I met Ted Hughes around the same time I met the elderly publisher — early seventies. He had just published his deathward poem cycle called Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. In these astonishing poems, a crow with a bloody beak sits in a tree looking down on a world in love with death. The poems were gory and fierce, full of nature red in tooth and claw — not surprising for a poet whose two lovers had committed suicide, the second taking their child along.
The reasons were different for each — if suicide can ever have a reason. Assia Wevill, whom Ted Hughes apparently fell for while he was still with Sylvia Plath, was the child of Holocaust survivors — a group at great risk for suicide. Sylvia Plath had suffered depressions and suicide attempts during her adolescence, as she recounted in her novel, The Bell Jar. Both women were in love with Ted Hughes — who cannot have been an easy man to love but was compelling. When I met him, I understood why both these brilliant women fell.
He was fiercely sexy, with a vampirish, warlock appeal. He hulked. He was tall and his shoulders were broad. His hair fell against his broad forehead. He had a square jaw and an intense gaze and he reeked of virility. Moreover, he knew how irresistible he was in the Heathcliff fashion, and he did the wildman-from-the-moors thing on me full force when we met. He was a born seducer and only my terror of Sylvia's ghost kept me from being seduced.
I remember sitting across a bar table with Ted and his friend Luke while Ted put the poetic moves on me. Knowing I'd want an autographed book, he snatched my copy of Crow and drew, on the title page, a lecherous snake climbing an Edenic tree. "To Erica, a beautiful Surprise," he scribbled flirtatiously, as he must have done with every woman he met. You could inhale the man's pheromones across the table — this stink of masculinity and musk that must have worked on countless girls. His eyes held you in his gaze as if you were the only person on the planet. The only other man I've met who had such intensity was Ingmar Bergman, another born seducer — in the gloomy northern style. Are these men from the cold and gloomy north so sexy because they taunt you with the promise of sex that can melt icebergs? Or is it the intensity of genius that attracts? Genius is a strong aphrodisiac.
I have treasured Ted's inscription for years and wished we had f——-. But Hughes's flirtations were legendary. Since his death, from cancer in 1998, dozens of women have come forward to claim that he was their secret lover. Perhaps I was lucky the flirtation was never consummated. At least that way I could keep him as my secret demon.
"In lapidary inscriptions, a man is not upon oath," Samuel Johnson wrote. Nor in book inscriptions, I would add, especially those penned after the adrenaline rush of reading one's poems to adoring female fans. My temperature rose and with it my panic. I taxied home to my husband on the West Side, my head full of the hottest fantasies. Of course we f——- our brains out with me imagining Ted.
I had become friends with an old friend of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes who'd brought me to Ted's reading. His name was Luke and he'd been at school with them. He told me that on their first meeting at a Cambridge party, Sylvia and Ted disappeared into a room to "make out" (as we said in the fifties) and emerged several minutes later with Ted bleeding copiously from a bite Sylvia had given him on the cheek.
Sylvia Plath recounts the same tale in her journal (The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1982).
Then the worst thing happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I came in the room, but nobody told me, came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes. I started yelling again about his poems and quoting...and bang the door was shut and he was sloshing brandy into a glass and I was sloshing it at the place where my mouth was when I last knew about it.
We shouted as if in a high wind, about the review, and he saying Dan knew I was beautiful...and then it came to the fact that I was all there, wasn't I, and I stamped and screamed yes...and he was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off, my lovely red hairband scarf which has weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favorite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck, I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face...I can see how women lie down for artists. The one man in the room who was big as his poems, huge, with hulk and dynamic chunks of words; his poems are strong and blasting like a high wind in steel girders. And I screamed in myself: oh to give myself crashing, fighting to you.
This is practically Molly Bloom's soliloquy — but with an overtone of masochism and violence — and if there is a better description of seducing the demon, I haven't found it — not even in Singer.
So Sylvia Plath seduced her demon, had two children with him, and then he strayed and then she died, but the simple causal relationship this implies is too pat, too neat. Life is never neat.