Wonderful Wonderful Ted and Sylvia (again)

I was watching a catch-up on TV  of  Happy Valley, and the magisterial acting of Sarah Lancashire.  Have you ever seen depression, despair and courage delivered with this weight of realism?  In the story her daughter Becky who committed suicide is buried at Heptonstall where Sylvia Plath is buried, and the action took place in the West Yorkshire that was the arena of Ted Hughes’ early life.  So it set me thinking about Ted and Sylvia again which is why, with some apologies,  I want to re-blog this piece.   Is there fate? Only the greatest poets have been able to deal with the issue, and here we have had two of the greatest ever poets, who will be for ever only meaningful in terms of each other, recently living amongst us.  The piece is quite long.  But I hope all you courageous Sarah Lancashires will feel it is worthwhile persevering through it.


(I’ve had to cut out all the quotations  because of copyright issues.  But this blog is much better read with a copy of Hawk in the Rain and Birthday Letters by your side.)

The two great English poets of the late twentieth century, Hughes and Larkin, offer us a remarkably interesting contrast. Both are profoundly pagan, but whereas Larkin is a post-Christian pagan, Hughes is more like a pre-Christian one. Larkin’s arena is essentially modern and urban.   His sense world is composed of bakelite and plastic, artificial textures and laminated surfaces. When he does talk about nature it is nature as experienced by the townee. Birds sing in privet hedges and remind the urban dweller – who had surely forgotten – that it’s spring. Lobelias are found in neat beds in parks. There is no sense that sparrows, let alone hawks and eagles, actually live a life of their own apart from calendars and nature programmes.   Larkin’s poems live in the gap between their thoughts and their feelings. The feelings are communicated by imagery, usually presented to us with a deliberately tawdry and trivialized ordinariness from which the transcendental has been comprehensively banished.   The thinking side is communicated primarily by style, in syntactical and stanzaic structures of great sophistication and elegance that continually bring the feelings to a bar of judgement. The thinking searches urgently for a transcendental fulfilment which is constantly, even tragically, frustrated by the inability of the feeling world to endorse it. Sex promises so much and offers so little. Art is a form of self-deception practised by those unable to realise themselves in sex – ‘books are crap’ as the protagonist of Reading Habits sums it up – religion a fairy story invented to allay the fear of death.   Yet it is Larkin’s refusal, in spite of all his deliberate banality, to let the quest for the transcendental go that is so moving. His language is littered with references to the Christian sacraments. Ambulances are sealed like confessionals, if he were invited to construct a religion its liturgy would celebrate water, hospitals only cure physically, sadly they fail to contain the fear of death as religions once did, the inability of churches nowadays to dignify death and sex is only derided to hide deep mourning and lamentation. The existence of this gap is the generative condition of the bitter and black humour with which Larkin so often fills it, the blackest joke being that comedy inevitably fails to perform the tragic task it has been assigned. When the poems do touch the numinous, as in so spiritually sensitive a soul they sometimes do, it is in experiences so rarified and private they are almost wholly cut off from the collective world of shared sensation, and only most obliquely indicated.


Ted Hughes, on the other hand, is a pagan almost in the original sense of a paganus or country dweller. It is as if urban life, two millennia of civilization, industrialization, Christianity, let alone its demise, and anguished searches for a transcendental which has been lost, have never in any way wounded his spirit. In his wonderful early poems, at least, he has hardly heard of them. He writes as an early pre-classical Greek or Neolithic might have done, living at a stage of history before the march of reason had advanced enough even to think to question the validity of myth. His imagination is one in which self-consciousness has hardly yet separated itself from nature. His magic cauldron of meanings, his childhood among the woods and deans and moors behind Mytholmroyd,   fits over this – historically speaking – archaic layer of sensibility as transparently as a transfer. The problem which most of us, heirs of the enlightenment, would immediately feel on being presented with the astrology and cabbala and alchemy in which he so fervently believed – yes, but can you prove rationally that all this is true? – hardly seems to have bothered him. His gift to an artificial urban world afflicted by debilitated natural experiences and dessicated sensibility is wonderful.   There is hardly a poet who has ever written in English so directly able to evoke the immediacy of sensation. Whereas Larkin’s verse- structure and syntax are so extremely skilled and so carefully wrought, in Ted Hughes’s poems they hardly exist at all. Sensations are flung at you like raw clods.   Whereas in Larkin, unless you look very carefully indeed, a sense of the numinous is so rarefied you might easily miss it, and even then it only maintains its tremulous and uncertain existence by hiding fearfully from the bright glare of rational criticism, in Ted Hughes the numinous is so unavoidably and palpably present, at least in his best poems, it is entirely its own justification and there is absolutely no mistaking it. This is a most attractive gift in a twentieth century poet.


Hughes’ first published volume of poems, The Hawk In The Rain, is a landmark in English literature for the same reason that the publication of Lyrical Ballads was a landmark. We find ourselves in the presence of an extra-ordinary renewal of language through its re-connection with its origins in primitive sensation. Language is no longer a veil. We almost walk through it into the original experience itself. The immediacy with which wind, weather and animals are evoked is remarkable. It is as if man, newly created by God, is experiencing these quite ordinary things with a kind of glorifying and exulting relish for the first time.



The remarkable thing is that to experience life in so wonderfully vivid and fulfilling and renewed a way, to encounter the sublime, we don’t have to visit the Antarctic or go big game hunting. Ted Hughes’s world is that of domestic cats, pigs hanging slaughtered in butchers’ shops, seaside beaches, zoos and suburban lawns. It finds its glory in what is quite ordinary. That is why it has so much to give to us de-natured urbanites. You don’t have to have spent your childhood amongst Wordsworthian lakes and mountains in Cumbria, wonder and splendour is on your very doorstep. Here is Ted Hughes describing seeing a jaguar on a visit to a zoo, almost certainly written about Regent’s Park Zoo at a period when he was a young man working in an office in Slough and commuting there every day from Holborn. The urban flat lands? Ted Hughes has been there and defeated them.  This poetry is wonderful. It is as if in the middle of our urban sprawls some marvellous magus or shaman had come along and returned us to the vivid clarity of the sense world we might imagine Neolithic people to have experienced.


These early poems take us beyond sensation into an archaic religious sensibility, a sense of awe and wonder at some primordial force that rushes and pours through the natural world. The experience of seeing horses on a skyline at dawn is spell-bound, rapt –



Ted Hughes’ ability to take these quite ordinary experiences and re-wire them back to a primordial sense of the sublime and the numinous, while all the while remaining in a suburban world, is unique. In October Dawn the faintest hint of a skin of ice left across a half-empty wine-glass on a lawn on an autumn morning isfirst a skin delicately restraining a ripple, but the faintest echo from a fist of cold squeezing th fire at the heart of the world. It is, in these poems forged during his boyhood, as if the Christian ethic of non-violence had never been. Violence is not only tolerable but worshipped, full of numen and mana. Not a hint here of liberal post-Christian guilt. The hawk searching for prey turns slowly in the air to kill. Pikes are gods hanging in their underwater palaces.



They are ‘killers from the egg’.   The transfixing wonder of their violent world invades the human who fishes for them and casts and casts again with ‘..the hair frozen on my head/ For what might move…’. In them moves an ancient ‘darkness beneath night’s darkness…..that rose slowly towards me, watching’.

(I can’t resist quoting such gripping words hiding behind what pubishers call ‘honest dealing’  even if Ted’s children do come after me with legal whips.  OK its worth it, I’ll risk being sued)


There is an astonishing ability, in these early poems, to close the gap between participation and observation. According to Wordsworth, in his poem about daffodils, poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity. It is essentially something to do with withdrawal. It happens not in the field but on a pensive couch, physical immediacy is sacrificed for emotional understanding. But this is not so with Ted Hughes. In one of his most celebrated poems The Thought-Fox which, like Wordsworth’s Daffodils, is about the process of writing poetry, the poet is bereft of inspiration,until like the sudden stink of a fox it enters the head.


Unlike the later Wordsworth, the poet is thinking here not with his head but with his body. Human beings too are sometimes part of this raw, numinous and primordially violent world so full of felt meaning. Bishop Farrar impresses even the ‘sullen-jowelled watching Welsh townspeople’ with his courage as he faces burning at the stake –



Ted sees a tramp huddling into his shabby coat in a ditch in a rain-soaked November wood not as pitiable but as heroic. The stoical and heroic endurance with which the animals address the cold and the deprivation of winter moves in him too –

A retired ex-Indian army colonel who lives at the end of the street is not mocked as ‘a Mafeking stereotype’ but honoured for his stubborn endurance and courage –

He is to be honoured because he connects with the same primordial, archaic and violent power that moves in landscape and animals.–


Yet wonderful as this first volume of Ted Hughes’s verses is, after it, perhaps paralysed by grief over Sylvia’s death, he does seem to have somewhat lost his way.   The lack of philosophy, of thinking marshalled and brought to bear on experience by verse-structure and skilfully manipulated syntax, of a sustained music connecting the flow of his verse to the central tradition of English poetry – all virtues abundantly evident in Larkin – begins to tell. The fact is that most of us don’t expect to be burnt at the stake, nor are we tramps or purple-faced ex-army colonels, characters who, like children, move on the outer edges of society. Ted Hughes can deal with these marginal people. He can’t deal with us. This is a poetry which has a lot to give our lives during our time off – visiting zoos or watching hawks with David Attenborough on wild life programmes or walking out onto the lawn after the last of the summer’s parties the night before – but not too much to give to the central activities of our mainstream working and living. In response to the questions his poetry soon arouses in us he has little help to give us. Does all this numen and primitive awe mean God exists? Should a reader awoken to a passionate love of animals by Hughes’s poetry be in all circumstances a vegetarian? Or in no circumstances a vegetarian?   Is it as admirable for humans to be violent and pitiless as it is for pikes and hawks? Having had wonderful Ted Hughesish experiences in Regent’s Park Zoo, what , now we have returned to our dwellings in Acton or Walthamstow, do we do now? Larkin is full of answers to questions such as these, even if they are most of the time gloomy and negative ones.


Like humanity in general outgrowing its Neolithic phase, individuals cease to be children and advance to the flatter plateaus of responsibility and reason. As he advanced into middle age Ted Hughes’ remarkable gift for seeing the adult world with the bright eye of childhood stalled. In Moortown the old sharp noting of the external detail is still there –

But the attempt to connect the outer experience to its numinous source, which had been so great a glory in the first volume, is increasingly contrived and forced .


Compare this to the big buffeting wind of The Hawk In The Rain. It is straining too hard and over-written. Whereas the presentation of the sun suddenly appearing over the horizon in The Horses is couched in language just as highly coloured and extreme, there it works because we have already been led to experience the horses as almost religiously spell-binding and marvellous. The sun spilling over the horizon is something we could actually see. Here the hissing fragments of stars and the wind pressing outer space into the grass are preceded by a description of sheep, in Bringing In New Couples, which is beautifully observed but in no way primordially sacred. And we never actually see the outer space and the hissing fragments of stars as we see the suddenly appearing red sun. They remain on the level of imagined ideas, for all their, actually inauthentic, attempt to mimic intense sensation. In Tractor the eponymous but frozen machine has to be cajoled into action, but then unexpectedly starts forward as if of its own volition –

The tractor, it is true, is delightfully animistic. But these are the experiences of the well-off gentleman farmer most of us will never be, able to entertain pathetic fallacies as grievous as any indulged by a Victorian romantic. Increasingly Ted Hughes wrote literally for children, increasingly unable to perform the magic for adults. As arresting a figure as Crow is, he never moves out of the mythological into the real world. Imagery becomes impenetrably personal.


But, it turned out, this was only poetry sleeping, hibernating before bursting out at the last into, in my view at least, one of English literature’s latest and greatest glories.

The story behind Birthday Letters is well known. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath intended to adopt a wandering literary life modelled on that of D.H. Lawrence and Frieda. But Sylvia wanted children. By 1962 they were experiencing increasing difficulties in their marriage and moved to Court Green, a Medieval house they had bought in Devon, to begin again. They took to their new life with enthusiasm and all was going well until one weekend in May 1962 , when Assia Wevill, the wife of another poet, David Wevill, came to stay. She and Ted fell in love. Sylvia and Ted parted. Sylvia, who had already made several suicide attempts, moved back with her children to London and during the big freeze of the winter of 1963 gassed herself. Ted became the object of intense obloquy from some feminists, who saw him as the faithless brute who had deserted one of their icons in her hour of need.   His name was hacked off the headstone of her grave at Heptonstall in Yorkshire by outraged members of the sisterhood. Ted then married Assia but eventually she too committed suicide. Through all of this Ted kept a dignified silence until just before his own death, when he released his side of the story in Birthday Letters. But the controversy only grew. Many critical feminists felt like Robin Morgan who said the poems made her grind her teeth. They saw them as disclaiming any responsibility and blaming fate, Sylvia’s father, Assia, even Sylvia herself – ‘I was being auditioned/ For the male lead in your drama’ – anybody but himself. Nor can the poems themselves be entirely exonerated from stoking the fires of controversy –



It is essential to know all this to understand what the poems are about. But what has
been so little understood is that what they are about is not claiming and disclaiming
blame.  What has been missed is their transcendence of the awesomely dreadful story
that was their occasion.

Why are these poems so great and what is Ted’s – and Sylvia’s – gift to us through them? First they should teach us not to pass judgment.   We don’t know what the cause of Sylvia’s suicide really was. According to Elaine Feinstein’s biography of him, up to nearly the very end Ted had been a model husband, caring far beyond the
call of duty for this difficult and neurotic woman who had tested his love beyond
endurance.  In Feinstein’s version of it they had actually become reconciled a week
before Sylvia killed herself, and as far as Ted knew the expectation was that they
would soon be living together again.  How do we know that at the end, in spite of the
apparent evidence in her poems,  it wasn’t Ted’s solicitude, and not his adulterous
desertion, Sylvia remembered?  This time, though, it may not have saved her from the
suicidal impulse that  was always haunting her for quite other reasons.  How do we
know that Ted didn’t blame himself immensely for Sylvia’s death but chose not to put
that blame on display in Birthday Letters,  because he had no mind to air his  remorse
in public and, in any case, had even more important things to talk about?   How do
we know, too, that Sylvia didn’t deliberately court her death and, for all we know,
deliberately drive Ted off?   The rational life is, by definition, lived rationally.  But
poets seek  the irrational sources of life that, paradoxically enough, give reason its
meanings.  If they are to nourish their art, the one thing they often can’t afford to do is
to live sensibly.  They adopt all sorts of tricks to stay in contact with the unconscious
Ted himself practised astrology.  Coleridge took opium.  Modigliani lived the
Bohemian life to deliberate excess.  Wagner, or so he claimed, was unable to write
that great work celebrating sexual purity, Parsifal, without dallying for hours with a
chorus girl on a sofa covered in rich silks and drenched with perfume (well we’ve all
done that, I once heard Ken Russell say).  Perhaps to become the great poet she finally
was, Sylvia’s form of  excess was courting infatuation with death.  Unfortunately for
her, her subject matter was infatuation with death.  For all we know it may have been
Ted’s care for her, not his desertion of her, that presented her with her greatesproblem.  We don’t know.  We shouldn’t judge.


The reason why these poems are so great is that they do what great poems do.
They put consciousness in contact with its unconscious sources.  Unfortunately for us,
there is in life a trade-off between reason and meaning.  Our greatest problem in our
highly rationalized and scientific age is finding meaning in the world over which we
have so much rational control.  This truth is nowhere exemplified better than in
Hughes and Larkin themselves.  The art of the young sub-rational Ted Hughes’s The
Hawk In The Rain  – no anxiety that ‘books are crap’ in this lad roaming the moors  –
is chock full of emotional meaning, bursting with it.  Whereas the whole theme of the
highly self-conscious and rationalized Larkin – the Hamlet of Hull library – in The
Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows is its lack.   Through
their gods and myths we might well imagine that archaic human beings had an
immediate and vital contact with a dark well of meaning.  Whereas we, of course, can
no longer believe in myths and gods.   The wonderful thing  about these poems is that, in a world without gods,  they put us once again into contact with that dark well.   It is as if only Ted Hughes, a person so remarkably, for a twentieth century man, in contact with the immediately imagined real in the way a Neolithic might have been – and almost nobody else who has written in modern times has been –  could have put us into contact with this archaic mythical mentality from which our rationalism has so comprehensively  banished us. But the drawback of his genius, as his middle life poems demonstrate so abundantly, is that he didn’t have the rational powers –  Larkin’s shaping frame, the irony generated by opposition of subject and style, the philosophical dimension, the placing of an experience in the developing narrative of a whole life – to draw out the significance of what he could feel.  Now suddenly all those things, which he couldn’t encompass himself, were thrust upon him in overflowing measure by  unfolding events.  Now there is a frame. Now the whole point, exactly, is the developing narrative.  The fact that we already know the story – as Aeschylus’s and Sophocles’ audiences already knew the story – provides just the shaping context  that generates irony, a dimension up to now wholly absent from his poems.  And whereas Larkin’s irony, for all its lacerating and self-inflicted pain, is always comic, here we have  the kind of  huge tragic irony which might have been played in the theatre of Aeschylus and Sophocles. It is as if it were all meant.  As if it were fate.


And indeed Birthday Letters is primarily concerned with fate. What other modernwork has even begun to wrestle with it, in the way Greek drama did? These poemsare about the underwriting of the present by the past.   On one level nothing could
better exemplify one of the structural  realities of our lives – for good or ill the oedipal
father of your childhood goes on living in you and goes on shaping your life.  In the
marvellous poem about  Howard painting Sylvia’s portrait, Portraits, an alien figure
swarms onto the canvas in spite of the artist’s intention –



A lifetime of lectures about psycho-analysis would never bring the reality of this seminal  truth of human experience, our parents hang around in the emotional background of our lives (and, very often, fuck you up), in the way this poem does.

Another of the  themes of Birthday Letters, the truth of which Ted surely learnt from Sylvia  and the knowledge of which was in Ted’s and Sylvia’s case so hard won, is that we project these parental images onto our lovers.

Sylvia herself, in her last terrible and wonderful poems, inextricably confuses her father with Ted –


How did it come about that a man who, according to Feinstein, was so tender and
understood his wife so well and loved her so much, came to be seen  by her like this?
Consider the young Ted Hughes.   He must have been the handsomest and most
godlike and most highly sexed young man in Britain.  But a man without the
philosophical frame, the ironic standing apart from himself most people have.  Whose
strengths and weaknesses were just those we see in the early poems.  A Neolithic lost
in the emotional complexities of  twentieth century adult life.  A man so close to theanimals he was almost one of them.  The compulsive and promiscuous animal side of
sex which is so strong in all of us must have been doubly difficult to abrogate in him.
But he was remarkably loving and tender. He was a poet.  He was just the man for
her.  He was wonderful.  The tragedy of it.  How dreadful and appalling and awful
that so many of the feminist critics have so comprehensively missed the profound
humanity of this drama. The unusually strong compulsive drive towards death in
Sylvia was fatally matched to the unusually strong compulsive drive towards sex in
Ted.  They were undone, exactly as in the Greek tragedies, by what the Greeks called
hamartia, a fatal flaw in the character of the protagonist.  It is not the hero’s failings
which  bring about the calamity but his very virtue which in these circumstances
proves disastrous.  This is just how it was.  It was nothing small or mean in Ted which
unleashed the furies but the most wonderful thing about him.  He was a man who had
magically entered into the life of the animals.  But  for animals sex is highly
compulsive.  It makes you see how virtuous he must have been in staying faithful to
Sylvia for so long.  The pity of it.  But the classical  grandeur too of this horror.


There is more. The analysis made by these poems goes beyond the genetically  imprinted
predictable that we inherit from our parents.  They  enter into a wider and more
cosmic mystery:  the general condition  of  the hazardously  accidental and the
incidentally empirical in its relation to the already meant.  They handle fate as if  this
were some great Greek drama which holds us spell-bound by its awfulness.  In
Dreamers, the poem about the weekend of Assia’s visit –


‘We didn’t find her- she found us’


Pshaw! say the hostile feminists, it wasn’t fate it was sex. To re-act like this is to miss the point to a staggering degree.  In the end these poems ask, and answer, the most adult
of all questions: is there some great shaping force of meaning in our lives – whether
Freudian sub-conscious drives or Olympian gods who could say  – over which we
have little control  but which, in some mysterious way, still leaves us free?  A matter
of some importance to everybody, but most especially to lovers. It is  a question the
greatest literature of the past has insistently asked.  Almost no modern literature  has
been able to.  But these poems, on our behalf, do.  Even to ask the question would
make these great poems.  To my mind, the fact that they also give such a memorable
and persuasive ‘yes’ in answer makes them very great indeed.   The poems don’t
mount some philosophical argument.  They project their truth into you through their
images and the insistently underlying pattern that the images weave.  Could so many
memorable things have happened, which at the time seemed so co-incidental but are
now seen,  connected to each other by the hindsight of the completed story, to have
been so meaningful,  and not testify to underlying pattern?   It is the unforgettableness
of the  images which is so tremendous:  Daddy appearing out of the background of
Howard’s portrait as if he were lame and ugly Haephaestus  limping into an Athenian
feast;  the gypsy in the square at Rheims prophesying doom like Cassandra;  Daddy
coming swarming up out of the elm desk Ted had made, little realising it was a door
to the infernal regions, as if he were Dis come to abduct and rape Aphrodite;   the fox
on Chalk Farm Bridge  sent like some animal fated by the gods;  the plaited rope of
coloured wools  woven into Sylvia’s rag rug like a snake, as if it were the serpent
come hissing out of Ericthonios’s  casket when Aglauros so unwisely opened it on the
Acropolis at Athens; Ted returning from his journey to the underworld like the
classical Orpheus with  his woman lost; Ted pursued by the feminine furies like


The gift Ted and Sylvia have to give us is incalculable.   They have given us images which connect us back to our unconscious selves, which we can use in our own lives. They have created  myths for us as powerful and terrible and awful as those sung by
the Homeric bards to the pre-classical Greeks.  And this in modern times.  There is
nothing else in modern literature like it.  They have become and are  their own


And in the end what persuades us about these poems, given the story, is their moral beauty. There is another angle from which we can justly compare them to the Greek tragedies. The Greeks had a concept they called anagnorisis. The hero dies not embittered and appalled but calm and resolved. Through his very sufferings he sees into the greatness and togetherness of things.   There is a greater meaning which only becomes known to him through calamity and horror. He dies in peace.  In spite of everything, Sylvia still moves in these poems loved and beautiful in Ted’s heart. The tone is relaxed, conversational, reminiscent, peaceful, forgiven. He writes to her every birthday from planet earth.   You would hardly know she was actually dead. The irony of Robbing Myself – and if the critics want a confession of responsibility this title surely gives them it – is lacerating, appalling. Ted and Sylvia, or so he thought, had become reconciled. This even in spite of the dreadful – as it turned out – co-incidental accident that she had opened his edition of Shakespeare – of all books – and had read Assia’s inscription –


Ted drives over the snowy roads down to the house in Devon. The sense of stored peace – the potatoes warm in the straw, the Victorias in the outhouse, the fat Bramleys snug in the attic – is one of the most pathetically beautiful things in English letters. He fills a sack of potatoes and a sack of apples to take back to London for her – ‘undo this button’, how the poets know how to make the little things work –   not knowing that from his darkened, hushed, safe casket he had ‘already lost the treasure’. But there is an irony within an irony. His life as it had been lived in Devon was blown apart. But slowly the images of the snug apples and stored potatoes have re-assembled themselves, not in their clamps and on their attic floors but in his mind. Both in his mind, and now in our minds too, they go on working their blessing and their peace. Another poem of rare beauty is Fingers, the real climax of   Birthday Letters



Sylvia’s fingers, the poem tells us, have gone on living in the quick fingers of her daughter. But they have gone on living too in Ted’s verse. And, like the snug Bramleys, in his mind. And now in our minds too. The evocation of Sylvia’s vital, quicksilver, volatile, puckish spirit is so vivid it is almost as if she were brought back from death to dance before us. And this is another great truth these poems communicate to us. Lovers live, and even after death go on living, in each others’ hearts.

Perhaps, though, the most beautiful of all the poems is Daffodils. The two great nature poets of English letters are Ted Hughes and Wordsworth. Both drew on a store of numinous childhood experience. Both made the possibility of a pagan sensibility available to modern rationalists. But   Wordsworth lost the vision that inspired The Prelude. His daffodils are withdrawn, disengaged. He floats like a cloud above the earth, lies back on his pensive couch.   The emotional drive of the poem is flimsy, thin. The rhythm is lightweight, the rhyme scheme pat. Finally Wordsworth couldn’t reconcile the pagan vision of his childhood with the grown-up world of his adult life. He couldn’t carry the solemn music of the hills and lakes into the arena of love and sex.  Ted Hughes, in the end and through so much suffering, did – too late, so sadly, for Sylvia but not too late for us.   Once again the poem’s irony comes from its two dimensions.  On its own it simply records the fact that Ted and Sylvia unexpectedly found, when spring came, that there were daffodils they could sell growing on their land. But in the context of the whole series the ephemeral life of the daffodils becomes a terrible ironic metaphor for the brief life of Sylvia. The weight of the poem lies in its contrast between insight that is not and insight that is invested with dreadful knowledge –


The poem records a moment of happiness, innocent still of the awareness of what was to come. It reveals an intense feminity, so different from the fierce, entirely masculine sensibility of Ted’s early poems


Yet it is in their very fleetingness that the daffodils reveal their immunity to time –


Now, through it all, the poet has learned. In one of those brilliant ordainings of the ordinary in which Birthday Letters specializes, the final image is of Sylvia’s scissors. Lost and buried now, rusty somewhere under the earth, but April by April permanently remembering this blessed moment of happiness. How interesting it is that these two pagan poets, Hughes and Larkin, both discovered, not through any Christian dogma but entirely through their own experience that, whereas sex passes, human love cries out ‘I will love you for ever’. At its heart, says Ted Hughes, there is a fleeting experience of the everlasting. What will survive of us, says Larkin, is love. So very different, what they have discovered is in the end the same. And it is not only the beauty of the everlasting that the imagery of the daffodils reveals. It is abundance, blessing, profusion –



Ted and Sylvia visited the underworld and brought back a treasure which so very very nearly made them permanently and wonderfully happy. But their mission was dangerous.   Sylvia was lost and Ted fatally wounded. But they fulfilled their task. They brought back their armfuls of treasure, blessed, profuse, abundant. Ted is our Orpheus. In Birthday Letters he journeyed into the underworld and did bring the beautiful woman back. She is there for us in the poems. Ted and Sylvia have introduced us to the greater life of poets. They have given us a chance to find the profound happiness which they risked their own lives for and lost.   We should honour them most specially.   Wonderful, wonderful Ted and Sylvia.


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