'Both my parents were on my exam syllabus' - Frieda Hughes
The level-headed and even-handed testimony of Frieda Hughes, the daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, stood out in a recent BBC4 programme, Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death, part of the BBC’s Poetry Season.
She recalled with amusement the moment when she discovered that both her parents were on her O-level syllabus. She rang her father, who said: “That’s marvellous. I can tell you what I meant.” He added that he could tell her what Plath meant, too. Frieda said that was fine, but what if the examiners took a different view?
There were other, more sombre moments. Frieda’s mother Sylvia killed herself in 1963, while making sure her children were safe, after Hughes left her for Assia Wevill, who in turn killed herself and her daughter with Hughes a few years later. In the 1970s feminists accused Hughes of “murdering” Plath and picketed his readings. Frieda – pictured at the Wenlock poetry festival in 2014 - said in the BBC programme how “appalled” she had been at “outsiders making judgments”. She called the protests “a horrible form of theft” and an “abuse”.
In the programme fellow Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage traced the early life of Hughes in Mytholmroyd, and examined how the landscape of the Calder valley and West Yorkshire Pennines helped to shape Hughes’s poetry. Armitage added: “If it hadn’t been for Ted’s work, I wouldn’t have been writing.”
TV presenter and novelist Melvyn Bragg said of Hughes: “He believed poetry would change the world.” Hughes became poet laureate and published Birthday Letters, a bestselling collection of poems about his life with Plath, shortly before he died of cancer. An early biographer of Hughes, the poet Elaine Feinstein, argued that in later years, “people forgave him … he won over their hearts”. Greg Freeman