'Myth and Public Mourning: Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters'. Symbiosis 14.1 (April 2010)

Author: Twiddy, Ian


Humanities-Ebooks ‘Reprint’, 2012. 21 pages, 411kb PDF.
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This essay on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath was originally published in Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations, Volume 14.1 (April 2010) 63-80

From this Essay:

Elegy describes and enacts the mourner’s gradual reclamation of agency and energy, the movement from loss to consolation. How grief imposes a psychological restriction of movement and power was particularly acute in Hughes’s case. Due to the specific circumstances of Sylvia Plath’s death, whatever Hughes wrote about her death, however he tried to get over it, would have been an inflammatory action for some critics, creating more hostility and pain. In turn, not writing anything at all, denying the public ratification of grief, seemed for Hughes’s critics to be a confirmation of guilt. The impossibility of the public aspect of elegy compounded an already severely imprisoning grief, and Hughes wrote of publishing Birthday Letters as a form of exorcism: …

Birthday Letters must assert its own mythological narratives repeatedly in order to effect liberation from the dead, but doing so involves entering another kind of community, making contact with Plath’s work and poetic praxis. In Ariel—both the sequence originally conceived by Plath, and the version published by Hughes in 1965—there are the same ideas of sacrifice and regeneration, rebirth into the real self, and the public validation of private pain; there is the same forceful poetic energy unhindered by excessive formal restraint, the same value derived from poetry as performance, and Plath’s sequence displays an identical faith in the sense-making of myth, as demonstrated in ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Ariel’, ‘Lesbos’, ‘Medusa’, ‘Purdah’ (not included in the first edition of Ariel) and the sequence of bee poems. In entering into contact with Plath’s work, and creating his own mythological scheme, Hughes must necessarily revise some of the pre-existing myths surrounding Plath and her work. Hughes is concerned to present Ariel as an empowered, articulate ‘flight’, or a ‘final take-off’ into full personal and poetic autonomy.15 Writing to Keith Sagar in 1981, Hughes questioned the myth of Plath’s last work as an irresistible, tragic descent towards death, and the ‘fantasy visions’ of Plath herself as ‘a young woman hurtling to disintegration shedding rags of poetry—leaping into Aetna bursting into flames as she fell’; he also described the stylistic changes in the progression from The Colossus to Ariel:…

About the author

Affiliation: University of Hokkaido

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'Myth and Public Mourning: Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters'. Symbiosis 14.1 (April 2010)

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