Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath on Bullfighting

Hughes & Plath

On Tuesday, the poet Ted Hughes was commemorated with a monument in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, among the remains of Chaucer and Wordsworth, Dickens and Hardy (I have not visited myself since my brother’s memorial service there in ’88).

In the summer of 1956 Hughes married the poet Sylvia Plath and for their honeymoon they went to Spain and watched a bullfight. As she wrote in a letter to her mother:

I’d imagined that the matador danced around with the dangerous bull, then killed him instantly. Not so… The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality.

I feel I would have had exactly the same response were it not for the fact that the first corrida I saw was headed by El Fandi, four days before his alternativa, in the Maestranza of Seville. Sheer chance.

Plath wrote a poem about her bullfight experience, in which a picador was injured by the bull.

The Goring

Arena dust rusted by four bulls’ blood to a dull redness,
The afternoon at a bad end under the crowd’s truculence,
The ritual death each time botched among dropped capes, ill-judged
The strongest will seemed a will towards ceremony. Obese, dark-
Faced in his rich yellows, tassels, pompons, braid, the picador

Rode out against the fifth bull to brace his pike and slowly bear
Down deep into the bent bull-neck. Cumbrous routine, not artwork. Instinct for art began with the bull’s horn lofting in the mob’s
Hush a lumped man-shape. The whole act formal, fluent as a dance.
Blood faultlessly broached redeemed the sullied air, the earth’s grossness.

Hughes described the situation, and Plath’s view, in much more profound detail in the last volume of poems he published, Birthday Letters, which included the following poem.

You Hated Spain

Spain frightened you.
Where I felt at home.
The blood-raw light,
The oiled anchovy faces, the African
Black edges to everything, frightened you.
Your schooling had somehow neglected Spain.
The wrought-iron grille, death and the Arab drum.
You did not know the language, your soul was empty
Of the signs, and the welding light
Made your blood shrivel.
Bosch held out a spidery hand and you took it
Timidly, a bobby-sox American.
You saw right down to the Goya funeral grin
And recognized it, and recoiled
As your poems winced into chill, as your panic
Clutched back towards college America.
So we sat as tourists at the bullfight
Watching bewildered bulls awkwardly butchered,
Seeing the grey-faced matador, at the barrier
Just below us, straightening his bent sword
And vomiting with fear. And the horn
That hid itself inside the blowfly belly
Of the toppled picador punctured
What was waiting for you. Spain
Was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver
You dared not wake with, the puckering amputations
No literature course had glamorized.
The juju land behind your African lips.
Spain was what you tried to wake up from
And could not. I see you, in moonlight,
Walking the empty wharf at Alicante
Like a soul waiting for the ferry,
A new soul, still not understanding,
Thinking it is still your honeymoon
In the happy world, with your whole life waiting,
Happy, and all your poems still to be found.

(Because sometimes I am sickened by how aficionados seem to have only good things to say about bullfighting.)

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  1. I like that line “Spain frightened you.” He cuts right to the quick. I can see Plath’s disgust being the reaction of a lot of people when they see a corrida for the first time. My first time was in Malaga, and they weren’t bad fights, but like you in your book I went away with a very uneasy, conflicted feeling. Fascination and revulsion, the beginnings of a nice love/hate relationship! It’s complicated, but then so is Spain.
    Great post, Xander:-)

  2. Thanks John. It’s funny, at the William Hill sports book of the year awards, there was a journalist, a Brit who lives in Spain, who had come to “have a go” at me about bullfighting. However, his video-camera had broken, so instead he asked me to sign his copy of my book. In the dedication, I wrote “To lodge behind your eyes so you can see!” It is a paraphrase of a line by Hughes about the young Plath at Cambridge from the poem ‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’. Here is some of the original:

    They let you know that you were not John Donne.
    You no longer care. Did you save their names?
    But then they let you know, day by day,
    Their contempt for everything you attempted,
    Took pains to inject their bile, as for your health,
    Into your morning coffee. Even signed
    Their homeopathic letters,
    Envelopes full of carefully broken glass
    To lodge behind your eyes so you would see

    “Cuts right to the quick” indeed!



  3. Plath’s poem on the bullfight is indeed what one feels when it all goes wrong, and it makes one wonder why you go back again and again in hope that you will witness the beauty of a perfect faena.

  4. Another great line “to lodge between your eyes so you would see”. Good that he bought a copy to have you sign;-)


  5. David Morton says:

    Can you please clarify who is the author of the comment in brackets immediately below the Hughes poem?

  6. Me.

  7. David Morton says:

    Thanks Alexander

    What are you driving at?

  8. David, sorry I didn’t answer clearly. I sometimes get the feeling that the urge of aficionados to defend their beloved corrida leads them to say every bullfight is clean and pure and good and true and that the bulls would choose it if they could… This is as dishonest and dishonourable a view as the anti-taurinos propaganda. Bullfights can be horrific and ugly things and Plath offers a good tonic and Hughes a good explanatory voice of that. Alexander

  9. Barbara Ritchie says:

    A nice reminder of what good poets they both were! Many thanks!

  10. David Morton says:

    Thanks for the elucidation Alexander
    The comment I most often hear from aficionados regarding the plight of the bull is that toros bravos enjoy a better life before the final curtain than beef cattle.
    I cannot say whether this view is accurate or not; being a denizen of central London and not out on the farm as often as I might wish.
    Certainly my experience is that there are more than a few aficionados who are happy violently to castigate toreros who fall short of the mark in their performances.
    For my part I am reluctant openly to criticise individuals who are risking their necks for their art.

  11. David Morton says:

    Ran out of cyberspace before my final remark.

    I know a great many aficionados and none have sought to defend the corrida in any cicumstances.

  12. Two very nice poems indeed. Thanks for finding them and sharing with the taurine community.
    “Spain was what you tried to wake up from
    And could not.”
    Resides a bit in a ll of us who love Spain and her soul.

  13. You’re welcome Jim. AFH

  14. David, I don’t deny that has been your experience, but it has been far from mine, as an aficionado, as a torero, as an author on the subject. Best, AFH

  15. Angus Ritchie says:

    David, It is worth getting a hold of Zander’s book, Into The Arena., it is as educating, as it is entertaining.

  16. Cheers Angus.

  17. David Morton says:

    I ain’t no Robert de Niro, Angus, but are you talking to me?

    If so may I enlighten you with the revelation that I not only have a copy of Alexander’s book, he wrote a dedication to me.

    It is next on my reading list after a biog of Wagner and a book on the history of the use of deadly force in the US.

    I’ll let you have my comments then.


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