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Terminator: The Legacy of Ted Hughes


ISSUE:  Spring 2004

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—A Marriage. By Diane Middlebrook. Viking, October 2003. $25.95
Collected Poems. By Ted Hughes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 2003. $50

 
The lunatic, the lover and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact.
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The liaisons and marriages of famous literary couples of the 20th century—H. G. Wells and Rebecca West, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford, as well as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—inevitably ended in a clash of egos, in recrimination and hatred, disaster or divorce. (Iris Murdoch and John Bayley are the notable exception.) A book on Hughes and Plath, two violently temperamental and death-obsessed poets, provokes some challenging questions. Was Plath impossible to live with? Was Hughes to blame for her death? Could her suicide have been avoided? What effect did it have on Hughes and their children?

Diane Middlebrook is the first scholar to troll through the vast Hughes archive at Emory University in Atlanta: “108,000 items in eighty-six boxes weighing 2½ tons, plus materials sealed in a trunk that is not to be opened until the year 2023.” But she fatally weakened her book by failing to interview many crucial figures in the lives of her subjects: Plath’s younger brother Warren and her early lover Richard Sassoon; Hughes’ older brother Gerald; his widow, Carol Orchard; his children with Plath, the beautiful Frieda (a poet and writer of children’s books) and Nicholas (a scientist, last sighted in Alaska); and David Wevill, husband of Hughes’ lover Assia. (She broke up Plath’s marriage and outdid her by killing her daughter by Hughes as well as herself.) Middlebrook’s work, an even-handed portrait of their marriage rather than a biography, is like Elaine Feinstein’s life of Hughes—competent but disappointingly familiar and thin. It wavers uneasily between a hyped-up and sometimes awkward style and rather pedantic explications of the poetry, with the most exiguous “fair use” quotations.

Middlebrook, with adjectival insistence, writes of a “wild party,” “glamorous weekends,” and “glamorous meetings,” of “violent love” and a “ravishing performance.” She also uses many banalities, slang expressions, and flat similes: Hughes “was in a profound dither about where his life was heading”; “marriage opens a joint account in the language bank”; they trod the “minefield of their differences”; “she knew where Hughes was coming from”; Plath’s postcards to Hughes “were like discrete [discreet?] knocks with knuckles on doors that might be firmly shut.” The narrative is padded with pointless details: “Plath’s journal also indicates that she carried to [their honeymoon in Spain] a new pair of scissors, and a pair of sunglasses in a white plastic case with a green starfish on it.” In an unintentional pun, she writes that Plath had “a good connection in the poet and magazine editor Peter Davison”—without mentioning that they’d been lovers. The structure is oddly unbalanced, and she treats the last fifteen years of Hughes’ life, the period of his greatest fame, in only twenty pages. There are a number of typos—they (118), Mousetrap (178), title (226), and Marjorie (349), for example—as well as some factual errors. Byron’s papers were burned (not shredded) by John Murray, and the Booker (not the Whitbread) is Britain’s most prestigious literary prize.

Why, despite good looks and brilliant talent, is Plath so unappealing and Hughes at times so repulsive? At Cambridge University she seemed the crass “caricature of an American girl, overdressed, and gushy”—with a hard, metallic brightness. Though aggressively eager for literary fame, she cranked out trashy, formulaic stories for women’s magazines. Suffused with self-pity, she flew into sudden rages, was intensely jealous, and was in constant need of reassurance. When Hughes was trying to write, she once interrupted him 104 times in one morning. Sexually sophisticated, voracious, and dominant, she claimed her vagina was an organ of perception. She demanded an orgasm and if she didn’t have one, would confront her lovers with their pathetic inadequacy. Hughes, in a characteristically self-exculpatory mode, spoke of her “incandescent desperation” and “death-ray quality” and desperately confessed: “It was either her or me.”

Hughes could be boorish, brutal, and cruel—and Plath was attracted to these very qualities. Middlebrook casually mentions that when they first met, Plath bit him on the cheek till the blood ran. But in this primitive rite she set out to shock, to mark him as her own, and to demonstrate her passion in his flesh. Though touted by Plath as a great lover—”We had a very good f’ing. Enormously good, perhaps the best yet”—Ted shocked and terrified Assia during their first sexual encounter “by tearing off [her expensive silk] negligee, and sweating profusely.” His first connection with animals came from killing them; and his grisly private mausoleum included “tiger, leopard, python, kangaroo [pelts] … along with the skins and bones and skulls of foxes, stags, and badgers; and such shamanistic talismans as tigers’ teeth and eagles’ claws.”

Always enraged by his poverty and eager for money, Hughes devised numerous get-rich schemes. As the recipient of Plath’s substantial royalties, he later became one of the richest British poets of the century and left more than £1.4 million to his second wife. He also, as poet laureate, became a toady to the brainless nonentities of the royal family and allowed himself to be pampered by the Queen Mum. One almost expected him to write of savage beasts tearing at the entrails of the princess royal. Celebrating, instead, the wedding of Fergy and Andrew, he was caustically condemned for the embarrassingly inept effusions (not mentioned by Middlebrook) of “The Honey Bee and the Thistle”:

      Upon this day in Westminster

 

      That brings the Prince his Bride

 

      Out of the sun there sweeps a song

 

    That cannot be denied.

Hughes’ work, like Yeats’, was radically damaged by his lifelong obsession with spiritualism and the occult, with a trashy hodgepodge of Ouija boards and tarot cards, astrology and alchemy, black magic and witchcraft, psychic entities and minatory visions, hypnosis and séances, Shamanism and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Rosicrucianism and Jungianism. This mystical freight threatened to obliterate the true source of his poetic power: the primordial legacy of our animal past, “a hurtling momentum … of gasps and howling cries.”

There’s also the problem of Hughes’ irresponsible treatment of Plath’s posthumous work. By killing herself, she turned her best material over to Hughes: her infants, her torments, and her poems. His triple authority as husband, poet, and critic—expressed in at least fourteen essays, introductions, notes, and letters—profoundly influenced our understanding of her life and art. He insisted that “any bit of evidence which corrects and clarifies our idea of what she really was is important,” but he changed the order of the poems in Ariel, censored her published Journals, and destroyed her most important diaries, written shortly before her death. Middlebrook tells us almost nothing about Frances McCullough, the Harper & Row editor and Hughes’ “most trusted ally,” who collaborated in this massive disservice to Plath’s readers.

Her Husband
becomes painfully absorbing as their marriage disintegrates. Plath discovers Hughes’ infidelity and throws him out of their house in Devon. As he leaves “with a strange little laugh,” she accelerates toward self-inflicted catastrophe. Hughes complained of “the nervous strain of being suddenly quite famous” and the need to find a hiding place. But the strain on Plath of not being famous was even greater. Middlebrook speaks of their “irreconcilable differences”—perhaps Hughes’ need for other women and Plath’s fury at his betrayal—without explaining what they were. Toward the end, Plath’s poems sent out gasps and howling cries: “stark signals of distress” that were ignored (as Assia’s were later on) by the brutally egoistic Hughes. He knew, better than anyone else, that she was mentally unstable and suicidal. Shortly before she killed herself, she felt her mind disintegrating and was overwhelmed by “the force of her rage and the pathos of her helplessness.”

Middlebrook indulgently writes that Plath’s “last written words concerned her children’s safety.” In fact, on February 11, 1963, she risked their lives with the gas that killed her. Middlebrook tersely concludes that “Depression killed Sylvia Plath,” but she doesn’t explain what caused the depression: heredity, body chemistry, improper medication, an unusually harsh winter, the strain of caring for two infants—and Hughes’ betrayal. Five years later, on March 25, 1968, when Hughes became involved with yet another woman, Assia also took ghastly revenge. She “turned on the gas, and lay down with her daughter in her arms.” She was forty-one and Shura had just turned four when both of them died. For the rest of his life the Terminator conducted a dialogue with the dead.

Middlebrook doesn’t note that Hughes’ regret at letting “my lovelies drift & die” echoed Macduff’s agonizing lament: “All my pretty ones … and their dam / At one fell swoop.” She does not explain Hughes’ relations with Frieda and Nicholas, whether his early resentment of and hostility to his infant son persisted and harmed the boy, and what sort of life the children had; doesn’t explain the sort of marriage he had with Carol Orchard, whether she was aware of his predatory love affairs and, if so, how she responded to them.

Middlebrook misses several important allusions and could have said a great deal more about the literary influences on Plath’s poems. Their Court Green house in Devon, like the Brontë parsonage in Haworth (close to where Hughes grew up in Yorkshire), looks out onto a mournful cemetery. (Hughes stared out at the yews.) Middlebrook mentions “Hughes’ belief that all art originates with a wound” without noting its origins in Edmund Wilson’s influential essay “The Wound and the Bow” (1941). She quotes Hughes’ statement that his emblematic “Crow is another word of course for the entrails, lungs, heart” without connecting it to Eliot’s visceral pronouncement in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921) that a poet must look not only into his heart but also “into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts.”

D. H. Lawrence had a profound impact on both Hughes and Plath. Hughes’ sudden switch from English to anthropology at Cambridge was prompted by the dream, later described in “The Thought-Fox,” in which the animal placed its bloody paw on Hughes’ blank page and said: “Stop this—you are destroying us.” Middlebrook fails to see the influence of Lawrence’s story “The Fox,” in which a symbolic animal imparts feral wisdom to a man, or to link it to the fox cub episode of “Epiphany” in Birthday Letters. At the beginning of their marriage, after Plath had submitted Hughes’ Hawk in the Rain to a poetry contest, it won first prize and was accepted for publication by Harper & Row. Hughes exclaimed, “Sylvia is my luck,” echoing Lawrence’s exclamation when his girlfriend Jessie Chambers successfully sent his early poems to Ford’s English Review: “You are my luck.”

Middlebrook discusses the influence of Lawrence’s “Rabbit Snared in the Night” on Plath’s condemnation of Hughes in “The Rabbit Catcher” but fails to note the even stronger influence of Lawrence’s “Love on the Farm,” which emphasizes the connection between the excited woman and the dead rabbit, between sex and death—the orgasmic “little deaths” in Plath’s poem. Lawrence writes:

      The rabbit presses back her ears,

 

      Turns back her liquid, anguished eyes

 

      And crouches low; then with wild spring

 

      Spurts from the terror of his oncoming;

 

      To be choked back, the wire ring

 

      Her frantic effort throttling:

 

            Piteous brown ball of quivering fears!

 

    Ah, soon in his large, hard hands she dies.

Middlebrook does not extract the richest meaning from several of Plath’s most revealing poems. Plath’s psychiatrist finally gave her “permission to hate” her self-sacrificing but ghoulish mother. Aurelia went on their honeymoon, witnessed the breakup of their marriage, and urged her daughter to get a divorce when Plath really wanted a reconciliation. After Plath’s suicide, she even urged Hughes to surrender the children so she could bring them up in ultraconventional Wellesley, Massachusetts, and (as she had with Sylvia) burden them with her unbearable kindness. Sylvia’s “Electra on the Azalea Path,” about the horrific visit to her father’s grave, is also a severe judgment of Electra on Aurelia Plath.

Middlebrook connects Esther Greenwood’s dream in The Bell Jar of “sitting in the crotch of a fig tree amid branches loaded with ripe fruit” to Rupert Birkin peeling a fig in a major scene in Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920). But she doesn’t relate the dream to Plath’s “Virgin in a Tree,” inspired by Paul Klee’s etching of 1903, which portrays the negative aspects of sex. The virgin, retreating from emotional and sexual entanglements, has become as warped and twisted as the barren tree that protects her from life in the real world. Plath sees the etching as a tart fable of a ruined life. The ugly spinster on her tortured rack is

                                            ripe and unplucked, ‘s

 

      Lain splayed too long in the tortuous boughs: overripe

 

      Now, dour-faced, her fingers

 

      Stiff as twigs, her body woodenly

 

      Askew, she’ll ache and wake

 

    Though doomsday bud.

Middlebrook writes that Plath, early on, sent Hughes a postcard of Henri Rousseau’s The Snake Charmer (1907) but doesn’t mention that it inspired another poem of the same name by Plath. The flutist in his lush Eden, like God in Genesis, calls forth the serpents: “let there be snakes! / And snakes there were.” But he finally yawns, tires of music, and sounds the snakes out of existence:

                                           Pipes the cloth of snakes

 

      To a melting of green waters, till no snake

 

      Shows its head, and those green waters, back to

 

    Water, to green, to nothing like a snake.

Plath’s poem—like the postcard, freighted with meaning—extols the power of the artist to summon up his dreams and create his own world.

Finally, Middlebrook rather awkwardly calls Plath’s “The Disquieting Muses” “the first poem in which her negative emotions toward her mother are given a symbolic relationship to her writing.” But she doesn’t connect the poem to De Chirico’s painting of the same name. Plath uses De Chirico’s menacing figures to express hostility to her mother, who’d brought equally frightening apparitions into her nursery. She associates these distressing muses with scary stories and frightening hurricanes and in the final stanza compares the depressing painting to the harsh world her mother forced her to endure:

      They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,

 

      Faces blank as the day I was born,

 

      Their shadows long in the setting sun

 

      That never brightens or goes down.

 

      And this is the kingdom you bore me to,

 

    Mother, mother.



Hughes’ 1,332-page Collected Poems is not complete, for it does not include unpublished works. But this edition contains some juvenilia, nearly 150 uncollected poems, and many poems from fine press limited editions, especially Howls and Whispers (only 110 copies), which was omitted from his response to Plath in his last book, Birthday Letters. It also has 25 pages of Hughes’ notes and prefaces and 75 pages of the editor’s preface and notes. Some of the latter are explanatory, but most concern the publication history and textual variants of the poems.

This massive book provides an occasion to examine Hughes’ best and most characteristic work. His early poems, written between 1957 and 1979, reveal his dominant themes and help establish his place in contemporary poetry. His subjects are wild creatures (pike, bull, hawk, and jaguars); a bloody stillbirth; violent jealousy; a bayonet charge; a fiery martyrdom; and his tragic marriage to Plath. His finest work belongs to the great tradition of animal poems, from Clare’s “Badger” to Rilke’s “Panther.” They express the elemental power of the beasts and often portray malevolent predators locked in a fierce Darwinian struggle to kill and to survive. His aim is to capture and restore to man the primordial powers of the wild animals. In “Pike,” one fanged and clamp-jawed fish, captured and kept behind glass, devoured its two companions: one of them “jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet.” Silently casting in “the still splashes of the dark pond,” Hughes, raw-nerved and in close touch with the feral world, hears with heightened sense,

      Owls hushing the floating woods

 

      Frail on my ear against the dream

 

      Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,

 

    That rose slowly towards me, watching.

The bull Moses, enclosed but with explosive potential, is like a charged bomb ready for detonation. Alluding to the place of the bull in Mithraic religion and penetrating a nonhuman consciousness, Hughes suggests that the powerful but strangely passive animal deliberately allows the farmer to lead him out of and back into the dark primeval world. But the bull is also capable of sudden and dangerous revolt:

                                                                        He would raise

 

      His streaming muzzle and look out over the meadows,

 

      But the grasses whispered nothing awake, the fetch

 

      Of the distance drew nothing to momentum

 

    In the locked black of his powers.

The mystery of the bull’s inner world seems closed to the farm boy who, when Moses returns to the byre, shuts in his mysterious perception and strength.

“Hawk Roosting,” narrated in sinister diction by the hawk himself, portrays the evolutionary perfection of the predator and the egocentric horror of his worldview. He doesn’t act, merely surveys the world between “hooked head and hooked feet” while pondering his past kills. But he also tyrannizes his prey and represents the deadliness of the natural world:

      I kill where I please because it is all mine… .

 

      My manners are tearing off heads—

 

      The allotment of death.

 

      For the one path of my flight is direct

 

    Through the bones of the living.

“The Jaguar,” Hughes’ early and perhaps most famous poem, contrasts the defiant fury of the caged wild animal with the human beings who try to contain him. After the poet (a former zoo employee) takes a witty, vibrant tour of indolent apes, parrots who “shriek as if they were on fire” or “strut / Like cheap tarts,” a coiled boa constrictor, and stinking cages, he reaches (as the diction intensifies and the verbs speed up) a South American leopard, hurrying and “enraged / Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes / On a short fierce fuse.” Driven by “the bang of blood in the brain,” he remains untamed and free in his head. Despite his cage, he still sees a distant view of the jungle:

      His stride is wildernesses of freedom:

 

      The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.

 

    Over the cage floor the horizons come.

“Second Glance at a Jaguar,” but much more than a glance, has—like a vital animal drawing by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska—more physical detail and murderous intensity. Hughes begins with an exact observation of the ball-bearing-like movement of this obsessively pacing “Aztec disemboweler” and ritualistic killer. He craftily captures the menace and persistent desire for revenge of the jaguar,

      Muttering some mantra, some drum-song of murder

 

      To keep his rage brightening, making his skin

 

      Intolerable, spurred by the rosettes, the cain-brands,

 

      Wearing the spots off from inside,

 

    Rounding some revenge.

Hughes’ poem was influenced by the morbid Aztec-jaguar connection at the beginning of chapter 3 in Lawrence’s Mexican novel, The Plumed Serpent (1926): “the undertone was like the low, angry, snarling purring of some jaguar spotted with night. There was a ponderous, down-pressing weight upon the spirit: the great folds of the dragon of the Aztecs… . It was all death! death! death! as insistent as the Aztec sacrifices. Something for ever gruesome and macabre.”

Hughes explores the grim cycle of birth, love, and death in the next four poems. In “February 17th” a lamb, trying to get born too soon in the wintry weather, dies before it is born. “He had stuck his head out too early / And his feet could not follow.” The desperate farmer, forced to become a gruesome obstetrician, slices the neck tendons and cuts the lamb’s head off “to stare at its mother.” Then, managing to force his hand past the corpse, he grasps the lamb’s knee and saves the mother by pulling it out:

      And after it the long, sudden, yolk-yellow

 

      Parcel of life

 

      In a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups—

 

    And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.

This shocking poem, about man’s helplessness against nature, is charged with irony. The “parcel of life” is actually dead and the “born” body is stillborn. February was the month Hughes first met Plath and the month she killed herself. And “February 17th,” with its allusions to the severed head of John the Baptist and the Green Knight, can also be read as an allegory of their marriage: of his miscarried efforts to help her and his need to sacrifice her in order to save himself.

“Kreutzer Sonata” is more complex. It alludes to both Beethoven’s sonata for violin and piano, Opus 47 (1803), dedicated to the French virtuoso Rodolphe Kreutzer, and Tolstoy’s story of the same title (1889). In the story, the wife and her lover (based on the infatuated Sofya Tolstoy and her teacher S. I. Taneyev) express their sexual passion by playing the sonata that helps destroy her. The husband, Pozdnyshev, confesses that he stabbed his wife to death when he discovered her with the fiddler. The poem follows the three-part sonata form—theme, repetition and variations, finale—and opens as the speaker, addressing the insanely jealous Pozdnyshev, describes the wound that “Blooms wetly on her dress” and saps the life of the once-beloved victim. As the murderer expresses Tolstoy’s late hatred of sex as the debaser of spiritual values, his “wife’s sweet flesh”—sweet to her lover, but not to her husband—”goes off” her body, which turns to bone. The tormented, demented husband, who claims his evil wife drove him to commit the crime, calls it “A sacrifice, not a murder.” In the final stanza Hughes—following Lawrence’s assault on Anna Karenina in his essay “The Novel”—attacks Tolstoy’s intrusive moralizing. Speaking directly to the novelist, Hughes condemns his life-denying vegetarianism and asceticism:

      Rest in peace, Tolstoy!

 

      It must have taken supernatural greed

 

      To need to corner all the meat in the world,

 

    Even from your own hunger.

In “Bayonet Charge” Hughes moves from a domestic crime to a massacre. His father was one of only seventeen survivors of an entire regiment destroyed by Turkish artillery in the 1915 campaign in Gallipoli. Hughes’ description of the disastrous infantry assault captures the excitement, confusion, and terror of war. In the frantic, mindless, self-sacrificial charge, the soldier, literally running for his life, plunges toward the meager protection of a hedge:

      King, honour, human dignity, et cetera

 

      Dropped like luxuries in a yelling alarm

 

      To get out of that blue crackling air

 

    His terror’s touchy dynamite

—which is about to explode, both within and without. Hughes’ poem was strongly influenced by Wilfred Owen and by the famous passage in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) where he rejects the patriotic lies and suggests that only the actual places where men had fought and died had any dignity and meaning: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”

“The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar” concerns another kind of death. Described in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), the ritual burning took place on March 30, 1555, during the reign of the Catholic queen, “Bloody Mary.” Robert Farrar, Bishop of St. David’s, refused to abjure the Protestant faith and was pronounced a heretic and excommunicated. He was then burnt at the Market Cross at Carmarthen, in Wales. In the poem, during the slow consumption of the bishop’s body and of the blood that had once coursed comfortably through his veins, the shrewd townsfolk pocket his last words like coins of the realm. The willing martyr, who kept his spiritual vow to God and his parishioners, did not cry out in extremis—as Christ had done on the cross. As Farrar’s eyes melted and fire shot out of his mouth, “smoke burned his sermons into the skies.” The bishop defeats Mary. He dies, but his unflinching silence proclaims, as he’d predicted, the triumph of his doctrine. Hughes reminds our mild, ecumenical age that religious persecution once took place in Britain and that Bishop Farrar (a distant ancestor of his mother, n?e Farrar) was killed in the name of God by his fellow Christians.

In three revealing poems, written after her death, Hughes meditates on his agonizing relations with Plath. He was attracted by, Plath repelled by, the violence of the bullfight and the obsession with death in Spanish culture—though its morbidity matched the themes of her poems. She was drawn to the cruelty in the paintings of Bosch and Goya in the Prado. But, Hughes writes, echoing Auden’s “Spain” (1937): “that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot / Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe”—

                                               The blood-raw light,

 

      The oiled anchovy faces, the African

 

    Black edges to everything, frightened you.

The bullfight they watched on their 1956 honeymoon in Benidorm, on the southeast Mediterranean coast, inspired Hughes’ “You Hated Spain,” which emphasizes their fundamental differences and reappears in Birthday Letters. (Plath gave her version of the event in “The Goring.”) The corrida was particularly repulsive: the matador vomited from fear and the picador was knocked off his horse and gored. Alluding to Joyce’s “history … is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and to Charon carrying the dead across the Styx to Hades, Hughes exclaims:

      Spain was what you tried to wake up from

 

      And could not. I see you, in moonlight,

 

      Walking the empty wharf at Alicante

 

      Like a soul waiting for the ferry,

 

      A new soul, still not understanding,

 

      Thinking it is still your honeymoon

 

      In the happy world, with your whole life waiting

 

    Happy, and all your poems still to be found.

Though Plath’s illusions helped shield her from the harsh reality of Spain, her confrontation with violence and death darkened her vision and helped inspire her future poems.

In the austere and agonizing “The Rat’s Dance,” Hughes expresses his poetic reaction to Plath’s suicide and his own Job-like disaster. He had imagined himself as a hawk, tearing his way through life, but now sees himself as the prey. He is the rat, unthinking, screeching (variants of this word are repeated four times), inextricably caught in the iron jaws of a trap. He rejects the soothing Christian response to human suffering: that God wills and man must endure this earthly trial. But after long suffering, the rat stops screeching and becomes silent:

      The rat understands suddenly.

 

                                                      It bows and is still,

 

    With a little beseeching of blood on its nose-end.

Bleeding out its life, the Hughes-rat, realizing that it’s doomed and dead, stoically accepts its tragic fate.

Hughes’ “Lovesong,” like Baudelaire’s “Lethe,” is really a hatesong and opposes the long tradition of English love poetry. This unsettling poem deceptively begins like a romance as he imagines himself Plath’s only lover and makes her live only for their climactic sex. But his whole body becomes absorbed by and in her—swallowed, chewed, and devoured—as she bites, gnaws, and sucks him. During their wounding dialogue he can’t escape, is crucified, and becomes a fallen colossus (the title of her first book). When the real world intrudes on their sadomasochistic lovemaking, she becomes the deadly female spider that mates with and then devours the male. Finally, alluding to her hidden mental illness, her Nazi imagery, their divorce, her orgasmic cries, and his deadly rat trap, he confesses:

      His words were occupying armies

 

      Her laughs were an assassin’s attempts

 

      Her looks were bullets daggers of revenge

 

      Her glances were ghosts in the corner with horrible secrets

 

      Her whispers were whips and jackboots

 

      Her kisses were lawyers steadily writing

 

      Her caresses were the last hooks of a castaway

 

      Her love-tricks were the grinding of locks

 

      And their deep cries crawled over the floors

 

    Like an animal dragging a great trap.

As “their heads fell apart” after sex, they parody Plato’s explanation of sexual desire in The Symposium (also discussed in Lawrence’s Women in Love): that primeval man and woman had originally been one being, were subsequently split apart, and forever sought to achieve their original union. Finally, they swap arms and legs, faces and brains in a total surrender of their identities. The unintentionally devouring Plath explained Hughes’ fears when she wrote in her Journal of May 5, 1958: “I think I must live in his heat and presence, for his smells and words,—as if all my senses fed involuntarily on him and deprived for more than a few hours, I languish, wither, die to the world.”

It’s axiomatic that poets’ wives have rotten lives. Plath—consumed by that which she was nourished by—might never have found the elemental energy and visceral imagery of Ariel poems like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” without the formidable example of Hughes’ Hawk in the Rain. The brutal power so admired by critics in Hughes’ poetry was bitterly condemned by Plath’s defenders in his character. But his poems transcend the deeply flawed man who wrote them. Despite his mystical rubbish and tendency to overkill, Hughes now stands—with Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, and Geoffrey Hill—among the outstanding English poets since the war.

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