Telling Tales

A Review of Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate

Harper Collins ISBN:978 0 06 236243 8 (US$40.00). Fourth Estate, 978 0 7322 9970 5 (AUD$49.99); hardback 662 pages

©Ann Skea 2015

From the start, the style of this book is that of storytelling and it fits well into the current fashion for novelised biographies. The first chapter ‘The Deposition’, begins like a courtroom drama, with dialogue taken from the deposition made by Ted Hughes as a defendant in the trial occasioned by Jane Anderson’s charge of libel over the representation of her in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.

Bate’s text is fluent, sometimes poetic, and richly embellished with descriptive and emotive adjectives. A respected female BBC producer is “dumpy”, “bustling”, “middle–aged and unmarried”; one Cambridge man is a “paunchy friend”; the clergyman who married Ted and Sylvia is “twinkle eyed” (“bright–eyed” was Sylvia’s description); and the influential critic Al Alvarez is “the pugnacious, poker–playing boxer” whose own poetry “was thin gruel”.

All this makes for easy reading for the general reader. It is worrying, however, when this storytelling approach is applied to interpretation of Ted’s poems.

I was stopped short on page 4 where Bate interprets the “you” in Ted’s poem, ‘You claw the door’, as Sylvia trying to “escape the house” after a quarrel with Ted. On its first publication in Remains of Elmet, the first line of the poem – “You claw the door” – was also its title. The second line contained only one word “rain”, isolated on the far right of the text and followed in the third line by “Crashes the black taut glass”. Lights do not “twinkle in the valley”, as Bate has it, but “splinter from their sockets” in “foundering valleys, in the gulf”. In Ted’s poem a generic domestic scene of “conversation and telly and dishes” is contrasted briefly with the wild elements. There is no Beacon (this title appeared first in the slightly re-ordered version of the poem in Elmet), no Sylvia, and no “trapped animal”, only the “wolf’s wraith / That cannot any longer on all these hills / Find her pelt”. If a student of English literature presented Bate’s version in an essay, they would be marked down for offering imaginative interpretation as fact and for not quoting the poem correctly.

It gets worse. On page 342 Bate repeats that “a woman claws the door of the house” and states that Ted “explicitly linked” this poem to Sylvia. Only in a more extended discussion of the poem on pages 393-5 does he revealed the original placing of this poem in Remains of Elmet as the first of four poems, the second, third and fourth being respectively ‘Emily Bronte’, ‘Haworth Parsonage’ and ‘Top Withens’. Here, he states confidently that “there is no doubting the identity of “you”: it is Sylvia, trapped in the Hughes family home”. He then refers to Sylvia’s poem ‘Wuthering Heights’ from which, according to him, Ted borrowed “the lights twinkling from the valley” (in Sylvia’s poem they “gleam like small change”). And he goes on to link Sylvia with Emily Bronte and her death, and, via Sylvia’s treatment for depression and Ted’s word “electrocuted” (in ‘Haworth Parsonage’), with Bramwell Bronte. From here, it is a short step to suggesting that Sylvia is also the ‘you’ in the poems ‘Churn–milk Joan’ (which he describes as “the story of a rape and murder”) and ‘Bridestones’ (which has “a grave” in which, according to Bate, there lies “the dead bride”).

This is just one possible imaginative interpretation of ‘You claw the door’. Given its original placement, and the locations and the imagery of this group of four poems, I could as easily imagine that the ‘you’ is the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw, which in Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights, fights to get into the house on just such a wild night as Ted’s poem evokes. In his desire to see Sylvia present in all of Ted’s work Bate makes similar imaginative and questionable interpretations of many other poems.

In Remains of Elmet, which Ted told Stephen Spender was mainly “childhood impressions filtered through my mother’s feelings for that landscape”(TH to SS, 9.10.79), Bate suggests that Ted’s naming of Esther and Sylvia, amongst other family members named in ‘Heptonstall Cemetery’ presents “Sylvia in double form, as both herself and as the Esther of The Bell Jar”. It seems highly unlikely that Ted would want to resurrect the soul of a fictional character like Sylvia’s Esther Greenwood, especially one associated with the trouble and expense caused him by the USA libel trial. Admittedly Esther seems not to be one of the Hughes/Farrar family actually buried in the cemetery at Heptonstall, but Ted did know another Esther, Leonard Baskin’s first wife, with whom he and Sylvia had been friends. In January 1959, Sylvia sent Esther Baskin Ted’s poem ‘Esther’s Tomcat’, which includes the legend of the Knight–killing cat of Barnburgh – a town within easy hiking distance of Ted’s childhood home in Mexborough.

The Westward flying swans in ‘Heptonstall Cemetery’ are certainly a traditional symbol of faithfulness as Bate says, but they are also, as Ted well knew, the totem animals of the bards – creatures of air, earth and water which, in Celtic myth, are symbols of the soul, and which fly across the Threshold between life and death. The West is where the Celtic Otherworld is located.

In his ‘Deposition’ chapter, Bate lays out his own rule for tackling the biography which Ted always said should never be written. “The cardinal rule is this: the work and how it came into being is what it is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work; the biographical impulse must be at one with the literary-critical”.

In a defensive Endnote, as if he might be accused of some nefarious purpose in writing this book, Bate claims that one of his principal aims “is to explicate, celebrate and immortalise the writings of Ted Hughes, both published and unpublished, so as to bring him new readers… and thus to further the interests of the Estate”. Since the Estate has, since the publication of the book, pointed out errors and protested at “unsubstantiated claims”, he seems not to have achieved the last of these aims. But what about the first?

He deals well with identifying and paraphrasing some of the unpublished material in the British Library archives which relates to Sylvia and Assia, although, as he notes on page 17, “Ted’s journal–style writings are scattered across a huge number of yellowing notebooks, torn jotter pads and thick sheaves of loose pages” and the manuscript pages in the archive cover a great range of diverse subjects. Much of the material for his discussion of Capriccio and Birthday Letters is paraphrased from the published sequences but his notes on the existence and content of some of the many pages which relate to specific poems in other sequences may be of value to scholars. And he deals at some length with Elmet, Gaudete and with Crow. But his desire to find biographical content in everything leads to some misguided interpretations and the “biographical impulse” over–rides the “literary–critical”.

He begins his chapter ‘The Crow’ with a story about Ted looking at the sky and seeing an aircraft and a crow. As elsewhere in this book, any mention of an aircraft in Ted’s work is seen as a link with his brother Gerald in Australia, but there is no hint of Gerald in the passage from Ted’s essay on ‘Words and Experience’ (PIM 118–124) to which Bate is here referring. There is a crow, and the description of its flight as “the ominous thing”, “the barefaced bandit thing, the tattered beggarly gypsy thing”, is Ted’s. However, it is not the crow in Ted’s essay which will “unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head” but “art – music, painting, dancing, sculpture, and the activity that includes all these, which is poetry”. And Ted specifically states that there are “more important things than crows to try and say something about”.

Discussing the vacanas which form much of the ‘Epilogue’, of Gaudete, and some of which appear in Orts, Bate again wishes to identify Sylvia as their subject. These vacanas, many of which remain unpublished, were Ted’s response to the Siva–worshipping Indian songs he had found in Ramanujan’s book, Speaking of Siva. They are Ted’s negotiations with the Goddess, and many of them are addressed specifically to his “Lady of the Hill”. Of course, as he writes in one of these unpublished poems, “It has taken every living woman / To make a body for you to live in” (Vacana VN 54. Ted Hughes’ Vacanas: The Difficulties of a Bridegroom, which is my detailed account of Ted’s work with these vacanas, can be found here.

There are many instances of small but significant changes to Ted’s text and of the selection and omission of particular parts of his text to suit Bate’s ‘story’. And his dealings with Ted”s poetic sequences are often perfunctory. Many would disagree with his claim that Lupercal is “without doubt… Ted Hughes’ best and most characteristic volume of poetry”. In Flowers and Insects, he deems Ted’s poetry to be “pedestrian”. In this luxurious (in the old sense of sensuous and voluptuous) book, embellished with Baskin’s beautiful paintings, the descriptions of, for example, ‘Big Poppy’ as a “Hot eyed Mafia queen”, and a tortoiseshell butterfly “drunk with earth–sweat” settling “to nod her long spring tongue down / Into the nestling pleats, into the flower’s / Thick–folded throat” or “attaching her weightless yacht” to the crest of a Dandelion, are hardly pedestrian. And the imagery in ‘Sketch of a Goddess’ is frankly erotic.

Ted’s translations are dealt with very briefly. Of Moortown, Bate writes “only two of the poems stick in the reader’s mind”. He found Cave Birds “provisional and fragmented” and its “arcane ritual” a “chasm”. And Adam and the Sacred Nine is allowed just one paragraph.

As one might expect, Bate, as a respected Shakespearian scholar, outlines very well the genesis, development and theme of Ted’s Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being as it maps the “Venus/Adonis/boar (sex/will/death) triad” across Shakespeare’s works. But he hones in on Ted’s suggestions about Shakespeare’s life and links these with Ted’s own biography. In particular, he picks out a single paragraph from Ted’s additional notes, 'A Working Definition of the Mythic', which Ted intended to be added to his introduction in any second edition. The section in which this paragraph occurs paraphrases an argument about Sylvia’s work which Ted made more fully in ‘The Evolution of Sheep in Fog’ (WP 191–211), and which Ted used as an example of the way mythic poetry, often unconsciously, combines, with visionary intensity, images of a subjective experience. Ted goes on to explain that the sections of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being “follow step–by–step” the development of Shakespeare’s “mythic personality”. It is clear, as Bate says, that Ted’s analysis of Shakespeare’s work reflects the development of his own mythic personality. Ted recognised this himself when he explained that all poets find “metaphors for their own nature”, and this “master plan of their whole make up” is projected into their work. Shakespeare’s “particular knot of obsessions”, as Ted called it, was very similar to his own and Ted was, as I argue in my article Ted Hughes and Shakespeare (Litro 133, April 2014), uniquely qualified to recognise in Shakespeare an underlying theme which others had never noticed. To equate this insight to an alphabetical formula which, according to Bate, is “Ted’s own story” of the three sexual liaisons which Ted, as an unmarried man, conducted “in the late Sixties” is reductive in the extreme.

Which brings me to another aspect of Bate’s book. In his ‘Deposition’ he writes that: “women play a huge part in the story of his [Ted’s] metamorphosis of life into art. It has accordingly been necessary to include a good deal of sensitive biographical material, but this material is presented in service to the poetry”. Fair enough! The women interviewed by Bate were clearly independent, intelligent, had minds of their own and could make their own decisions. But one should perhaps ask how much their memories are coloured by events and emotions, or by other personal reasons. To report their comments and the contents of Ted’s manuscripts where they appear is one thing: to report the comments of others about them is hearsay and gossip. And to include Erica Jong’s typically sensational and exaggerated fantasies after her one brief meeting with Ted is gratuitous and distasteful. Similarly, to devote four pages to a précis of Emma Tenant’s novel adds nothing to our understanding of Ted’s work. And, later, to provide an extended account of Susan Schaeffer’s “poisonous” (Bate’s word and mine) roman–a–clef, together with comments such as “anyone acquainted with the real Olwyn [Hughes] will smile in recognition…” is unnecessary and callous. I did not smile. And Olwyn herself, in a letter to Shaeffer’s husband, Neil, (a copy of which she gave me) wrote that reading the book made her ill; that it was hurtful and malicious; and that she had always considered Susan and Neil to be her friends and had no idea how much Susan must have hated her and the rest of the family.

Bate draws together information from many sources, coordinates it well and makes a good and varied ‘story’ from the whole. This in itself is interesting. Generally, he acknowledges his sources in his Endnotes. Sometimes he states quite clearly that whole paragraphs are indebted to a particular source: sometimes he does not. Those who have read Gerald Hughes’s book Ted and I, for example, and Steve Ely’s more recent book Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire, can judge for themselves just how much of these books has been paraphrased and/or borrowed by Bate in his account of Ted’s early life: other readers have only a single Endnote reference to each book to guide them. In my own case, at the end of an extract and paraphrasing of my transcripts of two interviews with Ted conducted by Claudia Wright at the Adelaide Festival in 1976, Bate bluntly states: “after the interview they slept together”. Where did this come from? It is certainly no part of the interviews I transcribed and he could not have been told it by Claudia, who died in 2005. So, was it a Festival rumour, like the one he says circulated about an affair between Ted and Jennifer Rankin, and which he later accepts as a fact?

Bate, himself, in the interests of a good story, is not above hint–dropping and innuendo. In a discussion of Ted’s unpublished poem about Shakespeare drafting a will, he suggests there may be “a shadow story that may one day be revealed”. And whilst his outline of Frieda Hughes’s autobiographical poems in Forty-Five is a valid way of reflecting her memories of her father’s place in her life, his cryptic references to her pin–sticking, mythic/symbolic volume Waxworks, which was written at the time of the fierce family conflict over Ted’s will, is not.

He offers no evidence, either, for his suggestion that Ted’s discussion of the theme of the Rival Brothers in Shakespeare’s work “had autobiographical origins”. In fact, his own account of the close friendship between Ted and Gerald shows just the opposite.

In spite of the claims that this is a comprehensive biography, there is much that is left out or barely touched on in this book. Ted’s fishing did not “stand in for sex”, as Bate would have it. The follies Ted spoke of to Lucas Myers were not just sexual follies but, more importantly, the follies of life – the follies he wrote of in his vacanas as money, politics, religion, food – all the worldly things which kept him from immersing himself in “the pure / Water of the source” (Orts 38) from which he gained his inspiration. Fishing, as Ted wrote in ‘Learning to Think’ (PIM 60–1) was “a sort of mental exercise” a way of “concentrating on a small point [the float] while at the same time letting your imagination work freely”. Fishing was Ted’s way of entering “underbeing” (‘Go Fishing’ CP 652); and of experiencing the dangers and the thrill of being immersed in the world of Nature – the world of his Goddess.

Ted would not have, and did not, describe Yeats as “dabbling” in the supernatural. In his essay A Dancer to God to which Bate refers when he uses this description, Ted wrote that Yeats’ appetite for the occult may have seemed “incomprehensible” and “eccentric” to others but Yeats “never abandoned his early resolution to make the work of poetry his first concern, the world of magic his second”. As with Yeats, Ted’s serious interest in magic was not “bonkers”, as Bates would have it. It encompassed, as it did for Yeats, “Eastern mysticism and religious philosophy, the whole tradition of Hermetic magic (which is a good part Jewish Mystical philosophy, not to speak of the mystical philosophy of the Renaissance), the whole historical exploration into spirit life at every level of consciousness, the whole deposit of earlier and other religion, myth, vision, traditional wisdom and story in folk belief” (TH to Sagar 30.8.79).

And Ted’s knowledge of Shamanism did not begin with his reading of Eliade’s book Shamanism. Clearly this book roused his interest but in a letter to Moelwyn Merchant (29.6.90) he wrote that he had “discovered the literature of Shamanism” at University. He already knew a great deal about negotiating with spirits and souls and about “techniques of moving in a state of ecstasy among various spiritual realms”(WP 56) from his extensive reading of occult material. And it is likely that he attended the lectures of Dr Ethel John Lingren, an authority on shamanism in Manchuria, who, as Robert Leighton reveals in ‘What did Ted Learn from Anthropology?’ (a paper he presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute in June 2015) lectured in anthropology at Cambridge University when Ted was an undergraduate there.

Bate claims that Birthday Letters was written over many years but identifies its particular ‘voice’ as first emerging in the Gaudete ‘Epilogue’ poems which were written in 1973–4. I wrote about this in some detail in my vacanas paper. In particular, however, Bate refers to a certain Silvine notebook in the British Library archive which contains many Birthday Letters drafts, and he links its charred cover with the Lumb Bank fire in 1971. He speculates that at least some of the poems were written in it before 1969. Carol Hughes, in reply to a query of my own about the notebooks and school exercise books in which Ted developed most of the Birthday Letters poems, wrote that the books were bought by Ted in a sale at the local school sometime in the early 70s, and that he then began the Birthday Letters “journey” in the late spring (CH to AS 30.4.2015).

Bate’s biography of Ted has already prompted a great variety of responses from journalist and reviewers. These range from outraged headline–grabbing articles about Ted as a sexually deviant monster to balanced pieces of measured praise for the broad scope of the book, the amount of work which has clearly gone into it, and Bate’s easy, fluent style of writing and presentation. Such diversity of opinion clearly demonstrates how each writer brings their own subjective feelings, experiences and background knowledge to the book. The same is true about the way Ted’s work is read. Each reader sees the work through the prism of their own particular background and interest. There have been Lawrentian, ecological, elegaic, Taoist, Jungian, mythic, and (in my own case) mystical, Cabalistic and Alchemical readings of Ted’s work. Bate’s particular prism focuses the light on Sylvia and sex.

Brought together, these readings still would not reveal the full spectrum of Ted’s genius. Like Shakespeare’s, his work offers many different things to many different people. “Finally”, as Ted himself said in a letter to Keith Sagar (23.5.74), “poems belong to readers – just as houses belong to those who live in them & not to the builders”.

Ted also said of biography: “When the subject is somebody else, the accounts & reports & interpretations sound plausible. When it’s yourself you realise what the creative demon is” (TH to Sagar, 10.6.88).

In Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, Bate’s creative demon has been very creative and the “biographical impulse” has outweighed the “literary-critical”. Like the rather bumbling God in Ted’s Tales of the Early World, he does not get things quite right.

© Ann Skea 2015. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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