Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 163–184 | Cite as

‘Exaggerated American’: Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters



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  1. 1.
    For an account of the publication and reception of Birthday Letters see Erica Wagner, Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters, London, Faber and Faber, 2000, 1–31.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ibid. For a critique of Wagner’s approach seeGoogle Scholar
  3. 2a.
    Jo Gill, ‘“While My Pen Travels On”’, Swansea Review, 21 (2001), 103–11.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Paul Giles, ‘Double Exposure: Sylvia Plath and the Aesthetics of Transnationalism’, Symbiosis, 5.2 (2001), 103–20 (p. 106).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Anne Whitehead, ‘Refiguring Orpheus: The Possession of the Past in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters’, Textual Practice, 13.2 (1999), 22741Google Scholar
  6. 4a.
    Lynda K. Bundtzen, ‘Mourning Eurydice: Ted Hughes as Orpheus in Birthday Letters’, Journal of Modern Literature, 23 (2000), 455–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 5.
    Neil Spencer, ‘Stargazer Laureate’, Observer Life, 1 February 1998, p. 43.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Ann Skea, ‘Poetry and Magic’, paper delivered at the Ted Hughes 2000, International Conference, Lyon, France, Feb. 2000 (accessed at on 20 June 2002).Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    A number of critics have examined Plath’s relationship with England. Hughes’s relationship with America has been subjected to less scrutiny. For the former, see Tracy Brain, ‘“Your Puddle-jumping daughter”: Sylvia Plath’s Midatlanticism’, English, 47 (1998), 17–39, andGoogle Scholar
  10. 7a.
    Tim Kendall, ‘Sylvia Plath’s “Piranha Religion”’, Essays in Criticism, 49.1 (1999), 44–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 8.
    Brain, p. 21.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, London, Virago, 1991, p. 5.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Ted Hughes, ‘The Art of Poetry LXXI’, The Paris Review, 134 (1995), 54–94 (p. 77).Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    Giles, p. 105.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    In proposing this term, Giles distinguishes between those who ‘read literature in national rather than transnational terms.’ p. 103.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    Ibid. pp 105-6.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    Peter Davison, ‘Dear Sylvia’, The Boston Globe 8 February 1998, G1.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    ‘The Art of Poetry LXXI’, p. 77. Denise Levertov, the English-born poet who moved to America as a young woman in the mid-1940s, makes a similar observation about her own experience: ‘having married American literature, it seemed, as well as an American husband.’ Qtd. in Alice Entwistle, ‘“At Home Everywhere and Nowhere”: Denise Levertov’s “Domestic” Muse’ in Jane Dowson, ed., Women’s Writing 1945–1960: After the Deluge, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2003, 98–114 (p. 101).Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    The argument of Robert Crawford’s Identifying Poets is relevant here: ‘It is the outwardlooking, expansive gaze which makes possible the interaction with a ‘significant other’, a foreign culture in which gifts for the future of one’s own culture may be located, and in which an illuminating reflection of one’s own identity (or desired identity) may be glimpsed. That foreign culture may be geographically or linguistically or temporally ‘other’, or a combination of these.’ Identifying Poets: Self and Territory in Twentieth-Century Poetry, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1993, p. 12.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    In Plath’s Journals, for example, she explains: ‘I find myself horrified at voicing the American dream of a home and children.’ Karen V. Kukil, ed., The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950–1962, London, Faber and Faber, 2000, p. 411.Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    Ibid. p. 446.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    Ibid. p. 644.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    Keith Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p. 11.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    Gill, p. 108.Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    See (accessed on 04 July 2002).
  26. 23.
    A Choice of Whitman’s Verse, London, Faber and Faber, 1968.Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    There is a further allusion in ‘Fulbright Scholars’ to Eliot’s writing. The metaphor of the peach suggests a connection with ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. For Prufrock — anxious, querulous, self-conscious, like Hughes’s speaker — is also floored by a peach: ‘Do I dare eat a peach’, he asks. Do I dare enter into a sensuous, extravagant, foreign, potentially messy encounter? T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909–1962, London, Faber and Faber, 1974.Google Scholar
  28. 25.
    ‘Notes for a Comparison between American and European Romanticism’, Journal of American Studies 2.1 (1968), 83–103 (p. 99).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 26.
    Jacqueline Rose notes the ambivalence of Plath’s position in this context, asking ‘what is the legacy after the Second World War of a German-speaking father for an American girl?’ On Not Being Able to Sleep: Psychoanalysis and the Modern World, London, Chatto & Windus, 2003, p. 53.Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    Entwistle, p. 98.Google Scholar
  31. 28.
    See Sagar, p. 6.Google Scholar
  32. 29.
    Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, London, Faber and Faber, 1981.Google Scholar
  33. 30.
    Hughes was to recall of his and Plath’s experiments with the ouija board: ‘“spirits” would regularly arrive with instructions for her from one Prince Otto, who was said to be a great power in the underworld.’ ‘Sylvia Plath and Her Journals’ in Paul Alexander, ed., Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath, New York, Harper and Row, 1985, p. 155.Google Scholar
  34. 31.
    Jon Silkin, ed., The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981.Google Scholar
  35. 32.
    As Jean Baudrillard notes, ‘It may be that the truth of America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover here the perfect simulacrum.’ America, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York, Verso, 1989, p. 28.Google Scholar
  36. 33.
    Joan Riviere in ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’ describes a tendency for some women to ‘put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men’, in Shelley Saguaro, ed., Psychoanalysis and Woman: A Reader, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2000, 70–78 (p. 70).Google Scholar
  37. 34.
    Josh Cohen notes the ‘new primacy of spectacle as a constitutive force of both state and economic power which has permeated everyday life in postmodern America’, Spectacular Allegories: Postmodern American Writing and the Politics of Seeing, London, Pluto, 1998, p. 2.Google Scholar
  38. 35.
    As Seamus Heaney usefully points out, it is necessary to question what kind of Englishness, if any, Hughes represents: ‘“Hughes’ voice is in rebellion against a certain kind of demeaned, mannerly voice... against English middle-class culture”’. Qtd. in William Scammell, ‘A Poet Pinned and Wriggling’, Independent on Sunday (1 November 1998), p. 3.Google Scholar
  39. 36.
    Eliot, Collected Poems. Edmund Spenser’s ‘Sonnet 75’ (‘One day I wrote her name upon the strand, / But came the waves and washèd it away’) with its meditation on time, writing, and memory is another possible subtext. I am grateful to Heidi Macpherson for suggesting this connection. See also Richard Gray, ‘The Problem of Literary Nationality: The Case of T.S. Eliot’ in American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, Harlow, Longman, 1990, 336–46. In an essay on T.S. Eliot, ‘The Poetic Self: A Centenary Tribute to T.S. Eliot’, Hughes describes ‘Prufrock’ as an expression of Eliot’s ‘own peculiar agony’ — a judgement which could, surely, also stand for Birthday Letters.Google Scholar
  40. 36a.
    William Scammell, ed., Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, London, Faber and Faber, 1994, 268–92 (p.274).Google Scholar
  41. 37.
    The New Poetry, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1962, p. 20.Google Scholar
  42. 38.
    The Politics of Postmodernism, London and New York, Routledge, 1989, p. 81.Google Scholar
  43. 39.
    Antony Easthope, Wordsworth Now and Then: Romanticism and Contemporary Culture, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1993, p. 7.Google Scholar
  44. 40.
    Drayton views America as the natural home of poetry: ‘as there plenty grows / Of laurel everywhere, / Apollo’s sacred tree.’ M.H. Abrams, et al eds, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. 1, New York, Norton, 2000Google Scholar
  45. 40a.
    John Winthrop, ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ (1630), Nina Baym, et al eds, The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Vol. 1, New York, Norton, 1998.Google Scholar
  46. 41.
    Sansom, ‘I was there, I saw it’, London Review of Books, 19 February 1998, 8–9; Skea, ‘Poetry and Magic’, np.Google Scholar
  47. 42.
    Hughes’s disappointment and frustration with his reception by some hostile American readers in the aftermath of Plath’s death may be a subtext here.Google Scholar
  48. 43.
    Tanner, p. 98.Google Scholar
  49. 44.
    In ‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs do not Bark’, Hughes writes, of a Cambridge college’s hostile reaction to Plath’s poetry: ‘They let you know that you were not John Donne / / […] they let you know, day by day, / Their contempt for everything you attempted’.Google Scholar
  50. 45.
    Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, London, Faber and Faber, 1979, 218–25.Google Scholar
  51. 46.
    Journals, p. 521.Google Scholar
  52. 47.
    Journals, p. 445.Google Scholar
  53. 48.
    Sagar, p. 7.Google Scholar
  54. 49.
    ‘The Art of Poetry LXXI’, p. 59.Google Scholar
  55. 50.
    Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, New York, Double Day, 1989, p. 3.Google Scholar
  56. 51.
    Brain, pp 17. 19.Google Scholar
  57. 52.
    The metaphors throughout the poem look back to Plath’s ‘Daddy’ mentioned above, with its allusions to ‘the waters of beautiful Nauset’.Google Scholar
  58. 53.
    Giles, p. 104.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Board of the Journal of Transatlantic Studies 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jo Gill
    • 1
  1. 1.Kingston UniversityUK

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