Sunday, October 10, 2004

Ariel’s Gift | a review of Erica Wagner’s Book on the story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and Birthday Letters

After all the books I have been reading on Plath, I have at last found the one that is worthwhile. All of this reading was for my project called “The Plath-Hughes Project” which is part of my Web site. I’ve been seeking that thing that has made Sylvia Plath and her late husband as well, Ted Hughes, the mythical persons that they became, especially Sylvia, in death.

It’s hard to pinpoint why they, especially she, became so mythical, and I’ve learned that a great deal of it had to do not with Sylvia’s dramatic death by suicide (she gassed herself, as we know), but more with the way she lived. Sylvia was a great self-mythologizer, which meant that she was probably both great and awful company, depending on the moment. She had a way of dramatizing her life so that events took on proportions far beyond what would be considered ordinary by anyone else’s standards. What’s more, Sylvia, like her husband Ted, was when she wanted to be, a phenomenal and cool poet, and I say cool as in “icy” in her later work especially, in Ariel, published post-humously.

Still all these books I read about her none have gotten to the nitty-gritty as much as Ariel’s Gift, written by Erica Wagner. It is, as she calls it, the “Story of Birthday Letters” which is the name of Ted Hughes book in which he finally broke the silence about his much maligned marriage with Plath.

Long the target of extreme feminist groups, who were, no doubt, in some ways well-meaning toward Sylvia at least, Hughes had kept silent on the matter, allowing his voice to be heard through the works of the Plath estate that he allowed to be published – or didn’t allow as the case may be, and turning the estate over to his sister Olwyn Hughes, who ran the estate with an iron fist in a velvet glove, carefully doling out pieces of information that left the reader and the authors always panting after more.

What Wagner does here is smart. She takes Birthday Letters – the Hughes Poems – and places them alongside Plath’s last work, Ariel. Read them side by side and they sound like both sides of a conversation at last. Finally, Hughes has answered all of he questions and accusations that were so damning in Ariel.

For context, one must remember that most of the Ariel poems were written in the last months of Plath’s life and these were not happy months or months during which she felt particularly loving to a husband who had been unfaithful with the infamous Assia Weevil. Sylvia was betrayed, furious, hurt, and desperate and made no secret of it with her friends and with Ted’s friends or anyone who would listen. But the real voice came from the Ariel poems and to his credit, Ted saw to it that after Sylvia had died, the poems would be published, whether they damned him or not, they were the best work she had ever written. His publication of them is in many ways selfless, for he does not come off in them as a loving or kind husband or person. In fact, based on the Ariel poems alone, it is almost understandable why so many people and groups of young girls in particular would see to it that Ted Hughes would stay forever maligned.

Birthday Letters, written by Hughes just a few years before his own death, answers each poem in Ariel almost word for word, as Wagner points out, using the same titles as Sylvia’s poems (a kind of plagiarizing, but how else to answer each poem directly? I think it was a very clever technique for it orients the reader directly and we know what the poet is answering.)

Wagner runs through the poems almost one for one, quoting extensively from each poet’s work and giving the answer and reply. More than this, Wagner provides some context for the poems, writing in more of the Plath-Hughes history than can be found in many other full biographies. Wagner has managed a task that has to date seemed beyond the realm of what so many biographers considered possible by giving us not the same churned up stories again and again that we know so well all we have to do is regurgitate them, but several new stories or smaller events that are, as we know, the things that form the true fabric of any life. The result is a far richer tapestry of the Plath-Hughes marriage than many books that have come before it and as such, it deserves a high place in the scholarly area of the topic and high marks for both originality and concept. Few before had thought to state the obvious: that Birthday Letters was a response to Ariel, and if we had noticed the same titled poems, few writers had seen it as important or worth a book. Wagner brings out the very thing in each of these books – Ariel and Birthday Letters – that gives each its import; the fated lovers are allowed for once last time to communicate, and perhaps, reach some kind of cosmic understanding – a crackling hiss of a conversation through a faulty or transatlantic phone wire.

It may sound nuts, and may well be nuts, but if you think like Plath and Hughes or know enough of them, then you know that both were deeply into magic and spells and incantations of all kinds and believed that one could communicate with the dead. What we are hearing then in Hughes’s well-thought and sensitive responses to Ariel are almost communications with the dead – a sort of two way conversation between the living Hughes and the dead, but grave-risen Plath. That’s likely how Hughes and Plath would have seen it themselves. Both used their home made Ouija board to great effect, often communicating they believed with dead relatives, particularly Plath’s’ father and with two spirits, notably Pan and another called Jumbo (and you have to love the irony of Jumbo for it brings to mind Mumbo Jumbo right away – whether their spirit really existed or not, they get points for ironic cleverness.)

Wagner’s book is written in a mostly chronological order and follows a set logic that makes it an easy book to read so it can be read in an afternoon, especially if this is story that you are interested in. Even if you are no plan of Plath or Hughes, you needn’t be for this book is interesting for anyone interested in poetry for it gives us context and tells us how poetry is almost always about that context and the situation out of which the bard arises. That Birthday Letters responds name for name to Ariel again shows us context; that two people can live through the same events, the same life and see the same things yet experience them so vastly differently. Perhaps there is always a winner and a loser, but certainly, there is none to be found here.

In the end, all that one senses is a profound sense of melancholy for the loss that both of these poets surely felt. It may be true that Hughes left Plath physically for Assia, but on reading his own work and reading Birthday Letters alongside Ariel (as Wagner recommends), it is soon clear that he never once stopped loving Sylvia and more, would never love like that again. Be it good or bad, it was a love that was incredibly strong and perhaps in the final account would have been reconciled were it not for Plath’s decision to take her life (though certainly at the time of her suicide, reconciliation seemed impossible – Assia was pregnant and Hughes, absurdly felt an obligation which is truly ironic since he already had two living, breathing children with Plath – how he decided which was the more important of the two women is something that is hard for anyone to understand. Had Plath been childless, his answer or excuse may have made more sense. Given that at the time both women had children – Plath, Nicholas and Frieda, and Assia, pregnant with their daughter who she would later kill when she took her own life, it isn’t clear that Assia’s pregnancy had anything to do with Hughes decision to not react to Sylvia’s plea that he return.) NO doubt, Hughes received mixed messages – her fury in Ariel and surely, in person at the time, is quite apparent and she was quite formidable when she wanted to be by most accounts. Perhaps Hughes didn’t trust the temporary détente – we can never know. Or perhaps there was a greater more real reason that had to do with other destructive forces in the relationship. Hughes leaves that question unanswered for the most part and now, with both dead, we are left with only their work to sort it out for ourselves.

Whatever the case, Erica Wagner has written for us a truly compelling and highly readable book that in many ways is the last word or a final conversation between the two, and she acts as a sort of medium, a go-between between two communicating vessels. Read it and understand why the myth exists. For all that has been said, both good and bad and about both Plath and Hughes, we come to see that neither is a god of any kind. That perhaps the thing that makes them mythical is the so obviously intensely powerful connection between the two and their remarkable talent for putting this into a language that could and does speak to virtually anyone who has been in love and felt all of its pains and joys.

by sadi ranson-polizzotti

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Saturday, October 02, 2004


return to plath-hughes project.