After her death in 1963, Plath's wish to leave behind a meaningful legacy was fulfilled when her Ariel collection of poetry, and her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, were hailed as masterpieces of modern feminism, causing her to become a feminist icon in the 1970s. Hughes' apparent wish for redemption is realized in this autobiographical collection of poetry. The literary response to the publication of this collection was one of sensation. It was unknown at the time that Hughes was suffering from a terminal disease that may have prompted this unexpected release.
Hughes' Birthday Letters topped the best-seller lists immediately. This was arguably due to public fascination with a persistent mystery surrounding the lives of the two icons. Within a short period of time the collection was awarded the Forward Poetry Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whitbread Poetry and Whitbread British Book of the Year prizes.