Cover image for Ariel's gift : Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the story of Birthday letters
Ariel's gift : Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the story of Birthday letters
Wagner, Erica, 1967-
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, 2001.

Physical Description:
312 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Faber and Faber, 2000.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR6058.U37 B5738 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



When Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters was published in 1998, it was greeted with astonishment and acclaim, immediately landing on the bestseller list. Few suspected that Hughes had been at work for a quarter of a century on this cycle of poems addressed to his first wife, Sylvia Plath. In Ariel's Gift, Erica Wagner explores the destructive relationship between these two poets through their lives and their writings. She provides a commentary to the poems in Birthday Letters, showing the events that shaped them and, crucially, showing how they draw upon Plath's own work. "Both narratively engaging and scholastically comprehensive."--Thomas Lynch, Los Angeles Times "Wagner has set the poems of Hughes's Birthday Letters in the context of his marriage to Plath with great delicacy."--Times Literary Supplement

Author Notes

Erica Wagner is literary editor of The Times of London.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The tragic marriage of two young and brilliant twentieth-century poets, the earthy Englishman Ted Hughes and the fiercely burning American Sylvia Plath, who took her own life, has engendered as much gossip, finger-pointing, and analysis as Virginia Woolf's family history and suicide, and now a novelist and a critic offer trenchant and inspired interpretations. Tennant, who created a sequel for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in Pemberley (1993), presents a fictional exegesis of the doomed love of Hughes and Plath in which their entwined life stories--fueled by romance, genius, occult powers, ambition, and betrayal--are rendered as compelling and archetypal as a Greek tragedy. Tennant's fictionalized Ted is as comfortable with a gun in hand as with a pen and allows his predatory lust free rein. Sylvia, dutiful and self-doubting, is ruled by the moon, her manic happiness and fatal misery waning and waxing. A writer of numinous powers, Tennant brings more than a novelist's sense of a perfect story to the page; she herself had a relationship with Hughes and is privy to information about yet another woman in his life (and character in her novel), Assia Wevill, the black-haired beauty with whom Hughes was having an affair when Plath committed suicide. Steeped in Hughes' and Plath's resounding poetry and blessed with a dramatist's sense of timing, Tennant has written an arresting and exquisitely mythopoeic tale of love, death, and immortality. While Tennant casts Hughes as the villain, Wagner, literary editor at The Times, portrays the real-life poet as a man who stoically endured blame for his first wife's death and was determined to maintain his privacy while he raised his and Plath's two children, served as her literary executor, and continued to write. Using as touchstones Plath's posthumously published works and Hughes' galvanizing collection, Birthday Letters (1998), the book (published just before his death) that broke his long silence on the subject of Plath's suicide, Wagner argues for compassion for Hughes, even as she reports on the horrific fact that Assia Wevill, for whom he left Plath, killed herself and their daughter six years after Plath's death. Eschewing easy theories and loose talk, Wagner seeks understanding of both poets through meticulous, deeply moving readings of their magnificent and haunting poems, thus setting much needed standards for future discussion. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

This erudite critical study, together with the Unabridged Diaries of Sylvia Plath released last year, breathes new life into Plath scholarship, ironically in this case through the study of her husband's poetry, particularly Birthday Letters (published in 1998 shortly before his death), which, Wagner, literary editor of the London Times, asserts, "demonstrates the extent to which the poets influenced each other," and then goes on to offer ample evidence, grounding particular poetic images and phrases in specific events of Plath's and Hughes's lives. Hughes's love poetry in Birthday Letters overtly refers to his first meeting of Sylvia at Oxford: "Maybe I noticed you./ .../ Your exaggerated American/ Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners." Another poem, about their honeymoon to Spain, notes that "Spain/ was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver/ You dared not wake with...." To understand the complexities of Hughes and Plath's relationship, however, Wagner has had to touch upon one of the literary world's most controversial, and often ugly, disputes: to what degree if any did Hughes contribute to his wife's depression and subsequent suicide at age 30? Fortunately, Wagner is not interested in either launching crude attacks on or apologizing for Hughes. Her clear and careful scholarship allows readers to come to their own conclusions. She encourages readers to stop playing the blame game with these two gifted poets, whose work and lives were undoubtedly influenced by their marriage to each other. In Wagner's own no-nonsense phrasing, her superb study "is an attempt to open up this dialogue between two people both now dead and make [it]... more accessible to the general reader." 8 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Apr.) Forecast: The publication of Birthday Letters created quite a stir. With the recent publication of Plath's unabridged diaries, and Wagner's moderate attitude toward the Plath/Hughes debate, which will undoubtedly be controversial, this could see lively sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

When poet Ted Hughes offered Birthday Letters for publication in 1997 after an unyielding silence since his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963, those involved were "amazed and somewhat fearful," writes Wagner, literary editor of the London Times. In this fascinating study, part explication of the poems and part biography of a doomed relationship, Wagner alternates Hughes's almost diarylike poetry with the journal entries, letters, and poems by Plath that often describe the same people and events. The contrast is stunning and often horrifying: remembering a walk in which the two poets come across some girls pulling up flowers in a park, Hughes writes, "What did they mean to you, the azalea flowers?/ The girls were so happy . . . ," while Plath's journal says, "I can kill myself or I know it now even kill another. . . . I gritted to control my hands, but had a flash of bloody stars in my head as I stared that sassy girl down, and a blood-longing to [rush] at her and tear her to bloody beating bits." With the publication of Birthday Letters, Hughes managed to honor Plath and simultaneously polish his own record as the long-suffering husband of one of our major poets, who was apparently incapable of living with anyone, even herself. David Kirby, Florida State Univ., Tallahassee (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. 11
Introduction: the Ecstasy of Influencep. 13
1. "A Crush of Diamonds"p. 57
2. "Beautiful, Beautiful America!"p. 91
3. "Spain was the Land of Your Dreams"p. 107
4. "That Home was Our First Camp"p. 121
5. "What Happens in the Heart Simply Happens"p. 139
6. "Right Across America We Went Looking for You"p. 161
7. "I Let That Fox Cub Go"p. 175
8. "Then the Script Overtook Us"p. 189
9. "The Cave of Thunder"p. 223
10. "The Shock of Her Words From Nowhere"p. 239
11. "The Jewel You Lost was Blue"p. 259
Referencesp. 277
Bibliographyp. 289
Acknowledgmentsp. 293
General Indexp. 297
Index of Works by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plathp. 308