These school exercise books contain poems by Ted Hughes that were later published in Birthday Letters. Shown here are undated autograph drafts of ‘Fulbright Scholars’, ‘St Botolph’s’, ‘18 Rugby St’, ‘A Pink Wool Knitted Dress’, ‘You Hated Spain’ and ‘Drawing’.
They belong 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 these exercise books with other notebooks in a box file titled 'B.L. Drafts III' (forming Add MS 88918/1/6-8). Some of the notebooks feature the sequence’s early working title, ‘The Sorrows Of The Deer’ (this title is found across the archive). These books 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 the drafts reveal?
Featuring poems in successive draft states, these notebooks shed light on Hughes’s creative process and contain details that were not retained in the published sequence.
While some of the exercise book covers feature the titles of individual poems, nine are labelled with a consistent number and letter combination, for example ‘1.S’, ‘2.S’, suggesting that Hughes had created a sequencing system. It is presumed that the ‘S’ alludes to Sylvia. Many poems are numbered, although they do not necessarily correspond to the final published sequence. Several poems are struck through, suggesting that these versions were discarded.
Although they all loosely resemble the published poems, the drafts reveal how Hughes poetically refined certain images and memories that were first set down on paper.
In book ‘1.S.’, ‘St Botolph’s’ (ff. 14v–15v) is impressionistic, a sequence of vivid, flashing memories. It does not open with the astrological imagery found in the published poem.
Like ‘St Botolph’s’, the draft of ‘18 Rugby St’ (ff. 18r–20v) contains significant differences. Hughes’s draft description of Plath’s face, ‘It was the altar where your spirit / Shared itself, + that was spectacular - / Drunken, liberated, joyful, / And utterly reckless,’ develops into a tautened simile in the published poem: ‘It was like the sea’s face – a stage / For weathers and currents, the sun’s play and the moon’s.’
‘In Your Pink Wool Knitted Dress’ (f. 34r) is considerably brief, featuring only key images and moments. The draft phrase, ‘the big feeling / Of a ritual before God,’ is grown into the striking metaphor, ‘you were ocean depth / Brimming with God.’