By Sofia Bell
Emory University’s Woodruff library in Atlanta, Georgia, has acquired correspondence between the late-poet laureate of England, Ted Hughes and his mistress Assia Wevill.
The correspondence, which includes more than 66 letters between Hughes and Wevill, a number of notes, sketches, fragmentary diary entries, and a few photographs of Wevill, begins in March 1963 and continues until 1969. In the winter of 1963, Hughes’ wife, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide. In 1969, Wevill took her life and the life of her four-year-old daughter in a near reenactment of Plath’s suicide.
In one of the letters in the collection, Hughes instructs Wevill to burn all of his letters. This she obviously did not do.
"If he said, ‘burn them all’ and someone saved them, are we all colluding in an act of bad faith?" asked Chuck Atkinson, UC Santa Cruz professor of creative writing and published poe.
Emory’s purchase of Hughes’ correspondence has sparked an ethical and literary debate. One side of the argument insists that such items are important in terms of establishing a complete biography of the artist. The other side contends that Hughes has the right to his privacy and that reading his love letters will not (and should not) aid our understanding of his poetry.
"The private life of Ted Hughes serves merely as interruptions to the true critique that could be had if the reader’s mind was unpolluted by excess information that should not be circulating in the first place," said Adriana Stumpo, a third-year literature student at UCSC, arguing for the ability and necessity of poetry to stand beyond the reach of historical or biographical analysis.
Hughes’ poetry is characterized by the exploration of the mythical powers of nature. His final collection, "Birthday Letters," published the year he died, is the only one of his works that deals explicitly with his relationship with Sylvia Plath.
Tyrus Miller, a UCSC professor of literature who sees merit in the display of the correspondence, commented, "Hughes’ poetry is heavily concerned with his personal and his sex life. And in a certain sense, he chose to put that seal on his collected work with his final collection. He drew on this personal context throughout his work, and the letters could help us understand how."
Chuck Atkinson responded to the question of whether he thought the letters would aid in the understanding of Hughes’ poetry.
"It’s OK if you want to learn in terms of gossip, or even if you want it from some psychological point of view," Atkinson said. "You want to understand how human beings’ lives unfold, that’s one thing-biography, history. But if you are doing it for the purposes of the poetry, then no, the poetry is its own thing and it should be its own thing."
Many valuable texts, such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Boccaccio’s Decameron, were almost lost forever when their author’s wished for them to be destroyed. But does this set a precedent to have all literary works-private or not-saved for the sake of curiosity or knowledge? Poetry can stand alone, but should it if we can find the means to dissect it with a poet’s life? Ted Hughes’ case is one of many, and our culture may never allow us to answer the many ethical and literary questions twisted within the debate over privacy vs. public interest.