On CAPRICCIO: The Lost Poems of Ted Hughes: a preview of my new edition of ‘Capriccio: A Novel’


My soon to be published second edition of ‘Capriccio: A Novel’, will contain supplementary material, including the essay below:

On CAPRICCIO: The Lost Poems of Ted Hughes

CAPRICCIO, Ted Hughes’s series of twenty poems about his relationship with Assia Gutmann Wevill, was first produced in 1990 as a luxurious leather-covered volume, with grotesque illustrations by Leonard Baskin. At approximately US$4000 a copy, and printed on hand-made paper, this small sequence of poems was designed to be rare. The publisher was Gehenna Press. Perhaps significantly in this case, ‘Gehenna’ is the Hebrew word for ‘Hell’.

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 Letters or Crow. Not until 2003 was Capriccio published again in its entirety, in The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes,edited by Paul Keegan. Thus, the Capriccio sequence was virtually lost to the public for many years.

Why did Hughes wait thirty years to publish Capriccio? Why did he tell Negev and Koren that ‘these poems were perhaps not the ones I should have written’? Was this work an apologia for Hughes’s role in the death of Assia and their daughter Shura? Was it intended to show destiny as the culprit? There is considerable dissension among literary critics on this question.

Some critics see the tenor of Capriccio as bitter and accusatory towards Assia Gutmann Wevill, the woman who came between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. In The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, Ronald Hayman describes these poems as ‘a relentless assault’ on Assia, who, he writes, was ‘harshly anatomised’ by Hughes in Capriccio.Throughout the sequence, Hughes enters a plea of ‘not guilty’, seeming to exonerate himself from the responsibility of three deaths.[1]

Other biographers and reviewers interpret the Capriccio poems differently, that is, as a recognition of Assia’s connection to the Holocaust, which she narrowly escaped as a child. Assia is portrayed as the victim of historical and political circumstances. Hughes writes as if her death was predestined, blaming her for ‘consciously burning herself on Sylvia’s funeral pyre’ and disassociating himself from Assia’s suicide. He describes it in The Locket as a fait accompli, as if Assia were doomed, unable to escape the fate of her fellow Jews in spite of her having escaped Nazi Germany with her family as a six-year-old child in 1933.

Next to Hughes’s award-winning Birthday Letters, the autobiographical nature of Capriccio went barely noticed for many years. In 1990, when the book was first published, few people knew of the affair between Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. Five years later, eight of the twenty poems were reprinted in New Selected Poems, 1957-1994; yet there was still no revelation that Assia was the woman addressed in Capriccio. Hughes himself wrote in a letter to Seamus Heaney in 1998, that his poems about Assia were ‘written very differently’ to those about Sylvia. Indeed, 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’.[2]

Diane Middlebrook, in Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, A Marriage,devotes a whole chapter to Hughes’s Birthday Letters, yet she gives only a few lines toCapriccio.[3]Referring to Hughes’s theme of the power of destiny, ‘this [destiny] is the idea signified in the unsettling title, Capriccio, that Hughes gave to the book [of poems] he addressed to Assia Wevill.‘ In the Capricciosequence, reminders of Fate in all its capriciousness combine with horrific images of mass murder, suicide, and infanticide.

The title Capriccio has several interpretations. Hughes’s version of the word comes from seventeenth century Italian, and is made up of ‘capo‘ (meaning ‘head’) and ‘riccio, (meaning ‘hedgehog’). Hence,’capo-riccio‘ means hedgehog-headed, and describes a head with the hair standing on end. Indeed, the original illustrations by Baskin foreshadow shock or horror. The word also indicates caprice or whim, from the Latin ‘capra‘ – the goat.

‘None of these definitions of the title Capriccio is appropriate,’ writes Ann Skea, ‘either for Ted’s opening poem [Capriccios] or for the whole sequence, both of which are carefully structured, and serious in mood and theme.’[4]Overall, the title of Hughes’s Capriccio suggests unmotivated, purposeless acts, as well as horror, and helplessness in the face of destiny. The basic idea throughout the sequence is that no-one is free to deviate from the script Fate has written. Capriccio, like Birthday Letters, is Hughes’s defence against the accusations that he was responsible for the deaths of three victims of Fate: Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill, and Shura Hughes Wevill.

Alexandra Tatiana Eloise Hughes. Photo courtesy Celia Chaikin

Nathaniel Tarn, a close friend of Assia and David Wevill, writes in his diary: ‘It is not true that Assia took Hughes from Sylvia. [People] pushed the guilt onto Assia.’ He gives a first-hand account of this mysterious woman, describing her as ‘a peasant, very unsure of herself. She seems fantastically isolated, always on the outside, and inadequate to cope. ‘[5]

Critics have detected a strain of anti-Semitism from Hughes towards Assia; Ronald Hayman writes that Shibboleth and several other poems in Capriccio display considerable revulsion against her Jewishness. ‘Her Jewishness is made to seem like an avoidable error. ‘ However, Hughes’s fascination with ancient Jewish texts, and his biting contempt for the bigots at the party, give the lie to accusations of anti-Semitism. Indeed, his closing line in Shibboleth, ‘lick of the tar-brush?’ is a sneer at the prejudice he detects in England’s upper classes. [6]The exotic stranger at the party, whom Hughes describes in a letter (and in the poem Shibboleth) is clearly Assia, although Hughes does not name her.

He writes that the ‘stranger’ had no defenses against the veiled bigotry, ‘being a jew [sic] born in Hitler’s Germany.’ [7]Assia was a displaced person, having been born in a country which was shortly afterwards  at war with Britain. In the common English parlance of the time, she came from the ‘other side,’ although the polished British accent she had acquired since leaving Germany disguised this. Hence the veiled hostility by the English upper classes towards her, described by Hughes in Shibboleth.

In a letter to his translators written in November 1997, Hughes refers to the ‘fringe-aristocracy’ guests, who were disturbed by a very beautiful foreigner who spoke ‘an elocutioner’s English more lofty than the élite English who sat around her’. The other guests at the English country house tended to affect ‘violently racist and often quite anti-Semitic attitudes’, Hughes writes, thus disassociating himself from their sentiments. His words certainly don’t sound like one who is himself anti-Semitic and racist; rather, they express his disgust at those very attitudes evinced by his countrymen. In this letter by Hughes, we detect far more compassion and affection for Assia, than is shown in any of the more vituperative poems of the Capriccio sequence, such as The Locket, and The Mythographers.

Portrait of Assia Wevill by David Wevill

There is little mention in Capriccio of Hughes’s own destructive influences. Hughes appears to argue that he’s biologically predetermined to be Assia’s prey, and that the winds of Fate brought them together (The fate she carried sniffed us out).[8]The fact that it was he who pursued her, and persuaded her to leave her husband, David Wevill, as evidenced in the Letters, somewhat weakens his case for attributing the relationship, and its tragic outcome, to Fate.

Some take a kinder view of Hughes’s motives in writing the Capriccio poems. Elaine Feinstein writes that ‘In [Hughes’s] memory, her beauty has not diminished, nor has she lost the power to arouse his desire.’ ‘Her saliva: instant amnesia’, Hughes writes in The Mythographers.  In his recently published Letters he writes to her: ‘I’ve concentrated all my life now on these two children & on what you and I might do… and if now you stay with David I don’t know what I shall do,.’  Unlike his other letters to Assia, this one is actually signed: ‘Ted.’

Feinstein writes that in Capriccio, Hughes still remembers Assia’s beauty, and her power to arouse his desire, as in The Locket: Your beauty, a folktale wager/ was a quarter-century posthumous.’ There is further evidence that Hughes loved Assia in his letters: ‘Assia was my true wife and the best friend I ever had,‘ he wrote to Assia’s sister, Celia Chaikin, after the tragedy of 1969.

In writing the Capriccio sequence, Hughes called on his vast knowledge of mythology, in particular the ancient Hebrew texts of the Kabbalah. The incorporation of these ancient myths throughout these poems could be seen as a distancing strategy, making them less personal, and also less confessional, than Birthday Letters.

Ann Skea describes Capriccio as the first stage of Ted Hughes’s journey through the Kabbalah. Notes found in Ted Hughes’s notebook in the British Library summarise the story of a Jewish Talmudist, Rabbah bar Hannah, who set down his life story of perilous adventures, etching them onto a rock. ThroughoutCapriccio, Hughes references the thirteenth century Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, particularly in such poems as Shibboleth and The Mythographers.

Carol Bere, in her article Complicated with Old Ghosts (a line taken from Hughes’s letter to Celia Chaikin) calls Capriccio ‘a mosaic of ancient myths and historical events’.[9]Bere describes these poems as a re-working of myths, a device which serves to distance the writer from emotional involvement, and perhaps allows a way for Hughes to come to terms with his affair with Assia. In keeping with Hughes’s reluctance to name Assia in his letters, this interpretation suggests either that he felt some shame about the relationship, or that, even after all those years, he needed to keep their affair a secret.

In his article Sorrow in a Black Coat, Jonathon Bate describes Hughes as a man torn between confessional biography, and one who draws on ancient texts to create characters of mythic power. Bate calls Capriccio ‘the short book of dark poems inspired by Assia Wevill.’ He describes the poem Opus 131 as a ‘bitter little poem…pronouncing on the unimportance of the menopause’ and typical of the tenor of Capriccio.[10]

Whether or not Ted and Assia were the pawns of capricious gods, as Hughes suggests in these poems, the fact is that he and Assia did fall passionately in love, even though that love is often portrayed as a nightmare. Ted reveals, in his letter to Assia’s sister, that he had argued with Assia in their last phone call on the day she died, and that he wished he could have given her more assurance. ‘If I had only moved, only given her hope in a more emphatic way’, he writes in his Letters, clearly blaming himself for the tragedy.

The poems in Capriccio are a cleverly constructed sequence, in which religious and symbolic imagery serve to distance Ted Hughes from painful memories of the past. Intense and mordant as they may be, the poems are also love songs hiding behind mythological metaphors. Readers are encouraged to access the twenty poems of the Capriccio sequence, and to decide for themselves whether they are malicious or apologetic, accusatory or defensive.

At the time of the deaths of Assia and Shura, Hughes was writing Crow, a major work, which he had frequently discussed with Assia. Indeed, he penned the final verses on the train leaving Manchester, on their last trip to search for a house where they could live together. After their deaths, Hughes found himself unable to continue work on Crow. The tragedy had effectively blocked Hughes’s creative output. He wrote to his friends that all his writing had ceased over the next two years. When Crow was finally published in late 1970, the dedication reads: ‘In memory of Assia and Shura. ‘

Capriccio can be seen as a eulogy to Assia’s memory. In these poems Hughes displays a deep understanding of Assia’s fractured background. By portraying her as the mythical force, Lilith, the dark side of the feminine in the Kabbalah, he is trying to come to terms with the relationship between himself and the woman he both loved and feared.

 

[1]Hayman, Ronald, The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath2nded. Sutton, UK, 2003.

 

[2]Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, Lover of Unreason,NY, Carroll & Graf,  2007.

 

[3]Middlebrook, Diane, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, A Marriage , Little, Brown, 2004.

 

[4]Ann Skea, Capriccio: The Path of the Sword ,in Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons, Moulin, J. (Ed.), Routledge, London, 2004.

 

[5]Tarn, Nathaniel, Collected Papers, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

 

[6]Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, ed. edited by Paul Keegan, Faber and Faber, 2003.

 

[7]Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid, NY, Farrar,  Strauss and Giroux, 2007.

 

[8]Ted Hughes, Dreamers, from his Birthday Letters, Faber and Faber, 1998.

 

[9]Carol Bere, Complicated with old Ghosts in Ted Hughes: Alternative  Horizons, Moulin, J. (Ed.), Routledge, London, 2004.

 

[10]Jonathon Bate, Sorrow in a Black Coat,Times Literary Supplement, February 7, 2014.

 

Copyright ©️ Dina Davis. All posts, including photographs, artwork, and writings, on this site are the intellectual property of the author

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