Dear Aurelia, It has not been possible for me to write this letter before now...
I shall never get over the shock and I don’t particularly want to. I’ve seen the letters Sylvia wrote to my parents, and I imagine she wrote similar ones to you, or worse.
The particular conditions of our marriage, the marriage of two people 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.
My attempt to correct that marriage is madness from start to finish. The way she reacted to my actions also has all the appearance of a kind of madness - her insistence on a divorce, the one thing in this world she did not want, the proud hostility and hatred, the malevolent acts, that she showed to me, when all she wanted to say simply was that if I didn’t go back to her she could not live.
Only in the last month suddenly we became friends, closer than we’ve been for two years or so. Everything seemed to be prospering for her, and we began to have happy times together.
Then suddenly her book about her first breakdown comes out, fifty other hellish details go against her, she became over-agitated, begged me to leave the country because she couldn’t bear to live in the same city, my presence was weakening her independence, and so on, then very heavy sedatives, then this.
If I hadn’t been so blindly involved in the struggle with her, how easily I could have seen through all this!
And I had come to the point where I’d decided we could repair our marriage now. She had agreed to stop the divorce. I had that weekend cancelled all my appointments for the next fortnight. I was going to ask her to come away on the Monday, on holiday, to the coast, some place we had not been.
Think of how it must be for me too. We were utterly blind, we were both desperate, stupid, and proud - and the pride made us oblique, she especially so.
I know Sylvia was so made that she had to mete out terrible punishment to the people she most loved, but everybody is a little bit like that, and it needed only intelligence on my part to deal with it...
I don’t want ever to be forgiven. I don’t mean that I shall become a public shrine of mourning and remorse, I would sooner become the opposite. But if there is an eternity, I am damned in it.
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, and certainly no living American.
I didn’t know how to start this letter and now I don’t know how I can end it. I’ll write again, and tell you my plans. Love Ted *
This deeply felt and distressing letter gives some idea of the agony, and the regrets suffered by Hughes following his wife’s suicide. There is no doubt but that it is totally genuine. Sylvia Plath was an iconic poet figure for many. It is said that even those who rarely read poetry, read hers.** She was exceptionally talented, attractive, and dynamic. But she was fragile. She suffered from depression. Hughes was criticised for his affair with Assia Wevill, which many believed caused Sylvia to despair. Their marriage was going through difficult times; and it is impossible to know the true cause that pushed her to her final, tragic, death at only 30 years of age. I believe that the criticism was unjustified.
Five months before her death their holiday in Cleggan with Richard Murphy had come to a dramatic end. Her husband, without saying good-bye to anyone, just walked away. At first Sylvia made an excuse that he had gone to stay with a friend, Barry Cooke, in County Clare; but she must have guessed the truth. He had gone to meet his lover Assia. Fearing that she was being abandoned she made wild plans to stay in Connemara. She looked at places where she might stay, and during dinner, one evening, made it clear that she would like to have an affair with Murphy. Murphy, to his regret, told her to leave the next day. He didn’t want to cause a scandal, to be seen living alone with a married women. After all, as he said himself, he was: ‘A divorced Protestant with a British accent in a village then under the sway of a priest, who had no liking for me or for Protestants or for Brits.’**
There was the curious incident at Yeats’ tower at Ballylee, where Murphy brought Hughes and Sylvia after their visit to Coole Park. 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 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. In 1971 Random House had published a poem in a book by Robin Morgan, urging Hughes’s crucifixion and castration.
Murphy was asked to contribute a piece on their visit to his home at Cleggan ‘a simple record of the facts’.
Reluctantly Murphy did so, including the remark made by Hughes when he took the apples. When Olwyn read Murphy’s draft to Hughes over the phone, Hughes contacted Murphy and asked him to delete the remark. It was, he suggested, a facetious antithetical inversion of the obvious, in a West Yorkshire style of hyperbole, which if taken out of context could do him harm. 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’.***
But if Ted Hughes suffered the wrath of an adoring Sylvia Plath audience, poor Assia was eventually destroyed by it. Four years after Sylvia’s death, Hughes and Assia came back to the west of Ireland. With their children, they lived for a year overlooking Cashel Bay. They were hoping for peace, a time to find themselves, and to work, but especially to escape the accusatory gossip, and condemning looks of the London social scene.
I will try to tell that story next week
* Letters of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid, published by Faber & Faber 2009.
**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.
*** From The Kick - A Memoir, by Richard Murphy, published by Granta, 2002.
I am repeating this, and two further articles, which appeared in Galway Diary in February 2015 because of the interest shown in extracts from Cork University’s republished Richard Murphy’s The Kick - A Memoir of the Poet Richard Murphy earlier this year.