With the revelation of Ted Hughes's affair with Assia Wevill in the fall of 1962, Sylvia Plath's marriage of six years to Hughes all but legally ended, and with considerable bitterness on Plath's side. It was during this period, after Hughes had moved out of their cottage in Devon leaving Plath alone with their two young children, that Plath would get up before the two children at five in the morning to write the poems that would comprise the best of Ariel, her second collection of poems, and the collection upon which her current reputation is based. "I am living like a Spartan," she said in a letter at the time, "writing through huge fevers and producing free stuff I had locked in me for years. I kept telling myself I was the sort that could write when peaceful at heart, but that is not so, the muse has come to live here, now that Ted is gone." The fevered muse that arrived soon after Hughes's departure would visit for only a few months. In October she moved with the children to London, taking up residence in a house in which Yeats once lived. In February of 1963, in the depths of one of the most severe English winters in recent memory, Plath killed herself by putting her head in an oven, leaving her two young children asleep in an adjoining room, provisioned with bread and milk for when they awoke.
As modern poetry's reigning Queen of Sorrows (as Joyce Carol Oates so aptly christens her), Plath is a peculiarly overdetermined object of commentary. That is, it's difficult to discuss her poetry apart from a welter of sensational biographical considerations, the most sensational of which occurred in those last six months of her life, as briefly rehearsed above. Jacqueline Rose, author of The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, is doubtless in the right in claiming that the Sylvia Plath that exists apart from the work itself is little more than a fantasy, a projection, a concatenation of our culture's preoccupations, especially when it comes to issues of gender. Rose's good sense notwithstanding, the story of Plath's desperately productive last months is so profoundly imbricated in the poetry, so often repeated and from so many competing points of view as to have translated Plath into a kind of allegory, particularly for those disposed to apotheosize her as proto-feminist icon.
While she was living, however, Plath was influenced (and in the view of many, to a considerable degree) by the more mature, established, accomplished, and celebrated Hughes. After her death, her work, including her journals and a scores of previously unpublished poems, fell under Hughes's control, a control he exercised firmly (principally through his formidable representative, his sister Owlyn) for the remaining thirty-five years of his life. It's perhaps understandable, therefore, that the manner of the end of that six-year marriage, and the manner in which its end marked the beginning of a vital if different sort of relationship between Plath and Hughes, are of such interest even to those disinclined to mix biography with poetry. In so many respects, Plath and Hughes were, and are apt to remain, a very special case indeed.
One recent manifestation of the degree to which these two poets are associated was Faber & Faber's decision to release in 2000¨as part of its "Poems selected by" series¨Hughes poetry, as selected by Simon Armitage, accompanied by the reissue of the 1985 edition of Plath's poetry, as selected by Hughes. Strictly from a marketing point of view, Hughes's death two years before likely constituted sufficient warrant for the re-release of the Plath book. That said, it's not as if the world really needs another collection of Plath's poetry, not even another collection selected by so advantaged a selector as Hughes. Other and more complete editions of her collected works are in print, and one of these has Hughes's name, quite literally, all over it: the paperback Collected Poems of Plath (Penguin, 1981). At 352 pages, Collected Poems contains everything that Plath wrote after 1956 as edited, annotated, and introduced by Hughes.
The one unique claim on our attention made by the forty-five poems in Faber & Faber's Sylvia Plath is that they constitute probably Hughes's most seasoned notion of the essential Plath. Most seasoned or not, however, they come without commentary. Indeed, the only bit of apparatus that Faber & Faber provides apart from the poems themselves is a "Publisher's Note" explaining that the poems have been arranged according to their date of composition rather than date of publication. At the bottom of this one-page note is a listing of the poems included in the book, grouped under the headings of the five prior collections of her poetry in which they originally appeared (The Colossus, Ariel, Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, and Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems).
In one sense, Faber & Faber's refusal to dress up the volume lends it a certain quiet dignity. The work alone, the book implicitly claims, is now sufficient explanation. The publishers may also have concluded that the existence of The Birthday Letters, (1998), Hughes's extended poetical meditation on Plath's poetry and the nature of their relationship, rendered further commentary on Plath from now deceased Hughes effectively de trop. Even granting the merits of such a rationale for the absence of supporting apparatus, the publisher's claim that "Ted Hughes's classic selection of Sylvia Plath's poetry provides a model for the what proves the perfect introduction to [Plath]" is difficult to credit. Consider the publisher's own rationale for the series per se: "By their selection of verses and by the personal and critical reactions they express in their introductions, the selectors offer intriguing insight into the their own work." Ironically enough, that promise of intriguing insight, unfulfilled in the Plath number, comes from the flyleaf of the number on Hughes.
In sum, then, the lack of an introduction from Hughes, explaining the criteria upon which he chose these particular poems, together with the fact that all of these poems are available in Hughes's own and exhaustive Sylvia Path: Collected Poems makes the Plath book more of a curiosity than a necessity, the sort of thing you should purchase if you really want to complete the set.
Leaving aside comparisons as to the relative merits of the poetry, Ted Hughes: Poems selected by Simon Armitage is, at the same price and very nearly twice the length of the volume on Plath, a much better investment. For one thing, as noted above, the series' justificatory apparatus is this time attached. Of particular value is the selector's introduction. Armitage is himself a poet of consequence, and, moreover, one perfectly positioned by dint of common heritage, long acquaintance, and an abiding interest in Hughes's work to deliver a meaningful introduction. As in the case of the Sylvia Plath, estimations of the worth of the Hughes must inevitably be conditioned by the fact that prior collections and selections of the poet's work are out there and currently in print. To his credit, Armitage takes pains to acknowledge that fact and to situate this particular selection in precisely such a context. Noting that just three years before his death Hughes edited his own New Selected Poems, Armitage makes it clear that his selection¨out "of respect" for the fact that Hughes consistently demonstrated himself a judicious editor of his own selected works¨is not intended "to revise [Hughes's own] judgement, but simply to further refine it into a more concentrated form, and to add a small amount of catalytic material into the equation." In fairly circumspect fashion, therefore, Armitage's seven-page introduction proceeds to offer a useful summary of Hughes's interests and preoccupations, even while acknowledging that "such is the range of Hughes's poetry that a partial synopsis will not serve it well." Following the poet's own strong lead in the choosing of seventy-six poems to introduce Hughes to readers relatively unacquainted with the latter's quite considerable poetic ouevre is a modest enough undertaking, but one entirely appropriate in a series of this kind, which comes so modestly priced and, in their plain buff covers, so modestly packaged. ˛
Robert Moore's first collection of poems is So Rarely in Our Skins (Muses' Company, 2002). He teaches English at the University of New Brunswick.