The 100 best nonfiction books: No 4 – Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (1998)

These passionate, audacious poems addressed to Hughes’s late wife, Sylvia Plath, contribute to the couple’s mythology and are a landmark in English poetry

Poetry will be braided into this series like a golden thread, because in every generation it is the poets who replenish and tantalise the collective consciousness. As I’ve written already, this list is a personal inventory of some core texts, the books that I believe shaped our imagination and “made us who we are”. Birthday Letters fits that template, surviving Ted Hughes as a work of outrageous audacity, astonishing rhetorical and lyrical fervour, mixed with heartbreaking candour. In short, it is a landmark in English poetry.

In any age, the story of Ted (Hughes) and Sylvia (Plath) would be a chapter torn from the playbook of romantic tragedy. Furthermore, in the Anglo-American literary tradition, the marriage of two great contemporary poets from opposite sides of the Atlantic must be a source of endless fascination. At first, the double helix of love and work inspired some remarkable poems, but add the early suicide of one, and the lifelong torment of the other, and you have the makings of a myth. When, in the late summer of 1997, Hughes walked into the offices of his publisher, Faber & Faber, with the manuscript of 88 poems addressed to his dead wife, he was chiselling the synopsis of a stupendous private drama high into the north face of Parnassus. Birthday Letters, the manuscript in question, published in 1998, became the most sensational new collection of poems in living memory.

The collision of art and love, the tectonic plates of any writer’s career, creativity mingling with everyday life, must be the San Andreas fault of literature. When the two writers involved happen to be great contemporary poets, artistic equals, the material that explodes from the depths is bound to be incandescent, exhilarating, unearthly and passionate. For Hughes, addressing Plath inevitably had its mythologising dimension. He writes:

The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it.

A 1998 letter to his friend and fellow poet Seamus Heaney, describes the backstory. From the 1970s, Hughes says that he began to address his “letters to Sylvia”, exploring every aspect of their relationship. At first, Hughes reports, he wrote them on the hoof, informally; later, he tried to work at them in a more controlled way but found that he was unable. He went back to spontaneous forays: some of these Birthday Letters poems first appeared in his New Selected Poems (1995), but in correspondence with friends, he would admit that he found some of the other poems in the series too personal to publish. Birthday Letters, written over a period of more than 25 years, was Hughes’s own great reckoning – although it would turn out to be incomplete.

When Birthday Letters finally appeared, Hughes cast his extraordinary spell, and not for the first time, over an audience which, for two generations, had been brought up on The Hawk in the Rain, Crow and The Rattle Bag, as well as on the tale of Ted and Sylvia, one of the love stories of the 20th century. The book became an instant bestseller and prizewinner.

There are many ironies in play with Birthday Letters. First, there is the unquenchable afterlife of a tragic relationship with which Hughes himself spent half a lifetime grappling. Throughout his career, Hughes was tormented by the vociferous fans of Plath who wanted to hold him to account for Plath’s suicide in the winter of 1963, and also for the way in which he administered the posthumous publication of her oeuvre. In death, as in life, Sylvia troubled him still.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on honeymoon in Paris
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on honeymoon in Paris... in any age, their story ‘would be a chapter torn from the playbook of romantic tragedy’. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Birthday Letters became a painful, at times self-lacerating, tribute to the radioactive power of that legacy, as well as a monument that inexorably reminded readers of Hughes’s contemporary status. It was also a career-defining volume. Now, approaching 20 years after his death, Hughes the poet, so often teased and parodied in his lifetime, is emerging as one of the towering literary figures of the past century, to be spoken of in the same breath as Eliot, Yeats, Auden and Larkin. As the Observer put it recently, “he has become the once and future king of the English literary imagination”.

With Birthday Letters, Hughes also winds Sylvia inextricably into his own literary afterlife. Perhaps she would not have been disappointed. Plath was a mesmerising and tormented figure, who was only too willing to play her part in any drama. “She wrote her early poems very slowly,” Hughes once said of their early days together in the 1950s. It was, he said, “as if she were working out a mathematical problem, chewing her lips, putting a thick dark ring of ink round each word that stirred her on the page of the thesaurus”.

Birthday Letters (together with Plath’s letters and diaries) describes a now familiar tale. If her beginnings were slow and desk-bound, Plath was soon soaring beyond her lover’s reach. But it was a fatal trajectory. Theirs was a tragic match and the relationship turned sour. By 1963 the instability that had dogged Plath’s whole life was becoming painfully dominant. The question that feminist critics have endlessly debated is: was she so obsessed with her dead father that her suicide was almost predetermined, or did Hughes’s behaviour, particularly his decision to leave her for another woman after six years of marriage, push her to the edge?

Who will ever know? In Last Letter, a poem with the traumatic line “Your wife is dead”, released by the poet’s estate after his death, Hughes himself gets sucked into that vortex, declaring that the explanation for suicide is “as unknown as if it never happened”. So Plath’s tragic death remains a mystery that has already inspired one masterpiece (The Savage God by Al Alvarez, the Observer’s former poetry editor) and numberless words of exegesis.

Hughes himself went to ground, living in Devon, writing about nature and keeping his counsel. It did not do him much good. “My silence seems to confirm every accusation and fantasy,” he once wrote. With Promethean stoicism, he held his ground. “I preferred [silence], on the whole, to allowing myself to be dragged out into the bullring and teased and pricked and goaded into vomiting up every detail of my life with Sylvia.”

But he was still wounded. I remember once awkwardly broaching the Sylvia question with him, after several glasses of wine, and being touched and amazed at the flood of loving recollection released by a simple – and tactless – inquiry. He was, in his prime, as compelling a figure as Plath: an unforgettable physical presence with fathomless reserves of feeling and humanity, and a gentle Yorkshire voice that seemed to remake every sentence it uttered.

Birthday Letters was also an attempt by Hughes to nail shut a Pandora’s box of prurient, often vicious, speculation. It’s easy to forget the vehemence of the opposition. The poet’s readings were sometimes interrupted by cries of “murderer”; the American feminist poet Robin Morgan published The Arraignment which began with the lines “I accuse/Ted Hughes...”

Having explored the passage of Plath’s short life, Hughes stopped short of revealing the circumstances of the suicide itself, about which there had been endless gossip. He had been wrestling with that lost weekend in the frozen midwinter of 1963, especially the horrifying, almost macabre, detail that Plath had reassuringly burned her suicide note, which had reached Hughes prematurely, in front of him. He distilled the horror of this moment into repeated drafts of Last Letter in a “blue school-style exercise book” that contained versions of several other poems that also appear in Birthday Letters. The only person who knew of this poem’s existence, because Hughes had given her a typed fair copy of it, was the poet’s widow, Carol.

This is where a concluding and redemptive chapter in this story begins. Carol Hughes, with impressive dignity, has chosen never to speak publicly about her husband. For any literary estate, the question of what it is right to publish is always fraught. The second Mrs Hardy burned her husband’s correspondence with her predecessor, enraging generations of scholars. Hughes himself had been criticised for his destruction of Plath’s last journal. Carol Hughes, however, has always tried to do her best by her husband’s work. She had always known about this “last letter”, and what it revealed. Biding her time, she chose the right moment to release it, in the pages of the New Statesman. On publication, Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, observed that this last poem, the coda to Birthday Letters, is “a bit like looking into the sun as it’s dying. It seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he’s ever written.” Time will tell if Sylvia Plath’s spirit has finally been laid to rest. Birthday Letters has already become part of the canon.

A signature line

That blue suit,
A mad, execution uniform,
Survived your sentence. But then I sat, stilled,
Unable to fathom what stilled you
As I looked at you, as I am stilled
Permanently now, permanently
Bending so briefly at your open coffin.

From The Blue Flannel Suit, Birthday Letters.

Three to compare

Al Alvarez: The Savage God (1971)
Sylvia Plath: Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963 (1975)
Janet Malcolm: The Silent Woman – Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1993)

  • Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber, £12.99). To order a copy for £10.39, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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