Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes, The Unauthorised Life, William Collins,
2015, 672pp, £25 (hardback)
First, a few confessional words: I was interviewed for this book, and my name appears both in the Index, and in the lengthy list of sources acknowledged and thanked at the end of the text. I have no quarrel about the way in which the information I gave has been reported.
I also appeared, speaking at some length, in the BBC programme Ted Hughes – Stronger Than Death, transmitted on Saturday October 10th 2015. Sir Jonathan Bate, author of the biography considered here, appeared in this documentary, but was not in charge of it. It nevertheless covered pretty much the same ground.
Of all the British poets of my generation, Ted Hughes, now nearly twenty years dead, left behind him both the grandest and most sulphurous reputation. The controversies he aroused rumble on, and the hurts, in certain quarters, are still keenly felt. The gestation of Bate’s book, chronicled in these pages, gives ample proof of this. The author began it with the full sanction of Hughes’s widow Carol, on the understanding that it was to be a ‘literary life’. Halfway through its composition, co-operation was withdrawn – hence the sub-title ‘The Unauthorised Life’. This has restricted Bate’s freedom to quote from Hughes’s writings as much as he might have liked, but has in other respects (as he points out) left him more fully at liberty to say what he wants to say about a life-story that was in any terms pretty dramatic. Any life-story that comprises not just two but actually three suicides (Hughes’s son Nicholas killed himself in 2009, just over ten years after his father’s death), plus a murder – one can’t describe the death of Hughes’s little daughter Shura, gassed by her suicidal mother, the poet’s mistress Assia Wevill, as anything else – does wrap a cloak of darkness about itself.
It’s not surprising to find that various aggrieved parties have been eager to accuse the book of inaccuracies. Chief among them is the poet’s widow, Carol Hughes. One of the things she takes issue with is Bate’s claim that the funeral cortège stopped, on the long drive from London to Devon, ‘for a good lunch’. ‘The idea that Nicholas and I would be enjoying a ‘good lunch’ while Ted lay dead in the hearse outside is a slur suggesting utter disrespect, and one I consider to be in extremely poor taste’. In fact, I have a good idea where this story came from, since it was told to me, very close to the time, by the lively bohemian jeweller Pat Tormey – mentioned elsewhere in Bate’s book and now herself dead – who also accompanied the hearse on its journey. I don’t think she had any reason to make it up.
There are certainly little slips that I can here and there pick out for myself. One of them is to do with the occasion when Assia, from London, just at the beginning of her disastrous relationship with Ted, sent a single blade of grass to him at his Devon house, which was called Court Green, without a
overing message. Bate comments: ‘Since grass was Green, Court meant courtship’. The incident is recorded in one of Ted’s poems.
What’s wrong here is the framework. Bate cites as his source the novelist William Trevor, who worked at that time, as I did, in an advertising agency called Notley’s, with premises in Hill Street. He states that Assia, too, was employed at Notley’s, as indeed she was, but somewhat before the affair started. She could not have looked out of a Hill Street window, as Bate claims, and seen ‘a gardener mowing the lawn in the square below’. She could only have done so after she moved to J. Walter Thompson, a somewhat grander, and much more self-consciously fashionable ad agency round the corner, whose offices do indeed look out on to Berkeley Square. This may seem a very trivial complaint, but it shows an uncertainty of touch about the kind of milieu Assia then inhabited. Not much place there for symbolic blades of grass.
London advertising agencies were indeed at that time infested with poets, none more so than Notley’s. When I was employed there, my fellow bards included two other ‘Group poets’ – Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter, plus another – Oliver Bernard – who was emphatically non-Group. The paradox was that this form of employment was widely regarded, in London’s grander literary circles, as the lowest form of compromise. Part of the attraction of Ted Hughes’s legend to his envious contemporaries was that he never had to sink to this level, simply in order to earn a crust.
If one examines the bare bones of the story, Hughes’s ascent into the British literary pantheon was remarkably swift. Through his wife Sylvia’s agency, a collection of his poems was submitted to a competition organised by the American publisher Harper Brothers (now Harper and Row). The judges were eminent – W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Marianne Moore. Ted carried off the prize, which was the publication of a book. This acceptance led, in turn, to rapid acceptance of the same collection by Faber & Faber, the most important publishers of poetry in Britain. In a single step, Ted arrived in the first rank. There followed an apparently seamless rise to all the honours Britain could offer a poet, nationwide celebrity, the Poet Laureateship, and finally, at the very end of Ted’s life, the O.M.
This, combined with the actual, often painful, facts of his private life, has led, inexorably it seems, to a wish to equate Ted Hughes with the major figures of British poetry in the Romantic epoch – specifically with Byron – ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ – and with the Wordsworth of The Prelude. Hughes perhaps added something too from the fictional hero Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, who addresses the heroine of the novel thus: ‘Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight you – they’ll damn you’.
There are several issues to be dealt with that tend to invalidate this approach. For example, though Bate continually flirts with the idea, there is nothing in Ted’s legacy to match the sustained eloquence of The Prelude – neither its engagement with the world the poet lived in, nor the poem’s narrative force as autobiography:
The earth was all before me. With a heart
Joyous, not scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way.
In fact, one of the features of Ted Hughes’s extensive bibliography, duly presented for study at the end of the book, is the way the poet continually recycles his work. It is clear that there has now accumulated, in a number of archives, a great mass of material: second thoughts, revisions, things begun and broken off.
Another feature of the bibliography is the number of limited editions, books published in extremely small numbers, and, more often than not, offered to an extremely restricted public at swingeing prices. The message often seems to have been: ‘Yes, you can know my secrets, but only if you have the money’.
Ted Hughes appeared on the scene at a time just before the all-conquering rise of the Internet. Rather than offering the public digital books, or simply texts to be downloaded at will, at that time poets and the promoters of poetry produced numerous little pamphlets that often served to kickstart substantial new poetic reputations. The poets of the Movement featured in pamphlets issued by the Fantasy Press. Among them was one devoted to the poetry of Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes’s contemporary at Cambridge, at that time much better known as a poet than Ted himself. A little later came Turret Books, a series published from Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop in London, and overseen by myself. Turret published two limited editions of work by Sylvia Plath, Uncollected Poems in 1965, in an edition of 150 copies, and Three Women, 180 copies, with illustrations by Stanislaw Gliwa, published by 1968. I suppose it is no secret that Uncollected Poems, produced during the first surge of Plath mania, was intended to reward faithful subscribers to our series, and at the same time to punish those who thought they could pick and choose among our other titles. The price, however, wasn’t exorbitant. Hughes also published poetry through Turret – a little book called Recklings, which appeared in 1966.
Ted and his sister Olwyn, who acted as his agent, learned something from this – that there was an eager market for limited editions of Ted’s work, and quite a number of these were published by either by the Rainbow Press, which Ted and Olwyn set up jointly in 1970, or else by the limited edition press of Ted’s preferred illustrator Leonard Baskin. They were useful cash cows for a poet who didn’t have, and didn’t want, any regular source of income.
One at least of these limited circulation books took Hughes into controversial territory. It was a high-priced publication called Capriccio, issued in 1990 in an edition of only fifty copies by Baskin’s Gehenna Press. It contained twenty poems dedicated to the poet’s relationship with Assia Wevill, which ended with her suicide n 1969. In one of the poems Hughes describes her as being:
in her soot-wet mascara,
In flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,
Slightly filthy with erotic mystery –
Very gradually the poems contained in Capriccio were allowed to trickle out elsewhere. Some appeared in New Selected Poems: 1957-1994, issued in regular publication five years later by Faber, and the full sequence is included in the massive Collected Poems, published in 2003, after the poet’s death. When a writer plays hide-and-seek in this fashion with some of the crucial facts of his life, at first prepared to whisper them only into the ears of those who are happy to pay up, one inevitably feels a certain frisson. The act takes one, not into the world of the nineteenth-century Romantics, even those of them whose life-styles were as notorious in their own time as that, for example, of Byron, but into the realm of modern publicity.
One subtext of Bate’s biography, never fully stated, but constantly present, is how difficult it is to be a poet and only a poet in contemporary society. The impulse to write long fully sustained poetic works – a Paradise Lost, an Essay on Man, an Idylls of the King – has vanished pretty much completely. The poet, male or female, is now supposed to tell us the truth, and nothing but the truth, about one subject: himself or herself. It is absolutely impossible to separate Ted Hughes’s poetry from his stormy, contentious biographical narrative.
Jonathan Bate doesn’t talk much about money, but when he does, the facts tend to be revelatory. He tells one, for example, that the American mass-market paperback of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was reprinted twenty-four times in the next seven years after it first appeared in 1972:
The American paperback edition alone sold more than 3 million copies during Ted’s lifetime. He and his children made a lot of money from all this, but the exponential leap in Sylvia’s fame would taint all his future visits to America.
When his own collection of poems about Sylvia, Birthday Letters, appeared at long last in 1998, at the very end of Hughes’s life, ‘it went straight to the top of the best-seller list, shifting 50,000 copies in a matter of weeks, a speed and volume of sales unheard of in poetry since the time of Lord Byron’.
To put it brutally, in the society we have now, a striptease is what pays, once public attention is focused on some particularly charismatic personality. There is no doubt that Ted Hughes possessed personal charisma in spades – a homme fatal if ever there was one. Let me have the bad taste to repeat something that Assia Wevill (who was a close friend of mine) said to me, in the first, excited days of her relationship with the poet: ‘Do you know, in bed, he smells like a butcher’.
The big question is – one unanswered by the book – is whether Hughes does in fact rank as a major poet, part of the great succession that includes Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Byron? The answer, it seems to me, is ‘not quite’. His work is too unfinished, there are too many loose ends. When and if the various existing huge archives – letters, journals, drafts, poems in many versions – are fully sorted out, opinion may of course change. It is not impossible, for instance, that he will actually come to be thought of as a better letter writer than he was a poet. He belongs, after all, to the last epoch when letter writing of that kind was possible – the years before email killed correspondence.
There are two things in particular that trouble me. We know that Ted Hughes worshipped Shakespeare. Yet he never became a major dramatist in his own right. What we get are plays for children, adaptations of the Greek and Roman classics, a text in gibberish for Peter Brooke, linked to Brooke’s work in Iran, during the last days of the Shah. Though Shakespeare did write non-dramatic verse – including the Sonnets, which seem to, many commentators, to contain confessions about a hidden, bisexual identity – a large part of his power lies in his ability to create a multitude of characters quite separate from himself. Hughes never attempted that.
The other is a more parochial complaint. One of Ted Hughes’s attractions for a wide readership is the way he writes about nature. He is a countryman through and through. The same can be said about his close friend Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize. Both of these writers, fine are they are, addressed what is now a predominantly urban audience. Reading either one of them, we are, in a certain sense, running away from the reality of the world we now live in. American poetry has moved on, it is much more various in the themes it tackles than its British equivalent. Hughes often seems to be fighting a rearguard action on behalf of a literary world that no longer exists.