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Birthday Letters


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Birthday Letters is Ted Hughes's bestselling collection of poems exploring his marriage to Sylvia Plath.

About the Author

Ted Hughes was born on 17 August 1930 in Mytholmroyd, a small mill town in West Yorkshire. His father made portable wooden buildings. The family moved to Mexborough, a coal-mining town in South Yorkshire, when Hughes was seven. His parents took over a newsagent and tobacconist shop, and eventually he went to the local grammar school.In 1948 Hughes won an Open Exhibition to Pembroke College, Cambridge. Before going there, he served two years National Service in the RAF. Between leaving Cambridge and becoming a teacher, he worked at various jobs, finally as a script-reader for Rank at their Pinewood Studios.In 1956 Hughes married the American poet Sylvia Plath, who died in 1963, and they had two children. He remarried in 1970. He was awarded the OBE in 1977, created Poet Laureate in December 1984 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1998. He died in October 1998.Ted Hughes's first book, The Hawk in the Rain, was published by Faber Faber.


A distinguished poet, essayist, and translator who serves as poet laureate of England, Hughes is probably still best known as the husband of Sylvia Plath. Since her suicide in 1963, he has resolutely refused to speak about her, and he has been accused of abandoning her and driving her to her death. Now, for the first time, he discusses their relationship‘most appropriately in verse. Though he describes himself and Plath as "Siamese-twinned, each of us festering/ a soul-sepsis for the other," this is not a book of wrenching revelations or vigorously mounted defense; it is, rather, a painful and painstaking exploration of just what went wrong in the poets' relationship 35 years ago. In his sometimes deceptively accessible verse, Hughes moves from initial encounter‘like "the first fresh peach I ever tasted"‘through courtship, marriage, death, and regret ("Who will remember your fingers?/ Their winged life"); throughout, these aptly named "letters"‘written mostly in the second-person to Plath‘are filled with foreboding. In the end, Hughes comes across as neither victimizer nor victim but as an ordinary human being too dazed‘or too dense?‘to recognize the lightning bolt that passed through his life. Essential for all literary collections.‘Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"

Kept under tight wraps by the terms attached to a high-priced serialization in the London Times as well as by Hughes's notorious secrecy, the British Poet Laureate's collection of verse-letters to Sylvia Plath is already being heralded as one of the century's literary landmarks. The legend that has grown up around Plath, her poems, her life with Hughes and her suicide in 1963 has been tended by several generations of devoted scholars and readers, and made all the more insurmountable by Hughes's silence on anything relating to Plath other than her work. It is thus astonishing to have this near-narrative of the entire span of their relationship, from Hughes's first glimpse of Plath in a photo of arriving Fulbright scholars, to Hughes's anguish, until now an emotion not widely credited to him, since her death. At once the record of a Yorkshireman's collision with America and American-ness ("You stayed/ Alien to me as a window model,/ American, airport-hopping superproduct") and of a baffled husband's jealousy and despair at his wife's obsessive pursuit of her dead father, the poems arc through the poet's struggles‘and joy‘with the facts of his younger self's married life. Even tender recollections, such as Plath reciting Chaucer to a field of cows, are tinged with foreboding or, elsewhere, with the intensity of their writing lives: "The poems, like smoking entrails,/ Came soft into your hands." Throughout, Hughes's muscular, controlled free verse, familiar from his previous collections and recent Tales from Ovid, is well suited to the task of wrestling his memory of Plath back to earth, vividly rendering their past while allowing space for a present reckoning. Hughes's occasional snipes at the Plath faithful ("And now your peanut-crunchers can stare/ At the ink stains.../ Where you engraved your letters...") may lead some to accuse him of an elaborate attempt at revisionism, at remaking Plath in his own image. But the strength of the poems simply renders the charge moot, compelling us to accept this masterwork's sincerity, depth of feeling and force of language. (Feb.)

"An extraordinary book . . . [Hughes's] subject is Plath herself--how she looked and moved and talked, her pleasures, rages, uncanny dreams, and many terrors, what was good between them and where it went wrong."-A. Alvarez, "The New Yorker"
"The critics who are urging us to regard these poems as masterpieces are right. Their intensity of feeling, the clarity of their imagery, the precision, energy, simplicity, and fluidity of their language are still striking."-Paul Levy, "The Wall Street Journal"
"An emotional, direct, regretful, and entranced [tone] pervades the book's strongest poems, which are quiet and thoughtful and conversational."-Katha Pollitt, "The New York Times Book Review"
"Most of the poems in "Birthday Letters" have a wonderful immediacy and tenderness that's new to Hughes's writing, a tenderness that enables him to communicate Plath's terrors as palpably as her own verse, and to convey his own lasting sense of loss and grief. . . . They sho

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