When Ted Hughes published the volume of poetry Birthday Letters in 1998, only months before his death, and after decades of silence on the subject of Sylvia Plath, it seemed he was finally offering a confessional account of his marriage to and lifelong association with the American poet. His comments on the book at the time merely promoted such a biographical reading. However, a close examination indicates that in these poems Hughes is not merely autobiographical, but that he is, instead, clearly engaging with Plath’s construction of a personal, overarching myth in order to mould his own myth. This can be seen when we compare poems from Birthday Letters with ones from the Plath oeuvre. Though Birthday Letters offers an abundance of references to Plath’s poetry, many poems address specific ones by Plath, some of them even sharing titles. The aim of this study is to examine critically and in detail three of these Plath-Hughes pairings in order to reveal the poetic dialogue between the two poets as it is manifested in these cases.
Chapter 1 deals with Plath’s ‘Whiteness I Remember’, an early poem about a near-disastrous horse-riding mishap, and Hughes’s response to the piece, his poem ‘Sam’. ‘Whiteness I Remember’ displays both Plath’s appropriation of distinctly Hughesian concerns and her own developing preoccupations. The poem functions as a practice run in which she rehearses what will soon become some of her most salient motifs. Hughes, in his ‘Sam’, recognises and lays claim to this concept of the practice run, taking it from Plath’s poem and remoulding to fit his own poetic purposes.
In Chapter 2 Plath’s ‘Daddy’ and Hughes’s ‘The Cast’ are analysed. Plath’s famous poem offers a speaker who, unlike the many father-worshipping speakers from earlier poems, rejects her father, metaphorically kills him, and berates herself for a lifetime of male worship. Associated with her father is her husband, and he too is killed off. In Hughes’s ‘The Cast’ we find the father recast as a befuddled being recalled from the underworld, shocked and hurt by the accusations his daughter hurls at him. Hughes himself, as fictional character and analogue of the husband in ‘Daddy’, is notably absent in this account of what Plath does to her father with her poetry.
Finally, Chapter 3 investigates Plath’s ‘Brasilia’ as a foundation for Hughes’s ‘Brasilia’. Plath’s poem envisions the emergence of a future race of ‘super-people’, inhuman figures who present a threat to the speaker’s child, while Hughes’s poem presents a resurrected Plath herself, an immortal literary icon who becomes the super-human posing a threat to those left behind in the wake of her death.