Letter from Ted Hughes to Assia’s sister, Celia Chaikin, April 14 1969

Week IV

Nicholas and Frieda  with their father Ted Hughes on holiday in Scotland, early 1971.

Nicholas and Frieda with their father Ted Hughes on holiday in Scotland, early 1971.

Dear Celia, I should have written to you long ago but I’ve felt so absolutely smashed and not capable of talking to any one about what happened (three weeks earlier, her sister Assia had gassed herself, with her four-year-old daughter, Shura, ). Your letter was a lot of support to me. I always liked you in your letters, and in what Assia told me about you, and you said just what was needed.

I’ve gone through these last weeks in a daze. Everything has become horrible to me, I cannot believe how I never knew what was really happening to her. Our life together was so complicated with old ghosts, and dozens of near-separations over the years, but we belonged together so completely and so deeply, that her repeatedly testing me, saying that we’d better separate for good, were just like a bad habit, part of our old difficulties, and so when she repeated it on the last day over the phone, it was nothing new, nothing we hadn’t got over dozens of times before.

I feel now my life has gone completely empty. I know if I had only moved - if I had only given her hope in slightly more emphatic words in that last phone conversation, she would have been OK. But I was totally exhausted, and nearly off my head with other distractions....I’ve no idea what I’ll do now. Leave this unlucky house, maybe go back and live in Ireland...

But Hughes, while content to visit Ireland throughout his life, did not come to live here. The year following Assia’s and her daughter’s death, he married Carol Orchard. They remained together until his death 28 years later. They had their difficulties and his ghosts. Hughes wrote to his brother Gerald (March 1971 ) that ‘Somehow or other, Carol has hung on, and I mustn’t inflict all that past on her any more than is inevitable. She’s very sensitive to it - in fact I don’t know how she stands it. The best thing will be to start somewhere afresh - some quite new place which will be absolutely hers..’

That ‘somewhere fresh’ was a new home, an 18th century mill-owner’s house, near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, while maintaining his house at Court Green, Devon. He cultivated a small farm, and began a life of extraordinary poetic energy which led to many honours and awards, and an appointment as Poet Laureate in December 1984, following John Betjeman. He is commemorated at the famous Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey.

Séamus Heaney speaking at Ted Hughes’ funeral, November 3 1998, said "No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft. No death in my lifetime has hurt poets more. He was a tower of tenderness and strength, a great arch under which the least of poetry's children could enter and feel secure. His creative powers were, as Shakespeare said, still crescent. By his death, the veil of poetry is rent and the walls of learning broken."

‘Innocent savagery’

Ted Hughes was fortunate when as a small boy, his elder brother Gerald, a ‘gifted dramatic person’, took him up over the deep valley where they lived in the Yorkshire Pennines to explore the moors and its wildlife beyond. Hughes later wrote of those days: ‘I had a peculiar, obsessive relationship to wild creatures - simply their near presence. It’s a physical reaction: Like a kind of ecstasy.’ His early poetry is rooted in nature, and in particular, the innocent savagery of animals.

Following the death of his first wife Sylvia Plath, the stress of minding his two children, and enduring the poisonous attacks from those who blamed him for her suicide, and then compounded by the death of his lover Assia, he was unable to write. Ann Henning Jocelyn discovered quite by chance, that Hughes and Assia, and their children, had stayed at her house at Cashel, Connemara, previous to them. Ann has sensitively, and with great skill, told the story of that sojourn in a short play Doonreagan.*

Ann, and her partner Robert, say that at the time Hughes was in his mid-thirties. Although well established as an acclaimed poet and broadcaster, his writing had come to a dead-end. He longed for a change of scene, a chance to break the stale-mate. It was his friend Richard Murphy who found them the house at Cashel. And it worked. Staying at Doonreagan, among the lakes, along the wild coast, with the mountains in the distance, Hughes began working again, and regained some semblance of a normal life.

Towards the end of his life letters written by Ted Hughes confirm that he regarded the time spent in Connemara in 1966 as an important landmark, on both a personal and professional level.

He also states with regret that the quality of life he experienced at Doonreagan could be sustained only briefly, and was never found again.

NOTES: * The Irish version of the play was first performed at An Taibhdhearc, Galway, last January 25. Daniel Simpson played Hughes; while Tara Breathnach played Assia Wevill.

Ann told the audience afterwards that she had been in contact with Frieda, the daughter of Hughes and Sylvia. Frieda gave the play her blessing. She remembered the ‘white house’ in Cashel well, and the local school. But she was not interested in coming back. She coped with her life by always looking forward.

Sadly, her brother Nicholas also committed suicide on March 16 2009 while suffering from depression.

Letter quotes are from Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid, published by Faber & Faber 2007.


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