In what must be the ultimate irony in the compelling story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and their brief, but significant visit to Connemara in September 1962, it was Hughes who returned to find solace and peace there. Sylvia had planned to return that autumn, instead she found, what she thought was a refuge in the former home of WB Yeats in London, and despite the onset of severe depression, remained there to write her best poems. It would probably have saved her life if she had taken up the rented cottage she had paid a deposit for, between Cleggan and Moyard. Instead in London she battled against a bitter cold winter, ‘flu, frozen pipes, and minding her two small children while writing furiously most of the night.
Three years after her suicide Hughes returned to Connemara, with his lover Assia, his two children with Sylvia, Frieda and Nicholas, and his daughter with Assia, Shura. They found a refuge in Doonreagan House, on the curve of Cashel Bay, only a few miles from Cleggan. Writing to his brother Gerald, Hughes enthuses that he had a ‘ramshackle roomful of silence to work in’, while looking out at a heathery hillside, where he could see the Atlantic. ‘The kids are brimming over. Assia is here with me and a complete success.’ He had taken his two older children fishing that morning where ‘it hailed, it blew, there were three concentric rainbows, the mountains rose up and sank down, and I finally caught a sea trout about half pound….This place is a mild paradise for me at present.’*
They would stay in Doonreagan for just a few months, but these would be some of their happiest together. Hughes began working on his acclaimed verse cycle ‘Crow’, while Assia wrote poetry, and painted. Frieda attended the nearby village school.
The ‘paradise’ however, was not to last. Hughes and Assia had planned to stay at Doonreagan indefinitely, but out of the blue the house was needed, and they had to vacate. They searched for another home but did not find anything suitable. There was no choice but to return to England which Assia dreaded.
Decades later Hughes would claim that his time in Ireland was one of the most productive periods of his writing life, not least because here, miles from London, he felt far from the corrosive gossip that had dogged him since Sylvia’s death.
The knives were out
Hughes expressed genuine remorse at Sylvia’s death. In a letter to her mother, Aurelia, he admitted that their marriage ‘so openly under the control of deep psychic abnormalities as both of us were, meant that we finally reduced each other to a state where our actions and normal states of mind were like madness.’ He admitted that he did not do enough to save her, for which he never wanted to be forgiven.
But the knives were out for Hughes. In 1971 Random House had published a poem in a book by Robin Morgan, urging Hughes’s crucifixion and castration. There was the curious incident at Yeats’ tower at Ballylee, where Murphy brought Hughes and Sylvia after their visit to Coole Park, five months before her death. Together they had discovered an apple tree, laden with bright red cooking apples. They had stuffed their pockets with them. Murphy had protested, believing that the apples were an integral part of the place, planted and cared for by the Yeats’ family. Hughes made an odd reply, with quiet intensity: ‘When you come to a place like this you have to violate it.’
Twenty-seven years later Murphy was asked to contribute a piece on Hughes and Sylvia’s visit to his home at Cleggan, to give ‘a simple record of the facts’. Hughes’ sister Olwyn (who was also Hughes’ agent ) was anxious to dampen down the criticism directed against her brother for his perceived behaviour against Sylvia. When Olwyn read Murphy’s draft to Hughes over the phone, Hughes contacted Murphy and asked him to delete the remark, as there were wild stories circulating in America about his treatment of Sylvia in Ireland. He regretted not having spoken about ‘the golden apples of the sun, the silver apples of the moon’. Out of friendship to Hughes, Murphy substituted the original remark for Hughes’ suggestion of ‘golden apples’.**
‘A great poet’
But if Ted Hughes suffered the wrath of an adoring Sylvia Plath audience, poor Assia was eventually destroyed by it. A free-spirited, beautiful woman, Assia had fled with her family from Nazi -Germany and settled in British occupied Palestine during its early years. She was also an aspiring poet who published under her maiden name an English translation of the work of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. The poet David Wevill was her third husband.
After their return to London from the tranquillity of Connemara, Assia found herself ostracised by her lover’s friends and family, and unfairly compared to Sylvia in public life. She began to lose confidence in Hughes. She had every reason to fear his disinterest. Almost immediately he had an affair with Brenda Hedden, a married acquaintance, and then a young women, Carol Orchard, whom he later married.
Assia felt abandoned. It is difficult to record but on March 23 1969 poor Assia, in a mirror reenactment of Sylvia’s death, dosed herself and her four-year-old Shura, with sleeping tablets, and put their heads into a gas oven. She was 41.
The present owners of Doonreagan, Swedish born Ann Henning and Robert Jocelyn, knew nothing of Ted Hughes’ connection with their home until one day in 2005 a small hire-car drove up their avenue. A couple got out and introduced themselves as authors from Israel. They were writing a biography of Assia Wevill, and their research for where she had lived with Hughes for a time in 1966 brought them to their door.
Intrigued, Ann Henning began to read everything she could about Hughes, Sylvia and Assia. She interviewed Richard Murphy and Seamus Heaney who knew Hughes and Assia, remarking that she was ‘very striking’ and ‘loved dancing.’***
Concluding his letter to Aurelia, Hughes wrote: Sylvia was one of the greatest, truest spirits alive, and in her last months she became a great poet, and no other woman poet except Emily Dickinson can begin to be compared with her…’ ****
NOTES: *Letters of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid, published by Faber & Faber 2009.
** From The Kick - A Memoir, by Richard Murphy, published by Granta, 2002.
***Ann Henning wrote a play, Doonreagan, about Hughes and Assia’s time in Connemara where they tried to establish a new intimacy in the shadow of Sylvia’s death. She is now working on a film-script.
****Ariel, the second collection of her poetry, published two years after her death, is probably her best known. Readers empathise with its ‘free flowing images and characteristically menacing landscapes’. It marked a dramatic, and a mature, change from her earlier collection Colossus. Ted Hughes selected the poems used; but he was criticised for doing so. The renowned poet Robert Lowell wrote the introduction.