The Life after Death of Sylvia Plath

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, May 1998 | Go to article overview

The Life after Death of Sylvia Plath


Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review


Had she lived, Mrs. Edward James Hughes would have been sixty-five years old on October 27th, 1997. A senior citizen. An old age pensioner. But, as things panned out, the clock stopped for her, the calendar froze, on February 11th, 1963. That was the Monday morning that Sylvia Plath did away with herself. She became, as the cliche has it, a fly fixed in the amber of time; forever gift-wrapped in the beauty and brimful promise of a still artistically evolving young woman of thirty years of age. Life for the longest-lived of us is only a ben's march. For Sylvia Plath it was a chick's run.

For her widower, Ted Hughes, time has limped on. He, a survivor, has become full of years and full of honours: the Poet Laureate, no less. It would not have surprised her. Her children, Frieda and Nicholas, are, both of them, older now than their mother when, by her own hand, she died. It is in truth become an old tragedy, wearing leather patches on its corduroy coat sleeves.

Vilified all down the decades by those who, in their blithesome ignorance and for their own conceits, have cast him in an evil role, the guilty male destructor, abandoner of the striving poetess and mother - latter-day sainted feminist icon - Hughes has kept silent as the Heptonstall grave.

Now, suddenly, universally surprisingly, his tongues are loosed, the Poet Laureate has been inexplicably transmogrified into the poet floreat. For here, in Hughes' extraordinarily tardy public confessio amantis, his new collection Birthday Letters, it is all laid out - from the first mouthful of exotic peach (Poem No. 1. 'Fulbright Scholars') to the wry spitting-out of the unexpected stone; the full, bright-sad story from photostart to breakneck finish, in 86 poems addressed to the dead wife's unresting shade across the uneasy-sitting span of more than twenty-five cancelled out birthdays.

The silver-edged Poet Laureate, forty long-legged leagues of years from the young, lusty, black corduroy 'hunk', recognisable now only by the still-hanging hank of carefully unruly poet's lock, opens up his notebooks of night; places on display the shroud of words which, ever since, tucked quietly away, he has been privately stitching, wherewith to wrap his dead wife and curtain his own slow-dying life.

Youth is callow and callous: old age, if we survive to it, the struck hour for offering explanations in the place of impossible amends. We all make our own deathbeds to lie on. What is unfair is that so many of us make them so early and so immaturely. We all, too, live in the twisted vastness of the might-have-been, or its annexe, the never-was. The road to all our hells paved with bad intentions, often disguised as good. The bitter battlecry of loss is: 'If only . . .'

This is, it would seem, by way of being the old man's apologia pro morte sua. Not that for one moment he assumes, or should indeed presume, solo responsibility. It, the ultimate tragedy, was surely all there constellated in the participants' nativities; all there for the scrying - the extispicy - in the wire-snared cony. (Poem No. 62. 'The Rabbit Catcher').

Whatever his gilts and glosses, Hughes, I suspect, suspects - and I suspect that he is right - that she would, sooner or later, coarser or finer, have done it, anyways.

Lest it should be levelled at me, and the Hugheses, frere et soeur, are great levellers, that I am seeing, through rose-dyed glasses darkly, Sylvia as little Miss Shirley Temple ruffed and puffed and blown away by the Big Bad Black Corduroy Wolf, permit me to hasten to right that impressionist wrong. I have it on the best, firsthand authority, that of those, including my wife, who knew her at Newnham College, Cambridge, that the Lady of the Lake (Veronica) bang, the scarlet hair-band, vivid lipstick to match, was as eye-catching-tough as her gold and white Samsonite transatlantic luggage. She has been described by her Newnham peeresses as sarcastic, scornful, sexually predatory, arrogant, competitive, driven, and exhibiting so blatant an attitude of not suffering fools gladly that she almost became a parody of herself. …

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