Monday, March 23, 2009

Sylvia Plath's Son Dies By Suicide

Ben Hoyle, The Times Arts Correspondent, has written a detailed account of the news that Nicholas Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s son has died by suicide.


The son of the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath has taken his own life, 46 years after his mother gassed herself while he slept.

Nicholas Hughes hanged himself at his home in Alaska after battling against depression for some time, his sister Frieda said yesterday [March 22, 2009].

He was 47, unmarried with no children of his own and had until recently been a professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Dr. Hughes’s death adds a further tragic chapter to a family history that has been raked over with morbid fascination for two generations.

He was only a baby when his mother died but she had already sketched out what he meant to her in one of her late poems.

In Nick and the Candlestick, published in her posthumous collection Ariel, she wrote: “You are the one/ Solid the spaces lean on, envious./ You are the baby in the barn.”

Later his father wrote of how, after Plath’s death, their son’s eyes “Became wet jewels,/ The hardest substance of the purest pain/ As I fed him in his high white chair”.

Neither he, nor his sister nor their Poet Laureate father could ever fully escape the shadow cast by Plath’s suicide in 1963 and the personality cult that then sprang up around her memory.

Ted Hughes was hounded for the rest of his life by feminists and Plath devotees who accused him of driving her to her death by his infidelity.

In 1969 he suffered another terrible loss when his mistress gassed herself and their daughter in an apparent copycat suicide.

Plath’s friend, the poet and critic Al Alvarez, once said: “I would love to think that the culture’s fascination is because Plath is a great and major poet, which she is. But it wouldn’t be true. It is because people are wildly interested in scandal and gossip.”

Her turbulent marriage to Hughes became a modern myth, from their first meeting at Cambridge where he kissed the young American Fulbright scholar “bang smash on the mouth” and she bit his cheek so hard that it bled, through the whirlwind secret wedding all the way to its catastrophic ending.

Plath’s suicide in effect froze her children in time so that in the public memory they remained a one-year-old and a two-year-old lying in their cots, carefully sealed off from the gas leaking over their mother in the room next door.

Hughes did everything that he could to shield them from the increasingly lurid interest in their mother and did not tell them that she had killed herself until they were teenagers.

Frieda Hughes reemerged into the public gaze in her twenties when her first children’s book was published. She has also been a successful artist, poet and newspaper columnist and has spoken and written about her parents and her own own struggles with depression, ME and anorexia.

Her brother never resurfaced in the same way, but his life had also moved on. A family friend said last night: “Nick wasn’t just the baby son of Plath and Hughes and it would be wrong to think of him as some kind of inevitably tragic figure. He was a man who reached his mid-forties, an adventurous marine biologist with a distinguished academic career behind him and a host of friends and achievements in his own right. That is the man who is mourned by those who knew him.”

Frieda Hughes was travelling to Alaska yesterday but said in a statement: “It is with profound sorrow that I must announce the death of my brother, Nicholas Hughes, who died by his own hand on Monday 16th March 2009 at his home in Alaska. He had been battling depression for some time.”

He was an evolutionary ecologist who specialised in the study of stream fish and travelled thousands of miles across Alaska on research trips.

“His lifelong fascination with fish and fishing was a strong and shared bond with our father (many of whose poems were about the natural world). He was a loving brother, a loyal friend to those who knew him and, despite the vagaries that life threw at him, he maintained an almost childlike innocence and enthusiasm for the next
project or plan.”

Shortly before his death, he left his post at the university to set up a pottery at home and “advance his not inconsiderable talent at making pots and creatures in clay”.

Although there is acceptance that depression can be inherited, there is no known suicide gene that could connect Dr Hughes's death to his mother’s.

Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, the mental health charity, said: “Suicide is a much more complicated event than simply being a question of genetics, but there is some evidence that if a member of your family has taken their life there can be a higher risk of people doing the same. However, it is often absolutely to do with what’s happening in the here and now rather than any urge that is more deeply rooted.”

Dr Hughes’s parents split up before he was 1, his father leaving Plath for Assia Wevill, the exotic wife of another poet. The winter that followed was unrelentingly harsh. Struggling to get by on very little money as a single parent with two young children, Plath’s fragile mental state collapsed. She wrote many of her finest poems in a final burst of creativity and killed herself early one February morning.

Six years later Wevill, who had lived with Hughes and the children for much of the intervening period, also gassed herself. It was March 23, 1969 – 40 years ago today – and her death differed from Plath’s in one appalling respect: she had murdered four-year-old Shura in the process.

To the frustration of biographers, Hughes stayed silent about his own response to these events until almost the end of his life. Then, in 1995, he published half a dozen poems that he had written for Wevill, hidden among the 240 poems in his New Selected Poems.

In 1998 he finally unveiled in Birthday Lettersa series of 88 poems examining his life with Plath and his reaction to her death. Serialised in The Times,the poems recast his reputation from a man who had shown no apparent contrition for his wife’s fate into something far more complex.

In a letter to the poet Kathleen Raine he said he wished that he had published them earlier. “I might have had a more fruitful career – certainly a freer psychological life.”

Hughes dedicated Birthday Letters to his children. Unusually for a book of poetry, it became a runaway best-seller, shifting more than 150,000 hard-back copies in Britain alone. He did not live to see it awarded the 1999 Whitbread Book of the Year award, as he died of cancer the previous October. It was Frieda, not Nicholas, who accepted the prize on his behalf.

1 comment:

Emperor said...

The Guardian has a piece on whether suicide is genetic and another on press coverage of The Curse of Plath.