Associated Press
Sylvia Plath

Nicholas Hughes Suicide Adds New Chapter to Mother Sylvia Plath’s Legacy

March 24, 2009 12:03 PM
by Liz Colville
Nicholas Hughes, the youngest child of poet Sylvia Plath, hanged himself March 16 in Alaska. He had been suffering from depression.

Successful Evolutionary Ecologist Was 47

Dr. Nicholas Hughes was the son of two successful poets, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. His parents’ literary careers were thrown into relief by their turbulent relationship and its tragic outcome: Plath’s suicide in 1963.

The younger child of the couple—the oldest is daughter Frieda—worked as an evolutionary ecologist and held a professorship at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He recently left his teaching post to take up pottery in his home, and “had been battling depression for some time,” his sister said in a statement. He hanged himself in his home on March 16, The Times of London reported.

A friend of Hughes suggested that his death not be connected to the negative attention devoted to his parents. “Nick … was a man who reached his mid-forties, an adventurous marine biologist with a distinguished academic career behind him,” the friend told the Times, “and a host of friends and achievements in his own right. That is the man who is mourned by those who knew him.”

But the high profile of Hughes’ family does bring attention to depression and suicide, particularly the question of whether suicide is heritable, which was suggested in a 2004 study by the University of Pittsburgh.

The Women on the Web observes that Plath seemed to predict her son’s burden in the poem “Nick and the Candlestick,” which ends with the lines, “In you, ruby. / The pain / You wake to is not yours.”

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Related Topic: Is suicide genetically linked?

A landmark 2004 University of Pittsburgh study “found six chromosomal regions, or loci, that may harbor risk genes for suicide,” according to a press release on the study, which adds that the study is “the first time scientists have been able to pinpoint locations where at least some of the genetic risk for suicide resides, and could lead to a breakthrough in our understanding of the underpinnings of suicidal behavior, its treatment and prevention.”

Background: The relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath, an American poet educated at Smith College, met the English poet Ted Hughes while on a Fulbright fellowship at Cambridge University in 1956. They married and moved to the U.S. the following year, where Plath taught at Smith College and studied with Robert Lowell, the Academy of American Poets writes. Hughes published his first collected work, “The Hawk in the Rain,” in 1957. The couple moved back to England in 1960 and Plath’s first collection, “Colossus,” was published.

Between 1960 and 1963, Plath was very prolific and “abandoned the restraints and conventions that had bound much of her early work,” Encyclopedia Britannica writes. She gave birth to Frieda in 1960 and Nicholas in 1962. Around that time, Hughes began an affair with Assia Wevill, who was married and had one daughter; in 1962, he and Plath separated.

The depression and harsh winter that followed coincided with a bout of productivity for Plath; at this time she wrote the bulk of the poems published in “Ariel,” her most famous collection. Then on Feb. 11, 1963, she “wrote a note to her downstairs neighbor instructing him to call the doctor” and “committed suicide using her gas oven.” It was her third suicide attempt. She shed light on the first two in her autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar,” published under the name Victoria Lucas in January 1963.

In The Guardian, a friend of Plath’s, Elizabeth Sigmund, recalls the events following Plath’s death, including the copycat suicide-homicide of Assia Wevill and her daughter, by gassing, in 1969.

Ted Hughes became a prolific and successful poet; he was the British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death. “Birthday Letters,” published in 1998, was a bestseller. He spearheaded the publishing of several collections of Plath’s poetry after her death, including “The Collected Poems” (1981), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

But Hughes was also “vilified by feminists for his alleged treatment of the women in his life.” In a letter uncovered in 2001, Hughes wrote that an anti-depressant was to blame for Plath’s suicide; Elizabeth Sigmund argued that this could only be one factor.

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