"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Literature in the News: Sylvia Plath’s Daughter Rebukes Feminists

I found this article interesting.  Frieda Hughes, who is the daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, criticized the feminists who idolized her mother’s work but who condemned her father because of their belief that he was responsible for Plath’s suicide.  Here’s a quick background for those who are not familiar.  Plath and Hughes were young poets married to each other from 1956 to her death in 1963.  Sylvia Plath had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts, and finally did kill herself.  It is true Ted Hughes cheated on her and had a mistress, and five months before the suicide had separated from Plath.   With that, here is Frieda Hughes’ claim as published in The Telegraph:

The feminists who exploited Sylvia Plath's death to accuse her husband Ted Hughes of mistreating her committed an "abuse" and a "horrible form of theft", the couple's daughter has said.

Frieda Hughes, the oldest of Plath and Hughes' two children, said she had been "appalled" by the appropriation of her family's tragedy to suit a cause.

Appearing in her first ever television interview, she said she deplored the judgment of "outsiders" who mistakenly believed they had an insight into her family's life.

What I didn’t realize was that the mistress Hughes took up with, also eventually committed suicide.  From the article:

Her father, the former poet laureate Hughes, went on to a relationship with his mistress Assia Wevill, who killed herself and their child in the same way six years later.

The incidents, which left Hughes unable to write his Crow collection, was taken up by furious feminists, who idolised Plath and accused the poet of mistreating both women.

Crow, mentioned above, is perhaps Hughes’ most famous collection of his poems.  I am not knowledgeable enough oh the Plath/Hughes history to know how substantive the feminists’ charge are, but given Plath’s mental illness history I can’t see how Hughes is more than just a bad husband.  And Frieda Hughes is right, who can really know a relationship from the outside.  She is quoted:

Speaking in the documentary, to be broadcast on BBC Two, she said the links made between the two tragedies were a form of "abuse" in themselves.

"I was appalled that something that happened in 1963 could be carried forward," she told programme-makers.

"What an easy way out for somebody to think, yes, we’re right, we have got the real story, we know what really happened, and we are going to punish this complete stranger for something we weren’t around to witness, we know nothing about, but we’re the ones with the answer.

"For outsiders - because that’s what they are, outsiders - to make judgements that affect somebody in their life, for all of their life, is a sort of horrible form of theft.

"It’s an abuse."

The charges against Ted Hughes—he was even accused of outright murdering Plath—colored his entire career.  Plath unfortunately died young, so she never did reach her potential.  Hughes, who was already a more mature poet than Plath, on the other hand, developed into one of the leading British poets of his generation, even titled as the Poet Laureate of Britain, the feminists did all they could to destroy his career. 

Since I’m on the subject of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, let me give an example of their poetry.  First from Plath.  I’ve always thought highly of this poem, though I can’t completing comprehend it all.

Fever 103?

Pure? What does it mean?
 The tongues of hell
 Are dull, dull as the triple

Tongues of dull, fat Cerebus
 Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable
 Of licking clean

The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
 The tinder cries.
 The indelible smell

Of a snuffed candle!
 Love, love, the low smokes roll
 From me like Isadora's scarves, I'm in a fright

One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.
 Such yellow sullen smokes
 Make their own element. They will not rise,

But trundle round the globe
 Choking the aged and the meek,
 The weak

Hothouse baby in its crib,
 The ghastly orchid
 Hanging its hanging garden in the air,

Devilish leopard!
 Radiation turned it white
 And killed it in an hour.

Greasing the bodies of adulterers
 Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
 The sin. The sin.

Darling, all night
 I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
 The sheets grow heavy as a lecher's kiss.

Three days. Three nights.
 Lemon water, chicken
 Water, water make me retch.

I am too pure for you or anyone.
 Your body
 Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern --

My head a moon
 Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
 Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Does not my heat astound you. And my light.
 All by myself I am a huge camellia
 Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.

I think I am going up,
 I think I may rise --
 The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I

Am a pure acetylene
 Attended by roses,

By kisses, by cherubim,
 By whatever these pink things mean.
 Not you, nor him.

Not him, nor him
 (My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) --
 To Paradise.

I’m not going to do a close analysis, but don’t get too hung up on understanding every line.  Bear in mind it’s a confessional poem, and unless you’re a Plath scholar (and I’m not) you probably won’t get the immediate situation.  Plus there are some obscure details which obfuscates the meaning.  For instance that “Isadora’s scarves” in line 12 refers to the dancer Isadora Duncan and her accidental strangling death with one of her scarves.  The poem goes from a sexual desire she considers sinful to being redeemed by it, from hell to paradise, from adulteress to virgin.  I’m not sure, but it could be the poem moves from the sexual sin to a blessed motherhood.

Ted Hughes is quite a different poet.  Here’s one from his Crow collection. 

Crow Communes

"Well," said Crow, "What first?"
God, exhausted with Creation, snored.
"Which way?" said Crow, "Which way first?"
God's shoulder was the mountain on which Crow sat.
"Come," said Crow, "Let's discuss the situation."
God lay, agape, a great carcass.

Crow tore off a mouthful and swallowed.

"Will this cipher divulge itself to digestion
Under hearing beyond understanding?"

(That was the first jest.)

Yet, it's true, he suddenly felt much stronger.

Crow, the hierophant, humped, impenetrable.

Half-illumined. Speechless.


The way I read Hughes is to see him as a sort of modern Romantic, idealizing nature and finding some hidden theology behind it.  I’m not overwhelmed by his poetry, despite his reputation.  He seems to me to be a lesser D. H. Lawrence, both in theme and style.  I’d rather read Lawrence.  


  1. I must admit you are one of the most knowledgeable and learned person I know. What I don't understand is how can an engineer, who obviously has to study a lot to be an engineer, and to keep up with engineering progress, have enough time to also be so well read in literature, religion music and all other subjects? Are you a professor of some sort?

    I admire you. Even though you sometimes make me feel so small.

    God bless.

    1. No, I am not a professor. Engineering is my day job and unless I have to bring home work I never spend personal time on it. When I was in college I doubled majored in English Literature, and afterward I got a Master's in English. And I'm 53 years old and one can learn a lot about many subjects in all those years if learning is an consistent part one's life. Also, I didn't have children until 49 and that's a lot of free time. Oh please don't feel impressed. This is my hobby and what I spend my free time with. And please, please don't feel small. You've published books. I've never.

  2. When I was at school they told me I can't major in playing truant.

    My teachers did not have a sense of humour. They set daily homework and checked that we did it.

    My Maths teacher once said: "If you have six apples, and I take half of them. What do I have?"

    I replied: "A punch in the face!"

    I got detention for that.

    My English teacher once said: "Your grammar stinks!"

    This is what happened:

    God bless.