THE BLUE FLANNEL SUIT – from Ted Hughes’s “Birthday Letters”

In many poems Hughes intimates that it was conventional expectations of herself that trapped Plath and destroyed her. Their marriage and his poetic influence gave her a new direction and purpose in her fight to become a writer. When they both travelled to the US, he acted as a counterweight to her fear of breaking away from conventional expectations of success. He had a strong distrust of university respectability and was convinced that any tenured academic job would suffocate them. Plath later wrote to her brother: “I see too well the security and prestige of academic life, but it is Death to writing.”

In a poem entitled THE BLUE FLANNEL SUIT, he satirizes Plath as she prepared to go back and work as a lecturer in English at her alma mater–Smith College for women–sitting nervously at breakfast on the first day in an ugly tailored suit she had specially made, in keeping with the idea she had of what was expected of her.

He abruptly pulls himself short, and remembers the fate that awaited her. His image, “That blue suit, A mad, execution uniform, Survived your sentence” is reminiscent of Plath’s Daddy poem in which she imagined herself as a Holocaust victim.

From Memories of Sylvia Plath by Margaret Rees

Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters


I had let it all grow. I had supposed
It was all OK. Your life
Was a liner I voyaged in.
Costly education had fitted you out.
Financiers and committees and consultants
Effaced themselves in the gleam of your finish.
You trembled with the new life of those engines.

That first morning,
Before your first class at College, you sat there
Sipping coffee. Now I know, as I did not,
What eyes waited at the back of the class
To check your first professional performance
Against their expectations. What assessors
Waited to see you justify the cost
And redeem their gamble. What a furnace
Of eyes waited to prove your metal. I watched
The strange dummy stiffness, the misery,
Of your blue flannel suit, its straitjacket, ugly
Half-approximation to your idea
Of the properties you hoped to ease into,
And your horror in it. And the tanned
Almost green undertinge of your face
Shrunk to its wick, your scar lumpish, your plaited
Head pathetically tiny.

You waited,
Knowing yourself helpless in the tweezers
Of the life that judges you, and I saw
The flayed nerve, the unhealable face-wound
Which was all you had for courage.
I saw that what you gripped, as you sipped,
Were terrors that killed you once already.
Now I see, I saw, sitting, the lonely
Girl who was going to die.
That blue suit,
A mad, execution uniform,
Survived your sentence. But then I sat, stilled,
Unable to fathom what stilled you
As I looked at you, as I am stilled
Permanently now, permanently
Bending so briefly at your open coffin.