Ted’s Spell

by Ben Sonnenberg

Our friendship began in London at Bill and Dido Merwin’s house in 1959. Ted Hughes was twenty-eight years old and I was twenty-two. I had never met anyone I admired so much who was at the same time so approachable. Ted’s voice was a level baritone with overtones of his birthplace in the Northwest of England. I listened to him so intently, literally on the edge of my seat, that I fell off my chair. When he helped me up from the floor, he didn’t stop talking and I felt the vibration of his voice running down his arm. To borrow words from his poem “Pike,” his voice seemed to come from a “Stilled legendary depth:/ It was as deep as England.”

We took long walks together, Ted with his daughter, Frieda, in a baby carriage, gossiping some (quite a lot, actually) but talking of poetry mostly. Ted would declaim long passages of Chesterton and Kipling. He would quote at length from Lawrence and the poets of the First World War. His quotations from Shakespeare, by contrast, were short. “As the Clown says in Measure for Measure…”. I remember that last quotation. I remember Ted’s voice as he spoke it. “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.” I wish I could remember of what it was apropos.
* * *

Ted and I were good friends in those days. Not close friends exactly, not intimate friends; but good friends nonetheless. I remember encountering him in Marylebone Road one fine fall day. I was in a jaunty mood. “Where are you off to?” I asked him. He told me he was heading for the bookseller Bertram Rota, then in Vigo Street, to sell him some manuscript pages. I said, “How much does he give you for them?” Five pounds, Ted said. I said, “I’ll give you ten.” I enjoyed transactions like that. I also gave Ted money to help start up Modern Poetry in Translation. I was quite the debonair young patron of the arts at that time.

There were two main obstacles to a deeper friendship between us. One was geography. Ted moved to North Tawton in Devon in 1961; for most of the 1960s, I was living in London and in the south of Spain. The other was Sylvia. I didn’t take to Sylvia. We were cordial to one another at first, but after she discovered that I knew people in New York who had once known her, she became distinctly cold to me. And yet, in his letters to me from Devon, Ted sends me her love and tells me of her interest in my work.

I never doubted Ted’s feelings for me. Like an ideal older brother, he showed real interest in my work, always overpraising it and encouraging me to write more. Not only did Ted pay attention to my writing, he also asked my opinions about his own. In his foreword to Difficulties of a Bridegroom, he tells of showing me his story “The Suitor” and of me saying “You should have called it ‘Death and the Maiden’.” That would have been during the winter of 1962, after his son, Nicholas, was born. “Your signsake,” he wrote of Nicholas, born under Capricorn. At times Ted’s belief in astrology seemed almost mediæval to me. At other times it seemed of a piece with his scholarly interest in spirits, witches, magic, alchemy: elements of understanding the Elizabethian world picture. It was different with Sylvia. Or so I gathered from Ted. “She witched herself into that building,” he said one day as we passed 27 Fitzroy Road, the house where Sylvia died (and where, as has often been noted, William Butler Yeats once lived).

Ted could be teased about his beliefs. (I doubt you could tease Yeats.) When he offered to cast the horoscope of my daughter Susanna, who was born in London in September 1965, I said,”You really believe in that stuff, don’t you, Ted?”

“Sometimes it’s a useful way of focussing one’s attention on a person.”

“So is a kiss, Ted.”

“Well, you’ve got me there, haven’t you, Ben?” he said.
* * *

I moved back to New York City in January 1966, and Ted and I kept up our friendship exclusively by letters. Ted’s are fitful, apologetic, often beginning with phrases like “Long time since I wrote you” or “Sorry for the long delay.” He writes me explications of Wodwo, Crow and Orghast and as always expresses interest in my work in the theatre. Most of his letters are handwritten on both sides of the paper, sometimes extending up the left-hand margin and ending upside down on the top. Rereading them, I hear his voice: energetic, hypnotic, unstoppable.

Ted came to New York in September of 1986. Except for a brief visit in 1984, this was the first time I’d seen him in almost twenty years. He was here representing the Plath estate in an action concerning the 1979 movie of The Bell Jar. The action was brought by Dr. Jane V. Alexander, a psychiatrist in Brookline, Massachusetts, who figured in both the movie and the book as a character called Joan Gilling. A scene in the movie shows Gilling making homosexual advances towards Esther Greenwood, as the Plath character was named. Dr. Alexander claimed that her reputation had been damaged by the movie and she was asking $6,000,000 in compensation, not only from the Plath estate but also from 14 other defendants, including Harper, the publisher of The Bell Jar, Avco Embassy Pictures and various other corporations. The trial was expected to last six weeks.

Ted arrived with his sister, Olwyn, at about four in the afternoon. We had tea in my living room, a long bright room on the Upper West Side with an oblique view of the Hudson. Ted and Olwyn were in New York in order to find a lawyer. Before them was the prospect of a long, expensive trial. Both of them were under strain, Ted the more visibly so. His complexion was pale and his long hair unkempt. In the States, he explained, more even than in England, he had to contend with the “maenads,” his term for those devotées of the cult of Sylvia Plath who blamed him for her suicide. I said I was sorry to see him so beleaguered. He said,”And I’m sad to see you in a wheelchair, Ben.” At our last meeting, three years before, the symptoms of my multiple sclerosis had not been so advanced.

Ted was back in New York in January of 1987. The whole affair was over almost before it began. There was to be a settlement of $150,000. “All that the doctor wanted, Ben, was to have her day in court,” Ted said. None of the judgement was chargeable to the Plath estate. Nevertheless, he told me, the costs to the estate had been considerable. “One year’s earnings,” he said. The amount was large. I forget how much exactly. It astonished me, though.

Olwyn wasn’t present that afternoon. A disappointment to me. I feel a bond with Olwyn. Ted came with the aptly named John Springer, a New York publicist. Christopher Hitchens was also there. Ted spoke of the lawyer Victor Kovner who’d represented the Plath estate. “Very good lawyer, wonderful man.

I asked him how much trouble the “maenads” had been. “No more than usual, Ben,” he said. “I’ve got John to thank for that.” Then he told me of Ted Cornish, a healer in Okehampton, Devon. “He has helped people over long distances, Ben,” he said. “I’ll give you his telephone number.” Nobody spoke for a moment. My wife, Dorothy, gave me a skeptical glance. I fancied I saw Christopher making a scornful mental note. Not for the first time in my friendship with Ted, I thought of that passage in Henry IV, Part I when Glendower says, “I can call spirits from the vasty deep” and Hotspur replies:

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

I promised I’d call Ted Cornish.
* * *

In 1990 I gave up the magazine Grand Street which I’d started in 1981. Failing health, rising costs. Ted wrote that he was sorry to hear that the magazine was folding. He went on to write: “In retrospect, I see I have submitted very little. Partly out of the wish to spare you having to turn down work from a friend.” But Ted’s contribution of three poems to the first issue of Grand Street was exceedingly important. It helped establish the magazine, and his second contribution, “Sylvia Plath and Her Journals,” in the third issue of Grand Street, made me feel that the magazine was indeed established. Ted had blessed the magazine, which was exactly the kind of privilege I had from Ted from the time of our first meeting, through our correspondance, up to the time he died: a beneficence, a blessing on everything I did.
* * *

After Ted died, his widow, Carol, sent me many photographs: Ted with the Poet Laureate’s stipulated cask of sherry; Ted fishing in Cuba, in Scotland; Ted with an aged Leonard Baskin; Ted with Carol over the years…. My favorite is of Ted holding the case containing the Order of Merit as the Queen looks on with a genial smile. Ted smiles too like a small boy who’s gotten the Christmas present he wants. Physically, he looks strong. In twelve days he was dead. Olwyn to me: “It’s almost as though he was suddenly shot.”

On October 11th, 1999, about a year after his death, I went with my wife to a tribute to Ted at the 92nd Street Y. Here is where I first saw him, in the Winter of 1956. He read then from The Hawk in the Rain which had been given a prize that year for the best first book of poems. Now several famous poets were reading from his numerous books and a famous actress was reading from his dramatic works. When they were done, the lights came down, and, over the sound system of the auditorium, we heard Ted’s spellbinding voice. He read “The Thought Fox,” from The Hawk in the Rain, with its last line, “The page is printed.”

Ben Sonnenberg lives in New York City. He was the publisher of the literary journal Grand Street and is counselor to CounterPunch. He is the author of Lost Property, which is available for free to CounterPunch Supporters.


BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.

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