Roger Elkin: "Hidden Influences in the Poetry of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath"

© Roger Elkin, 2009

Writing in 1970 about Sylvia Plath's poems from her first collection, The Colossus (1960), Anne Sexton drawing on her own experience as a poet, has this to say about the issue of influence:

Let's get down to facts. I'm sure Sylvia's influences are hidden, as with most of us … Believe me, no one ever tells one's influences – and certainly not on the radio or the TV or in interviews, if he can help it … I'd never tell anyone and she was smarter than I am about such hidden things. Poets will not only hide influences. They will bury them![1]

Ted Hughes in interview with Ekbert Faas in 1971, has this to say about influences on his own poems:

There are superficial influences that show and deep influences that maybe are not so visible. It's a mystery how a writer's imagination is influenced and altered.[2]

This article explores the issue of influence – visible, hidden, superficial, deep, buried, but ultimately shared – in Plath's seven-sectioned "Poem For A Birthday" (The Colossus, 1960); and Hughes's "Memory" (Recklings, 1966); and "Wodwo," (Wodwo, 1967).[3] The dates given are those of book-publication; however references from Plath's Journals; Plath's Letters Home; Letters of Ted Hughes and Ted Hughes, a bibliography 1946-1980 reveal that the poems were written earlier: "Poem For A Birthday" in late October to early November 1959; "Memory", published in the "Times Literary Supplement", on 14th July 1961; and "Wodwo" published in "New Statesman", 15 September 1961.[4] Given the time lag between composition and submission and eventual magazine publication, such proximity of dates suggests that the poems were practically contemporaneous. Furthermore, textual detail suggests that Plath and Hughes influenced each other considerably, but under the mutual influence of the poetry of Theodore Roethke, whose voice and poetic vision are clearly in evidence. In discussing influence there is no suggestion that the poets were involved in the "lifting" of sections, fragments and lines from Roethke, but rather that Plath and Hughes were so immersed in the world of Roethke and each other's writing that ideas and techniques have become absorbed and transformed into the expression of the individual poet's voices as conditioned by experience. What leads me to this conviction is Hughes's dating of Plath's poetry, and his explication/explanation of the sources for the poetry she wrote at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York from 9th September to 19th November 1959. Interestingly, apart from Margaret Dickie Uroff and Erica Wagner, critics tend to treat Hughes and Plath as separate poets, limiting coverage of their relationship primarily to biographical detail, rather than seeing some of the poems as having equal weight as products of a mutual poetic interchange.[5] Elsewhere in those studies in which the issue of their creative partnership is hinted at, opinion seems to be that Hughes provided the example for the poetic-apprentice, Plath, while her role was mainly as the editor, publicist and guide to American literature for the master-poet, Hughes. Keith Sagar's 1975 description of their relationship provided the template:

His was the stronger, surer, poetic voice, and the immediate effect was of ventriloquism. Her "Spinster", one of the first poems she wrote after their meeting, is a variation of his "Secretary", and echoes the vocabulary of "Fallgrief's Girlfriends …" And another poem of the period, "Strumpet Song", ends with a passage of pure Hughes, the wrenched syntax, the savage consonants, the pounding monosyllables … Later Sylvia seized on "View of a Pig", "The Green Wolf", "Out" and several other poems from Wodwo … Sylvia was able to act as a guide to American poetry for Hughes, and he could hardly have had a better one … Also she helped to get his poems published, sending out beautifully typed manuscripts in a very efficient American way.[6]

Sagar's patronising assessment takes no account of the complex interaction of their personalities, and the effect this may have had on their consequent poetic output in terms of style and thematic concerns. Hughes and Plath are almost unique in twentieth century poetry as two important, imaginative, experimental writers who for several years worked together in a prolifically-creative partnership forging new poetic styles and opening up fresh territory of subject matter and expression. That they worked together is made evident by the existence of poems that both composed on similar subject matter, for example Plath's "Sow" and Hughes's "View of A Pig"; that they influenced each other's poetry is seen, at its simplest level, in poems which Plath composed shortly after their meeting ["Pursuit", "Faun", "Ode for Ted "and" Song"], written in response to Hughes's "Bawdry Embraced",[7] and which in turn provided the stimulus for Plath's "Epitaph for Fire and Flower" which shares similar attitude, imagery and period language. Hughes's edition of Plath's Collected Poems (1981) "In as true a chronological order as is possible"[8] has facilitated the process of comparison of the two separate poets' achievements within a given time-span. Such information is important at arriving at an understanding of the issue of influence. The inclusion of a selection of fifty early poems written by Plath in the three or four years before her meeting with Hughes, and the addition of several poems dating from 1956 suggest that Plath was a competent versifier well before her meeting with Hughes. She could handle stanza structures with wit and ease; and in several poems – "Love is a Parallax", "On looking into the Eyes of a Demon Lover" (pp. 329-331 and 325) – her imagery and expression, almost Metaphysical in its contraction and syntax, anticipate the style of Hughes's The Hawk In The Rain (1957). In comparison, the majority of Hughes's early uncollected poetry of his graduate and immediate post-graduate period has a leaner style, without the oratorical bludgeoning, tortuous syntax and verbal dynamism of his first volume. Probably the most significant account of their creative partnership, and the influence which Plath had on Hughes, is contained in the only public statement that Hughes made in the years immediately following her death. In interview with John Horder in 1965, Hughes states,

There was no rivalry between us as poets or in any other way. It sounds trite but you completely influence one another if you live together. You begin to write out of one brain … After we'd returned to England [from America in December 1959] … we would each write poetry every day. It was all we were interested in, all we ever did. We were like two feet, each one using everything the other did. It was a working partnership, and was all-absorbing. We just lived it. There was an unspoken unanimity in every criticism or judgment we made. It all fitted in very well.[9]

Despite Hughes's reference to the lack of tension between them, which is so understated that it has become a distortion of fact, and allowing that the claims he makes for their undivided devotion to writing poetry may be exaggerated, this account does point to his recognition of their influence as poets on each other. In fact, Hughes admits this influence was so strong that they wrote as if they were one person. Significantly the expressions "out of one brain" and "like two feet" are reworked in poems Hughes was to publish at a much later date, for example "Lovesong" (Crow, 1970, pp. 88-89) and the Cave Birds marriage poems (1978).

Commentators on Plath and Hughes seem to be unaware of this statement, or if aware have elected not to use it. Uroff while claiming that there is internal poetic evidence of influence between the two poets is led because of her apparent ignorance of the Horder interview (she does not cite it in her bibliography) to qualify her thesis by stating that much of her interpretation is based on conjecture. Sagar, who lists the Horder interview, completely ignores this section of it, primarily because his study concentrates almost exclusively on Hughes's poetry. Moreover, he suggests, albeit by omission, that any influence Plath's poetry may have had on Hughes's writing stopped with her suicide in February 1963. As executor and subsequent editor of Plath's literary estate, Hughes had the opportunity of close working acquaintance with the poetry written during the period of their estrangement and separation. The fact that several poems from this period and published in Ariel (1965) – such as "Lady Lazarus", "Fever 103", "Nick and The Candlestick – "appear in different versions from those recorded by Plath for the BBC on October 30th, 1962 suggests that several versions of the same poems exist from which Hughes had to decide the final draft.[10] Such an editorial task demands close scrutiny of texts, and the exposure to the detailed workings of Plath's poetry may have influenced Hughes's poetry published since Lupercal (1960). The subject matter of these late Plath poems – the creation of a mythological figure as both symbol of and replacement for the exorcised father and betraying husband, and the exploration of a hostile "natural" world – is paralleled in Hughes's poetry by the creation of the mythological world of Crow, the foundations for which are seen in "Logos" from Recklings, and the contemporaneous "Reveille" and "Theology" from Wodwo; and an exploration and reassessment of the natural world which takes the occasional resolved, grim note of "Snowdrop" and "Fire-Eater" and in Wodwo develops it along nihilistic lines set against surrealistic landscapes ("Ghost Crabs"), populated by creatures who "comprehend little" ("The Howling of Wolves"), have "no future, only their aftermath" ("Song of A Rat") and question "what am I?" ("Wodwo"). It is apparent that following Plath's death, Hughes's poetry until Season Songs (1975) is haunted by some of the reservations about the solidarity and reliability of the natural world that feature in Plath's early nature and landscape poems in The Colossus, the contents for which were completed by the end of 1959, and which take on nightmarish unsettling proportions in her later poems.

The issue of influence is not restricted to theme and subject matter, but also embraces matters of style, including, occasionally, almost parallel modes of expression. Critics of Hughes suggest that it was his reading of middle-English four-beat alliterative poetry which awakened his interest in the barer style that predominates in Wodwo and several Recklings poems. However, Hughes's practice may owe something to Plath's use of the natural folk-line. In her early poetry, before the separation from Hughes in the summer of 1962, Plath experimented with various rhythms. This is particularly apparent in the one volume published before her death, The Colossus, which includes ten poems which read in this natural folk-line: "Manor Garden"; "Night Shift"; "The Eye-Mote"; "Faun"; "The Bull of Bendylaw"; "Suicide Off Egg-Rock"; "I want, I want"; "A Winter Ship"; "Blue Moles" and "Sculptor". In contrast, Hughes's published output until Wodwo is mainly built upon poems which have a heavily stressed metric pattern; and it is only in the post-Lupercal poetry that Hughes adopts Plath's more colloquially-based poetry, and seems to be striving to develop, in his own fashion, her experimentation in structure, format and layout. The tightly structured quatrain has been abandoned in favour of a free-verse patterning in which verse-paragraphing and lineation are used to plot out the poem's idea-structure, with lines made from a single word, then followed by one which spills over the width of the page on to the next line. The verbal violence, couched in tortuous syntax – "by the bang of blood in the brain, deaf the ear" ("The Jaguar"), and the period language of early poems ("Bawdry Embraced", "The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar") have been replaced by colloquial, but precise, phrasing and diction; while parallelism and anaphoric repetitions have displaced regular, metrical impulse. The poems begin to explore the extra-semantic meanings that spatially-isolated lines can add to the argument, and many of the lines, or even whole poems, are unstopped or not punctuated grammatically. "Wodwo" for example in its structure and the gradual collapse of punctuation, including the abandonment of the capital letter at the beginning of lines, mirrors Hughes's stylistic and thematic concerns; and its last line "again very queer but I'll go on looking" exists on one level as his response to the stylistic and thematic issues which he had partially inherited as a result of Plath's late poetry. Moreover, in matters of expression, Hughes's later poetry has several parallels with Plath's: for example in "Song For a Phallus" (Crow, p.75) the use of nursery-rhyme metre mirrors the almost-aggressive, metric pulse of Plath's "Daddy", (Collected Poems, pp. 222-4); and her reference to the black-booted fascist is reworked in "Lovesong" (Crow, p.88) in the image of whispers as "whips and jackboots". Similarly, the line "their screams stick in the wall" ("Lovesong") echoes Plath's "The child's cry melts in the wall" ("Ariel", Collected Poems, p. 239). Viewed in isolation such textual similarity may be nothing more than coincidence; however, a critical reading of poems dating from the autumn of 1959 confirms that both poets were partially influenced by the writing of Roethke, whose poetry Hughes encouraged Plath to read whilst at Yaddo.


[Click here to read on.]


[1] Anne Sexton, "The Barfly Ought To Sing", in The Art of Sylvia Plath, Edited by Charles Newman, (Faber 1970), p. 178

[2] Ted Hughes and Crow, "London Magazine", (January 1971), pp. 5-20

[3] Ted Hughes, Recklings (Turret Books, 1966). This limited edition of 150 copies was not published separately; and its contents remained uncollected until the publication of Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, (Faber, 2003). "Memory" appeared in Ted Hughes, New Selected Poems, 1957-1994, (Faber, 1995).

[4] Edited by Karen V. Kukil, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, (Faber 2000); Sylvia Plath, Letters Home, Correspondence 1950-1963, (Faber, 1975); Selected and Edited by Christopher Reid, Letters of Ted Hughes, (Faber, 2007); Keith Sagar & Stephen Tabor, Ted Hughes, a bibliography 1946-1980, (Mansell, 1983)]

[5] Margaret Dickie Uroff, Ted Sylvia Plath and Hughes, (University of Illinois Press, 1979); and Erica Wagner, Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the story of "Birthday Letters", (Faber, 2000)

[6] The Art of Ted Hughes, pp. 10-11

[7] Uncollected until Recklings, 1966, but initially published in June 1956. Plath wrote to her brother, Warren, "I want you so to get to know my dear new husband. By the way, his first poem (about us in an allegorical way!) has been accepted by "Poetry" in Chicago." (Letters Home, June 18th, 1956, p. 259) and to her mother, ""Bawdry Embraced" in "Poetry" was dedicated to me." (Letters Home, September 2, 1956, p. 270)

[8] Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, p. 15

[9] "Desk Poet," Interview with John Horder, "Guardian", (23 March, 1965), p. 9

[10] Sylvia Plath, Ariel, pp. 16-19; 58-9; and 40-1 respectively. The Plath reading appears on The Poet Speaks, Record Five, Argo PLP 1085.

About the Author
Roger Elkin

Roger Elkin contributed the essays "Hidden Influences in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes" and "Ted Hughes and 'A Separate Little Self'" to this site.

His contribution "Breaking Ground: The Uncollected Recklings Poems" was published in Lire Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems 1957-1994 and his "Neglected Auguries in Recklings" was published in The Challenge of Ted Hughes.

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