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I was aware of, but did not write about at length because of the limitations on substantial illustrative quotation from unpublished materials, was the extent of cutting within the letters published in Aurelia Plath’s edition of the Letters Home.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.


Ted Hughes, Marlowe & Shakespeare

I promise that this blog will not develop into a forum for refutation of the “anti-Stratfordians” but, as with my post earlier today about early pilgrims to Shakespeare’s Stratford monument between 1618 and the early 1630s, I must correct a false aspersion cast at last night’s lively How To: Academy Authorship Debate. Someone said “Ted Hughes didn’t believe the man from Stratford wrote the plays – funny that you didn’t mention that in your biography of him.” Well, unless I missed something in the thousands of pages of letters and critical prose which I spent five archival years examining, I didn’t mention it because it isn’t true. Indeed, in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, a book that, for all its excesses and eccentricities, I admire far more now than I did when it first came out in 1992, he makes much of Shakespeare’s rural origins, butcher’s son etc. etc.

So where has the idea come from? A single remark in an early letter to his Cambridge friend Lucas Myers: “The way to really develope as a writer is to make yourself a political outcast, so that you have to live in secret. This is how Marlowe developed into Shakespeare.” (Letters, ed. Reid, p. 120). Quoted out of context, this might appear to make Ted Hughes a subscriber to the fantasy that Marlowe didn’t die in Deptford, but escaped to Italy from where he sent his plays back to be performed and published with Shakespeare as the front man. But look at the context:

The way to really develope as a writer is to make yourself a political outcast, so that you have to live in secret. This is how Marlowe developed into Shakespeare. Think what a precise detachment this would give to all your observations – at the same time making all your life, and the only possible life, inward. This is how Dante developed into Dante, & Joyce into Joyce. The other way is to go deaf.

What Hughes meant was that Marlowe’s problem was that his political engagement (spying, professed atheism) led to his premature demise, and that Shakespeare learned from this an art of detachment – of what Joyce would have called silence, cunning and exile. By learning from the negative example of Marlowe, Shakespeare protected himself and devoted himself to his art, always hiding in the shadows. Unlike nearly all his fellow-dramatists, he was never imprisoned or censured or had a play banned after a couple of performances. No Isle of Dogs, Tragedy of Gowrie or Game at Chess for him. At the same time, Hughes is arguing – and he would develop the thought further in Goddess – that “Marlowe developed into Shakespeare” in the sense that Richard II was a response to Edward II, Merchant of Venice to Jew of Malta, The Tempest to Faustus. His gnomic remark is in fact a crystallized anticipation, 35 years early, of the argument of “Marlowe’s Ghost”, the essay that won the Calvin Hoffman Prize and was then developed into Chapter 4 of my The Genius of Shakespeare. Hughes and I both believe that Marlowe’s ghost stalks the plays of Shakespeare – but metaphorically, as literary and theatrical influence, not literally.

The combination of quoting out of context and reading against the grain of the text is, of course, typical of anti-Stratfordian method.

But of course if someone has another source revealing that Hughes really did believe the Marlowe-was-Shakespeare theory, I’d be glad to hear of it. Old Ted did sometimes go for unusual theories …

And it’s so endearing that, despite his Cambridge degree, he couldn’t spell “develop”.

References for Mr Waugh!

A jolly evening at the How To: Academy debating the identity of Shakespeare with my dear friend Alexander Waugh. I don’t think I’m ever going to change the mind of someone whose argument appears to rest on the proposition that Ben Jonson faked Heminge’ and Condell’s dedictory epistle and address to the reader in the First Folio, in which they clearly ascribe the plays to their fellow-actor – and who, for good measure, suggests that the bequest of mourning rings to Hemmings, Condell and Burbage in Shakespeare’s will might be a forged interpolation. But I enormously admire Alexander’s wit, warmth and energy. The only moment he lost his cool was when I denied his claim that nobody in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s death made the association between “the man from Stratford” and the famous writer. He said “You can’t make things up, Jonathan.” I told him I would send him some references, and he asked for them to be on his desk “by 9 o’clock in the morning” – so they will be, but here they are for any members of the audience who remain curious:

1618: Weever’s notebook (Society of Antiquaries MS 127) – transcription of the words on the Stratford monument and the poem on the tomb. In margin opposite heading “Stratford upon Avon”: “Willm Shakespeare the famous poet”

1619: Basse poem (Lansdowne MS 777, f.67v): “Under this carved marble of thine owne / Sleep rare Tragedian Shakespeare, sleep alone”

1623: Digges poem in First Folio: ‘thy works, by which, outlive / Thy tomb, thy name must: when that stone is rent, / And time dissolves thy Stratford Monument’.

Late 1620s: manuscript addition to a copy of the First Folio (Folger 26): Transcription of the poem on the tombstone + the poem on the Stratford monument + an original poem:

Here Shakespeare lies whom none but death could Shake / And here shall lie till judgment all awake; / When the last trumpet doth unclose his eyes / The wittiest poet in the world shall rise.

1630, A Banquet (anon): “on travelling through Stratford upon Avon, a town most remarkable for the birth of famous William Shakespeare”

1634 Lieutenant Hammond diary reference (Lansdowne MS 213, f. 332v): “we came by Stratford upon Avon … in the church there are some monuments … those worth observing … a neat Monument of that famous English Poet, Mr William Shakespeare, who was born here.”




On Plagiarism in Poetry

A very interesting article in today’s Guardian about poetry and plagiarism. When T. S. Eliot famously said that immature poets imitate but mature poets steal, he did not mean “Find someone else’s poem online, change a handful of words and pass it off as your own, trading not only on their words but even on their chosen crafted form.” But what did he mean? One way in which I start a discussion of this question with students is to suggest to them that when one says “I love you” one is at some level voicing a quotation, not an original thought. By “quoting” in this way, you are entering into a long tradition – of lovers. Eliot’s point was that it is by engaging with the tradition, “modifying the existing order,” that poets enter the “canon” (though, as I argue in my book English Literature: A Very Short Introduction, I much prefer the term “repertoire”). The individual talent is shaped by the tradition and the true talent in turn reshapes the tradition. That is one reason why Eliot’s own poetry is so peppered with allusion, quotation and free translation from the poets he admired.

I’ve been fascinated by the implications of all this ever since I read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence and responded to it with a PhD thesis (which became two books) on how the Romantic poets dealt with their obsessive admiration for Shakespeare. My attempt at a “re-creative” exploration of the subject was the novel The Cure for Love, an act of homage to William Hazlitt that took his habit of quotation as its starting point. It imagines a man with a photographic memory who has read the whole of Hazlitt having an accident that gives him amnesia, with the result that when he recovers his memory his own words and experiences are indistinguishable from Hazlitt’s. This was intended as a kind of allegory of the process whereby the words of the writers we love lodge themselves in our head and speak to – even shape – our own experiences.

Now something along these lines might be imagined as the plagiarist’s defence: “this poem spoke to me, so I made it my own.” Yes, but … There are honourable and time-honoured methods of performing the move of making someone else’s creativity your own, and good words for the techniques of doing so: translation and imitation; quotation and allusion; hommage, pastiche and cento. My poetry collection The Shepherd’s Hut embraces them all (well, nearly all – I actually left out a cento that spliced e.e.cummings with Robert Lowell under the title “From Two Muses for a Third”). But the defining characteristic is that, either explicitly (e.g. in a title, an overt reference, an Eliot-style source note) or implicitly (by way of a quotation mark, a clear indication of change of register) they acknowledge the dialogue with the previous poet – the dialogue is indeed an essential part of the poem’s being and meaning. The reader is supposed to make the connection. Eliot should have said that poets steal proudly, generously and openly. It is unacknowledged literary theft that constitutes plagiarism.

Mind you, the earliest reference to Shakespeare seems to accuse him of plagiarism: the “upstart crow” is an allusion not only to a fable of Aesop, but also to a passage in Horace about bad poets passing off other poets’ words as their own … but the controversy around the authorship and intent of that allusion is a story for another day …

On Biography: archive or interview?

One of the pleasures of being a biographer living with a biographer is that you spend a lot of time talking – often arguing – about the art of biography. Tonight it went like this:

Her: Looking back on the Ted Hughes experience, don’t you regret the extent to which you relied on interviews? All memories are fallible – and you kept finding that different people remember the same events in different ways.

Me: Granted, but it’s really important to get all the memories down before people die or lose their memories altogether.

Her: Stick to the archive, I say.

Me: I did spend five years in the archive, as you know. Besides, look at the history of biography: it all kicked off at the end of the eighteenth century when Boswell wrote the life of Johnson and Hayley the life of Cowper. One based on interviews and reminiscences, the other on manuscripts and letters. Which one do we still read today?

Her: Boswell, of course – but he was actually there in the room, recording Johnson’s words. That’s not like a biographer going to some elderly bit part player and asking them to remember what happened fifty years earlier. Listen, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Why did I write my biography of the amazing story of Kick Kennedy and how she nearly became Duchess of Devonshire?

Me: You told me that it was because you found her a completely fascinating, charismatic woman.

Her: Exactly. And how do I know she was like that? Not just from what people said about her, but by getting under her skin – reading two thousand pages of her manuscript letters and diaries, leafing through her scrapbooks, reanimating her voice on the page.

Me: But surely there’s a place for interviews – I’ve always loved that book called His Very Self and Voice, which gathers together all the extant conversations of Lord Byron.

Her: You can’t seriously believe those conversations are verbatim. There’s bound to be loads of embellishment. Stick to Byron’s letters, Jonathan, when you write your book about the Romantics. Listen, a woman called Lynne McTaggart wrote a biography of Kick Kennedy over thirty years ago. It was based entirely on interviews because the archive had not been released at that time. I’m certainly glad she wrote it. It’s got some great material in it, but loads of errors as a result of people’s faulty memories. It certainly wouldn’t be worth doing another interview-based biography now, but the material in the archive is so rich that there’s a real opportunity to bring Kick’s voice back to life – that’s what biography is all about.

Me: I grant you that – and of course you’re right that the archive doesn’t lie. I know how satisfying you found it to discover that Regimental Diary which showed that everybody had got a key detail wrong.

Her: I win. I mean, it was those unknown diaries, not anything from an interview, that really excited you when you were writing Ted.

Me: I’ll win the next argument.

Oxford Literary Festival

My two events at the Oxford Literary Festival: details here. Delighted to see that Ian McKellen and I have sold out the Sheldonian. Entirely due to him, of course.

I’m also chairing Frieda Hughes on her new poems and paintings: details here.

Upcoming literary festivals where I am talking about Ted: Stratford-upon-Avon, Charleston.

Upcoming Shakespeare talks, for the 400th: Senate House London, Oxford, Hay, Althorp.

I’ll try and get a calendar onto the sidebar of the website.

Bye bye Ted

Having “put to bed” the paperback of my Ted Hughes biography, returned all the books to the shelves, and shredded hundreds of pages of manuscript photocopies, I reflect for a moment on the long journey of writing the book and dealing with its reception. A friend recently asked whether I have any regrets about all the emotional energy involved. Emphatically not, I replied. Not even over the accusations of prurience? About 40 pages of the book make reference to aspects of Hughes’s sexual life; about 600 to his writing life. But you wouldn’t guess that from the reactions of one or two critics of the older generation. So, any regrets about having incurred their wrath by including some explicit material on a handful of occasions? Well, imagine what people would have said if the sexual dimension had been airbrushed from the biography of the author of Gaudete (the long poem that could be summarised as “Yorkshire vicar’s spirit double in WI orgy”) and of such poems as the Ploughshares version of “Do not pick up the telephone” (“Panties are hotting up their circle for somebody to burn in / Nipples are evangelising bringing a sword or at least a razor / C**t is proclaiming heaven on earth”—not, it has to be said, TH’s most immortal lines). I just have a feeling that if the biography had been a bedroom-free zone, the word “whitewash” would have appeared somewhere.

No, my one regret is that not a single reviewer – though I’ve only seen a selection, so I may be traducing someone here – has drawn attention to the book’s excavation of the hitherto unknown long autobiographical poems/sequences “A” and “Trial” (the latter provides an extraordinary new window onto the last days of Sylvia Plath) or to the reading of the manuscript revisions in the great Gaudete epilogue poem “Waving goodbye from your banked hospital bed,” which was intended as the epicentre of the book’s argument. Mark Ford in the London Review of Books comes close to the latter, and he is to be thanked for that – though naturally I disagree with his opinion that the book pandered to a desire for the sensational. If only he knew some of the truly sensational things I have suppressed for reasons of tact and discretion …