HER HUSBAND - Hughes and Plath - A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook
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TED HUGHES - SYLVIA PLATH
The Atlantic Monthly | April 2004 -
Volume 293, No.
Books & Critics
"Dying is an
art," said Sylvia Plath. But so is living, and she excelled at both—not that her
biographers, with one wise and big-hearted exception, have noticed
by Christina Nehring
Fall 1956: Sylvia Plath is typing a
poem about a public execution. It isn't her poem; it is that of her new husband,
Ted Hughes. She always types his poems and sends them to publishers. "Without
Sylvia, Ted might have had to work in rose gardens ... for quite a few more
years," his best friend once admitted. Hughes was still unknown then, and more
inclined to work odd jobs in the great outdoors than to mail around manuscripts.
In any case, in 1956 Plath is typing a poem, a poem about a bishop's being
burned at the stake before the citizens of his town, a poem about the power of
death—violent death—to win an audience for one's words. The poem's epigraph
consists of the bishop's dying words; it is as striking as the poem itself: "If
I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have
October 1962: four months before her suicide, at age thirty, Sylvia Plath is typing a poem about a mysterious "bee meeting." It is her own poem. Villagers are assembled to "hunt the queen." Almost imperceptibly their search assumes a new direction. They turn on Plath's speaker herself. There is a "blackout of knives" and, in an uncanny echo of Hughes's bishop, the slashed young woman intones,
I am the magician's girl who does not
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.
With a start we realize that the
villagers have murdered her; she has acquiesced in her own killing—heroically,
numbly, like the doomed bishop. The allusions to Hughes's poem are too numerous
to ignore: rural execution, dumb-faced villagers in attendance, the victim's
articulated refusal to flinch. And, possibly, the stygian suggestion that if you
want to be credible, if you want your "doctrine" to be believed, you must be
prepared to die for it. There is nothing like a cadaver to prove sincerity—or to
seize the attention of the world.
Would we believe in Plath's poetry as much as we do had she not followed it with suicide? It's a distasteful question, and to answer it in the negative would seem to imply some untenable things: first, that she did well to kill herself, and second, that her poetry might not have made the grade without the violence in its history. Her poetry, as far as I'm concerned, is some of the most starkly gorgeous and audacious of all time; her gift for metaphor is unsurpassed in modern literature; and her honesty is searing, hard-won, and precise. If we could bottle her verse, it would be the strongest brew in the bar.
And yet we are drawn to the relation between art and life—and between art and death, as Plath herself was drawn to it, desperately, obsessively, and amorously. Had she not taken her life after those dark, death-fondling poems of her final months, the ones she called "the best poems of my life," the ones that "will make my name," but lived on, coffee-sipping, into comfortable middle age, we might have thought, with some of her more unsympathetic biographers, that she was a literary crybaby, a poseur, an unscrupulous appropriator of other people's feelings. And she would have understood such a response. She, too, felt that all is play, all is poetic dalliance, that does not involve real stakes and exact a price. "If it were death / I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes. / I would know you were serious," she writes (as though to herself) in "A Birthday Present." Death is authenticating.
If Plath could admit it, why can't we? Who ever said life does not—or should not—influence how we read our writers? Do scholars of Heidegger say as much? They owe a good deal of their opinion of him to his activities as a Nazi. If an artist's work can be eclipsed by life, surely it can be enhanced as well—even if this enhancement is monstrous.
But her suicide was no career move. There was the matter, first, of Hughes's abandoning her in the fall of 1962—no small matter, given Plath's unstinting adoration of him and the couple's total fusion of their artistic, professional, emotional, and domestic lives, a fusion Diane Middlebrook documents in the new biography Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, A Marriage. Anyone who thinks that Plath was purely morbid or misanthropic should read her journal entries about Hughes in the first several years of their marriage. They burst with light and love. He was her unrivaled hero almost until the day he left her for another woman. She beat and badgered herself to be "worthy" of him; she loved his scent, his size, his brain, his heart, his verse, his prose, even the "cruel streak" she thought she discerned in him. It was all part of his mythic manliness in her eyes, his encompassing genius. If she was difficult and demanding at times, as seems obvious, it was because of her native volatility, and not because her love for him knew any bounds. When he left her, the sky fell.
There was also her lifelong fascination with death. Her father had succumbed to diabetes when she was eight, and since then death had lived with her like a tempting friend whose hand she sought during moments of uncertainty. When it looked at the ripe old age of twenty like she wasn't going to make it as a writer, she tried to fling herself into his arms; she tried too hard, swallowed too many sleeping pills, and vomited them up while unconscious, thus enabling her rescue, two days later, from a hiding place under the house. When she related this ordeal later—in her novel The Bell Jar, and also in poems, letters, and conversations with intimates—she lent it a terrible sensuality.
These two factors joined with her long-honed talent and increasing boldness to create the astonishing poems collected in Ariel, which, in their turn, came to govern her life. The critic and friend of Plath's Al Alvarez has said that "for the artist, nature often imitates art," and there are few artists of whom this is truer than it is of Plath. She imagined herself marrying a demigod, a force "huge enough for me," and she married "Ted Huge" (as he was known in Cambridge), a towering Pan figure with "pockets full of poems [and] fresh trout." She dreamed of "giv[ing] myself crashing, fighting," to him—and she did.
In her sparse, haunting last poem, "Edge," Plath sketched a suicide. It is a stern and beautiful suicide: a triumph—more than a failure—of the will. The woman rendered resembles Shakespeare's Cleopatra, who dies with the asps at her breasts, stinging her to sleep. She also resembles Sylvia Plath.
"The woman is perfected," rings the chill, monumental first line.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga.
... Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
Was Plath drugged by the lyric
invitation of the poem? Or had she simply painted herself into a corner with
this work, drawing, as it did so heavily, on her biography? In any case, she
placed two pitchers of milk next to her slumbering children soon after, taped up
their nursery door, put her pale cheek against the stove after turning on the
gas, and allowed the "odors to bleed / From the sweet, deep throats of the night
flower," allowed them to bleed away her life. She came as close to re-enacting
her poem as one can in a small London apartment, without fanfare.
I would like to go further than Al Alvarez and suggest that Plath's life was not only fuel for her work; it was part of that work. John Milton once said that a poet's life should itself be "a true poem." He himself failed resoundingly in this ideal, not just because his life was tragic but because it was sprawling, petty, punctuated by long stretches of nothingness, thick on work but thin on grace. Plath's life, in contrast, is a sort of poem, tragic though it is. She shaped it with the aesthetic perfectionism of a sculptor. She infused it with a playwright's drama: a college boyfriend remembers her penchant for corresponding in "hyperbole"; always "seeking a chance to dramatize her life." She ordered it with an architect's eye for symmetry: even her suicide attempts form a pattern, the pattern reified in her wild, strident, sarcastic, colloquial, exhibitionistic poem "Lady Lazarus."
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it—
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
A paperweight ...
And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like a cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.
She took mad chances, marrying "the
biggest seducer in Cambridge" and moving to his country. She studded her life
with the bold risks of an expert gambler—plunging vertically down a mountain her
first day on skis (she broke her leg in two places). In the end she lost, but
her art did not. If "dying is an art," as she says in "Lady Lazarus," and she
"does it exceptionally well," so is living, and she did that
exceptionally well too. Not wisely, as Othello said, but well—artistically,
Literary scholars, of course, tend to see life as an embarrassment to art; indeed, many sober works of Plath criticism begin with a ritual lament about the biographical hocus-pocus that has interfered with lucid contemplation of the poetry. But although Plath's poetry stands alone as well as any, it is damagingly puritanical to bar discussion of her life, as though the spirit of her poetry would be polluted by proximity to her fallen flesh. It is puritanical, too, to think that the life of a poet might not reflect the same rigorous aesthetic discipline as her writing—that it might not in fact constitute a kind of "performance art." Avant-garde museums put on exhibitions by painters who smear themselves with pigment or mud and enact a plotless skit before audiences; if there is a case to be made for calling such slices of "stylized life" art, how much stronger a case there is for applying this term to the superbly crafted quotidian lines of a Sylvia Plath.
It's in part because Plath's life already bears so many marks of fiction that it has lent itself so easily to formal fictionalization. As I write, a movie, Sylvia, is opening with Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath; a play called Edge is showing off-Broadway; and the second novel about Plath's life in only two years has hit the bookstores. Middlebrook's biography emerged the same month as the expanded edition of an older biography, by Linda Wagner-Martin. Finally, there's a new memoir, by Jillian Becker, a friend who knew Plath for a few months before she died. Narratives about Plath are almost as tempting to write as they are to read, precisely because their subject has already done so much of the work for us; the girl who complained that she could never come up with a plot when writing her own stories has given biographers, playwrights, filmmakers, and novelists a ready-made plot in her life.
Not that these books resemble one another in more than a few strokes. The history of biographical writing on Plath is vexed; her biographers have had their names made, their health wrecked (Anne Stevenson), and their hearts broken (Emma Tennant) in their endeavors; they have been turned into the subjects of biographical sketches themselves (by Janet Malcolm, in The Silent Woman). And they have presented Plath as everything from a martyred feminist saint to a psychotic termagant to a happy homemaker. In fact, with fortunate exceptions, that has been the general progression of interpretation since the 1960s. When Plath died, and the truth of her suicide and Hughes's abandonment first became known, the outcry among feminists and feminist sympathizers was immense. Hughes was demonized in poems (by Robin Morgan, for example) urging his castration and accusing him of murder; Plath's tombstone was vandalized repeatedly by those who did not want her husband's name on it ("Sylvia Plath Hughes"); the "anger" in "Daddy" and other poems was seen as representative of a generation of women; her books filled shop windows, and she was all but canonized. But this did not hold.
Part of the reason is that Ted Hughes appointed his protective older sister, Olwyn, the literary executor of Plath's estate. Olwyn had despised her sister-in-law. She had "resented" Plath's "talent and beauty as well as her relationship with Ted," as Elizabeth Sigmund, a friend of Hughes's and Plath's, described it: "Sylvia ... often told me that Olwyn hated her ... When I met Olwyn after Sylvia's death, I felt she had understated Olwyn's attitude." This woman was now in the single most important position to control Plath's transmission to the world. Everyone who wanted to write anything of any import about her had—or initially wished—to go through Olwyn Hughes. She granted permissions to quote; but she granted them at a price.
It is in part for this reason that no foible of Plath's has been left uncovered, no spurned suitor left uninterviewed, and that an authorized biographer like Anne Stevenson has written of Plath as of a madwoman in the attic. It is certainly for this reason that we have an improbable rant like Dido Merwin's, which was expansively quoted in Stevenson's Bitter Fame. A London friend, Merwin assailed Plath for ignoring her advice to obtain home furnishings secondhand: Plath's "unexpectedly graceless rejection ... was like a warning shot" to Merwin, but if Plath "elected to go splurging on a posh cooker, refrigerator, and bed, what the hell?" To Merwin and her husband "it would have made complete sense had we had any inkling of the besetting insecurity that was the root cause of Sylvia's need for morale-boosting toys." Morale-boosting toys? A fridge? Besetting insecurity? Because Plath desired a new stove?
But there are other reasons for what one might call the pathologization of Sylvia Plath. America's love affair with psychopharmacology is one; innumerable essays have appeared tracing Plath's work to everything from clinical psychosis and bipolar illness to menstrual disorders. The most persuasive of these assessments are written by literary scholars who do not, like many of their colleagues, take as a starting point Plath's suicide attempts, her wilder Ariel poems, or even the attacks of jealousy for which she is so harshly judged in Bitter Fame. However unproductive, Plath's jealousy can hardly be considered unfounded; when Plath met Hughes, he was described to her as the biggest Casanova in town, and the way he seduced her (with his girlfriend in the next room) gave her no reason to doubt this appraisal. Nor does Hughes's life after Plath suggest that he was in any way inclined toward fidelity; he left Assia Wevill (the married woman for whom he had left Plath) for another married woman, and after Wevill gassed herself, in an amplified replay of Plath's suicide (killing their child as well), he left his second married woman (who, luckily, survived) to propose to a young nurse, who remained his wife until his death and watched as he had numberless affairs, many of them extremely public, some simultaneous, and at least a few punctuated by promises of elopement.
The more plausible doubts about Plath's mental stability relate to the jarringly different voices in her writings—the exhaustingly upbeat tone she employed in her huge correspondence with her mother (the "Sivvy" letters, as Marjorie Perloff dubs them, published in Letters Home) juxtaposed with the dark, cutting, often hostile persona in the Ariel poems that she wrote at the same time, sometimes about the same events. Critics have put letters next to poems and declared her nuts: Look at this ecstatic letter about sweet Ted's bringing her tulips when she was in the hospital, they will say. And now look at the poem "Tulips": the flowers "hurt" her; they are "dangerous animals"; the smiles of the speaker's husband and child "catch onto my skin" like "little smiling hooks." Was she schizophrenic? Or just a pathological liar?
I don't think Plath was a pathological liar. Neither was she an overdutiful daughter, as has also been claimed, laboring—at the expense of truth and taste—to cheer her mother. She wrote these letters because it answered a basic need in her: to portray—and to feel—herself as being in control, capable, cheerful, resourceful, and happy. Anybody who imagines that she ran around ranting blackly like Lady Lazarus and "eating men like air"—or even wallowing catatonically like the speaker in "Tulips"—is absurdly mistaken. (Looking at photographs of Plath, Janet Malcolm feels "disappointed" that she lacks Lazarus's "red hair" and an appropriately fierce expression.) Plath didn't curse or cower in her daily life; she coped. She got up in the morning and told herself she was happy; otherwise she could not have accomplished all the child care, household duties, moves, mailings, meetings with editors, typing for Ted, horseback riding, knitting, German study, beekeeping, and writing in several genres that we know she did. "Without visiting the [Plath] archives, it would be impossible to comprehend just how prolific Plath's output was," one scholar has marveled. And just as Plath told herself she was happy, and could keep doing this, she told her mother the same thing. That does not mean there wasn't a level at which Plath gave free rein to her doubts, at which she permitted herself to be pessimistic, to be brutal, to follow her fears, her fantasies, her darker intuitions, as far down or up as they would take her. It seems to me that the critics who call Plath schizophrenic are pretending that people are simpler than they are.
But there is a further reason for the souring toward Plath in later biographical works. It is that any number of writers who set out to research her fell in love with her husband. Mainly female, and mainly intellectually iconoclastic, they came into contact with Hughes during their research and gravitated toward him as Plath had, probably for some of the same reasons: his shady sexual history, bad press, enormously articulate intelligence, love of women, carefully timed reticence, and strategically deployed loquacity. Usually Hughes left the dirty work of corresponding with Plath investigators to Olwyn, but when he chose, he could write a masterly letter: "When [Hughes] writes about Plath, he renders all the other writings about her crude and trivial," Janet Malcolm writes in The Silent Woman. Malcolm reprints a few incantatory examples; she also tells us she's on his "side" in the Plath-Hughes controversy. That is, she's on the side of "the Hugheses"—but given the surpassingly awful things she relates about Olwyn in the book, we can't quite believe it's because of her. Malcolm has seemingly fallen under Ted's spell—in much the same way as the English writer Emma Tennant before her. An aristocrat by birth, Tennant approached Hughes in part because of her interest in Plath, but soon fell in love and into bed with him; she now figures among the photos of mistresses in Elaine Feinstein's biography Ted Hughes. Their affair proceeded for years in the late seventies, and Tennant was surprised to find one day that Hughes was also publicly cohabiting with a beautiful Australian, Jill Barber. Tennant's admiration continued nonetheless, and in 2001 she published a novel about the Plath-Hughes marriage that is a miracle of fawning bias in favor of Hughes and clumsy belittling of Plath. Sylvia and Ted drips with sentences like "[Sylvia] knows that kind Ted is right: for Sylvia is damaged and he is not." Sylvia "sweats and pants" while Ted "comes taller from" his work every day, "as triumphant as a woman who has experienced multiple births."
As far as sophistication and subtlety go, Malcolm is in a different league from Tennant, but she, too, is remarkably cavalier about Plath's suffering, all but chiding her for killing herself and denying Hughes the "peace that age brings" when all she had to forgive him for anyway was "youth." (Not that his modus operandi changed with age.) Malcolm coyly reveals the source of her bias when she reprints a letter she addressed to another Plath scholar, Jacqueline Rose. Describing the "sibling rivalry" she felt when Rose showed her a letter from Hughes and then took it back, Malcolm evokes the "image of two women fighting for something—over a man?" Over a man indeed. Plath scholars—from Olwyn and Feinstein to Tennant and Malcolm—have been fighting over him for years. Perhaps only now that he is dead can we begin to achieve some objectivity regarding this man who was so dangerously magnetic in person and correspondence, so lighthearted in relationships, and so mediocre, in my view, in the majority of his poems.
There have been biographical works other than the pathologizing kind over the past decades. Although Stevenson's Bitter Fame is the only authorized and still the best-received biography (with blurbs by John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates to recommend it), Linda Wagner-Martin, Paul Alexander, Ronald Hayman, and Jacqueline Rose (among others) have produced serious studies. Swimming against the current, these writers, who elected to forgo Olwyn Hughes's permissions and her formidable censorship, wrote valuable if quotation-poorer books. By far the wisest, shrewdest, best-written, and most poetically acute and big-hearted of these, however, is Middlebrook's Her Husband. This is the place to find a fair-minded and eminently readable guide to Plath and Hughes's artistic collaboration as well as to their erotic strife.
There are other places, of course, including the film, Sylvia, and Kate Moses's Wintering, a novel about Plath's final months, but they are inferior. That said, they may be more representative of the new direction in Plath studies than Middlebrook's book. Having first sanctified and then pathologized their subject, Plath scholars are now beginning to domesticate her. The figure that emerges from John Brownlow's screenplay is a more or less pallid homemaker, a perpetually wounded stay-at-home wife who compulsively bakes pies and makes little worried noises about her roving husband. Though the film pays lip service to Plath's literary genius, and Gwyneth Paltrow does bear an uncanny resemblance to Plath, neither her boldness, her predatory passion, nor her self-determination is anywhere in evidence.
Worse, though, is the caricature we encounter in Wintering. Moses's book—if one can forget, for a moment, the baroque prose—essentially portrays Plath as a doting and somewhat simple-minded mother, occupied predominantly with changing her babies' "nappies." (The book makes record use of "potty" and "nappy.") Perhaps this is a necessary perspective on Plath, but it is a limited one: it captures little of what makes her great, troubled, or in any way different from the stereotypical adoring mom. And Plath was different from this stereotype. Jillian Becker, who cared for Plath during the last weekend of her life, paints a very different woman—one almost indifferent to her kids. Even if we make allowances for the fact that Plath was at her worst in the days chronicled in Giving Up (and that Becker, for all her kindness, seems to have understood her hardly at all), the fact remains that Plath's verse suggests a violent ambivalence toward maternity. That fact, oddly, is overlooked by any number of formidable readers, from Katha Pollitt, who has praised the "tenderness and purity of Plath's maternal feelings," to Linda Wagner-Martin, whose new edition of Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life spends a chapter strenuously misinterpreting Plath's lyrics about children. It is worth quoting from "Morning Song," Plath's most famous poem about maternity, and one that Wagner-Martin claims "re-creates" the experience of "joyous mothering."
I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror
to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.
The child effaces its mother's identity. It also strips her of sexual power.
One cry, and I stumble from bed,
cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian night-gown.
Once a nubile girl, the speaker is now
a shapeless Victorian monster, a milking machine, a "cow."
It is among Plath's greatest strengths that she tells us in her poetry not only what is nice but also what is true—or what can be true. She shows us not only woman's selfless delight in her infant but also her fear of being upstaged, eclipsed, desexualized, by maternity—turned into an absurd instrument of biology, "a means, a stage, a cow in calf," as she puts it in "Metaphors." In some ways we are ready for Plath; in others we still aren't. We will allow her to rage against her father in "Daddy" (male authority figures are fair game), but when it comes to children, we insist on sentimentalizing her. This is what Moses's book does, and what several recent readings of Plath's poetry do. It is almost as though, in order to rehabilitate her after the pathologization of previous decades, we need to put her in an apron and make her Supermom. Moses has gone so far as to publish a magazine article titled "Baking With Sylvia," which pictures Moses standing, without irony, before a handsome gas stove demonstrating what she believes to be Plath's favorite recipes.
Plath was neither as sick nor as saccharine as her biographers have pretended. As her arresting poems and extraordinary journals reveal, she was fiercely honest, fiercely complicated, fiercely skilled, and fiercely emotional. "Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists," Ralph Waldo Emerson said. The impressions of nature did not fall feebly on Plath. They fell hard and deep, and they turned this hungry consumer of the American dream into an artist as urgent as she is indispensable.
Cristina Nehring is at work on a book about love and feminism. She teaches English literature at the Université de Paris and UCLA.
HUGHES AND PLATH - A MARRIAGE
By Diane Middlebrook
361 pp., $29.95
The rhyme and rhythm of a tense marriage
Despite their unhappiness, Plath and Hughes made each other better writers
By Molly McQuade
So many books have been published about the American poet Sylvia Plath that the shelves are buckling. Many of the books are partisan. Plath's life story tends to provoke strong opinion. She committed suicide at the peak of her youthful powers at age 30 in 1963, considering herself abused and abandoned.
Although the complex causes of Plath's end and the achievement of her writing have been explored before, until recently relatively little has been told in detail of her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, other than his role as a presumed adulterous villain in the Plath saga. If two poets work together on intimate terms for six years of remarkable professional productivity, then shouldn't there be more to say?
In "Her Husband," Diane Middlebrook, biographer of the poet Anne Sexton, retells the Plath-Hughes legend with a different emphasis, relying on the Hughes archive at Emory University, open to the public since 2000. Instead of billing the story as a violent and fatal collision of two people - one ostensibly a predator - she calls it a marriage.
Middlebrook's goal is reasonable and refreshing: to reunite the poets who ultimately made each other miserable, but who wouldn't have become the writers they did without each other. As she puts it, "He and Plath shared a mind." Middlebrook shows us how they shared it.
Hughes receives the burden of attention, partly because he survived Plath by several decades. By serving as the controversial caretaker of Plath's posthumous publications, Hughes also in a sense continued their partnership. Although Middlebrook provides fewer directly reported details about Hughes than Elaine Feinstein did in her 2001 biography of him ("Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet," W.W. Norton), she interprets almost constantly not only aspects of his personal history but, more important, the way his writing and his life intertwined with Plath's. Her analysis along these lines is always intelligent and interesting.
Some of the best insights emerge from Middlebrook's canny sense of irony. For example, though Hughes, when he left the marriage, may have been rebelling from the domesticity Plath imposed on him, his rebellion indirectly freed his wife from the very same apparent domestic stranglehold. Only as a single mother did she write the scathing and wondrous poems of "Ariel," which purged and refined her art.
Usefully, Middlebrook takes an independent stance while assessing Plath's poetry, as when she points out that Plath's most famous single poem, the sardonic and outrageous "Daddy," can and should induce laughter, partly. Reading it aloud, Plath and a friend were reduced to mirthful "hooting." Perhaps too often "Daddy" has been received by readers as a morbid shriek of rage.
Helpfully, Middlebrook tells us Plath said even the most seemingly personal poems of "Ariel" "should be understood as emerging from the voice of an invented character, not as poems about herself." At times, readers have assumed Plath's work to be explicitly autobiographical, thus limiting our appreciation of the writing as writing.
But questions remain, including some not raised by previous books. Middlebrook describes the formative role in Hughes's life and writing of his brother Gerald, yet in human terms the brother remains a nearly inexplicable figure. And she avoids delving into the part played by Hughes's sister Olwyn.
Also, Middlebrook quotes only sparingly from the writing of Plath and Hughes. The influence of Hughes and his sister in managing Plath's posthumous publications and copyright permissions is likely a reason for the very limited quotation. Yet because Middlebrook's book depends on textual evidence to wage her argument about the details of Plath and Hughes's literary camaraderie, she should present such evidence in full, quoting generously. Without more to go on, we can't come completely to terms with the crux of the book: Middlebrook's reflections on the nature of the marriage and its poetic collaboration.
Molly McQuade is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Her Husband: Hughes and Plath - A Marriage
( Viking )
Life after death: Plath's art, suicide fascinate us four decades later
Review by Rosemary Herbert
Friday, October 17, 2003
When, at age 30, Sylvia Plath gassed herself to death in her London kitchen, she did not just end her life. She also cut short her remarkable poetic output, left her two young children motherless - and became a 20th century icon of literary-genius-gone-mad.
Plath's death on Feb. 11, 1963, stirred a voyeuristic fascination that has not died down in 40 years. Some bitter poetry she left behind and the breakdown of her marriage to the adulterous darling of the poetry world, Ted Hughes, immediately made world news.
Now, with the new film ``Sylvia'' slated to open Oct. 24 (starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role), old questions have reappeared. Would Plath's stature as a writer have been less stellar if she had not killed herself? What's the point of peering at a woman on the path to suicide?
For answers, we turned to Diane Middlebrook, author of ``Her Husband: Hughes and Plath - A Marriage'' (Viking, $25.95), and Kate Moses, author of ``Wintering'' (Anchor Books, $13), a novel about Plath's last weeks.
Both agreed it's hard to separate Plath's creative achievement from the dramatic circumstances of her death. Plath took the time to deliver bread and milk to her children's bedsides, then to open their window and tape their doorway shut to prevent the gas fumes from killing them.
``It's absolutely true that she's better known thanks to the suicide,'' Middleton said.
``The suicide made her a public commodity. And the way (Plath's posthumously published book of poems) `Ariel' was published pointed toward her self-destructive slide toward suicide,'' Moses said. ``But that's not Plath's whole story.''
As Plath wrote the poems that would be collected in ``Ariel,'' ``she was actually working to re-create a new life out of the wreckage of the old one,'' Moses said. If the poems had been printed in Plath's planned order, ``it would have that emphasis,'' Moses added.
But Hughes, as Plath's literary executor, printed the work in another order and included some different poems in the book. The resulting volume cemented Plath's image as a woman destined to do herself in. Hughes' fatalistic view is not surprising, Middlebrook said, in a man who had believed in astrology, shamanism and destiny since he was a boy.
And fate was not kind to Hughes. He met tragedy again when his second wife, Assia Wevill, killed herself and the couple's 4-year-old daughter, Shura, in 1969.
This only added to the vilification of Hughes by Plath groupies. Nevertheless, many share Hughes' view that Plath's suicide was inevitable. Meanwhile, Middleton said, ``Nobody knows when they're going to die, not even Sylvia Plath. The only reason we should be interested in her is because she made something important along the way.''
``Artistically, she so thoroughly had her gift in hand, right to the end,'' Moses said. Instead of behaving like voyeurs at the scene of a suicide, ``We should ask, why didn't that gift save her?'' Moses asked.
Rosemary Herbert is the Boston Herald's book review editor.
Herald supported budding poet
Sylvia Plath's first published poem appeared in the pages of the Boston Herald when the budding poet was just 8 years old. It was accompanied by a note indicating she belonged to the Herald's ``Good Sport Club'' for children. Here is what we printed Sunday, Aug. 10, 1941:
Hear the crickets chirping
In the dewy grass.
Bright little fireflies
Twinkle as they pass.
Thank you for my Good Sport pin.
- Sylvia Plath, (Age 8 years), Winthrop
Review: 'Her Husband' celebrates resonant afterlife of 'their' marriage
Published October 19, 2003
Her Husband By: Diane Middlebrook. Publisher: Viking, 383 pages, $25.95.
Review: A balanced and engrossing account of the destructive and transformative power of the marriage between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Reviewed by Irina Reyn
Special to the Star Tribune
Since her suicide in 1963, the cult of Sylvia Plath has grown unabated: In addition to countless biographies and memoirs on her life and work, Plath soon will be portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow on the silver screen. Despite the plethora of material already available, Diane Middlebrook adds a wise, empathic and eminently readable study of art, passion and the literary persona in "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath -- Portrait of a Marriage."
More important, by focusing on the lasting impact the marriage had on the creative life of Ted Hughes, this book ingeniously accesses Plath's posthumous legacy through the poetry of her husband.
The romantic, ultimately tragic story of the couple has caught many in its web. The two met at Cambridge University in 1956 where Plath, a Smith College graduate, was on a Fulbright scholarship. They read each other's work in the university journal and were magnetically attracted. "Hungry, hungry those taut thighs," Plath wrote euphorically after meeting Hughes at a party. "And I run flaring in my skin." They eloped four months later, and over the next six years, read, critiqued and encouraged each other's work, creating an environment that allowed both literary talents to flourish.
The story of Plath's death at the height of her creative powers eventually morphed into a well-publicized case of female oppression. The public was quick to pounce on Hughes, who had left Plath for a married woman not long before her suicide (by gas oven one winter morning before her children woke up). It didn't help Hughes' case that he admitted to destroying some of Plath's journals -- ones that presumably contained entries unflattering to him. The furor escalated six years later, when the woman for whom Hughes left Plath killed herself and their young daughter in exactly the same fashion.
The proliferation of biographies that followed offered varying degrees of insight: Some writers suffered from overidentification with Plath, while others were forced to rely on the limited generosity of the Plath estate -- run by the famously tight-lipped Hughes and his sister.
Like Elaine Feinstein, author of the recent excellent biography "Ted Hughes," Middlebrook had the advantage of working with the personal papers Hughes sold to Emory University in 1997, a year before his death.
Rather than revisiting the blame game, she concentrates on the ways in which Hughes and Plath spurred each other to poetic mastery. Middlebrook argues that while Plath was alive, she provided Hughes with lasting artistic inspiration. After her death, "the persona created in his work is her husband; and that persona is his contribution to the history of poetry."
Middlebrook, author of the equally engrossing biography of the poet Anne Sexton, not only is an astute reader of Plath's and Hughes' works, she also is a genius at making her subjects leap off the page. Here she recounts Plath's search for a mate:
"She tortured herself with a fantasy of ending up married to some thin, weak man whose intelligence attracted her but whose lovemaking would make her feel as if she were a mere outsize female body 'being raped by a humming entranced insect,' then giving birth to 'thousands of little white eggs.' "
"Her Husband" paints a balanced portrait of the Plath-Hughes marriage as a deeply emotional, erotic union and an extraordinarily productive one. "Ted and Sylvia each stumbled into the other's power to transform mere human beings into characters in a myth," Middlebrook writes. Ultimately, it was the coming together of these two extraordinary people that provided the world with the vital poetry and prose we love today.
Irina Reyn reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. She splits her time between Pittsburgh and New York City.
Thick paper trail leads into the dark heart of Sylvia Plath and "Her Husband"
A friend of mine recently caught the trailer for "Sylvia," which opened in Portland last week. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the movie promises to reveal "the untold story" of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
My friend laughed as he told me about it. "What untold story?" he said.
He has a point. From her suicide 40 years ago to today, Plath has been one of the most scrutinized poets of the 20th century. Family members, friends, acquaintances, critics, scholars -- anyone who's a writer, it seems, has had something to say about her work and death. This year alone has brought a novel, "Wintering," by Kate Moses; a memoir of Plath's last days, "Giving Up," by Jillian Becker; and an off-Broadway play, "Edge," by Paul Alexander.
And now there's "Her Husband," subtitled "Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," by best-selling author Diane Middlebrook.
While much of the Hughes-Plath saga is open to conjecture, there are indisputable facts: Plath met Hughes at a party in February 1956, and they married after knowing each other for a mere four months. Two children and many poems later, Hughes had an affair. Plath, who had attempted suicide as an undergraduate at Smith College, ended her life in 1963.
What ratcheted street-level gossip about Plath and Hughes into modern myth was partly the timing of her suicide -- the nascent feminist movement adopted Plath, not wholly undeservedly, as a martyred icon. But the fervor surrounding their story also was fanned by not only the morbid curiosity that any train wreck attracts but also the fact that both husband and wife were writers.
Serious writers. Between them, Plath and Hughes -- who died in 1998 -- left behind hundreds of thousands of pages: letters, rough drafts, finished manuscripts, notes, journals. As Middlebrook makes clear, they couldn't so much as cook a meal without leaving a paper trail from here to kingdom come.
Like many of those who came before her, Middlebrook scoured the written record -- at least what Hughes left extant and accessible. I, for one, don't envy her the hours she must have spent knee-deep in inked grief. Ultimately, she arrives at a convincing conclusion: Neither Hughes nor Plath was easy to get along with (Middlebrook works hard to be even-handed), but neither partner should be blamed for Plath's suicide. "Depression," Middlebrook concludes, "killed Sylvia Plath."
Also convincing is her idea that, no matter the state of their personal life, Plath and Hughes shared a creative alliance. Their poems echo and respond to each other even as the husband and wife grew distant -- and, in Hughes' case, even after his partner in poetry had died.
In 1991, Middlebrook published what became a best seller about the poet Anne Sexton. For that book, Middlebrook obtained access to audiotapes made of some of Sexton's psychotherapy sessions. Her methodology was controversial, but the tapes did lend the book the kind of immediacy found in the best biographies.
With "Her Husband," Middlebrook again brings an unsentimental sympathy to the task. But this time there are no tapes -- only all that paper.
As a result, Middlebrook at times asks the poems -- particularly a few from Hughes' limited-edition "Howls and Whispers" and "Birthday Letters," a book that turned out to be his last but was the first he spent entirely addressing Plath's death -- to inform the poets' lives, to act as corrections to the public record.
The problem is, poems aren't reliable narrators -- even if they're written, as one suspects "Birthday Letters" or Plath's "Ariel" were, at least in part, with intent to tell a version of something that happened. They may tell the truth -- but they tell it slant.
Middlebrook knows this. She's read Aristotle, knows that poetry says not what happened but what ought to have happened. Which makes it doubly frustrating when she turns to a poem for facts.
For example, Hughes wrote letters throughout his life to his brother, Gerald. In one, Middlebrook says, Hughes writes that the "digging and dragging and chopping" he'd been doing to keep up the garden at the couple's Devon home had made him physically fit.
"But one of the poems of 'Birthday Letters' suggests that during those months of hard labor Hughes was suffering, silently, from symptoms of what he thought was heart disease, and dosing himself with Beethoven's music to clear his aorta," Middlebrook writes. "Can this be true? Probably."
Or could it be that the poem -- "The Lodger" -- is using heart trouble as an unsubtle metaphor? More probably. And if it is not, and it's meant to be read primarily as autobiography, then I'm with X.J. Kennedy: "To hell with poetry that has no more interest than the mere miserable prose meaning of it."
Near the end of "Her Husband," Middlebrook discusses how Hughes referred to himself as "her husband" in notes he wrote to accompany Plath's "Collected Poems." What Middlebrook doesn't say is that Hughes also wrote a poem called "Her Husband," which was published in "Wodwo," the first book he released after Plath's death.
The protagonist in the poem is a day laborer -- not Hughes. And the wife in the poem is a house drudge -- not Plath. It seems to me, however, to be Hughes' most honest account of "the untold story" -- even if he knew the ending asked too much of us, the onlookers, who keep on looking long after the lights go up and the credits have rolled:
For they will have their rights.
Their jurors are to be assembled
From the little crumbs of soot. Their brief
Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it.
Shaw recently reviewed "Stiff" by Mary Roach for The Oregonian.
Poetry analysis fails to reveal Plath insights
Special to The Plain Dealer
Forty years after her suicide, five years after his death at age 68, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are still the Ben and J.Lo of the poetry world. We cannot get enough of them. This year alone has seen the publication of two novels about her, the release of a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and, now, a frothy portrait of their marriage by Diane Middlebrook, author of a superb biography of Anne Sexton.
What is it exactly about these two that so captures our imagination? While Middlebrook makes a halfhearted stab at answering this question, she spends most of her time in "Her Husband" re-creating the heady atmosphere of the Plath/Hughes marriage, then documenting how the poetry grew out of their fights and snags. Middlebrook takes the analysis of poetry incredibly seriously but then uses it to pry into her subjects' emotional lives.
Janet Malcolm, in her superb book about the difficulty about writing about Plath, perfectly described the sense of queasiness this task inspires, and it is worth quoting at length here: "The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The reader's amazing tolerance makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking; tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole."
Middlebrook doesn't so much peep through the keyhole as kick down the door. The book begins with the poets' storied meeting at a party in Cambridge in 1956. Plath shouted lines of a Hughes poem at him, then followed him into a back room for a quick snog and some rough play.
Giving us a taste of their sexual antics, Middlebrook then backs off and spends some time with her dual subjects. Plath was the child of a hardworking single mother. Hughes was a brooding man from West Yorkshire moor country, where frequent fox-hunting expeditions created men of uncommon vigor and independence.
It is here where red flags begin to pop up, as Middlebrook (who is not a psychologist) tosses her subjects on the couch. Putting one of Hughes' poems under a microscope, Middlebrook comes up with this whopper: "The voice that entered him out on the moors at 3:00 A.M. in 1949 showed Hughes a space in his psyche that had been hollowed by his mother's voice, and that Plath would fill exactly."
This statement does not draw from an interview with Hughes, or from a letter, or even from a secondhand source, but from his poetry. Hughes was incredibly reticent about his personal life. He sublimated that in his poetry. Rather than admit this problem, Middlebrook unwisely uses Hughes' poetry as source material. She performs this same psychological vivisection on Plath. After the two marry and move to the country, she pries into Plath's mind through the poem "Morning Song." "So in Plath's poem," she writes, "the suppression of the baby's sex opens the way for Plath's own identification with the evolution of linguistic mastery: female and male alike are connected to the Muse's power by the hungry tongue."
By this point, a reader is likely to be hungry for Middlebrook's tongue to stop wagging.
Despite the publication of Hughes' "Birthday Letters" and Plath's journals, we'll never know exactly what went on in their marriage, or why Plath killed herself. All we have, for sure, is their poetry. Nowhere does Middlebrook allow that this alone should be enough.
Freeman is a critic in New York City.
A 'mutually productive' literary marriage
Biographer Diane Middlebrook contradicts conventional wisdom, seemingly arguing that ted hughes did not fail sylvia Plath
Saturday, January 03, 2004
Her Husband: Hughes and Plath - A Marriage
By Diane Middlebrook
Viking, 361 pages, $39
The story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's meeting is as famous as their poetry. The date was February 1956; the place, Cambridge, England, where Plath was a Fulbright scholar. She recited lines from his poetry, he kissed her hard, she bit his cheek, drawing blood. Four months later, they were married; 61/2 years - and two children - later, Plath killed herself.
For years, the public blamed Hughes for Plath's death. Early feminist critics saw Hughes as a modern day Bluebeard. It didn't help matters when, in 1969, Assia Wevill - the woman for whom Hughes left Plath - followed in Plath's footsteps, not only committing suicide, but also killing the 4-year-old daughter she had with Hughes.
But in this erudite, dispassionate biography, Diane Middlebrook argues that Plath and Hughes's marriage did not fail - at least not artistically. Rather, Middlebrook describes the union as "one of the most mutually productive literary marriages of the 20th century." Middlebrook views the much-maligned Hughes as a model husband. Only her definition of the word husband has nothing to do with taking out the garbage or snuggling up at the end of the day. She refers instead to the agricultural use of the term, where it means careful management.
Middlebrook demonstrates that Hughes not only tended Plath's posthumous career, but that until his death in 1998, he remained engaged in an intimate poetic dialogue with his first wife.
Readers looking for dirt will be disappointed. Middlebrook, author of an acclaimed biography of poet Anne Sexton, never judges her subjects. Hughes may have been a womanizer; Plath, neurotic and depressive, but Middlebrook focuses on their work, rather than their flaws.
Literature - and sex - were at the root of Plath and Hughes's marriage. For Hughes, Plath embodied the White Goddess, the poetic muse made famous by Robert Graves. Hughes was Plath's mentor. In a letter to her brother Warren, Plath described Hughes as "the only man in the world who is my match." Even on their six-week Spanish honeymoon, the couple kept to a strict writing schedule, getting up from their work table only to eat or make love. As Plath wrote in a letter to her mother, Aurelia: "We write, read, talk plain and straight and produce from the fiber of our hearts and bones."
Middlebrook informs readers that Plath was more sexually experienced than other young women of her time and hints at sexual rough play between the couple. Their marriage fuelled their poetry and their poetry was informed by their marriage.
Middlebrook writes that early in their relationship, Plath and Hughes began "playing an obsessive game of tag with each other's images." For example, shortly after Plath produced a poem called The Rabbit Catcher, Hughes wrote a play in which, after killing a rabbit, the protagonist buys two roses for his mistress. Plath responded in a poem called Kindness, which hints at the dissolution of their marriage: "You hand me two children, two roses." Many years later, Hughes wrote his own version of The Rabbit Catcher.
Middlebrook manages to suspend her judgment even after Hughes leaves Plath and their two children.
Instead, she characterizes the period after his departure and before Plath's suicide as the most fruitful of Plath's career. Plath's celebrated poem Daddy, an angry endorsement of parricide, was written the day after Hughes moved out.
In 1963, Plath succumbed to the depression that plagued her as a young woman and that she rendered so poetically in The Bell Jar, published one month before her death.
As her legal heir, Hughes became the custodian of Plath's poetry. While his own writing languished, he edited Plath's final collection of poetry, Ariel, which went on to become a critical and commercial success on two continents.
From Plath, Hughes learned to mine the details of ordinary life and transform them into poetry. Middlebrook credits Plath for inspiring Hughes to write about South Yorkshire, where he was raised.
In Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers, both published in 1998, shortly before Hughes's death, Hughes, who had divulged little until then about his relationship with Plath, revealed that his poetic dialogue with Plath did not end with her death. In Hughes's poem The Offers, Plath returns as an aura and commands him to become a poet: "Don't fail me."
Middlebrook seems to say we may have judged Hughes too harshly - and that in the end, Hughes did not fail Plath.
The saga continues. At his death, Hughes left a sealed trunk of documents, with instructions that it not be opened until 2023.
No doubt, other biographers will still have plenty to say about this couple.
Monique Polak is a Montreal writer.
The Miami Herald
Posted on Sun, Oct. 31, 2004
Returning the ring of truth to a once-poetic partnership
BY ANNE BARTLETT
Diane Middlebrook encountered Ted Hughes in passing more than a decade ago when she was researching her book on poet Anne Sexton. He and his late first wife, Sylvia Plath, had known Sexton when they were all young poets, and Hughes was willing to share his memories in a letter to Middlebrook.
''But you may not quote anything because I do not want to be a source in a biography,'' wrote Hughes, then England's Poet Laureate.
Vilified by those of his wife's admirers who blamed her 1963 suicide on his infidelity, Hughes was notoriously shy of biographers. But shortly before his own death in 1998, he sold his papers to Emory University, a decision that opened the way for Middlebrook to become the sympathetic interpreter of what she calls their ``creative partnership.''
The resulting book, Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath -- A Marriage (Penguin, $15), was lauded as the most sensitive, fair-minded assessment yet of two fine poets who continue to evoke strong emotions.
''I wanted to write about two people who were immensely important to each other's development,'' Middlebrook says in a recent interview. ``I didn't think that had been appreciated.''
Bucking the tendency of readers to join either the Plath team or the Hughes team, Middlebrook argues that whatever their fairly conventional marital struggles, the two had an enormous positive influence on each other's poetic genius. With his late revelatory works Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers, Hughes himself signaled that Plath had been his lifelong muse.
Her Husband also emphasizes what is more clear now than it was when Plath first drew attention in the 1960s: However badly he may have behaved, Hughes didn't ''cause'' Plath's death. She committed suicide while suffering from the depression that had recurred throughout her life.
Plath came to be regarded as a feminist icon, particularly in the 1970s. But enough time has now passed that Middlebrook believes a new generation is rediscovering the strength of her poetry. ''What is really fundamental in her work is the powerful sensitivity in the expression of emotion,'' says Middlebrook. ``When you get attuned to it, you find it breathtakingly accurate, where it wasn't muddled.''
She based Her Husband largely on the poets' archives and on a close reading of their work, although she did check the accuracy of her account with surviving friends. And she avoided the copyright wrangles with Hughes' sister that have tripped up past Plath biographers by quoting their work in the snippets permitted under the ''fair use'' law.
Middlebrook has now become a full-time writer herself. She left her professorship at Stanford University in 2002, and she and husband Carl Djerassi, the scientist whose research led to the birth control pill, divide the year between homes in San Francisco and London.
But she continues her affiliation with Stanford by leading an online book discussion group, the Stanford Book Salon, which has signed up 2,000 people. She sees the rise of the discussion group as an important development in book culture, noting, ``the use of reading to keep alive a sense of having an intellectual life is a very powerful thing.''
Her next project: a biography of the Roman poet Ovid, whose Metamorphoses was translated by Hughes in a way that Middlebrook says found the ''Hughesian side'' of the work.
''But Ovid is bigger,'' she says. ``He is a totally urbane figure.''
Anne Bartlett is an editor at The Herald.