Birthday Letters, a collection of 88 poems by the British poet Ted 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. They cross-layer time, memory and perspective, exploring events such as their first meeting (‘St Botolph’s) or the impact of Plath’s death by suicide in 1963 (‘Life after Death’). Many poems are shaped by Hughes’s access to Plath’s diaries (‘Trophies’, ‘The Rag Rug’), while others appear to respond to subjects found within Plath’s own poetry (‘The Bee God’). The overall effect is to movingly renew the dialogue upon which their relationship had originally been based. At the same time, it is important to remember that the collection is a poetic retelling of events rather than a factual account.
The relationship had been tortuously scrutinised in the public eye since Plath’s death. Hughes himself had generally kept what his successor as Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, called ‘a bristling badger-silence which seemed dignified to some, reprehensible to others, and fascinating to everyone’. The publication of Birthday Letters therefore came as something of a surprise to the reading public, though eight of the poems – ‘Chaucer’, ‘You Hated Spain’, ‘The Earthenware Head’, ‘The Tender Place’, ‘Black Coat’, ‘Being Christlike’, ‘The God’, and ‘The Dogs are Eating Your Mother’ – had already been published in Hughes’s 1995 New Selected Poems.
Hughes died nine months after the publication of Birthday Letters. When it was awarded the Whitbread Prize, his daughter Frieda read out a letter to a friend in which Hughes had explained,
I had always just thought them unpublishably raw and unguarded, simply too vulnerable. But then I just could not endure being blocked any longer … If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago, then I might have had a more fruitful career – certainly a freer psychological life.