Almost since the day Sylvia Plath committed suicide, she has been cast by some as a helpless victim of Ted Hughes. Biographies published last year (the fiftieth anniversary of her death) suggest that this “fantasia” is losing its hold, and interest has shifted to her life before she met her husband; while the story of his coming to terms with his loss is only slowly emerging. Jonathan Bate, Hughes’s biographer, draws on Hughes’s diary and the drafts of a projected long poem – combining Beethoven and Wordsworth in a “lifeline music . . . consolation, prayer, transcendence” – to untangle the complications of that story, which preoccupied Hughes for thirty-five years. Robert Graves’s The White Goddess was an important book for Hughes (and, he wrote, “for SP too, when I got her into it”), though he thought Graves lacked “real poetic imagination”. Peter McDonald reviews a new selection of Graves’s poems which reveals another dimension to this poet of the Muse, of “love and women”: his unsettling power as a poet of war. The “one story and one story only” at the centre of Graves’s poetry, too, turns out to be a more complicated one than we had thought, about a man who “chooses to be hurt again and again, and not to flinch”. “Lesbos”, one of Plath’s rawest poems of marital hurt and anguish, obliquely invokes the seventh-century BC Greek poet Sappho. The “secret” that two new poems by her had been discovered on a fragment of papyrus has recently travelled around the world, “often in garbled form”. Dirk Obbink, the head of the Oxyrhinchus Papyri Project, addresses the “key questions”, among them “how do we know they are genuine?”
The new Life of Penelope Fitzgerald is, according to A. N. Wilson, “the sort of tribute which is nowadays paid by publishers, by professors, by the literary world, when a considerable figure leaves us”; but it does not get to the heart of the novelist’s mystery. Magic and mathematics, rationalism and faith combined in the mind of Martin Gardner to give him a lifelong commitment to the marvellous: a “constant amazement and gratitude that we and a universe exist”. Michael Saler reads his “dishevelled memoirs”.