Letters of Ted Hughes

When Janet Malcolm, poking around on the trail of Sylvia Plath, came across some of the private letters of Plath’s widower, Ted Hughes, the distinguished New Yorker writer got her hair blown back. Unexpected feelings swelled within her as she read them, feelings of “intense sympathy and affection.” “Other people have spoken to me with awe of Hughes’s letters,” she wrote in her 1991 Plath meta-biography, The Silent Woman. “Someday, when they are published, critics will wrestle with the question of what gives them their peculiar power, why they are so deeply, mysteriously moving.”

Well, that day is now upon us — and here is a critic, wrestling. Letters of Ted Hughes is a volume of daunting magnitude, large in every sense: its 700 pages and nearly 300 letters, scrupulously edited by Christopher Reid, incorporate among other things an alternative history of English poetry, a spiritual autobiography, a study in literary reputation, a work of Shakespearean scholarship, and a tragic love story. Four or five shorter books could be quarried from this material, and probably will be. For the moment, though, we get to grapple happily and unhappily with something that feels like the whole man, from the horny 19-year-old Yorkshire lad writing to his girlfriend from a damp Royal Air Force base (“I’ll tickle you familiarly like Mars, and not a boy in short pants”) through a swirl of astrology, ecology, prize committees, domestic agony, and many hallucinatory fishing trips, all the way to the poet laureate, nine days from death but writing serenely of his intimate conversations with the queen of England.

For a long time, of course, Hughes existed in the public mind as an accessory to the myth of Sylvia Plath. “Luckily Sylvia is unique to live with,” he writes proudly to his brother Gerald in 1958, from the then-happy marital home in Northampton, Massachusetts. After Plath’s 1963 suicide she became rather more unique to live with: Hughes was pried at by journalists and academics, hounded through the courts by rogue biographers, criticized (with some justification) for his heavy-handed management of her literary estate, and pilloried to the point of violence by a feminist death cult. He called this their “posthumous marriage” and the letters, inevitably, are full of it. “There are all kinds of ways in which the natural healing processes” are torn up at the roots, he writes to Plath biographer Anne Stevenson in 1986. “And a thousand varieties and degrees of agitation…. Having the monkey world of all this play among one’s nerves for twenty five years induces a stupor of horror — it finally affects your judgment of mankind.”

Those “natural healing processes” were of nearly obsessive interest — no poet since Keats had such a solemn understanding of the regenerative function of poetry, its place in our psychic immunology. The most detailed account of this in the letters comes in a long, careful response to an invitation to a “lunch party and discussion” with the archbishop of Canterbury. “Poets would like to feel that their talent is some sort of bonus,” he writes, “like physical strength, or swiftness, or even an aptitude for mathematics…. I think we get a closer description of the way it has always operated if we regard it as nothing more than a facility for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction — whether our own or that of others whose feeling we can share.” Hughes declines the invitation: the poet, he says, “is the very last person to venture with his specialized compass needle into the overwhelming magnetic field of the Church.”

He had his own system, rigged up from anthropology, the zodiac, Tarot claptrap, and Robert Graves’s White Goddess. It served him well, but a detailed understanding of it is almost inimical to the enjoyment of his poetry; enough for us to observe that it gave him access, that it opened the world for him. “Only periapts & distillations, sleight of mind & telekinesis have got me this far,” he writes merrily to Seamus Heaney in 1991. And despite the various haruspications and Jungian nosedives that occur in these letters, he never comes across as a crank — it was one of his particular virtues to make the propitiation of unseen forces look like solid common sense. A late and very moving letter records the effort to put Philip Larkin, then terminally ill with cancer of the esophagus, in touch with a healer of Hughes’s acquaintance. No one could have been more temperamentally inhospitable to such a suggestion, as Hughes well knew, than Larkin — and yet he felt compelled to make it. “I simply wanted to let you know somehow of the existence of a very strange and remarkable fellow down here, quite widely known for what seem to be miraculous healing powers,” Hughes writes. “He explains his ‘power’ as some sort of energy that flows from him and galvanizes the patient’s own auto-immune system.” “I shan’t mention this to anyone else,” he assures Larkin. “Please don’t write back or mention this again — no point.” Two streams of Englishness collide here, the secular and the pagan, but the abiding sensation is one of great gentleness.

The letters poured off him, apparently. As did the poems, essays, translations, and children’s books. “Prolific” is not quite the word for Hughes — better to say that he was in a permanent state of receptivity or alertness, and possessed of a hair-trigger vocabulary. The “peculiar power” that so affected Janet Malcolm comes, I think, as a consequence of his seeing himself as both patient and healer, diagnosing his own subterranean life with extraordinary elegance. Working my way through these letters, with their great-man grumblings about wasted time and their torrential generosity to fellow poets, I was reminded insistently of something Hughes wrote in 1965, in an essay on Isaac Bashevis Singer: “His powerful, wise, deep, full-face paragraphs make almost every other modern fiction seem by comparison laboured, shallow, overloaded with alien and undigested junk, too fancy, fuddled, not quite squared up to life.”