Hughes, Ted

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine
  • Date of entry: May-11-1999


This poem is one in a series written by Ted Hughes, addressing his wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. Here, the speaker recalls a time when he and his wife were living in Spain, and she became ill: "You lay helpless and a little bit crazy / With the fever." For Plath, the illness seems intolerable. She whispers, "Help me" to her husband, "crie[s] out for America," and sobs "I am going to die." He takes care of her, feeling as if he is "a nursemaid" or "suddenly mother." He cooks soup and spoon feeds her.

What worries him, though, is her reaction to being ill. He wonders whether she's exaggerating, and fears that if she treats a fever as if it were "the most impossible / Of all horrible things," then how will she be "when things get really bad"? He feels himself withdraw his sympathy for her, but then he recognizes what he calls "the overload"--a bluntedness which he likens to "the callous / That eases overwhelmed doctors."

The end of the poem is ambiguous: both he and his wife are overloaded; where her response is (hyper?) sensitivity, his is anesthesia. He continues to feed her the soup. (67 lines)


This poem, as well as giving a moving though unsettling insight into the relationship between Plath and Hughes, captures the shifts that take place when one partner is ill and the other must take on the unfamiliar role of caregiver. Hughes becomes like a mother to his wife, cooking for her and feeding her. There seems to be elation as well as doggedness in his nursing, in wiping her "tear-ruined face" and comforting her, but there is also a sneaking sense of resentment, of suspicion that the patient is performing greater suffering than she actually feels, and his response is to detach himself, to "recoil" into "sceptical patience."

In the particular case of this couple, though, the patient's fever becomes an implicit expression of her more profound mental illness, and her husband, perhaps only in retrospect, sees in his defensive detachment and her desperation a harbinger of their future. As "overload" produces numbness (Hughes uses a terrifying image here: "the white-out / That brings baffled planarian worms to a standstill / Where they curl up and die"), so her illness will lead to her husband's withdrawal. The last lines sum up more than the immediate context of a passing fever: "I said nothing. The stone man made soup. / The burning woman drank it."


Birthday Letters won the 1998 Whitbread Prize.

Primary Source

Birthday Letters


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York