Dialogue Between Ghost and Priest 

The restored version of Sylvia Plath's posthumous Ariel reveals her debt to the oft-maligned Ted Hughes

The restored version of Sylvia Plath's posthumous Ariel reveals her debt to the oft-maligned Ted Hughes

The story of Sylvia Plath's work—and its posthumous fate under the executorship of Ted Hughes, her estranged husband at the time of her 1963 suicide, and his sister, Olwyn—is worth retelling in light of the publication of The Restored Ariel. This edition of one of the 20th century's most influential books includes, in publisher's print and in a facsimile version, the poems Plath left in a black spring binder at the time of her death. Also included are the original table of contents and a title page with "A Birthday Present," "Daddy," and "The Rabbit Catcher" crossed out before "Ariel" was pencilled in. This book differs from the Ariel we have known for the last 40 years in its omission of several poems Hughes deemed "more personally aggressive" and its inclusion of several others—"Words," "Balloons," "Contusion," and, most famously, "Edge"—that Plath wrote in the very last weeks of her life, which she clearly intended, at least at the time, for a new book.

It's possible that no one would have known of these changes had Hughes himself not included a brief note in Plath's posthumous, Pulitzer-winning 1981 Collected Poems, which he edited. Nonetheless, his rearrangement of Ariel, as well as the executorship's frequent demands that critics and scholars make substantial changes in their manuscripts or be denied permission to quote from Plath's works—especially if they showed Hughes in a bad light—darkened a reputation that was already heavily shadowed. For not only had Plath's suicide cast a darkness over the rest of Hughes's life, personal and professional, but that darkness had been quickly and abruptly deepened six years later by the suicide of his mistress, Assia Wevill, who sedated their child before gassing both of them by the kitchen stove, almost as if she were channelling both Plath and Medea.

Just how much have those shadows distorted our view of Ted Hughes? It's easy to forget that Plath's work would have had no afterlife whatsoever were it not for his exhaustive and lengthy efforts to find a publisher who would accept Ariel, which vilifies him, privately or explicitly, on every other page. On the other hand, he has admitted destroying two of Plath's last three journals, which dealt with the affair that brought down his marriage and her subsequent move from Devon (where the initial betrayal had taken place) to London, where she might start over. This new beginning was spectacularly ill-timed. Plath not only had to manage two very small children, but also recurrent bouts of flu, extreme social isolation, constant worries about money, and the coldest winter in England in over two centuries—one which froze pipes, brought trains and cars to a stop all over the country, and caused power outages throughout what came to be known as the "Snow Blitz."

Hughes's reason for destroying two of these journals, written during Plath's last months in Devon and her time in London, is not at all incomprehensible: "I did not want her children to have to read [them]." Another journal, he said repeatedly before his death, disappeared, quite possibly as a result of Wevill's theft; she had stolen other of Plath's papers and sent them to her sister for safekeeping, attempting to secure the future of the child she and Hughes had together. Also, through quotations from letters, Diane Middlebrook's recent biography Her Husband gives a much clearer idea than has heretofore been possible of how many of Plath's papers simply disappeared. Even friends, it seemed, couldn't help themselves from pinching a souvenir or two on visits to the newly reformed Hughes family at Court Green, the Devon house Plath and Hughes had bought less than a year before her death.

These are some of the notions with which one sits down to read The Restored Ariel. Plath had wanted the book to tell the story of love betrayed and the near-destruction of the self, a destruction evaded and redeemed by contact with the most unsentimental forces of hearth and home: kitchen accidents, the pathetic innocence of her two children, an old and not particularly fiery equine creature named Ariel, moons dragged by the limbs of wych elms. In October, 1962, when the poems were coming every day, her imagination was so fired she could begin with a cut finger and move out toward the Ku Klux Klan and Soviet occupation of eastern Europe. The original Ariel began with a poem about her daughter, and its first word was "Love"; the book's last poem, one of the famous bee sequence, ends on the word "spring," a sign of affirmation and endurance.

Hughes's arrangement creates a story of unswerving doom in accordance with his belief in astrology and arcana: "fixed stars govern a life." To believe Plath's suicide was inevitable is obviously self-serving, and it is on this same arc that Hughes constructed his own last volume, The Birthday Letters. But in the case of Ariel, the restored version shows that he created a much better book than the one with which he had been left. There's more complexity of feeling, more conflict, more tenderness mixed with rage.

In the foreword, penned by Frieda Hughes—who writes as though she continues to remain Daddy's girl while trying to be almost histrionically fair to her mother—we are also reminded why Plath's poems were not initially an easy sell. Her late, more "extreme" work was rejected left and right by uncomprehending magazine editors, who happily rushed poems into print as soon as she died. While Hughes initially wanted to print a collected version, beginning with "The Colossus" and continuing with everything else Plath had written during their life together and apart, no one wanted to publish such a weighty tome by a largely unknown poet with one book to her credit. Hughes thinned and arranged and rearranged until his own publisher, Faber and Faber, accepted the manuscript.

One may agree or disagree with Hughes's choices. What emerges most clearly from reading the restored Ariel, and learning its backstory as well as the publication history of Plath's other work, is one of those unsolvable conundra which will never be answered. Ted Hughes died as very probably the richest poet laureate in the history of England, and he showed very canny sense in managing his late wife's business affairs (though he seems mostly to have put all monies aside for their children). But the price he must have paid for his years-long immersion in the work—poetry, letters, fiction, magazine articles and journals—of the wife he allegedly killed by his faithlessness and callow cruelty is inestimable.

It occurred to more than one scholar that a DIY edition of the original Ariel was possible, and they went to work with scissors and pots of glue to create some books that genuinely elucidate, not obfuscate with post-whatever jargon, some of the themes and problems described above. Lynda Bundzten's The Other Ariel and Susan Van Dyne's Revising Life make plentiful use of poems-in-process; Plath's manuscript editions, now made available at Smith College, provide them with invaluable subtleties of mind as she scratched this phrase and added another. Tracy Brain's The Other Sylvia Plath takes an obvious but neglected aspect of Plath's oeuvre—its politics—and serves it well in her prose. Last, and perhaps most sheerly delightful, is Kate Moses' novel Wintering, whose chapters correspond to the poems in the original Ariel. It is of course largely speculative, but it somehow seems truer to Plath in the last six months of her life than any of the other books described above.


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