The lost poems of Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes’ series of twenty poems, called ‘Capriccio,’ was first published in 1990 in a print run of only fifty. The expensively produced leather-bound volume was inaccessible to most readers, by virtue of its cost ($4000) and rare book status. It was not until after Hughes’ death in 1998, that the series was accessible in its entirety, as a brief section in ‘The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes’ edited by Paul Keegan. (Faber and Faber, 2003). Thus the full sequence of ‘Capriccio’ was virtually lost to Hughes’ readers for many years.
Why did Hughes wait almost thirty years after his affair with Assia Wevill to publish these poems? Why did he tell Assia’s biographers, Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, that these poems were perhaps ‘not the ones I should have written’? Was this work an apologia for Hughes’ role in the life and death of Assia and Shura, intended to show destiny as the culprit?
In these poems, some of which cruelly portray Assia as Lilith the devil-woman, there is little mention of Hughes’ own destructive influences. Hughes appears to argue that he’s biologically predetermined to be Assia’s prey, and that the winds of fate brought them together. The fate she carried sniffed us out, he writes in ‘Dreamers’, the only poem about Assia which is not in ‘Capriccio’.
Next to Hughes’ award-winning ‘Birthday Letters’, the autobiographical nature of ‘Capriccio’ went barely noticed for many years. When the poems were first published as a rare book, few people knew of the affair between Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. Five years later, when eight of the twenty poems were reprinted in Hughes’ ‘New Selected Poems, 1957-1994’, there was still no revelation of Assia as the woman addressed in these strange, mystical poems. Hughes himself said that his poems about Assia were ‘written very differently’ to those about Sylvia. Indeed, Ted Hughes told Assia’s biographers that he felt the poems were so obscure, most people wouldn’t realise he’d ‘given his secret away’.
Yet the fact that it was Ted who pursued Assia, and persuaded her to leave her husband, David Wevill, as evidenced in the Hughes recently published letters, somewhat weakens his case for attributing the relationship, and its tragic outcome, to Fate. Whether or not Ted and Assia were the pawns of capricious gods, as Hughes suggests in the poems, the fact is that he and Assia did fall in love, even though, in poems like ‘Capriccios’ and ‘the Mythographers’, that love is often portrayed as a nightmare.
In my forthcoming biographical novel, Capriccio, I have borrowed Hughes’ title, in recognition of this profound but often overlooked sequence of poems. In a further attempt to explain the events of this period, I have followed the trajectory of Hughes’ poems, and tried to show the genuine love, complex and fraught as it may have been, between Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill.
Excerpt from my article on ‘The Lost poems of Ted Hughes ‘copyright 2015