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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dying Poet's Last Printed Words Told His Side of Life With Plath




LONDON -- Ted Hughes, Britain's late poet laureate, was known as much for his doomed marriage to the American poet Sylvia Plath as for his powerful, evocative poetry, replete with symbolism and bursting with dark images of the Devon countryside in which he lived.


Hughes, who died last week at 68, had been suffering from cancer for about 18 months but had told only his closest friends, said Matthew Evans, the chairman of Faber and Faber, Hughes' publisher. "He felt that being ill was, for him, very private,'' Evans said.


It was his illness, and his sense that time was running out, that persuaded Hughes to publish his last work, "Birthday Letters,'' a collection of poems about his tempestuous, fragile relationship with Plath, who committed suicide soon after the two separated in 1963. After a silence of 35 years, in which Hughes had steadfastly refused to discuss Plath publicly or to respond to charges - leveled in her own work and by her legions of admirers - that his callousness had led to her death, Hughes' decision to finally speak out was extraordinary. The book became an international bestseller, rare for a book of poetry, and was a personal turning point for Hughes.


"It was a piece of work he wanted to get out before he died,'' Evans said. "He regarded it as being of personal importance. It was the nearest thing to an autobiography.''


The book, which drew a sometimes loving picture of a brilliant but emotionally unstable woman with a passion for suicide that seemed hardwired into her very being, was widely praised, particularly in Britain. Friends of Hughes saw it as a complete vindication of a man who had lived for decades in the shadow of his far more famous wife, taking on a guilt that should not have been his.


But the book did not end the discussion over the strange, terrible time surrounding Plath's death, already described by her in her own remarkable poems and journals, jagged cries of pain that seemed to lay the blame for her troubles squarely on Hughes' shoulders. Many Plath scholars said that Hughes had asked too much of his American wife: forcing her to live, without emotional support, in a cold and dark country even as her mind began to unravel, and abandoning her and their two small children at a time when she was clearly crying out for help.


Whatever the truth, Hughes, by then ill with the disease that would kill him, got the last word in the 35-year discussion. Although he never talked about the poems publicly, saying that he wanted his work to speak for itself, friends said he felt satisfied with what "Birthday Letters'' had accomplished.


"The publication was a very important moment for him,'' Evans was quoted as saying by the Press Association in London. "He was putting another side, and there was a great deal of understanding after that book was published.''


The poems in "Birthday Letters," Hughes' often heartbreaking account of his relationship with Plath, were written much more simplistically, as straightforward narratives that act almost like prose. When the book was published, the poet's legion of friends, who knew him as a loyal and generous friend who was almost bigger than life, with his imposing physical presence, his strong, eagle-like face, his enormous, bushy eyebrows and his thatch of thick, unruly hair, said he had finally succeeded in exorcising the ghosts of the past.


In 1984, Hughes was made Britain's poet laureate, a prestigious but rather strange job that pays pounds 70 and a case of wine a year, and requires the incumbent to write stately poems on solemn occasions like the Queen Mother's 90th birthday and the death of the Princess of Wales. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1977. He won numerous awards for his work over the years, most recently winning the Whitbread Book of the Year prize in 1997 for "Tales From Ovid." Earlier this month, Hughes became just one of the 24 holders of an Order of Merit in Britain (new ones are awarded only when holders of the title die).