1998 saw the publication of Ted Hughes’s ‘Birthday Letters’, a verse-chronicle of the poet’s troubled marriage to fellow-poet Sylvia Plath. I read it when it first came out, which is a touch hypocritical of me since I have reservations about how far famous poets should go in feeding the biographical industry that tends to spring up around them. Of course it can be argued that an understanding of the life is necessary to a full understanding of the work, but I don’t know – is our appreciation of the ‘Iliad’, for example, really much impaired by our knowing nothing whatsoever about Mr Homer’s personal life, let alone Mrs Homer’s? Still, when these things are on offer it is hard to look away, and I have to admire Hughes’s striving for what must often have been a painful veracity.
Inevitably with a collection like this the quality of the poems is a bit uneven, but there are plenty marked by Hughes’s characteristic raw energy and startling powers of observation. I pondered which to feature. ‘Daffodils’? ‘Flounders’? ‘Red’? ‘Robbing Myself’? (there really should be more poems that give a starring role to potatoes). But finally I went for this piece with its darkly sensuous imagery and, at the end, its wistful tenderness.
You Hated Spain
Spain frightened you. Spain
Where I felt at home. The blood-raw light,
The oiled anchovy faces, the African
Black edges to everything, frightened you.
Your schooling had somehow neglected Spain.
The wrought-iron grille, death and the Arab drum.
You did not know the language, your soul was empty
Of the signs, and the welding light
Made your blood shrivel. Bosch
Held out a spidery hand and you took it
Timidly, a bobby-sox American.
You saw right down to the Goya funeral grin
And recognized it, and recoiled
As your poems winced into chill, as your panic
Clutched back towards college America.
So we sat as tourists at the bullfight
Watching bewildered bulls awkwardly butchered,
Seeing the grey-faced matador, at the barrier
Just below us, straightening his bent sword
And vomiting with fear. And the horn
That hid itself inside the blowfly belly
Of the toppled picador punctured
What was waiting for you. Spain
Was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver
You dared not wake with, the puckering amputations
No literature course had glamorized.
The juju land behind your African lips.
Spain was what you tried to wake up from
And could not. I see you, in moonlight,
Walking the empty wharf at Alicante
Like a soul waiting for the ferry,
A new soul, still not understanding,
Thinking it is still your honeymoon
In the happy world, with your whole life waiting,
Happy, and all your poems still to be found.
According to the poem Plath hated Spain. She recoiled from “the Goya funeral grin”. Spain was “the dust-red cadaver / You dared not wake with”. “And the horn … punctured / What was waiting for you”. At the end of the poem she’s a confused “new soul”. Her poems are not “still to be found”, she’s now found them?
Yes, I take the poems in ‘Birthday Letters’ to be more or less sequential in time, and this is an early honeymoon one, so in that sense Sylvia’s poems, or the great bulk of them, were ‘still to be found’. ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ is another poem showing that while Ted and Sylvia might both have been poets, in a lot of ways they were very far from being on the same wavelength. Not necessarily a bad thing in a relationship – complementarity can be quite fruitful – but it seems to have put a lot of strain on this one.
Hi David, I was trying to understand the end of the poem. I thought it might mean that as a new soul she will (in time) be able to incorporate Spain into her poetry, so she’s now found her (true?) poems (some of them anyway)? This is all Hughes’ opinion (assuming I’ve understood what he’s saying) and it may or may not be true of the actual Plath.
Yes, I agree that the end of the poem is proleptic, a sort of foreshadowing in retrospect. So on the one hand it harks back to a happier time, with the fledgling poet, a ‘new soul’ at the start of her married life, looking forward to finding her real voice as a poet, while little guessing what that is going to cost her, and on the other it uses Spain, that nightmare she ‘tried to wake from’, as symbolic of her later tribulations. So yes, you’re right and she will in time learn to incorporate Spain into her poems, with its ‘Goya funeral grin’ that she recognizes, despite herself, as being part of herself.