Birthday Letters, published in 1998 (ISBN 0-374-52581-1), is a collection of poetry by English poet and children's writer Ted Hughes. Released only months before Hughes' death, the collection won multiple prestigious literary awards.
This collection of eighty-eight poems is widely considered to be Hughes's most explicit response to the suicide of his estranged wife Sylvia Plath in 1963, and to their widely discussed, politicised and 'explosive' marriage. Up until the publication of this anthology, 35 years after Plath's suicide, Hughes had said and published barely anything about his relationship and life with Plath. His silence was taken by many as arrogant and uncaring; commended by few as noble and dignified. He has, in many ways, been subject to a continued persecution surrounding his presumed culpability in Plath's depression and eventual suicide. Over the years the fiercest supporters of either Hughes or Plath have far from gone away; if anything, the public response to the publication proves that the interest, and for some the anger, towards Hughes for his alleged mistreatment of Plath is still prevalent, even among those uninterested in poetry or literature in general. The bulk of the interest in Plath, and subsequently/consequently the interest in Hughes and his volume, is partly, or even predominantly, extra-literary.
After her death in 1963, Plath's wish to leave behind a meaningful legacy was fulfilled when her Ariel collection of poetry, along with her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, was hailed as a masterpiece of modern feminism, also prompting her to become a feminist icon in the 1970s. Hughes' apparent wish for redemption is realised in this autobiographical and incredibly powerful collection of poetry. The literary response to the publication of this collection was one of sensation. It was unknown at the time that Hughes was suffering from a terminal disease that may have prompted this unexpected release.
Hughes' Birthday Letters topped the best-seller lists immediately. This was arguably due to public fascination with a persistent mystery surrounding the lives of the two icons. Within a short period of time the collection was awarded the Forward Poetry Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whitbread Poetry and Whitbread British Book of the Year prizes.