This grey-blue school exercise book contains two undated autograph drafts of ‘A Pink Wool Knitted Dress’, a poem by Ted Hughes later published in Birthday Letters.
It belongs to the 15 folders and volumes held by the British Library that contain poetry drafts, notes, personal reflections and correspondence relating to the creation, development and publication of Birthday Letters
. Hughes originally stored this exercise book, labelled ‘5S’, with other material in a box file titled 'B.L. Drafts I' (forming Add MS 88918/1/2-3). On the inside front cover Hughes lists, in black ink, nine numbered poems under the sequence’s early working title, ‘The Sorrows Of The Deer’ (this title is found across the archive). These volumes also contain drafts of poems which were not ultimately included in Birthday Letters
Birthday Letters, a collection of 88 poems by Hughes, was published to public and critical acclaim in 1998. Their subject is Hughes’s relationship with the American poet Sylvia Plath, to whom he was married from 1956 until her death in 1963. Written over a period of 25 years, all the poems, except two, are addressed directly to Plath.
What do these drafts of ‘A Pink Wool Knitted Dress’ reveal about the published poem?
‘A Pink Wool Knitted Dress’ is a poetic exploration of Hughes and Plath’s wedding day in 1956. Like many poems in the collection, it is self-consciously framed as a memory but it also brings the act of recollection into question.
As well as containing textual differences, these drafts, titled ‘In your pink wool knitted dress’, reveal the extent to which Hughes considered the representation of memory in this particular poem.
In the published poem, for instance, Hughes pictures himself in the church, ‘Levitated beside you’. In these drafts, Hughes worked on alternative phrases that probe his own memory of himself. He starts by writing, ‘Where was I?’, and, ‘I cannot remember / Myself there’ (both of these phrases are deleted in the drafts). This raw, highly personal address was replaced, therefore, with a description that still conveys a sense of unreality, but is abstract and guarded.
The drafts also show heavy revision of the recollection of Plath, as she too stood in church. Trialled phrases include ‘I remember you’, ‘I looked at you’, ‘I watched you’, ‘I saw you’. It was finally published as ‘I see you’. The shift from past to present tense builds Plath’s presence and heightens emotional tension. It appears to cast the memory as positive, vividly alive, but it also imbues the moment with grief, in fact transforming the memory to a haunting image of Plath, ‘Wrestling to contain your flames’, that has risen as time passes and hindsight – and insight – develops.
The first draft of ‘A Pink Wool Knitted Dress’ is two pages long (ff. 16r–16v). Both pages are struck through with single lines, suggesting that Hughes discarded this version. It contains many deleted words and phrases that cannot be deciphered. The second draft of ‘A Pink Wool Knitted Dress’ is slightly longer, drafted over three pages (ff. 17r–18r). It contains an additional passage that was inserted after writing out the rest of the poem, and largely retained in the published poem. This second draft is, indeed, closer to the published version. A star above the opening line suggests its significance.