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The Bell Jar Tolls

The death of a poet, bard and shaman

By Jack Kroll

TED HUGHES, THE MOST FAMOUS poet in the world, died last week of cancer at 68. His fame was only partially due to his extraordinary gifts and the fact that he was Britain’s poet laureate since 1984. He had also been half of a fascinating poetic marriage.

The union of Hughes and Sylvia Plath was called “the most tragic literary love story of our time.” Plath, brilliant and tormented, committed suicide at 30 in 1963 after Hughes had left her for another woman. Astonishing-ly, that woman, Assia Wevill, killed herself in 1969 in the same manner as Plath, by putting her head in a gas oven.

After Plath’s suicide, Hughes was the target of feminists and others who blamed him for her death. His readings were disrupted, and one notorious feminist poem threatened him with dismemberment. Hughes’s poetic standing was eclipsed by the publication of Plath's electrifying posthumous collection, “Ariel.” He was attacked for leaving out some of the key poems in “Ariel’s” first edition, and attacked again for destroying the last notebook of Plath’s journals and an autobiographical novel she left behind. He admitted destroying the journals, saying he did not want their two children to see them. But he denied suppressing the novel, ascribing its disappearance to Plath's mother. For 35 years he refused to discuss Plath's death, saying, "I know that my silence seems to confirm every accusation and fantasy. I preferred it than to be teased and pricked and goaded into vomiting up every detail of my life with Sylvia.”

Then, last January, Hughes published “Birthday Letters”, a cycle of 88 poems on his stormy relationship with Plath. The book was hailed by many critics as the greatest work of the greatest living British poet, and sold an amazing 100,000 copies. When it turned out last week that Hughes had kept his illness a secret for 18 months, it became clear that “Birthday Letters” was an...