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American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 95-117

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Moore, Plath, Hughes, and "The Literary Life"

We climbed Marianne Moore's narrow stair
To her bower-bird bric-à-brac nest, in Brooklyn.
Daintiest curio relic of Americana.
Her talk, a needle
(Whoever has her letter has her exact words.)
Ted Hughes, "The Literary Life"

Marianne Moore and Sylvia Plath? An odd couple. Marianne Moore and Ted Hughes? An odder couple still. But in the 1950s, Moore's literary life was remarkably public and social. She was an important friend to Plath, then to Hughes, and then, to Plath's dismay, not to the two of them together. This much of the Moore-Plath-Hughes story has been available at least since the publication of Plath's abridged journals in 1982, but now there is more to consider because of the poem sequence Birthday Letters, in which Hughes violated his need to distance himself from Plath and her admirers; time was drawing short and he wanted to set the record straight.1

Published in 1998, Birthday Letters has already garnered a great deal of attention, but the attack on Moore in "The Literary Life" has gone largely unnoticed.2 This thirty-third poem in the sequence is not obviously part of the failed family romance narrative that organizes the volume, and to date journalist Erica Wagner's has been the only substantial commentary. She finds Hughes's narrative of a spoiled friendship unremittingly bitter. Yet the sardonically titled memory-poem reveals more than bitterness "undisguised" (150). "The Literary Life" imagines a reader willing to look harder for the missing letter described in the poem and, by extension, Hughes complicates previous accounts of the fate of Plath's famously missing journals.3 I have located this letter from Moore to Plath, which, together with several other previously unpublished letters by Moore, [End Page 95] reveal some of the fault lines in Hughes's account and in the gendered politics of mid-twentieth-century Anglo-American poetry.

Birthday Letters opens with the question, "Where was it?" (3), a question that reverberates poignantly throughout the sequence as the poet shapes his tale of perversely missing years. Lamenting the fate of his literary life/wife, Hughes writes to Plath, "The dream you hunted for, the life you begged / To be given again, you would never recover, ever. / Your journal told me the story of your torture" (Birthday 21). As represented by Hughes, Moore emerges as one of Plath's torturers and, to a lesser degree, as one of his own. Initially, however, Moore was not "spiteful" as Plath concluded (Unabridged 406) or, as Plath's poem "The Rival" would have it, "Spiteful as a woman" (Collected 166). Rather, Moore liked Plath personally, wanted to help her, and admired her talent. She nevertheless came to find Plath lacking in "spiritual resilience," then called her "bitter," "burnt out." Eventually, Moore attacked her for being a mother. Historicizing Moore's growing estrangement from Plath provides a more thickly textured account of Hughes's role in this personal and social drama than has been available—a role minimized, not to say virtually eclipsed, in his poem. In the end, Moore was even more deeply resistant to Plath's project than has been previously supposed and for somewhat different reasons.

1. The Contest for Spiritual Resilience

In a personal letter written on 13 and 14 July 1958, Moore agreed to recommend Plath for a grant, but she also called her "too unrelenting." In this essay, I explore both the public and private significance of Moore's criticism of Plath and of Plath's response to that criticism, which she interpreted as "spiteful" (Unabridged 406). The relationship between the two poets began auspiciously enough, when Moore helped Plath to win a prize while she was still a senior at Smith College, but the future was bleaker. Early on, Plath was eager to establish herself as "The Poetess of America" (Unabridged 360) or, if that goal proved impossible, to establish herself as a representative woman poet of her time. It...


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