This was the question I found myself asking after I’d watched two documentaries last week. One was about Ted Hughes, famously married to Sylvia Plath who then famously committed suicide. Not so many people know that the “other woman” in the case, having had Hughes’s child, then also killed herself (and the child), apparently because of his indifference to her. Feminists have long blamed Hughes for both suicides, but Frieda, his daughter by Plath, doesn’t seem to. She remembers him as a good and loving father, who has inspired her to write poetry of her own. Hughes himself seems to have been haunted, to his dying day, by the mistakes he made in his relationships.
I subsequently watched Return to Larkinland, in which A N Wilson analysed Philip Larkin’s attitudes to women. I once actually met one of the women in Larkin’s life, Maeve Brennan, who was a member of the Barbara Pym Society prior to her death, though at that time I was blissfully ignorant of the details of her affair with Larkin. Listening to Wilson’s analysis, it was a wonder Larkin ever formed any kind of sexual relationship, what with his ambivalent attitude to his own parents and his generally misanthropic nature. It was sad to hear that Wilson, having known Larkin personally and liked him, became disenchanted when, following his death, the content of the poet’s diaries became public and it was found he held certain far-right views (though the wisdom of age has brought him to a better understanding now). What troubles me, and I think most readers, about this is the idea that a writer can produce sensitive and moving work whilst at the same time being quite obnoxious in real life. Oscar Wilde famously said of George Bernard Shaw: “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” Presumably Wilde considered himself a friend.
I thought further about this when I attended a talk by publisher Cary Archard on the subject of Alun Lewis’s life and work. Cary laid emphasis on Lewis’s “likeability” as a person, but it was noticeable that he chose to exclude personal relationships from his analysis, despite the recent publicity, in Lewis’s centenary year, about his affair with Freda Ackroyd. When I asked him why, he explained that he felt there had been too much concentration on the subject and that it was not relevant to Lewis’s poetry. Admittedly, Lewis did not meet Freda until 1943, when he had already produced his best work. But what about Lewis’s wife Gweno, whom he married in 1939? What about his earlier, unfulfilled relationship with the poet Lynnette Roberts, which certainly provided Roberts with poetic inspiration even if it didn’t have the same effect on Lewis?
Ted Hughes seems to have needed a “muse” to get him going. Yet Philip Larkin’s inspiration dried up late in life, when he was seeing three women simultaneously. Siegfried Sassoon did not begin to produce great poetry until he began to accept his sexuality, and David Thomas was certainly a catalyst, one way or another. Of course, sex is not the only way in which a poet can stray from the moral path. Byron is, perhaps, one of the most obvious examples. He was horrible to his wife and mistresses alike (Lady Caroline Lamb famously described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”), yet there was something that attracted them to him. His love for his illegitimate daughter Allegra is well-known, though he appears to have had little interest in the rest of his progeny.
Browsing the web in search of further examples, I came across – believe it or not – a list of ten poets considered by the webmaster as mad, bad and/or dangerous to know, in order of their badness. Tenth on the list came Franҫois Villon, the 16th century French thief and murderer who remains one of France’s most notable poets. Byron himself only comes in at number six. So who is top? Naturally it’s not an Englishman. Italian Fascist poet Prince Gabriele D’Annunzio takes the title, partly for his political views but also for his propensity towards cannibalism and insistence on his housekeeper providing him with sex three times a day. Unfortunately I don’t have enough Italian to judge the quality of d’Annunzio’s verse, but it would seem his fellow-countrymen still hold his literary output in some regard.
Other poets on the list include Swinburne, Shelley, Baudelaire, Pushkin and the Earl of Rochester. Whatever we may think of their private goings-on, they certainly produced some good poetry. Indeed, I find that it is very difficult to locate a prominent poet who didn’t have, at the very least, a tangled love life. Even Thomas Hardy, that grand old man beloved of all who knew him, is alleged to have treated both his wives badly. Nevertheless, judging by the devotion he inspired among his contemporaries, Hardy must have been “nice”, at least to one’s face.
The most obviously less-than-nice of the war poets is possibly Robert Graves. Even while writing of their friendship in the trenches, Siegfried Sassoon noted that Graves was much disliked by his fellow-officers, and he doesn't seem to have improved with age. His ménage à trois with his wife Nancy and the American "poet" Laura Riding didn't keep any of them happy. He was condescending to other poets, appointing himself Owen's prime critic, and taking Siegfried's traumatic personal experiences to use as fodder for his own memoirs. Even the magnanimous Edmund Blunden (himself no stranger to marital break-ups) was offended by his conduct. In the event, Graves's personality has not made his poetry and prose any less popular.
I'd contend that poets and other writers are, on the whole, no worse than the general public. Divorce is rife these days, but even when it was rare, marital discord was no less common. Looking at the non-literary world, it is difficult to find a marriage or relationship that hasn’t had its problems, sometimes critical, sometimes less disruptive. However much affection Siegfried may have inspired in his friends, he was quite capable of unkind or anti-social behaviour. I wonder how much decent poetry he would have produced if he had been a saint.