Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar, edited by Keith Sagar, The British Library, 340pp, £25 (hardback)

Charting a friendship of almost thirty years, the correspondence of the poet Ted Hughes and the critic Keith Sagar is an unexpected literary treasure trove. Many of the letters in this substantial volume were not included in Letters of Ted Hughes (2007), edited by Christopher Reid, so we are afforded additional insights into the life and work of the late Poet Laureate. But while it is clear from the outset that Sagar is a true believer in most things Hughesian, he is by no means a fawning or unquestioning literary disciple. Sagar often parts company with the author of such iconic volumes as The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal, Wodwo, Crow and Birthday Letters in such areas as the poet’s rather mystical and myth-laden view of the British royal family, fishing, astrology, Rosicrucianism, Cabbala and Hermetic Neo-Platonism. When, in one of his earliest replies to Sagar, in August 1969, Hughes ‘castigated’ W. H. Auden for dismissing Yeats’s attachment to arcane beliefs, Sagar comments: ‘I have to admit that my sympathies were more with Auden than with Yeats and Hughes.’

The book literally starts with a bang. In March 1969 Sagar was driving a group of mature students to see Hughes give his first televised reading in Didsbury, Manchester. Sagar’s car skidded, keeled over and landed in a ditch. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the battered but unbowed lecturer wrote to Hughes the next day, explaining why there were five empty seats in the audience. Hughes replied the following month, just after his then lover, Assia Wevill, had taken her own life and that of their child, Shura. (Hughes would later dedicate his 1970 volume, Crow, to mother and child.) Sagar eventually received a hundred and forty-five letters from Hughes over three decades. Apart from mutual affection and respect for each other’s literary opinions, poet and critic shared connections from their earliest days: they were born within ten miles of each other, were from similar, working-class backgrounds, and both were educated at schools in the West Riding of Yorkshire and later at Cambridge. Just as importantly, Hughes and Sagar shared a passion for animals, Shakespeare and D. H. Lawrence (Sagar edited Lawrence’s poems for Penguin).

Nonetheless, Sagar soon discovered that Hughes, a man of considerable intellect and vast reading, harboured a visceral dislike of anyone delving into his personal life, particularly anything relating to the death of his first wife, the American poet, Sylvia Plath. By the time Sagar got to know Hughes, the poet had already been burdened with the Plathian legacy for six years. Like T. S. Eliot before him, Hughes believed that ‘the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates’. Hughes, tirelessly supported by his redoubtable sister, Olwyn, detested much of the literary and biographical sleuthing of the women he tended to dismissively refer to en bloc as ‘the feminists’. Initially, Hughes felt the need to protect his two young children, Frieda and Nicholas, from what he saw as the worst excesses of the Plathites; from the kind of people who chipped away his surname from Plath’s grave at Heptonstall, West Yorkshire; from those feminist critics who even implied Hughes had driven the author of Ariel to suicide on 11 February 1963. But literary friends were not immune from the poet’s wrath. Hughes scolded the poet and critic Al Alvarez for dealing in psychological speculation when writing about his troubled late wife. When the critic David Holbrook writes about Plath’s poetic language, Hughes likens him to ‘some pornographer or exhibitionistic voyeur’.

As a trusted friend, Sagar is able to be honest with Hughes about his own coolness towards such late and in extremis Plath poems as ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’, while also questioning the apparent lack of sexual imagery in her work, as outlined by the leading critic Hugh Kenner. Hughes, however, often displays an automatic resistance to most Plath commentators and literary criticism itself, warning Sagar ‘[not] to follow him too closely on the “frigidity of S. P.” trail. After all, what if he’s wrong? (Maybe that never occurs to him – many silent classes have polished his confidence.) Lots of people didn’t like her – for no reason at all. I never knew anybody else who got poison pen letters from complete strangers. And it seems to go on after her death’ (23 May 1981). In the same letter, Hughes laments the fact that his late wife’s poems ‘have been overlaid with other people’s fantasy visions of her’. On 4 January 1975 Hughes alludes to the almost incendiary nature of Plath’s work: ‘Olwyn has just assembled the whole final mss of Sylvia’s collected poems – after a near-disastrous involvement with so-called editors. Whoever becomes involved with that material seems to succumb to the hysterical supercharged public atmosphere that surrounds it.’ Sagar’s literary honesty sparks a fascinating analysis by Hughes (23 May 1981) of Plath’s poetic intentions, which appears to subvert the feminist view of Plath as a kind of tragic literary victim:

Ariel – March-Nov. 62 – is the diary of her coming to grips with & inheriting this ‘real self’. It isn’t the record of a ‘breakdown’. Growing up brought her to it – having children etc + confronting the events of 1962 (and mastering them completely) … Ariel is her record of her experience of it – of coming into possession of the self she’d been afraid of (for good reasons) … I read those Ariel poems as a climb – not a fall. A climb to a precarious foothold, as it turned out.

The clearly strong friendship between poet and critic is occasionally tested along the way, almost exclusively on literary matters. Even before Hughes published Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, to decidedly ‘mixed’ reviews in early 1992 Sagar did not pull his punches regarding his own misgivings about the book and the mythic structure Hughes believed underpinned the Bard’s plays. The old friends exchanged a series of detailed letters about the nascent Shakespeare book throughout much of 1990. A letter from the poet dated 1 September (which does not appear in Letters of Ted Hughes) is a detailed defence of his reading of the plays – often line by line responses to queries from Sagar – and such poems as ‘Venus and Adonis’.

Hughes and his Boswellian literary friend most often disagree on the mythical templates which the poet feels shape the plays, the same kind of mythical structures which fed Crow and other famous volumes. Hughes refused to budge on his dogmatic central thesis, that ‘even though the physical details of the play may seem to contradict the design of the mythic equation, the overall pattern of the finished drama must obey it’. Sagar’s commentary calls Hughes’s eccentric Shakespeare study ‘over-elaborate, tortuous and incomprehensible’, and even the poet came to regret elements of its structure. Hughes would later claim that late nights working on the book may have damaged his immune system and even precipitated the cancer which eventually claimed his life. When John Carey savaged the book in the Sunday Times, the poet proved just as vociferous as in his stewardship of the Plath estate, staging a full-blooded, aggressively Crow– like defence in his right of reply in the same newspaper (19 April 1992):

That rictus of derision on Carey’s face distorts his mind’s eye too. He goes through my book, sticking his tongue out at everything, with the mental freedom of one of those blinded donkeys that spend their days plodding in a small circle, turning a millstone, and then, when they’re let out into the open landscape, go on plodding around in the same small circle.

Sagar believed Hughes’s appointment as Poet Laureate in late 1984 afforded him the opportunity to act as a shaman-like literary figure between the secular and spiritual worlds. Hughes viewed Shakespeare, Keats and Eliot as shamanic poets, with Sagar’s fellow Hughesian critic, Neil Roberts, hoping the poet ‘might turn the Laureateship into an organ for creatively exploring the role of religion, ritual and mythology in our society’. Sadly for both critics, ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’ proved to be the only Hughes poem which seemed to fulfil his shamanic potential. What becomes increasingly clear in this lengthy exchange of letters is the importance of myth – classical, primitive and otherwise – to the Hughes canon and the extent to which a grasp of much arcane mythological material is essential to a full understanding of the poetry.

On 29 January 1998, nine months before his death, Hughes published his final collection, Birthday Letters – a volume of poems exploring his relationship with Sylvia Plath. (In accordance with the poet’s wishes,

Faber and Faber published the book when Hughes believed the time was astrologically right.) Birthday Letters was welcomed as a major literary event in some quarters and lavished with praise by leading critics and fellow poets. Andrew Motion called it ‘his greatest book’, while for Seamus Heaney it was an ‘awesome’ collection. However, a cooler Karl Miller thought there was as much artifice as candour in the volume: ‘the two poets can seem larger than life, their destiny written in the stars’. Ian Hamilton was even more direct, viewing the collection as more about literary history than literary substance. He found most of the poems ‘fairly lumpishly composed and of scant technical distinction … out of a total of some eighty items, only a handful could be said to earn their keep, as poems’. The year before publication (2 October 1997) Hughes confided to Sagar: ‘Those pieces about S. P. in the end of the New Collected are probably too obscure … I’ve put together about 90 – full context makes them read more openly. Still thinking whether to pub. or not. Probably not, but it would be a burden gone.’

On 18 and 19 July 1998, a few months after the publication of Birthday Letters, Hughes opens up in his final substantial letter to his constant friend and critic about his final book. He admits the poems contravened his ‘inborn conviction that you never talk about yourself in this way – in poetry’, feeling he had ‘committed some kind of obscure crime, publishing them’. Maintaining that ‘none of it is faked’, Hughes saw publication as cathartic, while admitting to still feeling trapped by the Plath myth: ‘with Sylvia’s reputation as my environment, I could never escape with her onto the other levels. There simply was no more time …’ This book of letters is a fascinating record of an enduring personal and literary friendship and an essential addition to Hughesian scholarship.

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