms with the unwelcome fact that all of his future work would be linked somehow to the spectacle of "Plath's angry departure for the underworld."

Ironically, it is Hughes' decades-long literary dialogue with Plath's work, a " 'drama with the dead,' " as Hughes described it in "Birthday Letters," that finally makes him, at least in Middlebrook's estimation, into the great English poet he always longed to become. Inspired by what he always maintained was Plath's startling poetic genius, Hughes reinvents himself as a literary character, the man he sometimes called "TH" and sometimes called "her husband," in order to engage in intimate conversation with another literary character, the persona consciously constructed by Plath in her own work. Middlebrook explains:

"The clever subtext of Hughes's account of their marriage, in Birthday Letters, puts the Hughes persona, her husband, in dialogue not with an actual woman but with the vivid persona of Plath's well-known texts. . . . His apparent misquotations of her words are deliberate, ostentatious substitutions, for he is not remembering her words; he has been prompted by her words to enter into dialogue with that self she made in language."

Hughes' persona is, for Middlebrook, his most important "contribution to the history of poetry" because it enables him to re-create, in mythic form, the intricate, vaguely Robert Gravesian anthropological theories of animal instincts and sexual expression that guided Hughes in his artistic and personal life. Graves' insistence in his influential 1940s cult text "The White Goddess" that the authentic poet writes from "the wild, uncivilized depths of his mind," finding inspiration from the feminine poet-muse that Graves christens "the White Goddess" but not permitting her to rob him of his wild nature, held a powerful appeal for Hughes and ultimately helped him justify his own sexual appetites and infidelities.

As Hughes worked and reworked these ideas in his writing, he gradually developed a detailed symbolic system of meanings and metaphor that helped him make sense of the primitive impulses he believed were the source of his deepest artistic inspiration. Middlebrook writes:

"True North in Hughes's libido was the position of predator, imprinted in those early morning escapes from the claustrophobic family home in Mytholmroyd, dominated by his mother, out and up onto the moors with his brother. Escaping from the domain of actual women, the brothers wrote themselves into a complicated fantasy life that licensed voyeurism and violent capture. That era of Hughes's upbringing retained its force in his imagination. And Hughes himself was a shrewd analyst of the role predation played in his creativity."

Predictably, Plath emerges for Middlebrook as nothing less than Hughes' White Goddess, a figure of poetic inspiration who gives new meaning to Hughes' wide body of work, once she is installed as the symbolic center of Hughes' poetic vision. Middlebrook grounds her reinterpretive project in her reading of one of the 11 poems in "Howls and Whispers," titled "The Offers," in which the ghost of Plath returns from the underworld, appearing to Hughes three times. On her final appearance Plath tells him, " 'This time/Don't fail me,' " suggesting to Middlebrook a powerful gesture of imaginative renewal in which Plath calls on Hughes to come to terms with her death so that Hughes' creative powers could be restored through her as muse.

Middlebrook is a sharp reader of poetry and prose, with a finely tuned ear for the call-and-response quality of Hughes' poetic dialogue with his dead artist-muse-wife. Some of the strongest moments in Middlebrook's book are to be found in her eloquent juxtaposition of Plath and Hughes as they grapple in verse with the same image or idea but to dramatically different effect, as for example in Plath's "Morning Song" and Hughes' "Lines to a Newborn," poems about their infant daughter; or as in so many of the poems in Hughes' "Birthday Letters." Middlebrook's careful annotation of the intricate dance Plath and Hughes perform not only with each other but with the powerful images and ideas that, as artists, they work to shape makes "Her Husband" a compelling study of two great poets.

But Middlebrook's overwhelming desire to read all of Hughes through a singens, her attempts to explain Hughes' wide body of work through the deterministic, final image of Plath as goddess-muse in "The Offers," does not do justice to the marvelous inconsistencies and subtle textures of Hughes' lifework. Middlebrook insists that "The Offers" represents the " 'drama of completion' in the evolution of [Hughes'] Poetic Self." It remains to be seen, though, whether such a drama can or should be the final word on either the poet or his artistic legacy.



Probing the myth of a powerful marriage

By Scott W. Helman, Globe Staff, 10/8/2003

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath - A Marriage, By Diane Middlebrook Viking, 416 pp., $25.95

The marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes may have lasted just 6 1/2 years, but, as with most myths, the fabled pairing -- the poet and poetess locked in a universal struggle -- outlasted the pair. In order to carve out a place on Olympus, each needed the other's chisel.

A central event in that mythmaking, of course, was Plath's shocking suicide in 1963, which haunted Hughes -- the unfaithful husband whom many blamed for her death -- for the rest of his life. But as Diane Middlebrook argues in her fascinating new book about their marriage, "Her Husband," to focus too much on what happened or what didn't -- to concentrate on the earthly aspects of the marriage at all -- is to miss the point.

"Their story is forever simplifying itself into a tragedy and rushing toward its horrible ending," Middlebrook writes. "But we, the heirs of their work, can now observe that -- aside from their lives -- nothing ended!" No, she says: What ended was flesh, breath0. What lived, even flourished, from the couple's rises and falls, was art, poetry, myth. In that, "Her Husband" argues, the matrimony was wildly successful.

They made it so. Hughes published his own esoteric works after her death, but Middlebrook argues that he was, more importantly, the guardian of Plath's literary legacy, Plath's husband. It was in that role, she writes, that he would build -- knew he would build -- his posterity. Plath's writing, so much of it autobiographical and molded by this marriage, made her an icon of American literature, more so posthumously. Together, they left a compelling account of the orbits of two huge minds -- how they crossed and tried to make room in the same universe.

Hughes and Plath met at a party in Cambridge, England. She went right for him: the hunky, larger-than-life poet. She found his violent, primordial poems sexually arousing and approached him quoting his work. "I can see how women lie down for artists," Plath would write the next morning. In the first of many exchanges blurring life and literature, she bites him when he kisses her -- a scene, Middlebrook notes, right out of D.H. Lawrence. "For behind the improbable momentum of their 112-day dash into wedlock, on both sides, was a big literary education that had taught each of them how to live, and what to do."

Each needed each other, needed a marriage with all its ingredients -- the good parts and the wounds -- for art. Later, Hughes would write to Plath's mother that the relationship allowed both of them to sublimate everything for writing. Ultimately, what seems to have been sublimated was the sustenance that fed the union.

But as artists, that sublimation made sense to them -- and it made great art. Their split, as their introduction had done, charged their professional lives, Middlebrook argues. It put the rage back into Plath, leading, Middlebrook writes, to some of her best work. It forced Hughes to confront his life, his past, his future. The marriage gave them both definition.

A crucial work Middlebrook cites is Hughes's "Birthday Letters," published in 1998, which Hughes himself described as "my own drama with the dead." He deliberately released that poetry collection, Middlebrook argues, in a way to cement his and Plath's place in the literary pantheon. It helps build the case, she writes, that "Ted and Sylvia each stumbled into the other's power to transform mere human beings into characters in a myth."

Drawing on recently archived papers, Middlebrook is a thorough and careful guide through this brief but endlessly intriguing marriage. Her knowledge of the poets' work, her ability to trace currents and themes, and her singular vision in synthesizing it all is downright mystifying.

As a 16-year-old, Plath penned a prescient poem, "To Ariadne, Deserted by Theseus." Based on a Greek myth, the poem chides a princess for lying despondent after being deserted by her prince. Plath implores her to get up: "Why do you stand and listen only to/ The sobbing of the wind along the sand?"

Middlebrook suggests that it's not clear that Plath, in killing herself, meant to lie down next to Ariadne and give up. What did she mean? As with most details of her life with Hughes, it adds to the mystery, adds to the myth. As Middlebrook makes clear, it also adds to her immortality.



Rethinking A Marriage From Hell

Ted and Sylvia live to fight again in a book and film

By Mark Miller
Oct. 20 issue — In the four decades since Sylvia Plath gassed herself to death in London, critics, biographers and readers have argued about who was to blame. Plath’s chilling, raging last poems led feminists to accuse her philandering husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes, of pushing her to the edge. Hughes’s defenders portrayed Plath as cruel and emotionally unbalanced.

TODAY, WITH MENTAL illness so openly discussed, it all seems a little quaint. But it is a measure of the ferocity of the Plath wars that only now can someone say the obvious. As Diane Middlebrook puts it in “Her Husband,” a new biographical account of the couple’s marriage: “Depression killed Sylvia Plath.”
        Middlebrook’s excellent book is one sign that we’ve come far enough for a balanced appraisal of the Plath-Hughes marriage. Another is the new film “Sylvia,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, which also tries for an evenhanded approach (review). The surviving family—Hughes died in 1998—isn’t so dispassionate. Frieda Hughes, their daughter, is violently opposed to the movie; she recently published a poem attacking the film’s conception of her mother as “Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.” She declined an interview but has reportedly said, “Why would I want to be involved in moments of my childhood which I never want to return to?” (A spokesman for the film says, “We cannot comment. We just cannot comment.”) As guardians of the Plath-Hughes estate—Plath left no will—Frieda and Ted’s sister, Olwyn, have been formidable forces. They have kept tight control over Plath’s poetry, and the film uses only the brief snippets allowed under legal fair-use doctrine.
        Middlebrook sympathizes with the family. Frieda, she says, is “asking, ‘Why do you want to watch my mother put her head in an oven?’—and that is a pretty good question.” In researching her book, she minimized involvement with the family, quoting from both poets’ work but asking Olwyn only to verify an anecdote. “It was the best way to write a book that wouldn’t involve endless quarrels.” Freed of the constraints of any legal wrangling, Middlebrook illuminates the marriage and the work rather than igniting yet another debate.
        Middlebrook, biographer of that other famously suicidal poet, Anne Sexton, balances scholarship—she is among the first to delve into the documentary trove Hughes sold to Atlanta’s Emory University—with analysis of the interplay of the couple’s poems. Many refer to specific works by the other, and some have deeply embedded messages, some cutting, some loving, meant only for each other. This “call and response” helps illuminate why neither could have accomplished what they did had they not spent those six turbulent years together.
        “Her Husband” also breaks news. An unsent letter by Hughes suggests that he may not, as he claimed, have destroyed Plath’s journal written in the weeks before her death. Middlebrook also questions his claim that another journal—the one she kept while writing many of her last poems—went missing. “I am so desperately hoping that the 1960-62 journal exists—that if he hid the last one, he hid the next-to-last one, too.” At Emory, a tantalizing chest of documents sits locked, on Hughes’s order, until 2023. So in two more decades the last word might finally be said?
Not about Plath and Hughes. Probably not ever.




Literary spotlight again shines on Plath, Hughes

By Jacqueline Blais, USA TODAY

Virginia Woolf was last winter's literary find when the movie The Hours caused her 1925 classic Mrs. Dalloway to be a born-again best seller.

Now the stars, and the stores, will throw the spotlight on Sylvia Plath, this autumn's favorite rediscovery

The flurry of works surrounding Plath, her husband, Ted Hughes, and their literary (and disastrous) marriage kicks off Friday with the movie Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. It opens in New York and Los Angeles.

Books are coming out too — once again bringing together Plath and Hughes.

The time is right for a "Plath moment," says Laran Brindle of Anchor, paperback publisher of Wintering by Kate Moses.

This novel imagines Plath's final months after Hughes has an affair; Plath moves into a London apartment with their two children, Frieda and Nicholas. In one of the coldest winters ever, in 1963, Plath puts her head in a gas oven and kills herself.

The story has become legend, perhaps even more familiar than the pair's literary output: poetry, prose and Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.

Also arriving:

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath — A Marriage by Diane Middlebrook (Viking, $25.95): "They started out on the high ground of romance ... and then, of course, it goes to hell."

Ted Hughes Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $50): For the first time, the book "brings everything together" from small, rare editions, magazines and already published books, says Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. At more than 1,200 pages, it's a "lot to digest."

Bookstore chains Borders and Barnes & Noble will have special Plath and Hughes displays. Borders ordered extra copies of Plath's The Bell Jar and their poetry books, spokeswoman Jenie Carlen says.

Paltrow has been promoting the movie, and that kind of exposure is "a way to shed light on an author who has been gone for a very long time and who has found a place in our culture," Carlen says.

Plath is standard stock at Broadside Books in Northampton, Mass., home to Smith College, where Plath graduated in 1955 and later taught. "We sell a goodly number of her books; we always have. I imagine when the movie comes out, it will create more interest in her books, journals and her life," co-owner Nancy Felton says.

The Plath-Hughes relationship was "not all knotty-browed creative agony," screenwriter John Brownlow says. What is emerging is a more nuanced view of their marriage, he says. "In many ways, it was a real relationship of equals, and neither should be blamed."

Their tragedy, he says, was on a grand scale with "character flaws that fit into each other beautifully. They were similar in many ways, and they passionately loved each other."

Nothing about them goes easily into that good night. The most recent fighting words: Frieda Hughes, their daughter, now 43, published a poem in Tatler magazine in England about the movie. (Her third collection of poetry, Waxworks, in stores, is published in the USA by HarperCollins.) From My Mother:

"The peanut-eaters, entertained

At my mother's death, will go home,

Each carrying their memory of her,

Lifeless — a souvenir

Maybe they'll buy the video."




Selected bibliography, Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

The Colossus
Crossing the Water
Winter Trees
The Collected Poems
(winner of the Pulitzer Prize)

The Bell Jar
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diar y Excerpts

Letters Home: Correspondence,1950-1963

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962 edited by Karen Kukil
The Journals of Sylvia Plath,
1950-1962, foreword by Ted

For children
The Bed Book
The It-doesn't-matter Suit
Collected Children's Stories



"Today is the first of August. It is hot, steamy and wet. It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: After a heavy rainfall, poems titled RAIN pour in from across the nation." (August 1950, at age 17, from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen Kukil)


The Writing Life

By Diane Middlebrook
Sunday, October 26, 2003; Page BW10

During the years I spent working on a book about the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, I had several dreams about each of them. One qualifies as what I will call The Biographer's Dream.

Here is the dream. At a party in a large London flat built like a railroad car, with all rooms opening off a single long corridor, Ted Hughes emerges rapidly from one of the rooms, hair floating around his face, brandishing a guitar. He strides to the end of the corridor and slumps good-naturedly into a corner of the ell where the main door stands open. Several people follow and flop onto the floor alongside him. I leave the party and am outside, seated in a waiting car, when I notice Hughes approaching. He gestures for me to lower the car window. I do. Does he need a lift? He doesn't. I become conscious that I am dreaming and then, fully conscious, annoyed that the dream didn't last long enough: What did he want? What was he going to say?

I, too, dislike it; as Marianne Moore said of poetry -- hearing about other people's dreams is like hearing about so much "fiddle." What an unpleasant moment is introduced by the conversational gambit "Let me tell you about a dream I had the other night." Listening to someone describe a dream is like being at dinner with a foreign bore who is struggling ineffectually, in bad English, to impress you. Dreams do not cross easily into words. They are fundamentally unshareable, except with psychoanalysts.

The Biographer's Dream is the exception. In consulting with other biographers, I have come to think of it as a dream-genre of its own. Visual, spatial and dynamic, it presents an image of the writer's relationship to the materials of a book in progress, as another example can show. The biographer Lyndall Gordon, while still a graduate student at Columbia University, writing the doctoral dissertation about T.S. Eliot that became Eliot's Early Years, tells about a dream similar to mine. At an old-fashioned cocktail party, she sees Eliot surrounded by a crowd of people. She is close enough to accost him. She wants to ask a vitally important question -- not a personal question, but a query about the date of something she has found in his papers. She is still working up the courage to speak when Eliot is swept away by the movement of the crowd. Gordon explains, "I was a South African girl on my own, in New York, working in great isolation at the time, and in great fear. Eliot had forbidden a biography to be written. I would have to pursue this work without anyone's permission. Also, I was handling manuscripts for the first time, with no training at all."

Gordon went on to publish her prize-winning biography of Eliot, and later to exercise her skills on Henry James, another famously tetchy subject. Gordon wrote A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women & His Art in defiance of James's overwhelming opposition to the practice of biography, opposition that greatly increased the difficulty of Gordon's research because the materials were widely scattered. So intense had been James's repugnance at the prospect of being written about that, shortly before his death, he roused himself from a sickbed to burn his own letters and papers. Of course he could hardly retrieve or secure from view many of the thousands of letters he had sent to other people during his lifetime. But long before that last dramatic act of covering his tracks, he had turned his gifts as a writer to the task of satirizing the wannabe biographers of the world. Throughout his career, he fashioned stories and novellas in which callow, opportunistic, obsessive second-raters pry into the personal lives of great artists. These nonentities always fail to attain their shoddy aims, and often disgrace themselves in the effort. The Aspern Papers gives this fantasy its fullest treatment: A besotted scholar attempts to acquire access to the love letters of a famous (dead) poet by insinuating himself as a lodger into the home of the poet's elderly, impoverished former mistress, and by dallying with the affections of her homely niece. The mistress dies, the niece inherits the letters, and the scoundrel's determination fails when he reaches the last hurdle: He cannot bring himself to marry the niece. Mortified by rejection, she burns the letters.

The Aspern Papers is a delicate, artistic masterpiece, told through a morally oblivious first-person narrator over whose shoulder we watch the stratagem at work. But a number of James's lesser-known but overtly satirical stories make his attitudes toward critics and biographers clear: "The Real Right Thing," "The Death of the Lion," "The Figure in the Carpet" -- over and over, James returns to this plot in which the inquisitive sycophant is put to shame.

It doesn't take a Henry James to make a biographer feel the kind of chagrin reflected in The Biographer's Dream, though. The Dream itself is cautionary and punitive. The biographer finds herself somehow in the company of Worthies, to use the apt Victorian label; she must have been doing something right to be a guest at this party in the first place. But the Worthy more or less obviously shuns the biographer, excluding her from the inner circle of intimates, and the frustrated biographer wakes with a painful sense of rejection and failure. Too little, too late.

Nonetheless, The Biographer's Dream can be a scene of instruction. If you assume, with Freud, that all dreams have the aim of wish-fulfillment, you can see the kind of wish that produces such a dream. Essentially, the biographer has been shown her proper place in the scheme of things.

Take the dream about Ted Hughes emerging from a hidden room into a narrow hallway: manifestly an image of the limits of what I can ever know about where he is coming from. He is walking toward me -- that's good! -- but apparently he doesn't see me: Is that good? Instead, he seats himself among devotees with his guitar. Now, Hughes didn't play a guitar, or any other musical instrument. (Later, I recognize that the dream is punning: the guitar is the cithara, the lyre of Apollo, the emblem of Hughes's position as poet laureate.) In the dream I know -- from my research -- that he likes to sing at parties, but I do not think he will sing to me. When the scene suddenly shifts to my departure in the car and he accosts me through a pane of glass, I try to respond, but am unable.

In short, my dream has brought home to me that Ted Hughes and I are not in a relationship of mutuality; we have no medium of exchange. In the dream, he is big and vivid and surrounded by friends, while I am too unimportant to be noticed. When he follows me to the car, things seem to be looking up, but the dream ends before any gratification can set in.

This is the moment I truly become his biographer. The notion embedded in the dream -- that in studying his papers I had established a relationship with the man -- reflects an infantile wish to be loved and accepted. Yearning for his attention, hoping for an approving word from him, I have been given something else: the license to write without ties or inhibitions. This is the recognition that makes the dream instructive. The project of a biography is to leave the party, gather the materials and submit them to the craft by which a life becomes a book.

Here, too, the example of Henry James provides the lesson of a master. Why did Henry James fear the biographer? Because he dreaded scrutiny by a detached observer as relentless and acute as himself. James was a social cannibal; he regularly came home from dinner parties with whole chunks of conversation committed to memory, and could metabolize a significant silence as easily as repartee. That is what biographers try to do. When they finally wake up from The Biographer's Dream, they get to work.



What darkness drove Sylvia Plath? Two San Francisco writers take compelling, unique tacks on the path to the poet

David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic
Tuesday, November 4, 2003

If only Sylvia Plath had married Leonard Woolf, and Virginia Woolf married Ted Hughes, maybe everybody would have lived happily ever after. Think of it. In the capably devoted Leonard, Plath might have found just the faithful helpmeet she needed to nurse her through the black patches. And in the brooding, gifted Hughes, Virginia might have found a man magnetic enough to jolt her out of her neurasthenia.

A stretch, admittedly, maybe even a sacrilege. But with the 20th century's two finest cartographers of the female psyche each dead by her own hand, who can begrudge a little retroactive matchmaking? Plath, especially, compels attention these days -- and maybe less reverential attention than she's been getting of late from the dutiful biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow, or even from current books by two of her most perceptive readers. What is it about Plath, as a poet and an icon, that keeps us obsessed all these years later? And what, under all the interpretation and speculation and the choosing-up of sides, might we possibly have overlooked?

It's testament to Plath's work that it can yield two striking yet completely different books in the same year. In February, Kate Moses published "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath," a triumphant meditation on the last few months of the poet's life. What could have descended into mere grave-robbing instead yields an unlooked-for, paradoxically life-affirming beauty. Listen to Moses as she channels the genuine but fragile, almost smothering joy Plath took in motherhood, a joy still more evident in her journals than in most of the writing done about her: "She wants to hoard it all, every pink-gummed infant grin, every leaf, every moment watching the clouds knead outside her study."

Like Moses, another San Francisco biographer, Diane Middlebrook, takes an altogether unique though no less successful tack in "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage." Middlebrook focuses on Plath's marriage to the British poet Ted Hughes, and the intense creative symbiosis that enriched their poetry even as it finally shook their partnership to pieces. With her unambiguous assertion that "Depression killed Sylvia Plath," Middlebrook may enrage unreconstructed Plathists who persist in blaming the unfaithful Hughes for their heroine's death. Nevertheless, "Her Husband" excels at finally getting on paper the peculiar emotional hemophilia that can result when writers intermarry.

For all their insight and improbable freshness, these two books reflect their authors' idiosyncratic perspectives as much as they do the assiduous research that went into them. How could it be otherwise?

Moses, founding co-editor of the "Mothers Who Think" column at the online magazine Salon, not coincidentally concentrates on Plath's post-Hughes relationship with her two children. Middlebrook, author of acclaimed books about the sexually voracious poet Anne Sexton and the cross-dressing jazz pianist Billy Tipton -- and the wife of a scientist whose accomplishments in multiple fields rival her own -- perhaps inevitably sees Plath more in the context of the poet's marriage.

It's hardly happenstance that Moses dedicates her book to "my children, my roses" -- a fond swipe from a line in Plath's poem "Kindness" -- while Middlebrook commends hers "To my husband, Carl Djerassi." These dedications only naturally reflect the books they precede, just as the books themselves can't help mirroring their authors' abiding preoccupations.

For hardly the first time, then, Plath becomes a looking glass in which a couple of uncommonly sensitive readers may glimpse themselves. That's not all these readers see, thank heaven, but it colors what they notice, what they stress. The double standard that says great writers' obsessions nourish and shape their work, but the lives of biographers (or biographical novelists) don't, is a canard long overdue for demolition.

You can go overboard with this kind of thinking, and -- as the old toast goes -- here's how. I would argue that, underlying 40 years of learned exegesis about Sylvia the genius, Sylvia the wife and mother, Sylvia the martyr, the madwoman, the shrew, there's one angle so obvious and yet so counterintuitive that somehow nobody's tripped over it yet: Sylvia Plath, the great unsung poet of California and the West.

Go ahead and laugh. Sylvia Plath, the Massachusetts-raised, Smith-educated German-American Yankee who followed her husband to England and never ventured west of the Rockies but once, on a car trip with her husband in the summer of 1959 -- Sylvia Plath, some kind of cowboy poet?

In truth, the idea isn't completely unprecedented. Among its few adherents was someone who, whatever one thinks of him, probably got as close to Plath as anyone ever did: her husband of six years, Ted Hughes.

The key to this theory can be found in the auto trip they took in July and August of '59. By this time, Plath and Hughes had pretty well burned out on teaching and Boston. They were trying to conceive a child and may have sensed that, if they succeeded, their vagabond days were probably numbered. (Unbeknownst to either, Plath was already carrying their daughter.) They had no obligations, save that the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., literary retreat Yaddo expected them in the fall.

So the couple piled into a sedan and lit out for Pasadena with the pretext of visiting Plath's beloved Uncle Walter and Aunt Frieda -- after whom they would christen their daughter the following year. Together Plath and Hughes fished the Wisconsin Peninsula, dodged a hungry bear in Yellowstone (the only thing that ever came close to killing Plath besides the poet herself) and finally beheld the Pacific coast at Stinson Beach, where they slept under the stars and woke to a chilling fog.

From there they drove to San Francisco, a brief visit Plath later puts to good use in her masterpiece "Daddy." The poem is a pitiless evisceration of all the looming father figures -- from her decades-dead father to her own husband -- who had dominated Plath's imagination for so long, and whom she personifies as a "Ghastly statue with one gray toe/ Big as a Frisco seal."

Charitably chalking up her use of the hated nickname to metrical demands, one can't help noting that the final poem in "Birthday Letters" (Hughes' posthumous, tender argument with his late wife, published in 1998) also mentions their local sojourn. In it he contrasts the eponymous "Red" of Plath's rages with the softer, more livable blue imagery of their love: "Blue was better for you. Blue was wings./ Kingfisher blue silks from San Francisco/ Folded your pregnancy/ In crucible caresses."

From San Francisco they partook of that storied California institution, the Bay-to-L.A. road trip. History doesn't record whether Plath and Hughes stopped for pea soup in Buellton, but -- according to a letter she wrote home to mother -- they fetched up in Pasadena in time to receive one of those enormous meals, juicy with backyard produce, that midcentury Californians used to inflict on visiting relations.

After a short happy stay at Walter and Frieda's "little green Eden of a house," the travelers spent a few weeks doubling back home through the deserts of the Southwest. And there the story would have ended, if not for the breakthrough that Plath would shortly achieve at Yaddo.

Breakthroughs are slippery things, of course, and Plath's career had more than its share. Someone less invested in matters Western might just as easily credit Yaddo as the catalyst, rather than the wide open spaces she had traveled through just before. Ted Hughes entertained little doubt, though -- either about what had unblocked his wife, or where all her apocalyptic panoramas were suddenly coming from:

"The dry, dangerous emptiness of those deserts revealed themselves later in the surreal landscapes of Plath's 'Ariel' poems," Elaine Feinstein wrote in her 2001 biography of Hughes, whom she had known for almost three decades. "Ted decided that their journey across the Badlands was a quest for Sylvia's true self, that central part of her which her cosy New England upbringing had repressed. That self was to become the savage creator of her 'Ariel' poems, with their stark colours echoing the bleached bright landscape of the American West."

That's Ted's opinion, certainly, and he may well be projecting onto Plath his own awe at the West's terrifying majesty. He devotes fully five poems in "Birthday Letters" to their motor trip, whereas Sylvia addressed it directly in only two: "Sleep in the Mojave Desert" and "Two Campers in Cloud Country."

But what a glorious couple of poems they are, both of them as good as anything in her pre-"Ariel" catalog. "Mojave" is the more pictorial of the two,

not least in its description of "those glittering fictions of spilt water/ That glide ahead of the very thirsty." Once read, can anyone ever look on a mirage and not remember those lines?

"Two Campers in Cloud Country," set in Canada on the voyage out, plunges deeper into the landscape's overpowering effect on the poet. The only greater injustice than perforating it with ellipses would be not to quote from it at all:

"In this country there is neither measure nor balance . . .

It took three days driving north to find a cloud

The polite skies over Boston couldn't possibly accommodate . . .

In a month we'll wonder what plates and forks are for . . .

We'll wake blank-brained as water in the dawn."

After reading even such small slivers of "Cloud Country," Hughes' hypothesis about Plath's Western imagery doesn't seem quite so potted after all. At the very least, by the time of a later poem like "Wuthering Heights" --

with its marvelous line "The sky leans on me, me, the one upright/ Among all horizontals" -- Plath had sublimated her terrorstruck awe under Western skies onto her husband's native Yorkshire Moors. For an imagination as fearful yet ferocious as Plath's, any heath in a storm might do.

The point of all this foofaraw isn't, heaven forbid, to come up with a definitive interpretation of Plath's work. It's one measure of Plath's hold over us that her tragically truncated corpus can take whatever ready-made notions any reader cares to throw at her, and still keep coming back for more.

Among so much else, her suicide in 1963 also may have robbed us of Plath's own best critic. She could easily have been writing about her own work -- and those of us admirers who can't help seeing ourselves in it -- when she began the poem "Mirror" with the lines, "I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions./ Whatever I see I swallow immediately."

Forty years on, Plath's merciless poetry is a mirror still, impossible to pass without searching for something that wasn't there when last we looked. As with any mirror, too, the old question persists: When no one's looking, whose face does it show?

December 21, 2003

'Her Husband': Doomed Union or Creative Partnership?


Hughes and Plath -- A Marriage.
By Diane Middlebrook.
Illustrated. 361 pp.
New York: Viking. $25.95.

Them again. Just when you thought there was no more to be said, the ransacked remains of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath float to the surface once more. The occasion this time is Diane Middlebrook's ''Her Husband,'' which offers up yet another look at this much-prodded-at, larger-than-life marriage. Middlebrook, whose most recent book was a biography of the cross-dressing musician Billy Tipton, has also written an excellent biography of Anne Sexton, so she knows from self-destructing poets. And as with the Sexton book, which ignited controversy at the time of its publication because it drew upon confidential psychiatric records that were made available to Middlebrook by Sexton's daughter, she has again benefited from access to previously off-limits material, including letters and manuscripts by Ted Hughes. Still, one would be tempted to groan at this latest exhumation -- if only it weren't so transfixing a tale.

He was the ''black marauder,'' as Plath called him, a gorgeous hunk from a working-class Yorkshire background, who dressed in raggedy black and wanted to wrench modern British poetry from its fuddy-duddy moorings. She was the genteelly raised girl from New England, a bottle blonde with long legs and a sterling ''bobby-sox'' education, as Hughes would later describe it in ''Birthday Letters,'' the collection of poems about Plath that he published shortly before his death in 1998.

When they met at a Cambridge literary party, he already had a rep as a magnetic womanizer, and she already had a hair-raising psychiatric history. Their first kiss drew blood, and for the next six years they combusted their way through love, marriage and the birth of two children. For a while they appeared to have it all, starting with great sex -- in bed they behaved, as Plath modestly put it, ''like giants'' -- which seems to have been stoked by their mutually aggressive erotic styles. She brokered his poetry -- Plath typed and submitted the manuscript of ''The Hawk in the Rain,'' Hughes's first, prize-winning collection -- and perfected her culinary skills. (She packed ''The Joy of Cooking,'' which she once described herself poring over ''like a rare novel,'' in her honeymoon luggage, along with her Olivetti portable.) But she was also determined to become a famous writer in her own right. ''It is sad,'' she observed in her journals, ''only to be able to mouth other poets; I want someone to mouth me.'' Hughes cheered her on through her despairs -- the ''blank hell in back of my eyes,'' as she called it -- and despite his complaints to his friends that she never sewed on buttons, divvied up the domestic chores so that each could get a fair share of unencumbered writing hours.

At the time of Plath's suicide, however, there was no contest as to which of the two geniuses (if they agreed completely upon anything it was that each of them was married to a genius) had triumphed. Hughes was a heralded poet, surrounded by bohemian buddies and infatuated women, including the stunning femme fatale Assia Wevill, whom he had dumped his wife for. Plath, by contrast, had been left to fend for herself and their two young children during a brutal London winter -- the coldest in half a century, as we have repeatedly been told. Nearly friendless, she was further isolated by the toxic atmosphere of gossipmongering that surrounded the dissolution of her marriage. Plath was also relatively unknown as a writer -- she had published one slim, unearthshaking book of verse, and her novel, ''The Bell Jar,'' had come out a month earlier, under a pseudonym, to little notice -- except to a few, like the critic A. Alvarez, who sniffed her bonfire talent. The last person to see her alive was the grouchy downstairs neighbor, who reluctantly entered into conversation and sold her stamps so she could mail a final letter to her mother. At a small gathering after the funeral, Hughes blurted, ''Everybody hated her.''

The trouble with the foregoing, however, is that it is but one cobbled-together narrative among many possible narratives, all of them jockeying for centrality. There are Plath's own accounts, of course; whether in the form of poetry, fiction or journals, they are imbued with a kind of feverish authority, as much because of the power of their witnessing as the vividness of the prose. Then there is the chirpy, bright-eyed plotline relayed by the dutiful ''Sivvy'' of ''Letters Home,'' who sounds, with her incessant busywork and her annoyance at her mother-in-law's ''sloppy cupboards,'' like a gushing precursor of Martha Stewart. There has also been a trove of Plath biographies, including Anne Stevenson's much-plagued ''Bitter Fame'' and Ronald Hayman's empathetic and considered ''Death and Life of Sylvia Plath.'' The poet Elaine Feinstein weighed in with a judicious biography of Hughes two years ago, and his own moving but also shrewdly self-exculpating version of the story is presented in ''Birthday Letters,'' where he is featured as a long-suffering husband who was helpless against a doom foretold before he ever arrived on the scene. There are, as well, a growing pile of competing memoirs (the latest of which, ''Giving Up,'' is by Jillian Becker, the woman whose house Plath retreated to on the weekend before she died); a novel about Plath's last days, called ''Wintering''; psychoanalytic studies, such as Jacqueline Rose's ''Haunting of Sylvia Plath''; and Janet Malcolm's cool-eyed telescopic take in ''The Silent Woman.''

Given that there is so little agreement on the details -- whether, for instance, the headband Plath wore on the night they met was red, as she had it, or blue, as Hughes recalled -- it is all the more surprising that Middlebrook's overarching interpretation of the marriage as a partial triumph, rather than a wholesale tragedy, makes as persuasive a case as it does. Instead of ascribing blame or censure, she focuses on the ways in which the union of these two gifted and complicated people was, for a sustained period, a singular creative partnership -- a ''productive collusion'' -- that led to an almost magical symbiosis. ''They were a matched pair,'' Middlebrook writes, ''as country people used to say of horses. . . . Each was the other's best critic of their writing.'' Despite vastly different upbringings and influences, she suggests, Plath and Hughes connected at the deepest level from the moment they met, recognizing in each other a force -- half demonic and half angelic -- to be harnessed and reckoned with. ''The sense of being bonded to each other through their instincts was one element in their compatibility, not only as lovers but as artists.'' No matter that he was essentially undomesticatable, and that she was scarred by a furious negativity that had its roots in pathology as much as it had its flowering in her late poems. (''The one factor that nobody but close friends can comprehend,'' Hughes wrote his brother, ''is Sylvia's particular death-ray quality.'') To Middlebrook, what's fascinating is not that the relationship failed but that their ''dynamic of agreement and differentiation'' lasted as long as it did. In much the same fashion, Hughes's continuing dialogue with Plath, either directly in his work or indirectly, via the statements and letters he wrote over the three and a half decades he and his sister, Olwyn, hawkishly presided over her literary estate, is a tribute both to the hold Plath had over his imagination and to his wish to break free of its entanglements.

''It is only a story. / Your story. My story,'' Hughes wrote in ''Visit,'' one of the poems in ''Birthday Letters.'' Umpteen books later, we have tried to make it our story, a paradigmatic instance of the relations between men and women, art and madness, passion and pain. By giving us a more mediated sense of the two poets' life together than the victim/victimizer model, ''Her Husband'' enables us to move beyond the stagnant issues of how hopelessly nuts she was or how badly he behaved. (There's no doubt that Plath was high-maintenance, while Hughes seems to have tried to make a go of the marriage, given that he was not built along the lines of the self-sacrificing Leonard Woolf.) Middlebrook casts a skeptical eye on most of the heartening post-mortem conjectures that have been broached over the years; she doubts that Hughes was really planning to come back to Plath or that she believed she'd be found before she was dead. But I feel certain that her attentive and cleareyed account won't be the last. The saga of Ted and Sylvia is like a ballad that goes on and on, stanza after stanza, with no end in sight. Still, even Middlebrook's inspiring slant can't obscure the chill at the heart of this story. The blood-jet was poetry, and at some point it began leaking all over the place. ''And everything holds up its arms weeping,'' Hughes wrote in ''Fate Playing.'' Or, as John Berryman, another poet-suicide, put it, ''All the bells say: too late.''

Daphne Merkin is the author of ''Dreaming of Hitler,'' an essay collection, and a novel, ''Enchantment.'' She is working on a memoir about depression.


Sylvia and Ted, a Potboiler

By Diane Middlebrook, The Chronicle of Higher Education

October 17, 2003

You can find this article here

See article "In the Orbit of Genius" on TIME magazine - December 1, 2003, here






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