As published in the Guardian's Books Blog

The suicide of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's son Nicholas is tragic, but don't make it about poetry


On the morning that the tabloids are all leading with the story of Jade Goody's death, the reactions to the announcement of the suicide of Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, seem all too sadly predictable.

According to the news released by his sister, Frieda, Nicholas Hughes had suffered for years from depression. He had had a long and distinguished career as a marine biologist, a professor at the University of Alaska. But of course that is not the story people want. "Depressed person commits suicide" is not a headline. A headline is "The Curse of Plath!"

Yet the "curse" idea is repellent. Repellent to those afflicted with depression; repellent to those whose friends or family have been so burdened; even repellent to lovers of poetry. Sylvia Plath killed herself after many years of psychological instability – she had attempted suicide in her teens, had undergone ECT. Her marriage had broken down, she was living with two small children through one of the coldest winters for decades. Like all too many others, before and after, in a desperate moment, she killed herself, having first carefully set out bread and milk for her two toddlers in their cots. That she had just written some of the great poems of the twentieth century is neither here nor there. She was a great poet, and a depressed person. She was not a great poet because she was depressed; she was not depressed because she was a great poet.

But her posthumous fame rests (a little) on her work, and (mostly) on her death. Ted Hughes was turned into the motivating force, and was hounded for the rest of his life by those who felt he "caused" her suicide.

Then, as though in a recurring nightmare, six years later his partner, Assia Wevill, killed herself in the same way – and this time, killed her small child, too. That Hughes could recover from that, and go on to have a stable life, was held against him: he was somehow not playing the game. The Plath industry needed material to feed on. Copies of Ariel were never going to sell as well as copies of books about the woman who wrote Ariel – and certainly there was more mileage in films about Plath. As well as a 1979 film version of Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, in 2003 Gwyneth Paltrow made the world's most implausible poet of any sort.

Poor Dr Hughes. His death is, no doubt, doomed to be swept into this vortex of gossip and sensationalism. Depression is hereditary, to a degree, and there is probably more influence from knowing of one's own mother's despair. But did he die of great poetry? Of course not. That is what Sylvia Plath should be remembered for, just as marine biologists will respect Dr Hughes's own work. Anything further is circulation fodder.


No comments yet.

Leave a Comment


We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept