Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

In his first poem, Fulbright Scholars, Ted Hughes predicts the wonderful disaster that would be his romance with Sylvia Plath:

It was the first peach

            I ever tasted

            I could hardly believe

            how delicious

            At twenty-five I was dumbfounded

            By my ignorance of the

            Simplest things

Published in 1998, Birthday letters is a collection of poetry by renowned English poet Ted Hughes. The 88 poems depict the tumultuous relationship with his first wife of seven years, the American poet, Sylvia Plath whose work The Bell Jar and Ariel have gained her posthumous acclaim. Many believe that Birthday Letters is his response to his wife’s suicide in 1963 as well as to the critics and Plath’s followers who blamed him for her death.

Published 35 years after her death and two years before his own demise from a terminal illness, many took Hughes silence as insensitive or an attempt to shun responsibility for her mental unraveling. However, his decision to publish Birthday Letters gained immediate acclaim and accolades where it won the Forward Poetry Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, Whitebread Poetry and Whitebread British Book of the Year.

Birthday Letters paints a picture of the human experience in all its pain and glory: Lust, love, passion and the death of a marriage. The poems reveal aspects about their relationship that had been a source of awe and intrigue to the public. However, more than that, the collection is Ted Hughes letters to Sylvia Plath, poet, mother and lover.

The poems, from Fulbright Scholars which precludes their intense first meeting as shown in St. Boltoph’s to reading his wife’s diaries as an observer in Visit, Hughes’ treatment of the work, with   allusions to her diaries, vocabulary and style gives reverence to Sylvia Plath as a writer.

The ways to Hell on Earth are easy, and one can always cross out Hell and scribble in Heaven. So much sweeter that way. -Sylvia Plath

Heart wrenching yet inspiring, Birthday Letters grabs the reader from the pit of their soul until the image of Plath and Hughes-their love story and destruction- becomes a piece of one’s own personal history.

Sadly, poetry is often now relegated to the hallowed halls of empty libraries collecting  dust, but its relevance today is just, if not more so, important as it was then. Poetry is a reminder of our humanity. Through verse, abstract emotions such as anger, confusion, distress, love, passion, fury, depression are tangible.

With people constantly bombarded by stimulus from television, the internet and the pressures of daily life, it is easy to forget the value of reflection and catharsis. It can serve to release the torments of the past and the fears of the future. Poetry, whether as a reader or a writer, allows one to slow down and take account of the present. Current technology is both the friend and foe for poetry. Mediums such as the internet has allowed more people to express themselves creatively and gain a wider audience, but at the same time there is so much information being passed around and at such great speeds that few have a chance to resonate with readers. Other sources of stimuli, such as the television, portray pieces of the human experience, such as love or friendship, but often only show one, often skewed or heightened aspect of reality relying more on visual techniques than reaching the core of human existence. However, most of all, poetry’s greatest success is its ability to communicate the highest ecstasies and deepest wounds that bind us in the human experience.

“Because it is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something – perhaps not much, just something – of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees. Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river. Something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river. Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this. Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness. And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment, of time, and in that same moment, make out of it all the vital signature of a human being – not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses – but a human being, we call it poetry.” – Ted Hughes

Thus, works such as Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes brings to light real issues. As the words fly off the page, so does the desire to share in the same honest and intense way the shadowed portions of our own souls.

“Last Letter” by Ted Hughes

The first page of the earliest known draft of the poem, which went through many revisions before the final version appeared


What happened that night? Your final night.
Double, treble exposure
Over everything. Late afternoon, Friday,
My last sight of you alive.
Burning your letter to me, in the ashtray,
With that strange smile. Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you too promptly?
One hour later—-you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you.
I would have turned from your locked red door
That nobody would open
Still holding your letter,
A thunderbolt that could not earth itself.
That would have been electric shock treatment
For me.
Repeated over and over, all weekend,
As often as I read it, or thought of it.
That would have remade my brains, and my life.
The treatment that you planned needed some time.
I cannot imagine
How I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?

Your note reached me too soon—-that same day,
Friday afternoon, posted in the morning.
The prevalent devils expedited it.
That was one more straw of ill-luck
Drawn against you by the Post-Office
And added to your load. I moved fast,
Through the snow-blue, February, London twilight.
Wept with relief when you opened the door.
A huddle of riddles in solution. Precocious tears
That failed to interpret to me, failed to divulge
Their real import. But what did you say
Over the smoking shards of that letter
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you, and leave you
To blow its ashes off your plan—-off the ashtray
Against which you would lean for me to read
The Doctor’s phone-number.
My escape
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing. Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

My love-life grabbed it. My numbed love-life
With its two mad needles,
Embroidering their rose, piercing and tugging
At their tapestry, their bloody tattoo
Somewhere behind my navel,
Treading that morass of emblazon,
Two mad needles, criss-crossing their stitches,
Selecting among my nerves
For their colours, refashioning me
Inside my own skin, each refashioning the other
With their self-caricatures,

Their obsessed in and out. Two women
Each with her needle.

That night
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze
Even included Helen, in the ground-floor flat.
You had noted her—-a girl for a story.
You never met her. Few ever met her,
Except across the ears and raving mask
Of her Alsatian. You had not even glimpsed her.
You had only recoiled
When her demented animal crashed its weight
Against her door, as we slipped through the hallway;
And heard it choking on infinite German hatred.

That Sunday night she eased her door open
Its few permitted inches.
Susan greeted the black eyes, the unhappy
Overweight, lovely face, that peeped out
Across the little chain. The door closed.
We heard her consoling her jailor
Inside her cell, its kennel, where, days later,
She gassed her ferocious kupo, and herself.

Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your weekend over,
You might appear—-a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—-the same from which
Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.
Monday morning
I drove her to work, in the City,
Then parked my van North of Euston Road
And returned to where my telephone waited.

What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening. How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver—-
At both ends the fading memory
Of a telephone ringing, in a brain
As if already dead. I count
How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road, crossing over
Between the heaped up banks of dirty sugar.
In your long black coat,
With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair
You walk unable to move, or wake, and are
Already nobody walking
Walking by the railings under Primrose Hill
Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again.

At what position of the hands on my watch-face
Did your last attempt,
Already deeply past
My being able to hear it, shake the pillow
Of that empty bed? A last time
Lightly touch at my books, and my papers?
By the time I got there my phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with the snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead.’