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The Making of BIRTHDAY LETTERS

by Roy Davids

[ © this essay Roy Davids 2009 ]

The huge Ted Hughes archive sold to Emory University in 1996 consisted mainly of the manuscripts, in all states, of Ted's published works and correspondence to that date, much of it remarkable. The archive of Ted's manuscripts acquired last year by the British Library is often distinguished by its revelatory nature and includes much material that he had kept to himself and might have chosen to destroy had he lived.

Three aspects of the papers in particular closely interlink in their content, and in differing ways and degrees, reveal themselves as parts of the genesis, gestation and evolution of Birthday Letters.

Birthday Letters itself. The new portion of the archive contains all the manuscripts, published and unpublished, of Birthday Letters (1998), the most successful volume of poetry in the twentieth century, one of the most successful of all time, having sold something more than 500,000 copies worldwide.

Many of the drafts for poems here, that were included as finished texts in the printed book, preserve versions that differ considerably from those final ones and much is revealed about the creative process, including the length of time of the gestation of the poems and the project. The archive contains a very significant amount of unpublished material – there are, for instance, nearly 100 new poems (Birthday Letters had just 88 poems), many of them in numerous drafts, that do not appear at all in Birthday Letters (or Collected Poems) in any form at all, and were doubtless discarded for reasons of sensitivity and inappropriateness one way or another. A full variorum edition is clearly desirable and is only possible from these new materials. Numbering systems for the poems are evident throughout as the order evolved in Ted's mind. The importance of this material cannot be overstated: it contains many details about his relationship with Sylvia Plath that are not available elsewhere, most poignantly perhaps relating to her final days. There is a large number of unpublished ›Sylvia poems‹ which were, in effect, part of what Ted called the ›germinal notes‹ or ›seedlings‹ which did not to get into Birthday Letters in any form.

A sample of some of the first lines or titles of the unpublished poems in itself gives some real sense of what is there: ›Al hurt by my reaction to his account ...‹; ›What did happen that Sunday night? ...; ›You were the jailor of your murderer ...‹; ›You said to Death Death come & get me ...‹; ›Almost before he knew her name / Her face was just so, in the streetlight / As she told him / How she had tried to kill herself ...‹; ›You despised my girl-friend before ...‹; ›To eat it. I killed it instantly ...‹; Which part of you liked me rough ...‹; ›The last I had seen of you was you burning / Your last farewell note ...‹; ›Your Daddy's bees had to be friendly ...‹; ›From your Daddy's tomb ...‹; ›You battered your face ...‹; ›Death spends a lifetime ...‹; ›You never meant it. In your novel ...‹; ›You went down, your cries misunderstood ...‹; ›When ignorance was the miracle ...‹; ›Hurt is an oracle ...‹; ›Once upon a time there was a story ...‹

There is also an extraordinary contemporaneous autograph account of his feelings immediately on the publication of Birthday Letters, with reflections on what he has done, the likely benefits for his well-being and work and the enormous sense of release and removal of the block to his work for some twenty-five years.

Other groups of papers and letters give significant information about the background to and of the chronology of Birthday Letters, about the importance for himself of publishing in 1998 and why he had not done so more than tentatively before (› ...not altogether a literary matter, more a physical operation that just might change the psychic odds crucially for me, and clear a route through ...‹). He traces his writing career right back to Sylvia Plath's death and explains how her death, Assia's death and his mother's all deflected him, as did Sylvia's ›canonisation‹ and ›apotheosis‹ and other events in his life (› ... more or less razed my whole poetical territory ... I had to start right back at the beginning, nursery writing ABC exercises ...‹).

Papers relating to a legal action in America prompted by a film based on the Bell Jar (he did not read the book until the 1980s) which was to be heard in Boston 1986–1987, although the writs were issued against him in 1982. The case was settled out of court in January 1987.

This material contains extraordinary, powerful, raw, unpublished autograph draft materials in prose and poetry, with analyses of Sylvia Plath's psychological, mythic (›SP was the purest possible case of a mythic poet‹) and her poetical development (›Writing the Bell Jar was therefore the formulation of the myth that called the Ariel poems to be written‹), her real self and real voice, her real feelings. Here he is forced by the demands of the trial to confront, in a renewed way and in writing, concentratedly, the central tragedy of his life. In many respects this material – which could make a book in itself – will be considered as revelatory as Birthday Letters was itself when published, for which, in many senses, it is doubtless part of the gestation process – though that project itself was begun haphazardly in the 1970s, as is clear from his handwriting in some of the manuscripts for the book in this collection and Ted's own statements. Here the material is more straightforward in its views, approach and information about Sylvia Plath than anywhere else in his papers. In a sense it is part of the key to Birthday Letters (› ... This Summer has passed, really, in a daze ... of hospital semi-coma, a slow invalid recuperation, becoming conscious of the damage that had been hidden from me simply by the numbness of shock ... The whole 24 year chronic malaise of Sylvia's biographical problem seems to have come to some sort of crisis. I'd say the Trial forced it ... Only now I get an overall view ...‹).

Long series of successive drafts for an unpublished sequence [not in Collected Poems or Birthday Letters] of poems about Sylvia Plath are also here, almost certainly never intended for publication, written rather for himself, to clear his mind. Again, a sample of some of the first lines or titles of the unpublished poems in itself gives some real sense of what there is: ›Now the shock of it, like a blow in the face ...‹; ›Surely some guess deterred him from the infection ...‹; ›Why hatred / Hatred for dead father ...‹; ›I give you permission to hate your mother ...‹; ›When you opened the grave with the key ...‹; ›Surely you were unjust to your mother ...‹; ›With all your words, you had not enough words ...‹; ›Through the late Sixties / Your poems crept through America ...‹; ›A skeleton lay dangled unsuspected ...‹; ›That was what they read. It was too late ...‹; ›When you wrote those poems of Ariel / Had Feminism stirred in its crate? ...‹; ›The Prussian father in the Prussian home ...‹; ›There was always two of you ...‹; ›How can your grave talk this way ...‹; ›Days go by as if they were hidden from me ...‹

Assia Wevill and Capriccio. There is material for a new and extended edition of Capriccio here (more than 30 new poems; there were only 20 in the printed book) and for a reassessment of Ted's relationship with Assia Wevill, and why she killed herself (he says whom he believed to be responsible for her death). It constitutes something of a parallel to the boxes on the trial, described above, but for Assia. Some of the poems relate to both her and Sylvia Plath. Perhaps Ted was prompted in part by the same inspiration or necessity of thinking again about Plath. He says that working on poems about Assia played a significant part in the prompting of Birthday Letters (› ... The first moment in which I began to touch those older currents was in the pieces about Assia ...‹).

The material appears to contain most of Ted's workings on Capriccio – and Assia – from very detailed prose notes – quite objective, even severe about Assia; about other people involved; about her and their relationship (with much about Plath and a book by de Bono – ›airily empty‹, as well), to very rough drafts of poems, successive drafts and typescripts and a contents list headed ›Beleaguered by Complications‹. Some manuscripts clearly date from the late 1960s to judge from the handwriting. Included are manuscripts for nearly all the poems in the book as well as poems not in the printed book or in Collected Poems.

Yet again, a selection of first lines and titles of the unpublished poems gives the flavour of what is here – most clearly relate to Assia, some to Sylvia: ›So there were your ashes ...‹; ›Sometimes I remember you, Assia ...‹; ›What a waste of leaves ...‹; ›Why did you sniff me out ...‹; ›Did she think of him as one of her collection ...‹; ›Knowing himself helpless ...; ›If you had not that afternoon that evening ...‹; ›She had too much so with a smile you took some ...‹; ›The affairs did not happen ...‹; ›So here I am again smashed up ...‹; ›Black, black, black ...‹; ›Already I forget ...‹; ›I was astonished to see ...‹; ›Don't talk to me about the road of fire ...‹; ›Thinking you were dropping by for a thrill ...‹; ›A smile / swayed on the top of tallness ...‹.

Roy Davids

 
Roy Davids is a rare books and manuscripts dealer and friend of Ted Hughes. You can read other articles on his website www.roydavids.com

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