In a weary-sounding letter to his mother-in-law, Ted Hughes once wrote, “In time everything will be quite clear, whatever has been hidden will lie in the open. Too many people are too interested, now, for anything to escape record.”
Hughes was referring to his six-year marriage with fellow poet Sylvia Plath, a connubial anvil that, decades later, still showers onlookers with its searing, costly sparks. Their union forged some of the century’s most enduring literature – and one of its most controversial love stories when, in 1963, a despairing Plath lay her head in an oven to die at 30. She became a feminist cult figure in the U.S.; he ended his days in 1998 as frosty-haired poet laureate of England. And their relationship, on the cusp of the “personal is political” era, became a flash-point for the women’s movement, with Hughes reviled as the caddish, black-caped every-husband who oppressed his
American wife to death. All the while, he frustrated the lit-major crowd by staying mum on the subject.
Their marriage, he wrote, hit an underwater rock, and “the geology of that rock is nobody’s business.”
Now Hughes’ prophecy about “whatever has been hidden” is, in some way, coming to pass with the help of an Atlanta university that the English man of letters never visited. His definitive, deeply personal archive — a lifetime’s accumulation of 2 ½ tons of papers — opens this month at Emory University in the special collections room at the Woodruff Library. The works, purchased for an undisclosed sum, include original drafts of every major poem by Hughes since the late ’50s; hundreds of unpublished poems by Hughes and Plath; candid letters; scrapbooks; photographs;
bawdy greeting cards and other memory-charged relics.
For almost three years, a small army of researchers has worked to catalog and preserve the fragile documents, which were shipped in 86 boxes that had been used for champagne and birdseed at Hughes’ quaint, thatched-roof cottage in Devon, England.
For scholars, access to Hughes’ artifacts is like finding the Rosetta stone for an Oprah-like
interview with the Sphinx: What secrets swirled through that benighted marriage and gave rise to such breath-taking poetry from both of them?
So Emory’s dedication ceremony, which will include friends and family of the poet characterized as “reclusive,” is sure to rivet the worldwide literary establishment. Hughes’ friend Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet who teaches at Oxford and Princeton, will speak at the event on April 8, and Hughes’ widow, Carol Orchard Shields, and Frieda Hughes, his daughter with Plath, will attend the ceremony. Emory also will exhibit paintings by Frieda Hughes, an artist whose
recently published poetry and physical appearance invite comparisons to her mother.
“He could have placed his papers in any institution in the world,” says Steve Enniss, Emory’s literary curator who negotiated the deal with Hughes during a stroll in Devon. “The fact that we have this remarkable collection is a measure of Emory and of the growth of Atlanta as a cultural center.”
Why did Hughes choose Emory, a campus so far from his roots in Mytholmroyd, England? Partly because of the school’s cache of papers from Irish writers – the collection of post-1950s writers looms larger than any in the world, including those in Ireland. Hughes felt a poet’s affinity for the Emerald Isle, and he had collaborated on two books with his friend Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s Nobel laureate whose papers also can be viewed at Emory. Moreover, the school has demonstrated a consistent interest in Hughes for the past 30 years. While many academic quarters were shunning him for his perceived marital sins, Emory was buying his manuscripts, letters, and all of his books in special collections.
Ronald Schuchard, a professor of modern English and Irish literature at Emory, noted the erasures and scratched-out lines on poems in the archive.
“We didn’t want to buy his papers just to have for their rising collection value,” he said. “We wanted them to enable students to share in the awe of his creative process, with its great labor and revisions. It’s quite a development because the archive is so complete and you usually don’t get the papers of poets until 50 years after they’re dead.”
When Hughes expedited the opening of his reliquary, he evidently was engaged in some existential squaring up. Not long after the deal was struck, he startled readers with the unannounced publication of “Birthday Letters,” a collection of poems addressed to Plath. Achingly loving, the poems were deemed the “interview he never gave,” and the book crested best-seller lists and stirred ripples of merciful revisionism for Hughes. That many of the poems in “Birthday Letters” refer to the archive’s photos (“There you are, in all your innocence, sitting among your daffodils, as in a picture/Posed for the title: ‘Innocence’ “) suggests that he studied those items with ruminative intensity in his final years. So the tenderness invested so skillfully into those lines ratcheted up the interest in his archive and prompted a reassessment of his battered literary reputation; Emory clearly had snagged a treasure of mounting value.
Hughes also apparently gave his blessing to his children Frieda and Nicholas, who control Plath’s literary estate, to publish their mother’s remaining journals. In one of those cycles that suggest some reassuring synchronicity in the universe, Faber and Faber, the London company that “discovered” Hughes in the ’50s, will publish Plath’s documents this month, around the same time Emory’s archive opens. Hughes had planned to attend his collection’s christening and give some readings around Atlanta, but he died of prostate cancer just months after the publication of
“He must have known he was dying,” said Ruth Looper, a literature professor who has given classes on the Hughes-Plath union at Young Harris College. “These papers are a wonderful gesture of completely opening himself up and becoming vulnerable and available while assuming absolute control. It’s as if he’s saying ‘This will tell my story; end of story,’ knowing that he won’t have to engage in any dialogue because he’s facing the ultimate silence of death. He put out the buffet and then left the restaurant.”
Whatever your motives — scholarly, ideological, or ghoulish — you likely will feel guilty while scouring Hughes’ personal effects, partly because they feel warm with the fingerprints of sensitive souls whose intimate motives have been dissected by so many critics and partly because you know the ending. But you won’t be able to stop. It is a paper trail that leads – Dante-like – into hell and back, and shows, in spiky, hard-to-decipher handwriting, the destructive and redemptive powers of art.
In a 1956 letter, Hughes urges college chum Luke Myers (who will attend the archive’s opening) to introduce him to an American poet named Sylvia Plath. “Get her somehow,” Hughes writes.
Get her, Hughes did. She came to England on a Fulbright scholarship and after a brief courtship, married the robust Cambridge lad who was struggling to publish his verse, described as “bangingly virile” by a besotted Plath. Here are their marriage certificate and passports. Photos from this period – touristy snapshots from a trip to the U.S. and a nervous “meet the in-laws” portrait — show earnest, attractive newlyweds grinning with promise and mutual adoration.
In his letters, Hughes confesses to being something of a dreamer, restless with wanderlust. He was publishing in obscure magazines under the name “Edward J. Hughes,” while Plath brought to their scribbling an American-bred marketing ethic, seen in her detailed logs of the circulation of Hughes’ poetry among different periodicals. She helped launch Hughes’ career by submitting some of his poems – under the catchier “Ted” – to a contest that awarded him the Guinness Poetry Award. T.S. Eliot took notice, and soon “The Hawk in the Rain,” Hughes’ first book of poetry, was published by Faber and Faber. He was anointed an up-and-coming lion. On a photo of Hughes taking his place among Eliot, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice, Plath has written the caption “A pride of poets.” She documented each success by pasting acceptance letters, payment stubs, magazine covers (his first poem in “The New Yorker”) and congratulatory telegrams into tidy scrapbooks, now yellow with age. The albums, so happy and homespun, seem awkwardly out of context in a library’s filing system instead of on some book-cluttered coffee table.
They, like so much else here, are painful to peruse.
“Those scrapbooks are such an act of love for him,” Shuchard says. “You see how lovingly she pasted in even the smallest details and wrote the captions. She was a very prideful companion to him in the poetic process.”
Plath, too, was writing prolifically and ambitiously. She often scribbled on one side of a
piece of paper, and he marked up the other. They covered their ripped envelopes, newspaper wrappers and other scraps with poetry in the way that others doodle. The archive features a typewritten page from “The Bell Jar,” Plath’s semi-autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown during college. It would become a feminist bible, of sorts, on every socially conscious undergrad’s bookshelf. On the back, in Hughes’ penmanship, is the poem “Digging,” the sort of nature poem about a bird that would typify his poetic themes. He describes the bird “singing long after good cause” with eyes “perfect as water.”
“That’s a poignant, tangible reminder of how collaborative their literary lives were,” Enniss says. “He on one side, she on the other. It’s a literal metaphor for the joint enterprise they were engaged in, and it shows how intertwined their strong individual talents were.”
The Hugheses had two children and enjoyed some accolades and a modest income from their work. Their marriage, however, started to unravel. Plath was working on a novel titled “Falcon Yard,” which she destroyed along with many of Hughes’ papers when she learned of his infidelity. She had never shown the novel to anyone, and it remained a matter of speculation until a student sorting the archive recently found two pages of notes on characters (“Peregrine: Heroine, kinetic, voyager, no Penelope”) and three random pages from the book that suggest Plath had finished a first draft. It was to be, the notes say, a “fable of faithfulness.”
The couple separated. While Hughes traveled with another woman, Assia Wevill (who later would take her own life, as well, along with that of her 2-year-old daughter with Hughes), Plath left milk and snacks on her children’s night-stands, sealed their room from the fumes, and killed herself in her oven, that symbol of Eisenhower-era homemaking. She had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts.
Hughes’ detractors accused him of stifling Plath’s creativity with domestic chores and secretarial work to further his career, in addition to driving her to suicide with his affair. His report that he lost one of her journals and destroyed another written in the final months of her life, to spare her children from that record of their mother’s anguish, further inflamed his critics. For a time, vandals repeatedly chipped the name “Hughes” off her gravestone (which also bears the Sanskrit phrase Hughes often invoked to cheer Plath: “Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted”). In 1970, someone broke into his home and set piles of his papers ablaze in an apparent act of retribution. As a result, some pieces of the archive show damage by fire and smoke. A later letter to his college friend Myers, this one from 1984, speaks of his grief, saying “maybe life isn’t long enough to wake up.”
However, a few of the suffragettes (as feminists still are called in England) who came to his readings to hiss and heckle, ended up hearing a few lines of his poetry and then putting down their placards to listen with weak-kneed awe. That sea-change reaction to Hughes is typical, Schuchard says.
“At least a couple of scholars have entered the archive with a negative idea of Hughes and then changed their opinion after immersing themselves in it,” he said.
Deborah Ayer, a professor of literature at Emory, says she thought she knew Hughes, the patriarchal villain, until she spent a steamy Atlanta July poring over his correspondence. “What I found was a pretty decent man – an environmentalist, astrologer, anthropologist and disciplined writer” who delighted in Plath’s poetic breakthroughs and exulted in fatherhood, she says.
Ayer discovered that Hughes apparently handled much of the child-care and housework to allow writing time for Plath, and he took the 3′ by 3′ hallway for his study while his wife used the living room and bedroom for hers. He also built Plath a writing desk.
Instead of rampant misogyny, the “correspondence suggests some role reversal with the marriage,” Ayers says. “In some ways Sylvia took a more conventionally masculine approach and Ted a more conventionally feminine one. Before Sylvia proposed to him, he had planned to sail around the world, writing and adventuring. He seems less goal-driven than Sylvia, more connected to the earth and to stars as well as more nurturing.”
Hughes writes: “The main talk and business of our days was how Sylvia should get to the point of at last writing what she wanted to write. We did nothing that wasn’t meant to promote that. We assumed that my writing would carry on anyhow, somehow.”
The correspondence between Hughes and his mother-in-law about the posthumous publication of Plath’s “Letters Home” show a rare moment of Hughes’ self-defense. He was responding to some charges in the collection of letters, which include raging missives Plath sent during their separation, and the correspondence reads like the usual thrust-and-parry, tit-for-tat acrimony of your neighbor’s — or your own — marital split. He asks: How could he leave her “penniless” when they had little money to begin with from their poets’ incomes? “She didn’t sacrifice anything to me any more than I sacrificed anything to her. We just sacrificed everything to writing, and then later fitted in the children,” Hughes writes.
Anyone seasoned in domestic feuds learns not to rush to take sides in the welter of grievances but to feel sympathy for everyone involved. Time usually brings peace. However, fame, art, and the zeitgeist conspired to preserve, as if in amber, this marriage when it soured.
Looper says, “His work shows that he was very much in love with her, but being the caretaker of someone who is mentally ill is a very debilitating and mysterious thing, especially when genius is flowering in it. Their marriage is finally getting a more complicated and fairer understanding that takes into account youth, human folly and mental illness. They both were victims of each other.”
They were boosters of each other, as well. The archive shows that, while Plath was promoting her husband’s career with “secretarial” work, he was reciprocating, before and after her death. She had published only “The Colossus” and “The Bell Jar.”
After her suicide, Hughes arranged for the publication of “Ariel,” poems written in the final months of her life and filled with invective toward him. The collection introduced Plath as the Angry Young Woman of letters and earned her a place in the canon. For years, he continued to publish her work and offer scholarly commentary on it in several other volumes, including “Collected Poems,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for Plath, decades after her death.
“In the same way that Plath helped launch Hughes’ career with ‘The Hawk in the Rain,’ Hughes published the books that would establish Plath’s literary reputation,” Enniss says. “The acts serve as book-ends to their tragic lives.”
Consider the lives of artists, Schuchard says. “Do great artists have to lead great lives? It’s
difficult to perfect both. If you decide to perfect the art, much is going to go awry in the life. The art of both them, at least, outlasts their human suffering.”
In a photo from his later years, a publicity shot for his publishers, Hughes looks very much the eminence grise. His arresting, leonine face turns serenely into the camera, as if to say he has nothing else to prove. Now that the rehabilitation of Hughes’ image has begun, many of the already-converted hope that researchers will use the Emory archive to broaden their knowledge of his post-Plath career, which was long and multifaceted.
Hughes’ poetry, which enjoyed a more favorable reception abroad than in Plath’s home country, draws on themes of myth, shamanism, the occult and the feral beauty of animal life. It earned him the poet laureate’s post in 1984.
“I was attracted to his work early on because, as Hughes described it, it celebrates the warriors on either side in the war between vitality and death,” says Schuchard, who has championed Hughes-related acquisitions at Emory for 30 years.
Hughes’ energetic poetry with its swooping birds of prey, sharks, and pacing jaguars suggests that we can draw strength from the urgent rhythms and realities of nature.
Hughes also wrote several whimsical and affecting children’s stories, one of which was made into the movie “The Iron Giant” last year, and a book on how to memorize a poem using images instead of the rote method. Hughes was known for his prodigious memory, as well as his astrology (he did charts for his friends); environmentalism (he crusaded to clean the streams in Devon); and his support of poets repressed by totalitarian governments. His letters show that he eschewed the usual writerly rivalries and instead energized his associates with magnanimous encouragement. Among the treasures in the archive is his voluminous correspondence with Heaney, which is credited with expanding the Irish poet’s work beyond its nationalistic themes.
“In years to come, we expect that correspondence to be as important as the letters between Wordsworth and Coleridge,” Schuchard says. “Hughes’ rootedness inthe English soil was strong, but his consciousness was worldwide and attuned to the great intellectual traditions of mind, memory, and especially imagination.”
Hughes still is leaving something to the imagination he cherished by not yet revealing
everything. One trunk in this sprawling archive must remain sealed for 25 years. Schuchard speculated that it could contain the Plath papers allegedly burned by Hughes.
“He didn’t want his children to see the notebooks, but I doubt he would have destroyed them because of their literary value,” he says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they surface when we have the distance to use them in an objective way, to look at them with ‘disinterest,’ which is not the same as ‘uninterest.’ To be disinterested means to be interested but without emotional attachment.”
Then Schuchard scratches his professorial beard for effect.
“We are not yet disinterested in Plath and Hughes.”