Birthday Letters is a book of 88 poems written by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and published in 1998, almost immediately prior to his death. All but two of the poems (The Pan and The Inscription) relate to or are seemingly addressed to his dead estranged wife, Sylvia Plath. Dedicated to his two children, the purpose of Birthday Letters is not entirely clear - the critics themselves cannot even agree upon the nature of the poems, describing them by turns as “angry and despairing1,” “indignant, accusatory and evangelical,2” or even that “[the reader] can’t help but be swept away by the depth of his feelings for her,3” which suggests warmth and tenderness above all else. Some say they see confessional elements, others that they are conspicuously absent. Some see the attempt to shift blame, where others see only an attempt to have his voice heard; for their part, his children appear to appreciate his efforts - his daughter, Frieda Hughes, has been quoted as saying that she “thank[s her] father for these words” and that she “could not have written them any better.4”
As far as the critics’ debate over Sylvia and Ted’s relationship is concerned, this work is of paramount importance as it offers a unique opportunity to observe more facets of the truth. "I destroyed (the last of her journals) because I did not want her children to have read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)," Hughes wrote5. Whether he had a right to do so (and whether he had a sense of the potential public importance of the document) or not is a question that falls by the wayside - what it illustrates is the fact that destruction of evidence means convolution (rather than cessation) of debate. There is no means (save inference and conjecture) by which to support or decry Hughes; perhaps in our minds we would like to have been the one to make the decision as to whether Plath’s work should exist only under the auspices of Hughes’ protection. Hughes is the sole owner of her writing, able to edit or suppress whatever he desires of it as Plath died without a will - Hughes has meddled in Plath’s intended arrangements of her own poetry anthologies.
Is the last speaker in a heated exchange entitled to an authoritative voice, provided they present their case convincingly enough? Surely this is not fair, as Plath’s suicide in 1963 left her (quite understandably) mute and therefore unable to defend herself against the pens of the critics. Whatever the case, Birthday Letters is the last primary source relating to Ted and Sylvia’s turbulent relationship. Or perhaps it is only a secondary source; perhaps the obfuscation of meaning and reliance upon allegory which is an inherent characteristic of poetry removes this piece of work by a certain, insurmountable step. Whatever the case, it must be remembered that this is the last testament of a dying man. Before and after its publication, he himself took a vow of silence, leaving us with only our own interpretations. Perhaps it is better that way - however much information is revealed in these poems, they remain entirely personal and belong to the past. If Ted Hughes genuinely desired merely to evoke a sense of Sylvia’s presence (a “direct, private inner contact,6” as he described it) when writing his poems, then there is much which must be scrutinised - each significant poem, in fact, bears elements which smack of an attempt to undermine antagonistic viewpoints - this seems to me to be the work of a man whose vow of silence was a heavy burden, illustrated particularly well by the statement that “If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago, I might have had a more fruitful career, certainly a freer psychological life.7”
Long-suffering husband of a lunatic wife or cold-hearted misogynist? You decide.
The poems appear to be arranged chronologically; not by when they were written, but by the date of the event which they describe. Grammatically speaking, several tendencies can be observed throughout the progression of Birthday Letters. The style of the poems is very diverse, ranging from straightforward verses which are much akin to short stories to tense, allusive lyrics; in some cases, descriptions are stunted (eg. in Astringency, he wrote "A goldfish! Thick, deep and very frisky/Nine inches long - obviously thriving/Somebody's apartment darling - flushed?/But caught again!") This notation-like, clipped format (sometimes lacking both predicates and subjects) has been viewed as “arrogant… [it] gives the sense that the poet didn't think it worth his time to craft his descriptions, sure that his observations alone were enough to move the poem.8” Interestingly, Hughes draws on a number of images favoured by Plath, perhaps to invite contrast with certain poems. Some important inter-textual references include blood (see his Red), Nazi atrocities, her father (his The Shot and her Daddy), deification (The Shot and her Lady Lazarus), audiences (with references to a “peanut-crunching crowd” found in both Lady Lazarus and his The Table), Paris (see his Your Paris), hares (see his The Afterbirth), her horse (his Sam and her Whiteness I Remember) and numerous others. As he continued writing, there seems to be a greater urgency in his work, as though he felt time was running out and the rawer, more visceral nature of the later poems would seem to agree. Perhaps most interestingly of all, these poems are a marked departure from Hughes’ established status as an ‘animal poet’ - there are, of course, characteristic references to natural violence, but these are by the wayside; Sylvia is the subject.
There is little which can be established for certain. The means by which the poems can be said to “tell it as it is” can be summarised as simply being documentary evidence of one way of analysing a situation; that situation being a seven year marriage and twenty-five years of mute suffering at the hands of Plath’s supporters (including being pelted with garbage, having his name gouged out from the tombstone he erected over Sylvia’s grave, widespread criticism and verbal abuse). The truth - if such a fanciful beast ever drew breath - lies beneath this, in the simple fact that the circumstances in which Birthday Letters was written confers on it a truth of its own.
1 Sarah Maguire, Manchester Guardian.
2 Ian Sansom, London Review of Books, 19/2/98.
3 The Sydney Morning Herald, 20/1/98 - quoting Andrew Motion, the new Poet Laureate.
4 The Sydney Morning Herald, 28/1/99 and Erica Wagner, ABC Book Talk, 15/1/2000.
5 Foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1982, Ted Hughes.
6 ABC Book Talk, 15/1/2000
7Ted Hughes’ acceptance speech for The Whitbread Book of the Year Award, read by his daughter, Frieda Hughes.
8 Yale Review of Books - ‘In His Own Words’, Margaret Miller.
Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes.
Ariel, Sylvia Plath.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil.
http://www.yale.edu/yrb/fall98/feature2.htm (Yale Review of Books - ‘In His Own Words’, Margaret Miller).
http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0571194729/026-0792300-8397235 (Amazon book review).
http://hsc.csu.edu.au/english/advanced/representation/truth/letters/ (NSW HSC Online - English, prepared by David Eldridge).