Plath, Hughes, and Ariel (Again)

“There’s a good case to be made that Hughes’ version of Ariel is actually superior to Plath’s—and that Plath herself might have agreed,” writes Meghan O’Rourke of Slate in “Ariel Redux.” The new Ariel: The Restored Edition, is, in fact, a facsimile of Plath’s manuscript with a printed version of the text reinstating her original selection and arrangement of the poems. (Hughes added 12 new poems written later and subtracted 12 from Plath’s own arrangement.) This reads more like a supplement and/or alternate to, rather than a supplanting of, the old Ariel. Either way, it’s always good to have more information, although the “new” poems, it should be noted, are also available in the Collected Poems.

Hughes did a good job of editing Plath, but that does not explain why he thought he was entitled to do so. This new round in the Plath-Hughes debate seems to leave out some essential questions: whether any good editor would have fought to bring out the best in Plath, and whether it is ever acceptable to make fundamental changes to the posthumous work of a major writer, since they’re not around to OK the final results. Then there is another question on top of that one that has to do with the importance of art over life or vice versa. The main reason why a husband ought not to edit a book of poems by his wife is that a husband’s job is not to make his wife better but happier. Granted that in Plath’s case it was far too late for the latter, Hughes fundamentally confused the two things, and the conceptions of improving and overruling Plath cannot be separated in this case, anymore than Hughes’ fastidious editing can be separated from his often condescending introductions to her work.