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Hughes - Sam - Ted Hughes

I.             Context & Subject Matter


In her first year at Cambridge, Plath had hired an old horse called Sam who was expected to be placid, but bolted with the inexperienced rider on his back. While it was a frightening and dangerous experience, Plath recalled it as a time when she felt immensely alive. It formed the basis of the thrilling horse-ride described in both “Whiteness I Remember” and “Ariel”.  

This poem is one of a few that can be used for a direct contrast of perspectives as both poets have written about it.

Recounting his observation of the event, in ‘Sam’, Hughes focuses initially on its physical details. We are given a description of the horse, reminiscent of Hughes’ numerous poems about animals, with their carefully observed details: ‘the white calm stallion’. The location is precisely noted too, ‘down the white line of the Barton Road’, as is the physical violence Plath endured as she lost control: ‘you slewed under his neck’. Such detail exemplifies the truth of the poem’s report. Added to it, is the imagined danger and horror experienced by the rider.

True confessions?”  Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters BARRY SPURR

II. Sound Effects and Tone:

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro,  Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac,  upbeat,  blue, staccato,  dirge, ode,   Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

The use of the second person “You” and “Your” is clearly not inclusive but refers to a specific absent addressee.  Its effect is to make the poem more intimate, beginning with a sense of wonderment and awe at her achievement but ending up with an accusatory “you strangled me”.


The rapid pace of the poem is arrested by bewildered rhetorical questions of wonderment and amazement.

Onomatopoeic sounds reinforce the drumbeat of the horse’s hooves providing verisimilitude, immediacy and intimacy.


… the propeller terrors of his front legs

And the clangour of the iron shoes, so far beneath you.

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns

This is Hughes’s perspective of a traumatic event in Plath’s early life in England. He uses a literal physical near calamitous ride on a runaway horse to contrast her indomitable survival instincts or self-preservation with her self-destructive, reflexive reaction to his straying in their marriage. Kierkegaard wrote, “Death in earnest gives life force as nothing else does; it makes one alert as nothing else does.” How did she survive the physical wild ride and yet fail so miserably in her personal life with Hughes’ runaway libido?

Hughes purports to represent truth recognising it is a constantly fluid state of uncertainty, instability and ambiguity. There can never be a ‘true representation of reality as perspective, time, memory and language tarnish truth. This notion resounds throughout these poems which assert that the possibilities of representation are affected by perspective are limitless.

Birthday Letters is Hughes’ attempt at "opening a direct and inner contact" with his late and emotionally disturbed wife Sylvia Plath. Victoria Laurie describes the poems as a "a collection of elegiac tender and harrowing poetry addressed to his dead wife.". Through Birthday Letters, Hughes asserts the facts and memories of his life and relationship belong to him and not to the world or the media. He says "I hope that everyone owns the facts of his or her own life." In this sense, as well as being a personal address to Plath, Birthday Letters is also Hughes' attempt to own his truth.

There is a strong sense of loss in “you lost your stirrups”, “you lost your reins”,  “you lost your seat”    Eventually she loses him and her own life, “over in a flash”

The survival instinct comes through strongly with a sense that it was her commitment to poetry that gave her the will to live.something in you not you”

Maybe your poems

          Saved themselves, slung under that plunging neck,

          Hammocked in your body….


 Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.     Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech:  similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

This is a reflective flashback of a traumatic event in Plath’s life assuming some knowledge on the part of the responder.  Plath’s account in Whiteness I have Known and Ariel are her personal responses to the incident.


An upside-down jockey with nothing

Between you and the cataract of macadam.

The road is also compared to “That horrible hard, swift river”.

The horse’s hooves:   iron shoes

… the propeller terrors of his front legs

Baby monkey


            Cyclist’s shock mask

Many of the images and much of the language echoes that of Plath’s poetry; especially from DADDY:

            Adore him      -  adores a fascist

            Iron shoes     - black shoe  (fascism again?)

From Whiteness I Remember


houses a river

the hard road/An anvil,



Contrasts: to evoke the ambivalence of emotions one experiences.  There is  tender, empathetic treatment in the beginning but his conclusion is that this ride did not translate into a lesson for her in real life “not enough, and quite useless, is a harsh judgement on how she treated him.

 “Your incredulity, your certainty”    

him/me”    She clung to her horse but flung herself off “me”.

"adored/dead"  echoes of Daddy  but lies dead for me

"hugged/strangled"   hugs her steerage by strangles her husband.


Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,   Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative,   emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.   Gender biases.  Register:  formal, stiff, dignified  or Colloquial;  relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly  or Slang;  colourful, intimate,  Rhetorical devices;  Questions,  exclamations,  cumulation,  crescendo,  inversion,  bathos,  repetition,  3 cornered phrases. 

Repetition:  The repetition of “you” and “your” creates an hypnotic effect of intimacy and wonder juxtaposing the ambivalence of adoration and awe with resentment and accusation. 

Rhetorical  questions – emphasise incredulity and bafflement seeking an explanation which then progresses into questioning her life, their failed marriage and her sudden death, “Over in a flash”

Did you have a helmet? ‘How did you cling on?’

‘What saved you?’   How did you hang on?

VI. Evaluation:

This is an excellent poem for contrasting treatment on the same subject as it corresponds to two of  Plath’s poems, Whiteness I Remember and Ariel.  While the former poem depicts the intense exhilaration of the experience, the latter is darker and uses colour to demonstrate how powerless she is as her life is carried “Into the red/Eye, the cauldron of the morning” where she hopes for rebirth just like the Phoenix.

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