Brilliance, with blind spots



Faber & Faber, 800pp, 30

TED HUGHES WROTE TO A PAPER in 1989 complaining about the way the story of his life with Sylvia Plath had been misrepresented by biographers. "I hope each of us owns the facts of his or her own life," he said.

The truth is not so simple. Facts can be contested and they can be presented in different ways. They cannot be owned outright. Yet after Plath's death, Hughes spent a long time trying unsuccessfully to keep the facts of his life to himself.

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Only near the end did he go public. In January 1998, having been diagnosed with cancer the previous year, he published Birthday Letters, his unguarded account of their marriage, saying: "It will bring the sky down on my head ... But so what. The sky's fallen anyway." After publication, he told son Nicky he felt "a freedom of imagination I've not felt since 1962" (the year before Plath killed herself).

Hughes died in 1998. Now we have this 756-page selection of his correspondence, giving us the most detailed picture of his life yet, as well as a huge new sample of his writing. The volume is edited by Christopher Reid, who believes not only that Hughes produced "a body of work none of his contemporaries could match" but that, even so, "his true stature has not yet been recognised".

Not knowing what he has omitted, his editing is difficult to evaluate - but the book clearly comes under: Hughes, Ted, greatness, the case for. Reid appears to have censored the contents. You could not tell from it that Hughes had many affairs. To mention one example, Emma Tennant (who published a book, Burnt Diaries, about their romance) is not even mentioned in the index. There are surprisingly few letters from 1969, the year in which, in March, Assia Wevill committed suicide, killing also their four-year-old daughter Shura, and in May, his mother died. Indeed, this latter event is referred to only in passing, in a letter from 1971.

There are many wonderful pieces here, nonetheless. Hughes writes quite beautifully to his children - for example, to Frieda, when she was 11, about finding a hedgehog, which he sketches for her. To Nicky, then in his mid-twenties, he writes the letter of a lifetime, about how we are all still a child inside - "unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person's childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them." That's worth a place in any anthology.

There are many powerful descriptions. He explains the course of a bullfight brilliantly - and characterises literary London equally unsparingly: " 'Literary life', closely examined, turns out to be a chance juxtaposition of individuals who wish to be known as 'writers' held in a semblance of community by the watchfulness of their mutual envy and malice."

And there are fascinating minor revelations. He dreams of fishing every night, he says: "In these fishing dreams my great enemies are eels." In his last year, this poet of so many predatory birds admits he has never seen or heard a nightingale.

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But these treasures are to be found among a good deal of protracted exposition about his beliefs in shamanism, astrology, predictive dreams and the like. Much of his prose is tainted by the rhetoric of amateur science, about electrical force fields, electrodes, frontal lobes, X-rays, DNA, telepathy, toxins and so forth. It's amazing to find him sending Philip Larkin, of all people, a horoscope he has drawn up for him - and, as Larkin was dying of throat cancer, urging upon him a West Country faith healer whom, Hughes believed, could work miracles over the phone. Should we just accept this silliness?

We can grant that Hughes may have needed to believe some odd things to become the kind of poet he was - but when he attempted to redraw the history of English literature in the same way, in his crackpot magnum opus, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, even such previously loyal followers as John Carey rebelled. Reid has included far too much long-winded ranting to uncritical admirers.

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Then again, Hughes's response to the suicide of two successive partners seems peculiarly numb and repetitive. In 1963, after Plath's death, he writes: "I was the one who could have helped her, and the only one that couldn't see that she really needed it this time." In 1969, after Assia and Shura's deaths: "Everything has become horrible to me, I cannot believe how I never knew what was really happening to her." He ends that year writing to a friend: "I hope you haven't had a year of such poor luck as I've had."

To compare these letters to those of Keats, as some reviewers have done, is ridiculous. Hughes admits he's never felt much interest "in writing about anything that I couldn't regard as the 'dramatisation' of a purely internal psychodrama". Very late, he says to his son that for 30 years after Plath's death what he wrote contained nothing of what he really needed to say. His admirers should take such self-criticism seriously.

His best work came at the start of his career and at its end: the animal poems, on the one hand, and Birthday Letters and the translation from Ovid, on the other. But these letters at least provide the reader with more of the facts of his life.