Life studies

Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the story of birthday letters

Erica Wagner <em>Faber &

In the last year of his life, Ted Hughes broke his more than 30 years of silence on the subject of his first wife with the publication of Birthday Letters on 29 January 1998. Hughes chose this date as astrologically auspicious for poetry. The collection has since received several awards and was an instant bestseller. Perhaps there is something in the stars, after all.

In her engaging companion, Ariel's Gift, Erica Wagner, the literary editor of the Times, argues against reading the poems as Hughes's final word, or as his answer to the accusations that have raged against him since Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963. For Wagner, Birthday Letters is first and foremost a work of art, rather than a biography or memoir, and should not be judged simplistically "as a kind of headstone over Hughes's long career".

The media interest surrounding the first publication in England of Plath's complete journals, edited by Karen V Kukil, is testament to her enduring fascination. With the poems as her framework and her constant point of reference, Wagner tells the story of the 20th century's "best-known and best-loved poets" as she feels Hughes wanted us to hear it, guiding us towards his feelings of tenderness and incomprehension.

Wagner's cross-referencing reveals how Hughes sometimes reinvents past details to add meanings. In his re-creation of his first passionate meeting with Plath in "St Botolph's", he steals her "blue" headscarf, although he cannot have been unaware of the "lovely red hairband" she describes in her journal. As in the work's first, questioning line - "Where was it, in the Strand?" - Hughes is reminding us of the fallibility of memory.

"Child's Park" relates, as Wagner has it, an incident when the couple saw young girls heedlessly picking rhododendrons, which provoked Plath to write a furious diary entry and her "Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers". Hughes asks: "What did they mean to you, the azalea flowers?" By choosing azaleas, he recalls Plath's "Electra on the Azalea Path" and the ghost of her dead father.Wagner places the poems - especially "The Shot", "The Table" and those that echo Plath's - in the context of Hughes's belief that all Plath's work stemmed from her Oedipal love for her father, who died when she was eight.

Wagner is especially sensitive to the movement and shape of the collection as a whole. She leads us chronologically through the poems and their changes in tone: those of the couple's hopeful, early years; the turning point halfway through, when the balance of life and death in "Remission" tips over in the dark "Isis"; and the more abstract final poems after their separation.

The portrait that emerges of Plath is the familiar one of a woman divided between the optimistic girl of 1950s America as revealed in Letters Home, and the darker, self-doubting personality of the journals. Wagner does not disguise what Janet Malcolm, in her excellent polemic The Silent Woman, calls Plath's "not-niceness" - which is the overriding characteristic of the Ariel poems. But unlike almost all Plath's previous biographers and documenters, Wagner maintains a cool detachment (despite the similarities between her own situation as an American writer living in England and that of her subject). This is a generous, respectful study, which, like its design, elegantly complements Hughes's Birthday Letters.

The author is deputy arts and books editor of the NS