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Birthday Lettersby Ted Hughes
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. Who is the “you” that the author addresses in these poems? Does the “you” ever change, and if so, in which poems? Are any of these poems addressed to “you,” the reader?
2. Describe the person who is the subject and the object of these poems. What does she look like? How does she behave? How does the author feel about her? Are Hughess descriptions and characterizations always consistent? Given the fact that he does not name his object, what persuades us that he is writing about one person?
3. What does Hughes accuse the “you” in these poems of doing? If you were the person addressed in Birthday Letters, how would you answer him?
4. The poems in Birthday Letters tell a story. Is it possible to reconstruct that story without re-sorting to what we know about the “real” Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath? How might these poems strike a reader who knew nothing of their factual basis? Are we intended to read Hughess narrative as an accurate record of events?
5. Just as Hughes composes a portrait of Birthday Letterss “you,” he also gives us a sense of the “I” who is its narrator. What sort of character is he? Where is he sympathetic? What are his failings? Is the narrator the same person as the author?
6. Why are these poems presented in the order they are? Is their sequence strictly chronological? In what poems does the author foreshadow future events? Where does he flash back in time? Is it your sense that these poems appear in the order in which Hughes first wrote them or that he rearranged them to create a particular effect?
7. The poems in Birthday Letters belong to two types: straightforward narratives, like “St Botolphs” and “The Rabbit Catcher,” and allegorical poems, like “The Minotaur” and “The Bee God.” How do these styles differ? What are their respective strengths and weaknesses? Why might Hughes have chosen to tell his story in two different ways? Discuss other examples of these different poetic methods.
8. What story does Hughes tell in the poem “The Tender Place”? What is the significance of the scar he remarks in such poems as “St Botolphs,” “18 Rugby Street,” and “The Badlands”? In what other ways does he suggest that “you” (or, for the sake of simplicity, “Sylvia”) was emotionally unstable? Is his evidence convincing?
9. At different points in Birthday Letters, Hughes compares Sylvias madness to a machine (“The Machine”), a “womb-tumour” (“Moonwalk”), and an ominous “doppelgänger” in a painting (“Portraits”). Why might he have chosen to portray madness as something alien, an intrusion, rather than as an intrinsic part of Sylvias character? What are the ramifications of this vision? What other symbols of intrusion, invasion, or possession occur in such poems as “Black Coat,” “Remission,”“The Afterbirth,” and “The Table”? Who or what is the invader in “Dreamers”?
10. Among the many intruders in Birthday Letters is the specter of Sylvias father. How does his presence (and absence) inform such poems as “The Shot,” “Black Coat,” “The Minotaur,” “The Table,” “The Bee God,” “The Cast,” and “A Picture of Otto”? What is his significance to Sylvia? To the narrator? In what ways does the narrator suggest that this figure is responsible for Sylvias fate?
11. Hughes also describes Sylvia as wearing masks (“Moonwalk,” “The Earthenware Head”) and playing roles (“The Blue Flannel Suit,” “Setebos”). In “The Hands,” he compares her to a pair of gloves. What is the nature of these disguises and impostures? Does Sylvia adopt them deliberately? Do Sylvias masks and roles conceal a “true” self, and if so, what is it? In which poems does the narrator himself adopt a false persona, or become possessed by an alien self?
12. Hughes makes recurrent references to Sylvias Americanness (“Fulbright Scholars,” “Your Paris,” “Stubbing Wharfe”). What significance does he attach to this? How does he oppose this quality to his own Englishness? How do the poems set in America differ from those set in Europe?
13. Discuss the ways in which the poet uses animals (“Sam,” “The Owl,” “The Chipmunk,” “9 Willow Street,” “The 59th Bear,” “Epiphany,” “The Rabbit Catcher,” “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother”). How does Hughes manage to convey their animality while also turning them into symbols? What do the different animals symbolize? Why, in “Your Paris,” does Hughes describe himself as a dog?
14. What happens in the poem “Epiphany”? How does this incident become a test of the narrators marriage, and how does the narrator fail it? In what other poems does Hughes employ the metaphor of a test?
15. The poems in Birthday Letters contain allusions to Donne (“18 Rugby Street”), Shakespeare (“A Pink Wool Knitted Dress,” “Setebos,”), Chaucer (“St. Botolphs,” “Chaucer”), and Emily Brontë (“Wuthering Heights”), and to the poems of Sylvia Plath (“The Rabbit Catcher,” “The Bee God,” “Night-Ride on Ariel”). What is the function of these allusions? How might reading The Tempest or Ariel deepen your understanding of this book? In what ways is the entire book a response to the writing of Sylvia Plath? Does the use of literary allusions heighten or lessen the emotional impact of these poems?
16. Discuss the role of oracles and portents in such poems as “St Botolphs,” “Ouija,” “Horoscope,” “Grand Canyon,” “Fairy Tale,” and “Life after Death.” Do these portents merely foreshadow events in the narrative, or do they serve another purpose? By evoking fate so dramatically—and even luridly—is the poet suggesting that what happened to Sylvia was unavoidable? Based on the evidence in these poems, do you agree?
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