Di Beddow

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THS Journal Piece July 2019

Not the colleges, or such precincts’ – The Cambridge of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath

Ted Hughes omitted from Birthday Letters the poem simply known as “X” [1] which can be found in a notebook in the British Library archive.  It begins –

Cambridge was our courtship.

Not the colleges, or such precincts,

But everything from the Millbridge

Towards Grantchester.


The Cambridge of Plath and Hughes, as pictured in Birthday Letters (Hughes’s award winning 1998 poetry collection and this unpublished poem) is a place where the university and the academic life of the city are all but absent.  The landscapes of Hughes’ earlier poetry are also largely missing. No untamed Ireland, primitive or rural Devon; no ancient Elmet here, indeed, when such landscapes do make an appearance they tend to be used as a backdrop only for the central player on stage, who like Godot, never arrives. Sylvia Plath, Hughes’s first wife is however very much present in the poetry. Erica Wagner recounts in Ariel’s Gift [2] that Hughes in writing the work was not consciously writing poems, but the process was essentially about trying to, “evoke (her) presence to myself, and to feel her there listening.” [3]  The collection travels from Spain to America, home to Devon and to Yorkshire, but when looking at the importance of Cambridge in Hughes’ work, the poem “X” has offered an entirely new and different pathway through the university city of the two poets and through Birthday Letters itself.


Before publication of the collection, Hughes had sent copies of the book to a select few friends and family members. In response to a warm review from Seamus Heaney he explained how he had battled with the incubation of the collection and how for the previous twenty-five years he had tried to deal with his thoughts and feelings about Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963:


I’d come to a point where there seemed no alternative.  Given the funny old physical corner I’ve got myself into, and the mysterious rôle in my life that SP’s posthumous life has played-and that our posthumous marriage has played-publication came to seem not altogether a literary matter, more a physical operation that just might change the psychic odds crucially for me, and clear a route. […] I always had some idea that the real accounting for my dealings with Sylvia would have to emerge inadvertently, in some oblique fashion, through some piece only symbolically related to it – the authentic creative way. But there they are. (LTH 703)


Birthday Letters is an intensely personal collection; accepting the forward Prize in 1998, Hughes described it as:’a gathering of occasions on which I tried to open a direct, private, inner contact with my first wife’ [4] This then, as Hughes is only too aware, is not his accustomed way of working where he would protect his feelings and memories using nature, landscape and myth to fashion a final product, often a world away from the original experience. Neil Roberts summarises this succinctly in his blog on Birthday Letters: ‘ He despised the direct use of autobiographical material, and believed that to make poetry of any value experience needed to be imaginatively transformed.’[5] In this collection though, Hughes uses place to confront and uncover the personal whether it be Spain, America, Yorkshire, Devon or Cambridge. Landscape and imagination are not distancing devices in Birthday Letters, but instead, vehicles for confronting and accessing the inner life, and this is nowhere more pronounced than in the poems about the city in which the couple met.


‘St Botolph’s’ is probably being the best-known of the Cambridge based poems in Birthday Letters; it is Hughes’s recollection of the meeting of the couple on February 25th 1956 at the Women’s Union in Falcon Yard in the city. Demolished in the late sixties to make way for a shopping mall, Falcon Yard was a very old part of the city, down cobbled alley ways and close to Alexandra House where Hughes shared a room with the ‘girls that helped to run it’ as he describes in ‘Fidelity.’ (CP 1060) In this poem he remembers his life after the meeting in Falcon Yard and he tastes the fidelity he describes, sleeping in the true sense of the word with one of the waitresses from the British Restaurant which was situated on the ground floor. His room is ‘Overlooking Petty Cury’ where having left his job in London and returned to Cambridge he says he, ‘laboured/Only at you’. There is a hopeful air; he is remaining true to his new love, with pared back belongings, his notebook and a mattress. His fidelity became a ‘holy law’ but writing in the future and looking back at this time he still wonders whether to ‘envy’ or ‘pity’ himself. He thinks of this period: ‘ As a kind of time that cannot pass,/That I never used, so still possess.’ He is twenty-five, ‘Free of University’ but he admits he: ‘ dangled/ In its liberties.’ Cambridge is a place where one can do such a thing; the anthropologist Alan Macfarlane describes it as ‘a secure environment within which to take risks.’ [6] Whilst the biographical element is strong in these poems, Hughes clearly notes in ‘Visit’: ‘It is only a story./Your story. My story.’ (CP 1049)


The collection tends to follow a timeline beginning with ‘Fulbright Scholars’ – Hughes, recalls seeing a photograph of the new intake and although, years later, he cannot recall if Plath were included, he connects that memory with his first taste of a fresh peach: ‘At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh/ By my ignorance of simplest things.’ (CP 1045)  This is the young man who then meets Plath in Cambridge and as he continues in the two ‘Caryatids’ poems which follow ‘Fulbright Scholars’ his pre-meeting preparation moves from a photograph to reading her first poem and then the confession that his group planned, ‘An attack, a dismemberment’ (CP 1047) of her poetry. It is an odd courtship. In ‘Caryatids 2’ Hughes repeats the metaphor of artifice in his description of the group of young men, ‘Playing at friendship’ (CP 1046) and then that they were, ‘playing at students.’ Nothing appears authentic in the university element of Cambridge for Hughes and whilst he had long-term relationships with several of his Cambridge group, the tone of his retrospective writing appears to position his companions as part of the unreal nature of the colleges. Liz Hicklin/née Grattidge, Hughes’s Cambridge nursing girlfriend received a letter from Hughes in August 1955 where he writes:


I have an idea for a book. Two books in fact. One is about Cambridge. An autobiography of a student written from I’m not sure what angle, during three years, and to sell as a soft back popular thing… The book about Cambridge would be very cynicial, [sic] I feel, very cruel to every one I knew – but the interesting things about everyone I knew, now I look back, seem to have been their absurdities. I don’t think I remember that with much affection. [7]


Four years then before Plath starts writing ‘Falcon Yard’, her unfinished novel about Cambridge and Hughes, he is also planning a Cambridge story; from this letter though and from ‘Caryatids 2’ it is clear that Hughes’s memories of Cambridge are not of his university education which he calls, ‘A dramaturgy of whim.’ Another anthropologist, Tim Ingold in,The Perception of the Environment, observes that to better understand our relation to place, we tend not to passively accept knowledge from a culture such as in this case Cambridge University, but instead we actively engage with the ‘process of knowing’ as we make our ‘negotiation of a path through the world.’ [8] Hughes did not adhere to what Ingold terms the ‘corpus of rules and principles’ given by the much celebrated culture of Cambridge, but instead, he carved out his own pathway through it, aware that always there were other ways he could have travelled. Cambridge bears witness to the world’s opportunities, centring here on the university and into the core arrives the woman who changed Hughes’s path for the rest of his life:


The world

Crossed the wet courts, on Sunday, politely,

In tourists’ tentative shoes.

All roads lay too open, opened too deeply

Every degree of the compass.

Here at the centre of the web, at the crossroads,

You published your poem

About Caryatids. (CP 1046-7)


But the poem that captures most powerfully the Cambridge of Hughes and Plath remains unpublished. Whilst I maintain that Hughes gained far more from the University than either he admitted, or critics have credited, the poem simply marked as ‘X’ in a school exercise book, with the address ’18 Rugby Street’ on the front, shows a different focus to the city. Inside the front cover of the book is a list of poems under the title ‘The Sorrows of the Deer’ which was the earlier title Hughes used for Birthday Letters. ‘X’ is found on the list between ‘IX’ which is called, ‘You despised my girlfriend’, a poem about Shirley, whom Hughes was seeing when he met Plath at the ‘St Botolph’s Review’ party and ‘XI’ which starts ‘I saw the world again through your eyes’; this became ‘The Owl’ in Birthday Letters. All three of these poems are Cambridge-based and describe places particular to the 1950’s lives of the two poets in Cambridge. The poem ‘X’ [9] though is seminal and describes an area of Cambridge away from the university: ’Three or four square miles’ of ‘river meadows’ which fall either side from the Mill Bridge, or as Hughes has it, ‘Millbridge’, situated just down Silver Street from Pembroke College, close to the Anchor pub where Hughes would drink and sing with his peers in his student days. He charts the development of his early relationship with Plath through the poem, describing the nature of the area he cites in the opening lines. Poem ‘X’ was brought to light by Jack Malvern in an article in The Times on Friday October 17 2008 (p.18) entitled ‘Rough-hewn genius of Hughes laid bare in unfinished verses.’ Jamie Andrews from The British Library is quoted as saying the poem was probably omitted from the final selection to balance the poems between earlier and later life. We remember though as well that Hughes said the writing of the poems over the years was done with no view to publication and indeed in a letter to Keith Sagar in June 1998, he reflects that he is fascinated by the interpretations other people make of the poems:


I’ve been intrigued, I must say, by the maze of interconnections between those BLs. Considering how I wrote them, months often years apart, never thinking of them as parts of a whole – just as opportunities to write in a simple, unguarded, intimate way – to release something! Nor can I recall how I came to shuffle them into that order – following chronology of subject matter was the only rule, I think. (PC 267)


This poem then was surely one Hughes needed to write, but it appears that having experienced castigation for his extra-marital relationship during his time with Plath and on the editing of her work after her death, he decided against publishing it. It is important to note that it is one which has no amendments, but is simply written out as though from dictation; the other poems in the exercise book bear the scars of much reworking; it may of course be that this poem is unmarked and unpublished, because Hughes did not think it of quality, but I believe that it is because it is so localised, too personal and specific. Unless you live or had lived in Cambridge, this area just outside the city centre would not be known or be of any real importance to you, although Grantchester and Newnham do feature in the collection.

In a sceptical review of Birthday Letters, James Wood in Prospect magazine, claims that there is a lack of specificity in the Birthday Letters poems:


His pagan doom, the suckling gods and bloody crypts, do not absolve but dissolve. A real, particular Plath disappears; and a real, particular Hughes disappears too, drowned in a sud of images borrowed from their own poetry, or from the most familiar dirty magics. Particularity is secular, and these dank poems show us why.[10]


Wood has concluded that Hughes’s specificity in this collection is lost because of his recycling of past writings and his self-constructed mythologies; because of this Wood suggests that the poet alienates the reader from the spirituality he is attempting to communicate. Whilst I would disagree with Wood on this in relation to the collection, I assert that in ‘X’ particularly, Hughes is describing the spiritual and sacred through the landscape. With analysis of the poetry and exposure of the specific character of this part of Cambridge, Hughes’s writing embraces particularity and the poetry reveals the experience. However, in collecting the poems for publication, Hughes appears to have decided that ‘X’ is one of the poems he used for dealing with his experience, rather than for a reading public. In that June 1998 letter to Sagar, Hughes says that when he deals with a difficult experience in his poetry, especially a:


traumatic event – if writing is your method – has to be dealt with deliberately. An image has to be looked for – consciously – and then mined to the limit: but not in autobiographical terms. My high-minded principal [sic] was simply wrong – for my own psychological & physical health. It was stupid. (PC 271)


He tells Sagar in the same letter: ‘God knows what sort of book it is, but at least none of it is faked, innocent as it is.’ It is not faked; it is innocent and surely then, it is essentially, Hughes’s voice about this experience. With an understanding of the place in the poem, the piece draws up the real significance of what Cambridge meant to both Hughes and Plath; in this small, peripheral area of the city boundaries, the two poets fell in love and revealed to each other their past, their influences and their writing which would all have an impact upon them both for the rest of their lives.

From the Mill Bridge then in Cambridge, the Cam flows with Coe Fen on the left bank, a green grazing area with small tributaries and sluices, rough pasture and meadow vegetation and on the right, as you walk away from the city, the meadows open out into Sheep’s Green and the old course of the Cam, underneath Fen Causeway and across to Lammas Land; the river then strikes out to skirt around Newnham and then on to Grantchester Meadows. It is the Cambridge of the meadows that holds the earthenware head that Plath disliked so very much; this was a gift made by a friend, earlier in her life at Smith College.  Plath wanted to rid herself of this image, but was superstitious about throwing it away, so at Hughes’s instigation, they found a bole of a tree in which to place it:


Just past where the field

Broadens and the path strays up to the right

To lose the river and puzzle for Grantchester,

A chosen willow leaned towards the water. (CP 1079)


It is also in this area that the Hugheses found their first married home, remembered by Hughes in ’55 Eltisley’:


Our first home has forgotten us.

I saw when I drove past it

How slight our lives had been

To have left not a trace. (CP 1076)


Academic Cambridge, like the earthenware head, remains in Hughes’s memory as a representation of something absent, indeed almost of someone absent. The colleges are described by Hughes in terms of an alien world, a surreal panorama, or unimportant places such as his siting of the story of the exploding tumbler in ‘The Bird’ where he casually refers to a sherry party they attended ‘In some Cambridge College’. (CP 1093)


In ‘X’, this unpublished poem about the area, Hughes describes the landscape as:

Ornamented with willows, and green level,

Full drooping willows and rushes, and mallard and swans,

Or stumpy pollard willows and the dank silence

Of the slippery lapsing Cam. That was our place.


The alliteration and repetition of ‘willows’ and the sibilance throughout the poem describes the Cam as a slow and natural river, with the wildlife that throngs to a country river and takes us away from the hard consonance of ‘Cambridge … courtship’ and ‘colleges’ which are alien to the pair. Instead, Hughes focuses on the wildlife of the meadows, much less wild or blasted than his Yorkshire landscapes. The three part description of the willows is significant; first they ornament the fen and one is reminded of Plath’s description in ‘Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows’ : ‘It is a country on a nursery plate.’ [11] There is something quaint and unreal about the picture of river, willows and cows, reminding us of the Chinese willow pattern design, where the lovers are threatened by the woman’s father, until the gods intervene and the lovers are turned into doves, rather than being killed. Hughes finishes the poem, ‘ Were what we felt wings?’  The second set of willows here are ‘Full drooping’ almost Pre-Raphaelite in their evocation of sadness and elegiac fecundity; again, in relation to the symbolism of the willows, one might note Psalm 137 for its equation of sadness and an inability to sing in a land which is strange to the Israelites:


By the waters of Babylon,

there we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion.


On the willows there

we hung up our lyres…


How shall we sing the lord’s song

in a foreign land? [12]


Cambridge as the world knows it appears in the poem as a strange land to both poets, but Hughes describes this separate patch of land just outside the city as though it were the couple’s own enchanted garden. Finally in the set of three, the willows have become, ‘stumpy pollard’ and cut back much like the archaic symbolism of rebirth that enthralled Hughes, for example in his description of Shamanism in ‘Regenerations’ in Winter Pollen:


a magical death, then dismemberment […]From this nadir, the shaman is resurrected, with new insides, a new body created for him by the spirits. (WP 57)


Robert Graves tells us that in mythology, the name of Mount Helicon (a mountain sacred to the poet’s muse) originates from ‘helicë, the willow-tree sacred to poets, as from the stream which spiralled round it).’ [13]

Hughes’s tone chimes with the ‘dank silence’ of this environment, a strange and forbidding description for what was the poets’ chosen Cambridge: ‘That was our place.’ It is a strange use of the adjective ‘dank’ which suggests dark, dampness and decay, hardly an appropriate place for courtship and love one would have thought. Hughes is fond of this word ‘dank’, using it in an earlier unpublished Cambridge poem, inserted into his original composition, which was submitted for Part 1 of his English Tripos as an undergraduate. He opens the poem:


The year’s dank rag is smouldering under the trees.

The shattered sunlight sleeps against a root

Where sunlight never alit all the green days.

Autumn comes touching at both heart and thought. [14]

In this poem the Autumn is dark and ghostly with witch-like screams from foxes and a deathly tone. Writing years later, but reimagining Cambridge, it is as though this area of the city is wet, fen-like and even submerged in Hughes’s mind, ‘Sinking below sea level’ as he describes in ‘X’. It is therefore discordant somehow to have this dankness describing a private place, for a lovers’ tryst in a university city. The Cam is a long way from, for example, the river in ‘August Evening’ (CP 671) in his collection River. Here, the waterway, ‘Cools early, star-touched’ and the mist, ‘Breathes on the sliding glass.’ In the same collection, ‘The River’ shows the water being personified into an immortal god who will ‘wash itself of all deaths.’ (CP 664) Again, in ‘That Morning’ (CP 663) Hughes has a transcendental experience, stimulated by the crowds of salmon around him in the river as he fishes. He describes the fishermen, approached by the swarming salmon: ‘As if we flew slowly, their formations/Lifting us toward some dazzle of blessing’. Closing the poem are the lines which are on Hughes’s commemoration stone in Westminster Abbey:


So we found the end of our journey.

So we stood, alive in the river of light

Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.


This is a world away from the, ‘slippery lapsing Cam’ of the Cambridge poem, but the closing lines of this work themselves recall the image of flight as something divine, here this time found in a relationship rather than Hughes’s traditional spiritual affinity with nature. It is also a more questioning, more tentative youthful remembrance of such elevating love: ‘We did not know what wings felt like./Were what we felt wings?’ The adjectives ‘slippery’ and ‘lapsing’ are also problematic when imagining this courtship landscape; slippery could mean that the river curls and winds through the fen, or that the wetness literally makes the banks slippery underfoot. The word though can also suggest something deceitful, elusive and untrustworthy with lapsing being used as falling into decay with lack of use; the latter also has moral connotations especially to the Bible and the prelapsarian lives of Adam and Eve before their fall . This vocabulary does not build a landscape of courtly love, but I would suggest that the reason for this less than idyllic description becomes clearer when Hughes announces, ‘That was our place.’ The poets appear to have chosen this as their Cambridge because it was, ‘Not spoiled by precedent, for either of us.’ In this landscape they do not need to match expectations of the past, or of academia, but instead they can indulge their love ‘In the watery weedy dream’ which as Hughes describes, is metaphorically, ‘An aquarium’. Hughes as ever, with his attention to place, is clearly aware that Cambridge rises only slightly above sea-level with much of the fens to the north, falling below sea-level:


Waltzing figures, among glimpses

Of crumbling parapets, a horizon

Sinking below sea level.


Flat and low-lying, Cambridge is depicted by Hughes as a water land from a dream, with other people beyond the couple merely performing a dance across the set. The scenery and the horizon for Hughes, like an ancient monument, decaying under its own historical and cultural weight, has little relevance to him and his lover; indeed there is a nightmarish and chthonic quality to the vision. He weaves a spell of this scene with an insistent repetition of ‘w’ showing that their place was ‘willows[…]watery weedy dream[…]Waltzing figures[…]world[…]we[…]what[…]when[…]were,’ and ‘wings.’ The poem finishes with the rhetorical question cited above, but this is the final question of several; Hughes asks the ghost of Plath if she can recall what they talked about; if they were actually going somewhere: if they were ‘exploring’ or if they were actually:


talking away

Bewilderment, or trying word shapes

To make hopes visible.


Hughes contends that both poets started to formulate their futures, there, along the Cam and across the meadows. Both poets used words, signifiers, dialogue and poetry to create the vision of their future together, just as Hughes uses the same method to understand their past in Birthday Letters. In Cambridge the couple forged their future, influencing and aiding each other to make the dream real and then over forty years on and in earnest after the death of Plath, Hughes again uses poetry and dreams, talking and words to settle in himself his responsibility for the vision of a shared future that like the university in the poem, becomes, ‘crumbling parapets’ and sunken horizons. He dares to return to this murky, nightmarish world in the hope that he can find a better understanding of and expiation from the pain of loss and culpability.


Plath was living at Whitstead, a Newnham college hostel set back from Barton Road at the time of their courtship, so one presumes that in the poem, when Hughes speaks of ‘When we walked past the gate, talking and talking’ he is speaking of the gate at her lodgings, probably at the back of the college where Whitstead is situated. There is no gate there now, but perhaps Hughes is also talking about the gate to the secret garden, the walled garden, the ‘locked garden’ of Paradise that the world offered them in the future? The description of the garden though is not paradisiacal; instead, with its ‘pollard willows… neat macadam’ and permanent darkness, ‘It was always dark.’ Perhaps this is a postlapsarian garden, with our poetic Adam and Eve, excluded from its delights. The garden also chimes with the Garden of the Hesperides, where Hera’s orchard was sited with the nymphs of evening tending the garden. The darkness of Hughes’s Cambridge can be explained because the area he is describing in the poem is the area in which they would walk once the day’s work and studies were done, so the nymphs of evening in the West with the sunset sit well with this image of the garden in the city. It is the benches in the area which ‘One by one’ become ‘Sacred to us.’ This resonates with Birthday Letters ‘Fidelity’ where Hughes shared a bed with a young woman, but both of them respected his relationship with Plath like ‘A holy law’ with the woman serving the goddess, Hughes’s fidelity, ‘like a priestess’. (CP 1060-2) Hera, being the goddess of women and patroness of married women, is often depicted with a cow, one of her sacred animals and in the Cambridge poems of Birthday Letters, Hughes aligns the cows of Grantchester Meadows with his future wife; in ‘Chaucer’ when Plath is reciting from ‘the Wyf of Bath’ he recalls them being:



They shoved and jostled shoulders, making a ring.

To gaze into your face…

Keeping their awed six feet of reverence (CP 1075-6)


Plath had written to Hughes in their forced separation in the October of 1956, describing her serenity and admiration of the cows in the Meadows:


Yesterday, straight after lunch, I took my sketch-paper and strode out to the Grantchester Meadows where I sat in the long green grass amid cow dung and drew two cows; my first cows… I got a kind of peace from the cows; what curious broody looks they gave me… I shall go back soon; I shall do a volume of cow-drawings. (LSP1 1284)


After having given birth to both children, Plath describes herself in her letters as, ‘cow-tired’ (LSP2 778) and as having, ‘cowish amnesia’ (LSP2 521) and in 1961she describes herself responding to baby Frieda’s hunger in ‘Morning Song’: ‘One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral/In my Victorian nightgown.’ [15] Again, in ‘The Owl’ also set in Grantchester Meadows, Hughes opens up to Plath the world of nature, which she took in:


with an incredulous joy

Like a mother handed her new baby

By the midwife. (CP 1064)


Hughes conflates Plath’s relish of this new experience as one of a mother, which is in keeping with the goddess Hera and her protection of marriage and motherhood and also her vengeful spirit in relation to Zeus’s lovers and their illegitimate offspring. Plath is passionately expressive in her letters when decrying the affair that took Hughes away from their Devon home:


She is the barren & frigid symbol of sex. […] What has this Weavy Asshole (her name is actually Assia Wevill) got that I haven’t, I thought: she can’t make a baby (and really isn’t so sorry), can’t make a book or a poem (LSP2 797)


The locked garden imagery in the poem ‘X’ though derives most clearly from the ‘Song of Solomon’ in the Old Testament. Hughes, drawing to a close in the poem, asks if what the couple felt in their courtship were indeed wings with which they could fly over the locked gates of the garden and into the future and the world. Certainly Plath indicates that huge changes took place in their characters at this early stage in their relationship:


Ted has changed so in the past two months I’ve known him that it is incredible, just as I’ve changed too: from being bitter, selfish, despairing of ever being able to use our whole selves, our whole strengths, without terrifying other people, we have turned into the most happy magnanimous creative pair in the world: (LSP1 1189)


In ‘The Song of Solomon’ [16] the author speaks to his beloved and equates her beauty to nature, saying that her eyes are like doves, her cheeks like ‘halves of a pomegranate’ and her breasts ‘like two fawns’. Then, in his adoration of his beloved, he writes in chapter 4, verse 12: ‘A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed’.  In his poem Hughes cites this locked garden; the couple have not flown into their future, but are in a form of limbo, waiting for their future to become. A commentary on the Song explains:


We must bear in mind that these words are supposed to be spoken on the journey in the marriage procession. The bride is not yet brought to the royal palace. She is still travelling in the royal palanquin. The idea of a paradise or garden is carried from the beginning of Scripture to the end, the symbol of perfect blessedness. The figure of the closed or shut-up garden represents the bridegroom’s delight in the sense of absolute and sole possession – for himself and no other. The language is very natural at such a time, when the bride is being taken from her home. [17]


Plath and Hughes are in courtship in Cambridge; how appropriate that Hughes appears to cite ‘The Song of Solomon’ in ‘X’ in that the bride is in waiting and the bridegroom lauds his future bride in natural terms. It is though in ‘Fidelity’ that he describes himself as the sister of the woman with which he shared a bed; whilst the woman is not his beloved, it is as though Hughes has embraced the language of ‘The Song of Solomon’ and devotion to his goddess: ‘You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride’.[18] It would appear that Hughes in hindsight, contemplates that he may have been considering a marriage close to perfection, but still he questions whether he was wrong in identifying this, or understanding its power. Just along from their usual walks across Coe Fen is Paradise Island where trees and undergrowth block the walkers’ path along the Cam towards Grantchester. Again, Hughes may be remembering this place and contrasting the name and its symbolism with the reality of what became their relationship and their future. The couple however, are not walking; instead they are part of the nature in these meadows; they are the ducks or swans of the natural world:



We hung there moving our legs, seeing

The scenery flow past like the silent river.


As in ‘Fidelity’ where Hughes writes: ‘

Free of University I dangled/In its liberties. (CP 1061)


So in ‘X’ Hughes writes:

The University was a delay, a sentence

To be borne with and escaped.

Our only life was to come.


This poem shows that Hughes prized Cambridge beyond his undergraduate years and outside the universally revered walls of the colleges; in a languid flow of the Cam’s willows and ‘watery weedy dream’ we find a landscape as personal and compelling as any that Hughes wrote of in earlier works and one of significance for him throughout his life.


[1]Ted Hughes “X” in notebook of the Hughes collection, labelled “18 Rugby Street” (Add. MS 88918/1/6 in the British Library) and published in an article in The Times  p.18 “Rough-hewn genius of Hughes laid bare in unfinished verses” Friday October 17 2008

[2] Erica Wagner Ariel’s Gift (Faber London 2000) 2001 paperback edition page numbers follow, hence forward abbreviated to AG

[3] AG p.22

[4] Ted Hughes speaking when he won the Forward Prize for poetry in 1998 quoted in Erica Wagner Ariel’s Gift (Faber London 2000) p. 22

[5] British Library Literature 1950 – 2000  online dated 25 May 2016

[6] Alan Macfarlane Reflections on Cambridge (Social Science Press New Delhi 2009) p.29

[7] Ted Hughes to Liz Grattidge 22 August 1955 (British Library Manuscript Collections Add MS 89198)

[8] Tim Ingold The Perception of the Environment (Routledge Oxon 2000) Quoting from the 2011 edition pp.145 – 6

[9] All references to the poem ‘X’ are from the exercise book of Ted Hughes labelled ’18 Rugby Street’ which is part of the Hughes archive Add. MS 88918/1/6 from the British Library

[10] James Wood ‘Dead Letters’ in Prospect Magazine #30 (May 1998)

[11] Sylvia Plath ‘Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows’ in Collected Poems (Faber London 1981) pp. 111-112

[12] The Bible Revised Standard (Collins London 1972) Psalm 137 pp. 501 – 502

[13] Robert Graves The White Goddess (Faber London 1948) p. 432

[14] Ted Hughes Unpublished Poem from ‘The ear-witness account of a poetry-reading in Throttle College, before the small poets grew up into infinitesimal critics.’ (Cambridge University Library ENGL1/155)

[15] Sylvia Plath ‘Morning Song’ CP pp. 156 – 7

[16] ‘The Song of Solomon’ from The Old Testament Collins Revised Standard Bible (Collins London 1952) pp. 536 – 8

[17] biblehub.com Song of Solomon 4:12 Pulpit Commentary

[18] ‘The Song of Solomon’ 4:9

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