Her Husband by Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes, a famous English poet and a husband of Sylvia Plath, published a book Wodwo (1967) after her death. In this collection of poetry he presents a poem “Her Husband” that some people wrongly regard as Hughes’ recollection of his life and relations with a great poetess. The aim of this essay is to analyse this poem, paying attention to the theme, language and form, as well as its historical and social contexts. Hughes’ poetry of 1960s is characterised by his interest in the expressed ideas and themes rather than in a definite poetic form or structure.
In the poem “Her Husband” Ted Hughes portrays a labourer and his wife who perform difficult and wearisome daily work. This is a normal working-class family that barely makes both ends meet. The poet creates one of the most truthful stories of his times, revealing the complex relations between the marriage partners because of unbearable living conditions of English workers. As Hughes (2003) puts it, “Her Husband Comes home dull with coal-dust deliberately / To grime the sink and foul towels and let her / Learn with scrubbing brush stubborn character of money” (p.148). In this regard, the poet reflects the negative consequences of Two World Wars that aggravated the life of the working class. Unlike other poets of his time, Hughes rises against violence and social destruction. “Her Husband” reveals individual suffering in the context of the occurred social and historical changes. The protagonist is not cruel to his wife, on the contrary, the poet shows husband’s love and sympathy; however, this worker experiences misery that destroys not only him, but his wife as well. He doesn’t want to accuse his wife in spending too much money, but he implicitly shows what he does to support his family.
Analysing the theme of poverty in the post-war world, Hughes wants to point at the fact that the relations between these two people might be better, if their living conditions were improved. Perhaps, on the example of this poor family the poet depicts the families from Yorkshire, where he spent his childhood. But it is wrong to regard this poem as the reflection of his life with Sylvia Plath. The period described in “Her Husband” was the period of despair among workers who couldn’t find the ways to survive after the Great Depression and Wars. The husband in the poem is directly destroyed by the occurred events, and Hughes reveals what it means to be a wife of such a wretched personality: “Their brief / Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it” (Hughes, 2003 p.148). Thus, Hughes points out that the theme of poverty and complex living conditions of workers is inseparable from historical and social events that occurred in Britain. As a result, his portrayal acquires intensified dramatisation, revealing how the Wars continue to haunt English people. Here, Ted Hughes doesn’t explicitly stress on the reasons of such complex conditions of the workers, but, evaluating the historical context of the poem, it is clear that the poet depicts the essence of his times, uniting the past and the present together.
The language of the poem “Her Husband” is rather expressive and is characterised by a combination of some elements. For instance, the tight, overloaded description of the worker’s behaviour and mood is intertwined with milder tones of his compassion towards his wife, revealing Hughes’ attempts to experiment with poetry. Contrary to his previous poems, in “Her Husband” Ted Hughes improves his poetic technique by implementing a rather free simplified structure and an intensive sequence of expression. As Shaw (1985) puts it, “Hughes’s progress as a poet has been marked more by modifications of style than of theme” (p.261). This is especially true in regard to the discussed poem, the theme that the poet raises is widespread in the poetry, but the language and form differ from other poetic works. Possessing a profoundly tight form, “Her Husband” reveals some imagery, allegory and symbols, such as “Their jurors are to be assembled / From the little crumbs of soot” (Hughes, 2003 p.148) or “Learn with scrubbing brush stubborn character of money” (Hughes, 2003 p.148). These elements point out that Hughes doesn’t make an attempt to soften his expressive language; he utilises symbols and imagery to intensify the description of the complex conditions, in which the workers have to live, and to implicitly show the power of money in the industrial world. This figurative language of a poem allows Hughes to demonstrate the post-war period from a particular perspective, uncovering the tragic results of the Wars and arousing specific associations. Simultaneously, “Her Husband” depends much on the tension between this imagery language and clear portrayal of various details. In particular, the poet depicts the mood and feelings of the protagonist through his movements: “back has bunched into a hump as an insult” (Hughes, 2003 p.148).
As a result, the language of this poem is flowing, musical and natural, as it is not limited by a strict form, but instead it is based on a powerful sound system that Hughes considers crucial for any piece of poetry, because the sound allows to uncover a profound meaning of the utterance. In “Her Husband” the poet also utilises repetition: “let her / Learn with scrubbing brush stubborn character of money. / And let her learn through what kind of dust / He has earned his thirst” (Hughes, 2003 p.148). Although such repetition deprives the poem of the structural variety, it allows Hughes to intensify the expressed emotions and feelings. Therefore, the language of “Her Husband” appears to possess vitality and power, and the poet’s vision is presented with a strong declaration. Although Hughes utilises some elements of the figurative language in this poem, the discussed theme is understandable due to such force. However, this power of expression is achieved not only by the language and theme of the poem, but also by its form. Contrary to Hughes’ earlier poems, “Her Husband” moves away from conventional poetic rules and is written in a free verse, an unrhymed metrical form that is usually utilised by English poets.