- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

By Elaine Feinstein
Norton, $29.95, 273 pages, illus.

The best known fact of Ted Hughes' life is that for more than six years, from June 1956 until February 1963, he was married to the poet Sylvia Plath. After her suicide, the fame of her poems grew beyond any expectation harbored by anyone during her life. As the women's movement gained momentum, Plath became an icon, and Hughes was widely regarded as an oppressor, even a murderer. Despite the burden of these accusations, and of the almost incredible suicide of Assia Wevill, the woman with whom he lived for some time in the middle 1960s, Hughes continued to do his own distinctive work as a poet, translator, and essayist, and served as the English poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998.
There is belief in some quarters that Plath's despair might possibly have been alleviated if Hughes had not separated from her, but the evidence concerning who most desired the separation is far from plentiful or clear. There is also evidence that Hughes was less faithful during the marriage than Plath was. The ground is cluttered, furthermore, with various kinds of non-evidence, such as "Birthday Letters," Hughes's last book of poems, and surmises made by people who knew the couple. Quite a few of them seem willing to take sides.
Elaine Feinstein is the author of three previous biographies which have been well received. She was sufficiently acquainted with the principals in this case that she cannot quite claim impartiality, and in fact the book often seems openly biased in favor of Hughes. In her introduction she is direct about her feeling that "those of us who knew him" realized that the general view of Ted Hughes was misinformed. She writes briskly and clearly, for the most part, and knows how to shape a narrative around the facts she has been able to turn up. As professional as she is in many ways, however, she can at times be remarkably slapdash.
The book is absorbing at the level of gossip, just as "Birthday Letters" is. The facts of the case are dramatic and sometimes inspiring, sometimes troubling. Hughes pressed on and did fine work in the midst of many misfortunes, some of which he seems to have brought on himself.
This biography makes quick work of telling Hughes' story from beginning to end. His life was not touched by Sylvia Plath until he was in his mid-20s. Though the biographer recounts his Yorkshire childhood and youth, his admiration of his older brother Gerald (later sometimes soured by a feeling that Gerald reaped many of the usual benefits of being the elder brother), his early teachers and his love of landscape and wildlife, she gets him to Cambridge by page 21; but then when she gets to the St Botolph's Review launching party where Hughes and Plath met, she slows down and gives it about three pages.
Much of the detail in this episode's recounting is gathered, with full attribution and acknowledgment, from Lucas Myers' admirable memoir, "Crow Steered/Bergs Appeared," which was published last year by Proctor's Hall Press, a small publisher in Sewanee, Tenn. Mr. Myers was for many years a close friend of Ted Hughes, and so is not qualified for dispassionate inquiry; his book is a memoir, gracefully and absorbingly made. It should have many readers of its own, and I hope the biographer's use of it will help bring it to a wide audience.
Though her book is easy and often gripping to read, it is not reassuring to see the author treat poems as sources of fact. They are historical documents, yes, but the poet is always free to adjust the facts for the sake of the poem. There are moments when she acknowledges this, but often she presses ahead, saying that Hughes "recalled" this or that, and then giving a poem as her source. Finally, it is annoying to encounter errors of an editorial nature as often as one does here.
Plath and Hughes had a daughter and a son; Nicholas' birth-date is here, but not Frieda's. Poetry magazine is called Poetry Chicago. John Crowe Ransom's last name is given as Crowe Ransom. W. S. Merwin's "A Mask for Janus" is called "A Mask of Janus." Henry Green is called Henry Greene. Susan Sontag is called Susan Sonntag. "Over my dead body" is called a Yorkshire expression; this may be a joke, but who could tell? There are locutions such as "where the length of the lines seem." It may be a British usage (as it is French), but the plural of "Hughes" throughout is "Hughes": "…the Hughes returned to Yorkshire."
A quotation is followed by this sentence: "It is impossible not to read that poem without questions." If "not" were removed, or changed to "now," the sentence would say what was probably meant. Elsewhere the problem is mere clumsiness: "Plath takes an intense delight in syllables like Ezra Pound at his most lyrical, as she savours 'the freakish Atlantic/Where it pours bean green over blue'." "It may be that he found the tone more easily since his success in writing children's stories such as 'The Iron Man' initially made up a bedtime story for his children."
The sensibility that made those sentences, when applied to passages of poetry, is no more intensely rewarding than might be expected, but most of Elaine Feinstein's discussions of the poetry are adequate, colored though they are by the conviction that both Hughes and Plath wrote "great" poetry.

Henry Taylor is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently "Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews." He teaches poetry, translation, and literary journalism at American University.

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