Birthday Letters Summary

Birthday Letters Summary

Fulbright Scholars

‘Fulbright Scholars’ is the first poem in Ted Hughes’ collection, ‘Birthday Letters’. With the majority of the poems in the collection being about Hughes’ late wife, Sylvia Plath, this poem fittingly comes first as it recollects the time Hughes first saw her. The poem describes how he saw a picture of the Fulbright Scholars in the newspaper and he uses his memory, along with hindsight, to remember if he saw her in the photograph. The detailed description of her features suggests he would have remembered seeing her in the newspaper that day and highlights the affection he feels for her instantly at the beginning of their relationship. Hughes then goes on to describe how he buys a peach, tasting its sweetness and acknowledges his ‘ignorance of the simplest things’, an ambiguous statement referring to the fruit and Plath.

The Tender Place

In this poem, Hughes looks at the electroconvulsive therapy Plath was administered in her teenage years. Used as a way to tackle depression and other mental health problems, Hughes critiques this old-fashioned outlook on mental health. By using a contrast of physical, gentle description with the harsh actions of the electric volts, Hughes is highlighting how innocent and childlike Plath is at this point in her life. The poem also describes how Plath was mentally scarred by this treatment for the rest of her life and it never helped her overcome her depression.

The Shot

Another poem feature in the collection is ‘The Shot’. Using imagery of a bullet, Hughes describes the possible triggers for Plath’s suicide. He refers to her ‘Daddy’ as being the guilty one behind the gun, suggesting his death in 1940, when Plath was just 8 years old, may have been the source of her depression. It is known from Plath’s own poetry that she lost her religious faith after his death and began to sink into her happiness began to deteriorate. ‘The Shot’ also compares Plath herself to a ‘high velocity bullet’ as her talent and career have proven to be ‘Alpha’ but must eventually come to a brutal end point. Hughes takes responsibility away from himself and states how her suicide acted as a bullet which now goes through him; a ripple effect stemming from her father.

Life After Death

From the first line of the poem, it can be suggested that Hughes is addressing his late wife and poet, Sylvia Plath. Plath committed sluiced in February 1963, and the poem describes how Hughes and their two children are living after her death. The first stanza addresses the emotions of their 1-year-old son, as he cries and cries from his high chair. Hughes notes the resemblance between his son and Plath, describing his features as ‘so perfectly your eyes,’.

Hughes moves on to mention their 3-year-old daughter, and how she is becoming number to the pain of losing her mother. He uses the metaphor of a wound to shows the pain she is feeling in her heart and how he unsuccessfully tries to mend her as each day passes.

Hughes then describes how he himself feels as though he has been hanged, all life slowly draining out of him. We know this is not the case, yet the language urges us to believe he may rather be dead than face the pain. Despite being the father of the household, he acknowledges the infant state he is now in as he feels hopeless and just as powerful as his babies, ‘in our separate cots.’

The second half of the poem describes the night time, where the family attempt sleep as an escape from the pain. Hughes speaks of the wolves that surround their house and howl, what he believes is a sign that Plath is still with them.

The weather of the cold February represents their emotions as they are numb from the snow. The harsh ending of the poem describes the brutal death of Plath and how their two infants are now without a mother, questioning if they are able to understand this fact.

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