The Original Capriccio

Final cover of Ted Hughes’ ‘Capriccio’ 1990 from Gehenna Press Archive, Bodleian Library

In his article on the original Capriccio (Ted Hughes Society Journal Vol 8 Issue 2) Steve Ely discusses both the importance of the engravings by Leonard Baskin, and the relevance of Assia Wevill  to the poetry. I found this article fascinating in Ely’s description of the collaboration between Hughe and Baskin. However I found it unsympathetic to Assia, describing her as “a sexually predatory woman”. In my novel “Capriccio”, based on extensive research, I describe  Assia’s reluctance to embark on the affair with Hughes, and show him, rather than Assia, as the predator.

In 1990 Ted Hughes published a very limited edition of a book of poems, accompanied by engravings by the artist Leonard Baskin, with whom Hughes often collaborated. Ely writes: “Capriccio, Ted Hughes’s 1990 collaboration with Leonard Baskin, is a breathtakingly opulent, large-folio fine-book comprising twenty poems by Hughes and twenty-five engravings by Baskin. The book was originally published by Baskin’s Maine-based Gehenna Press in a limited edition of fifty copies, in which the regular edition (forty copies) retailed at $9000 and the special edition (ten copies, each including a second set of prints, a sheet of Hughes’s working manuscript and a watercolour by Baskin) retailed at $14,000.” [Ely, THSJournal Vol 8 Issue 2]

The Significance of the Name “Capriccio”

Hughes gave an early sequence of these poems about Assia the working title Beleaguered by Complications, presumably a reference to the chaos that beset Hughes and Wevill in the aftermath of Plath’s suicide and which prevented them from developing a stable relationship.

Ely claims the “name [Capriccio] might also allude to Hughes’s capricious decision to embark upon his ultimately disastrous affair with Wevill, ‘despite all marriages’ and to his decision — as a private man and public poet (in his role as Laureate) with a reputation for writing rather difficult ‘mythic’ poetry — to go against the grain and publish such an unprecedentedly personal sequence.”

In discussing Baskin’s engravings, Ely describes” the multiple identities which the ambitious, cosmopolitan and polyglot Assia Wevill adopted during the course of her life after she and her family fled from Germany.”

An engraving by Baskin to accompany the poem 

‘Descent’ from the Capriccio sequence by Ted Hughes

At the time of publication Hughes addressed his explosive relationship with Assia Wevill for the first time. Ely writes that the theme of death permeates these poems, asserting that Hughes saw Assia as doomed by the suicide of Sylvia Plath. Ely quotes from Hughes’s  poem “The Error” from the Capriccio sequence:

When her grave opened its ugly mouth
Why didn’t you just fly
Wrap yourself in your hair and make yourself scarce, Why did you kneel down at the grave’s edge
To be identified
Accused and convicted [...] (Collected Poems of Ted Hughes, P 795)

Ref: ‘A Prologue to Capriccio’ by Steve Ely in The Ted Hughes Society Journal, Volume 8, Issue 2

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