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Sylvia and Ted: Their Troubled Romance

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • February 26, 2021

A Violent Passion

We should meet in another life, we should meet in the air, me and you. –Sylvia Plath

On this day sixty-five years ago, celebrated poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met at a party in Cambridge, England where they were both students. Plath was twenty-three and Hughes, twenty-five. The purpose of this event was to celebrate the launch of a poetry journal started by Hughes and his friends.

When Plath arrived at the party, she was instantly smitten with the "big, dark, hunky" Hughes. Already a fan of his poetry, she spontaneously began reciting some of his verses aloud. Impressed, he pulled her into a room and proceeded to kiss her, violently pulling her headband from her hair. She responded by biting him on the cheek, hard enough that when they returned to the party, he was still bleeding. According to one source, the poem that started it all was entitled "Law in the Country of Cats" and is included in Hughes's first book of poetry, The Hawk in the Rain.

Before They Met

Sylvia Plath's young life was marked by ambition, brilliance, and sadness. Raised in Boston, Massachusetts, she began writing as a child and had her first poem published at the age of eight shortly after her father, Otto, died from complications related to diabetes. Otto's death deeply impacted the young Plath. In one of her short stories, she writes of this shift, saying, "those nine first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth." Mad Girl's Love Song, a biography by Andrew Wilson, focuses on the complex, creative, and disturbing life the poet led before she met Hughes. Her brilliant autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, offers an absorbing portrait of her struggles with depression during her young adulthood.

Hughes also showed an early inclination for a literary life, having his earliest poems published in his grammar school newsletter. His childhood in bucolic Yorkshire, England involved a great deal of time spent in nature. At sixteen, Hughes won a scholarship to study English at Pembroke College in Cambridge, but he chose to do his two years of compulsory national service first. He was stationed in isolated east Yorkshire, where he had nothing to do but "read and reread Shakespeare and watch the grass grow." He learned many of the plays by heart and memorized great quantities of poetry by W. B. Yeats, among others. Ted Hughes: the Life of a Poet by Elaine Feinstein offers a comprehensive biography of his early life and beyond.

Early Days

The complex and troubled union between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is explored deeply in Diane Middlebrook's book, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—A Marriage. Married just four months after they met, they honeymooned in Spain and then set up housekeeping. The early years of their marriage appear to have been largely happy. They were both thriving as artists, with their poetry appearing in major publications. They lived mostly in England, but moved to America for a time so that Plath could take a teaching job at Smith, her alma mater.

Plath drafted a novel about these happier days in her marriage named Falcon Yard for the place where they'd met. Although the novel was never published (the manuscript reportedly burned by Plath), excerpts can be found in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection of short stories published after Plath's death with an introduction written by Hughes.

A Dark Turn

According to Hughes, Plath didn't tell him about her history of depression and suicidal tendencies until late in their relationship. In any case, there are signs that she was starting to suffer again as Plath left her teaching job. She took a part-time job working as a receptionist on the psychiatric unit of a Boston hospital and resumed psychoanalytic treatment. The couple moved back to England in December of 1959 when Plath was pregnant with their first child.

A committed diarist, Plath's journals, dating back to her teen years, provide insight into this time of her life. An incomplete version of these journals was published shortly after she died, removing sections her mother, Aurelia, and Hughes deemed "messy," but in 2000, editor Karen Kurkil recovered The Unabridged Journals for publication.

Children and Turmoil

Frieda Hughes was born in April of 1960 and in October, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. In February of 1961, Plath suffered a miscarriage. In a letter to her therapist, she claimed that Hughes had physically abused her two days earlier. Hughes denied this accusation years later when it came to light. Plath addressed the loss of her pregnancy in several of her poems, including "Parliament Hill Fields," where she wrote "already your doll grip lets go."

In 1962, Plath gave birth to son Nicholas. Later that same year, Hughes met Assia Wevill and began an affair with her. In a poem called "Dreamers" he wrote of their meeting:

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.

The subsequent relationship between Hughes and Wevill is explored in Reclaiming Assia Wevill: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Literary Imagination by Julia Goodspeed Chadwick.

Separation

Hughes and Plath separated in September of 1962. In the months that followed, Plath experienced a great burst of creativity. In a letter to her mother, she said, "I am writing the best poems of my life. They will make my name." And it was true. It was during this feverishly artistic time that Plath wrote many of the poems from Ariel, a celebrated collection published after her death—just five months later. In Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, Kate Moses imagines this desperate period for the vulnerable thirty-year-old, mother to two young children, her marriage disintegrating.

Despite the separation, it was Hughes, still her husband, who retained control of Plath's works after her death. In the first publication of Ariel, Hughes rearranged the order of the poems and even omitted some of them. In 2004, the couple's daughter Frieda published a restored version.

"Last Letter" is a poem by Hughes, discovered twelve years after his death, that describes the last three days of Plath's life. Originally meant to be included in Birthday Letters, his final collection, Hughes confided in a friend that he had withheld it because it was "too personal." Having remained largely silent about their relationship during the remainder of his life, the 150-line work expresses the former poet laureate's anguish and sorrow around his young wife's untimely end.

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