I don’t dislike the poetry of either, and I’m open (see the comments to this post) to considering both for the title of great poets. But even philosophers are sick and tired of this glamourous couple. Slavoj Zizek provides in The Parallax View, page 205, a definition of “freedom” so we have a conceptual framework for attacking Ted Hughes mercilessly:
“Freedom” is not simply the opposite of deterministic causal necessity: as Kant knew, it means a specific mode of causality, the agent’s self-determination. There is in fact a kind of Kantian antinomy of freedom: if an act is fully determined by preceding causes, it is, of course, not free; if, however, it depends on the pure contingency which momentarily severs the full causal chain, it is also not free. The only way to resolve this antinomy is to introduce a secondlevel reflexive causality: I am determined by causes (be it direct brute natural causes or motivations), and the space of freedom is not a magic gap in this first-level causal chain but my ability retroactively to choose/determine which causes will determine me.
And thus, Ted Hughes sucks because:
“Ethics,” at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility. If, in the story of modern literature, there was ever a person who exemplifies ethical defeat, it is Ted Hughes. The true Other Woman, the focus of the Hughes-Plath saga ignored by both camps, is Assia Wevill, a dark-haired Jewish beauty, a Holocaust survivor, Ted’s mistress on account of whom he left Sylvia. So this was like leaving a wife and marrying the madwoman in the attic—however, how did she get mad in the first place? In 1969, she killed herself in the same way as Sylvia (by gassing herself), but killing along with her also Shura, her daughter by Ted. Why? What drove her into this uncanny repetition? This was Ted’s true ethical betrayal, not Sylvia—here, his Birthday Letters, with their fake mythologizing, turn into an ethically repulsive text, putting the blame on the dark forces of Fate which run our lives, casting Assia as the dark seductress:“ You are the dark force.You are the dark destructive force that destroyed Sylvia.” (The psychoanalytic notion of the Unconscious is the very opposite of this instinctual irrational Fate onto which we can transpose our responsibility.) Recall the line from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”—does not the same go for Ted Hughes? “To lose one wife through suicide may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two wives looks like carelessness. . . .” Hughes’s version is one long variation on Valmont’s “ce n’est pas ma faute” from Les liaisons dangereuses: it wasn’t me, it was Fate—as he put it, responsibility is “a figment valid only in a world of lawyers as moralists.”
Hughes was obviously a slithery, unreliable person, but he was good-looking. He also shared many of Plath’s passions, such as astrology, Craig Raine informs us in this review of the latest product of the never-stopping Hughes/Plath industry, an edition of Plath’s late letters.
Plath knew that Hughes collected women like others collect stamps. Raine cites her poem ‘The Courage of Shutting-Up’, in which Plath…
“…writes about wrongs as gramophone records: the needle ‘Tattooing over and over the same blue grievances’. Permanent, compulsive. One of her repeated, exhausting scenarios is the schema of barren women — that Ted is drawn to the childless, to Dido Merwin, to his sister Olwyn, to Assia Wevill (otherwise ‘Weavy Asshole’). In Plath’s account, Assia has had so many abortions that she is infertile. (Assia of course became pregnant after Plath’s suicide.)”
You can try to adorn it with flowers and sentiments, but:
“The problem is that he is attracted to other women and they are attracted to him — and Sylvia is aware of it, threatened and aggressive. ‘I am sick of being suspicious.’ In her journals, she is jealous of the 16-year-old Nicola Tryer in North Tawton. There is a vivid account of her on the lavatory and dragging on her dungarees when she hears Nicola downstairs. Dido Merwin’s memoir describes how Sylvia tore up ‘all Ted’s work in hand: manuscripts, drafts, notebooks, the lot’, because he was half an hour late from a meeting with Moira Doolan, the head of the BBC Schools Broadcasting Department. She ‘also gralloched his complete Shakespeare’.
Another problem is that Hughes may have been a violent man. To her psychiatrist, Dr Beuscher, Sylvia volunteers this account of things:
Ted beat me up physically a couple of days before my miscarriage: the baby I lost was to be born on his birthday. I thought this an aberration, & felt I had given him some cause, I had torn some of his papers in half, so they could be taped together, not lost, in a fury that he made me a couple of hours late to work.
Raine has doubts (“Is it cynical to detect in that otiose ‘physically’ the anxious pedantry of the perjurer? In every previous mention of her miscarriage (6 February 1961), the reason is said to be unknown, but possibly caused by her appendix which was removed three weeks later. Dido Merwin is aware of Sylvia’s version but doesn’t believe it.”) but I’m not going to defend Hughes here or anywhere else. There are reasons; Raine again:
There is another major discreditable thing in the Hughes record: he wished her dead, thought she might commit suicide —and said so. I think this is highly likely. But we need to understand it. Neither person was themselves. A minor symptom of this is that both became smokers under the strain of separating. They hated smoking, Sylvia especially. A feature of their break up is Sylvia’s persistent complaint that Hughes had become a liar. She returns to this again and again. And the complaint wasn’t presumably restricted to her correspondence with others. She asked for ‘the truth’. And eventually got it. Everyone has intrusive thoughts. No one is immune from them. They are repressed as a general rule — unless we are goaded into expressing them. “
You, reader, may think that I have a particularly low opinion of Hughes. Hey, I really thought that I had a particularly low opinion of the person (and, to be fair, that to some extent contaminates my view of Hughes, the artist). But no: Zizek, again in The Parallax View, has an even more negative view:
All his babble about Feminine Goddess, Fate, astrology, and so forth, is ethically worthless; this is how sexual difference was connoted here: she was hysterical, probing, authentic, selfdestructive; while he was mythologizing and putting the blame on the Other. In Kant’s terms, as we have seen, I am determined by causes, but I (can) retroactively determine which causes will determine me: we, subjects, are passively affected by pathological objects and motivations; but, in a reflexive way, we ourselves have the minimal power to accept (or reject) being affected in this way—that is to say, we retroactively determine the causes allowed to determine us, or, at least, the mode of this linear determination.