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Birthday Letters

by Ted Hughes

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Written by C. Walles MA, Dip Ed, BA, FTCL

Related Texts
Mind Map of approaches to Birthday Letters
Conflicting Perspectives – Birthday Letters & Ted Hughes
Hughes, Plath & Birthday Letters – context, issues and representation
Summary – Birthday Letters & Ted Hughes


Module C – Representation and Text – ‘Conflicting Perspectives’ develops your ability to ‘explore various representations of events, personalities or situations’. It also requires you to ‘evaluate how the medium of production, textual form, perspective and choice of language influence meaning’ (p. 52. Stage 6 English Syllabus).

All the texts in this module contain a variety of conflicting perspectives that require students to develop their understanding of the concept through research into the context of the text, the composer’s context and the assumed audience. This study includes a variety of related texts from ‘a range of genres and media’. (p. 52. Stage 6 English Syllabus).

The rubric in the Prescriptions is also important and must be reflected in your analytical responses to assessment tasks and the HSC, specifically your analysis of how ‘the choice of textual forms, features, and language shape meaning and influence responses’. (p. 22. English Stage 6. Prescriptions)

Your study of Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes will provide insights into the ‘relationship between representation and meaning’ in Hughes’ context when the events took place post WW11, Sylvia Plath’s background as an American whose father was of German origin, their lives together in England and in Europe and Hughes’ context when he wrote the poems in Birthday Letters from a retrospective perspective.

You need also to consider the body of critical works since published on their relationship and the poetic merit of both poets. There exists a substantial body of feminist literature which not only condemns Hughes’ influence in Sylvia’s life and tragic suicide but also on her poetry. It is important for you to consider Hughes’ poems from your own informed personal perspective.

Remember to consider Hughes’ purpose and that his poems address his immediate and long term audience, including ourselves. You will need to evaluate how this consideration of audience would have influenced the textual forms and perspectives Hughes chose for his poems.

You must critically evaluate the literary critics’ choices of textual forms and the textual forms chosen by composers of related texts. How have these choices shaped your response to the conflicting perspectives of contemporary events, situations and personalities in the text?

It is essential that you understand how Hughes’ representation of conflicting perspectives of his life with Plath and her character in Birthday Letters include other keys characters such as her father Otto.

It is also wise to consider how the passage of time influenced Hughes’ representation of events and situations including their first meeting, their visit to Paris, her ride on the horse Sam and their quarrels.

The study also requires you to understand the influence of genres of confessional poetry and modernist verse.

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Related Texts

Remember to evaluate the influence of each composer’s point of view and their social and cultural contexts in their representations of events, personalities and situations. It is helpful to remember this when carefully selecting and structuring related texts into a convincing and informed argument in response to HSC questions.

Therefore, the related texts and the composer’s choice of media present each composer’s perspective and it is important to evaluate and analyse the information provided in the light of purpose and conflicting or withheld information.

In your study you will need to evaluate:


Mind Maps are a useful first step in establishing the relationships between the texts and developing your understanding of the functions of the composer’s choices in representation. Create your own mind map for each poem to reflect shifts in power between Plath and Hughes and conflicting perspectives of Plath. This mind map can be developed to include related texts and composers’ perspective of theMind Map of approaches to Birthday Letters' personalities, events and situations represented in each poem.

Mind Map of approaches to Birthday Letters

Mind map of approaches to Birthday Letters

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Conflicting Perspectives – Birthday Letters & Ted Hughes

Note: Decisions relating to structure, language and media made by composers are designed to best reflect the concerns of their context and their authorial intention.

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Hughes, Plath & Birthday Letters – context, issues and representation

The following definition of autobiographical writing is useful for this study:

Autobiographical writing is…a narrative account written by an individual that purports to depict his or her life and character. Unlike diaries and journals which are kept for the author’s private use, autobiographies are written expressly for an audience. Autobiographies are distinguished from memoirs (also produced for public consumption), whose authors render an account of the people and events they have known and experienced without providing the detailed reflection and introspection characteristic of most autobiographies.

Murfin, R. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. p 28 Bedford Books. Boston 1998

Memory is unreliable. Hughes may have chosen to conceal or re-interpret events and situations that were potentially unflattering or damaging to others including him and the children of his marriage to Plath. Whereas diaries or journals are often not intended for publication, Birthday Letters written after a long silence and towards the end of his own life can be seen as Hughes’ attempt to vindicate himself against critics who condemned him for Path’s suicide.


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Ted Hughes

Hughes was acclaimed in as a writer of stature during his life and was awarded the Poet Laureate in 1984. He was not generally considered as a confessional poet despite his intimate, personal accounts of his relationship with Plath and the affect her mental illness had on their relationship. His early body of work focused on nature and was informed to some extent by the values of Romanticism although his view of nature focused on the savagery and vitality of nature rather than its beauty. Published in 1998 in the same year as his death, Birthday Letters primarily focused on his relationship with Plath and differs from his previous work although it still reflects his historical and literary context. Hughes’ view of his political and historical context is influenced by the trauma of WW11 and British politics.

Unlike Modernist poets such as T.S Eliot, Hughes sometimes focussed on confrontational honesty in his reflections on his relationship with Plath. This inevitably reflected the modern condition. Birthday Letters, a product of Hughes’ later style, has a colloquial quality and intimacy rather than his earlier detached style seen in his nature poems such as Death of Pig and Hawk Roosting. In these he focused on natural phenomena to provide insights into human behaviour by reflecting on humans as animals. Hughes achieves the effect of honesty through skilful manipulation of images, rhythms, inclusions, omissions, concealments and arguably fictions.

Hughes does not identify with the spiritual aspects of Nature, like Romantic poets such as Coleridge or Keats, but with nature’s sensuality and savagery. This is reflected in his detached and sometimes brutally honest style including detailed observation of violence. Hughes’ honesty is called into question in Birthday Letters for several reasons: the poems were published after the lapse of thirty five years and when read in conjunction with Plath’s own poems, letters and diaries differ markedly from her perspective. This is true of Plath’s Whiteness I remember and Hughes’ Sam both describing the same event. Hughes’ perspective however is based on Plath’s own account of an incident which Hughes did not witness.

Plath’s Ariel and Daddy also provide interesting insights into her perspective of her relationship with Otto Plath, her dead father which Hughes cites in The Shot, Minotaur and elsewhere as the cause of her mental instability and the insurmountable barrier in their marriage. Anne Whitehead’s comments are useful for the insights they provide into Hughes and Plath’s relationship. (Refiguring Orpheus: the possession of the past in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. Routledge 1999)

Similarly, critics such as Lydia K. Bundtzen in Mourning Eurydice: Ted Hughes as Orpheus in Birthday Letters evaluate the controversy caused by Hughes’ publication of Birthday Letters and the body of work that accused Hughes of undue censorship and bias in his treatment of Plath’s estate, specifically her letters, diaries and journals written after their divorce. These critics argue that Hughes suppressed texts that represented him critically and which could be interpreted as blaming his infidelity, abandonment of Plath and their children and marriage to Assia Wevill as leading eventually to Plath’s suicide in 1963.

It is important for this study to remember that both perspectives must be evaluated:

Diagram 2

Hughes' Birthday Letters & Plath

Fulbright Scholars

Fulbright Scholars reflects on Hughes’ first impression of the group of young American scholars including Plath invited to study at Cambridge. The poem opens with a rhetorical question suggesting uncertainty as to the location of the newspaper display. This uncertainty is extended to Hughes not being sure as to what drew his attention. ‘For some reason I noticed it’, and unsure if Plath was among them ‘Were you among them?’ He noticed the girls but ‘Not/ your face’. The observation then becomes more detailed but retains its uncertainty. The low modality and repetition of ‘Maybe I noticed you/ Maybe I weighed you up’ contributes to impression that he was not especially attracted to Plath on this occasion.

The tone then becomes more critical ‘Noted your long hair, loose waves - /Your Veronica Lake bang. Not what it hid’. The topical reference to a popular film actress and the Americanism ‘bang’ suggests Plath was glamorous but deceptive by the negative connotation of the brief phrase at the end of the line ‘Not what it hid’. Hughes develops this idea of a facade with ‘It would appear blond’.

He then shifts his focus to reflect the cultural context and implicitly to the clash he develops in ‘Your Paris’. Here the listing and the adjective ‘exaggerated’ build on the impression of a facade ‘And you grin/Your exaggerated American/ Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.’ However, the list seems to try to capture her perspective and increasingly hint at her fears. ‘judges, strangers, frighteners’.

Hughes then returns to the dismissive tone of the opening lines ‘Then I forgot’. The series of rhetorical questions that follow suggest only a detached observation and this is contrasted with the immediacy of the sensory imagery and colloquial language describing his experience in the following lines. ‘I remember/ I was walking/Sore footed, under hot sun, hot pavements’ Clearly this memory in linked to discomfort but then the sensory memory of the peach creates tension. ‘Was it then I bought the peach?…It was the first peach I had ever tasted./I could hardly believe how delicious.’ The juxtaposition of the contrasting sensations in the context of this memory might relate to his response to Plath and the tension between the pleasure and the suffering. It may also be a stream of thought.

The ending suggests that Hughes is young and impressionable. ‘At twenty five I was dumbfounded afresh/ By my ignorance of the simplest things.’

The Shot

The tone of The Shot is far bleaker than Fulbright Scholars. There is no uncertainty in the opening statement ‘Your worship needed a god’/ Where it lacked one, it found one’. Here the statement may be seen accusatory although it might suggest that Plath herself was powerless to moderate her actions. Hughes uses the derogatory slang term ‘jocks’ to dismiss Plath’s choice of lovers ‘Ordinary jocks became gods – Deified by your infatuation/that seemed to have been designed at birth for a god’.

Hughes goes on to attribute the agency for her actions to Otto Plath through the use of listing and the childish term ‘Daddy’:

It was a god seeker. A god finder/Your Daddy was aiming you at God/ When his death touched the trigger.

Here Hughes introduces the extended metaphor that dominates the poem and is foreshadowed by the title.

The following six lines build in pace through Hughes use of caesura and enjambment representing Plath as a formidable destructive force:

In that flash/ You saw your whole life. You ricocheted /The length of your alpha career / with the fury/ of a high velocity bullet/ That cannot shed one foot- pound of its kinetic energy…

Again the agency for her actions is not Plath’s but a power that dominates her. This destructive force is captured by the evocative verb ‘ricocheted’, the compound words ‘high–velocity’ and ‘foot -pound’ and the connotations of ‘flash’ and ‘fury’.

If we interpret these lines as moderately sympathetic, the next lines are blunt and accusatory in describing her impact on her lovers, implicitly Hughes himself:

…The elect/more or less died on impact – They were too mortal to take it. They were mind stuff /Sound barrier events along you flight path/Provisional, speculative, mere auras.

The metaphor and pace is sustained in the uneven rhythms, enjambment and topical allusions to high speed flight ‘ ‘sound barrier events’ ‘auras’ and ‘flight path’.

The accusatory listing of events in Plath’s repeated emotional outbursts build the momentum in the following four lines which Hughes claims are merely another facade for her destructive trajectory:

But inside your sob-sodden Kleenex / And you Saturday night panics, / Under your hair done this way and done that way, / And the cascade of cries diminuendo.

Here the alliteration, onomatopoeia and connotations contribute to the dismissive tone and the suggestion that here the victim was not only Plath herself:

You were undeflected / You were gold-jacketed, solid silver, /Nickel–tipped. Trajectory perfect / As through ether…/

Hughes’ listing of precious metal in a diminishing scale of worth - gold, silver and nickel, once again echoes the impression of Plath as deceptive and destructive.

Hughes adds more personal details in the alliteration and the compound word in ‘ …the cheek-scar/ Where you seemed to have side-swiped concrete’, while extending the bullet metaphor ‘served as a rifling groove/To keep you true/’ This detailed description represents Plath as a destructive projectile seeking its target, her father and the cause of her death. However, Hughes represents himself as her surrogate victim in the sustained metaphor of the gun:

Till you found your true target / Hid behind me. Your Daddy./The god with the smoking gun.

Once again repetition of the childish term ‘Daddy’ diminishes Plath’s power and suggests that both she and Hughes are victims of her neurosis.

It is arguable that here the tone becomes more empathetic while maintaining the representation of Hughes as the rather naive and helpless victim:

Vague as mist, I did not even know I had been hit, / Or that you had gone clean through me – To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.

The closing stanza and last line continue to suggest no normal and civilised person could have deflected or survived her pursuit of death, ‘The right witchdoctor/ might have caught you in flight with his bare hand’. The dismissive term ‘witchdoctor’ is sustained in ‘tossed you cooling, one hand to the other, Godless less, happy, quieted.’ But this seems to conflict with the wistful tone of listed intimate items in ‘I managed/A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown’.

Therefore, it is possible that The Shot represents Hughes conflicted response to the memory of his life with Plath or that the closing lines are an unconvincing attempt to represent himself as the well-intentioned but powerless victim of her neurotic obsession with her dead father.

The Minotaur

The structure of The Minotaur differs from the previous poems by consisting of six stanzas in four lines each suggesting a chronology of events. The opening line is dramatic and accusatory in tone. ‘The mahogany table-top you smashed/’ and goes on to suggest the clash of cultures in her lack of appreciation for tradition and family. Hughes reveals the table had been his ‘mother’s heirloom sideboard’ and ‘mapped with the scars of my whole life.’

Hughes suggests that her sensitivity to family did not extend beyond herself. The second stanza continues to represent her personality as violent and given to irrational over reaction, while depicting him as the victim of ‘The high stool you swung that day/Demented by my being/Twenty minutes late for baby-minding.’ His attention to detail here has survived the passage of thirty five years of silence.

In the third stanza Hughes seems to change his attitude and admits to aggression. However, the two closing lines in the stanza and the opening of the fourth stanza represent him as encouraging her to use her trauma and violence to enrich her poetry. ‘Marvellous! I shouted, Go on/Smash it all to kindling/That’s the stuff you’re keeping out of your poems! And later ‘Get that shoulder under your stanzas and we’ll be away.’ There are conflicting interpretations of these lines as a representation of the poet’s mutually positive influence on each other’s art or as an unsubstantiated claim to inspiring some of her better poetry.

Similarly the last three stanzas can be interpreted as Hughes acknowledging some responsibility for her increasingly unstable condition with the rhetorical question ‘Deep in the cave of your ear/The goblin snapped his fingers./So what had I given him?’ In the extended metaphor of the Minotaur, her father is the ‘goblin’ roused by Hughes’ action and the consequence is symbolically expressed as ‘The bloody end of the skein/That unravelled your marriage/Left your children echoing/like tunnels in a labyrinth’. Although Hughes correctly identifies Plath’s death as inflicting a similar trauma on her children as she herself had endured, it is significant that Hughes withholds any reference to his actions in leaving Plath and re-marrying as contributing factors in her despair.

Once again Hughes attributes the responsibility for Plath’s suicide to her obsession with her father. ‘Brought you to the horned, bellowing/grave of your risen father- And your own corpse in it.’ The classical allusion and onomatopoeia contribute to the almost supernatural power of Otto Plath that demands the sacrifice of his daughter.


Sam is Hughes retrospective interpretation of an event in Plath’s life before she met him and which she had represented in the poem Whiteness I remember. Hughes’ poem itself contains what can be interpreted as conflicting perspectives of her personality and when read in conjunction with Whiteness I remember reveals interesting similarities and differences. The structure of the opening stanza is the most sustained of the four stanzas thereby contributing to the impression of headlong flight.

While not as accusatory as the tone of the opening to The Minotaur, Hughes begins the poems with a direct address to Plath suggesting she had chosen not to admit being the cause of the event ‘your horse, the calm white stallion, Sam/ . At this point Hughes seems to empathise with, if not identify with, the horse who ‘Decided he’d had enough/and started home at a gallop’

Hughes seems to accept Plath’s account of the event ‘…I can live / Your incredulity, your certainty/That this was it…/’ and he does adhere closely to her description of her experiences during the horse’s headlong flight to the stable. However, the repetition of ‘You lost your stirrups’…’.You lost your reins, you lost your seat’ –combine to depict Plath as a terrified victim unable to control or take responsibility for the consequences of her own actions. In contrast Plath’s poem suggests she was exhilarated by the speed and danger and identified with what she represents as the horses’ rebellion against the ‘humdrum’ of suburbia. In contrast Hughes accuses her of glamorising her loss of control. ‘It was grab his neck and adore him/ Or free fall’. Once again the reader is arguably left with the impression that Hughes is still identifying with Sam and suggesting there are parallels between her relationship with him and the horse.

As the stanza continues Hughes builds the momentum and pace with a series of commas as punctuation and an enjambment. The choice of verb in ‘You slewed under his neck, /An upside down jockey with nothing/ Between you and the cataract of macadam’ creates an image of Plath unable to maintain a balance and in imminent danger of being smashed into the road by the horses hooves at high speed. The alliteration and the metaphor of the ‘horribly hard swift river’ in full flood combine with the’ propeller terror of his front legs’ and the onomatopoeia of ‘.. clangour of the iron shoes’ to transform the horse into an engine of destruction.

The second stanza is developed with a series of rhetorical questions can be interpreted as accusatory or as concerned but the representation of Plath as being helpless, even irresponsible continues. Hughes states ‘Luck was already there’. He goes on to suggest that a force greater that Plath, her creative muse, was responsible for her survival:

What saved you? Maybe your poems saved themselves, slung under that plunging neck,/ Hammocked in your body over the switchback road.

The third stanza differs substantially from Plath’s representation of the events that followed including her encounter with passersby. Hughes now seems to identify with the ‘cyclist’s shock–mask/Fallen, dragging his bicycle over him protective.’ Plath dismisses the situation briefly as a part of the horse’s defiance of human restraints. ‘…And wouldn’t slow for hauled reins, his name/Or shouts of walkers’.

Hughes concludes the stanza in the same tone but suggesting he is now empathising with her ‘I can feel your bounced and dangling anguish,/Hugging what was left of your steerage’. The onomatopoeia of the verb bounced and the desperation suggested by hugging, dangling and anguish represent the event a terrifying whereas Plath claims to have revelled in the horse’s power:

Stalling curbside at his oncoming,/The world subdued to his run it./I hung on his neck. Resoluteness/Simplified me: s rider, riding/Hung out over the hazard…

Hughes returns to the pattern establishes in the first stanza suggests her art saved her while she ‘…couldn’t have done,/ Something in you not you did it for itself. /You hung on, probably nearly unconscious.’ The representation of Plath echoes the ending of The Shot ‘That gallop was practice, but not enough, and quite useless’ and the concluding stanza reiterates Hughes representation of himself as her victim:

When I jumped a fence you strangled me/One giddy moment. then fell off,/ Flung yourself off and under my feet to trip me/And tripped yourself and lay dead. Over in a flash.

Once again the evocative use of verbs and repetition in ‘strangled, fell, flung, trip and tripped’ effectively accelerate the momentum building to the dramatic ending ‘lay dead. Over in a flash.’ This final line seems to suggest that Hughes is denying responsibility for her increasingly unstable condition or death.

Your Paris

The structure of Your Paris differs from the other poems set for study by developing as a monologue without any stanzas. It begins in a colloquial tone and a reflective mood much less dramatic than The Shot or The Minotaur. Hughes at first seems to focus on the cultural clash evident in their responses to Paris. ‘Your Paris I thought was American./ I wanted to humour you’. The poems continues by listing the sights almost like a guided tour with a profusion of street names and allusions to culture which Plath may have shared with Hughes:

Hotel des Deux Continent’ ‘Impressionist paintings’, ‘shades of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein.

The conflict in perspectives occurs in Hughes’ identification of the legacy of the war which Plath seems to have ignored:

…My Paris/ Was not just German. The capital/ Of the occupation and the old nightmare. /I read each bullet scar in the Quai stonework/With an eerie familiar feeling.

The use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ suggests this is a haunting and bleak memory captured in the alliteration of ‘familiar feeling’ and the adjective ‘eerie’. Hughes suggests he choose not to share the negativity with his American wife. In contrast, Plath’s response is represented as gushing and over enthusiastic by the onomatopoeia of ‘shatter of exclamations ‘ecstasies that ricocheted /off walls’ and the negative connotations of ‘thesaurus of your cries’.

Hughes contrasts her seemingly superficial response with his own bleak recognition of the aftermath of the German occupation. The sensory imagery and accumulative use of detailed observation captures his alienation and isolation;

cafe chairs where the SS mannequins/had performed their tableaux vivants/So recently the coffee was still bitter/As acorns, and the waiters eyes /Clogged with the dregs of betrayal, reprisal, hatred…

Once again Hughes uses the negative connotations of the verbs, sensory imagery and simile to engage the reader in his negative experience:

My Paris …a post war utility survivor/The stink of fear still hanging in the wardrobes’. and ‘….I was a ghostwatcher./My perspectives were veiled by what rose/Like methane from the reopended /Mass graves of Verdun.

In contrast Hughes sees Plath as denying the history and reality by distancing herself from it just as he accuses her of doing in Sam. He describes her perspective of Paris as experienced through the lens of art, the mass graves and bullet scars are subsumed into:

the anecdotal aesthetic touch/On a Picasso portrait /Of Apollinaire, with its proleptic /Marker for the bullet’ distinguished by ‘your immaculate palette…touched in its tints and textures

However at this point the tone of the poem becomes more confronting while retaining the stance of a clash in culture. As in Fulbright Scholars and The Shot Hughes uses an Americanism ‘lingo’ to suggest the contrast between their responses and her ability to retreat into fantasy. ‘Your lingo/Always like an emergency burnoff - /to protect you from spontaneous combustion/Protected you/And your Paris’. As towards the end of Sam the tone becomes much bleaker and Hughes suggests he was ignorant of the extent of her vulnerability thereby excusing what could be interpreted as insensitivity. ‘It was diesel flame to dog in me. It scorched up/ Every scent and sensor.’

From this point the poem suggests that in retrospect Hughes has begun to understand and empathise with the severity of Plath’s suffering. However he restates his case that the cause of her pain is her unresolved relationship with her father from which her only retreats are her art and a facade of enthusiasm and energy. Hughes effective captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of near panic in:

…And it seals / The underground, your hide-out. That chamber, where you hung waiting / For your torturer /To remember his amusement.

As in previous lines Hughes relies on the evocative use of verbs such as ‘scorched’sealed’ and ‘hung’ to represent mental trauma.

The imagery becomes more confronting as Hughes represents Plath’s:

‘flayed skin/Stretched on your stone god./ What walked beside me was flayed …wincing to agonies’

The dramatic choice of language and repetition build the tension which is intensified by situational irony:

Your practise lips / Translated the spasms to what you excused/As your ghastly burbling – which I decoded/Into language, utterly new to me/With conjectural, hopelessly wrong meanings.

Hughes here represents them both as victims of her past and himself again as the naive, well intentioned Englishman blundering through a nightmare he could not share. Once again identifying Otto Plath through the extended metaphor and classical allusion to the mythical Minotaur, Hughes build the image of Plath trapped and tormented in the maze of her past. ‘You expected / The final face-to face revelation/To grab your whole body’. The realities of her unopened letters to her father are anti-climactic but do not diminish her struggle which Hughes represents with the evocative verbs in ‘a labyrinth /Where you still hurtled, scattering tears’.

In contrast, Hughes represents himself through animal imagery as

‘The mere dog in me, happy to protect you/from your agitation and your stone hours, /Like a guide dog, loyal to correct your stumbling.

Plath, waited for ‘The Minotaur to put an end /to the torment …’ and disguised her suffering and clamed herself ‘With your anaesthetic – your drawing, as by touch/ Roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, me.’ As in Fulbright Scholars Plath is represented as an adept in presenting a facade of control and normality and in this poem, unlike in Sam she retains control of her immediate fate.


The poem which begins in the same colloquial style and neutral tone as Your Paris is dominated by the symbolic use of red which Hughes juxtaposes with white to begin the poem and represent aspects of Plath’s complex personality. The rhetorical questions and brief statements engage and challenge the reader. ‘Red was your colour/If not red, then white. . But red / Was what you wrapped around you/Blood- red. Was it blood?’ Here Hughes uses white less subtly than in Sam but still with the connotations of death as Plath herself is believed to have done in her poetry. The use of verbs as in the previous poems is effective in creating vivid sensory imagery. He concludes the opening stanza alluding to her inability to free herself from the past arguably referred to ironically as her dead father in ‘Haematite to make immortal/ The precious heirloom bones, the family bones’.

From hypothetical questions Hughes shifts to a more mundane focus and setting – their shared room in the opening lines of the first stanza. He then transforms the atmosphere by metaphors and cumulative listing of claustrophobic saturated blood imagery:

A judgement chamber/Shut casket for gems. The carpet of blood/Patterned with darkening, congealments. /The curtains – ruby corduroy blood./ Sheers blood –falls from ceiling to floor./The cushions the same. The same/ Raw carmine along the window-seat.

The reader is confronted by overwhelming lethal atmosphere of ‘A throbbing cell. Aztec altar –temple’.

The single line that separates the second and third stanza represents the intrusion of white in the evocative verb ‘escaped’ which here perhaps representing normality. ’Only the bookshelves escaped into whiteness.’

From an interior mise-en-scene Hughes shifts the focus to the outside where even nature seems contaminated by this overwhelming saturation of macabre blood imagery. Poppies, are ‘thin and wrinkle frail /As the skin on blood’. Salvias, identified with Plath herself, are ‘Like blood throbbing from a gash’, and the simile and verb associate her with the visceral imagery is intensified in the ‘…roses, the hearts last gouts, /Catastrophic, arterial, doomed’.

Hughes narrows his focus further representing Plath herself in as ‘revelling in red’ her ‘…velvet long full skirt, a swathe of blood. /A lavish burgundy/ Your lips dipped, deep crimson’. The visual imagery, evocative use of verbs and the simile are confronting even repulsive and Hughes states this is his reaction. ‘I felt it raw – like the crisp gauze edges/of a stiffening wound. I could touch/ The open vein in it, the crusted gleam’.

In a brief relaxing of the tension he directs our attention outwards and towards Plath as the artist. But she is still dominating and dominated by red with all its connotations. She ‘splashes’ white with ‘red roses’ and ‘defeated it,/ Leaned over it, dripping roses/Weeping roses, and more roses’. The stanza ends on a gentler note by including the symbolic use of the ‘little blue bird’. It is this lost potential for tenderness that Hughes goes on to explore in the penultimate stanza.

His comments are reflective in tone and have an element of tenderness that is only fleetingly present in the previous poems. The symbolic use of colour is vivid as in the metaphor ‘Blue was wings /Kingfisher blue silks from San Francisco/Folded your pregnancy/In crucible caresses’ where the alliteration focuses on the evocative verb ‘caresses’ and has connotations of Christian allusions to the Virgin Mary. In contrast to the ‘ghoul’ evoked by the pervasive use of red, Hughes now represents Plath with tender and regenerative imagery. ‘Blue was your kindly spirit….a guardian, thoughtful’. However the poem ends with a return to the despairing imagery of death ‘In the pit of red/ You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.’ and the regretful ‘But the jewel you lost was blue’.

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Summary – Birthday Letters & Ted Hughes

Analysis of Text and Language

Comment on:

Some suggestions for Ideas and themes for Conflicting Perspectives

When responding to the prescribed texts

Structuring responses and synthesising related texts

Focus on:

We are positioned by Hughes to evaluate the personalities of Plath and her father in specific situations and during particular events mainly involving Hughes himself. Hughes gives us insights into Plath’s personality and their relationship but also into himself.

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Suggestions for related texts:

Key questions for related texts that deal with a contemporary personality, event or situation:

Note: Synthesise your arguments, example and analysis of the representations.

Structuring responses

Options for structure


Note: Repeat the structure above until a comprehensive and integrated response to the question is achieved.


  1. How is Hughes’ context in post WW 11 and his perspective of the clash of cultures between himself and Plath represented in the structure and language of the poems? Choose three and respond in detail.

  2. Research Hughes, Birthday Letters and Plath’s Ariel and The Bell Jar. Research critical responses to both bodies of work. Analyse and evaluate how critics have responded to Hughes’ representation of Plath’s personality, key events, situations and relationships in Sam, The Minotaur, Red and The Shot. Write an evaluation of the texts and explain your own perspective.

  3. Birthday Letters addresses enduring and context specific issues about the validity of representations and perspectives. Discuss with detailed reference to three poems and two related texts.

  4. Write a speech that addresses some of the perspectives and issues raised in Birthday Letters.

  5. Write an interview with a contemporary authority or critic on Hughes and Plath for an audience of HSC students analysing the value of Birthday Letters as poetry. Consider further the insight this study has provided into the function and value of critically evaluating conflicting perspectives of personalities, events, situations before reaching an informed personal perspective.

Complete the table below. Use the detailed analysis of the poems above which include appropriate quotes and synthesise with examples and analysis from your related texts to complete this table.

Fulbright Scholars Related Text 1
Key ideas

Perspective of Plath - Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Hughes- Quote, Analysis

Links to other poems from Birthday Letters
Key ideas

Links to poem- Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Plath - Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Hughes- Quote, Analysis

Links to other poems from Birthday Letters
The Shot Related Text 2
Key ideas

Perspective of Plath - Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Hughes- Quote, Analysis

Links to other poems from Birthday Letters
Key ideas

Links to poem- Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Plath - Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Hughes- Quote, Analysis

Links to other poems from Birthday Letters
The Minotaur Related Text 3 or reference to either of the previous related texts
Key ideas

Perspective of Plath - Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Hughes- Quote, Analysis

Links to other poems from Birthday Letters
Key ideas

Links to poem- Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Plath - Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Hughes- Quote, Analysis

Links to other poems from Birthday Letters
Sam Related Texts – optional reference to Plath’s Whiteness I remember or reference to either of the previous related texts
Key ideas

Perspective of Plath - Quote, Analysis

Perspective of Hughes- Quote, Analysis

Links to other poems from Birthday Letters
Key ideas

Links to poem- Quote

Analysis of Perspective of Plath/event - Quote

Analysis of Perspective of Hughes- Quote, Analysis

Links to other poems from Birthday Letters
Your Paris – as above

As above
Red – as above

As above
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Board of Studies NSW (1999) Stage 6 Syllabus English Preliminary and HSC Courses.

Board of Studies NSW Prescriptions: Area of Study Electives and Texts Higher School Certificate 2009-2012

Murfin, R. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. p 28 Bedford Books. Boston 1998)


Bundtzen, L. K. Mourning Eurydice: Ted Hughes as Orpheus in Birthday Letters. Journal of Modern Literature XXIII, 3-4 (Summer 2000). Indiana University Press. 2001.

Whitehead, A. (1999) Refiguring Orpheus. The Possession of the Past in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. Routledge Vol 13.

Yezzi, D. Confessional Poetry & the Artifice of honesty. New Criterion.Vol 16. Issue 10. Literary Reference Centre.

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