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Ted Hughes: A Talented Murderer


by Nadeem Azam


I am inhabited by a cry. Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

Sylvia Plath, 'Ariel'

If a man's wife commits suicide he attracts and, in most cases deserves, sympathy and support; for his next partner to go on to do the same thing (and take the life of their child at the same time), only six years later, inevitably leads to suspicions about his character and deserves investigation.

Unfortunately, by virtue of being both a man and a talented writer, Ted Hughes' indiscretions and contributions towards the suicides of Sylvia Plath and Assia Welville have been largely confined to the feminist lobby and, as a result, been given short shrift. As one writer put it: "He was a great man and nothing was said or done to disturb the aura around him."


When Ted Hughes used to give readings he would often be confronted by demonstrators holding placards which accused him of murdering Sylvia Plath. Plath's grave in Yorkshire has repeatedly been desecrated with the letters ‘Hughes’ hacked off her name on the headstone. The recent revelations about her husband’s philanderous behaviour and lack of faithfulness to any of his wives are sure to incite haters of Hughes even further.


A book was published a while back which exposed yet more womanising by Hughes, named another mistress of his, and suggested he fathered a fourth, unacknowledged child.


In May 2001, the Australian Jill Barber revealed her four-year affair with the late Poet Laureate in an account replete with all the lupine cliché that now threatens to overwhelm him. She told a journalist Hughes doesn’t speak; he “growls”; he looks like Heathcliff; he is “rough, passionate and forceful”.


Some detractors of Hughes, who had maintained a campaign against him because of his adulterous behaviour, softened their villification of the poet after the publication in 1998 of “Birthday Letters” in which, for the first time, he poured out his heart to the world and delved into his relationship with Plath.


He wrote about her with passion (“St Botolph's”), and with tenderness and affection. Hughes recalled scenes from their courtship and marriage with precision - the peach scrunched outside Charing Cross station; the student parties (that famous bite/kiss), the first love-making ("You were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish").

But he also shifts the blame entirely onto Plath for her ending. On first reading, there does seem to be a narrative of explanation that can be lifted out of these poems: that Sylvia Plath was doomed by the eight-year-old girl inside her who failed to grieve a father who died too soon; that her whole project (“trajectory perfect as if through ether”) was to get back to that father in his grave (whereas Hughes had “no more purpose in me than my own dog which I did not have”).

Picture of Ted Hughes. 'Your ghost,' wrote Hughes about Plath, is 'inseparable from my shadow.' This leaves Hughes no option but to go seeking for them both: "big shock to meet me face to face in the dark adit where I have come looking for your daughter” (this, one of the only two poems not addressed to Plath, comes near the end, as if Hughes was left with no other place to go). According to this story, from very early on, Plath was heading inexorably to her death, and Hughes was a helpless bystander. If Hughes's earlier poetry often reads as a tribute to a nature in excess of his own mastery, this would then be the first time that such a force at which he also marvels so utterly defeats him.


He also admits the differences which separate them - things which surface as local problems, but which generally signify a larger, subterranean divide. (On honeymoon: "Spain frightened you. Spain/Where I felt at home.")

But precisely because what Hughes is writing about is a form of energy with a strength and will of its own, no attempt - if indeed this is the attempt - to hand it over to Plath alone, to her distressed and haunted selfhood as he sees it, can work. Lines like these, often cited over the past three years, are almost too easy to lift out of the poems: “auditioned for the male lead in your drama”, “I was a fly outside on the window pane / of my own domestic drama”, “Your life was a liner I voyaged in”, “Inside your Bell Jar / I was like a mannikin in your eyeball”. But they only tell half, if indeed that much, of the story.


Time and again, Hughes also has a dig at Plath lobbyists:

“Who caught all
That teeming population, every one,
To hang their tortured eyes and tongues up
In your poems?”

If this is true, then her readers are dupes. All they have is “the empty mask'”of her genie; or gloves from which “the hands have vanished”. Or worse, they are the guilty party to the crime:

“In the wilderness
Between the locusts and the honey
They demanded it. On, no problem
If that's all you want,
You said, and you gave it.”

In the penultimate poem, addressed to his children, Hughes writes about those who have written about Plath's work:

”Let them
Jerk their tail-stumps, bristle and vomit
Over their symposia.”

“Birthday Letters” produced a caricature of feminism as always pitying Plath and blaming Hughes as a man with no heart to speak of. This, of course, enraged legions of people who felt sympathy for Plath. The British literary critic Asad Yawar said the anthology "was an apologist diatribe concealed in honey" the feminist poet Robin Morgan told “Newsweek”: "My teeth began to grind uncontrollably."


There's no question of Hughes finding ways to forgive himself for leaving Plath. By giving us his account of her psychic history inside his portrait of their domestic history, he creates a long perspective in which sudden actions become comprehensible - or at least inevitable. "What happens in the heart simply happens."


Even in his otherwise surprisingly-candid last interview with the "Daily Telegraph's" Eilat Negev he shirked responsibility and was cagey when Plath was raised. When prompted about what may have caused her suicide he replies: "It's too complicated. There are too many theories."

It is obvious from both Hughes revelations and Plath’s own diaries that the couple were deeply in love and the latter was an empty vessel which benefited both artistically and emotionally from being filled by the talent and personality that was England’s greatest poet of the last century.


But the circumstances surrounding the last months of Plath’s life, and Ted Hughes' desire to suppress as much information as possible relating to them, notwithstanding the recent revelations about the difficulty he had in keeping his trousers on, lead one to invariably point a finger or two, or eight, at Hughes.


If he didn’t have anything to hide, why would he have kept his wife’s suicide hidden from their children? He said in the interview with Negev:


"I didn't know what to tell them about the circumstances of their mother's death, so I kept quiet. They grew up without knowing she committed suicide."


Why would he have destroyed the final volume of Plath’s journal, detailing their last three years together? Why would another diary, which every Plath scholar and enthusiast would be desperate to get their hands on, have suspiciously gone “missing”?

Plath was clearly a disturbed character – she had tried to commit suicide before ever meeting Hughes – and, as with almost all suicides, a wide array of factors need to be taken into consideration before attempting to decipher why she had chosen to take her own life.

But Hughes failure to apologize for cheating on Plath with another married woman, his refusal to discuss the circumstances surrounding her death head-on, and the revelations in Feinstein’s biography are sure to ensure he remains the Most Despised Poet on America’s campuses and nothing less than a murderer, albeit a talented one, in the eyes of many Plath sympathisers.

Thank you to the Guardian newspaper.

© 2001 - 2012 Nadeem Azam, London W1

Order a copy of this controversial book from Amazon and save money Elaine Feinstein's book "Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet" may be ordered from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de.

Sylvia Plath, the much-troubed wife of Ted Hughes. Click here to read her profile at the literature portal LitVillage.com

Read Sylvia Plath's biography at LitVillage.com

Read a review of Sylvia the movie based on Plath's relationship with Ted Hughes

You're smart enough to want to read about poetry, so you're smart enough to start making an online income. Go here for the most useful guide we've come across to making an ongoing revenue stream.

© Copyright, N. Azam, London, UK