Beautiful but unhappy, Birthday Letters

Ted Hughes is revered and scorned in equal measure by the Great British public. Opinion, which is indeed a case of each to their own, cannot, however, be divided on the gruff Yorkshireman’s talent as a poet.

And, boy could the Englishman write a rhyme, whether it be as if from the mind of a wild animal or a verse of searing honesty on the travails of his innermost feelings. 

This was not, however, praise that I could always throw at Hughes, for my early notion of him was as a children’s novelist – Iron Man a particular favourite.

He also produced The Pike that, when read by adult eyes, is unnerving but as a boy I enjoyed mentally swimming the river with the big long-jawed fish. 

Hughes is best known to the public as a poet laureate, the highest position possible for a poet under Her Majesty’s jurisdiction. He is a member of a select club whose members include Chaucer, Day-Lewis and Betjeman. 

Like many in the public eye, it was Hughes’ private life that, at times, brought him more notoriety than his work. His attractiveness to women, coupled with his libidinous nature was a recipe for disaster.

Hughes met the troubled American writer Sylvia Plath at a party in Cambridge in 1955. The great man, with his then girlfriend in tow, was immediately hit with what the Sicilians called the thunderbolt. Plath in response bit the poet on the cheek, drawing blood, as a token of how smitten she was.

The end, as most will know, culminates with Plath committing suicide following Hughes’s numerous infidelities. Feminists railed against him, calling him a murderer and chiselling his name from his wife’s tomb stone. But he kept a dignified personal silence.

That was how it remained until he, suffering with terminal disease, wrote the painfully honest collection of poems called Birthday Letters, in 1998; in these verses he documents the rise and fall of the relationship that the world thought it knew.

I encourage everyone to read this book.

True, there are moments where Hughes is sanctimonious and passages where he could be accused of attempting to shift the blame of Plath’s demise away from himself.

But, what makes these poems particularly special is that, rather than follow the conventional approach of a random order, Birthday Letters is arranged chronologically. This makes for compelling reading and it is as much a page turner as a rom-com written for commuters.

Each word of private tender love glimmers in black and white like a daisy chain of butterflies. The manic, cruel episodes read like a smashed mirror. Whilst, the beautiful sad notes hit the reader in solar plexus, when least expecting.

Hughes’s elegant pen creates a tale of changing feelings between humans, rather like a photo album of words. What he does, with the advantage of time, is remember their high love without cynicism and the sadness and anger without blame. This is the opus that poetry’s Taylor and Burton deserves.

There is another dimension too. As well as being a triumph in its own right as poetry, it is equally important as a piece on mental health. Moreover, it focuses not only on the person who is unlucky enough to suffer the illness but those around them.

Far from a saint himself, Hughes shows the strain and worry that the family feels from in the face of erratic or manic behaviour. Without a doubt our sympathy must be with Plath but Hughes, though uncomplaining, paints the dark, paranoid world of her, at times, behaviour.

Despite the drama of the true tale, the star is the elegance and economy of Hughes’ turn of phrase and uncompromising honesty of his words.

Fame will come. Fame especially for you.

Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes

You will have paid for it with your happiness,

Your husband and your life.   


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