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Ted meets Sylvia  – a legendary Love story

Accounts vary about the legendary night on February 1956,  after scanning a news photo of  recently arrived American Fulbright Scholars, Ted Hughes wondered if he might meet one of them.  Their eyes met across a crowded room and according to one account they met in another room:

She wore red shoes and her blonde hair was held back neatly by a red ribboned band. The giant of a young man, with seducer’s eyes and a humorous mouth, came over to her through the crowd and looked her hard in the eyes. He kissed her smash-bang on the mouth and when he bent to kiss her neck, she bit him on the cheek, drawing blood. With the blood weeping down his cheek, he swept the red band from her head and, pulling off her silver earrings, said: “Hah, I shall keep!”

She screamed inside, thinking:  “Oh, to give myself crashing, fighting to you.”

Their celebrity marriage celebrated within 4 months; to the continent for their honeymoon with her mother in tow, settled briefly in England, then a few years in America where she taught writing and he wrote, then back to England.  The marriage produced two children.   Together as their lives and careers became meshed, they supported each others writing.  Sylvia inspires him, industriously typing and sending out his work helping to build his reputation. He encourages and assists her, especially in the later years, to express her inner pain. 

After seven years their marriage ended and in the early hours of the morning of February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath walked into her kitchen, knelt in front of her gas stove, laid her head on a square of folded cloth on the oven door, and gassed herself.

Her two children, Frieda, 2, and Nicolus,13 months in their cots upstairs, each with a glass of milk and saucer of bread placed neatly beside them. They were found alive and unharmed some four hours later.  There is some evidence she hoped to have been discovered before it was too late.

Just one year earlier, she had discovered that Ted was having an affair with another woman. The couple separated, with Plath moving from their Devon home to London with the two children, and Hughes travelling with his lover, Assisa  Wevill, in Spain.

Plath, installed in a maisonette in London, had to endure one of the coldest winters ever experienced in Britain. With the children ill with flu and herself slowly succumbing to a debilitating depression and often unable to sleep, she would rise at 5 am to write.

In these circumstances, she feverishly turned out some of the most frightening poetry the English language has produced. These poems, published by Hughes after her death under the collective title of Ariel were to lift her into the English literary pantheon — and into martyrdom.

Attempting to sort out the truth of their marriage as any Family court Judge will tell you is fraught with danger.  As Churchill said of Russia: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Much of the interest has a salacious, ghoulish and voyeuristic stench to it.

The sources used to elicit the truth are not that reliable but include her poetry, her diary,  his poetry, The Birthday Letters and his private letters.  The problem is that Hughes controlled her story by editing her anthology Ariel and excised parts of her diary.

Feminists rallied around Sylvia and she became their martyr against the brutality of men as he became a pariah.  Hughes maintained a restrained silence for 35 years but many felt that he controlled the narrative by censoring her diaries and a selective release of her poems.  It was these doubts that fed an hysterical reaction against Hughes the rest of his life. 

Sylvia Plath’s Diaries1

Hughes censored the diaries many years ago, cutting out two-thirds of her words— much of them about himself. Only now are his omissions reinstated and the journals published in full.

He excised Plath’s comment that he s was “the biggest seducer in Cambridge”, and suggestions that he was vain. He removed: “Ted looked slovenly: his suit jacket wrinkled as if being pulled from behind, his pants hanging, unbelted, in great folds, his hair black and greasy in the light.” Similarly cut was: “Who knows who Ted’s next book will be dedicated to? His navel. His penis.”

The diaries also show that their complicated seven-year relationship was frequently happy. She wrote often about her joy in finding “the big, blasting, dangerous love”.

That love began at that first meeting. Plath described Hughes as “that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me”. He kissed her “bang smash on the mouth” and ripped off her headband and earrings.

— “hah, I shall keep, he barked” — before she bit him on the cheek. “Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists,” she wrote.

In entries that cast her more as a 1950s homemaker than the feminist icon she became, she wrote: “Make him happy: cook, play, read ... never accuse or nag — let him run, reap, rip and glory in the temporary sun of his ruthless force.”

In entries censored by Plath’s mother, Sylvia wrote brutally about her hatred for her mother, to whom she felt inescapably attached but whom she blamed for her father’s death.

1 Katharine Viner  -  The Guardian 

Letters Of Ted Hughes2

The tortured but brilliant life of a poet laureate comes bursting through this collection of his letters.

The tragic "episodes" of the suicide of Sylvia Plath in 1963 and the suicide of Assia Wevill and murder of her and Hughes's daughter, Shura, six years later in 1969 were to haunt Hughes for the rest of his life.

The poet Sylvia Plath, the soul mate with her "death-ray quality", the lover with her body as slender as "a nodding spray of wet lilac", the wife loved but with "a kind of madness".

The story of the damnation and final glory of Hughes in this collection doesn't really begin until that fateful night in 1956  “when he bent to kiss the young girl with eyes that shone as if lit inside by lamps - who would lift her head to his kiss and bite him on the cheek, drawing blood.   "Sylvia, that night was nothing but getting to know how smooth your body is. The memory of it goes through me like brandy".

At last the great Shakespearean drama has begun. It moves from "Sylvia" to "Dearest darling Sylvia" and "Darling Sylvia Puss-Kish Ponky" and on to "Dearest Sylvia kish and puss and ponk" to settle finally at "Dearest Sylvia" - and then it is over.

"Sylvia killed herself on Monday morning," begins his letter bluntly to one of his closest friends. It is shocking in its rational, descriptive flatness. "I was the one who could have helped her, and the only one that couldn't see that she really needed it this time. No doubt where the blame lies."

Many were to agree with him. Hughes was to be hounded for the rest of his life by the life and death of Plath and in this selection of letters she is the spectre that haunts them to the very end.

But it is not until the death in 1969 of Wevill and their daughter Shura - by gas in a copycat staging of Plath's death (except that Plath had left their two children, Frieda and Nicholas, unharmed and safe in their beds upstairs) - that the first notes of a strange kind of bewilderment become detectable in his letters. Until then, he is stunned, but resilient. Now he is detached, but as one in shock.

"I wonder sometimes if things might have gone differently without the events of '63 and '69," he writes to another very close friend, Lucas Meyer, 20 years later. "I have an idea of those two episodes as giant steel doors shutting down over great parts of myself …"

It would not be until the last year of his life, 1998, that Hughes opened the steel doors to allow his by now substantial international audience, and posterity, into that painful place where those "events" still acted as a "whole log-jam pile-up" on his psyche. The publication of Birthday Letters, his intimate exploration in poetry of his life with Plath and her death, caused a publishing sensation. The small volume of poetry was an immediate bestseller, revealing just how charismatic a figure Hughes had become in the public and literary imagination alike; and just how potent still was the myth of St Sylvia and her demon lover Ted - or the other way around, depending on your beliefs about the man and the poet. 

2 Letters Of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid. Excerpts from a   Review by Angela Bennie,  January 18, 2008. -  SMH 

The tragedy of the family continues with news in 2009 that Nicholas Hughes, their son committed suicide in Alaska.  

Further there is a strong Australian connection to the family with Gerald Hughes having migrated here in 1949 and Freda eventually settling here as well.

For a full biography of Ted Hughes go to:

http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/thughes.htm

UTube videos @  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18DdJO9Lg-s&feature=related  

 

Plath versus Ted Hughes

 

he paints the
most
beautiful pictures
with his words

she scraps words
out of a piteous
painting she
is trapped

he props himself up
with his words of finesse

she tries to mend a
broken world with all the words
she could muster

tearing up a painting
into bits and pieces of her gems

john tiong chunghoo


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