I don't think you and I have ever talked much about Hughes. I've avoided him as much as possible on my own. I think of his story as too much tied up in Sylvia Plath's story. In that story he's always seemed simply the villain. That's how most people see him, of course. Bate says in his intro that he wants to help change that. Not by making him less of a villain or by disentangling their stories. He wants to make his story the story of his poetry. Just as, according to Bate, Hughes worked all the rest of his life after Plath's death to make her story the story of her poetry.
Plath, Hughes argued was a symbolic writer. Bate also uses the word mythic, but I’m not sure if that’s his word or Hughes’. Whichever, according to Bate, Hughes meant that in Plath’s writing things stood for other things so we shouldn't read what she wrote as telling us what really happened. What really happened was merely what she started with. So The Bell Jar, as the prime example, should not be read as autobiography. Hughes, however, was more concerned about the poems. Hughes felt that reading the poems as autobiography kept people from appreciating her as more than a memoirist who wrote in verse. She was, he wanted everyone to realize, a great poet.
Her poem “Medusa”, for instance, which is generally read as an angry indictment of Plath’s mother, who, Bate writes, has been accused of “destroying Syliva and Ted’s marriage, simply on the basis of Plath’s portrayal of her” in the poem, is not about her mother any more than it is about the jellyfish the speaker is using as a metaphor.
This was self-serving, naturally. Hughes knew he didn't come off well in the autobiography. But, Bate is saying, it was important to him in another way. Reading her work as autobiography led people to read his work as autobiography too and that meant they missed his intention which meant they failed to appreciate his achievement.
Hughes saw himself as a symbolic writer too.
But Bate suggests Hughes was kidding himself about the degree to which that was true.
Having studied English Literature at school and university, and having continued to read in the great tradition of poetry all his life, [Hughes] was well aware of the debates among the Romantics of the early nineteenth century. For William Wordsworth, all good poetry was ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. Poetry was ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’. Wordsworth was the quintessential autobiographical writer, making his art of out his own memories and what he called ‘the growth of the poet’s mind’. His friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by contrast, though he also mused in verse in a deeply personal voice, argued that the greatest was symbolic, that it embodied above all ‘the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal’. We might say that Wordsworth was essentially an elegiac poet, mourning and memorialising times past, while Coleridge was a mythic poet, turning his own experiences into symbolic experiences by way of such characters as the Ancient Mariner and the demonic Geraldine in ‘Christabel’.
Hughes would have liked to have claim more of kinship with Coleridge, but, Bate writes, there was always at least as much Wordsworth in him as Coleridge and the irony of his career after Plath's death is that while he was devoting effort to making the world see her poetry for what he believed it really was, symbolic and mythic, his own was growing more overtly Wordsworthian, that is, elegiac, and hence Birthday Letters.
Bate is a good writer. This Hughes books starts off well. I intended to just sample it but now I'll probably keep going. Which means what's going to happen is what usually happens when I read a biography of a writer.
I'll start thinking of myself as a writer.
Which means thinking of myself as a failed writer.
Regular readers of the blog might be surprised to learn I don’t think of myself as a writer. They don’t read Lance Mannion because I’m a famous insurance agent.
But I didn’t set out to become a successful writer of blog posts.
I’m a blogger because I failed to become the writer of fiction I set out to be.
That failure wasn’t simply that I failed to publish the Great American Novel or win the National Book Award for my collection of stories which critics praised as the Yankee Dubliners.
When I fall into a funk and start dwelling on my failures, I don’t think about missing out on fame and fortune. I obsess morosely over the reasons I didn’t publish that novel or that story collection that weren’t matters of mischance. All the things I did that caused me to get in my own way or let myself down. All the ways I failed to be as good a writer as I should have been. All the times I lost focus, lost heart, chased the wrong rabbit down the wrong rabbit hole.
But I also brood regretfully over not having lived the life of a writer worth a biography.
A life full of incident. Material. Stories I could turn into myths or elegies as I saw fit. A life more fraught, more intense, more dramatic. More romantic. More heroic.
A life worth gossiping about and spying on, if only in my own memory with myself as the only gossip and spy.
But then what person in their right mind wants to live working through, professionally and personally, the guilt of two wives’ suicides.
I went through the same thing when I was reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike. Feeling that among the many ways I’d goofed was not arranging to make a complete mess of my personal life through years of serial adulteries.
I weathered that and enjoyed the book.
I expect I’ll get through and enjoy this Hughes bio too.
It’s already done me some good, as a matter of fact. It’s got me re-reading some his poetry…
With nothing to brag about but the size of their hearts,
Tearing boar—flesh and swilling ale,
A fermenting of huge—chested braggarts.
Got nowhere by sitting still
To hear some timorous poet enlarge heroisms,
To suffer their veins stiffle and swell —
Soon, far easier, imagination all flames,
In the white orbit of a sword,
Their chariot—wheels tumbling the necks of screams,
In a glory of hair and beard,
They thinned down their fat fulsome blood in war,
Replenish both bed and board,
Making their own good news, restuffing their dear
Fame with fresh sacks—full of heads,
Roaring, burdened, back over the wet moor.
When archaeologists dig their remainder out —
Bits of bone, rust —
The grandeur of their wars humbles my thought.
…and some of hers.
Inched from their pygmy burrows
And from the trench-dug mud, all Camouflaged in mottled mail
Of browns and greens. Each wore one
Claw swollen to a shield large
As itself—no fiddler's arm
Grown Gargantuan by trade,
But grown grimly, and grimly
Borne, for a use beyond my
Guessing of it. Sibilant
Mass-motived hordes, they sidled
Out in a converging stream
Toward the pool-mouth, perhaps to
Meet the thin and sluggish thread
Of sea retracing its tide-
Way up the river-basin.
Or to avoid me. They moved
Obliquely with a dry-wet
Sound, with a glittery wisp
And trickle. Could they feel mud
Pleasurable under claws
As I could between bare toes?
By the way, did you know Hughes wrote the children’s book the movie The Iron Giant is based on?