TITLE Crow Steered Bergs Appeared: A Memoir of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
AUTHOR: Lucas Myers
PUBLISHER: Proctor’s Hall Press (February 2001)
ISBN: 0 9706214 0 X
PRICE: US$20.00

Mail Order: Proctor’s Hall Press, 285 Proctor’s Hall, PO Box 856, Sewanee, Tennessee, 37375, USA. (shipping cost: US$3,00 in USA; US$10.00 outside USA)

Reviewed by Ann Skea (http://ann.skea.com)

In the winter of 1955, Ted Hughes spent a couple of nights under Lucas Myers’ bed. The bed itself was in a converted chicken coop in the grounds of St Botolph’s Rectory in Cambridge, and Ted and Lucas were both twenty-four years old.

In spite of Hughes’ complaining to Myers some two years later that his green corduroy jacket still smelled of “hen droppings” (I suspect a good Yorkshire lad would have put it more bluntly), they remained good friends until Hughes’ death in 1998. And in Birthday Letters, Hughes wrote of “Lucas, my friend, one / Among those three or four who stay unchanged / Like a separate self”.

Although that is not quite how he would have put it, Myers agrees that they did share many interests and had similar views, especially about “the human animal, its possibilities and its place in the universe”. However, he suggests that they were, in a sense, the obverse of each other: Hughes more resilient and determinedly productive than he. Hughes, too, was more inclined to myth than history, it seems: Myers remarks wryly that Hughes, in composing his “mythic discourse” in Birthday Letters, would have benefited from a fireside chat with his other self (Myers) to correct a few historical details.

Some of these historical details Myers now corrects in Crow Steered Bergs Appeared. He recalls the times he and Hughes shared when he was at Cambridge University and Hughes (although he had graduated) was still in the habit of returning there to meet friends and to write. And he provides factual details about many of the events which Hughes used in his writing, especially in Birthday Letters in poems like ‘Caryatids (1)’ and ‘Caryatids (2)’, ‘Visit’, ‘St. Botolph’s’, ‘18 Rugby Street’, ‘Chaucer’, and others.

Birthday Letters is not the only work Myers discusses in this memoir. He writes interestingly about stories like ‘snow’; about Winter Pollen and other prose by Hughes; and he is informative about the influence on Hughes of their shared reading of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He writes, too, about Plath’s poetry, prose and journals. He writes honestly, and with a clear understanding of his likely bias as Hughes’ close friend, admitting, for example, that he was initially dismayed by Hughes’ growing attachment to Plath. But he is not afraid to criticise Hughes, or to express his own opinion of both Hughes’ and Plath’s work.

“Sylvia’s poetry of the Ariel period,” writes Myers at one point, “is much more immediate and accessible that Ted’s”. But he suggests, too, that there is danger in the way it taps into common feelings of “dominance and tribalism and resentment” and seems to “provide the license for aggression”. Nevertheless, he writes that “Both partners put extraordinary effort, energy, self-discipline and hope, as well as exceptional talent into the search for meaning and its expression in literature”. And he suggests that Plath’s energies were katabolic for Hughes, just as Hughes’ energies were nurturing and healing for her.

Myers knew both Hughes and Plath well. He also knew, later on, Assia Wevill. All three wrote to him, and many of these letters are now in the Ted Hughes Archive at Emory University in Atlanta for scholars to read. But reading the letters is not the same as knowing, also, the context in which they were written and the characters of the people who wrote them. Myers’ book is valuable in that it discusses both and it will go some way towards correcting the many fictions which have grown up around the, so called, “Hughes / Plath story”.

I (as a long-time admirer of Ted Hughes’ work, and as someone who knew him for only a few brief years before he died) was glad to read Lucas Myers’ honest and loving tribute to him and to Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill. I was glad to see him tackle the morass of myth and misinformation which has grown up around their lives (but not, significantly, around their work) and glad to see him take on those, like the “Red Guard” radical feminists and Al Alvarez, who have helped create the morass. It is sad, though, that this memoir will probably in its turn face their disbelief, distortion and rage.

Those who knew Ted Hughes will know how right Lucas Myers is when he says that “Poetry was the expression and the inner life was the substance of all Ted’s work”. And in the end, it is the poetry which matters: not the life of the fallible human being who created it. That, I believe, is what Ted Hughes himself would have said.

© Ann Skea 2000. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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