Birthday Letters, published in 1998, is a collection of poetry by English poet and children's writer Ted Hughes. Released only months before Hughes's death, the collection won multiple prestigious literary awards. This collection of eighty-eight poems is widely considered to be Hughes' most explicit response to the suicide of his estranged wife Sylvia Plath in 1963, and to their widely discussed, politicized and "explosive" marriage.
Up until the publication of this anthology, 35 years after Plath's suicide, Hughes had said and published nearly nothing about his relationship and life with Plath. When it was discovered that he had infidelities while with Plath and had destroyed some of Plath's works after her death, some feminist critics depicted him as a monster and Plath as a victim. In one instance, Hughes's name was chipped off Plath's tombstone in Yorkshire.
The "Ted Hughes controversy" concerned his possible role in Plath's suicide and subsequent attempts at controlling the finished products of her poetry volumes. The speculation resulted in extra-literary attention on Plath and Hughes and, consequently, their works as poets. Poems including The Blue Flannel Suit directly address their relationship, and many are directly addressed to Plath herself.
After her death in 1963, Plath's wish to leave behind a meaningful legacy was fulfilled when her Ariel collection of poetry, and her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, were hailed as masterpieces of modern feminism, causing her to become a feminist icon in the 1970s. Hughes' apparent wish for redemption is realized in this autobiographical 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.