The following is one of my favorite poems, by (with out a doubt) one of my favorite poets of the modern day. Ted Hughes the master of poetry and not relationships. This poem is quite disturbing, although the way it holds together, seems to work really well. I enjoy the way, he shows the bulls fighting awkwardly, and I see that as an indirect reflection on the poet himself.
This is from his last collection of poetry that was published, Birthday Letters. It was in many ways an autobiographical work, a lot of it based on his relationship with Sylvia Plath. She committed suicide and this collection broke his 35 year silence on the matter. In the last eighteen months of his life, he struggled with cancer. It was during this he decided he needed to publish these poems about Sylvia.
This was published in February 1998, he passed away in October that year.
You Hated Spain Ted Hughes
Spain frightened you.
Where I felt at home.
The blood-raw light,
The oiled anchovy faces, the African
Black edges to everything, frightened you.
Your schooling had somehow neglected Spain.
The wrought-iron grille, death and the Arab drum.
You did not know the language, your soul was empty
Of the signs, and the welding light
Made your blood shrivel.
Bosch Held out a spidery hand and you took it
Timidly, a bobby-sox American.
You saw right down to the Goya funeral grin
And recognized it, and recoiled
As your poems winced into chill, as your panic
Clutched back towards college America.
So we sat as tourists at the bullfight
Watching bewildered bulls awkwardly butchered,
Seeing the grey-faced matador, at the barrier
Just below us, straightening his bent sword
And vomiting with fear. And the horn
That hid itself inside the blowfly belly
Of the toppled picador punctured
What was waiting for you. Spain
Was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver
You dared not wake with, the puckering amputations
No literature course had glamorized.
The juju land behind your African lips.
Spain was what you tried to wake up from
And could not. I see you, in moonlight,
Walking the empty wharf at Alicante
Like a soul waiting for the ferry,
A new soul, still not understanding,
Thinking it is still your honeymoon
In the happy world, with your whole life waiting,
Happy, and all your poems still to be found.
One thing that is common in the volume Birthday Letters is Hughes referring to Sylvia as American. This was her nationality, but its an indication on his relationship with her. I’m guessing that he felt a bit detached from her, which is the reason he refers to her as an outsider. He makes many of the poems personal, using the word ‘you’ that is a direct voice to Sylvia. So I see confusion in this poem along with the rest of the anthology.
Hughes at the time was a more established poet than Plath was, although I think he could sense that she was a genius. Some say if Plath hadn’t struggled with her personal life, she might’ve gone on to rival Hughes’ poetry. Sadly that’ll never be known. I also sense in this poem that he patronizes Plath. It is slight, although its clear that he does see she her as below him. Despite using the words like ‘you’ and ‘we’ he can’t escape isolating Plath, with images like “bobby-sox American” (line 13) and “your African lips” (line 29).
In the last line he speaks about her as happy. I’ve always associated that word with children, or a simple idea. This lasting word backs up my previous point that Hughes saw Plath as someone different from himself. This is inexplicably beautiful and tragic.