Ted Hughes is considered to be one of the most gifted English poets of the 20th century. He was appointed Poet Laureate and, after his death, commemorated at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. His private life has also attracted much interest. However, one aspect of his personal experience he kept very much to himself: his deep attachment to Ireland and, in particular, to Connemara and Doonreagan.
To my husband and myself it came as a complete surprise to discover that our own home had once been the abode of this important author. It was on a fine spring day in 2005 that we saw a small hire-car drive up to the house. A couple got out and introduced themselves as authors from Israel. They explained that they were writing a biography of a woman called Assia Wevill, who had at one time been the partner of Ted Hughes, and that their research looking for the house where the couple had lived for a period in 1966 had brought them to our door.
When their book, A Lover of Unreason, was duly published, it transpired that the period Hughes spent at in Connemara was one he himself considered essential – an impression that was further strengthened the following year, when his letters were published by Faber. This kindled our interest in the role played by Doonreagan in the life and work of Ted Hughes, and the research we did uncovered some new, little explored angles of his life.
Not many people knew where he was in Ireland. He kept in touch with only a few of his closest friends at this time: fellow-poets Seamus Heaney and Richard Murphy, and artist Barrie Cooke. I was very fortunate in having personal contact with all three, and it was their unrecorded testimonies that inspired me to write my play Doonreagan. It was all in the eleventh hour, as Heaney and Cooke have since died, and Murphy has repaired to Sri Lanka.
Hughes was born in 1930 in Mytholmroyd, a once-active wool and weaving village set in a deep valley in the Yorkshire Pennines: one of these deep Yorkshire valleys, where, in the winter months, the sun barely touches the roof tops. But by climbing up the slopes onto the moor-land above, you enter a world of wide–open spaces, freedom and silence, except for the wind sweeping in from the North Sea. The untrammelled nature of the moors is in sharp contrast to the abandoned woollen mills in the valleys down below.
This freedom was well understood by Ted Hughes’ elder brother, Gerald, ten years his senior. Gerald took his young sibling up on to the moors when he was no more than three or four years old, teaching him there how to live in the wild, to camp, spot and catch wild animals and, not forgetting, to fish – a passion dear to Ted’s heart throughout his life.
In a BBC interview, before he came to Cashel, he described those first seven years as being “sealed off”: they seemed to him to represent his identity. The moorland landscape was imprinted on his psyche and his poetry intertwines in so many ways with the landscape. This “Spirit of Place”, along with what he called “the moist voices of the curlews” had a profound influence on Hughes and his work.
When Ted was seven, the family left Mytholmroyd to buy a small tobacconist and newsagent’s business in Mexborough, a bleak mining town in South Yorkshire. One reason for this move was the access to good schooling for Ted and his sister Olwyn. Encouraged, first by his mother and then by the English teacher of his grammar school, this is where Ted started to write poetry.
Post-war England, one has to remember, was a drab, ration-booked, bankrupt country, still ridden with class prejudice, the wartime comradeship having been quickly forgotten. It was into this milieu that Ted Hughes, a precociously gifted son of a jobbing carpenter-cum-tobacconist, won an open scholarship to Cambridge.
He arrived in Cambridge, having spent much time during his national service reading the works of Shakespeare and W.B. Yeats. One interest Ted shared with Yeats was astrology, which both he and Olwyn studied intently. But he soon discovered that it was far from easy to assimilate into the privileged literary scene in Cambridge, which, at the time, had little interest in working-class people. He had been writing poetry since an early age, but he felt that the study of English literature in Cambridge had little of value to offer him – if anything it gave rise to a distressing inability to write anything worthwhile. After an evocative dream about a fox, reflected in his well-known poem The Thought Fox, he switched to Archaeology and Anthropology for his final year.
Even though he had had just a few poems published in university magazines, Hughes was determined to become a poet, but money was the problem. He had no income. Once he finished his degree, he took on odd jobs, as a night guard at a steel factory, in a garden centre and at the London Zoo. The financial constraints of following a career in poetry were to weigh on him throughout much of his early career.
Still rootless after Cambridge, Hughes had applied for a free passage to Australia, but he turned it down, because he was slowly beginning to find his poetic voice and wanted to stay in Europe. But, more importantly, he had fallen head over heels in love with an American Fulbright scholar he met at a wild party in Cambridge. She, too, was a poet, her name was Sylvia Plath, and against all that was written in the stars and against the advice of close friends, he married her shortly afterwards, on Bloomsday – June 16th – 1956.
There have been few marriages between such acclaimed poets. The union lasted six years and had all the echoes of a Greek tragedy. For one thing, their temperaments were markedly different. Hughes’s nature craved for a freedom he had begun to express in his poetry. Sylvia, on the other hand, measured her worth in fame and success and became morose and downhearted with every rejection. Her craving for recognition was intense.
The couple moved to America, to New England, for two years. Sylvia taught at Boston University. She also prepared Ted’s collection of poems “The Hawk in the Rain” and entered it for the Harper Prize for the best first book of poems, which it duly won in 1957. This collection contained such well-known poems as The Thought Fox, Wind and Pike.
Although Ted was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his next collection, “Lupercal”, which momentarily bolstered their meagre finances, America was not a happy or fulfilling period for either of them.
Their daughter Frieda was born on their return to London, but their life in a small flat was cramped and difficult. Their only chance to work was by taking turns to look after their child and borrow a neighbour’s room where they could write.
The marriage was beginning to take a toll on both of them, even though Ted was now winning more prizes for his poetry and starting his long association with the BBC. In the summer of 1961, they decided to move to the country and used all their savings, plus loans from their parents, to buy a house, Court Green, in Devon.
However, before leaving London, they had to sublet the remaining three years of the lease on their flat. Among the several applicants who appeared, the Hughes plumped for a gentle Canadian poet, David Wevill, and his wife, Assia.
In January the following year, their son Nicholas was born, but to their friends, strains on the marriage were apparent. The chores and demands of family life, coupled with maintaining Court Green, much of which fell on Ted’s admittedly broad shoulders, didn’t make life any easier for them. Had either of them had a regular income from a secure job, events might have turned out differently, but for Ted this was not an option and in her troubled life, writing was Sylvia’s mainstay.
His potential remained unfulfilled. He was in what he called a pit at the bottom of a sunless valley and, metaphorically, dearly wanted to climb up onto moors again.
Into this fraught situation David and Assia Wevill were invited for a weekend at Court Green. Before leaving London, Assia boasted to her colleagues at work that she intended to “seduce Ted Hughes”, and she soon caught his interest. It wasn’t long before Ted and Assia embarked on an affair.
In July 1962, having become aware of her husband’s adultery, Sylvia Plath sent him packing to London. Thriving creatively, she spent a few months alone with her two small children in Devon, but in December went to live in a flat in London, in time for the January publication of her novel the Bell Jar. In spite of her artistic progress, she was deeply unhappy, and in February she and the children went to stay with friends in London. They worried about her depressed state, but on Friday, February 8th, after she had been out to a meeting with Ted in her flat, they noticed a new radiance about her: the dark mood seemed to have lifted. The following Saturday she left the house, not saying where she was going and not arranging for baby-sitting. No one ever found out where she went that day. On the Sunday, she spent much time in bed, before deciding to return home. As the friends reluctantly drove her and the children back to her flat, they noticed that Sylvia was weeping. Later that night, she put out milk and bread for the children, sealed the door of their room and, for herself, turned on the gas.
Assia Wevill, née Gutmann, has been blamed for the destruction of the Hughes’ marriage and the death of Sylvia Plath. But one has to remember that she was very much a product, not to say victim, of the world, and the time, she was born into.
Her father, a well-to-do Russian Jew, had settled in Berlin after the Russian revolution and practiced there as a doctor. To his family’s dismay, he had married a German woman. Their first child, Assia, was born in 1927, and her father doted on his little princess, indulging and pampering her.
But the family’s comfortable upper middle-class existence came to an abrupt end with the emergence of Nazi Germany. In 1933, realizing that they were becoming increasingly vulnerable, Dr Gutmann took his wife and two daughters away, initially to Italy, and then on to British-occupied Palestine.
Fast-forwarding to the 1960s, we find thirty-something Assia settled in London, married to a Canadian poet, David Wevill, after detours to Canada and Burma and another two husbands in passing. To all appearances, she and David were a happy couple: charming, attractive, sophisticated, and devoted to each other. Assia herself was seen as intelligent, stylish and classy, captivating and appealing, especially to men, with her cosmopolitan, exotic, cultured and yet unconventional nature.
The years following Sylvia’s death were difficult for the two lovers. Ted’s family openly disapproved of Assia, as did many others. Hughes himself didn’t let on to his family or close friends that he was still seeing her. He himself lived in Devon, and Assia in London, and her marriage remained intact. Even so, the relationship survived.
At this time, Ted Hughes had a desperate struggle on his hands, looking after his two motherless children, dealing with Sylvia’s literary estate, coping with his ageing and ailing parents and handling the increasingly frustrated Assia, who had recently given birth to a daughter. Also troubling him was the fact that Sylvia’s tragic end had given rise to much negative publicity, especially in America, where he was being blamed by the nascent feminist movement for virtually killing his wife.
In the circumstances, it is understandable that his creativity suffered. He was in his mid-thirties, and although well established as an acclaimed poet and broadcaster, he felt himself that his writing had reached a dead end. He longed for a change of scene, a chance to break the stalemate. And his thoughts went to Ireland, to Connemara, and his friend, fellow-poet Richard Murphy, who, at that time, had a house in Cleggan.
Murphy arranged for Hughes to take out a six-month lease on Doonreagan House in Cashel.
Assia needed little persuasion to abandon her third husband and a lucrative career in advertising in London for a new life with Hughes. She seems to have settled down quite easily to the quiet domesticity of life as a mother of three youngsters in remote Connemara – in those days far more remote than it is today. Ted seriously considered making Doonreagan their permanent home, though this, sadly, proved impossible.
The young local woman, Teresa Mannion, who helped with the chores, lived locally until her death last year. She had fond memories of the family. She describes them as “really kind and very friendly”, and the children as “lovely”. To her, as to others in the locality, they were known as simply Mr and Mrs Hughes with their three children. When the time came for them to return to England, Teresa was asked to come along and work for them there – an offer that she declined.
Their time in Connemara turned out to be a very happy interlude for them all. Frieda tells us she still remembers “the pretty white house on a hillside”. She herself was enrolled in Cashel school and local people still remember “the pretty blondie girl from England”. Little Shura celebrated her first birthday in the house. A letter from Hughes to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, describes the house in detail and mentions its host of daffodils. And this is still the view from the house in springtime.
Ted would conclude many years later, towards the very end of his life, in letters to those close to him, that his time at Doonreagan had offered “a breakthrough in his writing and in everything to do with himself”. As he wrote later to his son Nicholas, a flow of good inspiration in Connemara had helped him deal with the deep emotional tangle inside him: a single stride had plunged him right into the productive thick of his best chances. Sadly, it couldn’t be sustained. By the early 1970s, he again faced what he called the glass door that kept him cut off from his real self, and it remained shut until the 1990s, when he found himself ill with the cancer that subsequently led to his death. In leaving his experience of Connemara behind, he told Nicholas, he had “muffed” the best opportunity of his life to enter, in his own terms, “a wholly richer, more productive and complete existence”.
So – what was so special about Doonreagan? What did it offer that provided Hughes with something that he himself considered so important? It can probably be summed up in just one word: FREEDOM.
Freedom of the kind he had experienced with Gerald when first venturing on to the Yorkshire uplands. Writing to his brother in Australia, he compared Connemara to the Yorkshire moorland, but “with twelve high granite peaks sitting in the middle of it”.
And it was freedom to write without distraction, and without the sad and melancholy associations held by Court Green, where Sylvia’s spirit was still very much in evidence. In England and America, there was much controversy over the tragic death of Sylvia Plath. Ted found himself much more at ease in Connemara, where conversation in the pubs would revolve around matters close to his own heart: salmon fishing, livestock, wild life or even poetry.
Richard Murphy wrote to me with his impressions of Hughes’ experience here:
“For Ted at that time, the bleak bog-lands of Connemara were a benign surrogate for the moors of his childhood in West Yorkshire. Cashel had the advantage of distance and strangeness in freeing both him and Assia, for a good few months, from the guilt imposed upon them by Sylvia’s suicide.”
“Connemara,” he went on, “inspired Ted to write ‘Skylarks’, one of my favourite poems, and some of the poems in Wodwo. He also began the ‘super-ugly’ writing of Crow.”
This is in fact the desk at which we believe Ted Hughes wrote his Skylarks and other poems at Doonreagan. It is difficult to be precise about exactly what other work he completed there, since he continually revised his poems, often making several drafts over an extended period before arriving at the finished product. What we do know is that he worked intensely. In a letter to a friend he says he has finished one long poem and several shorter ones, besides working on an anthology.
The anthology he mentioned, with its detailed introduction, was “The Choice of Emily Dickinson’s Verse”, published in 1968 by Faber and Faber. The year before, the same publisher had brought out his third major poetry collection, “Wodwo”. Towards the end of his life, in an important letter to his son, Nicholas, Ted confirms that the “grasp of things” (his words) that took hold of him at Doonreagan House in 1966 stayed with him for roughly three years.
This period was highly productive for Hughes, with the development of his sequence of Crow poems, or “songs”, as he called them, the publication of “Poetry in the Making”, and the adaptation of Seneca’s “Oedipus” with Peter Brook, among other projects. “Wodwo” – the name is taken from a creature in a medieval poem called “Gawain and the Green Knights” – is a collection of poetry and stories.
Taken and absorbed by his Connemara experience, Ted Hughes was hoping to return to settle there permanently, but the plan had to be shelved because once more back in England, he had to cope with his parents’ failing health. In addition, his own work commitments as well as Sylvia Plath’s literary estate “devoured” him all over again. And in spite of frequent visits, amongst others to Peter O’Toole outside Clifden, with each year the freedom of the open spaces retreated further and further away from his horizon.
Ted Hughes, at least, survived the return to England, which is more than can be said for Assia and Shura. We’ll never know whether staying on at Doonreagan might have made a difference. Their deaths in 1969 were tactfully ignored by media, and few people were made aware that they had taken place. Even to his friends, Ted himself rarely alluded to his former partner and daughter – only twenty years later did he publish a limited edition of poems called Capriccio dedicated to them.
And there are others who remembered little Shura. Last year saw the publication of a volume by Richard Murphy containing this poem:
“EPITAPH FOR SHURA
Before you’d given death a name
Like Bear or Crocodile, death came
To take your mother out one night.
But when she’d said her last good night
You cried, ‘I don’t want you to go,’
So in her arms she took you too.”
To have lost two partners to suicide is by any standard a terrible indictment. But in my view, Ted Hughes can’t be held entirely responsible. Neither do I see the similarity between these three tragic deaths as a coincidence.
Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill seem to have had one common denominator: a tendency to project themselves symbolically. Something, to which Hughes the poet would have been highly susceptible.
But those who choose to live by an image – in Sylvia’s case a domestic goddess cum talented poetess, in Assia’s a sophisticated femme fatale, do this at their peril. Deep inside they remain unconvinced by their own contrived image, and so they depend on the world around them for constant and repeated confirmation of who they are. We know that Sylvia would plunge into deep despair at the slightest rejection of her work, and Assia had no compunction about leaving three consecutive husbands in favour of someone more promising.
Both these women would have fared better, had they worried less about how they wanted to appear and focused more on simply being themselves. I like to think this is what happened to Assia at Doonreagan – an environment too naked to allow for any role-playing. But if that was the case, the process was cruelly cut short.
Where I think Ted went wrong – twice over – was by falling in love with his partner’s symbolic persona, thereby unwittingly confirming it as her only worthwhile identity. Once his devotion to this chimera was withdrawn, they had nothing to fall back upon.
As a writer myself, I have always been attracted to the charisma of people like Sylvia and Assia, who actually represent something. In my younger days I worshipped such people, mistaking for self-realisation their carefully constructed identities. Until the day when a wise man told me:
“Don’t be tempted to live by an image; it’s a much too dangerous game. To survive in this world you need substance. And an image is no more substantial than a dream.”