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Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters Paperback – April 17, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
This erudite critical study, together with the Unabridged Diaries of Sylvia Plath released last year, breathes new life into Plath scholarship, ironically in this case through the study of her husband's poetry, particularly Birthday Letters (published in 1998 shortly before his death), which, Wagner, literary editor of the London Times, asserts, "demonstrates the extent to which the poets influenced each other," and then goes on to offer ample evidence, grounding particular poetic images and phrases in specific events of Plath's and Hughes's lives. Hughes's love poetry in Birthday Letters overtly refers to his first meeting of Sylvia at Oxford: "Maybe I noticed you./ .../ Your exaggerated American/ Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners." Another poem, about their honeymoon to Spain, notes that "Spain/ was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver/ You dared not wake with...." To understand the complexities of Hughes and Plath's relationship, however, Wagner has had to touch upon one of the literary world's most controversial, and often ugly, disputes: to what degree if any did Hughes contribute to his wife's depression and subsequent suicide at age 30? Fortunately, Wagner is not interested in either launching crude attacks on or apologizing for Hughes. Her clear and careful scholarship allows readers to come to their own conclusions. She encourages readers to stop playing the blame game with these two gifted poets, whose work and lives were undoubtedly influenced by their marriage to each other. In Wagner's own no-nonsense phrasing, her superb study "is an attempt to open up this dialogue between two people both now dead and make [it]... more accessible to the general reader." 8 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Apr.)Forecast: The publication of Birthday Letters created quite a stir. With the recent publication of Plath's unabridged diaries, and Wagner's moderate attitude toward the Plath/Hughes debate, which will undoubtedly be controversial, this could see lively sales.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
When poet Ted Hughes offered Birthday Letters for publication in 1997 after an unyielding silence since his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963, those involved were "amazed and somewhat fearful," writes Wagner, literary editor of the London Times. In this fascinating study, part explication of the poems and part biography of a doomed relationship, Wagner alternates Hughes's almost diarylike poetry with the journal entries, letters, and poems by Plath that often describe the same people and events. The contrast is stunning and often horrifying: remembering a walk in which the two poets come across some girls pulling up flowers in a park, Hughes writes, "What did they mean to you, the azalea flowers?/ The girls were so happy . . . ," while Plath's journal says, "I can kill myself or I know it now even kill another. . . . I gritted to control my hands, but had a flash of bloody stars in my head as I stared that sassy girl down, and a blood-longing to [rush] at her and tear her to bloody beating bits." With the publication of Birthday Letters, Hughes managed to honor Plath and simultaneously polish his own record as the long-suffering husband of one of our major poets, who was apparently incapable of living with anyone, even herself. David Kirby, Florida State Univ., Tallahassee
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
If one wants an account of how Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath inspired each other’s work, I highly recommend Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband, which is brilliant, very well-written, entertaining, and insightful. Now, that was an addictive, engrossing read.
The best thing I can say about Wagner’s book is that I wanted to reread Birthday Letters. I don’t find Ted Hughes to be a particularly skillful wordsmith – certainly industrious (due to his long career), but after my first reading of Birthday Letters, I thought his writing immature, desperate, and dull. (And honestly, I was befuddled by the rave reviews. I even thought I could have written better. And within a week.) But with the addition of Wagner’s criticism, I tried to appreciate Ted Hughes’s point of view.
Ariel's Gift left me ambivalent. I appreciated Wagner’s attempt to be fair to both Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. But Wagner didn’t make any definite statements. There were tentative observations, and the book was one onerous pondering.
Readers will inevitably disagree with her on various things. I found her classification of their respective poetic characters-- Hughes the nature poet; Plath the feminist-mythologue-- conventionally over-simplistic. Plath had as much empathy for nature as Hughes, but less compulsion to control it; Hughes was certainly a mythologue and had a lot of sympathy for feminism, which rather frightened Plath because of her compulsion to be a wife and mother. Wagner also displays some confusion about American geography-- she places "Fishing Bridge," one of Birthday Letters' central poems, "in Wisconsin by the edge of Lake Superior" instead of at Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park where the actual Fishing Bridge is located.
Would Hughes and/or Plath have liked this book? They'd probably have liked it more than a lot of stuff that's been written about them. It's certainly one of the most perceptive and fair-minded studies of their poetic mythology, as opposed to the journalistic sensationalism that has parasitized it. It is too bad, and surprising, that Wagner's book hasn't got more attention-- it bridges the gap between popular and academic interest. Or perhaps not so surprising given the level of the journalistic sensationalism, which still gets a lot of attention.