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Birthday Letters

by Ted Hughes

  • ISBN: 9780374525811
  • ISBN10: 0374525811

Birthday Letters

by Ted Hughes

  • List Price: $16.00
  • Binding: Paperback
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux
  • Publish date: 04/01/1999
  • ISBN: 9780374525811
  • ISBN10: 0374525811
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Description: This Reader's Guide is meant to help you think and talk about Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters. The new book by Britain's Poet Laureate has been twenty-five years in the writing and has been acclaimed as the consummate achievement of his career. In it critics have discerned the qualities for which Hughes is famous-powerful metaphorical language, an unparalleled eye for the natural and animal worlds, and a tragic vision that owes as much to Darwin and D.H. Lawrence as it does to Aeschylus or Sophocles. But Birthday Letters also represents a radical departure, for its eighty-eight poems are more accessible, more emotionally resonant, more dramatic and personally revealing than any Hughes has written before. "Reading it", poet and biographer Andrew Motion remarks in The Sunday Times of London, "is like being hit by a thunderbolt . . . There is nothing like it in literature" (January 17, 1998).

As anyone who has skimmed the voluminous press coverage already knows, Birthday Letters is Hughes's account of his marriage to Sylvia Plath, which began as a love match between two gifted and ambitious young poets and ended with Plath's suicide in 1963 at the age of thirty, after Hughes had left her for another woman. The book thus makes up the untold portion of one of the great tragic love stories of our time, one so laden with myth and acrimony that at times it resembles a post-feminist Romeo and Juliet. Up until now we knew that story only as it had been related by Plath herself, in Ariel, the book of poems published after her death, and by her biographers and hagiographers. The latter have cast Plath as a literary saint and martyr, driven to kill herself by her husband's faithlessness and thensilenced by his stringent control over her papers. Hughes's refusal to discuss his first wife publicly, or to assist the inquiries of most journalists and scholars, has left this version of the Plath legend virtually unchallenged.

With Birthday Letters, Hughes does not so much dispel the myth as compose one of his own. "It is only a story", he writes. "Your story. My story" ("Visit"). Although he sometimes addresses his and Plath's children (to whom he also dedicates the book) and, in at least one instance, the more fanatical of Plath's champions, Hughes's story is aimed primarily to Sylvia Plath herself: Plath the poet, whose lines he often echoes and whose themes he reworks or resets as one resets a watch when traveling into another time zone; and Plath the woman he loved and to all appearances has not ceased loving thirty-six years after he left her. It is a complex love, an amalgam of passion, tenderness, respect, and awe, along with anger, frustration, pity, and despair, and its complexity makes Birthday Letters more convincing than any straightforward elegy would be. Among Hughes's signal accomplishments in this book is the way he compresses all the emotional anarchy of the conjugal bond into his account of his own marriage. He has endowed that account with a narrative momentum that has been largely absent from English-language poetry since the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and T. S. Eliot. And Hughes has conjured up Plath, his subject and antagonist, with an immediacy that makes us feel that he is addressing someone who has just walked out of the room-and that he may still be waiting for her to answer him.

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