Ted Hughes was born Edward James Hughes in a small Yorkshire town on the edge of the moors, only a few miles from where the famous Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) had lived. His father, William, a carpenter, had been badly wounded in World War I during the Gallipoli landings. Hughes was the youngest of three children. His brother briefly became a gamekeeper; his sister, Olwyn, became an executor and literary agent for the estate of Sylvia Plath. When Hughes was seven, the family moved to a mining town in south Yorkshire called Mexborough. From the grammar school there, he won an scholarship to attend Cambridge University, and he went to Cambridge in 1951 after two years of national service in the Royal Air Force. Having changed his major from English to archaeology and anthropology, he graduated in 1954.
Hughes then worked at a number of jobs, including teaching. Although he had been writing poetry from the age of fifteen, he wrote little at Cambridge and attempted to publish only locally at first. In 1956, he met Sylvia Plath, who was two years younger than he and was in Cambridge on a Fulbright Fellowship. At the time of their meeting, she was already a published poet. She began to send his poems to magazines and also entered him for a competition in New York for a first volume of poetry. He won with The Hawk in the Rain, and through its publication, his name quickly became known.
Plath and Hughes were married within four months of meeting. He returned with her to the United States in 1957, where they earned their living by teaching and writing prolifically together. In 1959, they returned to London, Hughes having completed Lupercal, helped by a Guggenheim Fellowship. The next year, their daughter, Frieda, was born, and the year after that, they moved to Devon, in the southwest part of England. Soon after the birth of their second child, Nicholas, in 1962, the marriage collapsed. Plath returned to London and filed for divorce, but during a bitterly cold winter she fell into a deep depression and committed suicide on February 11, 1963.
For some time after Plath’s suicide, Hughes wrote only for children. In March, 1969, his new partner, Assia Wevill, and her child Shura both died tragically. Hughes dedicated Crow, a volume that marked a new direction in his poetry, to them. The volume also solidified his reputation as a writer and poet.
In 1970, he married Carol Orchard, the daughter of a Devon farmer whose farm he was leasing. Moortown includes many details about his experiences there and shows Hughes returning somewhat to the subject matter of his earlier poetry. Controversy over his relationship with Plath continued to dog him, especially in the United States, where his reputation was badly affected. He remained silent about the affair until the publication of Birthday Letters in 1997. Only after his death was the publication of Plath’s journals allowed by their daughter, Frieda.
Apart from periods in London and Yorkshire, where he helped establish the Avron Foundation, which encourages creative writing, he continued to live in Devon until his death in 1998 from cancer. He was sixty-eight. At his memorial service at Westminster Abbey, Hughes’s close friend and fellow poet Seamus Heaney stated that Hughes was “a great poet through his wholeness, simplicity and unfaltering truth to his whole sense of the world.”