Hughes and Plath: clearing the record

October 12, 2003|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: Portrait of a Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook, Viking, $29.95, 416 pages.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married from 1956 until 1963, when Hughes left his wife for another woman. Six months after the dissolution of their marriage, Plath committed suicide.

Merely tragic, were Plath and Hughes an ordinary couple. But Plath was one of the premiere female American poets of the latter 20th century and Hughes became England's poet laureate; their brief but volatile relationship and her subsequent suicide have assumed an aura of literary and cultural myth. A plethora of new books (as well as a film to be released next week starring Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow), have focused on the "sturm und drang" of the couple's relationship, intensifying that mythos.

Unquestionably the best book written thus far on these complicated geniuses is Diane Middlebrook's. Best known for her stellar biography of another brilliant poet (and suicide) of the same era as Plath, Anne Sexton, Middlebrook has also written books of criticism on modern poetry. Thus she brings a compelling illumination of the poetry as well as the specifics of biography to her subject.

In the 35 years since Plath gassed herself to death in the London flat she shared with her two small children, one allegation has resonated: Hughes

was a brutish womanizer who drove Plath to her death. Compounding this theory: the ghastly suicide of Hughes' second wife, Assia Weevil (Hughes and Weevil's daughter was also killed), the woman for whom he had left Plath. Combine those tragedies with a rising feminist influence in the 1960s and theory became fact: Plath was elevated to tragic feminist icon.

Middlebrook quashes the perception of Plath as imperiled victim to Hughes demonic misogynist. Here the couple are fully drawn, fully realized individuals. Middlebrook reveals their personal histories, explores the virtues and villianies of each and explains how their relationship made them the poets they were and became - and whom, she asserts, they would never have been without the other.

Plath and Hughes met in February 1956. She was 23, he 26 and both were students at Cambridge, Plath on a Fulbright Fellowship. The intensity of their passion for each other blazed immediately; they married three months after that first incandescent meeting, a meeting Hughes believed was fated.

Hughes emerged as such a powerful poet, Plath's early ascendancy has been dwarfed and minimized. Middlebrook re-establishes the balance between the work of each, illuminating how they fed off and also nurtured each others' work.

Plath was a compulsive note-taker and planner. Every event became potential material for poems, stories and essays; she wrote assiduously and prolifically until the literal day of her death. Hughes wrote with similar prolificity but was a much more undisciplined talent before Plath's aegis; during his relationship with Plath and through her critiques of his work and his examination of hers he begins to draw on the material of his life that would elicit his most compelling work.

Middlebrook's title is elucidating: Hughes has been defined by Plath, even in England where his brilliance earned him the poet laureateship. This assessment, however, explains Middlebrook, is nevertheless accurate: Hughes himself accepted it. His lifelong belief in Jungian archetypes, shamanism, astrology and other mysticism made Hughes believe Plath was ordained to be his muse and he hers.

As executor of Plath's voluminous work (some of which he destroyed, for which he has - rightly - been vilified), Hughes could never divest himself of his connection to her and, in fact, was intensely protective of her memory. His final works before his death in 1998 were in part a paean to their relationship.

Smartly, objectively and compassionately written, Her Husband rips the covers off a wildly passionate marriage fraught with violence and sexual intensity to reveal its complexity and show how it formed the basis for literary excellence in two geniuses - both troubled, one to madness.

Middlebrook's assessment of the inextricable link between these two poets re-individuates them, lifts them from devaluing myth and places them on the literary pedestals - separate, equal yet side-by-side - on which they both, assuredly belong.

Victoria A. Brownworth has published several books of poetry as well as numerous collections of short stories and essays. She teaches writing at the Univeristy of the Arts in Philadelphia

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