Sale of Ted Hughes’s poems reveals his raw grief

Never-before-seen handwritten poems by the late poet reveal his suffering after his second partner's suicide, just six years after his first wife Sylvia Plath killed herself.

ted-hughes-handwritten letters

Never-before-seen handwritten poems by the late poet reveal his mental duress after his second partner’s suicide, just six years after his first wife Sylvia Plath killed herself.


Above: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in 1960

Coming up for auction on Tuesday, 19 July is a powerful piece of literary history. Sotheby’s London will be selling a treasure trove of unique and rare materials related to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. The cache includes poetry written by Hughes following the suicide of his lover Assia Wevill and the death of their daughter.

In 1962, Hughes began an affair with Wevill in London. At the time, he was living in a home in rural Devonshire that he shared with his wife, poet Sylvia Plath. The infidelity contributed to the collapse of their marriage. Plath committed suicide in February 1963, leaving behind her two infant children. At the time, she was separated from Hughes and renting a flat in London.

ted-hughes-handwritten letters

Ted Hughes in 1970, shortly after his second partner Assia Wevill killed herself

In 1965 Wevill and Hughes had a child they named Shura. That relationship was as turbulent as Hughes’s first marriage. On 23 March 1969, Wevill gassed herself and Shura to death in their home, using cooker gas. Hughes was distraught. Although Hughes published a series of poems about Plath (Birthday Letters (1998)), references to Wevill and Shura are much less prominent in his writing. The verses offered at auction are the most direct writing by Hughes relating to that tragedy.

The poems about Wevill and Shura are written in manuscript over four pages of a notebook. The texts are incomplete and fragmentary, reworked multiple times. Never published before, the poetry (probably composed in 1969) describes Hughes grief. “There is relief in grief / But consolation only / In the moon’s view of earth…” That is a reference to the first moon landings, which took place in 1969. The auction catalogue describes the texts, which are blurred out on the Sotheby’s website.

“He writes, for example, of Shura dressed up and dancing to Bach, unknowing that she was dancing for death. Another poem has at its centre a fern that he had bought for Assia during their initial affair, which has flourished through the tumult of the past years. He writes that the plant still thrives, even though its owner is now ashes.”

It seems Hughes was too upset to finish the poems and they were never developed beyond their current incomplete state. The manuscript notebook is offered at between £10,000 and £15,000. The notebook and other items come from the collection of Frieda Hughes, daughter of Plath and Hughes. Frieda Hughes is a poet and artist, now based in Australia.

Ted Hughes handwritten poetry Sotheby's

The exercise book containing Hughes’s writings

After the deaths of Wevill and Shura, Hughes married Carol Orchard in 1970. They remained married until his death in 1998. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1984 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1998. Hughes rarely spoke in interviews about Plath and Wevill. The publication of Birthday Letters (shortly before his death) came as a revelation and the poems were widely praised as powerfully moving. Hughes is still a controversial figure for feminists, who criticise him for contributing to Plath’s suicide.

Other items in the same auction are a copy of a 1956 Cambridge poetry magazine (£600-800), which printed a poem by Hughes that caught Plath’s attention while she was studying there. That connection led to them meeting and starting their affair the same year. A lock of Plath’s hair as a child is for sale (£2-3,000), as is her childhood stamp collection (£2-3,000). The most expensive item in the collection is a signed copy of Plath’s first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960) (£20-30,000). It was the only collection of her poems published in her lifetime. A signed copy is being offered by a US dealer for $45,000. Other Hughes material includes proof pages of books, artwork, memorabilia and documentation and provide a glimpse of the poet at work and collaborating with colleagues on projects.


Online bidding opens this week and runs until 19 July.


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