The Biographer’s Eye

Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes

When someone reads a biography, they are not accessing the truth of a person directly. There is always an argument being made. There is always the attempt by the author to have the reader regard the subject in one way or another. This week I have been reading around the interesting figure of Ted Hughes - poet laureate, environmentalist, winner of the most coveted T. S. Eliot poetry prize in 1998, shortly before his death. But he’s probably most famous for the fact that his first wife was Sylvia Plath.

You are probably familiar with the story: a whirlwind romance, married in four months, Plath in the shadow of her husband, poetry, anger, the cheating husband, the all-consuming depression, a life cut short in a flat in London. Sylvia Plath’s most notable work, ‘Ariel’, was published posthumously a couple of years after her death. ‘Ariel’ is a collection of poems which explores the dark spectres of her psyche; it was a very personal and confessional work, and this made it a very new kind of poetry. Prior to the 50s and 60s, very personal poetry about emotional experiences were regarded as taboo. The zenith point in ‘Ariel’ is to be found in a few stanzas in the poem ‘Daddy’.

‘Daddy’ – this poem was written only a few months prior to Sylvia Plath taking her own life.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,   
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot   
But no less a devil for that, no not   
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.   
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,   
And they stuck me together with glue.   
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.   
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,   
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two
The vampire who said he was you   
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart   
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.   
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Now, a great deal has made of these passages. There is a huge amount of academic literature surrounding them. To what extent are we to understand this poem impersonally, as just simply being about a seven-year-old girl losing her father, or should we assume there is a personal angle here? Perhaps it’s about her own relationship to her own father, or perhaps we should have a more psychoanalytical reading, and assume the poem is about the most prominent patriarchal figure in her life, Ted Hughes.

So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,   
The voices just can’t worm through.

The telephone ripped out the wall, an expression of totally rejecting the world. Is it not easy to read her suicide into this poem?  As she collapses into complete isolation, rejecting the modern world and society.

The vampire who said he was you   
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.

Seven years… Sylvia Plath knew her own father for seven years before he died - a good reason to think the poem is about her own father. But seven years was also the amount of time she knew Ted Hughes before she died. Ultimately, we are left with no other option but to speculate. But my own sense is that it is her hatred towards Ted Hughes that is ultimately driving the poem. During this period, Ted Hughes was writing very animalistic apocalyptic poetry, very bloody visceral poetry. A few years after Plath’s death Hughes wrote the poem we had read out - ‘Two Legends’, which is from his book ‘Crow: From the Life and Song of the Crow’. ‘Crow’ is a very interesting collection of poems, drawing a great deal upon Christian mythology, all from the perspective of the Crow. It plays on this idea of perspective; the Biblical narrative, is as it were, offering one vantage point on life, the universe, and everything, and here we are getting the mythological Crow’s perspective, a perspective which is both grotesque and beautiful. Ted Hughes, through the Crow, is moving the conversation around Christianity within literature onwards, framing the Christian myth as simply one provisional myth about humanity and its relationship to the world of spirit. As such, ‘Crow’ could be viewed, and has been viewed, as piece of anti-Christian literature, because it dares us to play with sacrosanct imagery. The Crow invites the possibility of entering a more fertile space, in which we are able to take liberties with the mythical imagery we have inherited. In a later poem that Hughes wrote he sums up his Crow phase in one simple stanza:

Who’ll be their parson?
Me, says the crow, for it is well known
I study the Bible right down to the bone…

Crucifixion by Dali

Crucifixion by Dali

The Crow is the trickster figure, and as such is able to get away with more, ask questions that shouldn’t really be asked, and in so doing uncover ideas which will elude most. He is the in-between figure, living in between the sacred and the profane, living in between the world of the gods and the world of humanity. So, in the spirit of the Trickster, in the Spirit of the Crow, let’s look at today’s Bible reading - John’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus. The normative reading of the Gospels synchronizes the four accounts, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, into a single narrative. But of course, we know this is a deeply flawed way of reading the Bible, because each of the four Gospels has its own author, its own biographer of Jesus, and as such each account is attempting to convince its readers of a particular perspective. You simple have to play the Gospels off one another to see the extent to which this happens.

So, let us contrast the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel of John with the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. As we had read from the Gospel of John, Jesus knew that all was now finished, and then he said ‘I am thirsty’ and John tells us that he said this is in order to fulfil the scriptures. So, he’s not asking for liquid because he’s actually thirsty, no no, just so he can fulfil scriptures. What we have in John is a comic book Jesus, is a superhero Jesus, a Jesus who doesn’t get thirsty. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Note: he does not drink the wine, he receives the wine, and when all is done he looks out and declares triumphantly ‘It is finished’, bows his head and gives up his spirit. Note also he is not even killed; he is in full control in the Gospel of John, everything is going according to his pre-ordained plan. He chooses when his spirit is to depart from this mortal life. In Mark, on the other hand, Jesus’ final words are not ‘It is finished’, but rather he cries out in anguish, shouting ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ In Mark’s Gospel, a passer-by is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross, because he cannot manage on his own. In John, he needs no help. In Mark, Jesus is human, all too human. In John, Jesus is superhuman, god-like. These two accounts are completely unrecognisable. Indeed, to even attempt to reconcile the two accounts does an injustice to the integrity of the original authors’ literary work. Now, the temptation as liberals is to say something like: Mark is the ‘truer’ account of the events in Jesus life, and John is a later development that tries to integrate into the narrative some of the evolving theological traditions, and therefore, Mark is more accurate, and a better account. The problem with this move is that it assumes Mark to be a less biased biographer. I would much rather conclude in this way; Mark and John are both pieces of biographical literature responding to the Jesus event as they experienced it, first or second hand. By making this assertion, we break the illusion that there is a consistent or mono-narrative. We problematize the very notion of ‘orthodoxy’. We problematise the persistent question: ‘Yes, but what’s the actual reality?’...

The Crow, by looking at the Christian narrative from another vantage point, helps us to recognise something we already knew, that just as in the first century there were a multiplicity of responses to the Jesus event, so there is today a multiplicity. Indeed, that multiplicity is within us. The sacred and the profane, the desire to build and the desire to destroy. The trickster, or the Crow, advocator of uncertainty, at once the creator and destroyer, bringer of help and harm, the shadow that shapes the light. And with that, I’m going to segue back to Ted Hughes -  the shadow that shapes the light. Ted Hughes was a formidable character. A poet who inhabited and wrote from a place of sheer intensity, almost a shamanic type figure, communing with dark forces from beyond. Ultimately it was these dark spectres which Hughes summoned in his work that suffocated Sylvia Plath. ‘Ariel’ in the years that followed became hugely significant. The cult of Sylvia Plath grew. The narrative construct of ‘Ariel’, the woman driven to her own demise by the overbearing masculinity of Ted Hughes, became the defining myth that coloured Hughes. He was cast into the role of patriarchal villain, destroyer of femininity. By the late 1960s the feminist movement was taking off, and Sylvia Plath was adopted as their perfectly suited martyr for the struggle. Hughes became increasingly a character trapped in the Plath cult. The fantasia, the myth, became more significant, more important than the reality. And yet is that not always the way of it? The mono-narrative became the lens, the truth through which Hughes and Plath were to be understood. The victim and the villain. But the Crow jeers from the sidelines. The Crow ridicules our simple narratives through which we frame such complexity. The Crow makes mockery of our sacred cows.

God bless the Crow.