Finishing The Letters of Ted Hughes—which I managed to do while recovering from a nasty bout with the flu—left me with a strange mixture of exaltation and biting sadness: something, I mean, beyond the sadness that books like this (biographies, letters, etc.) inevitably inspire because they end in the grave.
Hughes is unquestionably the 20th century’s greatest English poet—intellectually and emotionally adventurous in a way the neurasthenic Eliot pretended, but never managed, to be; stylistically inventive (beside his, the work of Hughes’s nearest competitor, Philip Larkin, seems especially pedestrian); and psychically attuned to natural and historical currents that, for the most part, did not resonate in the work of his contemporaries. And yet Hughes himself ended his days with the sense that he’d never reached his full potential. The notorious suicide of his first wife, the uncannily gifted poet Sylvia Plath, and the ongoing international hysteria that flowed from that event, created what he called a “log-jam” that he always managed to work around, but which he had failed to break through until the publication of Birthday Letters in the last year of his life. The book addressed his relationship with Plath, and its release provided Hughes with a fresh sense of inner freedom and possibility. His intent was to further develop the explorations he’d begun in the mid 1960s, which had produced his masterwork, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (published in 1970). Whatever Hughes had in mind was never to reach fruition. He died of cancer in 1998, at the age of 68. Speaking at his funeral, the Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney said, “No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft. No death in my lifetime has hurt poets more. He was a tower of tenderness and strength, a great arch under which the least of poetry’s children could enter and feel secure. His creative powers were, as Shakespeare said, still crescent. By his death, the veil of poetry is rent and the walls of learning broken.”
All that Heaney said and more is proved time and again in Hughes’s letters. But what is also proved is how outrageously he’d been abused by the legions of Sylvia Plath fanatics who blamed him for her death. The bitterness I felt upon closing Letters had to do with that phenomenon. I thought back to the first time I read Robin Morgan’s execrable poem “Arraignment,” from her best-selling poetry collection Monster. (A succinct description of the atmosphere at the time and Morgan’s part in it can be found here.) The stink of McCarthyite polemic still rises from that poem, and in Hughes’s letters we can see the impact these fundamentalist Feminists and literary blowflies had on the real human beings involved—that is, Hughes and his children. (Fundamentalist Feminism is clearly no different, in essence, from crackpot fundamentalism of the religious kind: it happily blows up families and reputations for “the cause”; and every great suicidal writer attracts the blowfly types I refer to here.) The idea that these disturbed and dishonest people might have actually diverted a great poet from his greatest work is what gives the reading of Letters its bitter aftertaste.
And yet, looking into Hughes’s Collected Poems, with its overwhelming variety and scope, it’s hard to credit the notion that something truly essential is missing from his achievement. Better to believe that we have the whole of Hughes, for what we have seems to me inexhaustible. At least we can tell ourselves (pace Papa Hemingway ), “It’s certainly pretty to think so.”