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Birthday Letters

The English poet Ted Hughes wrote many books in a long but troubled life. His final poetry collection, Birthday Letters (1998), is widely considered to be his best. Here we will look at some of the famous poems and quotes included, and we will take a brief look at the life of Ted Hughes.

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Birthday Letters

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The English poet Ted Hughes wrote many books in a long but troubled life. His final poetry collection, Birthday Letters (1998), is widely considered to be his best. Here we will look at some of the famous poems and quotes included, and we will take a brief look at the life of Ted Hughes.

Birthday Letters (1998): summary

In 1998 English poet Ted Hughes published his final poetry collection, Birthday Letters. The book marked a departure of sorts for Hughes; it is a highly autobiographical response to the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath. The collection was published 35 years after Plath's death, a subject that Hughes had not previously commented on. The marriage between Hughes and Plath was considered controversial in the years following Sylvia Plath's suicide.

Birthday Letters is an extremely personal collection of poems. The poetry included was written over a period of 25 years, and most of the 88 poems included have Plath as their subject. Many of the poems are directed at Plath herself, such as 'The Blue Flannel Suit' (1998) and 'The Tender Place' (1998). It is perhaps because of the collection's autobiographical content and the interest in Hughes and Plath's relationship that the book became a bestseller on publication.

The collection was also well received by critics. The book won numerous prestigious awards, including the T.S Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whitbread British Book of the Year in 1998. It was little known at the time that Ted Hughes was receiving treatment for colon cancer. It is considered that Hughes' illness was the inspiration for publishing such personal poems.

Birthday Letters: Ted Hughes

Born on 17th August 1930 in Yorkshire, England, Ted Hughes was a poet and children's author. Hughes was a prolific writer and a largely unsentimental poet, often writing about the brutality of nature. Ted Hughes studied English at Cambridge University but switched to Anthropology in his third year, finding it too difficult to both study and write poetry. Hughes' interest in anthropology would influence his early poetry.

Birthday Letters, a rural path in Yorkshire with rock walls on either side, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ted Hughes was born in rural Yorkshire.

In 1956 Hughes met American writer Sylvia Plath. Plath had arrived in England to study at Cambridge on a scholarship programme. The pair soon married and moved to America a year later. It was also the year that Hughes' first poetry collection, The Hawk in the Rain (1957) was published. Hughes continued to publish poems and collections, but his marriage proved less successful. Hughes and Plath separated in 1962, and in 1963 Plath committed suicide. In the following three years, Hughes ceased to write poetry.

From 1967 onwards, Hughes began publishing poetry again and wrote prolifically, publishing collections including Wodwo (1967) and Crow (1970). In 1968 Hughes published the popular children's book The Iron Man (1968). Hughes had also caused controversy for his editing of Plath's journals and poetry, and critics considered his actions to be censoring his former wife's work.

Ted Hughes was appointed poet laureate of Great Britain in 1984. It is a position granted by the monarch to represent the nation through poetry. Hughes held the title of poet laureate up until his death. Despite suffering from colon cancer, this disease wasn't the cause of his death. He had a fatal heart attack in 1998.

Birthday Letters: poems

Here we will look at some of the poems included in the collection, exploring their theme, context and structure.

'A Picture of Otto' (1998)

Hughes' poem 'A picture of Otto' can be seen as a response to Sylvia Plath's poem 'Daddy'(1965). Plath's father was named Otto, and in her poem, she compares Hughes with her father. In Hughes' poem, the speaker meets Otto in the afterlife and feels an affinity with him due to Plath's feelings towards the two. The speaker feels the two are similar and expresses sympathy for Otto due to his depiction in Plath's poem. 'A Picture of Otto' consists of six quatrains with a single lined stanza at the end. The poem is written in free verse, using no strict rhyme scheme or meter.

Free verse is poetry that does not use formal techniques such as a rhyme scheme or meter. Poems written in free verse often resemble speech.

A quatrain is a stanza that is made up of four lines.

'The Blue Flannel Suit' (1998)

The poem here is a highly personal look at how Ted Hughes' relationship with Plath and her death affected him. The speaker's reaction to the death of his with is striking for its lack of emotion. The suit of the title refers to his wife's clothes, and the speaker compares them to a 'straightjacket'. This comparison can be seen as a reference to Plath's difficulties with mental health and also her struggle to fit in socially. Both the speaker and his wife are seemingly helpless to her fate. The poem is made up of four stanzas of varying length and written in free verse.

'Fulbright Scholars' (1998)

Perhaps fittingly, 'Fulbright Scholars' is the first poem in the collection. The speaker discusses first seeing Sylvia Plath in a photograph with fellow scholars at Cambridge University. The speaker recalls their first impression of the young American and their feelings at the time. The poem is an example of a dramatic monologue directed towards Plath herself. The poem is told in free verse in a single, long stanza.

A dramatic monologue is a poetic form written from the perspective of one character addressing another. In a dramatic monologue you will only hear the voice of one character.

Birthday Letters, buildings in Cambridge University foregrounded by a park with trees and a dog, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Cambridge University, where Ted Hughes studied and met Sylvia Plath. Pexels.

Birthday Letters: analysis

Birthday Letters is quite an unusual poetry collection from Ted Hughes. It is a deeply personal body of work, which Hughes had not done previously. All but two of the poems are on the subject of Plath and the aftermath of her death. In the poems, Hughes reflects on his life with Plath and the loneliness he felt following her suicide.

Hughes addresses the guilt he felt for the role he had in Sylvia Plath's downfall. Hughes was unfaithful during their marriage and effectively abandoned his wife and two children. The poems are brutal in their honesty regarding their relationship, and Hughes does not hold back in his self-condemnation.

It is not surprising that death is a prominent and important theme throughout the collection. Whether reflecting on Plath's suicide or her reaction to her father's death passing, death is ever present in the poems featured in Birthday Letters. Another important theme is the guilt felt by the poet and their disastrous marriage.

Because of the collection's autobiographical nature, the majority of the poems are written in the first person. It is largely accepted that the speaker is Ted Hughes himself. All the poems are written in free verse, avoiding the use of rhyme and meter.

Birthday Letters: quotes

In this section, we will take a look at some quotes from the poems included in the collection.

It was the first peach I had ever tasted.

I could hardly believe how delicious.

At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh

By my ignorance of the simplest things. - 'Fulbright Scholars'

In this quote, the speaker uses a metaphor to refer to Sylvia Plath as the peach. It can be seen as a reference to the speaker not appreciating his wife while with her. The peach can be seen to represent Plath's fragility; the peach is known to be easily damaged.

Your ghost inseparable from my shadow

As long as your daughter's words can stir a candle. - 'A Picture of Otto'

Here the speaker is talking directly to Otto, Plath's father. The quote refers to how Sylvia Plath described Hughes and her father Otto as being alike. The speaker acknowledges the fact that, while Plath's poetry is relevant, the comparison rings true.

Of your blue flannel suit, its straightjacket, ugly - 'The Blue Flannel Suit'

In this quote, the speaker talks about how the suit of the title is like a straight jacket. This can be used as a metaphor for Plath's difficulties to fit in with society and as a reference to her struggle with mental illness.

Birthday Letters - Key takeaways

  • In 1998 English poet Ted Hughes published his final poetry collection, Birthday Letters.
  • 'Fulbright Scholars'(1998) is the first poem in the collection Birthday Letters (1998).
  • Ted Hughes suffered a fatal heart attack in 1998.
  • The collection is inspired by Ted Hughes' wish to voice his thoughts about his former wife Sylvia Plath.
  • One famous poem from Birthday Letters(1998) is 'A Picture of Otto'. It is a reaction to his former wife Sylvia Plath's poem 'Daddy'(1965).

Frequently Asked Questions about Birthday Letters

English poet Ted Hughes published his poetry collection Birthday Letters in 1998, a few months before his death. The collection was written over a period of 25 years.

The first poem in the collection is 'Fulbright Scholars'(1998).

Despite suffering from colon cancer, this disease wasn't the cause of Ted Hughes' death. He had a fatal heart attack in 1998.

'A Picture of Otto' is one of the more famous poems in the collection, it is a response to Sylvia Plath's poem 'Daddy'(1965).

The collection is inspired by Ted Hughes' desire to speak about former wife Sylvia Plath before his death.

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