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Birthday Letters

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  8,330 ratings  ·  364 reviews
Formerly Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, the late Ted Hughes (1930-98) is recognized as one of the few contemporary poets whose work has mythic scope and power. And few episodes in postwar literature have the legendary stature of Hughes's romance with, and marriage to, the great American poet Sylvia Plath.

The poems in Birthday Letters are addressed (with just two
Paperback, 198 pages
Published March 30th 1999 by Farrar Straus Giroux (first published January 10th 1998)
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The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult84, Charing Cross Road by Helene HanffThe Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan PoeThe Color Purple by Alice WalkerBirthday Letters by Ted Hughes
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Average rating 3.92  · 
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Apr 28, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2010, poetry
I need to get something off my chest with this one. I'd read Birthday Letters a few years ago, I guess when I was first getting into Plath and was not particularly interested in the warzone of the Plath/Hughes legacy. I also didn't really give much thought to poetry at the time--if it was pretty or vaguely shocking, I'd nod and think, 'Well, look how smart I am, for reading this.' So I think I let Hughes off the hook last time--and I should clarify to say that I don't hate Hughes' poetry; I'm ...more
Apr 24, 2010 added it
Ted Hughes has an uncomfortable place in the room where Sylvia Plath killed herself (and another in the room where his next wife, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their only daughter) -- he was the gas, he was the ovens, or he was the mark to which the the dial was turned. Maybe he was the sealed doors.

In Birthday Letters he places himself in and around that first room, Plath's room. And those places are horrifying, those he occupies and also those spaces he seems to have to leave empty.
Bionic Jean
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. A marriage made in heaven—or in hell? A tempestuous marriage akin to Anthony and Cleopatra. Passion and drama played out on a very public arena. Many will know of the controversial couple, yet perhaps not know Ted Hughes’s poetry.

It is Sylvia Plath who has the adulation, the tragic story; committing suicide in 1963, seven years after her marriage to Ted Hughes. At the time I was not aware of this, being a little too young. I did come across Ted Hughes’s poetry as a
Manuel Antão
Oct 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2002
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

Black Thread: “Birthday Letters” by Ted Hughes

(Original Review, 2002)

Hughes acknowledged he repressed his own feelings for many years after Plath’s suicide. The poems he wrote before his death, “Birthday Letters”, were an outpouring of these feelings about his love for Plath. It was a top seller. If Hughes had published them as a younger man it would have helped his development as a great poet, but due to the repression, it did him
Oct 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I wanted to hate this.

I've read enough by Sylvia Plath to know that I love her.

I've read enough about her relationship with Ted Hughes to know that I hate him.

What bullshit is that?

Of course I know nothing about either of them.

I know what's been written of their marriage, it's breakdown and the next chapter of suicides in Ted's life.

That tells me nothing.

What I read in this collection was rawness of love and loss. His side of their relationship.

Was it any truer than the accusations that
Rebecca McNutt
Some of the poetry in this novel is absolutely amazing and gripping, others in my opinion not so much. There does seem to be some, for lack of a better phrase, filler. Either way it's still a good collection with a lot of creativity to it.
Jonathan Terrington
Jun 15, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: university literature students, poetry lovers, anyone interested in Sylvia Plath
Recommended to Jonathan by: university course
Shelves: university, poetry
Ted Hughes wrote Birthday Letters across his life and published it shortly before his death. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had once been married and divorced before Plath committed suicide. This anthology of poetry is as a result a collection of poems addressing Plath as 'you' like a letter, a response to her Ariel (as seen in the references to 'ariel' and 'bees' in various poems. One problem of criticism of the poetry however, is a criticism that haunts many books unfairly. That this is merely ...more
Roman Clodia
Jun 26, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: plath-hughes
Given Hughes' notorious reluctance to speak about his volatile marriage to Sylvia Plath, this collection came as a shock when it appeared in 1998. Comprising poems written since Plath's suicide in 1963 this is both intimate and a public dialogue, a way of speaking back to Plath, her poems, and also the world which sometimes turned Hughes into a patriarchal monster of a husband.

The best of the poems draw on Plath's own works, re-using her texts, titles, imagery and language to offer Hughes' side
Alexis Hall
I'm not actually a huge fan of Ted Hughes as a writer.

As a human being--whose life and misdeeds are basically publicly property--I have no comment.

I like this, I'm almost afraid to say, because it is ugly. Self-justifying and painful and tender and unpleasant. An raw mixture of unspeakable things.
Alice-Elizabeth (marriedtobooks)
NOTE: I'm really close to a milestone on my Instagram (3,000 followers!) and would love to reach it:

I honestly don't like Hughes as a person, his writing on the other hand is a completely different story... Birthday Letters is a haunting and quite depressive collection of poetry, written after the suicide of his wife (poet Sylvia Plath) taking the reader on a journey into the mindset of a person who is reeling after loss. Some of the poems contained do
David Schaafsma
I read this because I am teaching a postwar American fiction class this spring and we are reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (and some of her poetry) for the class. I hadn't wanted to read it so much, I hadn't wanted to revisit my anguished feelings about her life and poetry prior to her suicide, but I had given the enrolled students a chance to choose novels from this period, and some of the class wanted to read it, so I added it. Then, I recalled never having read this book by Ted Hughes, her ...more
Zoë Danielle
Sep 25, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
"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."

In Birthday Letters Ted Hughes offers 88 responses to Sylvia Plath in chronological order, beginning when he first met her, following her 1963 suicide and the years after as he raised their two children amidst the legend his wife left behind following her early death. Although I knew both Plath and Hughes were poets, I had
Tom Bensley
Sep 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing
My last review for a book of poetry (Plath's Ariel) was only a few lines long. Perhaps it was because I was tired, I'd just written another review or, the more plausible, I was scared of reviewing poetry. Poetry is not something you casually bring up with your mates after a few beers or during a penniless poker game because chances are that they couldn't care less. Or, you just don't want to sound like a fool. My reason was the latter. I was convinced that to review poetry one is required to ...more
Oct 28, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: poetry
Ugh, what a chore this was to get through. I've read random Hughes poems before and have liked them, so I was surprised and disappointed that I did not like this collection--at all. Where to begin? Maybe with "You had a fever. You had a real ailment." This was the condescending tone that Hughes employed throughout many of his poems. I am sure he had a very complicated relationship with Plath, and being involved with someone with mental illness is very challenging (and I can imagine the anger I'd ...more
Apr 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I read this alongside the Feinstein biography of Hughes, which was illuminating. i'd recommend doing the same as it helps place the locations and events that inspired the poetry. The collection is raw in places and reflective in others, frequently nail-on-the-head brilliant. He's a poet who teaches that the big fancy words aren't what's always needed ('wet shops' - God, can you think of a better description of Yorkshire? - 'the canteen clutter of the British restaurant'- this is pre-coffee shop ...more
James Murphy
Jul 21, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a reread. I've read a lot of Hughes in the 10 years since I first read it, his poetic memoir of his and Plath's life together. Enjoyed it more, I think, saw more in it, being 10 years improved as a reader. Some of these poems are beautiful. Some are powerful. One or two are elegant. Many of them see their relationship in cosmic terms, a treatment I like a lot. Toward the end they spiral into the surreal as if they follow the arc of her madness. Like everyone else I was gobsmacked by ...more
Courtney Kellner
Mar 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
The freezing soil
Of the garden, as I clawed it.
All around me that midnight's
Giant clock of frost. And somewhere
Inside it, wanting to feel nothing,
A pulse of fever. Somewhere
Inside that numbness of the earth
Our future trying to happen.
I look up - as if to meet your voice
With all its urgent future
That has burst in on me. Then look back
At the book of the printed words.
You are ten years dead. It is only a story.
Jun 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2013
Picked this up at the library after viewing the 2003 biopic Sylvia starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig as Literature Kingdom's second-best star-crossed angel-handed demon-scratched lovers. Very intriguing how again and again Hughes fetishizes Plath's apple-pie-eating, horseback-riding blonde-tall-muttmix Americaness as some sort of alluring alien Otherness: we in the New World might as well be stepping down from a hovering silvership when we (she, really, she, pretty Plutonian Plath) ...more
maybe one day i will revisit these poems with a more comprehensive biographical knowledge. maybe one day i will join the mythological dots to form a constellation of further meaning that i cannot, at this moment, with my fragmented and disjointed understanding fully discern. maybe one day i will approach these poems as things to be understood, rather than experienced. but not this time, my first time reading them. i have gathered only impressions, brief glimpses of memory, resonating with guilt ...more
Apr 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetshere
The Birthday Letters are deliberate and often dense. The memories are often monuments. The weight of time and often judgement arrests the lyrical tide. These pauses offer space to consider. Is there a culpability drifting across the pitch like an errant mist? If there is, then each of must face similar drifts. Bears was my favorite, I imagined Sylvia and Ted on their American road trip akin to Humbert and Dolores. There was never one sock—-only Daddy. Aztecs and crematoria are but tributaries ...more
Yona Yurwit
Feb 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
I feel like Plath has become a becon for many women writers, and Hughes is cast as the villain in her life, the man holding the knife. This collection finally gives readers access to his perspective. Through his lens, we see Plath's unpredictability, self-loathing, and the pressure she put on him: he was her lightning rod. In particular, I loved his verson of the Rabbit Catcher, as that is my favorite of Plath's poems, and his take on it brings the story to fascinating new light. I enjoyed the ...more
Karlo Mikhail
Aug 28, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: poetry
'Drawing calmed you. Your poker infernal pen / Was like a branding iron. Objects / Suffered into their new presence, tortured / Into final position.' I like two or three of the more than eighty poems here. But in general I find Ted Hughes an abominable figure and this aestheticized denigration of Sylvia Plath distasteful. For instance: 'What I remember / Is thinking: She'll do something crazy. And I ripped / the door open and jumped in beside you.' Most unfortunate is the fact that Plath can no ...more
Elli (The Bibliophile)
Dec 31, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: poetry
Ted Hughes is definitely now one of my favourite poets and I look forward to reading more of his work! I'm sure a lot of these poems flew right over my head but I look forward to retreading this collection and learning more about his life!
Rachel Louise Atkin
2.5 stars. Good but not my kinda poetry.
Jan 20, 2012 rated it liked it
I know a lot about Plath. Like many women, I discovered her as a teenager. "The Bell Jar" was on a required summer reading list for my high school, and I loved it at the time. I started reading her poetry, then her unabridged journals, then the published collection of her letters to her mother, the collection of essays and short fiction Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts, then all the biographies I could find. Even the verse fictionalization of her ...more
K Gomez
Jun 06, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
I noticed that my understanding of these poems is far better seven years after I first read them. I felt less like I needed to 'study' them than I once did. The rawness of the emotion and the sometimes startlingly clear biographical references make these very important poems. The best poems in this collection are, in my opinion: 'The Shot', 'Fullbright Scholars', 'Freedom of Speech', 'Isis', 'Being Christ-like', 'Epiphany', 'Setebos', 'The Tender Place', and 'Telos'. There is a beautiful line in ...more
Apr 06, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really liked about 80% of these poems. The other 20% just didn't interest me, perhaps because they were so specific that I couldn't grasp Hughes' intent? I loved the way in which Hughes used this book as sort of a good-bye to Sylvia. Though everybody has their theories about the reason behind her suicide, and no one can necessarily say Ted was a good husband, I have to admit that I found a good handful of the poems quite romantic. They were tragic, yes, but I do think, despite Ted's screwed up ...more
Michael Ransom
Feb 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
Ted Hughes can do no wrong, poetically speaking, in my mind. However I only gave 4 stars instead of the 5 I usually give to all his works, because I feel these poems don't quite match up to the lyrical intensity of his wildlife focused poems of either his youth (Lupercal, Crow) or his older, wiser age (Wolfwatching). These poems are remembrances of his former life (many if not all with S Plath) and as such they can't really steer clear of sentimentality because that's the whole point. ...more
Dec 07, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: poetry
"I was a whole myth too late to replace you." - A Picture of Otto

I have to disagree with those who think this collection can stand without its biographical aspect -- these poems, especially as a collection, need Plath (at least some knowledge of her life, art, and death) or else they sink deeper into the shadows of their specially-tailored world.

Hughes has a knack for beautiful observations and so far this is what I like most in his works. There are fragments, phrases, that I cherish and a few
Aug 20, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: poetry, read-in-2011
I'm sure that many Plath fans will have read Birthday Letters and wished that they could have been a fly on the wall of Sylvia and Ted's marriage. This collection of reflective and emotionally charged poetry will be the closest any of us will come to gaining such a private insight. Although it's painfully clear in these works that Hughes loved Plath dearly, there's also an uneasy tone of sadness and judgement which made some of the poems especially difficult to read. Birthday Letters is a book ...more
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Edward James Hughes was an English poet and children's writer, known as Ted Hughes. His most characteristic verse is without sentimentality, emphasizing the cunning and savagery of animal life in harsh, sometimes disjunctive lines.

The dialect of Hughes's native West Riding area of Yorkshire set the tone of his verse. At Pembroke College, Cambridge, he found folklore and anthropology of particular
“Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter, your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,
Looking for something to give.”
“The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it”
More quotes…