Study Guide

Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes Essay - Hughes, Ted (Vol. 119)

Hughes, Ted (Vol. 119)

Introduction

Ted Hughes 1930–1998

British poet, playwright, children's author, and editor.

See also Ted Hughes Criticism (Volume 2), and volumes 4, 9, 14.

Named Poet Laureate of England in 1984, Hughes is a versatile poet who is perhaps best known for creating powerful poems that feature bold metaphors and resonant language, imagery, and speech rhythms. He often comments on the human condition through the use of myth and symbol, describing natural phenomena and animals in evocative language. Hughes contends that Western civilization has overvalued intellectual faculties, dividing humans both from their instinctual urges and from nature. He suggests that the poet can be a reunifying source by employing such creative energies as imagination and emotion, as well as rationalization, to probe the mysteries of nature and life. In Hughes's poetry, according to Seamus Heaney, "racial memory, animal instinct and poetic imagination all flow into one another with an exact sensuousness." While Hughes is regarded as one of the most accomplished poets to emerge since World War II, he is often discussed more for his relationship with American poet Sylvia Plath than for his work. His seven-year marriage to Plath has been a source of controversy and speculation, and his silence on the subject was considered by his detractors to be a sign of guilt over her death. Not until Birthday Letters (1998), a poetry collection created over the span of a quarter of a century, did Hughes present his side of his tumultuous relationship with Plath.

Hughes was born Edward James Hughes on August 17, 1930, the youngest child of William Henry Hughes and Edith Farrar Hughes. In 1948, Hughes won an Open Exhibition to Cambridge University, but delayed his enrollment for two years to serve in the Royal Air Force. After completing his service, Hughes entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, to study English but switched in his final year to study anthropology. In the two years following his graduation, Hughes published several poems in Cambridge literary magazines and supported himself by working a number of odd jobs. In 1956, he met Sylvia Plath, who was at Cambridge as a Fulbright fellow; within four months, they were married. After Plath's suicide in 1963, Hughes took an active role in raising their children, Frieda and Nicholas. Hughes grew up in the rugged landscape of Yorkshire, and the natural world became central to his poetry. His father fought in the trenches of World War I and violent imagery is a central feature in much of Hughes's work. His poems do not idealize nature, but present the brutal, ugly aspects and violent struggles inherent in the natural world. Hughes died of cancer, at the age of 68, in 1998.

Hughes's early poetry is emotionally intense and features elaborate imagery and natural settings. His first book, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), made an immediate impact on critics, poets, and readers. The poems in this volume display charged, assonant language which commentators likened to that of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Critics were particularly impressed with the sensual language of "The Thought-Fox," one of Hughes's most anthologized poems. Lupercal, (1960), Hughes's second volume, confirmed his reputation as an important and inventive young poet. Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970), is considered one of his most startling achievements. The poems follow the adventures of Crow from the genesis of life to nuclear apocalypse, presenting Hughes's version of the creation story. The protagonist, the Crow, is at war with the world, including his creator. Throughout his long journey, Crow experiences individual and universal tragedies and assesses both human pretension and life itself with coldly sardonic observations. The poems in Remains of Elmet (1979), Moortown (1979), and River (1983) offer vivid descriptions of animal life and nature and generally project a more positive view of humanity than Hughes's previous works. Remains of Elmet traces the history of the Elmet region of England as it develops from an ancient kingdom to a modern industrial area. Moortown is composed of four sequences of poems. "The Moortown" sequence, which was singled out for acclaim by critics, recounts in diary form Hughes's experiences as a dairy farmer deeply engaged in the birth and death cycles of animals. The poems in River follow a series of rivers through the course of a year, describing their sundry landscapes and animal life. These volumes reveal what many agree are Hughes's finest qualities as a poet: his ability to evoke the natural world in rich, sensuous detail and his unsentimental yet respectful view of life. In Birthday Letters, Hughes reveals many personal feelings and intimate details regarding his relationship with his wife, Sylvia Plath.

Hughes is one of a very few contemporary British poets to have gained a significant reputation outside of Britain. In England, Hughes's stature is reckoned not only with regard to his unique poetic achievement but to the effect of his style and ideas on his younger contemporaries. In the 1950s, Hughes's poetry signalled a dramatic departure from the prevailing modes of the period. The stereotypical poem of the time was determined not to risk much: politely domestic in its subject matter, understated and mildly ironic in style. By contrast, Hughes marshalled a language of nearly Shakespearean resonance to explore themes which were mythical and elemental. Many critics felt Hughes's appointment as Britain's Poet Laureate in 1984 rather incongruous, given that the Laureate's role typically involved celebrating the Christian milestones of the monarchy, including marriages and christenings. Hughes's poetry encompasses mythology and pre-Christian religion and often presents Christianity as a destructive force. Despite the incongruity of the appointment, commentators praised the work that Hughes produced while he was Laureate. In addition to his poetry, Hughes has distinguished himself for other literary endeavors as well. His ambitious critical study entitled Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), his insightful social and literary criticism, and his poems and books about poetry for children have also been commended.

Principal Works

The Hawk in the Rain (poetry) 1957
Lupercal (poetry) 1960
Meet My Folks! (juvenile poetry) 1961
The Wound (drama) 1962; revised version produced 1972
The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People (juvenile poetry) 1963; published as Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems, 1976; revised edition published as Moon Whales, 1988
The Burning of the Brothel (poetry) 1966
The Price of a Bride (juvenile drama) 1966
Gravestones (poetry) 1967; published as Poems, 1968
Poems: Ted Hughes, Fainlight, and Sillitoe (poetry) 1967
The Iron Giant: A Story in Five Nights (juvenile literature) 1968
I Said Goodbye to the Earth (poetry) 1969
A Few Crows (poetry) 1970
Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (poetry) 1970; revised edition, 1972 and 1981
Fighting for Jerusalem (poetry) 1970
Eat Crow (drama) 1971
Selected Poems, 1957–1967 (poetry) 1972
The Iron Man [based on his juvenile book] (drama) 1973
Orpheus (drama) 1973
Prometheus on His Crag: 21 Poems (poetry) 1973
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (juvenile poetry) 1974; revised and enlarged edition published as Season Songs, 1975
Cave Birds (poetry) 1975; enlarged edition published as Cave Birds: An Alchemical Drama, 1978
Earth-Moon (juvenile poetry) 1976
Gaudete (poetry) 1977
Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence (poetry) 1979
Moortown (poetry) 1979; published as Moortown Diary, 1989
Under the North Star (juvenile poetry) 1981
The Rattle Bag: An Anthology of Poetry [editor with Seamus Heaney] (poetry) 1982
Selected Poems: 1957–1981 (poetry) 1982; enlarged edition published as New Selected Poems, 1982
River (poetry) 1983
What Is Truth?: A Farmyard Fable for the Young (juvenile poetry) 1984
Flowers and Insects: Some Birds and a Pair of Spiders (poetry) 1986
Tales of the Early World (poetry) 1988
Wolfwatching (poetry) 1989
Moortown Diary [originally published in Moortown] (poetry) 1989
Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (critical study) 1992
Tales From Ovid [translator] (poetry) 1997
Birthday Letters (poetry) 1998

Obituaries

Sarah Lyall (obituary date 30 October 1998)

SOURCE: "Ted Hughes, 68, a Symbolic Poet and Sylvia Plath's Husband, Dies," in New York Times, October 30, 1998, p. 1.

[In the following obituary, Lyall discusses Hughes's life and death from cancer at the age of 68.]

Ted Hughes, the British poet who was known as much for his doomed marriage to the American poet Sylvia Plath as for his powerful, evocative poetry, replete with symbolism and bursting with dark images of the Devonshire countryside in which he lived, died Wednesday, his publisher said. He was 68.

Hughes, Britain's poet laureate, had been suffering from cancer for about 18 months, but had told only his closest friends and had never discussed details of his illness, said Matthew Evans, the chairman of Faber and Faber, Hughes's publisher. "He felt that being ill was, for him, very private," Evans said. Hughes died at his home in North Tawton.

It was his illness, and his sense that time was running out, that persuaded Hughes to publish his last work, Birthday Letters, a collection of poems about his fraught, fragile relationship with Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, soon after the two separated. After a silence of 35 years, in which Hughes had steadfastly refused to discuss Plath publicly or to respond to charges—leveled in her own work and by her admirers—that his callousness had led to her death, Hughes's decision to finally speak out was extraordinary. The book became a best seller in Britain and the United States, rare for a book of poetry, and was a personal turning point for Hughes.

"It was a piece of work he wanted to get out before he died," Evans said in an interview. "He regarded it as being of personal importance. It was the nearest thing to an autobiography."

The book, which drew a sometimes loving picture of a brilliant but emotionally unstable woman with a passion for suicide that seemed hard-wired into her very being, was widely praised. Friends of Hughes saw it as a vindication of a man who had lived for decades in the shadow of his far more famous wife, taking on a guilt that should not have been his.

But the book did not end the debate over the strange, terrible time surrounding Plath's death, already described in her own remarkable poems and journals, jagged cries of pain that at times laid the blame for her troubles on Hughes's broad shoulders. Many Plath scholars said that Hughes had behaved with remarkable callousness toward his wife, neglecting her genius and abandoning her and their two small children at a time when she was clearly crying out for help.

Whatever the truth, Hughes, by then ill with the disease that would kill him, got the last word in the 35-year discussion. "The publication was a very important moment for him." Evans told the Press Association. "He was putting another side, and there was a great deal of understanding after that book was published."

Edward James Hughes was born on Aug. 17, 1930, in Mytholmroyd, a small mill town in West Yorkshire surrounded by bleak, barren moors. When he was 7, his family moved to Mexborough, a coal mining town to the south, and his father gave up his old profession—making portable wooden buildings—and bought a newspaper store. By then, the young Ted had developed a lifelong passion for the countryside, for animals, and for hunting, a passion that would inform his poetry in the years to come.

"He wanted to capture not just live animals, but the alive-ness of animals in their natural state: their wildness, their quiddity, the fox-ness of the fox and the crow-ness of the crow," wrote Thomas Nye in The Times of London.

Surviving Isolation Steeped in Shakespeare

After attending the local schools, Hughes served for two years in the Royal Air Force, working as a radio mechanic on an isolated three-man station in northern Yorkshire, with "nothing to do but read and re-read Shakespeare and watch the grass grow," he said. He then went to Cambridge, where he was celebrated as a clever, handsome student with great personal magnetism and an aura of brooding mystery that made him particularly attractive to women. He took a number of jobs after graduation, working variously as a gardener, a night watchman, a zoo attendant and a script reader.

He met Plath, an American studying at Cambridge, at a party there in 1956. Their attraction was instantaneous. Plath wrote in her journal: "That big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I came into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard into my eyes and it was Ted Hughes."

The two got married just four months later, and woke each morning at dawn, brimming with ideas. "We would write poetry every day," Hughes once said. "It was all we were interested in, all we ever did. We were like two feet, each one using everything the other did." In 1957, Hughes published his first volume of poetry, Hawk in the Rain, full of brutal, dramatic images of nature, to a chorus of praise in which he was acclaimed as the most important British poet to emerge after World War II.

"Hughes's poetry signaled a dramatic departure from the prevailing modes of the period," wrote the critic Robert B. Shaw. "The stereotypical poem of the time was determined not to risk too much: politely domestic in its subject matter, understated and mildly ironic in style. By contrast, Hughes marshaled a language of nearly Shakespearean resonance to explore themes which were mythic and elemental."

A Brutal Winter Exacerbates Misery

Though Plath found herself living in the shadow of her increasingly well-known husband, the two made up a celebrated and, for a time, happy literary couple, living briefly in the United States, where both spent several months writing at Yaddo, the artists' colony in upstate New York, and Hughes worked for a year as an English teacher at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Their life together in England was less successful. Plath found the Devon countryside, which her husband loved, heartless, bleak and uninviting. When they moved back to an unheated, uncomfortable flat in north London before one of Britain's bitterest winters in half a century, she fared no better, finding it increasingly difficult to beat back the suicidal tendencies that had plagued her on and off for years.

As her relationship with Hughes unraveled, she became distraught and wracked by self-doubt. In February 1963, soon after Hughes left her for his married lover, a fellow poet named Assia Wevill, Plath carefully laid out milk and bread for her sleeping children, put her head in the oven, and gassed herself.

Reverence for Plath, Contempt for Hughes

Plath's suicide had far-reaching and unexpected consequences. It drew a blaze of attention to her work, much of which had been written in a burst of despairing, frenzied creativity in the last months of her life. She became a feminist icon, celebrated as a passionately creative woman stifled by the confines of motherhood and by a husband who misunderstood and betrayed her.

It also put terrible pressure on Hughes, who was vilified by many for what they saw as his complicity in Plath's death, but who never publicly tried to defend himself.

It didn't help his reputation that, six years later, Assia Wevill killed herself and the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Shura, using gas, as Plath had....

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Interviews

Ted Hughes with Carolyne Wright (interview date November/December 1998)

SOURCE: "What Happens in the Heart," in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, November/December, 1998, pp. 3, 12-3.

[In the following interview, Hughes shares personal revelations about his relationship with Sylvia Plath.]

Just when every literary critic and Sylvia Plath devotee thought that they had sorted out the truth about Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, along came the February 27, 1998, publication of Hughes' Birthday Letters, a remarkable sequence of love poems about his and Plath's tumultuous seven-year marriage. In front-page articles on both sides of the...

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Criticism

W. S. Merwin (review date 6 October 1957)

SOURCE: "Something of His Own to Say," in New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1957, p. 43.

[In the following review of The Hawk in the Rain, Merwin praises Hughes's young talent for its originality and intelligence.]

Ted Hughes is a young English poet; The Hawk in the Rain is his first book. Its publication gives reviewers an opportunity to do what they are always saying they want to do: acclaim an exciting new writer. There is no need, either, to shelter in the flubbed and wary remark that the poems are promising. They are that, of course; they are unmistakably a young man's poems, which accounts for some of their defects as well as some of their...

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Daniel Hoffman (review date 18 April 1971)

SOURCE: A review of Crow, in New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1971, pp. 6, 35-6.

[Hoffman is a poet and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. In the following review, he analyzes Hughes's Crow, calling it "a new version of the gospel."]

"In the beginning was Scream," begins a poem revising the Book of Genesis. Ted Hughes's substitution, on this early page in Crow, of Scream for Word suggests the violent, primitive energy and the furious assault upon despair which striate the nearly 80 poems in this book. Reading Crow is a profoundly disturbing experience. This is no mere book of verses, but a wild yet cunning wail of anguish...

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Robert Holkeboer (review date Summer 1978)

SOURCE: A review of Gaudete, in World Literature Today, Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, p. 467.

[In the following review, Holkeboer lauds Hughes's Gaudete.]

Praise for Hughes has been grudging for some reason. Called the finest poet of his generation (the competition scarcely threatens this equivocal honor), he is at the same time patronized as a flashy wordsmith, master of the consonantal dazzle, like Fry or Dylan Thomas, the rhetoric meretriciously masking and emptiness beneath, a certain cruel sentimentality. Hughes deserves better.

Gaudete, his first volume of poetry since Crow (1971), is an extraordinary book, strange,...

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John C. Witte (essay date Spring 1980)

SOURCE: "Wotan and Ted Hughes's Crow," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 38-44.

[In the following essay, Witte discusses the mythological influences on Hughes's Crow.]

Ted Hughes has collected in Crow what appear to be the fragments of apocalyptic experience. Everything in the world into which Crow survives seems about to explode, compelled by intolerable internal pressures. The most trivial event might be cause for astonishing cruelties. But unlike the brutal naturalism frequently explored in the earlier animal poems, in "Pike" and "Hawk Roosting," the violence in Crow has a martial character. The grass, even,...

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Donald F. McKay (essay date Spring 1981)

SOURCH: "Animal Music: Ted Hughes's Progress in Speech and Song," in English in Studies in Canada, Vol. VII, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 81-92.

[In the following essay, McKay discusses Hughes's use of and emphasis on language in Crow and Gaudete.]

In the blighted landscape of Crow, scarred with the repeated failures of genesis, it is startling to come across "Glimpse" close to the end of the book:

     "O leaves," Crow sang, trembling, "O leaves—"
 
     The touch of a leaf's edge at his throat
     Guillotined further comment.
 
...

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Julian Moynahan (review date August 1981)

SOURCE: "Is There Life After Crow? Ted Hughes's Poetry Lately," in Poetry, Vol. CXXXVIII, No. 5, August, 1981, pp. 297-304.

[In the following review, Moynahan analyzes the quality and nature of Hughes's poetry since Crow.]

Among the moderns, Ted Hughes has aspired to go farther than any other in following up on the great Anglo-Irishman's tip: farther than Eliot with his Sweeney, Pound with his macho-man "Sestina Altaforte," Lawrence with his "Birds, Beasts and Flowers," Jeffers with his Monterey Peninsula hawks and rocks, Doc Williams with his "Elsie" from the Ramapo Range of North Jersey. Frost with his cackling "Witch of Coös," Maine. Of course, the search to renew...

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Patricia Boyle Haberstroh (essay date Winter 1985)

SOURCE: "Historical Landscape in Ted Hughes's Remains of Elmet," in Clio, Vol. 14, No. 2, Winter, 1985, pp. 137-54.

[In the following essay, Haberstroh analyzes the changing landscape in Hughes's Remains of Elmet, and traces the historical forces which bring about the change.]

In Remains of Elmet, a volume of poems illustrated with photographs by Fay Godwin, Ted Hughes turns to a Yorkshire landscape to create a racial history which places the recent decline of the Calder Valley in an inevitable cycle of natural process and human response to that process. Hughes's headnote describes the latest disaster in the valley in which he was raised:

...

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Neil Roberts (essay date Summer 1985)

SOURCE: "Ted Hughes and the Laureateship," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 3-5.

[In the following essay, Roberts discusses Hughes's appointment as England's Poet Laureate.]

The reported expectation of the 'literary world' that the laureateship would be awarded to a poet who had announced that he no longer wrote, and surprise that instead the immensely prolific Ted Hughes was chosen, makes its own comment. But even many of Hughes's admirers must, when the announcement was made, have thought it incongruous. Thinking of Hughes, the celebrator of everything in nature that threatens the decorousness of human arrangements, who has pronounced...

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David Holbrook (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Crow of Avon? Shakespeare, Sex and Ted Hughes," in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1986, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Holbrook traces some of Hughes's theories about Shakespeare and strongly disagrees with the poet's interpretation.]

Obviously, Shakespeare had problems with sexuality, and we encounter these over the Sonnets, over King Lear's outburst about the sulphurous pit. Hamlet's feelings about his mother, and in Timon. The intensity of the emotions isn't always modified within the overall meaning of the play—as the treatment of sexuality is perhaps absorbed in Antony and Cleopatra, even in its unresolved...

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Rand Brandes (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Ted Hughes In and Out of Time: Remains of Elmet and Moortown Elegies," in World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the "Jubilation of Poets," edited by Leonard M. Trawick, Kent State University, 1990, pp. 37-43.

[In the following essay, Brandes asserts that Hughes's poetry remains out of time and history.]

In 1957, at the outset of his career, Ted Hughes asserted that his poems exist because "they are the only way I can unburden myself of that excess which, for their part, bulls in June bellow away." Hughes's bulls represent his early attempt to claim an imaginative territory outside the ironic understatement and domestic...

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Peter Firchow (review date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Rain-Charm for the Duchy and Other Laureate Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 385-6.

[In the following review, Firchow gives reserved praise for the poems in Hughes's Rain-Charm for the Duchy and Other Laureate Poems.]

Since succeeding to the office of Poet Laureate in 1984, Ted Hughes has regularly published poems on a variety of appropriate princely and royal occasions. Whereas versified attacks on the royal family, even scurrilous ones, would nowadays probably raise few critical eyebrows if perpetrated by a major contemporary poet, this kind of hyperconventional poetic activity strikes one as more than a...

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Peter Levi (review date March 1994)

SOURCE: "Riddled With Craziness," in Spectator, Vol. 272, No. 8675, March, 1994, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Levi discusses the craziness in Hughes's collection of essays, Winter Pollen.]

There are nearly all the essential pieces of an autobiography of this most surprising and entertaining of poets scattered among the 30 years of essays in this book. But I suspect a psychoanalyst has got at him, because there is also some curious psychological raving, including a piece of lunatic presumption psychoanalysing the poetry and history of T. S. Eliot, based partly on his 'religious vision of St Sebastian'. This is what it must have been like talking to Ezra Pound in...

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Michele Roberts (review date 14 April 1995)

SOURCE: A review of New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 348, April 14, 1995, pp. 45-6.

[In the following review, Roberts discusses the suffering and death in Hughes's poetry from New Selected Poems, 1957–1994.]

Woody Allen once said that nature was one big restaurant. Push that one step further—one big morgue, one big abattoir—and we approach Hughes-land, a country loud with the shrieks of beasts caught in sprung traps. Of men too, of course, since Hughes has never been shy of projecting the suffering endemic in the human condition, as he sees it, onto those souls that go clad in fur, feather and leaves.

...

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Peter Firchow (review date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: A review of New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 407-8.

[In the following review, Firchow discusses Hughes's choice of selection in his New Selected Poems.]

It is beginning to look as if Ted Hughes wants to make a habit of selecting his poems. His first such selection, simply and appropriately called Selected Poetry, appeared as long ago as 1968 and gathered up poems from the first decade or so of his individually published volumes. The second, New Selected Poems claimed merely to move the process up by a few years to 1981 but proleptically contained several poems from River, a...

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Peter Levi (review date 10 May 1997)

SOURCE: "Transforming Ourselves into Beasts," in Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8806, May 10, 1997, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review, Levi lauds Hughes's translations of Ovid's poetry.]

It must be 100 years since Maurice Baring remembered in print how an Eton master, enquiring what class he was waiting for, commented 'Oh, that hog Ovid!' But Ovid, as the young Baring remarked later, is not a hog. All the same, it has taken a century or more to make him one of the most appetising to us of all Roman writers. How has the trick been achieved, if not by following him backwards from his influence on Shakespeare and on his translations from Marlowe onwards? Yet his poetry,...

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Roger McGough (review date 28 September 1997)

SOURCE: A review of By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember, in Observer, September 28, 1997, p. 17.

[In the following review, McGough complains that Hughes's By Heart lacks a contemporary feel.]

The only poetry that mattered to me when I was at school was the stuff that we recited in class, and if heroism and self-sacrifice were involved then so much the better. I charged with the Light Brigade and helped bury Sir John Moore at Corunna: our voices were the thumping hooves, the doleful beat of the drum.

My interest in poetry stemmed not from the English Literature department but from Elocution and Drama. There seemed to me to be two kinds of...

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