'Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath: A Bystander’s Recollections' by Peter Porter

Reviewed by
August 2001, no. 233

'Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath: A Bystander’s Recollections' by Peter Porter

Reviewed by
August 2001, no. 233

I should make it clear at the start of these discursive memories that I knew Ted Hughes only slightly and Sylvia Plath hardly at all. But I lived in fairly close proximity to their ascent to fame in the 1950s and 1960s and knew much more closely some of the personalities intimately involved in the crisis in the lives of these two remarkable poets. Then, after Sylvia’s death in early 1963, I watched across successive decades the curious progress of each writer’s reputation and, more importantly, the establishing of their respective canons. Even today the Collected Works of each are not settled matters – Plath because we shall never know exactly what was suppressed or edited to fit the desires of the estate of her heirs (she died intestate, which automatically made Hughes her legal executor since, though separated, they had not divorced); and Hughes as he was an inveterate censor of his own work, and many of his major productions appeared finally in forms simplified from his original intentions. I don’t object to this last fact: every writer is entitled to shape his utterance into the fashion he would like the public to receive it. Nor will I be writing any criticism of Hughes’s intimate relations with his wife. I have always believed that marriages are opaque to all but their participants.

What matters most is the double bequest to posterity of these writers’ works, especially their poetry. Here I feel justified in using the adjective I chose above – ‘remarkable’, though I believe it applies to Plath’s writing more completely than to Hughes’s. There are certain proprieties to be observed: I surmise that Plath’s standing is at least as high as Hughes’s, most notably outside Britain. Nevertheless, she continues to be an icon of feminist hostility to Hughes in particular and to masculine artists in general. If this hostility concerns itself with the part the Hughes estate played in controlling the posthumous publication of her output, then it is justified, but if it stems from a more general distaste, it is unpleasantly reductive. One circumstance which all Plath’s admirers must take into consideration is her self-consciously rivalrous attitude to his poetry throughout their period of living and working together, when he was much better known than she was, and even more vehemently so after their separation when she wrote her most powerful poems. One further decorum in judging the aftermath of her death is concerned with Hughes’s stated reasons for suppressing some of the material she left behind: namely that everything he did was designed to protect their children from the psychic storm of their parents’ tragedy. I offer one further proviso at the beginning of my essay: although I would like to be concerned chiefly with the poetry each produced, the likely difficulty of obtaining permission to quote from it will force me back on to a more autobiographical position – to what I observed or heard about at the time, and the conclusions I drew from this.

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