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The Leading Man

On June 16,1956, Ted Hughes married Sylvia Plath in London. He was a recent graduate of Cambridge University, working for the J. Arthur Rank Organization; she, a Smith College graduate at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship. Both were poets. The marriage lasted six years and produced two children. In late summer 1962 the couple separated, and on the morning of Monday, February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath, acutely depressed, committed suicide in her London flat.

In the 35 years since then, during which both their poetic reputations have prospered independently, the tragic aftermath of their marriage has kept them linked in people's minds. Both have their partisans. To some people—most of them probably women or American—Sylvia Plath was a martyr, and Ted Hughes is a villain. To others, who believe that Plath was chiefly the victim of her own mental instability, Hughes is a more sympathetic figure entitled to take some credit from his marriage and the long, often grueling, aftermath—even if everyone would agree that a man who leaves a wife and two small children, for whatever reason, is open to some criticism.

Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters consists of 88 poems written for the most part in a kind of free blank verse, all but one of them addressed to his dead wife. According to the jacket copy, he began writing them shortly after her suicide; their composition therefore extended over more than...

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