SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Ted Hughes was one of the most important poets in the English language and sometimes one of the most detested of men. He was Britain's Poet Laureate and wrote lines that live today.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He loved her, and she loved him. His kisses sucked out their whole path and future, or tried to. He had no other appetite. She bit him. She gnawed him. She sucked. She wanted him complete inside her, safe and sure, forever and ever.
SIMON: And yet his first wife, the writer Sylvia Plath, despaired of his infidelities and took her life by putting her head into a stove. Just six years later, the woman who was his mistress while he was married to Sylvia Plath took her life the same way, along with their daughter. How does a biographer weigh poetry against such tragedy? Jonathan Bate of Oxford University has written what's acclaimed as the definitive biography - "Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life." He joins us from the BBC in Oxford. Thanks so much for being with us.
JONATHAN BATE: It's a pleasure.
SIMON: What made his work extraordinary and enduring?
BATE: He explored so many different cultures and traditions. He was fascinated by myths and stories, by anthropology, by ancient wisdom, but also by so many different poets, like T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, but also by the best, new poetry coming out of Eastern Europe, coming out of America. And he just wrote and wrote and wrote.
SIMON: Even as you don't want Ted Hughes' whole life to be judged by the suicide of Sylvia Plath, you do fix her at the core of his life and his art. What do you think brought them together?
BATE: The simple answer is that they were both geniuses. They met as young poets just as their art was on the brink of taking off. And for six years, they lived together, worked together, day and night. He helped her to develop her voice. She helped him to develop his. And the tragedy then was that the intensity of the relationship, the mental illness of Sylvia and then Ted's dalliance with this other woman, Assia Wevill, led to their tragic separation.
But he never, ever forgot about Sylvia Plath and never forgave himself for not being there when she took her own life. Everybody knows that in the final year of his life, he published "Birthdays Letters," this collection of poems of memory about their marriage and her death. What I discovered in the archive is he'd been working on it for nearly 30 years. Only at the very end of his life did he let those poems go.
SIMON: You reveal in this book Ted Hughes became involved with a - wound up being a very successful advert writer named Assia Wevill. He left Sylvia Plath to be with her. But on the night Sylvia Plath died, as you reveal in this book, Ted Hughes was not just cheating on Sylvia Plath. He was cheating on the mistress with whom he'd been cheating (laughter) on Sylvia Plath. So is it enough to say, as Ted Hughes once wrote, what happens in the heart, simply happens?
BATE: It's difficult, isn't it? He was capable of fidelity. As I say, he was faithful to Sylvia for six years. The - Assia Wevill was an extraordinarily attractive woman. An awful lot of men fell in love with her. She'd been through three marriages by the time she met Ted. And Ted was, indeed, involved with a very interesting woman, a quite good poet herself, a woman called Susan Alliston. And a man coming out of a marriage sometimes does find himself, you know, straying yet again.
And one of the things I say in the book is that at some level, his fidelity to the idea of Sylvia as the ideal partner who because of his mistake, he lost and her life was lost. Because of that, he was never able to remain faithful to another woman, that pretty well for the rest of his life, he had this kind of double life. I mean, the idea that infidelity to others is a form of fidelity to the true love that you've lost, I mean, as I say, not everybody would go along with that.
SIMON: You realize there are philandering husbands all over America now who are thinking inside, yeah, yeah. See, honey, don't you understand? That's all I meant, to be faithful to you. I mean, is - forgive me, are you using your standing as a - you know, as an Oxford scholar to make apologies for the oldest kind of cad?
BATE: No, I'm not making apologies. And, indeed, one of the things I try very hard...
SIMON: I mean, we're talking about somebody - I mean, Assia Wevill took her life with that of the child that she bore with Ted Hughes. I mean, this is a man who left an awful lot of destruction in his wake.
BATE: There's no doubt about that. But it seems to me, the business of the literary biographer is to tell the story as truthfully and fully as possible and to leave it to the reader to make judgments. What I'm in the business of making judgments about is the quality and endurance of the literary work. And it does seem to me that that sense that the trauma of Sylvia Plath's death leading, on the one hand, to extraordinary works of powerful but dark imagination, such as his great poem "Crow," and on the other hand, to a wake of human destruction is a key fact at the heart of Hughes' life. And in the end, the quality of the work, the morality of the life are not actually the same thing.
SIMON: This biography is unauthorized, but you did for a while have the cooperation of Ted Hughes' widow, Carol, didn't you?
BATE: Yeah, the origin of this project was a proposal to write what I called literary life of Ted Hughes, to focus very much on the development of his literary voice, his poems, his place, his children's writing. But the sheer scale of the archive meant that I found myself asking my publisher for a one-year extension. They were happy with that.
But at that point, Carol Hughes, his widow, said that she was withdrawing support from the project. The reason for that was she said I've not shown sufficient draft material for her to have the assurance that I wasn't trespassing too much from the literary into the purely biographical. But in a way, I think, what she was worried about was she would've known that I've discovered in the archive that so much of his work does take the form of veiled autobiography, closet confession.
And so inevitably, that distinction between a purely literary life and a more no-holds-barred, more comprehensive biography, that that distinction was breaking down. And so I suspect a falling out with the estate was probably going to happen anyway.
SIMON: Jonathan Bate, his book, "Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life." Thanks so much for being with us.
BATE: It's been a pleasure to talk.
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