The Night That Sylvia Plath Met Ted Hughes
Sixty Years Ago, at the Launch Party for a Literary Journal (Of Course)
It’s sixty years this month since Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met at a student party in Cambridge. Sixty years is not a centenary, not one of those anniversaries which gets marked the way literary anniversaries do now: sometimes it can feel as though the whole year’s calendar of readings and events is built around one birthday or deathday after another, a rictus-grip of remembrances, like a family dinner table to which we find ourselves summoned again and again, because this occasion, and now this occasion, cannot be allowed to pass unremarked.
The night of the St. Botolph’s Review launch party, on February 25th, 1956, was not that kind of occasion; not a birthday, not a deathday, though someone of a maudlin bent (cough) might suggest that it would ultimately turn out to be a bit of both. “The bill will come one day,” Hughes wrote, afterwards, to his friend Terence McCaughey, making no mention of having encountered Plath, but talking about the “large fine room” it was held in, the meeting-room of the Women’s Union, a venue which had assured the magazine editors a large female attendance: “all drank, more women than men, we left the place smashed, windows out, polished floor like a dirt-track.” Meanwhile, to his parents: “I went to a Party in Cambridge the other weekend, which was very bright, and everything got smashed up.”
These letters were written from Hughes’s lodgings in London; he had graduated from Cambridge almost two years prior, but he was still ghosting the place, using the library, going to parties, visiting his girlfriend, who was studying English at Newnham College there. Around the same time Hughes was writing home, another Newnham student was writing to her mother from Whitstead, her boarding-house on Barton Road; the letter Aurelia Plath received from Cambridge in March 1956 was brimming with enthusiasm about the coming spring, about the college grounds “purple and gold with crocuses and white with snowdrops!” Sylvia Plath, then 23 years old, was a Fulbright scholar at Newnham, and she wrote to her mother several times a week, letters which endeavored to cast an intensely positive, high-achieving glow on her experiences, writing her life up like a progress report, making sure to thank her generous sponsors: “I do want to tell you now how much your letters mean to me,” she told her mother in that post-party missive. “Last Monday those phrases you copied from Max Ehrmann came like milk-and-honey to my weary spirit; I’ve read them again and again. Isn’t it amazing what the power of words can do?” Signing off, Plath mentioned, almost casually, that she had met, “by the way, a brilliant ex-Cambridge poet at the wild St. Botolph’s Review party last week; will probably never see him again… but wrote my best poem about him afterwards—the only man I’ve met yet here who’d be strong enough to be equal with—such is life.”
They were in their twenties, clapping eyes on one another for the first time, a little too drunk and a little too high on the fumes of their excitement about their own ambition, the way poets who’ve just made their debuts in college literary magazines have every right to be—which is another way of saying, they were kids, or not much more than kids, going to a party and, yes, smashing everything up. Isn’t there something a little sad, a little creepy, about marking the anniversary of the messy student party at which they met? Jonathan Bate, in his new biography of Hughes, gently chides him for getting the color of Plath’s headscarf wrong in “St Botolph’s”, the poem about that night which he would include in Birthday Letters 35 years later. “As the editor of Sylvia Plath’s journals,” Bate writes, “Hughes knew perfectly well that the scarf was red.” Again, this was a college party, two brandy-sozzled youngsters dancing around one another, their version of the dance that most of us have done as drunken party-goers more than once in our lives. That student society room in Falcon Yard was not the grassy knoll. The forensic analysis feels prurient; quite silly. And yet it’s irresistible—the way, perhaps, so much celebrity gossip is. And the artifacts are there for the stalking.
What’s striking about the letters of both Plath and Hughes (and about Plath’s journals) in the weeks leading up to February 25th is how downcast and worried they both were about the writing they wanted to do, and the writers they wanted to be; they both felt blocked and off-track. Writing to her mother, Plath swings quite wildly between announcing that she wanted only to immerse herself in her writing, not worrying about being published—“I am dependent on the process of writing, not on the acceptance”—and anxiety at not having her voice heard publicly, speaking of “spells of resentment at my own blindness and limitation,” at the fact that she had not yet had anything published, for instance, in the New Yorker. But even aside from the question of publication, writing is not coming easily for her at this time, and both the letters and journals from mid January through to mid February, the days before the St. Botolph’s party, make clear that a new depression is deepening its hold on her: she has felt, she says, “a growing horror at my inarticulateness: each day of not writing made me feel more scared.”
By February 24th, ill with a cold, going through the pain and discomfort of her period, and still hurting badly over her break with Richard Sassoon, the American who had occupied her thoughts for many months, she was in a depression. It did not help that she had had a story based on her winter vacation with Sassoon (“The Matisse Chapel”) rejected by the New Yorker, and that she was waiting for that magazine to reject the poems she had sent—“God, it is pretty poor when a life depends on such ridiculous sitting ducks as those poems, ready for editors’ grapeshot”—or, indeed, that the poems she had managed to publish, in a college magazine, Broadsheet, had been nastily reviewed by a Peterhouse student called Daniel Huws. Her letters and journals from this time ache with loneliness, and with a real fear of never meeting someone to love, “the dark-eyed stranger” of her longings; the subject of marriage, and her desire to meet her husband before returning to America, featured frequently in the letters home. So she was vulnerable, on alert, for someone like Hughes, who would seem, that night at the party, not just physically strong and dependable, but an intellectual equal, someone mature and successful. He had published in St. Botolph’s Review poems she so admired that she could quote them at him, and he had what seemed to her an impressive, writing-related job: “he works for J. Arthur Rank in London,” she wrote to her mother, in that letter which first mentioned him.
And yet, ironically, Hughes was going through his own crisis where his identity as a writer was concerned, and found his job demeaning and stifling: he was nothing but a “shit-shoveller” at J. Arthur Rank, as he told McCaughey, and to his sister Olwyn, he said he was living on, “but not with much zest.” He was not writing much. In his letters, he comes across as stuck, guilty, his eyes hurting from reading the novels he has to adapt. He was listless, thinking of moving to Hungary or Spain or Dublin, coming up with one half-hearted scheme after another for his escape from the monotony of a job which, he felt, prevented him from writing. He was drawn constantly back to Cambridge, not just by his girlfriend but by the comfort of that which had allowed him a full life of reading and writing as an undergrad: “I’m not very well equipped really to live outside a college, that’s the truth, however badly equipped I am to live outside.” He found himself capable of writing only “odd little bits,” and wished he could write whole poems instead. The prospect of St. Botolph’s Review, which he had created with Huws, Myers and some other students, was exciting—it would be his first time to publish poetry under his own name, having used the pseudonyms of Daniel Hearing and Peter Crew while publishing in two other student journals, Granta and Chequer respectively, but he also seemed to worry that it would not find readers. “Not a very good choice of title,” he wrote to McCaughey, “everyone took it for a Parish magazine… The best thing about it was the party.”
In many ways, then, they were primed for each other, these two young poets. For all the outward confidence with which they seem to have turned up at the party, each of them needed to find something or someone who would create for them the possibility of breaking through, of release. This may be why they both wrote of the night in language stormed by verbs of crashing, of banging, of smashing and shouting and noise; it may be why Hughes needed to account for it in astrological terms; it may be why Plath needed to believe that she had bit so hard into Hughes’s cheek as he kissed her neck that she left, not just a mark (Hughes describes it in the poem as a “ring-moat of tooth marks”), but an open wound, dripping blood. How hard would you need to bite someone’s face, and with what incisoral talent, and with what kind of leverage, to leave them with “blood running down his face,” as Plath, high as a kite, wrote in her journal the next morning? And yet that legend has endured. Which shows that Plath was not the only one who has needed to believe it.
Both poets’ own copies of the Review, acquired the morning of the party from student sellers in the streets of Cambridge, are in collections now. Hughes’s was bought by the British Library in 2010 (from the poet’s widow Carol), and Plath’s is held by the Small Library at the University of Virginia. The covers of both copies are stained with dark liquid splashes: a single brown blot on Plath’s copy, three marks like age spots on Hughes’s, which is also inscribed with a commentary in Hughes’s hand, making clear the provenance of the item, and its historical value: “Corrections by Luke Myers—of his poems. Wine stains from the wine bottles smashed when he fell of his bike as I hailed him—morning of 25 Feb 56. He was out selling copies, (of which this is one) from his pannier basket, which they shared with the bottles.”
Wine, then, rather than cheek-blood. But still, the annotations show that Hughes, then—probably a Hughes of a much later stage, maybe the Hughes, who was close to completing the Birthday Letters poems, and going through his old notebooks and his library in an archival state of mind—was more than aware of the mythic qualities of that night, or of the fact that, as Maria Popova has put it, it had become “the stuff of literary legend.” But his poem, “St Botolph’s”, makes that clear anyway, laying down the astrological charts for that evening (Hughes took horoscopes very seriously) the way another poem might lay down the contours of a landscape:
I had predicted
Disastrous expense: a planetary
Certainty, according to Prospero’s book.
Jupiter and the full moon conjunct
Opposed Venus. Disastrous expense
According to that book. Especially for me.
The conjunction combust my natal Sun.
Venus pinned exact on my mid-heaven.
It goes on; it is a full chart. “That conjunction, conjunct my Sun, conjunct / With your natal ruling Mars.” That day’s “Sun in the Fish/ Conjunct your Ascendant exactly / Opposite my Neptune and fixed / In my tenth House of good and evil fame.” He imagines Chaucer worrying over their planets; Chaucer, in their shoes, he suggests, “would have stayed at home with his Dante.” But Plath and Hughes were not staying home with their Dante—or, in Plath’s case, the Racine essay she needed to finish for her Tragedy class (Hughes was, by this time, working for a production company in London, turning novels into suggested treatments for film and TV), and Chaucer, seeing the pair of them headed for Falcon Yard, Hughes surmises, would have been “shaking his sorrowful head,” assuring them that:
That day the solar system married us
Whether we knew it or not.
Maybe, though, we all need to believe that the nights which shape our lives—as this night so dramatically shaped the lives and the work of Plath and Hughes—have about them the drumbeat of inevitability. And there is the strangeness, the almost-dizziness, of looking back over all the things, all the small matters, which could have altered the course of life as it unfolded out of that moment in time, and the way this perspective gives to one’s own life the hugeness and the intricacy of story; of something in which all the little cogs and wheels of narrative needed to move precisely as they did in order for that moment, and its consequences, to be born.
My fascination with the journals and letters of writers may come down to nothing more poetic than sheer nosiness, and that is certainly a factor, but there is, too, the extraordinary, almost eerie, thrill of coming upon the minutiae of the day in a writer’s life which gave rise to the particular poem or novel or sentence which, for you as their reader, has always seemed simply to co-exist with the fact, with the solid history of that writer’s existence. To find Virginia Woolf telling herself, in April 1921, that she “ought to be writing Jacob’s Room, and I can’t,” or, in October 1922, that she wants “to think out Mrs. Dalloway… to foresee this book better than the others and get the utmost out of it,” or, two years later, to record the fact that she had intended, two days previously, to record the “astounding fact” that she had written “the last words of the last page” of that novel, and that she felt “glad to be quit of it, for it has been a strain.” Or to see Plath, in her letters from the autumn before her death, the autumn of 1962 when she and Hughes had separated, tracking the birth of the “dawn poems in blood” that would become Ariel, including “A Birthday Present”, “The Arrival of the Bee Box”, “The Applicant” and “Daddy.” (The journal from that time was destroyed by Hughes after Plath’s death; it was, he said in his foreword to her published—abridged—journals in 1982, something he did not want her children to have to read: “In those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival.”)
Or in knowing that the epigraph of Plath’s poem “Pursuit”, which she wrote two days after the St. Botolph’s party—that poem which she described to her mother as “my best,” and as being, with its imagery of a panther, about Hughes; in knowing that the epigraph of that poem was taken from the Racine tragedy on which Plath was writing her essay. Poetry comes from the stuff of daily life; not just from the “crashing, fighting” hugeness of an encounter against which no smaller a figure than Chaucer himself might have warned, but from the book open on the desk, from the essay draft stalled in the Smith Corona typewriter, from those cogs and wheels of lived reality, as they trundle out something which looks like destiny, but which is maybe just chance. “It is only a story,” Hughes would write in “Visit”, the fourth of the Birthday Letters poems. “Your story. My story.” And it was only a night. But what followed after was the cauldron of morning.