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

Old Age Gets Up – Ted Hughes – Comments

Old Age Gets Up

Stirs its ashes and embers, its burnt sticks

An eye powdered over, half melted and solid again
Ideas that collapse
At the first touch of attention

The light at the window, so square and so same
So full-strong as ever, the window frame
A scaffold in space, for eyes to lean on

Supporting the body, shaped to its old work
Making small movements in gray air
Numbed from the blurred accident
Of having lived, the fatal, real injury
Under the amnesia

Something tries to save itself-searches
For defenses-but words evade
Like flies with their own notions

Old age slowly gets dressed
Heavily dosed with death's night
Sits on the bed's edge

Pulls its pieces together

Ted Hughes (1930 - 1998)

The difficulty in awaking to the day when old = how to give life to burnt sticks? Can a little flame be resurrected … in due course maybe?

The eyes a little hard to adjust to daylight … they maybe half-melted but we must be thankful that they do eventually adjust … at the same time those early morning thoughts are quick to fade away … focusing on the day and remembering in the opening haze of early awareness

The window frame is compared with old age … strong, long lasting condition, never changes each day, will be around for many years, centuries maybe

All is gray with no colour to the day. And then that beautiful cynical statement on age deterioration ‘Numbed from the blurred accident / Of having lived, …’ and perhaps that inescapable condition of losing memory … and emphasis on how sad this is … being a real injury – like a broken leg … and later words evade like flies with their own notions … highlights the difficulty the mind has in focusing on words when there is lost recall and searching is in place

The window frame is seen as a scaffold … it is a strong metaphor dictating the emotional feeling of the aged associated with impending death? … time leads us all to the ‘scaffold’

something tries to save itself … a wonderful personification … and to survive to get up, movements are slow … and that slow awaking coming alive … heavily dosed with death’s night … coming to the end of life, equated to night … however, eventually some success in the sitting on the edge of the bed and the pieces have been put together for the body to function.

A little depressive and a bit of a bleak view of life; but you must give credit to the creative words in generating the groping of awareness in early morning awaking.

Ted Hughes on Wikipedia …
He was Poet Laureate in 1984 and held the office until his death

Bowled Over – Ted Hughes – Analysis

Bowled Over

By kiss of death, bullet on brow,
No more life can overpower
That first infatuation, world cannot
Ever be harder or clearer or come
Closer than when it arrived there

Spinning its patched fields, churches
Trees where nightingales sang in broad daylight
And vast flaring blue skirts of sea –
Then sudden insubordination
Of boredom and sleep

When the eyes could not find their keys
Or the neck remember what mother whispered
Or the body stand to its word.

Desertion in the face of a bullet!

Buried without honours.

Ted Hughes 1930 – 1998 (fromWodwo, 1967)

Wodwo – the first release from Ted Hughes following the death of Sylvia Plath in February 1963.

Looking at this poem in the context of the personal life of TH and SP and not just the loss of first love euphoria …

S1 … well that first intense feeling of love, falling in love when young and foolish, never to come again perhaps – in short being bowled over (apt cricket words for a Yorkshire man) – and a knock-out blow as in a kiss of death or bullet on the brow … this is a reflection looking back to that feeling – and what a feeling it was – the world never harder never clearer – my immediate thoughts on that first encounter of TH with SP, reflecting back some four years after her death … would that feeling ever come again … a very hard road after the death of SP and the catering for his two children from their marriage

S2 … this is what it is all about … love sending the mind spinning – a dizzy feeling as the environment adjusts to the euphoria and nightingales sing in daylight … shows how the world changes with emotional state – but then the last two lines – insubordination, disobedience, a rebellion boredom and sleep … the coming down from the hilltop … putting into the context of his broken marriage a self-disobedience (but living with SP and her mental instability not easy)

S3 … the resultant effect of his disobedience – eyes could not find their keys – what a wonderful way of saying that he could never unlock the door to the way it was … and
the neck never able to remember – thinking of the comfort of a mother to a boy in bed who could not rest … and then in terms of words – false to the word, false to the word of love by his disobedience

S4 … desertion in the face of a bullet (love) … perhaps this maybe the way he feels … well it was his initiative when he left SP – however, he didn’t completely desert her and cared very much for her well-being and helped her find accommodation in London

S5 … Buried without honours … a sense of depression on the way things had turned out … perhaps a wish he had stayed with SP – especially after the aftermath resultant from her tragic death … love buried without honours.

Independent of the personal context of TH and SP. This poem is a look back on the common life experience of first love euphoria after the relationship has ended for whatever reason. The relationship always remains part of us in some form or other. Whether it is buried without honours or carried forward as a latent embellishment is another matter.

TH served as  UK Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. A link to Ted Hughes on Wikipedia.

Moors – Ted Hughes – Analysis


Are a stage for the performance of heaven.
Any audience is incidental.

A chess-world of top heavy Kings and Queens
Circling in stilted majesty
Tremble the bog-cotton
Under the sweep of their robes.

Fools in sunny motley tumble across,
A laughter – fading in full view
To grass tips tapping at stones.

The witch-brew boiling in the sky-vat
Spins electrical terrors
In the eyes of sheep.

Fleeing wraith-lovers twist and collapse
In death-pack languor
To bedew harebells
On the spoil-heaps of quarries.

Wounded champions lurch out of sunset
To gurgle their last gleams into pot-holes.

Shattered bowed armies, huddling leaderless
Escape from a world
Where snipe work late.

Ted Hughes

This is a poem taken from a series of poems based on a set Yorkshire photos given to TH by Fay Goodwin (a photographer and contemporary) … ‘Remnants of Elmet’ … The Calder valley west of Halifax … was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall … an inhabitable wilderness which became the cradle for the industrial revolution … before the mills and chapels died and the population changed.

This is an example of ‘ekphrastic poetry’ where a poem is in response to another artistic form – in this case a photograph. It would be interesting to compare the imagery invoked by the words and Fay Goodwin’s photo.

What a wonderful first line … ‘Are a stage for the performance of heaven’ … the moors being a lonely land much untouched by man having the sky to itself and all the sky has to offer … very much in evidence on wild fury days … and ‘Any audience is incidental’ … a great place to encounter nature and to get away from the madding crowd.

The stones are displayed as a disordered set of chess pieces – again it would be interesting to see the photograph. They are all kings and queens so one might assume they are all large and of equal size. The stones obviously have supporting stones in the way they are presented. Stilted majestystilt = a long post or column that is used with others to support a building above ground level. And it appears they are seated on unstable ground – ‘tremble the bog-cotton’.

‘Fools in sunny motley’ implies that some visitors to the moor are ill-prepared for the nature of the moor. And the weather is likened to a witch brew the sky a vat. And as the weather intensifies with clouds collapsing it appears some rain touches harebells that grow near the discarded heaps from old quarries.

The last two stanzas give the impression of a disappearing moor as daylight swallows the stones … as they merge together without a leader. A time when snipe are busy … ‘snipe work late’ … I guess TH would know about this as he was very familiar with this part of the world. A nice closing line giving a sense of foreboding.