Being impressionable, and impressed, with Paula Byrne's new website, I've created a copycat design on wordpress, which really is amazingly easy to use. It has built in blogging, so that's where I'm going and so it is now bye bye not only to Ted Hughes but also to Blogger.
Having “put to bed” the paperback of my Ted
Hughes biography, returned all the books to the shelves, and shredded hundreds
of pages of manuscript photocopies, I reflect for a moment on the long journey
of writing the book and dealing with its reception. A friend recently asked
whether I have any regrets about all the emotional energy involved.
Emphatically not, I replied. Not even over the accusations of prurience? About 40 pages of the book make reference to
aspects of Hughes’s sexual life; about 600 to his writing life. But you
wouldn’t guess that from the reactions of one or two critics of the older
generation. So, any regrets about having incurred their wrath by including some
explicit material on a handful of occasions? Well, imagine what people would
have said if the sexual dimension had been airbrushed from the biography of the
author of Gaudete (the long poem that could be summarised as “Yorkshire vicar's spirit double in WI orgy”) and of such poems
as the Ploughshares version of “Do
not pick up the telephone” (“Panties are hotting up their circle for somebody to burn in / Nipples
are evangelising bringing a sword or at least a razor / Cunt is proclaiming
heaven on earth”—not, it has to be said, TH’s most immortal lines). I just have a feeling that if the biography had been a bedroom-free zone, the word “whitewash” would have
No, my one regret is that not a single
reviewer – though I’ve only seen a selection, so I may be traducing someone
here – has drawn attention to the book’s excavation of the hitherto unknown
long autobiographical poems/sequences “A” and “Trial” (the latter provides an
extraordinary new window onto the last days of Sylvia Plath) or to the reading
of the manuscript revisions in the great Gaudete epilogue poem “Waving goodbye from your banked
hospital bed,” which was intended as the epicentre of the book’s argument. Mark Ford in the London Review of Books comes close to the latter, and he is to be
thanked for that.
Memory comes from nowhere, in a flash. Suddenly I am in sixth-form and my great great teachers John Adams and Alan Hurd are introducing us to the mastery of Robert Lowell. 'Waking in the Blue': that BU sophomore in the mental hospital. The statue in 'For the Union Dead'. Then I am an undergraduate, in a little book-lined room in Portugal Place close reading 'Skunk Hour' with my poet-teacher Glen Cavaliero ("for Elizabeth Bishop" - thus taking me to her for the first time). And then I am a grad at Harvard, where the name Lowell is in the fabric of the place. Finding a copy of Life Studies second-hand in the Harvard Square Bookstore, seeing how it changed poetry for ever. That was the time when I was directing a production of Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait in a tiny space in one of the houses - was it Lowell, I forget now? - called Explosives B. Not knowing then that 35 years later I would be writing the biography of Ted Hughes, trying to bring alive the time when he and Sylvia were loved up, writing well and sitting in Cambridge, Mass., at Lowell's feet.
Why is it that writers who mean so much to us at some particular point in our lives then drop off our radar for years and years? Sometimes we consciously react against, but more often we just move on, and then we forget. For twenty, thirty years, I've barely re-read a line of Lowell. So I've been going back to him, getting deeper and deeper into his greatness, which was so inextricably linked to his mental illness. Re-reading the Ian Hamilton biography too, perhaps because I fear that my Hughes bio will go the way of Hamilton's Salinger.
And then a couple of weeks ago I had lunch with Frieda Hughes and the extraordinary Grey Gowrie, and Lowell's end came back to me: a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977, aged just sixty. I remember the news report: it was just a few weeks before I began my student life. Hamilton tells us he was carrying a brown paper bag containing Lucien Freud's portrait of his wife Caroline Blackwood (how he loved and wrestled with those wives!), which Grey had obtained for him.
I'm being plagued by emails from anti-Stratfordians again. I suppose it's because of all the current talk and writing about Shakespeare @ 450 years. What really gets me is this: the refusal of anti-Stratfordians ever to talk about the other dramatists of the time about whom we know far less than we know about Shakespeare and yet whose authorship of the plays attributed to them they never deny. Why do they not argue that Jonson didn't write the plays of Jonson or Chapman those of Chapman? George Chapman is an especially interesting case. He was the son of a mere yeoman. He was orphaned. There is no record of him getting *any* formal education, certainly no Oxford or Cambridge career. But then he turns up in the poetry and theatre world, writing works of formidable learning and obscurity. He even translates Homer! How could Chapman possibly have been Chapman? He MUST have been an aristocrat in disguise ... Why, or why, has no one ever seen this?
I've long gone past the point of re-entering these debates, having had my say in my 1997 book on the history of the idea of The Genius of Shakespeare. But if I ever met an anti-Stratfordian who had read every surviving play from the period 1580-1630 and who could produce compelling evidence that Chapman was Chapman, Dekker was Dekker, Heywood was Heywood, Jonson was Jonson, and so on for every dramatist other than Shakespeare, I might begin to listen to their doubts about Shakespeare.
I have seen the future and it works - wearing my hat as Honorary Fellow of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, my MOOC on Shakespeare and his World, based on their collections, went live today -- and I already have over 9k student and 400 followers. Am so impressed by the enthusiasm, the hunger for learning, and the quality of some of the comments and questions. Amazing that digital technology can beam around the world the kind of content that previously was only available to people signed up for degrees and physically present in the lecture room.
In my TLS article about Hughes and Plath I argued that Hughes considered Black Coat: Opus 131 to be his equivalent of Wordsworth's Prelude. I might have added that Roy Davids, who sold the archives to Emory and then the British Library, also told me that Ted had described Birthday Letters to him as "a kind of Prelude." So it's interesting to have discovered the following in one of the wonderful letters from Hughes to Seamus Heaney, now at Emory, which I'm rereading for a section on the book concerning the friendship between the two great poets. On 8 October 1989, Hughes writes to thank Heaney for the latest poetry sequence he has sent him.
‘The Quartet’, Ted calls it, but it was a draft of ‘Squarings’, the superb collection of 48 12 line autobiographical poems that appeared two years later in Heaney's Seeing Things. Hughes
reads it as a reclaiming of Heaney’s own Lares and Penates, his spirit of home
and place. It also makes him think of The
Prelude ‘in the ranging self-reassessment, the lifting of sacred moments
with ordinary gestures, into the pattern of the liturgy, and in the way the
whole thing is a self-rededication, a realigning of yourself, to “the vows made
for you”.’ I don't have the Selected Letters in front of me (they are in my writing hut, known to the family as the Ted Shed), so I'm not sure whether this letter was included. But what is striking is that Hughes sees that Heaney has written his Prelude, so he must focus on his own equivalent. He's been worrying at this for years, and confiding in Heaney. Back when he was putting Moortown together in 1979, he wrote to tell Heaney that this was a collection of bits and pieces that he had
previously thought marginal or not good enough to publish. But what of the ‘central
non-marginal lump of poetry’, he asks? He knows that it has yet to appear, and wonders whether it ever will. It did and it didn't. Given how much of Black Coat remains unpublished to this day, in some senses it still hasn't.
I vividly remember Heaney reading from and talking about Seeing Things, soon after its publication, at a wonderful Wordsworth Summer Conference in Grasmere, under the auspices of the late and much loved trinity of Richard Wordsworth, Jonathan Wordsworth and Robert Woof. Heaney spoke of the Wordsworthianness of his poems and I suggested to him that his title, Seeing Things, was a clear Wordsworthian hommage: a collapsing of the famous line from 'Tintern Abbey': 'We see into the life of things'. Heaney said that of course it was, but that until this moment he had not seen that it was.
Over the last four years I have been
reading every word that Ted Hughes published (more than a hundred books) and
the tens of thousands of pages of manuscript drafts, letters and journals that
he sold to Emory University in Atlanta and that, more recently, his widow sold
to the British Library in London. This is arguably the most complete archive of
a poetic imagination in the entire history of English literature. For a long
time I was undecided as to whether to write a literary critical book or a
biography, but over Christmas I came to the conclusion that the life and the
work are so inextricably intertwined that it must be a biography – albeit a
very literary one. So the time came to test the water, to put a toe in the
water. And where better to begin than with his diary for the week of Sylvia
Plath’s death. And so: this week’s TLS, where I was kindly given the amount of
space that is only very rarely accorded to a single review essay (thnak you,
Alan Jenkins). After all those years in which Hughes was demonised – even accused
by one notorious radical feminist of being Plath’s “murderer” – it was
astonishing to discover how hard he worked to save the marriage in that final
week before she took her life. How many times have we read about him “deserting”
Sylvia and “going off to live with Assia Wevill”? Never again. The blame game
should now be over. Never presume to look inside a marriage or a separation
until you’ve heard both sides of the story in full (and there is more, much
more, to tell on both sides). But what his diary also reveals, of course, is
the unbelievably awful effect on human behaviour of what in the piece I call “the
volatility of manic depression.” It probably wouldn’t have happened with today’s
more sophisticated anti-depressive medication. But then would we have had Ariel if Sylvia Plath had been
stabilised by lithium?
Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College and Professor of English Literature in the University of Oxford, is well known as a Shakespeare scholar, biographer, critic and broadcaster. He was previously Professor of Shakespeare & Renaissance Literature at the University of Warwick.