British Library Ted Hughes Archive.
Notes on Add Ms 88918/129/2

© Ann Skea.

In the extensive archive of Ted Hughes’ manuscripts held by the British Library, this particular file holds a sheaf of quarto manuscript pages with holes punched along one side, as if they came from a loose–leaf file. The sheets have been numbered in pencil according to the order they were in when received by the British Library.

Most of the pages contain notes on a variety of things which interested Hughes. Amongst these are notes on Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Revolution; Prehistoric China; quotations from Schopenhauer and from Jung; the Eleusinian and Orphic Mysteries; Yoga; Jansenists; Egyptian gods and mythology; Alchemy; Astrology (Hughes’ own birth chart progressed from 1950–1970); sigils and notes from the Grimorium Verum (1517) (copied, with additions, from a more modern source). There are also a number of manuscript pages of proverbs and sayings collected by Hughes from many different cultures.

Nine of these pages, unusually for Hughes, are dated (often day and month only) and contain journal–like notes; a few other similar pages are undated. Most of the notes on these particular pages can be linked to poems or stories in Hughes’ and/or Plath’s published work and all of these pages are listed below with an outline of their contents and in the order in which they appear in the file. Poems, stories, letters and journal entries which reflect things described on these pages are indicated in red.

Pink sheet 10:

“April 11th” : An account of “last week” waking in the morning feeling depressed about the Guggenheim fellowship and asking for a prophecy. In a doze, he dreamed of receiving a large envelope in which there was a parchment sheet containing a tiny, almost undecipherable, cryptic message. He deciphered this and interpreted it as a good prophecy. Subsequent mail, “yesterday”, opened by Sylvia, informed him of the award of $5,000. (cf. Plath’s journal entry for April 23, 1959 (JSP p.477)). Hughes describes his reactions in detail, then a lunch with George Gibian (Associate Professor of English and Russian literature at Smith College, Plath’s thesis advisor and, later, her colleague at Smith) who had also, that morning, received news of his own Guggenheim award. He notes their discussion of “Hecht” and “Pat” (Poet and teacher, Anthony Hecht, married to Pat, a colleague of Sylvia’s at Smith College).

Also on this sheet: A long, detailed description of a morning walk through empty streets; and a note about vocal exercises, writing longer poems and the need for experiment.

Pink sheets 18 and 19 (undated):

A long, detailed, descriptive piece about a fishing expedition with Sylvia at Cape Cod. Hughes describes being on the water, catching a skate, battling the wind and Sylvia being very afraid, then being towed back close to land by a motor boat and being given six large cod by the boatman. Hughes is shown exactly how to skin a cod and he describes this process in detail. (Hughes’ poem ‘Flounders’ (THCP 1084), describes just such a fishing trip from “Chatham/ Down at the South end of the Cape”. Plath’s journal entry, for Wednesday 10 June 1957, ‘Day in Winthrop’, is also close to Ted’s mss account. (JSP p.483). From June to August 1957, Hughes and Plath lived on Cape Cod and spent their days swimming, fishing, cycling and writing. By June 1958, they were living in Boston, MA).

Pink sheets 26:

“Dec 28th”: A descriptive passage of observations made on a walk with Sylvia into Heptonstall to buy bread and fruit.

Pink sheet 27 (undated):

A description of an invitation to tea with Hughes’ Uncle Walter Farrar, his wife Alice and their mentally disabled daughter, Barbara. Ted, Sylvia, Olwyn and Ted’s father are mentioned and some family awkwardness which is occasioned by Barbara’s behaviour is described. Later, there is more awkwardness caused by Walter’s failure to offer to drive them all home. (In a letter to Gerald and Joan Hughes and Family, 24 February 1957, Hughes wrote “Sylvia adores Walt… they bring each other out extraordinarily”; he also noted that “what she’s met of this family so far has bewildered her a bit” (LTH p.95). Sylvia’s journal entry for 26 August 31[a] (JSP 579-80)contains notes for ‘All the Dead Dears’ (Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. pp.177–84). In this story, Walter Farrar and his family appear as Uncle Jake, his wife Esther and his daughter Cora. Plath’s description of a family gathering in which intimate family business is discussed is based on fact and is shockingly indiscreet. Ted’s parents appear as Clifford and Nellie Meehan; and Nellie’s psychic visions, which Plath describes, are also part of Hughes’ poems ‘Anniversary’ (THCP 854) and ‘Sacrifice’ (THCP 758).

Also included on this sheet is a descriptive passage about a walk taken by Sylvia and Ted to the Pack Horse Inn (This Inn is within walking distance of Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, where in June 1957, Hughes and Plath were staying with Hughes’ parents prior to sailing for America. Sylvia’s letter from there to her mother on June 17th mentions “magnificent walks” (SPLH pp.317-8)).

Pink sheet 28:

Undated notes on a performance of Phaedra. Catharsis. A descriptive account of a visit to the zoo. Notes on Swedenborg and Heaven and Hell.

“March 29th 1960”: Begins a description of a meeting with George MacBeth at the BBC (George MacBeth produced many of the broadcasts made by Hughes at the BBC).

Pink sheet 29 (single side):

Continues the account from March 29th: Describes eating and drinking and then becoming very unwell, fainting and falling, then immediately being well again. He attributes his strange, incapacitating sickness to reading, that morning, about the death of Wilfred Owen and to other disturbing events including his own mixed feelings about recognition.

The reverse side of this sheet has notes on “A Theory of Composition”.

Pink sheet 30 (single side):

Continues his thoughts on the reason for his sudden collapse – attributing it to his belief that involvement in writing about the war would kill him, because whoever “owns” him detests such things and he needs to obey “her or hers”.

The reverse side of this sheet contains notes on [Petawaite’s ?] Aphorisms on Yoga (The name is possibly ’Patanjali’, whose Aphorisms date from approx. 400CE).

White paper 35:

“23 June”: Brief notes on the Faber cocktail party for Auden, his short meeting with Auden, his description of Auden, mention of Spender and McNeice, and an account of his short discussion of poetry with T.S.Eliot. (Hughes’ letter to Olive Higgins Prouty, 21 June 1960, mentions that “on Thursday we’re going to meet the poet W.H.Auden… and we’re invited to a cocktail party given in his honour” (LTH p.164). In his letter to Olwyn Hughes, Summer 1960, he pens an account of his conversation with Eliot and describes Auden as having “a strange wrinkled face, like a Viking seaman – that sort of tan and wrinkles”. (LTH pp.165-6). Plath also mentions this cocktail party in a letter to her mother on June 24, 1960. (SPLH p.386)).

Random words around the side of the sheet suggest an interest in: bibliographies; Goethe; Bacon; Moussolini.

There is also an astrological chart dated October 30th/01 and a reference to a megaton bomb (On October 30th 1961, the Soviet Union detonated an AN602 hydrogen bomb in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, its power was equivalent to 58 megatons of TNT).

Pink sheet 45 (undated):

Diary-like notes beginning mid–sentence. References to gardening. A descriptive passage about a walk, and another descriptive passage about a car ride to Staithes with ”Dad“ and “Vicki” (Ted’s cousin).

Pink sheet 50:

“October 11th Wednesday”: Notes on sleep and on writing “M of W” [possibly H of W] and being stuck at a banquet scene. An astrological chart for “ghastly 6th and 7th”; and detailed gardening notes. (Hughes describes his study of gardening books, his gardening, his heart arrhythmia and his charting of this in a diary, in ‘The Lodger’ (THCP 1123). His gardening interests whilst living at Court Green are also documented in a letter he wrote to Aurelia and Warren Plath, 1 May 1962: “I’ve been sowing the vegetable garden – martial rows of beans and peas appearing almost immediately” (LTH pp.196–7). At the end of September 1962, in an undated letter to her mother, Plath wrote “Ted has planted winter lettuce and is digging a big strawberry bed” (SPLH p.430).

At that time, Hughes was immersed in writing Difficulties of a Bridegroom, a play which was eventually broadcast by the BBC Third Programme on 21 January 1963. The banquet may have been part of this play and of what he described in a letter to Olwyn (June 1962) as “the hero’s wedding day” (LTH. p.201)).

Pink sheet 69:

“Jan 5 1964”: Description of a car drive to Appledore, made with Frieda, Nicholas, Olwyn, Elizabeth Compton and her son James. The Sunday afternoon emptiness of a “comfortless” town, the rubbish on the beach, the muddy sand, the sea and the gloomy mood are all described. (In ‘The Dogs are Eating Your Mother’ (THCP 1168), Hughes writes of arranging on Sylvia’s grave “sea–shells and big veined pebbles/ carried from Appledore/ As if we were herself”.)

This is followed by a visit to Orly House, near Bideford, and the house, full of African memorabilia, and its “weird” owner are described.

Pink sheet 73 (a single page of small, cramped writing in biro. Hughes usually used a fountain pen and ink):

“Feb 3rd”: A note about Sylvia calling him to have lunch with her. His lateness because of a BBC recording. Their friendly talk; Sylvia reading her poems; their plans. Playing with Frieda. His wanting to take up their old life but not wanting to be a prisoner, wanting it to be different, and his stating his belief that her newly independent life had freed up her writing and their being together again might disrupt this.

“Monday lunchtime”: Sylvia rang again, very agitated, demanding that Ted leave England. He notes that Al had advised him, citing his own experience, not to be indulgent, but he promises to go as soon as he can.

“On Wednesday”: He notes that he has heard from “A” that Sylvia is telling the whole story of their marriage to friends and is claiming that he left her in Devon without any money. He describes writing her a note saying that he will get a solicitor to stop these friends spreading lies about him. He describes taking the note to her and confronted her and how Sylvia begged him to do nothing. They talked of moving to Yorkshire and made plans. He writes that Sylvia was terribly upset but not more than many times before, and that she kept asking if he had faith in her which, to him, seemed to be new and odd.

“Thursday morning”: Notes that Sylvia, upset, rang again asking to see him. She called at his flat in Cleveland Street and kept demanding that he leave England immediately. She saw everything in the flat, including his new Shakespeare book. Again they talked of them both going to Yorkshire for a while to get away from everyone. Then again Sylvia demanded that he promise to leave England. Nothing was settled. Parted “upbeat” but with no decisions made.

“Friday”: He notes that he received a letter from Sylvia earlier than she anticipated: an ambiguous message about leaving. He went to Fitzroy Rd. and asked Sylvia for an explanation. She was cool and hostile and burned the letter. Later, he left the flat. She was leaving, too, but he didn’t know where she went and only heard where it was from friends at her funeral.

(Much of this can be found in Hughes poem ‘The Inscription’ (THCP 1154); and in Hughes’ poem ‘Last Letter’, of which there are several drafts in the British Library archive. Carol Hughes allowed Melvyn Bragg to ‘discover’ one of these drafts and this was published in The New Statesman Magazine in October 2010. Copies of the poem can be found on the internet.)

Pink sheet 74: “May 29th” and May 30th”.
Pink sheet 75: “June 26th”.

These sheets give full, descriptive accounts of Ted’s involvement with his Court Green neighbours, Rose and Percy Key, after Percy’s return from hospital. They describe the help Ted gave to Rose during Percy’s convulsions, his progressive decline, and his death, and they describe Rose’s subsequent behaviour and Ted’s own feelings about the death. (These events are the basis for Hughes’ poem ‘The Green Wolf’ (THCP 159); possibly also for his meditation on old age and death in ‘Stations’ (THCP 158). Plath’s extensive descriptions of Rose and Percy and the events of these days can be found in her 1962 journal (JSP pp.663-4)).

THCP Keegan (Ed.), Ted Hughes Collected Poems, Faber, London, 2003.
LTH Reid (Ed.), Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber, London, 2007.
JSP Kukil (Ed.), The Journals of Sylvia Plath, Faber, London, 2000.
SPLH Plath (Ed.), Sylvia Plath: Letters Home, Faber, London, 1977.

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

Return to Notes & Queries.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional