Most readers think an authorized biography, written with the help of the subject’s family, gives the writer an advantage. But Jonathan Bate’s unauthorized life of Ted Hughes (1930–98) has turned out better without such help. He’s free from obligation and pressure, censorship and constraint. No longer tempted to pad his book with quotations that he doesn’t have to pay for, he now quotes with “fair use” and is more selective and concise. A biographer frequently encounters a family who refuses to cooperate and then criticizes the author for making errors it could easily have corrected. Hughes’s widow, Carol, first gave and then withdrew permission to quote his literary work. Before reading Bate’s book, she publicly contradicted his statement that friends accompanying Hughes’s body from London to his home in Devon stopped for a good lunch on the way. But the recollection of Bate’s unnamed source, which could be confirmed by other friends, is just as valid as Carol’s. The friends probably did stop to eat on the 200-mile drive. Later on, she felt it made her seem disrespectful.
Bate’s subtly intelligent and elegantly written narrative is enhanced by vivid details and acute perceptions. He convincingly observes that “the task of the literary biographer is . . . to select those outer circumstances and transformative moments that shape the inner life.” His theme is that “Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency” (his italics). In Hughes’s poetry, “the violent forces of nature [are] played out against a cosmic backdrop, figures of myth, creation and destruction, bird of prey, blood on snow, moon, stars, apocalyptic darkness.”
The handsome and virile Hughes had, like Picasso, a mirada fuerte that transfixed women, whom he boasted of subjugating before they knew what had happened. At his violent, legendary first meeting with Sylvia Plath at a Cambridge, England, party in February 1956, she bit his cheek and drew blood to mark her prey; he tore off her totemic headband and earrings to expose and possess her. Most people found the beautiful and brilliant Plath true to her own weirdness, rude and selfish, egoistic and ambitious, possessive and jealous. But overwhelmed by the intensity of Hughes’s genius, she lusted for him and was “ripped to bits by the words he welds and wields.” She wanted to love and serve him, but she also resented his immediate success. During their two discontented years teaching and writing in Massachusetts, the wild man declared “my natural instinct is to practise little private filthinesses—I spit, I pee on shrubbery . . . just to keep in contact with a world that isn’t quite as glazed as this one.” Back in Devon, Plath was dominated by what she called Hughes’s huge presence, and oppressed by “the black explosion of yews” in the nearby graveyard.
Hughes, who had two wives, wanted marriage without monogamy. He falsely claimed that he and Plath were never apart for more than two or three hours at a time in seven years. But, as many attractive women offered themselves during his aphrodisiac trips to London, poetry readings, and travels abroad, he constantly sought freedom and independence from what he called the “bondage and tyranny” of marriage. His betrayal with the sexually charismatic Assia Wevill destroyed his once-ideal union with Plath and inspired the surge of inspiration during the final weeks of her life. Only the equally short-lived John Keats, Arthur Rimbaud, and Wilfred Owen had such a final flare-up of creativity.
Plath’s suicide—also propelled by heredity, body chemistry, bad medication, an unusually harsh winter, and the strain of caring for two infants—left Hughes with corrosive guilt, her best poems, and control of her estate. Just as the self-willed death of Plath’s diabetic father when she was eight years old blighted her life, so Plath’s suicide determined the course of Hughes’s life. Plath could also have said to her husband, as she furiously wrote of her father, “[Teddy], you bastard, I’m through.” Hughes bitterly remarked, “It doesn’t fall to many men to murder a genius.” His lifelong obsession with astrology and horoscopes, spiritualism and the occult, black magic and witchcraft, provided an easy escape from the intolerable remorse and horrors of his life.
In a rare lapse, Bate asserts that a “spouse cannot control the public legacy of a famous writer.” But like John Middleton Murry with his late wife Katherine Mansfield, Hughes did seize control. After Plath’s death he published most of her work and virtually established her astonishing reputation. He wrote many authoritative articles interpreting her work, and edited and introduced seven of her books from Ariel (1965) to SelectedPoems (1985). He determined how her poetry should be understood and deflected readers from her most personal and tragic poems. He was an effective but dishonest keeper of her flame. He changed the order of the poems in Ariel, suppressed her accusatory verse, censored her published journals, and both burned and “lost” her crucial diaries, written just before she gassed herself.
Hughes was irresistible to most women. But for betraying the extremely unstable Plath and ignoring all the warning signs that led to her death, for distorting and destroying her work, he aroused the undying hatred of many ferocious feminists. In “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother,” Hughes lamented the hyenas that were tearing at the corpse of the dead Plath: “They dug her out. Now they batten/ On the cornucopia/ Of her body.” Hatred in the lives of Plath and Hughes was pandemic. Plath’s psychiatrist “gave her permission” to hate her ghoulish and devouring mother. He hated her mother; his parents hated Assia; his possessive sister, Olwyn, hated both Plath and Assia.
The German-Jewish refugee Assia hastened Plath’s death and then became Hughes companion. When trying to decide whether to remain with her complaisant husband or commit herself to Hughes, she criticized her lover’s voracious sexual appetite (he once “ruptured” her during a fierce sexual encounter), superstitions about marriage, black moods, and morose self-absorption. Like Sylvia, Assia had a history of depression and attempted suicide. Her caustic will left Hughes “my no doubt welcome absence and my bitter contempt.” She finally outdid her dead rival by gassing both herself and their four-year-old daughter. Assia’s suicide not only ended her unbearable pain, but also punished him in the cruelest possible way. The photo of little Shura in her push-chair is heartbreaking.
Hughes’s belief that “all art comes from a wound” originated in Edmund Wilson’s influential essay “The Wound and the Bow” (1941). The tragedies of his life confirmed his idea that “the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering.” His favorite painters were the apocalyptic Bosch and Goya, his favorite film the bloodthirsty Seven Samurai. The most horrific and death-obsessed poet since the Jacobean John Webster, he published his best poems in his first two books—when he was married to Plath—Hawk in the Rain (1957) and Lupercal (1960). His pike, crow, and jaguar express feral primitivism and elemental power, and portray malevolent predators locked in a fierce Darwinian struggle to kill and to survive. In “Hawk Roosting,” he adopted a murderous persona and exclaimed, “I kill where I please because it is all mine. . . . / My manners are tearing off heads.” Like his hawk, he surveyed the world between “hooked head and hooked feet” while pondering his past victims.
After Hughes was named poet laureate in 1984 he became chummy with the British monarchy. Instead of razor-taloned birds of prey tearing at the supine royal entrails, the working-class lad wrote groveling letters and embarrassing occasional poems. Overawed by a weekend’s fishing at the royal lodge, he told the Queen Mum, “I do feel that we guests glow in Your Majesty’s enjoyment of every moment.” “The Honey Bee and the Thistle,” an inept effusion, celebrated the ill-fated marriage of Andrew and Fergie: “Upon this day in Westminster/ That brings the Prince his Bride/ Out of the sun there sweeps a song/ That cannot be denied.”
His second wife, Carol Orchard, a Devon village girl and farmer’s daughter, was eighteen years younger than Hughes. She took care of his house and children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, without asking for children of her own and tolerated his endless sexual adventures. He’d set up Brenda Hedden, a Devon neighbor and Carol’s main rival, in a nearby house. A few days after marrying Carol in 1970, he went AWOL and spent an intimate week with Brenda.
Fame can be as destructive as failure and it made Hughes’s life worse. The tremendous demands and distractions of a literary celebrity frequently kept the generous and accommodating Hughes from writing poetry. The big payoff was a series of beautiful and often talented lovers. Susan Alliston, a would-be poet, worked at Faber, his publisher. Failing to recognize Plath’s desperate need, he slept with Alliston in the very bed where he’d spent his first night with Plath and on the very night that Sylvia killed herself. Alliston died of cancer at the age of thirty-two.
Hughes had a brief affair with the older and still-enticing actress Irene Worth. But he could not overcome Erica Jong’s fear of fornication. She vividly described his virile power as “fiercely sexy, with a vampirish, warlock appeal. . . . He knew how irresistible he was in the Heathcliff fashion, and he did the wildman-from-the moors thing on me with full force when we met. He was a born seducer and only my terror of Sylvia’s ghost kept me from being seduced.”
Hughes was more successful at the literary festival in Adelaide, Australia. In a single week and with considerable logistical skill, he slept with the press officer Jill Barber, the journalist Claudia Wright, and the painter Jennifer Rankin. He flattered Rankin by calling her “a bigger bitch than Sylvia.” She followed him back to England and also died of cancer, aged thirty-eight. No wonder the Terminator confessed, with only slight exaggeration, “All the women I have anything to do with seem to die.” Unlike Robert Lowell, whom he admired, Hughes was not inspired to write flattering poems about his serious lovers.
Only a few days before he died, Hughes was honored with the distinguished Order of Merit. He was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. Extraordinary for a poet, he left an estate worth almost £1,500,000 and Carol topped this up by selling his personal papers to the British Library for another £500,000. Hughes’s daughter Frieda, who looks just like Plath, is a painter and poet. Married and divorced three times, she rusticated herself to a remote town in Western Australia. His son Nicholas graduated from Oxford, got as far away and as deeply under water as he could, and became a fish biologist in Alaska. Neither of them had children. Nicholas committed suicide at the age of forty-seven.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 7, on page 71
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