Friday, March 18, 2011

The Dedication Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

If hard experience is the stuff that precedes meaningful poetry, than surely Ted Hughes had enough big, dark matter walking around with him to birth a small library. And, true that, his body of work is certainly prolific. Hughes was the British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. A full list of his works can be found here.

Hughes married Sylvia Plath in 1956. At the time, Plath was a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge; Hughes had already begun to publish his poetry in the St. Botolphs Review, a literary magazine which he and some of his Pembroke peers founded. Plath attended the aforementioned journal's launch party and met Hughes there. They married just four months later.

Here's a poem by Plath written in the Spring of their relationship:

Ode for Ted
From under crunch of my man's boot
green oat-sprouts jut;
he names lapwing, starts rabbits in a rout
legging it most nmble
to sprigged hedge of bramble,
stalks red fox, shrewd stoat.

Loam-humps, he says, moles shunt
up from delved worm-hhaunt;
blue fur, moles have; hefting chalk-hulled flint
he with rock splits open 
knobbed quartz; flayed colors ripen
rich, brown, sudden in sunglint;

For his least look, scant acres  yield:
each finger furrowed field
heaves forth stalk, leaf, fruit nubbed emerald;
bright grain sprung so rarel 
he hauls to his will early;
at his hand's stuanch hest, birds build.

Ringdoves roost well within his wood
shirr songs to suit which mood
he saunters in; how but most glad
cold be this adam's woman
when all earth his words do summon
leaps to laud such man's blood.

-21 April 1956

The Plath- Hughes relationship deteriorated significantly in the following years, an article by A Alvarez in the New Yorker attributes the decline to Plath's poetic destiny.

"Finally, provoked by his wife's violence, into blind rage, he unwittingly handed her the key she had been looking for: "'Marvellous?' I shoulted...'That's the stuff you're keeping out of your poems!'" Always the good student, she went down into the cellarage, key in hand. But the ghouls she released were malign. They helped her write the great poems first collected in "Ariel," but they destroyed her marriage, and then they destroyed her."

Hughes and Plath split in 1963 after Plath discovered that Hughes had been cheating on her with Assia Welvill (also Susan Alliston at the time). Plath committed suicide just six months later, Assia Welvill followed suit, killing herself and her small child in the exact same manner as Plath-gas in the kitchen.*

Hughes never publicly discussed his relationship with either woman. Plath fans site Hughes as indirectly or directly responsible for their reigning heroines early death. Hughes's public silence on the subject of Plath never aided his case.

But in 1998 he published Birthday Letters, a book of poems that explores his relationship with Plath in heartbreaking detail. No one knew it at the time, but Hughes was suffering from terminal cancer. He died that same year. Birthday Letters went on to win the Whitbread Poetry Award, the TS Elliot Prize for Poetry and the Forward Poetry Prize. It is believed to be his best work by some and a study in image/spin by others.

A Pink Wool Knitted Dress
In your pink wool knitted dress
Before anything had smudged anything. 
You stood at the altar. Bloomsday.

Rain-so that a just bought umbrella
Was the only furnishing about me
Newer than three years inured.
My tie- sole, drab, veteran RAF black-
Was the used-up sybol of tie.
My cord kjacket-thrice-dyed black, exhausted. Just hanging on to itself.

I was a post-war, utility son-in-law!
Not quite the Frog-Prince. Maybe the Swineherd
Stealing this daughter's pedigree dreams
From under her watchtowered searchlit future.

(two stanzas missing)

You were transfigured. 
So slender and new and naked,
A nodding spray of wet lilac.
You shook with joy, you were ocean depth
Brimming with God
You said you saw the heavens open
And show riches, ready to drop upon us.
Levitated beside you, I stood subjected
To a strange tense: the spellbound future.

In that echo-gaunt, weekday chancel
I see you,
Wrestling to contain your flames
In your pinkwool knitted dress
And in your ete-pupils-great cut jewels
Jostling their tear-flames, truly like big jewels
Shaken in a dice-cup and held up to me.

In the Happy Birthday poems critics often talk about the appropriation of Plath's lexicon by Hughes. I think it's interesting that in the early poems of Plath, in particular, the poem To Ted, Plath seems to do the same thing. She's almost poking fun at the traditional iconography of nature poems. It's irreverant and has none of the self-awareness that Plath's later work is famous for. And then those last few lines: how but most glad/ could be this adam's woman/when all earth his words do summon/leaps to laud such man's blood. His writing holds command of natures plenty. It's the work of a women in love with her new husband's talent.

*Maybe Susan was feeling guilty for this small atrocity: Several weeks after her death, Assia Gutmann sent the final gas bill for Plath's flat to one of Plath's best friends with a note that read, "You were her friend. You pay the bill." (Paul Alexander, NY Observer, 04.05.98)

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