Birthday Letters

Buy book online
Buy book online Buy book online Buy book online

Birthday Letters By Ted Hughes, book reviewBirthday Letters is a collection of poetry by Ted Hughes that, with two exceptions, is addressed to his late wife Sylvia Plath who committed suicide in 1963. The book was first published in 1998 and contains poems that were written over the course of 25 years. Despite the intense enduring interest in Plath and her life, Hughes had always remained completely silent about her and frequently received much scorn from Plath admirers for having an affair when they were married and destroying the last part of her journals after her death, an act Hughes says he did to spare their children. Given the long silence by Hughes on Plath, Birthday Letters (which contains 88 poems) was therefore a very big deal when it was published and eagerly anticipated. ‘You are ten years dead,’ says Hughes in one of the first poems (Visit). ‘It is only a story. Your story. My story.’

I can’t claim to be a huge authority on poetry but like many people was very interested in Birthday Letters for any light it might shed on Hughes and Plath and his true feelings towards her. What is obvious reading Birthday Letters is that Hughes held deep affection for Plath and was somewhat tormented by her memory to the end of his life (he was dying when Birthday Letters was published). There are many poignant moments in the poems where Hughes is suddenly reminded of Plath by something random and memories come rushing back of a particular room or place where they were together. One of the early poems has an incredibly sad bit where Hughes is working at his desk and one of his children comes in and asks him where her mother is.

One of the things I liked about Birthday Letters was the way that the poems seem to be arranged chronologically in terms of their relationship (rather than the actual date of the poems) like a story, beginning with their first meetings and then charting Plath’s life with Hughes and beyond. Hughes recalls seeing a picture of Fulbright Scholars at Charing Cross Station when he was 22 and wondering now if Plath, with her ‘Veronica Lake bangs’, was amongst them, and remembers an early evening out they had together, walking past bomb craters from the war on the way home. The poems build a portrait of their life together with many details of Plath’s likes and dislikes and habits. Hughes remembers her love of drawing, using a Ouija Board together, and how her reactions to birds, nature and wildlife in England made it feel like he was seeing some of these things for the first time too. ‘Through your eyes it was foreign. Plain hedge hawthorns were peculiar aliens. You were a camera. Recording reflections you could not fathom.’ You do get the sense that these were two almost mythic figures who were always slightly in awe of one another.

Birthday Letters is a must buy for any fans of Ted Hughes or anyone interested in Sylvia Plath.”

One of the longest poems is called The 59th Bear and is an incredible memory piece by Hughes where he recalls some of the images they saw traveling through America together. ‘We counted bears – as if all we wanted were more bears. Yellowstone. Folded us into its robe, its tepees. Of mountain and conifer. To me as to you. Paradise, we saw.’ There is an interesting poem called The Table that begins with Hughes remembering the time when he made a writing desk for Plath. ‘You bent over it, euphoric. With your Nescafe every morning. Like an animal, smelling the wild air.’ The poem ends with Hughes taking a swipe at the ‘peanut-crunchers’ (a reference to Plath’s poem Lady Lazarus) who ‘…can stare. At the ink-stains, the sigils. Where you engraved your letters to him.’ It’s essentially Hughes saying that people who think they know Sylvia Plath and what happened between him and her are mistaken and mere onlookers.

I found the early poems the most moving perhaps, the fascinating descriptions of Plath (‘Your eyes. Squeezed in your face, a crush of diamonds. Incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears’) as she first appeared to him when they met, and the glimpses of their life together. You form pictures as the poems continue on to touch upon things like holidays in America, moving to Devon and living in an old isolated farmhouse, and Plath’s sulky mood one day because she misses the beach she remembers from growing up and feels a great urge to be there again. Birthday Letters becomes much darker towards the end and Hughes incorporates some of the imagery from Plath’s poems and again seems to have a swipe at those who continue to gawp at the details of Plath’s life and death.

As someone with Plath journals and biographies sitting on my bookshelf I suppose I must be one of those gawpers or ‘peanut-crunchers’ myself. Dreamers is a fascinating poem too as it is apparently about a meeting between Plath and the woman Hughes left her for. ‘She fascinated you. Her eyes caressed you. Melted a weeping glitter at you. Her German the dark undercurrent. In her Kensington jewelers’ elocution.’

The thing that comes through strongest from the poems is that Hughes thought about Plath constantly for the rest of his life and many of the poems are powerful because of this. The most affecting thing about Birthday Letters I felt was the sense that Hughes was setting down little details that perhaps only he could remember so they would be saved beyond his life. Memories like the way Plath’s hair used to fall over her face sometimes, her hands and expression when she played old songs on the piano and just something as simple as her sitting in the back of a class clutching a big mug of coffee. It’s this Sylvia Plath that you imagine invaded Hughes’ thoughts when he was alone at his desk years after her death or his dreams when he went to bed at night. Birthday Letters is a must buy for any fans of Ted Hughes or anyone interested in Sylvia Plath.

I found the book fascinating and often quite moving.

Buy book online
Buy book online Buy book online Buy book online
Birthday Letters
by Ted Hughes

No Comments on "Birthday Letters"

Hi guest, please leave a comment:

Subscribe to Comments
Written by James

Read more from