Tight Wires Between Us: On “Difficulties of a Bridegroom” by Ted Hughes

“You should know me, Sullivan,” she said and demands he compliment her body — her hand, her shoulders, her throat. “You’re moon-blind.” — when he sees a hare running down the road. […] Haven’t you any heart? When she pulls the rabbit snares out of the ground and throws them into the trees, he’s “aghast.” He sees the snares as:
Country poverty raising a penny,
Filling a Sunday stewpot. He wrote in a journal that while he wanted to go back, he didn’t know “how to stay out of the old trap,” and told Plath that if he did, he “couldn’t be a prisoner” again. Throw it in the road where you got it.”
Instead he spends the money on two roses. You’re killing me, that’s what you’re in for. Calling herself “Lady of the Literal,” she threatens to castrate him: “I shall start at your feet and cut upwards.”
She: I shall be a maneater and the blood on your head. He talks about the production of the play, which was “not so good, I thought, but it’s effect was infinitely superior to [his first radio play] The Wound.” He then writes:
The day after I posted it, I drove up to London, ran over a hare (by pure chance—it’s impossible to do it deliberately) sold it to a butcher’s in Holborn & he gave me 5 bob. It ends, “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”
Hughes and Plath had a long history of intertextual play between their poems, often using and changing each other’s imagery. By the time Difficulties aired on the BBC, Hughes had come to regard his marriage to Plath as a dangerous snare. “You’ll have to get a job, of course.”
Then the bride turns on Sullivan, asking, “Why do you go about in such rags?” Plath, it should be noted, frequently complained about Hughes’s poor grooming. In Difficulties, there’s a turning point where Sullivan, like Hughes, rebels from the bride’s control. He’s debating why he’s so obsessed with her — “She’s attractive, but is she outstanding?” he asks himself. Whenever she orders him to speak, give her things, or contort his body, he complies. It’s a strange choice to have the poachers kill the hare, especially since Sullivan doesn’t seem to understand what happened. Throughout the play, the bride controls Sullivan. She orders him to contort his body into different numbers while (oddly) a tiger roars in the background. I lap them up. Was Hughes using occult symbolism to “influence audiences at the unconscious level,” as Diane Middlebrook writes in Her Husband? One rose for you and — another for you.”
The other rose, however, isn’t for the mistress at all. Sullivan: You don’t impress me. It turns out that Hughes used the title Difficulties of a Bridegroom for several projects, including the book and the radio play in question. Is Difficulties a play about a man appeasing his demanding bride? By then, Plath had left Court Green and moved to an apartment in London, where Yeats had once lived. I think the play gave a picture of [Hughes] being cruel. There are also mythical and psychological aspects to the poem — according to Plath, the speaker has an Electra complex. Is it about the subconscious nature of marriage? It comes after she says:
Meanwhile you’ll have to describe to me, to the whisper, every least girl you’ve ever so much as kissed. He complies, struggling to compose the appropriate words. Things aren’t arranged that way, I shall come after you, eyeteeth exposed, hunger to the fore, eyes like burning people, a rumbling tunnel. “How could you sell it?” she wonders. Sullivan doesn’t simply denounce the bride as a metaphor and then return to his mistress. Your Germanic scowl, edged like a helmet,
Would not translate itself. In Plath’s poem, the end of a sexual relationship is compared to the death of a rabbit — images Hughes also put in Difficulties. In it, “Dame Kindness” comes to her house, smiling and offering her sugar, which she says can “cure anything.”
“What is so real as the cry of a child?” the speaker asks. He also saw other women during that time. Jonathan Bate, in his biography Ted Hughes: An Unauthorised Life, describes him debating whether or not to go back to Plath. When the bride is satisfied with the flattery, she announces, “Now you can have me. I thought I knew all the available parts of the Plath/Hughes saga, let alone something so significant. On one level, Sullivan is rejecting the bride archetype by seeing her for what she really is. He decides to chase it with his car. “I’m betrothed to the thing itself, bride of brides.”
She responds by threatening her own life. Two of these he “smashed,” the other two he gave to Assia. The man is confused, feeling shut out from her rage. The bride is, in the end, powerless over Sullivan, who sends her away, and the chorus returns with their mocking refrain of “o beautiful maiden.” But the play is far from over. Hughes and Plath used their lives as material for their work, but they weren’t memoirists. Plath wrote “The Rabbit Catcher” — as well as the poem “Event” — the day after she caught Assia and Hughes kissing in her kitchen. ¤
In the spring of 1962, both Hughes and Plath were writing about rabbits. This confusion over the title may be why Plath scholars have overlooked the play. It’s easy to see how this may have upset Plath — and not only because Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill had recently broken up their marriage. I spent it on roses—4 I got for 5/-, smashed two, & gave 2 to Assia. The rift between them is a mystery he can’t solve. Throw it away.” Then she repeats, “It’s blood money. I’ve heard all about the suffering of love till my ears ache. Then, calling himself cruel, he relents and lets the hare off the road. Once he rejects the bride, another one comes in her place, and this one is even more controlling and harmful. The play begins with the protagonist, Sullivan, driving to meet his mistress at night. “That’s the five bob converted in heaven, if you like. “A rabbit’s cry may be wilder / But it has no soul.”
In the last line, Plath plucks Hughes’s two red roses from his play and puts them in her poem. He continued seeing Assia throughout the fall and winter as they waffled about leaving their spouses. What came, in a cigarette-stinking envelope, was not the play I expected, but a collection of short stories. “The connection between the shamanic animal being a hare, being Sylvia, and then buying roses with a dead hare and giving them to Assia was the most horrible thing to contemplate.”
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When I finally tracked down a transcript of Difficulties from a library in Texas, I understood the confusion. Hughes had long compared Plath affectionately to a hare. In this way, he grows increasingly trapped. Of course, during this time Plath was also writing about their marriage. “Ted’s belief in shamanism would lead him to think of [Plath] as a being like a hare — magic and mysterious and very powerful,” Sigmund said. She was also writing her last poems, works that she knew were the best of her life. Hughes was well aware of his wife’s delicate mental state when he wrote about a man turning a deaf ear to threats of self-harm. He recoils from her, calling her a metaphor and a simulacrum. You hand me two children, two roses. As Sullivan turns an unfeeling ear to the bride, she becomes an impotent version of Plath’s Lady Lazarus. Similarly, Difficulties isn’t meant to be a literal take on Hughes’s marriage. I want your memories out on a plate. Throughout the play, it’s compared to a human. She: Shall I tell you what you’re in for? “You’re putting things in my mind,” he says. When Sullivan sells the hare’s body for five shillings, the mistress is horrified. Suddenly, Sullivan is in reality again. We don’t know how Plath felt about Difficulties because Hughes destroyed the journals she kept the last months of her life. Hughes went to London while Plath stayed behind with their two children. There’s no clear consensus. According to Middlebrook, “The ‘bridegroom’ in Hughes’s plot was seeking alchemical transformation, and the ‘bride’ was an idea about a so-called female principle, both being wholly allegorical abstractions.”
Hughes described it more clearly in a letter to his sister, saying that Sullivan has to “kill [the bride], master it, or at least meet it & recognise it, before he can get on with real outside life with a real woman.”
That may be, but it’s hard not to think of Plath here, who famously attempted suicide when she was in college, leading to electroshock therapy in a mental hospital, experiences she fictionalized in her novel The Bell Jar. This, it seems, is the last straw. He then acted out Sullivan’s role, selling the hare’s body, but buying four roses instead of two. Hughes was writing Difficulties, which he told his friend was a “morality play” where the moral is “What you are afraid of overtakes you.” Plath was writing the poem “The Rabbit Catcher,” which ends:
And we, too, had a relationship —
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring
Sliding shut on some quick thing,
The constriction killing me also. When I learned about the play, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it. She read some of these poems on the BBC in December, a month before Difficulties aired. Sullivan: In a manner of speaking. Sullivan remarks that when a hare is shot, it screams “like a girl.” When the hare hears church bells in the distance, it stands up “on its hind legs like a man to listen.” Later, after the hare is killed, the mistress says it’s as huge as a person, with “big inspired-looking golden eyes, even when it was dead.”
This human-like hare is superceded by the appearance of four women, who, like a Greek chorus, usher in Sullivan’s bride by chanting: “O beautiful maiden.” But their call is mocking. “I could not find you, or really hear you, / Let alone understand you.”
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It would be a mistake to assume that Difficulties of a Bridegroom is completely autobiographical. Difficulties is a dense text, full of obtuse language that makes it hard to interpret. You saw baby-eyed
Strangled innocents, I saw sacred
Ancient custom. The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it. It’s an ambiguous image, and her final word on the subject:
And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam. I was a fly outside on the window-pane
Of my own domestic drama. The chorus describes a distorted version of the “irresistible” bride, with hairy palms, tonsils in her eyes, “a fox in her face, a bat in her hair, and a polecat in her navel.” Her smile is “the moon rising from the drowned, white as a hairless bladder dog.” She is tedious: “Her words are a track of ants lifelong.”
This is Sullivan’s bride, a Lilith-like character with shades of a harpy or a succubus. He seems to believe he’s the one who killed the hare, telling his mistress, “I slowed up to let it get off the road and it doubled straight back under the wheels. Immediately after, Sullivan recalls their seven years of marriage, saying, “Up and down with your seven faces!” He says he’ll recognize his real bride when he sees her. […] He was ashamed of something.” Now the bride complains in a similar fashion, telling Sullivan to dress better and shave more frequently. She enters, having “smelled the soul” in Sullivan’s body, and asks if he recognizes her. Sullivan can suddenly see the bride as she is. Follow her @JoyLanzendorfer. On February 10, 1963, the day before Plath died, Hughes sent the script of Difficulties to his sister, along with a letter describing the play. But the play also uses language that seems to address Plath directly, both by riffing on her poetry and by touching on their shared life experiences. The few in-depth descriptions there are vary widely. Assia and her husband David had come down that weekend to visit their home, Court Green. Taken in one light, it’s a condemnation of the archetypal ideal bride, who acts as a barrier to a successful relationship — once the metaphorical hare is dead, the man is free to love. He does not. ¤
Difficulties of a Bridegroom aired during one of the coldest winters in England’s history. […] If I’m to own you I own you all — Inside the head as outside. “You’ll give it hysteric — hares are highly strung animals.”
But the hare is more than an animal. The pipes had burst and she had no working telephone. When Hughes published the collection, he omitted the poem, along with 11 others, which he described as “personally aggressive.”
Hughes’s “The Rabbit Catcher” starts with descriptions of a wife’s fury as she drives the speaker and their two children to the seashore. One of them was “Lady Lazarus,” a poem about death and rebirth. In 1957, she wrote in her journal, “Ted looked slovenly: his suit jacket wrinkled as if being pulled from behind, his pants hanging, unbelted, in great folds, his hair black & greasy. From this, it seems that Hughes accidentally hit a hare the day after he sent Difficulties to the BBC. It’s for the bride, who, it’s suggested, had been sacrificed to free Sullivan up for his mistress. In the BBC documentary Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death, the play was described by poet Daniel Huws as Plath’s “death warrant.” Another friend, Elizabeth Sigmund, said the play must have given Plath “a most horrible shock. Hughes carries on this tradition here within the play. She was alone with two small children and she couldn’t muster the energy to hire a babysitter, let alone go out in the snow to buy diapers. I sat baffled. “A little experiment,” he says, laughing. Sullivan: Use your handkerchief, I can’t bear tears. She: I shall come after you, how can you leave me? Many of her last poems address Hughes’s betrayal with furious bile. The play aired twice, in January and February, and was heard by all of literary London — including Plath herself. [The hare] looked to be acting under orders.” He takes responsibility for its death, even as he believes the hare ushered in its own self-destruction, even as the audience knows the poachers shot it. Most biographies on Plath ignore it or only mention it in passing. The only thing that was consistent was the description of the plot — the protagonist accidentally kills a hare, sells its body, and buys two roses for his lover. What will you give for me?” She requires he give her an unlimited allowance, a red convertible, a house, furniture “to my taste,” parties, and a wardrobe. From that kiss, they started an affair that led to Plath and Hughes separating in September. She proceeds to dress him in the skins of animals associated with sexual or masculine imagery — “a black goat killed in rut,” snakes, mink, barracuda, and a panther “for leaping to heights,” among others. OCTOBER 6, 2017

ON FEBRUARY 9, 1963, two days before the poet Sylvia Plath killed herself, a radio play about her marriage aired on the BBC. “How could you pick it off the road? As far as I know, her only response to the play is one of her last poems, “Kindness.”
Plath wrote “Kindness” on February 1, 1963, on the back of an advertisement she’d copied out for Mother’s Helpers. To focus on only the personal aspects of “Daddy” is to do the poem a disservice. Difficulties of a Bridegroom was written by her husband, Ted Hughes, and was about a man rejecting his bride in favor of his mistress. Throughout the poem, the speaker is mystified by the woman’s emotions. Why would he write such a thing?”
I immediately bought something called Difficulties of a Bridegroom by Ted Hughes online. He obeys, despite screaming and gasping “as if scalded.”
In the end, Sullivan’s “mutilated soul,” as Hughes called it in a letter, is returned to the world while the chorus chants, “Bring his body.” At this point, poachers enter the play and shoot the hare. Plath included “The Rabbit Catcher” in her final poetry collection, Ariel, and considered it for the title for the book. ¤
Joy Lanzendorfer’s work has been in The Atlantic, Smithsonian, Tin House, the Guardian, NPR, Vice, and many others. In his 1998 collection Birthday Letters, Hughes also published a poem titled “The Rabbit Catcher.” Both his and Plath’s poems describe coming upon rabbit snares along a windy trail. Plath’s poem “Daddy,” for example, describes a husband as a “vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know.” While this is a reference to her seven-year marriage to Hughes, the husband and the Daddy figure are intertwined with each other, and with the concept of God.