Both Sides of the Page
Exhibition explores lives of Plath, Hughes
By Alec T. Young 03Ox 05C
A previously unknown photograph, recently discovered in the Ted Hughes archives at Emory, radiates warm, soft sunlight, which frames the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath with her two children, Frieda and Nicholas, among daffodils. The picture was taken in the spring of 1962, only months before Plath discovered her husband, poet Ted Hughes, had been having an affair.
Stephen Enniss, director of special collections and archives, believes Hughes' poem, "Perfect Light," written years later and published in his last collection, Birthday Letters, directly addresses this image:
It was to be your only April on Earth
Among your daffodils. In your arms,
Like a teddy bear, your new son,
Only a few weeks into his innocence.
Mother and infant, as in the Holy portrait.
Ennis, who has curated literary collections at Emory for the past twelve years, says Hughes' poem reflects an ongoing artistic dialogue with his wife, who took her life thirty-five years before Hughes' death in 1998. With the University's purchase of Hughes' personal papers in 1997—two and a half tons of letters, photographs, manuscripts and artifacts spanning the years 1940 to 1997—Enniss' focus has been the life of the late poet laureate of Britain. Simultaneously, he has seen a narrative of the seven-year relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes emerge.
"What people forget," he says, "is that six of those seven years together were enormously productive."
On the top floor of Emory's Robert W. Woodruff Library, home to the university's department of special collections, Enniss takes a seat and places a folder in front of him. Leaning back in his chair, arms outstretched, Enniss explains, "A divide opened up between Hughes and Plath after her suicide. Plath's collection went in one direction, Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; Ted Hughes' came here."
This fall Enniss and Karen Kukil, associate curator of rare books at Smith College, will merge the two poets' personal collections at the Grolier Club of New York. Their exhibit, "No Other Appetite: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Blood Jet of Poetry" runs from September 14 through November 19 and promises a new perspective on one of the most famous creative relationships of the twentieth century.
Enniss clasps his hands, interweaving his fingers. "We're going to bring these poets back together."
Plath and Hughes' relationship is one that has generated intense scrutiny; at last count six biographers have attempted to tell Plath's story. Last year the film Sylvia starred Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role.
"They have become iconic figures—larger than life," Enniss says.
Plath and Hughes met in Cambridge in 1956, at a party celebrating the publication of the Cambridge-based literary magazine, St. Botolph's Review . Plath shouted out lines of Hughes' own poetry to grab his attention.
"She wrote this the next morning—suffering from a hangover," Enniss says, preparing to read aloud from a page of Plath's journal. "'That big, dark, hunky boy . . . came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes.'"
Plath's erotic description of the night intensifies. "He kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off . . . and when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek . . . blood was running down his face."
What fascinates Enniss is that the encounter begins with Plath's admiration for Hughes' poetry.
"The first meeting between them merged sexual attraction with literary judgment," he says. "It was seduction by language."
Enniss opens his folder and lifts out an oval portrait of Hughes at ten years old. As if performing a card trick, he switches the picture with a class photograph taken eight years later. In an instant, Hughes emerges into manhood. Enniss finishes with his personal favorite, one that Plath pasted in her scrapbook with the caption, "A Pride of Poets" (below). In the photograph, taken on June 23, 1960, a young Hughes stands in the middle of a group of legendary poets: Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Louis MacNeice.
"It represents the literary establishment of the day acknowledging Hughes' arrival," Enniss says.
"They were two of the greatest poets of their generation, but Plath wasn't as quick out of the box."
Having published her first poem at the age of eight, Plath was a remarkable talent, but not until after her death and the publication of her collection Ariel did her work receive worldwide attention.
She was a self-reflective writer who conjured morbid, disturbing images. The poet Philip Larkin referred to her as the "horror poet," and Robert Lowell wrote in the foreword to Ariel that readers "will recoil from their first overawed shock and painfully wonder why so much of it leaves them feeling empty, evasive and inarticulate."
The relationship Plath and Hughes created ripped apart as passionately as it had begun. In July 1962, Plath learned of Hughes' affair with Assia Wevill, who, also married to a poet at the time, was first invited to their home by Plath. But once she sensed the romantic tension, she threw Hughes out of the house. With Hughes gone, Plath gathered papers and manuscripts from his study and fed them to a bonfire in the backyard. Scholars speculate that she also tossed the only copy of her unpublished novel, Falcon Yard , into the fire.
"An early biographer doubted the novel ever existed," Enniss says, but the couple's habit of "recycling" each other's discarded papers has provided new evidence.
Ennis points to the ceiling of the library. "They worked together under the same roof." He taps the cherry wood next to his folder. "They worked at the same table and even recycled each other's paper." He flips his hand over like a page in a book. "We'd turn over a page and there was Plath on the other side."
Enniss slides a piece of paper from his folder. Holding up a typed and proofed page from a chapter entitled "Venus in the Seventh," Enniss points to the page number 43 in the upper right corner.
"This is it," he says. "Or at least a fragment of it."
"The public doesn't know this exists yet."
Glimpses of the phantom novel appear on the opposite side of pages from Hughes' manuscript, "The Bardo Thodol." A list of characters, including real people, suggests that Plath's "fable of faithfulness" was, as most of her work, autobiographical. Hughes took on the role of the "spermy" and god-like hero of the book, and Falcon Yard refers to the pub where they first met.
Emory also houses Hughes' personal library, which includes a copy of Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving , littered with underscored and starred passages in Plath's handwriting. While struggling with the knowledge of her husband's affair, Plath's analyst suggested she read the book.
"It is the only entrée into her life while she was living alone with two children," Enniss says. "It is truly moving to hold that in your hands."
Plath took her life in a small flat in London, once occupied by W. B. Yeats, while her two children slept soundly in their rooms.
"Afterward, Hughes was thought of as a monster." Enniss explains. "Hughes shrank into himself and didn't make a public display of his guilt. And he was vilified for that."
Before his immersion in Hughes' collection, Enniss shared the majority view of Hughes. But Enniss' research has revealed Hughes as "a fully fleshed out figure in his own right," and he believes the Grolier exhibit will reintroduce Hughes "as a feeling human being."
Enniss presents a photocopy of a page from one of Hughes' tattered notebooks, which was an account of a dream.
"It was a dream that brought Plath back to life, but only for one day," he says.
On another page with notes scribbled in a loose and scratchy hand Hughes confesses, "I am not composing poetry. I am trying to get out of the flames."
"It's very raw," Enniss says.
After Emory was chosen as the home for Hughes' collection and personal library, Enniss traveled to the shores of North Devon. "It was a house I felt I already knew," he says. Hughes opened the door to a home Enniss recognized from Plath's published letters and journals, in which she described her hopes for the life that they would make there.
"Of course all that went bust," Enniss says. "But there he is, I thought. In the house they picked out together."
Enniss closes his folder.
"He was still inside."