Book Reviews - Autumn 2018

A Poet in Purgatory

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An inside look at a literary marriage that ended in disaster

By Sandra M. Gilbert | September 4, 2018
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, holding their two-month-old daughter, Frieda, in London in June 1960. His mother, Edith, is at left. (Copyright Estate of Hilda Farrar, Courtesy of Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University)

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956–1963, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil; Harper, 1,088 pp., $45

The story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes began as a kind of fairy tale, or—to be more contemporary—a True Romance. When we last encountered the lovers, at the end of the massive first volume of Plath’s letters, they were addressing each other in passionate prose: Sylvia was Ted’s “kish and puss and ponk”; he was her own “Teddy-ponk.” Volume two begins with the same romantic enthusiasm, as Sylvia tells American friends about her secret Bloomsday marriage to a “roaring hulking Yorkshireman,” “exactly the sort of person I’ve always needed [a] strong brute with dark hair, in great unwieldy amounts, & green-blue-brown eyes [who] sings ballads, knows all Shakespeare by heart” and is not only her erotic ideal but her literary and spiritual soulmate.

Too good to be true? It might seem so, but the portrait of a marriage that Plath limns throughout most of these pages is ecstatic. In the first five years of their communal life, the preternaturally gifted pair virtually conquer the literary world. Ted publishes two books of poems, captivates BBC audiences, wins prize after prize. Sylvia publishes a first book of poems, writes and sells a novel, and regularly appears in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, all while vigilantly housekeeping, inventively cooking, beekeeping, and home-birthing and nursing two babies. Together the two teach undergraduates (at Smith and the University of Massachusetts Amherst), travel the States, reside at Yaddo, spruce up a shabby London flat, vacation in France, then finally move to Devon, where they take on the painstaking task of renovating Court Green, an 11th-century farmhouse with a thatched roof and a view of “a wall of old corpses,” a yew tree, and an impassioned elm. At the center of all this activity, a dream invitation that would transport any aspiring young poet to literary heaven: dinner at the home of T. S. Eliot and his wife, Valerie, along with another couple, Stephen Spender and his wife, Natasha. Plath’s description of the scene was glowing: she had “[f]loated in to dinner and “sat between Eliot & Spender, rapturously,” she told her mother. And this was the sort of thing that kept on happening while the couple, who then seemed touched by magic, was still living in London.

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