The rhyme and rhythm of a tense marriage
Despite their unhappiness, Plath and Hughes made each other better writers
So many books have been published about the American poet Sylvia Plath that the shelves are buckling. Many of the books are partisan. Plath's life story tends to provoke strong opinion. She committed suicide at the peak of her youthful powers at age 30 in 1963, considering herself abused and abandoned.
Although the complex causes of Plath's end and the achievement of her writing have been explored before, until recently relatively little has been told in detail of her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, other than his role as a presumed adulterous villain in the Plath saga. If two poets work together on intimate terms for six years of remarkable professional productivity, then shouldn't there be more to say?
In "Her Husband," Diane Middlebrook, biographer of the poet Anne Sexton, retells the Plath-Hughes legend with a different emphasis, relying on the Hughes archive at Emory University, open to the public since 2000. Instead of billing the story as a violent and fatal collision of two people - one ostensibly a predator - she calls it a marriage.
Middlebrook's goal is reasonable and refreshing: to reunite the poets who ultimately made each other miserable, but who wouldn't have become the writers they did without each other. As she puts it, "He and Plath shared a mind." Middlebrook shows us how they shared it.
Hughes receives the burden of attention, partly because he survived Plath by several decades. By serving as the controversial caretaker of Plath's posthumous publications, Hughes also in a sense continued their partnership. Although Middlebrook provides fewer directly reported details about Hughes than Elaine Feinstein did in her 2001 biography of him ("Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet," W.W. Norton), she interprets almost constantly not only aspects of his personal history but, more important, the way his writing and his life intertwined with Plath's. Her analysis along these lines is always intelligent and interesting.
Some of the best insights emerge from Middlebrook's canny sense of irony. For example, though Hughes, when he left the marriage, may have been rebelling from the domesticity Plath imposed on him, his rebellion indirectly freed his wife from the very same apparent domestic stranglehold. Only as a single mother did she write the scathing and wondrous poems of "Ariel," which purged and refined her art.
Usefully, Middlebrook takes an independent stance while assessing Plath's poetry, as when she points out that Plath's most famous single poem, the sardonic and outrageous "Daddy," can and should induce laughter, partly. Reading it aloud, Plath and a friend were reduced to mirthful "hooting." Perhaps too often "Daddy" has been received by readers as a morbid shriek of rage.
Helpfully, Middlebrook tells us Plath said even the most seemingly personal poems of "Ariel" "should be understood as emerging from the voice of an invented character, not as poems about herself." At times, readers have assumed Plath's work to be explicitly autobiographical, thus limiting our appreciation of the writing as writing.
But questions remain, including some not raised by previous books. Middlebrook describes the formative role in Hughes's life and writing of his brother Gerald, yet in human terms the brother remains a nearly inexplicable figure. And she avoids delving into the part played by Hughes's sister Olwyn.
Also, Middlebrook quotes only sparingly from the writing of Plath and Hughes. The influence of Hughes and his sister in managing Plath's posthumous publications and copyright permissions is likely a reason for the very limited quotation. Yet because Middlebrook's book depends on textual evidence to wage her argument about the details of Plath and Hughes's literary camaraderie, she should present such evidence in full, quoting generously. Without more to go on, we can't come completely to terms with the crux of the book: Middlebrook's reflections on the nature of the marriage and its poetic collaboration.
• Molly McQuade is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.