Hughes Fulbright Scholars

‘Fulbright Scholars’ #

I.           Context & Subject Matter #

The first poem of Birthday Letters describes a day in London where Hughes as a young man saw a photograph of the new Fulbright scholars. We see the day through the eyes of Hughes and are taken back into time through flashbacks of his memory. Does Hughes faulty memory influence his perspective of the truth?

The Fulbright program is the flagship foreign exchange scholarship program of the United States, aimed at increasing cultural understanding, collaboration and the exchange of ideas. It was established by Senator William Fulbright in 1946 by using credits from the sale of surplus war material to fund academic exchanges between host nations and the US. In the past 70 years, 400,000 Fulbright recipients from around the world have attended the program.

The story of the damnation and final glory of Hughes really begins on a fateful night in 1956 when he bent to kiss the young girl with eyes that shone as if lit inside by lamps - who would lift her head to his kiss and bite him on the cheek, drawing blood.

* “Sylvia, that night was nothing but getting to know how smooth your body is. The memory of it goes through me like brandy”.²*

He wrote about her with passion (“St Botolph’s”), and with tenderness and affection. Hughes recalled scenes from their courtship and marriage with precision – the peach scrunched outside Charing Cross station; the student parties (that famous bite/kiss), the first love-making (“You were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish”).

The uncertain and perplexed reminiscences of the poet are evident in his hesitant but obsessed pondering. He is so unsure of what he remembers but seems to have thought about it a lot.He contrasts his lack of certainty now with the sense of wonder and innocence, but cocky self assurance, he enjoyed as a young man.

Fulbright Scholars

Where was it, in the Strand? A display

* Of news items, in photographs.*

* For some reason I noticed it.*

* A picture of that year’s intake*

* Of Fulbright Scholars. Just arriving -*

* Or arrived. Or some of them.*

* Were you among them? I studied it,*

* Not too minutely, wondering*

* Which of them I might meet.*

* I remember that thought. Not*

* Your face. No doubt I scanned particularly*

* The girls. Maybe I noticed you.*

* Maybe I weighed you up, feeling unlikely.*

* Noted your long hair, loose waves -*

* Your Veronica Lake bang. Not what it hid.*

* It would appear blond. And your grin.*

* Your exaggerated American*

* Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.*

* Then I forgot. Yet I remember*

* The picture: the Fulbright Scholars.*

* With their luggage? It seems unlikely.*

* Could they have come as a team? I was walking*

* Sore-footed, under hot sun, hot pavements.*

* Was it then I bought a peach? That’s as I remember.*

* From a stall near Charing Cross Station.*

* It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted.*

* I could hardly believe how delicious.*

* At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh*

* By my ignorance of the simplest things.*

II.  Sound Effects #

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects,  verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm  and melody. Assonance, alliteration. onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro,  Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac,  upbeat,  blue, staccato,  dirge, ode,   Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

A conversational monologue addressed to someone who fails to respond.

This is a self reflective and meditative poem dealing with memory and its subjectivity and lack of reliability.  He is so unsure of what actually happened on that day, whether what he remembers is actual or affected by later events and other memories.  The tone, though reflective, is not nostalgic, rather searching for answers.    

The “s” sound dominates; initially with “where was it, in the Strand?”  with the play on words suggesting their isolation of being “stranded” and followed by “news items, in photographs.” 

III.  Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns  #

Memory: Its lingering effects, selectivity, subjectivity  and lack of reliability.

Appearance and reality:  Hughes ponders his first impressions and whether there were any warning signs of what was to come or was their mutual attraction merely the result of youthful impetuosity.

The suggestion that appearances can be deceptive is conveyed in the phrase  about her Veronica Lake bang (fringe) *“what it hid. It would appear blond.”   *Together with the American “grin for the camera” contrasts the superficial confidence of the Americans with the uptight restrained British aloofness.

**Truth and illusion:  **This is very much connected to the first two themes as much of what we perceive to be real is a figment of our imaginations or part of our wish fulfilment.  Love can be blind and only see the things it wants to see.

Ted Hughes “Fulbright scholars” demonstrates how truth can morph with time and be misinterpreted depending on the one presenting it. No version of the truth is more greater than the other and through the study of the poetry by Ted Hughes in Birthday letters;  Fulbright Scholars and Sam in contrast with Sylvia Plath’s 1954 Gordon Lemeyer photograph and her poem  * Whiteness I remember”*  we realise that the truth is not static entity; it can change with different perspectives and representations as we discover that truth is never pure and rarely simple.


Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.     Images: (visual,  auditory, olfactory,  tactile, gustatory) figures  of speech:  similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity,  irony, Allusions,  etc

Through the use of flashback we are given a double perspective, one of the young Hughes and that of an older reflective Hughes. The young Hughes sees nothing but a photograph where as the old Hughes looks beyond the surface to his memory of his time as Plath’s husband. Does this knowledge influence his perspective of truth? Hughes is aware of the part Plath played in his life. This poem portrays that perspectives change with time and how truth is affected by memory.

Hughes remembers parts of the day, whilst questioning other parts of his memory” I remember that though” and it’s emphatic tone emphasises Hughes’ certainty but later undercut by questioning his recollections. #

This is a poem filled with tension: his feelings then, contrasted with his feeling later –now?  The poems are all addressed to a “you” we can assume is Sylvia Plath and appear to be written at least 10 years after her death in 1963.  The dominant atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty prevails evidenced by the many questions, qualifying adverbs – “maybe” and doubtful memories – “was it then”.  #


Strand a street with theatres in London –runs off Trafalgar Square. Evokes emotions of being stranded – alone in the crossroads of life.  He first saw her in a public place auguring the celebrity marriage with lack of privacy they would enjoy.

**Veronica Lake bangs  (**fringes)

An American film actress and pin-up model noted for her femme fatale roles in film noir, as well as her peek-a-boo hairstyle covering her right eye, creating an air of mystery about her and enhancing her natural beauty.   Her loose waves symbolise her unstrained/undisciplined nature.  Veronica’s father also died when she was ten.

This allusion suggests that appearances can be deceiving and raises questions about Plath’s image – is she false, affected – cosmetic rather than real?

Fulbright Scholars - a play on words?  Literally an American scholarship - Full bright ** **- intelligent or the bright lamps referred to in the Nazi lampshades in “Daddy”.

**Luggage **– Literally their belongings but figuratively today referred to as emotional baggage – all your psychological hang-ups and problems.

**Peach **– A s*xual symbol because of its tempting, succulent juiciness and sensual feel.  Was it his initiation into the adult world of s*xual gratification or knowledge like the apple offered to Eve? Is it a reference to T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock: “Do I dare to eat a peach?”

**Charing Cross Station **– The burning cross – a cross roads of life or is it the cross of suffering, sacrifice and martyrdom he endures?


*Approach: Subjective/Objective,  Attitude or ToneAudience,   Style: diction, word play, puns,  connotative/denotative,   emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate)  clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat,  Jargon,  euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.   Gender biases.  Register:  formal, stiff, dignified  or Colloquial;  relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly  or Slang;  colourful, intimate,  Rhetorical devices;  Questions,  exclamations,  cumulation,  crescendo,  inversion,  bathos,  repetition,  3 cornered phrases.  *

Silvia – origins:  Salvias - Sage (plant), common name for a large genus of about 900 species of flowering plants of wide distribution. The genus is a member of the mint family….

The lack of certainty is depicted by the use of questions, mostly rhetorical as the poet appears to be obsessed with doubt and searching for meaning and causes of failure in their relationship.

Essentially colloquial and conversational, the poet uses relaxed personal memories to reflect on his first impressions of his beloved but departed partner. 

VI.      Evaluation: #

This appears to be a confessional non-judgmental poem describing in detached unsentimental language the reflective memories of a poet with someone he once deeply loved but now is separated from.

His self effacing conclusion of being “dumbfounded afresh by his ignorance”  may be a ruse to reject any blame for the disastrous relationship that developed.