From London Review of Books:
Like his hero Robert Graves, Hughes tirelessly pursued the White Goddess, or the Goddess of Complete Being as he called her in his study of Shakespeare, both in his imagination and in the forms that she assumed in the women whom he met and slept with. Few, it seems, took much persuading: Bate’s book is full of accounts of women going weak at the knees in the presence of the ‘fiercely sexy’ Hughes, to borrow from a Mills and Boon-style account of him by Erica Jong, who only just managed to resist the ‘vampirish, warlock appeal’ of this ‘wildman-from-the-moors’: ‘He hulked,’ she recalls, and ‘reeked of virility … You could inhale the man’s pheromones across the table, this stink of masculinity and musk that must have worked on countless girls.’ One unnamed woman apparently confided to Bate that when she met Hughes at a party she found herself so violently attracted to him that she had to go to the toilet and vomit.
Still, if the life of any English poet of the postwar era lends itself effortlessly to the genre of the mass-market biography, it is obviously that of Hughes. His relationship with Plath has for decades exerted a powerful fascination across the cultural spectrum, generating both sophisticated psychoanalytical readings, such as those put forward by Jacqueline Rose in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), and the schlock movie Sylvia (2003), in which Hughes was played by Daniel Craig and Plath by Gwyneth Paltrow. From the early 1970s more or less until his death Hughes was a major hate figure for those he and his sister, Olwyn, derisively called ‘women’s libbers’, who vilified him as the murderer of a great and courageous feminist poet. In 1972 the American poet and activist Robin Morgan published Monster, a book that included a piece in which a gang of Plath aficionados are imagined castrating Hughes, stuffing his penis into his mouth and then blowing out his brains. In Britain a militant anti-Hughes faction took to chiselling his name off the headstone erected in Heptonstall churchyard above the grave of ‘Sylvia Plath Hughes’. The penultimate poem in Birthday Letters, ‘The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother’, presents Hughes’s response to such attacks: he figures his antagonists as ravening hyenas battening on Plath’s body, eager to ‘Bite the face off her gravestone,/Gulp down the grave ornaments,/Swallow the very soil.’ It was, however, only when he knew that his own death was imminent that he felt able to denounce his detractors head-on in this way, and to publish his own version of the events leading up to the early morning hours of 11 February 1963.
Although even-handed in its retelling of the Plath-Hughes courtship and marriage – much more so than, say, Anne Stevenson was able to be in her ‘authorised’ biography of Plath, Bitter Fame (1989) – Bate’s book may well go some way to appeasing the ire of those who sought to arraign and convict Hughes for an unspeakable crime. As Bate tells it, Hughes had no need of others’ vitriol to feel haunted and tormented for the 35 years that followed his first wife’s death. He suffered as much as they could have wanted. And while some may find specious Bate’s theory that Hughes’s serial infidelities were in fact a way of staying faithful to the memory of Plath – an argument that certainly pushes to a new level of sophistication the Cole Porter lyric ‘I’m always true to you darling in my fashion’ – it’s hard not to feel that Hughes never escaped the baffling labyrinth into which his relationship with Plath led him. It is to the doomed Minotaur rather than the heroic Theseus that he compares himself in ‘Paris 1954’, which opens his last collection, Howls & Whispers (1998). The poem begins with a recollection of a trip to visit Olwyn in Paris shortly after he graduated from Cambridge: drinking wine, eating Gruyère alone in a café, he feels ‘ready for anything’. Unknown to him, however, and wholly unsuspected, a scream is slowly but steadily approaching:
It resembles a white mask with spread fingers
That will grab and drub and wring his heart
Like a bandage impossible to clean.
Resembling a nuclear melt-down
That will render his whole world untouchable
Or touchable only with a penalty
Of radio-active burn. A scream
That will lock him up in a labyrinth
Made of ordinary streets
As if he were the Minotaur.
This scream is approaching disguised ‘in the likeness of a girl’, and it will initially sound like laughter and hope, ‘like all happiness, all hope’.