Sylvia, That night was nothing but getting to know how smooth your body is. The memory of it goes through me like brandy. If you do not come to London to me, I shall come to Cambridge to you. I shall be in London, here, until the 14th. Enjoy Paris...Ted. And bring back brandy. Two bottles.
It’s not easy for poets to earn a living from poetry. Richard Murphy augmented his meagre earnings as a fledging poet, by offering paying guests simple accommodation at his home at Cleggan, on the beautiful Connemara coast; and trips on his traditional sailing boat, the black - sailed Ave Maria. Murphy was an oddity. He came from a distinguished Anglo-Irish family at Milford House, near the Mayo-Galway border. He spent his early life in Sri Lanka, and later the Bahamas, where his father served as the mayor of Colombo, and the governor general respectively. He was educated in top British public schools, and later at Oxford and the Sorbonne. He spoke with the most pronounced cut-glass English accent.
Yet he fell passionately in love with Connemara’s jagged, west coast, and lived a Bohemian life-style. As well as a home at Cleggan, he purchased High Island, where he built an austere cottage, and a beehive hut, in the manner of the ancient monks on Skellig Michael, on near-by Omey Island. While writing poetry in the evenings, he drove a mini-van from which he sold the fish he caught. His companions were locals who, despite the suspicions of the local parish priest, accepted him as one of their own. Murphy would drive them into Galway for hospital appointments, shopping, and the cinema.
During the early 1960s Murphy had met Ted Hughes and his wife Sylvia Plath at poetry readings and literary events in the UK. All three young poets were beginning to make an impression, and winning prizes. Their poems were being published, and they were familiar with each other’s work. In the summer of 1962, Sylvia wrote to Murphy saying that she desperately ‘needed a boat, and the sea, and no squalling babies’; could she and Ted come to Cleggan for a holiday? Murphy, of course agreed. But he could not have known at the time that the six year marriage between Ted and Sylvia was over, and Murphy would play a part that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.
A few months after the above letter * Sylvia and Ted were married. Sylvia was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27 1932, and already established as a poet, came to Cambridge, on a Fulbright scholarship. Ted was born in a west Yorkshire village on August 17 1930. He went from grammar school to Cambridge where at the launch party for a literary magazine, he first met Sylvia. They sparked an immediate, and an extraordinary, creative connection. Hughes wrote to his sister and confidente, Olwyn Hughes: ‘ I have met a first rate American poetess. She really is good. Certainly one of the best female poets I ever read, and a damn sight better than the run of good male. Her main enthusiasm at present is me, and she thinks my verses are as good as I think they are...’
Sylvia described Hughes as a ‘singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer’ with ‘a voice like the thunder of God’. They went to America for a while. Sylvia taught at Smith College, her alma mater, before they both returned to live at 3 Chalcot Square, near Primrose Hill, London. They had two children, Frieda and Nicholas.
Both were now recognised poets; with Hughes rising spectacularly to be acknowledged as one of the most gifted poets of the 20th century, appointed Poet Laureate, and after his death in 1998, commemorated at Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey.
Shortly before they came to Connemara, Sylvia finished her semiautobiographical novel The Bell Jar which describes the protagonist’s descent into mental illness. She, Hughes and the children, took a farmhouse in Devon, and let their home at Chalcot Square to the American poet David Wevill, and his beautiful wife Assia.
Hughes was immediately struck by Assia, as she was with him. They began an affair. In June, 1962, that fateful summer, Sylvia had a car accident, which was believed to have been a suicide attempt. She and Hughes came to Ireland in September.
Murphy was the ideal host. They sailed and fished, and sped around in Murphy’s mini-van: ‘Sylvia sat in front, talking to me about her marriage and mine. In the back, which was too small to contain seats, Ted talked to Seamus (who helped Murphy with the boats ), about poachers, guns and fishing’.**
They had an ideal poets day at Lady Gregory’s Coole Park . They walked down to the famous autographed copper beech tree, surrounded by a spiked iron fence. Sylvia urged Ted to climb over the fence and add his initials to the tree. She said that he deserved to be in that company more than some of the names there. Afterwards they went to Yeats’s tower at nearby Ballylee. Sylvia threw coins into the stream. They went into the small walled garden and saw ‘a mosscoated apple-tree’ laden with a heavy crop of bright red cooking apples, originally planted by the Yeats’ family. They filled their pockets with them. Yet despite all the activities, and the arrival of fellow poet Tom Kinsella, Murphy could see that relationships between Hughes and Sylvia were strained. Suddenly, without saying good-bye, Hughes disappeared. Sylvia was left stranded, and helpless. She told Murphy that Hughes had gone to a friend in Clare; but in fact he had gone to Spain with Assia Wevill.
On February 11 a distraught Hughes wrote to his sister Olwyn: ‘On Monday morning at about 6 am, Sylvia gassed herself. The children asleep in another room were unharmed. Funeral’s in Heptonstall next Monday. She asked me for help, as she so often has. I was the only person who could have helped her, and the only person so jaded by her states and demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it...’
Next Week: Sylvia’s plea to remain with Murphy; and Hughes and Assia’s return to Connemara.
NOTES: * Letters of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid, published by Faber & Faber.
** This quote and the story of Sylvia and Ted’s time together in Connemara I am taking from Richard Murphy’s The Kick - A Memoir, published by Granta Books 2002.