‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’ by Ted Hughes

There you met it – the mystery of hatred.
After your billions of years in anonymous matter
That was where you were found – and promptly hated.
You tried your utmost to reach and touch those people
With gifts of yourself –
Just like your first words as a toddler
When you rushed at every visitor to the house
Clasping their legs and crying: ‘I love you! I love you!’
Just as you had danced for your father
In his home of anger – gifts of your life
To sweeten his slow death and mix yourself in it
Where he lay propped on the couch,
To sugar the bitterness of his raging death.

You searched for yourself to go on giving it
As if after the nightfall of his going
You danced on in the dark house,
Eight years old, in your tinsel.

Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced,
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water
Listening for them – in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching –
Then dancing wilder in the darkness.

The colleges lifted their heads. It did seem
You disturbed something just perfected
That they were holding carefully, all of a piece,
Till the glue dried. And as if
Reporting some felony to the police
They let you know that you were not John Donne.
You no longer care. Did you save their names?
But then they let you know, day by day,
Their contempt for everything you attempted,
Took pains to inject their bile, as for your health,
Into your morning coffee. Even signed
Their homeopathic letters,
Envelopes full of carefully broken glass
To lodge behind your eyes so you would see

Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter – your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,
Looking for something to give –
Whatever you found
They bombarded with splinters,
Derision, mud – the mystery of that hatred.

This is from Ted Hughes’ 1998 Birthday Letters collection, which is all about his wife, Sylvia Plath. Perhaps Hughes intended this collection of poems to ‘set the record straight’; I think that he may have felt that many blamed him for his wife’s death because of their break-up after his affair with another woman not long before Plath committed suicide. It was my love for Plath that led me to read Hughes’ work, and this collection is full of love and pain and struggle and I find it quite fascinating and compelling mostly because it seems so intimate.

I chose this particular poem to blog about today because I simply love this image of Plath as a ‘wolf after whom the dogs do not bark.’ The poem is about Plath’s early attempts at poetry – when she was studying at Cambridge – and the negative criticism that she received at that time. But Hughes reminds us in this poem that it did not matter because she was in fact a wolf among dogs, and should not have cared whether the dogs barked after her or not.

Ted Hughes delivers this touching picture of his wife trying to get her “gifts of [her]self” – her poems – published. He likens her efforts to her “first words as a toddler/When you rushed at every visitor… crying “I love you! I love you!” I love this image because it is so telling; as most writers, Plath must have sought approval and recognition, and yet she was “hated” by the critics to begin with. It is also telling of Hughes’ affection for Sylvia.

I love the contrast between Hughes’ image of Plath, “dancing wilder in the darkness”, as though “searching for somebody drowning” trying to give these beautiful “gifts” of her soul … and the reaction is: “the colleges lifted their heads.” The critics who “hated” Plath when she was at Cambridge (she received many negative reviews there) were so institutionalized that Hughes refers to them not as people but as the buildings – the institution of a literary Establishment – that they represent. The image of the Cambridge colleges marks a sharp contrast to the image of Plath with her “strange glitter” and her childish enthusiasm – she is so much more alive, so much more real.

Now, the line that most excites me in this poem is “They let you know that you were not John Donne”. This comes back to what I wrote about yesterday in my blog about Plath’s poem, ‘Daddy’. I talked about “the weight of English Literature” in that post, which is something I heard Plath talk about in an interview that I watched on Youtube. In that interview, Sylvia says that she remembers a critic telling her that she had “started out [a poem] just like John Donne, but not quite managed to finish like John Donne”. It is then that she adds, “and I felt the weight of English Literature on me at that point”. I loved hearing Plath say that because she is part of English Literature (with the huge capital letters) now, and it is comforting and encouraging to think that she did not always feel that she was good enough…

But what viscousness; these critics are described as totally venomous by Hughes as they send his wife “Envelopes of carefully broken glass/ To lodge behind your eyes so you would see/ Nobody wanted your dance”. This is calculated hatred, “injected… into your morning coffee”. He describes this hate as a “mystery” — in fact, the “mystery” of this hatred frames the entire poem. And it seems to be a mystery that is haunting Hughes because this criticism so affected Plath.

But, of course, Sylvia Plath rose way above those early critics. As Hughes says: “You no longer care.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh