The Letters of Sylvia Plath

My review of volume one of Sylvia Plath’s letters will be in The Times on Saturday. I decided to say very little about her relationship with Ted Hughes, mainly because she doesn’t meet him for the first eleven hundred pages of the book, but also because I wanted to give a flavour of the full range of her voices, and not focus on the love letters that were extracted in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday.

But I have inevitably been asked whether this new volume contains material that I would have wished to include in my biography of TH. I was aware of the batch of October 1956 love letters in the possession of Frieda Hughes: very understandably, she did not want me to quote from them prior to their publication in full in this edition, though I was able to give a flavor of them from the one published in Frieda’s edition of Sylvia Plath: Drawings. The other thing I was aware of, but did not write about at length because of the limitations on substantial illustrative quotation from unpublished materials, was the extent of cutting within the letters published in Aurelia Plath’s edition of the Letters Home. Now that the full texts are in print, discussion can begin of whether it was modesty, anxiety or simply a desire for privacy that led to the exclusion of passages such as the following from Sylvia’s letter of 23 April 1956 to her brother Warren Plath, which in Letters Home has a lengthy ellipsis immediately after “his name is Ted Hughes”:

He is tall, hulking, with rough brown hair, a large-cut face, hands like derricks, a voice more thundering and rich than Dylan Thomas, a force that breaks windows when he stalks into a room, half-Irish and half-French with a gift for story-telling that spellbinds; he writes poetry that masters form, bangs and smashes through speech to go better than Yeats, better than Hopkins at his best: none of this pale niggling cerebralizing. We are both strong and healthy as blazes. He throws the discus, hunts, shoots, plows, grafts roses, writes for film studios, knows the name of every bird and beast hopping over the moors: I am learning a new vocabulary from him. He hikes into the room, yanks out Chaucer or Shakespeare or Hopkins or Blake and begins to read in a voice that shakes the house. We walked 15 miles the other day, yelling poetry and words and stories at each other. He has done nothing but write, rave, work and desert women for 10 years (graduated from Cambridge two years ago) and is the most brilliant, creative, and violently strong man I have ever met. All this, because I had to tell someone; my poetry, my words, my eyes are sprouting like the bay tree; I am learning about coots and stoats and moles and Cuchulain and Snatchcraftington, one of his fairytale wizards with a face like a rhubarb-leaf!

I cook trout and steak in my room, learn poems, read aloud, find owls and hares which come when he whistles; he is rough, rugged: has worn the same thick black sweater & khaki pants for two months I’ve known him. What, you say, is the catch? The catch is that he has never thought about anything or anyone except himself and his will (but for a few men friends) and has done a kind of uncaring rip through every woman he’s ever met. I am the first one, I think, who is as strong in herself (by this I mean, the sense of self which is inviolable & creative in spite of all) as he is, who can see the lack of care in him, and be independent: this gives me a kind of a balance of power. I could make him kind, I think, and a little more caring of people; but I know [t]hat I shall never again find his like in the world. Such times we have. I would give everything if you could meet him; never have two people, too strong for most in one dose, lived so powerfully & creatively!

All this, by way of the joy I live in.

(The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956, ed. Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, Faber and Faber, 2017, pp. 1173-4.)

God, that woman could write prose! And that is a passage I would have liked to include.

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