Critical Overview

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Unfortunate for both Hughes and poetry readers in general, the critical reception to his work has often been based more on the man’s personal life than on the poet’s talent for writing. But Hughes-theogre did not hit the presses until 1963 after Plath’s death, meaning that Hughes-the-poet enjoyed at least six years of keen interest, even high praise, for his early poetry. Following the publication of his first collection, revered fellow poet W. S. Merwin lauded the young Hughes’s work in “Something of His Own to Say,” a 1957 article for the New York Times Book Review: “Mr. Hughes has the kind of talent that makes you wonder more than commonly where he will go from here, not because you can’t guess but because you venture to hope.”

As it turns out, it really was not possible to guess, for after the highly publicized scandal regarding Hughes’s unfaithfulness to Plath and her subsequent suicide, many critics and scholars began reading his work more to find hidden references to the tragic marriage and violent ending than for mere poetic creativity. Those critics who did concentrate on the poems themselves highlighted the overuse of violent animal imagery, dark settings, and bleak themes, usually considering the vehemence and gloominess a reflection of the poet’s personality. Nonetheless, Hughes’s raw gift for poetry did not go unrecognized by British literati, and he was made poet laureate of the nation and awarded several prestigious awards over the years, despite the personal controversy.

After the publication of New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, a shift in criticism began. Hughes was finally recognized for having a side—a tender, reflective, loving side—that the public had not seen before. Writing a review of this collection for World Literature Today, critic Peter Firchow observes about the sixteen “Sylvia” poems in the “Uncollected” section at the end of the book: “Hughes had never before permitted so intimate a poetic glimpse into this much-excavated-and-speculatedabout patch of his life. . . . [These poems] are by themselves worth the price of the entire collection.”

In an article called “Owning the Facts of His Life: Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters,” from the Literary Review, critic Carol Bere writes, “While there is little question that much of the impact of poems turns on the immediacy of biography . . . this should not override the realization that Birthday Letters is a major work of poetry by Hughes, containing some of the most visceral, accessible writing that he has produced to date.” Hughes would enjoy this kind of criticism only a few short months before his death, but perhaps the praise was at least a small satisfaction for him, even if it came much too late.

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Essays and Criticism