The Tender Place

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, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. After her first suicide attempt, and before she met Hughes, Plath was given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depression (see Plath's novel The Bell Jar for her own description of this). In this poem, Hughes contemplates the mechanics and symbolism of what seems so brutal and elemental a treatment.

He focuses on the fragility and beauty of her body--"Your temples, where the hair crowded in, / Were the tender place"--and then makes us imagine the effect of electrodes there, in ever more shocking images: "They crashed / The thunderbolt into your skull," "They dropped you / A rigid bit of bent wire / Across the Boston City grid." He then suggests that there is a link between this treatment and the kind of poet she became: her "voice" was scarred and "over-exposed / Like an x-ray," and when her words returned they were distorted and vulnerable, "Faces reversed from the light / Holding in their entrails." (38 lines)


Regardless of the benefits or otherwise of ECT, the therapy has disturbing symbolic connotations, which Hughes explores here. He implicitly links the procedure to penal electrocution, to the punishing thunderbolts of Zeus, and perhaps most disturbingly to his own domestic use of electrical energy: "Once . . ./ I dropped a file across the electrodes / Of a twelve-volt battery--it exploded / Like a grenade."

Plath's powerful poetic language has often been attributed to her mental illness; here Hughes imagines that the assault on her brain somehow scarified her identity--her soul?-- producing the "x-ray" voice and disemboweled words that are both so terrible and so central to the brilliance of her writing.


Birthday Letters won the 1998 Whitbread Prize.

Primary Source

Birthday Letters


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York