The Mercy of Memory: the Known and the Unknown in Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers

The Mercy of Memory:   The Known and the Unknown in
Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers

For years after Sylvia Plath’s death, Ted Hughes, her estranged husband and executor of her literary estate, kept himself away from the critical fray that erupted over Plath’s legacy.   Although he was demonized terribly by Plath’s fans and scholars over what they saw as his complicity in her suicide due to his infidelity and abandonment of Plath and their children in late 1962, he never sought to correct misconceptions or justify his own actions during that time.   He merely continued to write his poetry and raise his children as he saw fit.   While he did write several essays during his lifetime about Plath’s work (such as “On the Chronological Order of Plath’s Poems” (1966) and “Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, and Ariel” (1995)), he never sought to provide any intimate details of their life together until 1998 when he published two volumes of poetry about Plath, Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers.
Hughes used these poems to create a portrait of a deeply complex relationship between the two poets, one in which both secrets were kept and truth exposed.   These works were his chance to reveal his side of the story, to answer the charges of critics and scholars, to exorcise the spirit of his long-dead wife.   The poems were filled with both knowledge and ignorance, incidents with elements forgotten or only half-remembered, subconscious desires and everyday yearnings for a better, happier life.   But such memories are both notoriously painful and unreliable.   Within the books, the conflict between the known/remembered and the unknown/forgotten creates an almost unbearable tension and paints a vivid portrait of the man, the woman, and the marriage of two of the giants of late twentieth-century poetry.
Hughes’ use of vague memory begins in the very first poem in Birthday Letters, “Fulbright Scholars.”   This poem’s first line is a question about the event of his...