Poet R.S. Gwynn on Ted Hughes: “Mysticism and hormones are a deadly combination.”

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Sam the Man.

After my post a few days ago, “Was Sylvia Plath a Battered Wife?” discussing new revelations, or interpretations of revelations, about poet Sylvia Plath –  thanks to a new article at Lit Hub by Emily Van Duyne – my friend R.S. “Sam” Gwynn and I exchanged a few messages on the subject. First was a comment on the post itself, then we messaged each other on Facebook.

We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I find his views refreshingly level-headed, on this as many other subjects. And our conversation turned also to our mutual friend, the poet Anne Stevenson, who called Plath “the fiercest poet of our time,” and author of a controversial biography of Plath,

I recently read Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes. He was a fairly despicable man and, after his first two books, not much of a poet–England’s James Dickey. But to take Plath at her word in letters to her former therapist raises other questions. Plath’s letters to her mother, collected many years ago in Letters Home, are full of proven exaggerations, omissions, and outright lies. Thus, I doubt that we will ever find out what exactly went on in that torturous marriage. Still, if Emily Van Duyne thinks that Hughes was “knighted by the Queen,” her credentials as a biographical commentator are definitely not “beyond dispute.”

Anne, a pretty good poet herself.

He said that he burned one volume of her journals, written during the last months of her life, so that their children would not see them; I don’t blame him for that, especially after a poem like “Edge.” He also claimed that another volume had been lost; perhaps it will eventually turn up, perhaps not. He edited the poems for Ariel in such a way that Plath, who was relatively unknown at her death, became posthumously famous; this did no permanent harm as Ariel was later re-edited along the lines of Plath’s own manuscript. I would not say that his point-of-view has prevailed; Van Duyne’s article is just one of many examples of the “pro-Plath” side, and defenders of Hughes have become increasingly rare. Rough Magic, which I found fairly bizarre, is one example of a biography that sets the blame on him. He seems at heart (if you can call him that) an increasingly silly mystic as he aged. He also had way too much testosterone. Mysticism and hormones are a deadly combination.

I think I’ve read most of the biographies of both of them – a morbid fascination. I think Anne [Stevenson]’s the best of the batch, even if it was heavily overseen by Olwyn Hughes.

We had a couple of long chats (very difficult with her hearing at the time) but I decided to leave Plath as the elephant in the room; I’m sure she’d had enough questions about the bio. Plath was what we used to call a “curve-wrecker”– the perfect student who did everything by the book to end up in first place. She was about as sexually liberated as one could be before the pill and could stand her ground with any of the boys she knew before Ted. I think it was a classic case of both meeting their match at first, but the complications of marriage and children fell more heavily on her, as it did on many women of her time. Portraying her as helpless in any way except as a victim of her mental problems is probably a mistake. I’m sure she could give as much as take in a relationship.

There is a strange contradiction in many women critics of Plath. On the one hand, they see her as the vengeful spirit of “Lady Lazarus” but on the other as victimized. Maybe you can have both, but they’re hard to reconcile.