William Collins, £30
Few poets’ lives have been as dramatically harrowing as that of Ted Hughes. His wife Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963 was followed six years later by the copycat suicide of the woman he had left her for, Assia Wevill, who also killed their daughter. To some feminists, Hughes embodied the patriarchal poet who silenced women’s voices. His accusers did not grasp Hughes’s anguish, though he did not help his case when he admitted to burning the last volume of Plath’s diaries. Only when he was dying did he allow the publication of Birthday Letters (1998), a series of moving poems addressed to Plath that rescued his reputation. Shorn of the mythological clutter of his Crow sequence, these poems spoke with burning clarity.
Jonathan Bate’s well-researched biography weaves together the life and poetry sensitively. Inevitably, the Hughes-Plath marriage dominates. Each saw in the other a fulfilment of a fantasy: the sunny American; the brooding Yorkshireman. Plath thought Hughes the greater talent, typing up his poems and sending them to publishers. Hughes helped her too, though only after her death did he realise how extraordinary a writer she was. Bate does not spare the ugly details—Hughes regarded womanising almost as a poet’s right. But he is sympathetic to this strange and gifted man, who loved fishing as much as women, and wrote with stirring accuracy about the cruel beauty of the natural world.
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