The Unauthorised Life
By Jonathan Bate
HarperCollins. 662 pp. $40 nolead ends
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
Ted Hughes, poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1984 until his death in 1998, is at least as well known for having been the husband of Sylvia Path as he is for his work, which, though uneven, at its best is among the best.
Jonathan Bate's biography is the first to make extensive use of the immense Hughes archive. Bate says the archive shows that the way Hughes lived "was authorised not by social convention or by upbringing, but by his passions, his mental landscape and his unwavering sense of vocation. His was an unauthorised life and so is this."
Like Hughes' work, Bate's biography is uneven, at its best in great narrative stretches that read like a good Victorian novel, less good when he gets into the minutiae of Hughes' publication history. But his aim is admirable: "to present the facts and for readers to draw their own conclusions."
Here are some key facts:
Hughes met Sylvia Plath, two years his junior and a graduate of Smith College, when both were at Cambridge University in 1956. She seems to have had her eye on him from the start, and he quickly had eyes for her: They met in February and were married in June. The marriage was a mutual passion both physically and artistically. A son and a daughter were born. (Their daughter is the poet and painter Frieda Hughes, and their son, Nicholas, became a well-respected fisheries biologist.) But the storybook love eventually cooled and Ted took up with another woman named Assia Wevill. On Feb. 11, 1963, Plath committed suicide by gassing herself. She made certain the gas would not harm her children, who were sleeping in the next room.
Six years later, Wevill gassed herself also - only she killed their daughter, as well.
On the night of Wevill's death, Hughes was having sex with a woman named Susan Alliston. He was also at the time trying to decide whether he should marry A, B, or C. A would have been Assia, B was Brenda Holden, C was Carol Orchard. Hughes did marry Orchard, but within a week was resuming intimacy with Holden. Orchard remained married to him, but fidelity was never Hughes' long suit.
In between, he wrote prolifically and bought houses and a farm and took fishing trips, fishing being one of those passions Bate says "authorised" Hughes' life. His infidelity to Orchard seems to have bothered his son Nicholas. Father and son were very close, and nine years after his father's death, the son took his own life.
Feminists have long blamed Hughes for Plath's death. Her headstone was frequently vandalized by having the Hughes name chiseled off. Robin Morgan wrote a poem called "Arraignment" that begins "I accuse / Ted Hughes / of what the entire British and American / literary and critical establishment / has been at great lengths to deny . . . the murder of Sylvia Plath."
So, what of the work? Two of his early collections, The Hawk in the Rain, published the year after he and Plath married, and Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow, published the year after the death of Assia Wevill, are both standard texts now. The middle-period work is uneven, fine work popping up amid the mediocre and the dreadful. He also produced anthologies and did much to promote poetry in schools.
Months before his death, he published Birthday Letters, a collection of poems written to Plath in the years after her death. The Times of London called it "the greatest book by our greatest living writer." Andrew Motion, who succeeded Hughes as poet laureate the following year, said of it that "anyone who thought Hughes' reticence was proof of his hard heart will immediately see how stony they have been themselves."
Hughes was haunted by Plath's death his whole life - reflected in his sometimes devastating final poems. The final line of "Last Letter" over the radio left the usually unflappable broadcaster Melvyn Bragg feeling "as if I had been punched in the stomach." Here are the final lines of the poem:
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead.'
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. - The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.