Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters (1998) was his last poetic work. This collection, composed of 88 chronologically organized poems from nearly a quarter-century ago, broke Hughes’ lengthy silence about his ex-wife, Sylvia Plath, who killed herself in 1963 by sticking her head in an oven. In this volume, all but two of the poems are devoted to her. They show Hughes’ most direct reaction to his wife’s death and their public marriage, as well as their first meeting and wedding day, Plath’s therapy treatment, and other events that shaped their relationship.
Some have criticized Hughes’ refusal to publicly acknowledge Plath’s death and his relationship with her. There were those who had been waiting years for Hughes’ opinions on his connection with his wife, and this was the first time he did so openly, in response to her death. It took him a long time to say his piece, through the greatest medium he knew, in a series of poems that serve as a one-way discussion with his estranged wife, as most of the poems are addressed to “you” (Sylvia Plath).
What makes this book so compelling is Hughes’ sincere engagement with his recollections, as well as the mythologized versions of those recollections preserved in Plath’s own work. Plath’s journals and poems have given him a new perspective on sentiments at the time, which he incorporates throughout the book. In a number of the poems, Hughes and Plath’s work may be observed to have a strong correlation, despite the fact that their emotional reactions and literary styles are very different. Hughes gives us his own version of the first kiss, famously mythologized by Plath.
When it comes to reclaiming his memories of Plath, Hughes’ free verse poetry is well suited. The poems are harrowing, urgent, and free of condescension and contrivance; they dazzle not only with verbal dexterity but also with clear-hearted emotion. A few are passionate declarations of love, while others are eerie memories and musings. The poet’s empathy and ever-perplexing anguish are present in these poems, which are powerful, sharp, and brutally honest. The poems should be regarded as a sequence of contemplations rather than a completed story.
Was it then I bought a peach? That’s as I remember.Page 3, Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
From a stall near Charing Cross Station.
It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted.
I could hardly believe how delicious.
At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh
By my ignorance of the simplest things.
You only had to lookPage 64, Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
Into the nearest face of a metaphor
Picked out of your wardrobe or off your plate
Or out of the sun or the moon or the yew tree
To see your father, your mother, or me
Bringing you your whole Fate.
It was not meant to hurt.Page 134, Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
It had been made for happy remembering
By people who were still too young
To have learned about memory.
‘Birthday Letters’: A Portrait of Plath in Poetry for Its Own Sake by Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
‘Siamese-twinned, each of us festering’: Sylvia Plath and the Haunting of Ted Hughes by Cambridge Authors
Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes by Marc Berley, Commentary
Ted Hughes Avoids the Subject In Birthday Letters by Paul Alexander, Observer