‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’

Week V

The morning, Sunday September 16, following dinner with Tom Kinsella, Ted Hughes had gone. He told his wife Sylvia that he was going to stay with Barrie Cooke, a painter, in Co Clare, and to go fishing for salmon. Sylvia was calm. She told Richard Murphy that she would meet Hughes on the Galway to Dublin train on Wednesday.

At first Murphy completely misread the situation. He was surprised that Hughes had left abruptly without telling him. Or to say goodbye. He suspected that it was all a ploy of Sylvia’s to get Hughes out of the way so she could follow up her foot-rub the night before, and tempt Murphy into having an affair. Murphy had already made it quite clear that such a proposal was impossible. He abruptly asked her to leave the following day by getting a lift with Tom Kinsella to Dublin.

With that Sylvia lost it! She turned on Murphy with ‘strangulated hostility’. All her warmth and enthusiasm vanished. After her initial outburst she barely spoke to him all that day. There was a strained, artificial distance between them.

She did confide to the cook/housekeeper Mary Coyne, who later remembered that she never saw anyone so miserable. ‘My heart went out to her…anyone who likes women couldn’t like Ted Hughes. How could you like someone who couldn’t be kind to such a lovely person, who bore him his two children….She was very tearful, very highly strung. Poor Sylvia.’

The next morning she thanked Murphy politely and said goodbye. She and Kinsella drove away leaving him feeling, that despite all the effort he had made to entertain them both, mean and partly responsible for her misery. A few days later Kinsella wrote to say Sylvia boarded the mailboat alone ‘in fair form’, giving the impression ‘to the casual observer at least, that no fears need be entertained by anyone’. The letter makes it clear that both men were aware of Sylvia’s mental fragility.

‘Vault the barrier’

Back in Devon she still had the fire to chastise Murphy for the cowardly way he had reacted to her advances. She accused him of hypocrisy, and urged him ‘to vault the barrier’ of his fear of what the people of Cleggan might say if he lived with a married woman. She wrote that she had no desire to see or speak to him or anyone else.

But she did write to Murphy again in October to say she was getting a divorce from Ted, and that her real self was ‘long smothered.’

He met Sylvia for the last time in January 1963 when he was in London for the publication of his first book of poems, Sailing to an Island, which was the Spring choice of the Poetry Book Society. Friends told him that she was in a very tense state. She had moved to London with her two children, and was in fact living at 23 Fitzroy Road, near Primrose Hill, in a house once occupied by WB Yeats. She and her husband Ted had visited Yeats’ tower at Ballylee, and Coole Park with Murphy the previous September.

‘Guilt haunted me’

Murphy was relieved that there was no trace of ill-feelings towards him. ‘She looked feverish and ecstatic. Her infant Nick was on her lap, and three-year-old Frieda was playing with a toy on the floor.’ Sylvia said she was happy now, and glad to have got the two-storey upstairs apartment in a house where Yeats lived, with a plaque on the front wall. She thought this was the best thing to have done instead of coming to Ireland.

On February 11, Sylvia (aged 30 ) killed herself in that house. Three days later Murphy was in London and Hughes invited him to Sylvia’s home. He showed him a pile of her recent poems which The Observer was going to publish. Hughes left to go to the funeral in the snow.

A few months later, in the crowded Pier Bar in Cleggan, Murphy was surprised when he was introduced to Assia and her husband David Wevill. Assia and Hughes were having an affair that finished Sylvia’s marriage. He assumed thay had come to see first hand what had happened between Hughes and Sylvia. He was taken aback at Assia’s outstanding beauty.

Murphy concluded this sad chapter: ‘For a long time afterwards guilt haunted me for not having given Sylvia the haven she felt she needed in Connemara; and sometimes I felt angry at being made to feel guilty.’

Next week: Something more cheerful: Murphy gets sick and has to go to the Regional Hospital.

NOTES: I am taking this story from The Kick - A memoir of the Poet Richard Murphy, republished by Cork University Press, on sale €19.95


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