by Diane Middlebrook
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 16th 2004
Most biographies of Sylvia Plath
tend to take a side in the battle between her and her husband Ted Hughes.
Diane Middlebrook's account of their marriage instead emphasizes the strength
of their bond and the powerful productive influence each had on the other.
Poetry scholars are probably in the best position to assess the plausibility of
her claims, but on the face of it, she makes a powerful case. She shows how
Hughes was among those who encouraged Plath to write directly about herself,
and she confirms the well-known fact that Plath did a great deal to further
Hughes' career in sending his work off to publishers and using her connections
in the publishing world. Middlebrook also provides strong evidence that much
of Hughes' poetry after Plath's suicide continued to refer to their
relationship. This is obviously true of his collection The Birthday Letters
published shortly before his death in 1998, but she makes the case that many of
his other poems carry on a dialog with Plath in more subtle ways.
In the 1950s, Hughes and his fellow
poets were devotees of the ideas in Robert Graves' The White Goddess. Graves
argued that poetry should have a pagan religious function in society, reminding
readers of our animal nature and the old rituals and myths we shared before
modern society crushed our spirit with its "civilization." In a
series of Cambridge lectures, Graves condemned all the fashionable poets of the
time, such as D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and even Dylan
Thomas, labeling them as "false" poets. Poetry should embody both
our creativity and our destructive drive, bringing us closer to the wildness of
nature. Tellingly, Graves approved especially of the work of the poetry of the
mad, presumably on the assumption that the mad are not restricted by the
demands of modern etiquette and social manners, and have more direct access to
their primitive natures.
Therefore, one can speculate that
Hughes was especially attracted to Plath when they met in 1956 because she was
certainly in touch her own self-destructive side. Only a few years earlier,
she had very nearly succeeded in killing herself. In her journal, she writes
that at the drunken party when they first met, "And when he kissed my neck
I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we can out of the room, blood
was running down his face." (Kukil, 2000, p. 212). Some biographers have
reported that when they first started their relationship, their sex was
passionate and brutal enough to leave bruises. They soon married, and
committed their lives to poetry. In those early years, Plath's poetry started
to take on imagery that had been very characteristic of Hughes', featuring wild
animals such as crows. One might see Plath falling under his influence, but Middlebrook
argues that there was significant collaboration and mutual encouragement
between the newly married couple.
More than other accounts of Plath's
life, Middlebrook is able to integrate discussion of her poetry with what was
going on in her personal life. Serious students of Plath and Hughes will still
want to have an edition of their collected poems at hand when reading this
joint biography, but one can get a good sense of their artistic lives through
the information Middlebrook provides. The book is also illustrated with
photographs throughout the book rather than all collected together in a middle
section, and this works well. One gets a full understanding of the
relationship between these ambitious young poets.
The final three of the ten chapters
focus on Hughes' life after Plath's death, including his subsequent
relationships and marriages, his nurturing and reaction to the success of Plath's
poetry and her novel The Bell Jar, his own amazingly successful career,
and his attitude towards his role as the controller of her estate. Middlebrook
makes no bones about the fact that Hughes lost Plath's last prose manuscripts,
and calls this a great loss to posterity. But the account she gives does not
paint overbearing Hughes as the monster that some of his more vehement critics
have suggested he is. He seems to express genuine regret about his mistakes in
their marriage, even if his claims that they were on a path to reconciliation at
the time Plath ended her life are dubious. Middlebrook also pays attention to
Hughes' works The Birthday Letters and the lesser known Howls and
Whispers, arguing that they shed significant light on his relationship with
Plath. As in most other accounts, Hughes comes across as a strange man, both
deeply private and yearning for public success, preoccupied with astrology and
pagan religion. His poetry is full of symbolic meaning that only are only
apparent to those who have some insight to his idiosyncratic beliefs and his
personal experience, which gives scholars and enthusiasts for his work a
powerful motive to find out as much about his life as possible. His conflicts
and often difficult personality make him an rather unappealing figure, yet
there can be no doubt that he must have had a great deal of personal charisma.
Her Husband is a fine work,
telling the story of a great literary marriage. Middlebrook is an accomplished
writer, careful with details and sensitive to issues of poetic interpretation, yet
able to keep the flow of events lively. The chances are that most readers will
be more interested in Plath than Hughes, but the book shows that in an
important sense, one needs to understand the two of them together because their
marriage was a real partnership.
Karen V. Kukil (editor). The Journals of Sylvia Plath:
1950-1962. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.
© 2004 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.