A few weeks ago, I let you know about The Guardian’s new series spotlighting the best 100 nonfiction books of all time. Today, we have a curious addition to the list: Ted Hughes’ 1997 collection Birthday Letters. Here’s a bonus Millions review of Jonathan Bates’ controversial new biography of Hughes, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life.
Long before its publication, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of the English poet Ted Hughes was being circled by crows. This is fitting, since the crow was one of Hughes’s favorite animals and most recurrent images. In his 1971 collection Crow, written after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the bird-protagonist is questioned at the gates of Hell: “…who is stronger than death?” Crow replies, “me, evidently,” and is allowed to pass. Hughes’s story is so calcified with rumour and controversy that any biographer, even one of Jonathan Bate’s caliber, was doomed to wade through a mire. The monumental book he has given us, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, is at the very least the story of a man who was stronger than death, capable of turning death into startling and important art. Whether his biographer has such strength is a critical question.
Bate certainly spent his time in the mud: almost as soon as The Unauthorized Life hit the shelves, Hughes’s widow publically defamed the book via a solicitor as “inaccurate” and “offensive,” going so far as to comment that “[t]he number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts,” and demanding a public apology for insinuating that on the way to his burial, casket in tow, Hughes’s family stopped for “a good meal.”
But the relationship between Bate and the Hughes estate, controlled almost solely by Hughes’s widow Carol, was not always so strained. As Bate reported to The Guardian last year, Carol Hughes began as an “enthusiastic” supporter of the project, providing the Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar with unprecedented access to the seemingly limitless Hughes archives, held in substantial private collections as well as at Atlanta’s Emory University and the British Library. But after four years of digging, Bate reportedly received a letter from the estate, terminating the offer of an authorized biography with “no reason” given.
Bate determined to go on with the work, and his guess about the reasoning behind the estate’s abrupt renunciation was that his project was becoming too biographical: what had started out as a “literary life” was developing into a more invasive, and potentially damaging, wholesale examination of a man as famous for his promiscuity as he was for his power with a poetic line. In his preface to the biography, perhaps anticipating the storm to come, Bate goes out of his way to keep things civil. He writes that “[t]he cardinal rule” he will apply to the project is that “…the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected.” In other words, the literature, not the life, will be his primary concern.
But even in the short distance it has already traversed by this passage, Bate’s biography has gone a long way toward proving that such a distinction is impossible to maintain. Though Ted Hughes was famously allergic to biographers (who could blame someone who spent so much time protecting his children from the vendetta-mongering paparazzi that haunted him, as the executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate?), Bate summarizes “[t]he argument of this biography” as the assertion “that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency…” “The tragedy of his career,” Bate adds, “is that it took so long for his elegiac voice to be unlocked.”
By the elegiac, Bate means the confessional. The argument here is that Hughes’s greatest poems were written when he allowed his biography to fully penetrate his art. The explicitly autobiographical collection Birthday Letters is the iconic example of this style from Hughes’s career, but as his published legacy expands, collections like Capriccio (a series of elegies to the woman for whom he left Plath) and even the much less erotic River take on clear biographical overtones in retrospect.
In his exquisite interview for The Paris Review, Hughes once answered a question about the confessional element in poetry by asserting that “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry.” By this stage in his life, looking back on a volume of output that even the most prolific competitor would find intimidating, Hughes was willing to label it all “confessional,” to guess that an element of biography is what gives all poetry its vitality. Though during the exhausting legal battle surrounding her novel The Bell Jar, Hughes tried to escape ridicule from Plath’s admirers by insisting that hers was the work of “a symbolic artist” — in the open air he felt free to observe that what a true poet always works into symbols are the passions and events of his or her own life.
Why, then, Bate’s insistence on the lifelong tension between Hughes’s “symbolic” and “confessional” sides? None of his readings of Hughes’s poems hinge on this polarity. In fact, the most energized sections of The Unauthorized Life are those that cover the two poets’ life together. In these, Bate is able to intersperse lines from Birthday Letters to illuminate biographical details. His scan of Hughes’s signature poem “The Thought Fox” similarly treats the piece exclusively for its autobiographical significance, barely quoting the poem itself, and giving extensive space to Hughes’s reflective commentary about it. As often as Bate insists that his book is about Hughes’s “work and how it came into being,” he rarely pauses for detailed analysis of that work. Few lines are dissected for their technical elements. It is the story of Hughes’s life, not the content of his poetry, that dominates the narrative.
And as Bate delves again and again into Hughes’s tangled and often abusive sexual relationships — these sections are certainly his most electrifying and detailed — an uncomfortable, though understandable, reason for his lingering insistence that Hughes was “torn between the symbolic and the confessional” presents itself: Bate felt the need to keep things civilized. With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.”
This compulsion blunts Bate’s criticism especially when he describes Hughes’s volatility towards women: the shadow of a living wife and family understandably makes him waiver. In his chapter about Hughes’s infidelity to Plath, he reflects that one of the poet’s “most tasteless lines” falls in his Birthday Letters poem about Assia Wevill, where he describes his mistress as “Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” Yet any serious reader knows that in the Hughes canon, this line is nowhere close to the most tasteless. My personal pick would be the line from his poem “Crow’s First Lesson,” where Crow, asked by God to pronounce the word “love,” instead regurgitates a “woman’s vulva” which drops “over man’s neck” and “tightens.”
In fact, almost any passage from Crow more than equals Bate’s choice for “tastelessness.” We can infer that the problem with this line was not its imagery, but how it showcased Hughes’s potential for vitriol against the women he most loved, some of whom are still living. This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth.
But there were other methods available to him — precedents already set by great biographers. Beyond their shared surname, Jonathan Bate’s work on a poet so frequently compared to John Keats invites comparison between The Unauthorized Life and another heavy-hitter: the Harvard scholar W. Jackson Bate’s 1963 biography John Keats.
A look at the two texts side by side makes for a striking contrast. W.J. Bate’s prose is muscular and unsentimental, and though he captures Keats’s personal struggles with sympathy, his scholarship of the poetry is just as excellent. His work on Keats’s vowel interplay in “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Hyperion” remains groundbreaking, and is conveyed with crisp clarity: The frequency of Keats’s complex assonance, W.J. Bate writes, “far exceeds that in any other major poet,” and is not found anywhere in English poetry except in “poets whom we should assume to have other pressing concerns in mind: Shakespeare…and Milton.” His conclusion is that genius in form and content reinforce each other; an observation that could just as easily apply to Hughes, though Jonathan Bate seldom ventures deep enough into his versification to resurface with such conclusions.
Instead, his commentary keeps a strange distance from mechanical analysis of the lines, though his syntax sometimes gives in to the temptation to mimic the staccato voice of his subject, with strained results: “The words of [Hughes’s] poems — which he obsessively refined, revised, rewrote — are complicated, freighted with meaning, sometimes darkly opaque, sometimes cut like jewels of crystal clarity.” A “jewel of clarity” sounds almost Hughesian, but only almost: converting nouns to verbs was one of the poet’s habitual gestures, but to end lines with an abstracted noun phrase like “crystal clarity” was something he got beyond early in his writing life, knowing that abstractions make weak images.
Still, to hold Bate’s Unauthorized Life of Hughes in your hand is to experience something as hefty and monumental as a good Hughes poem. Hughes’s enormous Collected Poems has been compared to “a hunk of Stonehenge” for both its magical overtones and its sheer physical weight. Bate’s book is undeniably important, just as hefty, and often movingly written. His last passages about Sylvia Plath’s undying importance to Hughes are instantly memorable; his last flourish like poetry itself: “Before him stands yesterday.”
If only every line of it were so good. But Bate was torn between his own rival muses: the personal and the symbolic strains of Hughes’s work, which he pitted against each other in the preface, turn out to be two sides of the same coin, the same monolith viewed from two angles. The intriguing rivalry he suggests between them turns out to be a false one. They were the same stone goddess that ruled all of Hughes’s work. Better to affirm, with the poet himself, that all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say.” That to write is to confess in symbols. That the poetry is the biography. To have tracked this line of thinking directly through Hughes’s work would have made for a true “literary life.” Instead, Bate has given us a life informed by literature, where the most scandalizing moments are diffused by claims that they are important to a deep analysis that never occurs. Yet if what Bate gave us is not what it could have been, it is a riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps the best literary life of Hughes will have to wait until there is no one living left to hurt. In the meantime, the page is printed.