March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

IT DIDN’T REGISTER RIGHT AWAY. British publisher Matthew Evans was chatting over lunch with Ted Hughes in Gloucestershire last August when the noted poet mentioned his latest project. “I have a manuscript in the car,” Hughes said matter-of-factly. “They’re poems about Sylvia Plath.” Recalls Evans: “I think my brain was a bit foggy, because it wasn’t until half an hour later that I did a double-take.”

The rest of the literary world has been similarly taken aback. After 35 years of adamant silence on the subject of his famous wife and her even more famous suicide, the 67-year-old Hughes—Britain’s poet laureate since 1984—has finally gone public about their turbulent and ultimately doomed relationship. His volume of 88 poems, Birthday Letters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), prepared in complete secrecy and published in February, contains intimate glimpses of the pain and love he had known with her. “People will go back to Plath’s work with this in hand and compare passages,” says Fran McCullough, who edited Plath’s works posthumously in the 1960s. “It’s like a cake full of raisins.”

Any fresh revelations about Plath command attention. After her suicide in 1963, at the age of 30, the Boston-born, Smith-educated darling of American letters became an icon of youthful rebellion and a feminist touchstone. She had mined her own anguish, writing obsessively of her depression, her jealousy, her marriage, and about her father: strict, formal Otto Plath, an entomology professor who died when she was only 8. In perhaps her most famous poem, “Daddy,” she compared him to a Nazi death-camp commandant, concluding, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

The Hughes-Plath romance began passionately. Two years older than his wife-to-be, Hughes (who has refused interview requests) met Plath at a London literary party in 1956, when she was a 23-year-old Fulbright scholar at Cambridge. “He kissed me bang smash on the mouth,” Plath wrote of their first encounter. “And when he kissed my neck, I bit him long and hard on the cheek and, when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.” The handsome, gifted couple married the same year and had two children (Frieda, now 37, an artist in Australia, and Nicholas, 36, a marine biologist stationed in Antarctica), who have remained close to Hughes. But Plath was tormented by inner demons; her 1963 novel The Bell Jar explores her first suicide attempt at age 20. During the course of the marriage, her behavior became more erratic and obsessional. Suspecting Hughes of having an affair, she gathered all the papers of his that she could find and burned them in their vegetable garden. In 1962, Hughes left Sylvia for another woman, Assia Wevill. Four months later, living in a London flat, Plath set out milk and cookies for her two small children and then put her head in a gas oven. (Eerily, in 1969, Wevill committed suicide exactly the same way, a tragedy that also took the life of Wevill and Hughes’s baby daughter Shura.)

Since Plath’s death, Hughes, married since 1970 to former nurse Carol Orchard, has become an object of feminist wrath, scorned in articles and lecture halls as an unfeeling wretch who abandoned Plath at the time of her greatest need. Some critics even hold him responsible for her death. Angry Plath followers have scratched out the word HUGHES on Plath’s headstone in a Yorkshire cemetery, and audience members at Hughes’s campus readings have shouted “Murderer!” at him. “My silence,” he once wrote, “seems to confirm every accusation and fantasy.”

In Birthday Letters, written over the past 25 years, the poet paints a poignant portrait of a complicated and tragic love story. “You can feel his desperate attempt to find a place where they can be at peace together,” says Britain’s Times editor-in-chief Peter Stothard. In “The Blackbird,” Hughes writes, “You were the jailer of your murderer/Which imprisoned you./And since I was your nurse and your protector/Your sentence was mine too.”

While some academics think Hughes still has some explaining to do, others feel the poems reveal his deep compassion for Plath and his remorse over not helping her more. “He has done her the honor of taking her demons as seriously as she took them,” says Boston poet and critic Peter Davidson, who briefly dated Plath in the 1950s. As for Hughes, he seems finally to have exorcised his own grief. Although, says publisher Evans, “I’m not sure he is looking for vindication. I think he is simply looking for people to make up their own minds.”


NINA BIDDLE in London and CONSTANCE JOHNSON in New York City

You May Like