Another examination of the passion, poetry, infidelity, depression, ambition, lies, and suffering that have made Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath the most notorious couple in modern literary history.
Middlebrook (Anne Sexton, 1991, etc.) did much research for this latest brick in the now-imposing edifice of material about Plath and Hughes. She examined the Hughes papers, now available to scholars at Emory University, as well as the Plath archive at Smith College. She refers early and often, as well, to Hughes’s two 1998 volumes dealing with Plath, Birthday Letters and the lesser-known Howls and Whispers, which appeared in an edition of 110 copies. Middlebrook endeavors to withhold judgment about Hughes’s behavior with Plath and her successors, but his actions as a serial adulterer speak quite eloquently. As does his poetry, from which the author quotes liberally. She speculates about the “disappearance” of some key Plath material, about the contents of a trunk at Emory that cannot be opened until 2023, and about the causes of Plath’s 1963 suicide. Her conclusion about the latter? Depression—hardly a novel insight. Middlebrook begins with the 1956 meeting of her two principals and then moves steadily forward to Hughes’s 1998 death from heart failure and cancer, though some chapters loop to revisit and modify earlier segments. The author makes insightful comments about each poet’s writing, about their individual artistic growth, and about their collaborations: before their break-up, in their impecunious days, they regularly read each other’s work and even composed at the same table. Middlebrook sensitively shows how each helped fashion the other, though some of her psychological observations sound a bit loopy, e.g., he is a “poet-shaman, journeying in the psychological murk of fear and detestation of the female.”
Some somber new brushstrokes darken an already dismal painting. (37 b&w illustrations)