[An excerpt from my essay, “The Lost Poems of Ted Hughes”]
Hughes’ collection of twenty poems, Capriccio,was produced in 1990 as a beautiful boxed volume with leather covers. Printed on hand-made paper, and at $4000 a copy, the book was designed to be rare.Each of the fifty volumes was signed by the author, and also by the illustrator, Leonard Baskin, whose company Gehenna Press was the publisher. (Ironically, ‘Gehenna’ is the Hebrew word for ‘Hell’, perhaps a reflection of the dark themes of these poems.)
In the many biographies, reviews, and scholarly works on Ted Hughes and his poetry, the sequence Capriccio barely gets a mention. It is seen as a minor work compared to such better-known collections as The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal, Gaudette, Birthday Lettersor Crow. For example, Diane Middlebrook, in her biography of Hughes, devotes a chapter to his Birthday Letters, Hughes’ homage to Sylvia Plath, but only a few lines to Capriccio.
Next to Hughes’ award-winning Birthday Letters, the autobiographical nature of Capriccio went barely noticed for many years. In 1990, when the book was published, few people knew of the affair between Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. Five years later, when eight of the twenty poems were reprinted in New Selected Poems, 1957-1994, there was still no revelation of Assia as the woman addressed in Capriccio. Hughes himself said, in a letter to Seamus Healey in 1998, that his poems about Assia were ‘written very differently’ to those about Sylvia. Indeed, Ted Hughes told Assia’s biographers, Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, that he felt the poems were so obscure, most people wouldn’t realise he’d ‘given his secret away’.
Feinstein, Elaine, The Life of a Poet, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2001