Camden New Journal
Publications by New Journal Enterprises
  Home Archive Competition Jobs Tickets Accommodation Dating Contact us
The Review - BOOKS
Published: 1 November 2007
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (left of table) returning to Britain on the SS United States in 1959
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (left of table) returning to Britain on the SS United States in 1959
The tenderness of wolves

John Horder scours a collection of Ted Hughes' letters for clues to the never-ending saga of the poet's tragic relationship with Sylvia Plath

Letters of Ted Hughes.
Edited by Christopher Reid. Faber. £30

I INTERVIEWED Ted Hughes at length in 1965 in The Queens pub on the corner of Regent’s Park Road, Primrose Hill. It was just two years after his wife, the high-flying American poet Sylvia Plath, had killed herself in a house in Fitzroy Street, opposite Primrose Hill. In the same house WB Yeats – like Hughes, an occult-loving poet – had once conducted seances.
A tall, emotionally reticent Yorkshireman over six feet tall, attractive to the opposite sex, he was more naked and vulnerable than I realised at the time. He seemed to trust me, maybe because my namesake, Dr John Hor­der, had been Sylvia’s doctor at the time of her death.
After many years of emotionally holding back and being endlessly shot at by feminist biographers, Ted Hughes at last published Birthday Letters, which put his side to his and Sylvia’s never-ending saga.
But it wasn’t until he wrote to his old friend Seamus Heaney on January 1, 1998 that he allowed himself to express some of his deepest and most heartfelt feelings about publishing it at all.
This was the key letter for me among the hundreds in Letters of Ted Hughes: “Your letter overwhelmed me. In a way, my final decision was three parts blind – a gamble...
“Given the funny old physical corner I’ve got myself into and the mysterious role in my life that SP’s posthumous life has played – and that our posthumous marriage has played – publication came to seem not altogether a literary matter, more a physical operation that just might change the ­psychic odds for me and clear a route.
“Though I did wonder whether my very sudden determination to ignore every kind of reaction to them, and every possible impropriety of revealing them, didn’t signify some diminution of brain – since all these 25 years or so I’ve lived under a regime that found every reason to hide them like the village idiot, perhaps quietly do away with them someday if I could find the courage...
“But here they are. I hit on the direct letter as an illegal private translation between [Sylvia] and me – then simply followed the clues and they piled up.”
Clearly Elaine Feinstein, the poet and Ted Hughes’s first biographer, has only just scratched the surface.
There is fascinating material here in these 738 pages for his future biographers. In an earlier letter to Lucas Myers, a friend from Cambridge dated February 14, 1987, he had admitted to colluding with Aurelia, Sylvia’s mother, “in her sustained effort to delude the public, too, about Sylvia’s diabolical side... And protecting Aurelia, I colluded – and promoted the cult which interpreted my continuing silence in the blazing martyr-light shed by Sylvia’s consecrated image. In which light I could only appear as a demon, the villain, the cause of all Sylvia’s pains”.
That’s certainly how all the feminist biographers of both sexes saw him.
Not surprisingly, the toughest letter, wrought from steel, is to Aurelia, dated May 13, 1963, giving her the firmest of firm boundaries when she next meets her grandchildren Frieda and Nicholas. Hughes said: “Stop messing!”
Much-needed light relief includes a letter written in 1960 about T S Eliot, the poet, talking “staring at the floor between his feet – when he’s sitting – and looks up only to stare at his wife [Valerie]. His smile is that of a person recovering from some serious operation.” Like Hughes, Eliot took himself very seriously as a Great Poet. The two had oceans of emotional reserve in common.
In 1986, Hughes des­cribed Michael Hor­dern, the actor, as “the very best speaker of Shakespeare I’ve ever heard”. But he doesn’t mention their mutual passions for fishing and drinking the most expensive malt whiskies.
I still feel that Poetry in the Making – originally written for BBC Schools Broadcasts early on in Hughes’ career, is one of the most insightful books into the amazing craft of poetry ever written.
Birthday Letters – published in 1998, the year of his death – was the book we had all been waiting for rather than this more cumbersome Letters of Ted Hughes.
As Nicci Gerrard said in The Observer: “The poems come dazzling out of the darkness, and they are not answers to his critics after all, or appeals for understanding, but tender and elegiac acts of remembrance.” She might have been describing the end of one of the poems, ‘Life After Death’ (see above).
Thus did Ted Hughes secure for all time that the feminist violators of his reputation did not get the last word they had so hoped to do.

* John Horder is a poet. He helped set up the poetry side of the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead in 1968

Comment on this article.
(You must supply your full name and email address for your comment to be published)





» A-Z Book titles


Theatre Music
Arts & Events Attractions