Which poet grieved most selflessly for the death of his wife? John Milton, Thomas Hardy, Douglas Dunn or Ted Hughes?by Kate Kellaway / June 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
I remember at a party playing a maudlin game: make up your own epitaph. It wasn’t as funny as intended, although it was revealing (one man wanted his to read: “He did better than his father”). Fortunately, we are not in charge of composing our epitaphs. But memorialising others is a responsible affair-especially in poetry. I was looking at Faber’s enticing new editions of modern poetry that include Douglas Dunn’s Elegies and Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, when the dead wives first came to mind. I started to think of Lesley Balfour Dunn (d.1981), Sylvia Plath (d.1963) and Emma Hardy (d.1912 )–each woman with an afterlife in poetry written by her husband. The more I thought about it, the more ambiguous this dead wives’ society became. Milton could have set them all an example. He opted for unambiguous canonisation. “On His Deceased Wife” begins: “Methought I saw my late espoused saint” and he continues: “Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight/Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined/So clear, as in no face with more delight./But oh! As to embrace me she inclined,/I waked, she fled, and day bought back my night.” Bereft poets often renew their marriage vows in death and Mrs Milton, looking down from heaven has nothing to complain of–the lament is perfect: beautiful, exaggerated, blissfully unrevealing. Thomas Hardy’s poems written after the death of Emma are trickier. They are not about saintliness but failure. In the poems–among his best–he berates himself for not loving his wife better in their last years together. Her presence did not move him then as much as her absence does now. His reaction to Emma’s death was as if to one of “life’s little ironies”: a love that comes too late. His emotion may not have been insincere, but he recognised its irony and dramatic force. I don’t think that, were Emma able to read his poems, she would be unreservedly gratified. She might have felt indignant at the poetic mileage her husband derived from her death, all those journeys they never took together–and now this grand literary journey in her name. And she might feel a little hurt, too, by the superior value he places on their youthful times together. Hardy is mourning twice over, for the end of youthful romance as well as for extinction in old age. Death permits the young Emma to step forward once more in her air-blue gown. And yet, one can detect in his grief, an old habit of marital dissatisfaction, close to nagging. In several poems, he complains that her death lacked occasion; he reproaches her for her indifference, her failure to say goodbye. “The Going” begins: “Why did you give no hint that night/That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,/And calmly, as if indifferent quite,/You would close your term here, up and be gone/Where I could not follow/With wing of swallow/To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!” Painful feelings–and yet the rhythm of “The Going” is the opposite of grieving paralysis, it is a vigorous excursion. The poem is enjoying itself–Hardy makes an occasion of her death where she failed to do so. And it is only now that she is gone that it is possible to bring into focus the magnificent figure who takes on a heroic, undomestic aspect: “You were she who abode/By those red-veined rocks far West,/you were the swan-necked one who rode/Along the beetling Beeny Crest.” “The look of a room on returning thence” is key to Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, dedicated to his wife who died, at 37, of cancer. In “The Kaleidoscope,” he writes: “I climb these stairs a dozen times a day/And, by that open door, wait, looking in/At where you died. My hands become a tray/Offering me, my flesh, my soul, my skin./Grief wrongs us so. I stand, and wait, and cry/For the absurd forgiveness, not knowing why.” The domesticity of Dunn’s poems is a force in itself: the reader discovers that grief is a house of rooms, some of which are imaginary. The poems are furnished with souvenirs–bronze frogs, wooden mobiles, much-used recipe books. He responds keenly both to the solace and minor outrage of objects that outlive his wife. If Dunn’s poetry were less good, one would say it was merely therapy. It never crosses the line into unseemly confidences but I found it hard to read without weeping. Dunn disarms the formlessness of grief and shapes it. “Sandra’s Mobile” sobs out its last line: “On her last night,/Trying to stay awake, I saw love crowned/In tears and wooden birds and candlelight./She did not wake again. To prove our love/Each gull, each gull, each gull, turned into dove.” Dunn is trying to keep his wife alive and with him by writing about her. In the last poem, “Leaving Dundee,” he writes: “She spoke of what I might do ‘afterwards.’/’Go, somewhere else.’ I went north to Dundee./Tomorrow I won’t live here any more,/Nor leave alone. My love, say you’ll come with me.” I cannot judge whether his poems would comfort the bereaved. I suspect his wife would have recognised herself in this album of sorrows, but it is impossible to be sure. To imagine the wives reading the poems over their husbands’ shoulders is not entirely frivolous–it is an indicator of whether the poets are playing fair. For these poems are acts of possession and the fact that they will never be read by the wives confers a freedom that can make for uncomfortable results. If Sylvia Plath were able to read Birthday Letters, the effect might be incendiary. It is in Ted Hughes’ urgent poems that the peculiarity of a husband appropriating a wife’s life and death becomes most apparent. Birthday Letters are driven by an energy closer to fury than grief. They are territorial poems in which Hughes retains an illusion of the private space that once existed between them (hard when Plath has become public property). At the same time they are written for a public and to set a record straight; when he addresses poems to “You” it seems a slippery conceit. Many of Hughes’s poems hinge on Sylvia’s American ways. In Paris, in Spain, in Devon–everywhere her response is American and antithetical to his own. It is as if the marriage were a failure to translate from the American. In “The Rabbit Catcher,” Hughes describes Sylvia’s iron face behind the wheel, her dangerous driving, her failure to appreciate the English countryside as a native would (as he himself does). It is an unsettling poem. “Inaccessible/in your dybbuk fury, babies/Hurled into the car, you drove.” It is not that he is getting the better part of the argument (he is hard on himself, too) but that now there is no one to slam the car door in disagreement at him, or to justify her rant about England’s shabby coastline. The silence that encloses these poems is uncomfortable and sad. Hughes seems to be impersonating Plath, not reviving her. Hughes refers to Plath’s own poems as if they were the enemy. His enemy–and hers. He describes them as if they were physical, an extra body part, close to deformity yet as inevitable as an Adam’s apple or a camel’s hump. In “The Minotaur” they fight after she destroys one of his family heirlooms. And he wonders (vainly?) whether it was he that set her most lethal poems in motion. He angrily advises her to harness her anger in her work: “Get that shoulder under your stanzas, and we’ll be away. Deep in the cave of your ear/The goblin snapped his fingers/So what had I given him? The bloody end of the skein/That unravelled your marriage,/Left your children echoing.” These poems were not written out of ordinary grief–the emotional cargo is more complex. Over and over, he revisits her face, her “rubbery” African lips, her brown eyes that were all performance: determined diamonds that could get what they wanted. His description is painterly, dispassionate. In “Red” he describes their bedroom, a place that neither Hardy nor Dunn would have been able to endure: “Our room was red. A judgement chamber./Shut casket for gems. The carpet of blood/Patterned with darkenings, congealments./The curtains-ruby corduroy blood.” Out of this redness, he describes the saving graces of blue: “Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.” And the last line in the book, “But the jewel you lost was blue” comes as a shock because it achieves what is missing elsewhere. It grieves selflessly for her–as the best poems about dead wives should.