The use (but failure) of memory to understand the present
Poems by Plath it can be paired with:
Nick and the Candlestick
Throughout Fulbright Scholars, Hughes attempts to recall the specific moment he encountered Plath’s existence in order to better understand the nature of their relationship. He ultimately fails to gain any clarity.
Hughes’ inability to look into the past with clarity is established in the poem’s opening lines by the use of rhetorical questions, ‘Where was it, in the Strand?’ and ‘Were you among them?’ Through ‘Maybe I weighed you up, / feeling unlikely. / Noted your long hair, loose waves -’ Hughes affirms that he lacks a clear view of the past, but also reflects how he was drawn to Plath by her appearance, which indicated to him a degree of sexual promiscuity (‘long hair, loose waves.’) He mentions the name of ‘Veronica Lake’ – a Hollywood actress – to highlight Plath’s American identity and how he is star-struck by her. Hughes foreshadows the way in which he was never fully allowed access to Plath’s internal self and thus was restricted to an incomplete sense of her identity through ‘Not what it hid.’ He continues to reflect on the success with which Plath ‘performed’ her identity and life for the world around her through invoking imagery of the celebrity and the spectacle, ‘Your exaggerated American / Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.’ Here, Hughes is explaining how Plath appeared happy for the world around her, and hid her anguish. In the final section of the poem, Hughes uses a metaphor of eating a peach to symbolise sexuality and his lust for Plath, who is represented by the peach and is exotic because of her American identity. With the final two lines of the poem, Hughes reflects his ignorance and vulnerability, and that attempting to understand Plath was an exercise in futility.
Fulbright Scholars can be read as an exercise in memory by Hughes, as he tries – and fails – to make sense of his relationship with his late wife. He ties this uncertainty to her elusiveness, which stems from her skill with faking appearances and keeping her emotions and mental state guarded.