Hughes Verses Plath: Fifty Years On

If I’m being honest, the title of this post sets it up to be far more intellectual and well-informed than it actually is. You’re reading said post, however, so my marketing ploy has worked and now all I need to do is actually discuss Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, fifty years on from Plath’s death.

Sort of.

See, I’ve only just started learning about the pair – Hughes because part of my English coursework requires knowledge of his Birthday Letters and Plath because reading Birthday Letters requires knowledge of her life. So I’m now going to attempt to advocate feminism while bitching about five generations’ worth of feminists.

Because I’ve always believed that feminism is all about fighting for women to have equal rights as men. Same wages, same legal entitlements, same car insurance and same chance of being offered a seat on a crowded bus.

It is not, as I’ve seen in my class’s Birthday Letters background research, blaming a man for his semi-estranged wife’s suicide and ripping both him and his work for shreds over it.

For those of you who clicked on this because you were on Twitter when it published and have very little idea what I’m talking about: in the late nineteen-fifties an English poet named Ted Hughes met and married an American poet named Sylvia Plath. They were very happy for a time and had two children, but the relationship suffered on account of a) two artists living in the same house, attempting to make art simultaneously, and b) Plath’s homesickness (they lived in England), depression and obsession with her dead father, for whom she may have had the Electra Complex. In 1962 Hughes left Plath for one of the married tenants of their London flat and on 11th February 1963 Plath locked herself in her kitchen, put her head in the oven and turned on the gas. Because they were still married at the time, Hughes inherited Plath’s estate and had control over the publication of her unfinished work. This made a lot of people, especially feminists, to whom Plath had become something of an icon, quite angry. They berated Hughes for both his Plath’s-work-publication decisions and his I-won’t-discuss-my-dead-wife-in-public decisions (this amplified when Assia, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath, also committed suicide via gas oven, this time before ensuring small children were safe from the fumes; their daughter died too). Finally, in 1998, when Hughes knew he was terminally ill, he published Birthday Letters – a book of letter-like poems that mostly addressed Plath and alluded to her work and their lives together. This was seen by many readers to be Hughes’ ‘confession’, his version of their marriage and his part – if there was any – in her death.

Hughes and Plath. From 'The Times'
Hughes and Plath. From ‘The Times’

To be honest, I think it’s all bullshit. Not the feminism part. Not the poetry part (despite what my English teacher may tell you). But the part where generations of people think it’s okay to scrutinise someone’s private life, to probe into the untimely death of a young mother regardless of the feelings of her widower and their little children, and to pass judgement on the whole debacle.

Like I said, I may have a few of the facts back-to-front, since my class has done a whirlwind investigation into Plath’s life – and really we just focussed on what’s relevant in the poems we study in Birthday Letters. But I’m not sure if that’s the point. I think the point is that for some reason, the general public thinks that it has a right to know every single detail of a person’s life once the person has become well-known, died, or both. When they – we? – don’t. Not really. Maybe if details are in the public interest, like the Jimmy Savile scandal/investigations. If those details have been divulged by the famous person, then they are in the public domain and free speech entitles everyone to their discussion. So in many ways, we’re perfectly within our rights to talk about Hughes and Plath and their life together. If they didn’t want us to know, they wouldn’t have let their work be published. But that does not give people the right to vandalise Plath’s gravestone. It gives university professors the right to pen scathing reviews of Hughes’ work and to refuse to teach his poetry, sure – but to refuse to acknowledge that he was a good poet? I’m sorry, Mr. (or, I suspect,  ‘Ms.’ in these cases) University Lecturer, but you are no better than those bastards who didn’t want us to get the vote. I might have limited (seriously, seriously limited) understanding of what makes a poet good, great or terrible, but I like Hughes’ work. It’s lighter on the brain than Edward Thomas’ and mentally more colourful than Thomas Hardy’s, at any rate. I’ve not read much of Plath’s work, but when I have, I’ve had generally good impressions. I mean, art is subjective and really I’d like to study Storm… but at the end of the day, even the most ardent religious person can – or should – listen to Storm and admit that, despite its complete derision of all things religious, it’s a damn clever piece of beat poetry.

The same goes for the Hughes verses Plath debate. If you go into the Birthday Letters thinking Hughes a murderer and Plath a heroine, you’re automatically ruling out any enjoyment or learning of new ideas. You’re refusing to remember that there are always two sides to a story and you’re forgetting these are people too. They’re the same as the dude you passed walking down the street: complex, occasionally screwy and sometimes of questionable moral behaviour. They’re also artists, so they may be more screwy – at least more outwardly screwy – than non-artists… but at the end of the day, Hughes and Plath were two human beings. The only people who have the right to judge them are their families and God (unless you’re a Storm-esque person, in which case it’s up to their families).

And if you aren’t their families (or God) then I recommend that you sit back with a copy of their work, toast literary excellence and reflect upon the sadness of early death, wasted talent and grief.

Or you could write an essay comparing Hughes’ presentation of his memories of his late wife with Thomas Hardy’s, which is what I was supposed to start doing three hours ago…

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