Ted Hughes (1930 - 1998)

Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate from 1984 to 1998, was one of the most popular and highly regarded British poets of the twentieth century. He won many literary prizes, including The Whitbread Book of the Year two years running, for Tales from Ovid in 1997 and Birthday Letters in 1998, and was awarded an OBE in 1977, and the Order of Merit in 1998. He was an intense, imaginative writer, known for his stern, direct style and his depiction of the elemental forces of nature and animal life. Among other influences his writing drew upon his Yorkshire background, his parents' experiences, Shakespeare, and his interests in mythology, shamanism, and the occult.

Edward James Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, a town surrounded by the bleak landscape of the Yorkshire moors. In childhood he learned to hunt and developed a profound knowledge of, and respect for, nature. His father told stories of his experiences during the First World War, and his mother talked of seeing ghosts. These experiences fed into his work, as seen for example in the collection of short stories, Difficulties of a Bridegroom (1995), which includes ‘The Rain Horse’ (originally published in Wodwo, 1967), a story of a man chased by a horse on a stormy moor, ‘The Wound’, about an injured soldier's demon-filled hallucinations, and ‘The Deadfall’ in which a ghost helps to free a fox cub caught in a trap.

Hughes started writing comic verse at the age of eleven and had poetry published in the school magazine. In 1948 he won an Open Exhibition to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and went up in 1951 after completing National Service. In the Army, stationed in Yorkshire, he spent much of his spare time reading Shakespeare, and was later to write a criticism of Shakespeare's work, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992). He occasionally included Shakespearean references in his poems, and in ‘Setebos’ from Birthday Letters (1998) he compares himself and his wife with Ferdinand and Miranda from The Tempest.

At Cambridge he felt that studying English literature restricted his own writing style, so switched to archaeology and anthropology. He read the poetry of primitive societies and became interested in their folklore. After university he wrote under various pseudonyms while working as a rose gardener, night watchman, zoo attendant, and school teacher. In 1956, with a group of friends, he launched a poetry magazine, The St. Botolph's Review. The magazine ran for only one issue, but at its inauguration party he met the talented but troubled American writer Sylvia Plath, who was at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship, and they married later that year.

Plath entered some of Hughes’s poems for a poetry competition, which he subsequently won. As a result, 1957 saw the publication of The Hawk in the Rain, a collection which demonstrated that Hughes did not shy away from the less attractive aspects of nature: apes adore their fleas, and the jaguar is on a short, fierce fuse. It also contains some of his best-known early poems such as ‘The Thought Fox’ and the title poem, ‘Hawk in the Rain’.

Once Plath had finished her Masters Degree, the couple travelled to the US, where Hughes wrote many of the poems which appeared in Lupercal (1960), a volume which consolidated his reputation as a nature poet who was unafraid of the more violent aspects of the natural world. In the collection the pike is described as a malevolent killer, thrushes use a deadly eye to stab at prey, and even the water lily has horror nudging her root.

In 1959 they moved to England, and in 1960 their daughter, Frieda Rebecca, was born. Needing extra income Hughes wrote for various magazines and newspapers and did radio programmes for the BBC. In 1961 he published a book of children's verse, Meet My Folks! The unconventional family in the story includes an octopus grandmother and an aunt who turns into a witch.

In January 1962 their second child, Nicholas Farrar, was born but, soon afterwards, the marriage broke down. Plath suffered mood swings and fits of jealousy. Hughes met Assia Wevill and the couple had an affair which resulted in a daughter, Shura, being born in 1965. In 1962, the year in which he and Thom Gunn published Selected Poems, Hughes moved to London.

In 1963 Sylvia Plath committed suicide. Although this was her second suicide attempt, the first having occurred before she met Hughes, some blamed Hughes for her death. Hughes was deeply affected by the loss and wrote no new adult poetry for about three years. He concentrated on children's books, such as How the Whale Became (1963), a series of children's Aesop-like fables, The Earth-Owl and Other Moon People (1963), and Nessie the Mannerless Monster (1964). He also wrote radio plays for children including The Coming of the Kings (1964), The Tiger's Bones (1965), and Beauty and the Beast (1965).

By 1966 Hughes had started writing for adults again and was working on the poems which would appear in Wodwo and Crow. The poems in Wodwo (1967) combine his interests in mythology and nature. The title was borrowed from the name of a troll-like character in the fourteenth century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In 1968, Hughes wrote The Iron Man, his best-known children's story, which was adapted into a film The Iron Giant (1999), which uses the character created by Hughes but in a different setting. In both stories a huge metal man arrives mysteriously on earth. In The Iron Man the giant saves the world from a dragon-like creature the size of Australia. The Iron Giant is set in Cold War America and the arrival of the giant sparks fears of a Soviet attack. The giant saves a town from destruction when a nuclear missile is launched.

Another tragedy occurred in Hughes's life in 1969 when Assia Wevill killed herself and their daughter. A year later Hughes married his second wife, Carol Orchard and the family settled in Devon. In 1970, Hughes wrote Poetry in the Making in which he argued that there is no single or ideal form of poetry. In 1971 he developed the language ‘Orghast’ which was a form of wordless communication aimed at freeing actors from the boundaries of language.

In Crow (1972) Hughes presented a new, nihilistic mythology. In the USA in 1958 he and Plath had been friendly with sculptor and graphic artist Leonard Baskin, who sculpted crows and suggested that Hughes write about them. This subject, together with Hughes's interest in the supernatural and mythology, led to the creation of the character, Crow. In Hughes’s Crow legend God has a nightmare and feels a hand at his throat. At the same time Man has come up from earth to ask God to take back mankind. God is outraged and challenges the nightmare hand to do better. Crow is born. A series of Crow poems followed which contain a fatherly but fallible God, and the amoral Crow, who is partly drawn from Native American literature.

In the mid seventies Hughes retreated from public life and worked on his father-in-law’s farm. Many of his works were published during this time including Gaudete (1977), and Cave Birds (1979), presenting further combinations of nature and mythology.

In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992) Hughes proposed the theory that the myths established in the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece formed the basis for many of Shakespeare's later plays. Tales from Ovid was published in 1997, and in 1998, Birthday Letters, which soon became one of his best-known collections. The poems address his relationship with Sylvia Plath from their first meeting until after her death. The poems are a personal tribute to Plath, and show the strength of their relationship as well as its tempestuous nature.

Selected works: Poetry: The Hawk in the Rain (1957); Lupercal (1960); Selected Poems, with Thom Gunn (1962); Recklings (1967); Wodwo (1967); Crow (1972); Gaudete (1977); Cave Birds (1979), Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992); Birthday Letters (1998). Verse and Stories for Children: Meet my Folks! (1961); How the Whale Became (1963); The Earth-Owl and Other Moon People (1963); Nessie the Mannerless Monster (1964); The Coming of the Kings (1964); The Tiger's Bones (1965); Beauty and the Beast (1965); The Iron Man (1968). Prose: Poetry in the Making (1970); Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992); Difficulties of a Bridegroom (1995).

Author: Sarah Jones

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