Mental Issues and Poetry – Ted Hughes


Few would argue that Sylvia Plath did not have a severe mental condition. This was probably manic depression which came to be known as bi-polar.

Her mental issues are evident in some of her poetry. Some might say that the greatness of her words might not have been so had she not been so afflicted. Many years later, after her suicide in 1963, ‘Birthday Letters’ was published by Ted Hughes at great acclaim. Ted Hughes had a brilliance with words and this is clearly evident in these poems when dealing with the strong bi-polar induced behaviours associated in living with Sylvia before the breakup of their marriage.


Here are two examples from ‘Birthday Letters’ of such expression …


From The Rabbit Catcher

It was May. How had it started? What
Had bared our edges? What quirky twist
Of the moon’s blade had set us, so early in the day,
Bleeding each other? What had I done? I had
Somehow misunderstood. Inaccessible
In your dybbuk fury, babies
Hurled into the car, you drove. We surely
Had been intending a day’s outing,
Somewhere on the coast, an exploration—
So you started driving.

What I remember
Is thinking: She’ll do something crazy …


and from … Suttee
perhaps the most disturbing of all the poems in ‘Birthday Letters‘.

Suttee = a former practice in India whereby a widow threw herself on to her husband’s funeral pyre.

Looking at the opening lines of the first stanza …

In the myth of your first death our deity
was yourself resurrected.
Yourself reborn. The holy one.
Day in day out that was our worship -
tending the white birth-bed of your re-birth,
the unforthcoming delivery, the all but born,
the ought-by-now-to-be-reborn.


An understanding of the life of SP is warranted to put these lines in context. SP tried to commit suicide when she was twenty by taking an overdose in a cellar. She was found after three days and recovered. She also had a mental fixation associated with the death of her father when she was 8 years old.

You might regard it farfetched that a suttee type connection involved her suicide attempt in relation to her father. However there could be an implication in the words of TH.

Of more importance the resurrection to a new life, and a new birth. This was their marriage God that never did quite happen. But something that both SP and TH worshiped in their on-going daily life.

And the concluding lines to the poem illustrate that outcome in dramatic fashion …


Both of us consumed
By the old child in the new birth …
Babe of dark flames and screams
That sucked the oxygen out of both of us.

Of course Lady Lazarus herself has a very strong poetic response, looking at the last stanza of that poem …

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


A link to information on ‘Birthday Letters’ – Birthday Letters – Wikipedia

A link to Ted Hughes on Wikipedia – Ted Hughes – Wikipedia

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