"Mother Medea in a green smock"
November 16, 2004 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Poems from the precipice. Sylvia Plath's late poems were published posthumously in a collection edited by her husband, Ted Hughes. As a new facsimile edition of the original manuscript is published, their daughter Frieda defends Hughes against criticism that he interfered with Plath's legacy. (more inside)
posted by matteo (25 comments total)
Frieda writes that

In considering Ariel for publication my father had faced a dilemma. He was well aware of the extreme ferocity with which some of my mother's poems dismembered those close to her - her husband, her mother, her father, and my father's uncle Walter, even neighbours and acquaintances. He wished to give the book a broader perspective to make it more acceptable to readers, rather than alienate them. He felt that some of the 19 late poems, written after the manuscript was completed, should be represented. "I simply wanted to make it the best book I could".


When my mother died, my father had insufficient funds to cover the funeral, and my grandfather, William Hughes, paid for it.
posted by matteo at 8:25 AM on November 16, 2004

I did a paper on this....
anyone care to decipher this...it is relevant
posted by clavdivs at 10:56 AM on November 16, 2004

clavdivs, you damn tease.
Give up the goods. We working stiffs can't think through stuff like that with padded expense reports and workers comp claims to file.
posted by putzface_dickman at 11:05 AM on November 16, 2004

yeah, give it up, clav
posted by matteo at 11:42 AM on November 16, 2004

"The first three stanzas represent symbols of married life, and the following three are counter-symbols representing love unemcumbered by domesticity" (from here) At least that is one person's take. I'm interested to hear clav's take.

Thanks for the href shoutout, matteo. Nice post.

Hughes should have kept his hands out of everything Plath. He also destroyed all the good journals. Bastard.

Does anyone else feel bad for Frieda? What a tough legacy to live with. She and Ian Curtis' daughter should start a band or something.
posted by shoepal at 11:57 AM on November 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

the Joy Jars?

no, really, I don't blame Hughes, shoepal. it was an off-the-charts shitty situation. and he seems to have been a good father in appalling circumstances, to Frieda at least (I'd be interesting to know more about Nick, her brother. he's a marine biologist in Alaska -- that's a nice metaphor indeed).

suicide is such a complicated emotional/clinical issue that one can hardly blame Hughes (or Hughes only) for what happened to Plath. I never bought the Hughes-as-monster line of reasoning, really.

(I also think that Hughes is vastly superior, as a poet, to Plath, but it doesn't matter here. I respect Plath's work a lot, but I was never a real fan of hers)

I've also read Stevenson and I seldom agree with her analysis
posted by matteo at 12:07 PM on November 16, 2004

off topic, but I absolutely love this.. "And Plath's grave in Yorkshire, England, has been repeatedly defaced by people chipping the word "Hughes" from her name on the gravestone."
posted by shoepal at 12:08 PM on November 16, 2004

well I've been to Jim Morrison's grave, turned into a pigsty by various fans -- I've never been into the cult of death myself, the scratch-Hughes-name-off thing seems childish.

you know, those who did that probably like the Bell Jar a lot.

btw, Ted on Sylvia, for the record
posted by matteo at 12:12 PM on November 16, 2004

also... "Ironically, the woman he allegedly left Plath for—Assia Wevill—also committed suicide, and by carbon monoxide poisoning, the same method his wife (Plath) used."

He clearly had a way with women.

I don't necessarily "support" or "condone" the scratching off of the Hughes name, but I find it amusing. How many rabid/obsessive Hughes fans do you know? His work is impressive, but she clearly eclipsed him, if only by "cheating" through suicide.
posted by shoepal at 12:19 PM on November 16, 2004

He clearly had a way with women.

either that, or he fell in love with troubled, manic-depressive souls. twice.

I'm more familiar with Hemingway's bio than I am with Plath's (same is true for their work) and every time I think about his "black-ass moods", his peculiar case of writer's block, the fucking shock therapy, I can't avoid to imagine what would have happened if, very simply, a small handful of year-2004 chemicals were already known to year 1961 medicine.
posted by matteo at 12:39 PM on November 16, 2004

Matteo, I'm of the opinion that year-2004 chemicals would have completely ruined the lot of them. Artists are meant to be unhinged, not doped up or sedated. This time of over-medication is really, well, depressing.

Oh Sylvia
posted by shoepal at 1:13 PM on November 16, 2004

OK, but Sexton (a poet I consider superior to both Plath and Hughes) is the poster child of the massive dangers of psychoanalysis
posted by matteo at 2:03 PM on November 16, 2004

the bell jar is a pretty good book.

This time of over-medication is really, well, depressing.

stop all this weeping, swallow your pride, you will not die, its not poison.

(dylan is god)
posted by Satapher at 2:20 PM on November 16, 2004

and frieda was what three years old when her mommy turned on the gas?

what the hell does she know that wasnt handed down by her father...

for the sake of argument, i say ted hughes was an asshole... he looks like an asshole.... his poetry is nothing in comparison... hes a male.... he has a dick.... hes a bastard... case closed.
posted by Satapher at 2:38 PM on November 16, 2004

well, Hughes kept his mouth shut about his relationship with Plath for 37 years after her death, and spoke out only 7 months before going to other side himself.
(and, by the way, it is bitterly ironic that Birthday Letters could very well be the best book to come out of Hughes' and Plath's work)

37 years of silence, in today's tv-confession times standards are an eternity. and a good example for those who want to keep their privacy.

Satapher -- I appreciate your free verse, but one cannot really blame Hughes for being, well, 'one acquainted with the night'
posted by matteo at 4:38 PM on November 16, 2004

Thanks for the links, matteo; this was news to me.

For me there's a big disconnect between alot of what Frieda says about her father and his acts. She says, "My father had a profound respect for my mother's work, despite being one of the subjects of its fury. For him the work was the thing, and he saw the care of it as a means of tribute and a responsibility." But he destroyed the journals of Plath that made him look bad, and took several of the most disparaging of the Ariel poems out of the final collection.

The idea that Hughes was surprised to see their personal life in a Plath poem printed in a magazine ("The Event") illustrates this disconnect -- publishing that poem was her right, just as it was later his right to rewrite the story from his own point of view in "The Birthday Letters," and make lots of money off of it from the peanut crunching crowds. Many of his decisions about her work, ostensibly made to protect the children, coincidentally protected him as much or more. So it's a little hard to see him as the good guy whose respect for Plath's work took precedence over his own self interest.

I respect him as a poet, though. And Iron Giant is a lovely little book. But in high school and college it was Plath who spoke to me and opened up an interest in the cadences of poetry.

A.S. Byatt's book Possession reminded me very much of the Plath/Hughes saga and the conflict between art and biography.
posted by onlyconnect at 4:47 PM on November 16, 2004

Many of his decisions about her work, ostensibly made to protect the children, coincidentally protected him as much or more

it's a Catch-22. he and the kids were bundled together, in that situation.
look, I'm not Hughes' lawyer here, even if he was tried (and apparently convincted) by readers. I'm just more careful in crunching the data of his life with Plath. but I concede that I'm -- maybe wrongly, of course -- convinced that most people who commit suicide don't do so because of other people's acts. it's one's manic depression or one's bipolar disorder. one's demons, one's DNA, call it what you want.
there are exceptions, but still.

also, when the mother of children kills herself, and the mother of your third child kills herself and your child, well I'm inclined to give a man who had to bear such sorrow and guilt -- Job's, really -- the benefit of the doubt. and I am a convinced feminist, but still.

and make lots of money off of it from the peanut crunching crowds

yes, but he died several months later. and he had always lived a pretty modest life -- no villa in Mallorca bought with Plath's royalties there. but I agree that staying alive allowed him to rewrite history, or at least write it in his own pov, not Plath's
posted by matteo at 5:11 PM on November 16, 2004

by the way, this is an interesting book, too:

Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters
by Erica Wagner
posted by matteo at 5:17 PM on November 16, 2004

Wagner, The Times' of London Literary Editor, has written a very good book of fiction, too
posted by matteo at 5:20 PM on November 16, 2004

Hughes blamed pills for Plath's suicide
from: The Times (London) - August 6, 2001
by Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent

A letter in which the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes blames his wife's suicide on an adverse reaction to antidepressant drugs is included in an unpublished correspondence acquired by the British Library.

The collection includes more than 140 letters and other documents written to Keith Sagar, his biographer and friend, over a period of 30 years. Some, written 20 years ago, detail the events leading to the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath, in 1963.

In one of them Hughes blames antidepressants for his estranged wife's suicide. He suggests that the main factor leading to her death was swallowing the wrong kind of pills, which made her suicidal. Hughes died in 1998 after suffering cancer for 18 months.

Hughes wrote to Mr Sagar that Plath had once before had an adverse reaction to antidepressants. He said she had been given them by her doctor, who did not know the effect the drugs would have on her.

The acquisition of the letters is significant because the Hughes archive was acquired by Emory University in Atlanta in 1997.

Chris Fletcher, curator of modern literary manuscripts at the British Library, said the collection "gives us an exceptionally direct insight into the complex mind of one of the most creative, charismatic and popular national literary figures of the postwar period".

The letters will be put on display as soon as they have been catalogued.

Copyright (C) The Times, 2001


Drugs a 'key factor' in Plath's suicide, claimed Hughes


Rhyme, reason and depression
New research supports the claim by Sylvia Plath's doctor that an inherited condition led to her suicide

posted by matteo at 5:52 PM on November 16, 2004

Er, look, I totally understand that Plath's decision to kill herself was Plath's decision, not Hughes, and that he payed a horrible price for it anyway for the rest of his life. But he did cheat on her after she had two kids in the marriage, and that is truly sucky husband behavior. He also burned her journals, which is truly sucky editor behavior.

If he were truly worried just about the kids, and not embarrassed by Plath's revelations and judgments about his life, he could have made arrangements for the journals to be released after the deaths of his children, or (better still) given his children the option of whether they wanted to read the journals as adults and decide whether they should be published. He didn't do that. Because he didn't want anyone to read the journals, not just his kids. Understandable, but clearly a decision motivated in large part by self interest rather than just parental concern.

And to be clear, I don't begrudge Hughes the right to tell his story from his own pov via "The Birthday Letters." That was his right. But from the description of his reaction to Plath's publishing of "The Event," and from his subsequent acts in destroying or suppressing the parts of Plath's narrative that he wasn't fond of, it sounds like he didn't think Plath had a similar right. Frankly I would have much preferred if he had written his own pov long before, sometime in the seventies, and gotten his story out that way. Instead he wound up doing it passive aggressively from behind the scenes by hiding the parts of Plath's narrative that made him look bad. He played god, and shouldn't have been allowed to do that with her art.
posted by onlyconnect at 6:33 PM on November 16, 2004

He also burned her journals, which is truly sucky editor behavior.


But he did cheat on her after she had two kids in the marriage, and that is truly sucky husband behavior.

in theory, very much so. I've never been married (yet) and I don't have any kids (yet), but I have learnt that life is complicated -- it can be. and I won't be the one to cast the first stone here, because I myself am not without sin when it comes to being faithful and being worthy of somebody's trust.

and shouldn't have been allowed to do that with her art.

very possibly so. but the Law often sucks, and when she dies it was the husband's legal right. I would have liked the presence of a curator, some academic, sealed archives and such (like Eliot's Emily Hale letters).
I humbly submit that her angry letters were very possibly not part of the corpus of her important work. what we see of her, ahem, more unhinged, more snarky work is certainly not the best Plath.
also: suppose the old story about Diane Arbus photographing her own suicide. if it is true, then her friends/relative destroyed the film. should they have kept it somewhere, sealed? would that be of artistic relevance?

it's an extreme example but you get my drift. 99.9999 percent says Hughes destroyed work that was not massively important, artistically. biographically, yes of course. but artistically? it's doubtful
posted by matteo at 6:52 PM on November 16, 2004

"Not massively important, artistically," though they contained poem fragments and set ups for short fiction pieces? I agree the poems themselves were more vital, but I disagree with the suggestion that the destroyed/"lost" journals had no artistic worth. Moreover, in that her journals documented in detail the work of a married/separated mother of two in the late sixties who was struggling to have her work recognized and taken seriously, I think the journals also had cultural import. Could Virginia Woolf have written "A Room of One's Own" without having basic understanding of the circumstances of Jane Austen's or Charlotte Bronte's life?

He can't have it both ways. He can't be the editor who only had Plath's literary reputation in mind, while behind the scenes he's censoring her work and burning her journals. If he didn't like what she had written about him, he was free to counter it with his own version. Destroying her version, after she could no longer replace it or otherwise fight back, was just very poor form.
posted by onlyconnect at 9:01 PM on November 16, 2004

How many rabid/obsessive Hughes fans do you know?
& lots.
It's almost as if there were some kind of international split.

And (off topic, because I watched the film this weekend) it doesn't start with a "Myth" it's pronounced My-Tholm-Royd.
posted by seanyboy at 12:23 AM on November 17, 2004

Does anyone else feel bad for Frieda
I just wish she'd stop writing poetry.
posted by seanyboy at 3:53 AM on November 17, 2004

« Older How the other half lives...   |   Marvel Battles Role Players Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments