When Sylvia met Ted

Fifty years ago, poet Sylvia Plath took her own life. Biographer Andrew Wilson reveals the night she met future husband, Ted Hughes

On 25th February 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath stepped into a roomful of people and immediately spotted what she later described as a “big, dark, hunky boy”. She asked her companions if anyone knew the name of this young man, but she received no answer. The party was in full swing and the freeform rhythm of the jazz – the ‘syncopated strut’ of the piano, the seductive siren call of the trumpet – made conversation difficult. Sylvia, in Cambridge studying on a Fulbright scholarship, had been drinking all night: a lethal line of ‘red-gold’ Whisky Macs at a pub in town with her date for that night, Hamish Stewart. The potent combination of Scotch and ginger wine had left her feeling that she could almost walk through the air. In fact the alcohol had had the opposite effect; as she had been walking to the party she had found herself so inebriated that she had kept banging into trees.

On arrival at the Women’s Union – the venue in Falcon Yard chosen to celebrate the first issue of the slim literary journal the St Botolph’s Review –  Sylvia saw that the room was packed with young men in turtleneck sweaters and women in elegant black dresses. Counterpointing the jazz, the sound of poetry was in the air: great chunks of it being quoted back and forth like rallies in a game of literary dominance and seduction…

Ted Hughes

By this point Sylvia had knocked back another drink, emptying its content into her mouth, down her hands and on to the floor. She then tried to dance the twist with [Lucas] Myers and, while her movements may have been less than smooth, her memory was razor-sharp. As she danced, she proceeded to recite the whole of Myers’ poem ‘Fools Encountered’, a piece she had read for the first time earlier that day in Saint Botolph’s Review.

When the music came to a temporary halt, she saw out of the corner of her eye somebody approaching. It was the same 'hunky boy’, the one she had seen earlier ‘hunching’ around over women. He introduced himself as Ted Hughes. She recalled the three poems he had published in Saint Botolph’s Review and, in an effort to dazzle him with her vivacity, she immediately began reciting segments of them to him. In retrospect, it’s ironic that one of the poems she declaimed, ‘Law in the Country of the Cats’, addresses the theme of enmity and rivalry that can often exist between individuals, even strangers. On first meeting, the attraction between Hughes – who had graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and had a job in London as a reader for the film company J Arthur Rank – and Plath was instant.

But Sylvia sensed something else too: ‘There is a panther stalks me down:/One day I’ll have my death of him,’ she wrote in ‘Pursuit’, a poem that she composeds two days later.

Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson is published by Simon & Schuster.

Photo credit: The Lilly Library Indiana University.