Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hughes fishing; Plath in quicksand

The British Library has just acquired a large archive of material written by Ted Hughes, the celebrated British poet who died ten years ago today. The heart of the archive is said to be manuscripts relating to Birthday Letters, a book of poems about his relationship with Sylvia Plath. However, the collection also includes personal diaries written across nearly half a century. Hughes’s diaries have never been published (as far as I can tell), but Plath’s diaries, first published nearly 30 years ago, are much admired.

Hughes, born in 1930 and christened Edward James, studied English, among other subjects, at Pembroke College, Cambridge. And it was in Cambridge that he published his first poems, and where he met the American writer, Sylvia Plath. Hughes and Plath married in 1956, and had two children before separating in 1962. The following year, Plath committed suicide. Hughes was then living with Assia Wevill, a German writer. Six years later she too committed suicide, but not before she’d killed the child she’d had with Hughes. Despite these personal traumas, Hughes went on to marry again, to become a celebrated poet and children’s writer, and to be Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998 (on 28 October). Wikipedia says that critics routinely rank him as one of the best poets of his generation.

Earlier this month, on 14 October, the British Library announced it had acquired a large archive of Hughes’ writings, at a cost of £500,000. At the heart of the archive, it says, are the manuscripts relating to Birthday Letters, Hughes’s poems about his relationship with Plath. However, it also includes personal diaries ‘which span the decades from the 1950s to the 1990s, recording daily events, accounts of dreams and reflections on his family and his past, alongside fragments of poems and writings on historical and literary figures’.

Particularly interesting, the British Library adds, are ‘the fishing journals’. In part, these are a conventional record of events, but they are interspersed with lengthy reflections inspired by specific locations such as Devon, where he lived for many years, Scotland, Alaska and Kenya. Fishing, both as physical pursuit and as metaphor, the Library explains, was supremely important in Hughes’s life and work. Unfortunately, it gives no examples of, or extracts from, the diaries. Poetry (and fishing) enthusiasts will have to wait until the end of next year, when the Library expects to open up access to the collection.

Meanwhile, though, there is always Sylvia Plath’s diary. She started writing when only 11, and continued throughout her life. Wikipedia gives some information about this, and The Diary Junction has some links to extracts. A first edition of her adult diaries were published in the early 1980s, but they were heavily edited by Hughes. During the last years of his life, though, Hughes began working on a fuller publication of the journals, and, shortly before his death, gave legal permission for the use of two journals that otherwise would have been sealed until 2013.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath were published in 2000, with roughly two-thirds new material. A review by The Guardian gives examples of what Hughes orginally edited out, and another of its articles gives extensive extracts from the diaries. Also, there’s more information about the unabridged journals at Amazon.com, where one can read a few pages.

Here are two extracts from 1950 (I think).
‘Today is the first of August. It is hot, steamy and wet. It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: After a heavy rainfall, poems entitled RAIN pour in from across the nation.’

‘With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can’t start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It’s like quicksand . . . hopeless from the start. A story, a picture, can renew sensation a little, but not enough, not enough. Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flesh, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.’

And here’s another from March 1956, about Hughes.
‘Please let him come, and give me the resilience & guts to make him respect me, be interested, and not to throw myself at him with loudness or hysterical yelling; calmly, gently, easy baby easy. He is probably strutting the backs among crocuses now with seven Scandinavian mistresses. And I sit, spiderlike, waiting, here, home; Penelope weaving webs of Webster, turning spindles of Tourneur. Oh, he is here; my black marauder; oh hungry hungry. I am so hungry for a big smashing creative burgeoning burdened love: I am here; I wait; and he plays on the banks of the river Cam like a casual faun.’

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