Notes on the British Library’s Birthday Letters Archive

© Ann Skea.

An Addendum to this paper, added 31 August 2017, contains further notes on ‘The Sorrows of the Deer’: the earliest title for Birthday Letters.

I began my investigation into Ted Hughes’ use of Cabbala in Birthday Letters in 1999 and completed it in 2006, before the Birthday Letters manuscripts were sold to the British Library, and well before 2010 when they were catalogued and first made available for public scrutiny. Consequently, when this was possible, I was keen to discover whether there was any clear evidence in these manuscripts to support my thesis that Ted was using Cabbala as a “Memory System”, and using it in the way in which he believed Shakespeare had done, i.e. using (in Ted’s own words) “as–if–visialization as the first principle for effective meditation (as in St Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Disciplines, as well as Cabbala)”. In this same passage in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Ted goes on to list the four ethical aims of Cabbala and notes that these are also “the cornerstone of the Gnostic Myth of Sophia1.

Amongst the many manuscripts, typescripts and notebooks in the Birthday Letters archive, there are multiple drafts, revisions and corrections of each poem and many lists in which Ted ordered and re–ordered the sequence of poems. There is one mind map which places the Gnostic Sophia at its centre and has the word ‘Klipoth’ (meaning ‘Shells’– the averse, unbalanced, demonic energies of Cabbala) linked to one of its thought lines2. And there is one book, a black, new–looking Address Book, in which, under different sections, Ted listed every aspect of each of the ten Sephiroth (energy channels or “Angelic Powers3) of the Cabbalistic Tree of Life4.

In the ‘B’ section of the book, for example, Ted’s notes are headed “Geburah” and he lists 43 different aspects of the energies of Geburah (Sephira 5) and its associated influences, including: God Name; Archangel; Spiritual Experience; Mundane Chakra: Vice; Virtue; Body part; Egyptian, Greek and Viking Gods; Astrological Sign, Perfume, Plant and Gemstone; Four Tarot Cards; and its manifestation in each of the four Cabbalistic Worlds of Atziluth, Briah, Yetzirah and Assiah. He deals with each of the 9 other Sephiroth in other sections of this book and apart from that the rest of the pages are blank.

Other notebooks and lists in the archive show that Ted constantly rewrote and revised many of the poems. Even after they had been typed he would change words and sections and, in some cases, stick strips of paper on which he had made corrections over the original text. Most of the poems were eventually published in Birthday Letters (Faber, 1998) often in very different form to some of the drafts in the notebooks; some appear in Howls & Whispers (first published as a Limited Edition by Leonard Baskin’s Gehenna Press in 1998); and all the poems from one particular notebook and its associated separate sheets were published as Capriccio (first published as a Limited Edition by the Gehenna Press in 1990). This particular old school exercise book is distinguished by an upside–down ‘A’ stuck in yellow tape onto its cover5.

There are a number of unpublished poems, some of which were included in Ted’s hand–written lists of poems but are absent from the typed lists which were eventually sent to Christopher Reid,who was then Ted’s Poetry Editor at Faber and Faber. Some appear in the typed lists but were not included in Birthday Letters. These include the poem which begins “What did happen that Saturday night?” and which was later published as ‘Last Letter’ in The New Statesman Magazine in October 2010; and two poems about Ted’s girl friend at the time when he began to court Sylvia. One of these describes a disastrous meeting with this girl, when she catches him trying to hide under a bush, because he was on his way to meet Sylvia carrying a bottle of wine and a large piece of steak (the weight of the steak differs in different drafts).

Some drafts may well have become later published poems but the connection is hard to trace. One, in particular, which describes a walk across the moors to Wuthering Heights and the discovery of a wounded grouse which Ted puts out of its misery, prompting a furious reaction from Sylvia, has the same theme as ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ (a title which first appears in the typed lists) but is a totally different poem in a quite different setting.

Of particular significance are a number of old school exercise books labelled “Vicar’s Hill, Boldre“, on most of which a student has written his name and a school subject: ‘Scripture’, ‘French’ etc. Ted has labelled nine of these books S1 to S9 (the ‘S’ almost certainly alludes to Sylvia) and each contains drafts and sometimes loose sheets of poems most, but not all of which, became Birthday Letters poems6.

In books S1, S2, S3, S4 and S5, Ted has inscribed the title “The Sorrows of the Deer”. This was clearly the original title that he chose for the Birthday Letters sequence.

In 2003, when Daniel Weissbort was working on his book, Ted Hughes: Selected Translations, he told me of Ted’s fascination with a poem written by the Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhász – ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets’. It is possible that Ted had first seen this poem in one of the collections of Hungarian poetry which he began to acquire when his interest in Eastern European poetry was first aroused. One anthology of Hungarian poetry from the 13th century to the present day, translated into French, was presented to Ted by the Hungarian poet Janos Csokits in 1963. Ted certainly saw the poem in The Plough and the Pen: Writing from Hungary 1930-19567, and, as Daniel Weissbort records in his book, he thought the translation by Kenneth McRobbie “problematic”, so he immediately rewrote it “working with great concentration and at speed8.

Juhász’s poem can be interpreted in many ways, including as a version of Acteon’s vision of the Goddess and its results (“human tears shone on his stag’s face” in Ted’s poem ‘Acteon’ in his Tales From Ovid9); or even just as a poem about lost loved ones. If nothing else, Juhász’s lines – “He stood over the Universe, on the ringed summit / there the boy stood at the gate of secrets” – would have caught Ted’s attention.

Ted was, of course, well aware that Robert Graves identified the stag as being sacred to the Great Goddess. Chapter XIV of The White Goddess is titled ‘The Roebuck in the Thicket’; and according to Graves the Roebuck hides in a thicket of twenty–two sacred trees and its meaning is “Hides the Secret10. Twenty–two happens to be the number of paths connecting the ten Sephiroth on the Cabbalistic Tree and the number of cards in the Major Arcana of the Tarot pack. Whether or not this was significant for Graves (he does not mention it), Ted would have known it; and it seems that Ted sometimes identified with the Roebuck. In a letter to Keith Sagar, talking about his decision to return to writing poems about his life with Sylvia, Ted writes of: “the huge outcry that flushed me from my thicket in 70–71–72 when Sylvia’s poems & novel hit the first militant wave of Feminism as a divine revelation from their Patron Saint11.

Ted’s enduring interest in the sorrows associated with the Great Goddess’s shape–shifting, secret–hiding deer is clear. In 1978, when he and Seamus Heaney were collecting poems for The Rattle Bag, he wrote to Terence McCaughey asking “what is ‘The Sorrows of the Deer’?12. It turned out to be ‘The Deer’s Cry’, St Patrick’s hymn, translated from the Celtic by Kuno Meyer13, and it was not included in The Rattle Bag. Also, among a number of books of Hungarian poetry in Ted’s library (now held at Emory University in Atlanta) is an anthology entitled: In Quest of the Miracle Stag: the Poetry of Hungary14 which was published in 1996.

Each of the “Sorrows of the Deer” school exercise books, labelled S1, S2, S3, S4 and S5, contains Birthday Letters poems which have been given numbers by Ted and, if the published sequence is numbered consecutively from 1 (beginning with ‘Fulbright Scholars’) to 88, each book’s poems seem to group in different parts of that sequence. S1 contains eleven poems which appear between the positions 42 and 57 in the published sequence. S2 had eleven poems between 16 and 30. S3 has eight poems between 3 and 15. S4 only one poem at position 36. And S5 has five poems between 31 and 38.

Books marked S6, S7, S8 and S9 contain, respectively, sixteen, one, six and three of the published poems, but Ted has not numbered any of them.

A further, blue, exercise book (column 14 in the chart mentioned below) is marked by Ted “Book List January-April 1985”. It lists 48 drafts or titles of poems grouped into sections which are labelled, and refer to, S1, S2, S3, S4 and S5. Not all of these poems appear to be in the designated books; nor do all of them appear in the published sequence. The listed poems have been numbered and re–numbered by Ted; and the order of those which do appear in the published sequence is different to Ted’s numbering.

As must already be apparent, because of the number of notebooks, notes, poems, drafts, re–numberings, correction and lists in the British Library’s Birthday Letters archive, any discussion of the contents is complex and confusing. Chart 1, (below), therefore seeks to present an overall picture of the archive, and my detailed discussion of it is presented in the Appendix at the end of this paper.

Clearly, it is not possible, from the material in the Birthday Letters archive, to definitively trace the order in which Ted wrote the Birthday Letters poems or the date at which he wrote any of them. Nor is it possible to make coherent sense of the way in which he went about choosing the order in which he wanted them to be published. So, it is not possible to say whether or not he deliberately set out to write these poems as a healing, Cabbalistic journey.

Nevertheless, given Ted’s lifelong interest in mysticism, magic and the healing power of poetry, and his use of Alchemy and Cabbala in structuring, for example, Cave Birds and Adam and the Sacred Nine15; given, too, his undoubted interest and knowledge of Cabbala as evidenced in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, I cannot believe that the remarkable consistency with which the Birthday Letters poems fit each stage of the journey along the 22 paths of the Cabbalistic Tree, in each of the four Cabbalistic Worlds is pure coincidence16. The presence of even the few Cabbalistic notes and references in the British Library’s Birthday Letters archive indicates that Ted did, at least, have Cabbala in mind when he was writing the poems. And it is obvious that his method of ‘conjuring’ Sylvia and Assia into the poems reflects exactly the Cabbalistic techniques which he described in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being as “magically animated imagination”: a way of “conjuring…hallucinatory figures – with whom conversations can be held” a way of creating “internally structured poetic images” which unfold “multiple meanings” and, above all, the use of poetic drama “as a ritual for the manipulation of the soul17.

chart 1

Listed in the first columns on the far left of the chart are the titles of the Birthday Letters poems in the order 1 to 88 in which they appear in the Faber 1998 published edition. Each extra column represents one of the books or lists in the archive and a tick indicates which poems appear in this notebook or list, together with any number or numbers ascribed to it by Ted. Identifying details; the British Library Call Number; and the number ascribed to it by Roy Davids (RD) in notes on the archive which he provided for the British Library appears at the top of each column.


In addition to the books S1 to S9 and the Book List already discussed, other books in the British Library’s Birthday Letters archive provide the following information:

The Blue Triplicate notebook (column 10), which is possibly the most important notebook relating to Birthday Letters, contains many drafts of poems un–numbered in any way. By my count, and not allowing for drafts which may have been changed extensively in the final version, only 22 of these appear in the published sequence.

A Buff school exercise book (column 11) inscribed by a student “Langford. Scripture” contains two un–numbered Birthday Letters poems. And a Folio book with a fine printed cover (column 12) contains fourteen un–numbered Birthday Letters poems.

One of the most organised of Ted’s lists of poems is in a Buff school exercise book to the cover of which he has applied a yellow tape cross (column15). Here, he lists poem titles and numbers them consecutively from 1 to 125. Some titles have been marked ‘Lost’, most titles have been ticked and several have been re–numbered. A note at the end of the list records that 12 or 13 poems are lost and suggests that this “= 1 book”. 45 of these poems appear in Birthday Letters but in different order. Also in this file are many numbered notes, mostly about Sylvia; many loose sheets; and a mind–map listing episodes in Sylvia’s life which are recognisable in many of the poems.

Two further school exercise books contain lists of poems. A blue book on which a student has written “P.Hunt – Histry(sic)” (column 16) contains poems numbered consecutively by Ted from 1 to 61. Most are crossed through, some re–numbered, and a note indicates that 21 pieces are “lost” which “= 2 books”, then a further note says “all found”. Only 29 of these poems listed in this book appear in Birthday Letters but in a different order.

A pink school notebook labelled “Staff. Autumn 1962” and with a large hand–written X beside this (column 13), contains poems which Ted has numbered from 1 to 61, then has re–numbered (often in red). Many have a question marks alongside them and a number of titles have been crossed through. 37 of these poems appear in the published sequence, again in a quite different order; and 5 of the poems appeared in the first edition of Howls & Whispers. This particular file also contains many hand–written and typed manuscripts on loose sheets. The date on the cover offers no guidance, since the notebook lists ‘Resemblances’, which in drafts elsewhere in the archive describes Ted’s sightings of Sylvia after her death in 1964 and which eventually became the poem, ‘Last Offers’.

As far as I can determine, there are a number of poems which are in the published sequence but do not appear in Ted’s notebooks or lists. These include ‘The Literary Life’, ‘Astringency’, ‘Perfect Light’, ‘Blood and Innocence’, ‘The Cast’ and ‘The Ventriloquist’. Others – ‘Trophies’, ‘Horoscope’, ‘The Bird’, ‘Setebos’, ‘The Hands’, ‘Freedom of Speech’ and ‘Picture of Otto’, for example, – appear only in drafts which have some slight resemblance the final, very different, published versions of the poems.

The only other guidance we have to the way in which Ted finally chose the sequence in which the Birthday Letters poems were published, is in a list which he sent to Christopher Reid at Faber & Faber, dated 28 August 1997. This list contains poem titles numbered from 1 to 85, consecutively but with inserted titles and many arrows moving poems to different positions in the list. The order is close to, but not the same as that in the published sequence. Four poems – ‘the Afterbirth’, ‘The Rabbit Catcher’, ‘Costly Speech’ and ‘Telos’ – are included at the end of the list, numbered but marked “unplaced”. Three of the published poems – ‘18 Rugby Street’, ‘The Pink Wool Knitted Dress’ and ‘Karlsbad caverns’ – do not appear in the list at all.

Notes and References

1. Huges,T. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Faber, 1992. p.33.

2. British Library Ms. 88918/12/4.

3. Hughes,T, op.cit. p.20-21.

4. British Library Ms. 88918/12/1.

5. British Library Ms. 88918/1/17. Inside the front cover of this book Ted has written “Begin today” and inscribed a symbol which looks like the Hebrew alphabet letter TAV (which means ‘The Seal of Creation’ and represents faith in Divine presence in the finite world. (

6. Roy Davids misreads 8S and 6S as 85 and 65 respectively in his notes on the boxes sold to the British Library.

7. Duczynak,I. and Polanyi,K.(Eds), The Plough and the Pen: Writing from Hungary 1930-1956, Translator: McRobbie,K., Introduction by W.H.Auden, who describes the poem as ‘one of the greatest poems written in my time’.

8. Weissbort,D. Ted Hughes: Selected Translations, Faber, 2006. p.24. Ted’s translation of Juhász’s poem is published in full; and the first lines of a translation made by David Wevill for Penguin’s Modern Europen Poets series in 1970, are included in an Appendix.

9. Huges,T. Tales From Ovid, Faber, 1997. p.108.

10. Graves,R. The White Goddess, Faber, 1977. pp.54 and 251.

11. Reid,C.(Ed.) Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber, 2007. p.394.

12. Reid, ibid. p.719.

13. The text of this hymn can be found on the website of Project Guttenberg at, under ‘Selections from Irish Poetry/ Religious Poems’.

14. Makkai, A.(Ed.), In Quest of the Miracle Stag: the Poetry of Hungary, Chicago: Atlantis-Centaur, 1996.

15. See my detailed analysis of Cave Birds in my book Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest, UNE, 1994; and my paper on Cabbala in Adam and the Sacred Nine.

16. I trace this close relationship in detail in Birthday Letters: Poetry and Magic.

17. Hughes,T. op.cit. p.33.

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