The literary editor of the Times (of London) revisits the oft-told lives of Hughes and Plath, focusing on Hughes’s Birthday Letters (1998), the volume he addressed to Plath shortly before his death.
Wagner argues that the principal poetic difference between Plath and Hughes was that she was confessional while he was intensely private. After a lengthy introduction (consuming one-fifth of the text), the author establishes a pattern she maintains the rest of the way: short chapters that relate the significant events in the lives of the two writers (often in their own words—or in the words of family and acquaintances), followed by a close reading of the Birthday Letters poems that deal with those same events. (Each chapter is introduced by an old-fashioned, single-paragraph argument—a device of questionable necessity in a work this brief.) Wagner does not suggest that literature and life are one: “Poems,” she says, “may be linked to events, but they are not those events; they are themselves.” Still, she strives mightily to connect images in Hughes’s work to moments in their actual lives—and to similar images in Plath’s writing. And so, once again, we follow the dark arc of Plath’s short life: the untimely death of her father, her first suicide attempt (a deadly serious one) in 1953, her treatment at McLean Hospital, her time at Cambridge, her fiery, erotic meeting with Hughes, their marriage on Bloomsday in 1956, their joint struggle to succeed as writers (Hughes’s early successes, Wagner suggests, contributed to Plath's depression), their travels and tribulations and eventual separation in the summer of 1962 (Hughes’s infidelity the foremost cause), her suicide on February 11, 1963, her transfiguration into feminist icon. Wagner explores, as well, Hughes’s near-absolute silence about Plath until the startling publication of Birthday Letters.
Wagner—knowledgeable, perceptive, and wise—guides us gracefully through Hughes’s poems so that we see with a new clarity his responses to his life with Plath, and to her lamentable death. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)