Perfect Light

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Perfect Light

Ted Hughes
1998

What astounds many readers about Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters (1998) is the tender, honest, and confessional voice that rises from the poems. Hughes is known for his emotional detachment from the situations about which he wrote, an aloofness of voice that reveals little about his speaker's sentiment and even less about his own. His language is often harsh and explicit in describing violence, whether in the natural world of animals or in human society, and his subjects avoid personal experience, particularly any overt reference to his wife, fellow poet Sylvia Plath. But then he published an entire book written in memory of her.

Birthday Letters includes eighty-eight poems composed over a twenty-five- to thirty-year period, and traces the couple's brief but saturated life together, from the first date and marriage to separation and suicide. Some of the poems are thought to have been inspired by specific letters and photographs of Plath that Hughes rediscovered while preparing her papers for sale to Smith College. "Perfect Light" is one such poem.

Based on a 1962 photo of Plath in a field of daffodils holding their two children, "Perfect Light" describes the physical scene and ends with an ominous metaphor suggesting the mother's inescapable fate. With atypical softness and sentimentality, Hughes addresses Plath directly as the "you" in the poem, portraying her in angelic terms and comparing her innocence to that of the children, before concluding that such a blissful moment was doomed to fade into a "perfect light." BirthdayLetters is the only collection in which this poem appears.

Author Biography

Ted Hughes was born August 17, 1930, in the village of Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire, England, but grew up in Mexborough. In school Hughes was encouraged to write poetry by teachers who recognized his talent, and he was later awarded a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied English literature. His fascination with animals and their connections to humankind caused him to change his major to anthropology, and after earning his bachelor's degree in 1954, he moved to London to work as a zoo attendant and gardener.

Hughes returned to Cambridge for a master's degree in the late 1950s. He fell in with the literary crowd and published several poems in local journals. At a party he met a young American Ful-bright scholar named Sylvia Plath, who was also a poet, and the two were immediately drawn to one another. Within months they were married, so beginning a tumultuous relationship that neither could have anticipated would end in such tragedy.

The couple moved to America in 1957 and both taught at universities in Massachusetts. The same year, Hughes had his first collection of poetry published. In 1959 they moved back to England. They had a daughter in 1960 and a son in 1962, and seemed to live simple, pastoral lives without much money, encouraging one another's poetic efforts and enjoying their children. But a darker side of their marriage came to light when Hughes had an affair with a German woman, Assia Wevill. Plath committed suicide in 1963, a few months after her husband left her.

For years to come, Plath followers blamed Hughes's infidelity for her death, some even attending his readings only to stand up and shout, "Murderer!" when he took the stage. Tragedy struck Hughes again in 1969 when Wevill also committed suicide, adding to the anguish by first killing their two-year-old daughter.

A year later Hughes married again, moving with his wife to a farm in Devon where they raised sheep and cattle. For the next three decades, Hughes wrote prolifically, publishing poetry, drama, literary criticism, and works for children, though he was never able to escape completely his fate as Plath's


husband, and worse, as one of the reasons for her death.

Scholars, however, have long recognized Hughes's place as one of England's greatest poets of the twentieth century. He was made poet laureate of Great Britain in 1984, and was a recipient of many literary awards in his long career, including the Guinness Poetry Award in 1958 for The Hawk in the Rain, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1998 for Birthday Letters. Birthday Letters, which contains the bittersweet poem "Perfect Light," is Hughes's tribute to Plath—to their marriage, their love, their children, and their grievous ending. Only months after publication of Birthday Letters, Hughes died of cancer, October 28, 1998, in Devon.

Poem Summary

Line 1

In the first line of "Perfect Light," the speaker establishes the second-person address of the poem, talking directly to a "you" and implying that he is looking at a photograph of the person. Though he does not mention a picture specifically in this line, the phrase "There you are" suggests the premise and the rest of the poem confirms it. This opening line also contains the first use of the word "innocence," which will be used a total of three times and here refers to the innocent appearance of the woman in the photograph.

Lines 2–3

These two lines further establish the setting, explaining that the woman in the picture is "Sitting among [her] daffodils," the latter word another one that will appear repeatedly in the poem—five times to be exact. In line 2, the speaker reveals the picture specifically, suggesting that its subject appears "Posed" for a photograph that should be called "'Innocence.'" This second use of the word "innocence," coming so quickly after the first one, serves to emphasize the speaker's opinion that the woman is a symbol of purity and childlike naiveté.

Lines 4–5

The phrase "perfect light" is not only the title of the poem, but also appears two times within the poem. In line 4, it refers to the sunlight or daylight that shines on the face of the woman sitting in the field of flowers. The light is "perfect" for picture taking, and the speaker compares the woman's facial features to a daffodil. Line 5 contains the second and third uses of the word "daffodil," which create an ironic twist in the way they are presented with the word "Like." The first phrase—"Like a daffodil"—simply makes the comparison of physical beauty between the woman and the flower. The second phrase—"Like any one of those daffodils"—initially seems to make the same point, to be a repetition of the simile just used. The line immediately following, however, shows that the speaker has something different in mind.

Lines 6–7

The comparison in these lines is between the brief length of time that the ephemeral daffodils will exist in the field and the same short amount of time that the woman will have to live among them. These lines foreshadow her sorrowful fate but still reflect the soft tenderness of the speaker's feelings. Line 7 ends with an introduction of someone or something else in the photograph, something the woman holds in her arms.

Lines 8–10

The second subject in the picture is the woman's "new son," whom she holds "Like a teddy bear" against her. The child is only "a few weeks" old, or a few weeks "into his innocence," and while the third use of the word "innocence" describes the boy, the woman is still portrayed in her own childlike purity, like a little girl holding a teddy bear. The speaker further glorifies the mother and child by comparing them to the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. Now the woman and her son are not just innocent, but "Holy" as well.

Lines 11–13

These lines introduce the third person in the photograph, the woman's "daughter, barely two," sitting beside her mother and "laughing up" at her. At the end of line 12, the phrase "Like a daffodil" appears to modify the description of the little girl that comes just before it, but not so. The first word in line 13 is "You," meaning the woman, and this is again the person who is compared to the flower. This time her face is like a daffodil's when it turns downward, as she leans over to say something to her daughter.

Line 14

This final line of the first stanza marks a shift in the tone and setting of the poem. Whatever the woman says to her little girl cannot be understood by the speaker, and the camera of course cannot capture it either. The word "lost" is especially significant here in that it describes not only the woman's fate, but also that of the speaker, their marriage, even their love.

Lines 15–17

The gentle tone and pastoral imagery of the first stanza is replaced with a despairing voice and war images in the second stanza. In these first three lines, the speaker describes the hill on which the woman is sitting as a "moated fort hill, bigger than [her] house." A moat is generally constructed to protect a castle from assault, and this image suggests that the woman is in need of protection from something or someone. The "knowledge / Inside the hill" on which she and the children sit refers back to the final lines of the first stanza, in which she bowed her head to speak to her daughter. Whatever her words were, they are now kept secret by the earth that took them in.

Lines 18–20

The phrase "Failed to reach the picture" refers to the "knowledge" in line 15 and reemphasizes the fact that neither the speaker nor the camera knows what the woman said to her daughter. The speaker personifies time with military imagery, saying it comes toward her "like an infantryman / Returning slowly out of no-man's-land." The location of noman's land is significant because it means the land between two warring parties, suggesting that the woman is caught up in the middle of her own private war, though what its cause is or who the armies are is not revealed.

Lines 21–22

The phrases "Bowed under something" and "never reached you" refer back to the woman's "next moment" in line 18. The notion that her future "never reached" her parallels the previous idea that the knowledge of her words "Failed to reach" or to be captured in the photograph. The final line of the poem again foretells the woman's fate in saying that her next moment "Simply melted into the perfect light." The phrase "perfect light" suggests something darker, something far from perfect.

Themes

The Brevity of Life

The repetition of the word "daffodils" in "Perfect Light" is more than a technique of style to make the poem cohesive. It is also evidence of the dominant theme that runs through many of the poems in Birthday Letters: life is preciously short, and even shorter for those who take their own life. The word appears five times in this poem. Three times the word "daffodils" is used with the word "like" to make a direct comparison between the subject, Plath, and the daffodils. Hughes presents such a powerful, recurrent connection between them that the flowers become his ill-fated wife as she becomes them. The basis of this relationship and the glue that holds it together is the brevity of life, both that of the daffodils and Plath's. In a poem called "Daffodils" from this collection, Hughes writes that "We knew we'd live for ever. We had not learned / What a fleeting glance of the everlasting / Daffodils are…. the rarest ephemera— / Our owndays!" What a fleeting glance and rare ephemera Plath's life turned out to be. As "Perfect Light" declares, she had but one spring to live among her daffodils, and though the flowers would return the following year, Plath would not.

A theme purporting the shortness of human life may seem too obvious to be of much value, but it is made more complex here because the brevity is helped along by suicide. A poem about the death of an elderly person or someone who is killed or succumbs to disease is certainly worthwhile and not unexpected. But in "Perfect Light," the grim reality of a woman's death by gassing herself in the kitchen oven is remarkably contrasted by the personification of her in tender spring flowers. Hughes had the advantage of writing this poem some years after Plath died; had he written it the same day the photograph was taken, he may have concentrated on the beauty of the daffodils and the serenity of the countryside, comparing only those items to his wife and children. As it was, however, the flowers came to represent something more pressing, something darker in their lives, and Hughes makes that clear through the repetition of one word.

Topics for Further Study

  • Read some of Plath's poetry and compare the style and voice to that of Hughes's poems in Birthday Letters. What are the main similarities and differences?
  • If the Hughes-Plath scandal had occurred today instead of in the early 1960s, how would it have been handled differently in the media and by British society? Would there be any difference in the British and American responses?
  • For years, Plath fans placed blame for her death directly on Hughes. What does current psychology research suggest about the cause of most suicides? Is it right or wrong to blame the admittedly unfaithful husband for his wife's taking her own life?
  • What effect does the repetition of the words "innocence" and "daffodils" have on the first stanza of this poem? Instead of these words, what other words may have been repeated for a similar effect?

Innocence versus Knowledge

Another compelling theme in this poem is the tension between innocence and knowledge, between the perfect light of blameless simplicity and the perfect light into which knowledge fades, leaving one blind to it. Throughout the entire first stanza, which is nearly twice as long as the second, Hughes stresses over and over again the innocent physical appearance and emotional demeanor of his wife, their children, and the overall setting of the photograph that inspired the work. If the poem ended after line 14, the theme would be only innocence and would conclude with an intriguing yet still expected outcome. But the second stanza presents an about-face, taking place inside the speaker's mind instead of within the setting of the photograph and exploring the effect of knowledge on the naiveté of both the speaker and the woman in the picture.

Knowledge is ironic here; it is both horrible and unattainable. It is horrible for the speaker because he can never know what words of wisdom, or simple, loving platitudes his wife spoke to their daughter as the picture was snapped. Just as sadly, it is unattainable for the woman because she is completely unaware of what her next moment will bring. If there must be a victor in the struggle between innocence and knowledge, Hughes awards the title to the latter, as he expresses by the end of the poem.

The word "innocence" is nowhere to be found in the second stanza. Something quite the opposite now dominates the scene, along with the concept of failure and inability. Neither knowledge nor time can make its destination, and both would-be recipients suffer for it—Plath with her life and Hughes with a lifetime of haunting memories and unanswered questions. The sudden shift from daffodils and teddy bears to an infantryman and no-man's land gives testament to the tormented emotions with which the poet was left after his first wife's suicide. It was also the knowledge that remained, a knowledge that came to dominate so much of Hughes's work, though he managed to conceal its direct source until the publication of Birthday Letters.

Style

Contemporary Free Verse

The style of "Perfect Light" is contemporary free verse, but that does not mean it is totally without any structured format. While the voice is conversational and the language is unadorned, the poem is driven by the force of repetition. This work revolves around three central, repeated words and ideas: the word "daffodil" is mentioned five times, "innocence" is mentioned three times, and the notion of inevitable failure appears twice in the second stanza. The first stanza becomes almost rote with daffodils and innocence, but the technique is very effective in driving home the speaker's frame of mind. He relates both flowers and tender naiveté to every aspect of his subject, and manages to keep the repetition from becoming monotonous by using the repeated words in ironic places. Both "daffodils" and "innocence" are paired with expected and unexpected partners, the daffodils expressing both physical beauty and a short life and innocence, foretelling a haunting, lifelong struggle to understand and overcome past misery.

In the second stanza, the technique of repetition is more somber and concentrates on the frustration of failure. "Failed to reach" and "never reached you" are phrases that are already effective by themselves, but they are made more forceful by appearing only three lines apart. In a relatively short poem, this technique works especially well, and in an otherwise typical free-verse effort, it adds cohesiveness where there may not seem to be any. Beyond the technique of simple repetition, "Perfect Light" is in line with ordinary contemporary free verse, containing no direct rhyme and following no pattern of meter or poetic form.

Historical Context

The premise of "Perfect Light" makes it clear that Hughes based the poem on a photograph taken in 1962, judging from the ages of his children in the picture. When he actually wrote the poem is anyone's guess, as the so-called "Sylvia" poems were written over a twenty-five- to thirty-year period. This particular poem, however, never appeared in any other collections during those decades, as others from Birthday Letters did, and may well have been penned later in his career. Hughes's incessant privacy makes it difficult to put an exact date on much of his autobiographical work, and it is unlikely that any social, cultural, or political events of the time had any effect on the poems inspired solely by his relationship with and love for his first wife. Nonetheless, despite his reclusive behavior, Hughes was certainly a citizen of the world while preparing this collection for publication in the 1990s, and that decade brought significant changes to his native Great Britain as it did to many nations across the globe.

From the outset, the British government was undergoing a shake-up as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 after her economic policies resulted in decaying inner cities, and her opposition to greater British intervention in Europe caused a revolt within her own Conservative party. The Conservatives, however, managed to hold onto power in the 1992 elections, as John Major came to power, bringing with him more moderate, middle-of-the-road policies than those of his predecessor. A central focus of Major was the ongoing conflict between the government and the Irish Republican Army of Northern Ireland. A peace initiative led to a cease-fire in 1994, but by 1996 renewed violence had erupted again. Peace talks began again in 1997 and within two years both sides had reached an agreement to end direct rule by the British government in Northern Ireland.

The early 1990s also saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the official end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. These events also had a positive impact on Great Britain, America's staunchest ally, particularly with a greater unification of Europe. But being an ally also meant supporting the United States in a time of war and in 1991, when the Americans bombed Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, the British were there as well.

Another critical development in Great Britain during the 1990s was the nation's participation in the European Union, or EU. While some Britons called for a limited role, others said the country should be vigorously active in the organization, but previous disputes with other member nations did not always make that possible. In 1996 an outbreak of mad cow disease in England worsened relationships when other EU nations banned the import of British beef. By 1999 the ban was lifted when the EU approved Britain's plans for controlling the disease, but France continued its own ban, further straining British-French relations. The two nations experienced an on-again-off-again relationship throughout the decade, with one high point being the completion of the Channel Tunnel project in 1994, which began in France eight years earlier. This tunnel linked England not only to France, but to the entire European mainland.

Still another point of contention in Great Britain was the proliferation of the "Euro" monetary system in the late 1990s, which some European countries embraced immediately and others more reluctantly accepted. A supporter of the new European currency, Labour Party leader Tony Blair became prime minister of Great Britain in 1997. Blair's move to decentralize the government was greatly supported, and Scotland and Wales established their own legislative bodies, giving them a more independent voice in their domestic affairs. Both houses of Parliament also voted to strip most hereditary peers of their right to vote in the House of Lords, a tradition of British government deemed impractical under the Blair administration. The popularity of Blair's government was made evident again a few years later when the Labour Party handed the Conservatives a sound defeat in the 2001 elections.

It is doubtful that the affairs of government or the economy bear any significance on Hughes's "Sylvia" poems, and just as unlikely that any gossip about Royal divorces or marriages, the tragic death of Princess Diana, or the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep in Scotland were any source of inspiration for such personal poetry. And while one can never completely discount the effect of culture or society on any individual, those who maintain a highly private life and derive creativity from within seem less susceptible to either. As poet laureate, Hughes was compelled to meet his public duties, but when it came to Plath, he was definitely one of the private ones.

Critical Overview

Unfortunate for both Hughes and poetry readers in general, the critical reception to his work has often been based more on the man's personal life than on the poet's talent for writing. But Hughes-the-ogre did not hit the presses until 1963 after Plath's death, meaning that Hughes-the-poet enjoyed at least six years of keen interest, even high praise, for his early poetry. Following the publication of his first collection, revered fellow poet W. S. Merwin lauded the young Hughes's work in "Something of His Own to Say," a 1957 article for the New York Times Book Review: "Mr. Hughes has the kind of talent that makes you wonder more than commonly where he will go from here, not because you can't guess but because you venture to hope."

As it turns out, it really was not possible to guess, for after the highly publicized scandal regarding Hughes's unfaithfulness to Plath and her subsequent suicide, many critics and scholars began reading his work more to find hidden references to the tragic marriage and violent ending than for mere poetic creativity. Those critics who did concentrate on the poems themselves highlighted the overuse of violent animal imagery, dark settings, and bleak themes, usually considering the vehemence and gloominess a reflection of the poet's personality. Nonetheless, Hughes's raw gift for poetry did not go unrecognized by British literati, and he was made poet laureate of the nation and awarded several prestigious awards over the years, despite the personal controversy.

After the publication of New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, a shift in criticism began. Hughes was finally recognized for having a side—a tender, reflective, loving side—that the public had not seen before. Writing a review of this collection for World Literature Today, critic Peter Firchow observes about the sixteen "Sylvia" poems in the "Uncollected" section at the end of the book: "Hughes had never before permitted so intimate a poetic glimpse into this much-excavated-and-speculated-about patch of his life…. [These poems] are bythemselves worth the price of the entire collection."

In an article called "Owning the Facts of His Life: Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters," from the Literary Review, critic Carol Bere writes, "While there is little question that much of the impact of poems turns on the immediacy of biography … this should not override the realization that Birthday Letters is a major work of poetry by Hughes, containing some of the most visceral, accessible writing that he has produced to date." Hughes would enjoy this kind of criticism only a few short months before his death, but perhaps the praise was at least a small satisfaction for him, even if it came much too late.

Criticism

Pamela Steed Hill

Hill is the author of a poetry collection, has published widely in literary journals, and is an editor for a university publications department. In the following essay, Hill addresses the turnaround in scholarly opinion on Hughes's personality after the publication of his last collection of poetry.

Now that both Plath and Hughes are dead, more fair and equitable analyses of their tragic relationship is being written than was ever afforded them while alive. This is especially true for Hughes, of course, who spent the last thirty-five years of his life fending off scornful reports of his marital infidelity and evading accusations of near-murder in Plath's death. Truly, he did not help himself much by refusing to be interviewed about the entire affair or about his reaction to the suicide and by having the gall to edit Plath's poetry and fiction, burn one of her journals, and limit access to all of it. Some say those were grounds enough to brand him an arrogant rogue and coldhearted brute for life. Perhaps Hughes's stony silence on this terrible episode was not an attempt to conceal how little he cared but, rather, how much he grieved. Perhaps his inhospitable aloofness was really painful insecurity. Maybe he loved his wife more than the world had a right to know.

Emory University in Atlanta now houses the two-and-a-half ton Hughes collection of manuscripts, journals, and letters acquired about a year before the poet's death. Opened exclusively to scholars in 1999, the archive has proven to be an eye-opener for those privileged to have seen the material that comprises it. In an article for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution titled "In a New Light," journalist Bo Emerson writes about the scholars' reactions, saying, "Their early verdict: Hughes is a different man and a different poet than we knew." One visiting researcher, poet Carolyn Wright (quoted in Emerson), notes that the writings present "a consistent voice, the voice of a man who is deeply, deeply marked by this violent death of this woman he loved so much." Summing up the previously undisclosed material most poignantly, Emerson asserts that "Birthday Letters was, in a way, the interview that Hughes never gave." From that final collection, the poem "Perfect Light" is an apt representative of what the poet may have felt in his heart but refused to speak with his tongue.

The primary evidence that "Perfect Light" was written with honesty and openness is that the subject of the poem is addressed directly. Hughes did not attempt to evade forthright expression by using a more distant third-person "she" or hiding behind any ambiguity in who the person he is speaking to really is. "There you are" (italics mine) starts this poem off with unmistakable candor from the speaker to Plath, essentially leaving the reader on the sidelines to be a mere observer of or eavesdropper on an intensely personal utterance. And consider this: nineteen times in this brief poem Hughes uses the word "you" or "your." Nineteen times in twenty-two lines he directly addresses his dead wife, creating such a compact, feverish attempt to communicate his feelings about her, for her, and to her that it seems almost overkill. Almost, but not quite. Here, what may appear to be exaggeration and overuse of a technique is really something as simple and honest as desperation. Repeating "you" and "your" over and over is the method of a man compelled to get his message across, not to the world, but to the only one who matters to him, dead or alive.

The first stanza of "Perfect Light" in particular is loaded with repeating words, and both "innocence" and "daffodils" embrace a tender affection and sweet lovingness that seem so unlikely coming from Hughes. How odd for a husband accused of driving his wife to suicide to compare her beauty to a flower, her gentleness to that of a child holding a teddy bear. This suspected lout even goes so far as to liken Plath to the mother of Jesus and to portray the entire family setting as not only pastoral and comforting, but supernatural and holy. The first fourteen lines of this poem are so saturated with sweetness that they beg for a touch of bitterness, or at least a good reason for their candy coating. And Hughes does not disappoint. Ironically, as sappy and sentimental as the first stanza is, it in no way can overshadow the brutal reality of grief and sorrow that permeates the second. Yet the poet does not lose his tenderness in the last eight lines, only the premise in which it exists.

If a sunlit field of daffodils and Plath's innocent appearance early on represent the youthful, sincere love of a young married couple, then the "moated fort hill" and infantryman returning from no-man's land later must symbolize the vulnerability and grief of the one left behind. But even in the midst of such harsh military verbiage, the tone is still soft, the voice still placid. Hughes turns to images of violence because he must in order to keep the poem honest. Plath may have died peacefully in her sleep when her lungs filled with gas from the oven, but the circumstances of such a demise are truly horrible. When one considers the entire situation, all of it reeks of violence and misery and pain. Like war. These images in the second stanza suggest a sudden and complete turnaround in the emotions of both Plath and Hughes, a change that neither could foresee nor, more sadly, prevent.

The sentiment of "Perfect Light" is not that of a man who had no feelings for his wife while she was alive and certainly not that of one who was unaffected by her death. While Plath fans were busy shouting down Hughes at his own poetry readings and chiseling his name off their heroine's tombstone, no one really knew what was going on inside the very private, estranged husband whose feelings must have run the gamut from guilt to exoneration, anger to grief. Still other more sober, nonjudgmental readers and critics allowed Hughes the benefit of the doubt, at least in order to give the poet a fair chance to live his own life and create his own work, which was admittedly some of the best poetry of the time. It was as though they were willing to accept the fact that only Hughes would ever be the one to know how he really felt about Plath's suicide and public opinion did not matter. In the same vein, the "knowledge / Inside the hill" on which Plath was sitting in the "Perfect Light" photograph would forever be lost to Hughes who could not hear what words his wife had spoken to their daughter when the picture was taken. Most likely they were only benign phrases of love from a mother to a daughter, but casting them off misses the point. What Hughes will really never know is why she did it. In spite of his obvious infidelity, in spite of the trouble between them, in spite of any painful influence his leaving had on her, why did she take her own life?

This is undoubtedly a difficult question to answer regarding anyone who chooses suicide as a way out. First, one must ask, "A way out of what?" In Plath's case, many of her friends, mourners, and fans were quick to answer, "A life made miserable by her lousy husband." But how can one individual truly force such a final, self-imposed sentence on someone else, especially when that someone is a young mother with two beautiful children who surely adore her? The fact is Plath had problems long before she met Hughes. Her journals and her poems reflect a less-than-perfect childhood and a volatile relationship with both parents. Her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar portrays the life of an emotionally unstable young woman bent on selfdestruction. And most importantly, at least in Hughes's defense, she had already attempted suicide in the early 1950s—years before ever meeting the young British poet. This, of course, is not to detract from the sorrowful fact of Plath's death nor to sympathize with an unfaithful husband who surely could have handled his personal life with less selfishness and more consideration of how his behavior would affect others. But to place wholesale blame on Hughes for his wife's suicide seems, at best, a reactionary move on the part of shocked and misinformed groupies, and, at worst, a pathetic attempt to further the cause of feminism by glamorizing the suicide and acting as judge and jury to publicly convict the "guilty." After Birthday Letters, some members of the jury have rescinded their verdict.

In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, Emerson contends that "Through it all, Hughes refused to explain himself or to be interviewed about Plath." It was likely this profound obstinacy that fed much of the accusatory outcry from a public already hungry for the juicy details. But would the condemned poet have been able to appease angry Plath supporters by laying open his heart on the matter? Would they have had sympathy for a thoughtless scoundrel who walked out on his wife and children for another woman if he had gone before a microphone and confessed his true love for the one he abandoned? Not likely. Hughes had every right and every reason to keep his private thoughts private, his personal grief personal. In the end, though, he came forward to let the world know that he did indeed love Plath and that he did indeed mourn her loss.

Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on "Perfect Light," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003.

Daniel Moran

Moran is a teacher of English and American literature. In this essay, Moran examines the ways in which Hughes's poem evokes a sense of "double time" in the viewer.

The literary and the visual arts are very similar. Each strives to capture a moment, tell a story or pin down something that would otherwise be lost in the flow of time. When a writer composes a piece of written work about a piece of visual art, neither of the original pieces remain unchanged: the written work affects how one views the visual and the visual work informs the way a reader approaches the written. Understanding this relationship is key to understanding Hughes's "Perfect Light" and its issues.

An historical example of this relationship between the visual and literary arts will suggest, by analogy, what happens to any reader of "Perfect Light" who knows the basic story of Sylvia Plath. In 1555, Pieter Brueghel painted "The Fall of Icarus," a work depicting the mythological character who flew too close to the sun on his man-made wings. The painting shows Icarus plummeting into the sea—but doing so far in the background. The foreground features scenes from the daily grind of peasant life: plowing and shepherding are given much more space on the canvas than Icarus, who is a mere speck near the horizon. Almost four-hundred years later (in 1938), W. H. Auden published "Musee de Beaux Arts," a poetic appreciation of Brueghel's painting and an insight into the vanity of human literal (and figurative) attempts at flight. The lines in which Auden praises the old masters (like Brueghel) because they "never forgot" that "dreadful martyrdom must run its course" in a "corner" or "some untidy spot" offer a critical commentary on the painting; they also, however, affect the way that any viewer of the painting will re-examine it. Reading Auden's poem affects the way a viewer sees Breughel's painting and, of course, looking at Breughel's painting will affect the way a reader understands Auden's poem. "The Fall of Icarus" and "Musee de Beaux Arts" exist independently from each other, yet they are welded together in a kind of artistic Gestalt.

Ted Hughes's "Perfect Light" works in much the same way as Auden's poem: it is the speaker's reaction to a work of visual art (in this case, a photograph) that changes the way the reader looks at and understands the work being described.

But what exactly changes? How does this change occur? A simple experiment will illustrate the change in a less profound but more immediate way: show anyone the photograph of Plath and her children on which the poem is based but do not identify the people in it. What does the unassuming viewer see? A woman, thirty or so, sitting in a field with two children (presumably her own). She is smiling at one of them, a girl; with her left arm she cradles an infant. The setting is pastoral; the daffodils in the foreground and held in the little girl's hand are in tune with the mood of the photograph. It is a picture of motherhood, of a quiet day in the country—or of "innocence," as Hughes labels it.

Now, tell the person to whom you have shown the photograph that the woman is Sylvia Plath, the poet who would commit suicide less than a year after the photograph was taken. Everything changes. Her smile becomes more complex. The children become objects of pathos rather than only "cute kids." All of the ideas a viewer had about the photograph are exploded. The daffodils, once finishing touches on a bucolic scene, become ironic commentators on the people they surround; the viewer searches for clues or some indication in the photograph that suggests Plath's later fate.

The photograph has not changed, but the viewer has. What brought about this change? Knowledge. The discovery that the smiling woman in the photograph is dead and died at her own hand. The meanings of words and images are ambiguous and complex enough, but they become even more complex and ambiguous in the flow of time. This is not to suggest that a modern viewer's ideas about the photograph are more profound or complex, instead, they have been informed and shaped by the knowledge brought with time. Shakespeare's rousing play about Henry V conquering France meant one thing in 1599 and quite another in 1944, when England was in the throes of World War II.

"Perfect Light" works by evoking this sense of "double time," the sense that there are, in a way, two "versions" of the photograph. First, there is a kind of prelapsarian one in which Plath and her children seem posed "as in a picture" titled "Innocence," and a kind of postlapsarian version in which the viewer's knowledge of good and evil (and suicide) make Plath's smile more enigmatic. Knowledge is power, but it also pulls one out of paradise, in this case, the paradise of innocence where there is no suicide or torrent of emotions that need to be sorted out in verse.

The poem begins by addressing Plath directly: "There you are, in all your innocence, / Sitting among your daffodils, as in a picture / Posed as for the title: 'Innocence.'" To an innocent observer who had never heard of Sylvia Plath, Hughes's description would seem an apt one, but those who know her fate cannot be so comfortable. Plath seems posed "as in a picture" titled "Innocence," but she is not. Instead, she is posed for a picture with a much different and unspoken title, a title that would (if one could) encapsulate all of the contrary emotions felt by Hughes while viewing this photograph. The only way in which the photograph could be titled "Innocence" would be if the person bestowing the title were wholly unaware of its subject's tragic end. Yet, Plath's own innocence of what would be her fate can still be perceived by Hughes and it is his perception of this innocence that he tries to convey to the reader.

The daffodils and "perfect light" of the title are similarly viewed as both innocent and ironic. Plath is, in one sense, like the daffodils surrounding her: beautiful and positioned so as to catch the rays of the sun just so. The light illuminates Plath's face "like a daffodil" while Plath turns her face to her daughter in the posture of a daffodil. However, such comparisons also invite another, more sobering one: "Like any of those daffodils / It was to be your only April on earth / Among your daffodils." As Robert Frost remarked, "Nothing gold can stay," and the thoughts of the natural death of the daffodils in the photograph serve as a reminder of the unnatural death of Plath. On one level, the April referred to here is the April of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a time of life and growth ("that Aprill, with his shoures soote"), but in another sense it is the April of Eliot's The Waste Land ("April is the cruelest month"). Both Aprils are present, in the photograph and the poem, simultaneously.

As Hughes's eye scans the photograph, it finds other details that suggest a longed-for (yet impossible to attain) prelapsarian view. Her "new son" is "Like a teddy bear" and "only a few weeks into his innocence"; he and Plath seem the epitome of "Mother and infant, as in the Holy portrait." The infant Jesus is, of course, a symbol of innocence, yet one is also reminded of another time in which the Virgin Mary held her son: the Pieta. Any depiction of the infant Jesus brings with it the knowledge of his ultimate fate on the cross, just as any photograph of Sylvia Plath brings with it the knowledge of her suicide.

The stanza break signifies the moment in Hughes's apprehension of the photograph when he deals directly with the fact that he is looking at a soon-to-be suicide: the "knowledge" that she would kill herself is "Inside the hill" on which she is posed. The landscape itself seems pregnant with meaning. Hughes remarks that this knowledge "Failed to reach the picture," but this is only true in one sense. While Plath is innocent of the knowledge of what she will do to herself, Hughes (and, by extension, any informed viewer) is not. The hill is compared to a "moated fort hill" to make it seem like a bastion of innocence, a place protected from the knowledge that time will bring. This knowledge, however, is "Inside the hill"—in other words, the very thing against which this bastion of innocence is supposed to stand has already corrupted it. One cannot pretend that the knowledge of Plath's suicide is not there. Thus, Plath's "next moment," a moment that would both disrupt the "perfect light" and bring her closer to her suicide, was "coming towards" her "like an infantryman / Returning slowly out of no-man's-land"—but never "reached" her. In other words, the moment is static, frozen in time by the photograph, and in that frozen moment, the violence that the "infantryman" time would bring to her is no match for the power of her innocence. Therefore, it "Simply melted into the perfect light." The poet thus stands in awe of Plath's innocence while simultaneously struggling with the knowledge that longs to assault such innocence. One cannot avoid the knowledge brought about by time, nor can one pretend that such knowledge does not affect one's perceptions of the past. Before Plath's suicide, the "perfect light" is that of perfect innocence; today, the light seen in that photograph is painful and ironic.

Source: Daniel Moran, Critical Essay on "Perfect Light," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003.

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Sources

Auden, W. H., "Musée de Beaux Arts" in Collected Poems, Random House, 1991.

Bere, Carol, "Owning the Facts of His Life: Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters," in Literary Review, Vol. 41, No. 4, Summer 1998, pp. 556–61.

Emerson, Bo, "In a New Light," in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 19, 1999.

Firchow, Peter, Review of New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 407–08.

Merwin, W. S., "Something of His Own to Say," in New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1957, p. 43.

Further Reading

Hughes, Ted, New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, Faber and Faber, 1995.

When Hughes came out with this collection, many readers were surprised to find a selection at the end of this book of previously unpublished poems that were unmistakably written to and about his late wife Sylvia Plath. This comprehensive book provides an excellent overview of Hughes's entire career and a first glimpse of the much-sought "Sylvia" poems.

Plath, Sylvia, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil, Anchor Books, 2000.

Kukil, the supervisor of the Plath collection at Smith College, has carefully transcribed the journals Plath kept between 1950 and a few months prior to her suicide. There is perhaps no better way to try to understand her thoughts, emotions, and feelings about Hughes than to read them in her own words.

Scigaj, Leonard M., ed., Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, G. K. Hall, 1992.

This book contains close to twenty essays by various critics, scholars, and poets and provides a good variety of Hughes analyses. Discussions include Hughes's performance as poet laureate, his poetic style, and several articles on his major volumes of poems.

Wagner, Erica, Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of "Birthday Letters," Faber and Faber, 2000.

Wagner's exploration of the intense, destructive relationship between Hughes and Plath is considered one of the fairest, most comprehensive looks at the lives of these two poets. She includes commentary to the poems in Birthday Letters, pointing out the actual events that inspired them and explaining how they relate to Plath's own work. This book is both a guide and a literary companion to Hughes's final collection.

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