The Birthday Letters Myth
Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters (1998) has, for the most part, been judged in terms of its autobiographical content rather than for its poetic achievement. The poems are addressed to Hughes's first wife Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 shortly after they separated. The poems describe their relationship and deal with the aftermath of her suicide and Hughes's role in managing and promoting her writings, in many of which he was characterised as a villain. Hughes has been criticised for his subjective treatment of these events in Birthday Letters. Furthermore, the drama of the poems takes place in an apparently fatalistic universe which has led to accusations that Hughes uses fatalism in order to create a deterministic explanation for Plath's suicide and absolve himself. In The Birthday Letters Myth I will be arguing that Hughes's mythopoeia in Birthday Letters is part of his overtly subjective challenge to the discourses that have hitherto provided the "story" of his life. In Birthday Letters, there are two versions of Hughes: the younger Hughes who is character involved in the drama, and the older Hughes, looking back on his life, interpreting 'omens' and 'portents' and creating a meaningful narrative from the chaos. By his own method, Hughes highlights the subjectivity and retrospective determinism of those narratives (or 'myths') about his life that often uncritically adopt the dramatic dialectic of' victim' and 'villain' in Plath's poems. In Birthday Letters, Hughes adopts the symbols and drama from Plath's writings in order to create his own dramatic "myth" that resists contamination from the other discourses that have perpetuated the drama within her poems. The underlying myth of Birthday Letters is the shamanic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Hughes believed the role of the poet and that of the shaman were analogous and in Birthday Letters, as Orpheus, he goes on an imaginary journey to recover his private assumptions and conclusions about his relationship with Plath. In doing so, he achieves a redemptive, cathartic healing image for himself and the reader.