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.”
Edward James Hughes was born on August 17, 1930, in Mytholmroyd, on the Calder River, one of England’s first industrialized rivers yet also near the wildness of the moors. Hughes was the youngest of three children of Edith Farrar, who traced her ancestry back to the martyr Bishop Farrar, and William Hughes, a carpenter, who was one of only seventeen of an entire regiment to have survived the battle at Gallipoli in World War I. When Hughes was seven, the family moved to Mexborough; there, Hughes led a double life of living in town but often roaming about on nearby farms and estates. The landscape and the language of West Riding and South Yorkshire were undoubtedly significant in shaping Hughes’s sensibility: his fascination with animals, natural processes, and archaic myths; the conflict between wilderness, farm, and industrialization; the rhythms of collapse and renewal; and the spare, physical language of the people are present throughout his poetic career.
In 1948, Hughes won an open exhibition to the University of Cambridge. He postponed his studies at Cambridge until 1951, choosing to serve for two years in the National Service, in the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a mechanic at an isolated radio transmission station in Yorkshire. Though he planned to study English literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge, he changed in his third year to archaeology and anthropology. He graduated in June, 1954, the same month that his first poem, “The Little Boys and the Seasons,” appeared in the Cambridge journal Granta. For the following two years, he worked as a rose gardener, a night watchman in a steel works, a zoo attendant, and a schoolteacher.
In late February, 1956, Hughes met Sylvia Plath, who had arrived from the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship to study. Her own literary career had begun in 1950 with the publication of her poetry. Four months after their first meeting, Plath and Hughes were married. In Plath’s Letters Home (1975), she states that she learned through Hughes “the vocabulary of woods and animals and earth” and felt herself like “adam’s woman [sic].” Hughes brought to Plath’s attention the mythologic underpinnings of poetry as conceptualized by the British poet, novelist, and essayist Robert Graves in his The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948). In turn, Plath brought Hughes into contact with the poetry being published in the United States. On his behalf, Plath typed and sent the manuscript of Hughes’s first collection, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), which was selected by the poets W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Marianne Moore in a competition for the publication of a first book of poems in English. Published simultaneously in England and the United States, The Hawk in the Rain gained immediate critical recognition.
In 1957, Hughes and Plath went to the United States to teach, Plath at Smith College and Hughes at the University of Massachusetts. After a year, they abandoned their teaching in order to spend more time writing. In the spring of 1959, Hughes received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in December they returned to London. In 1960, Hughes’s second collection of poems, Lupercal, appeared, and Plath published her collection of poems The Colossus, and Other Poems. In 1960, their first child, Frieda Rebecca, was born. Growing weary of the city, the family moved to a thatched rectory in Devon, and in 1962 their second child, Nicholas Farrar, was born. During this period, Hughes was at work not only on some of the poems and stories in Wodwo (1967) but also on plays and articles; Plath was completing her novel The Bell Jar (1963) and was at work on her Ariel (1965) poems. By the middle of the year, their marriage was collapsing, with Hughes leaving her for another woman; they returned to London separately, where in February, 1963, Plath committed suicide.
By holding imaginary dialogues with his children, Hughes created three children’s books, How the Whale Became (1963), The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People (1963), and Nessie the Mannerless Monster (1964), also published as Nessie the Monster (1974), and thereby avoided falling into silence. In 1967, Wodwo was published, as was his text Poetry in the Making: An Anthology of Poems and Programmes from “Listening and Writing,” which describes to students the practice of writing. In 1970, Hughes married Carol Orchard, the daughter of a Devon farmer. In 1970, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow was published; this cycle of poems is perhaps Hughes’s most important contribution to Anglo-American poetry because of its spare language, the trickster figure of Crow, and the desperate vitality of the voice.
In 1971, Hughes collaborated with the director of the National Theatre, Peter Brook, to create and produce Orghast for the Fifth Shiraz Festival in Iran. Orghast, both the name of the play and the play’s invented language, is based on various myths and folktales, especially that of Prometheus. Hughes continued his interest in dramatic and cyclical poems with Gaudete (1977). Simultaneously, Hughes’s vision of the natural world became increasingly acute in Remains of Elmet (1979), Moortown (1979), River (1983), and Wolfwatching (1989). In December, 1984, Hughes was named England’s poet laureate, succeeding John Betjeman. The publication of Birthday Letters (1998) with its use of first-person and intimate autobiographical details of domestic life marked a stylistic departure in his life’s work. He died in North Tawton, Devon, on October 28, 1998.
Ted Hughes offers a powerful vision of the world and of poetry. While the underpinnings of much of his thought may seem esoteric, his poetry is direct and sensory; the poems’ immediacy brings the reader into contact with the archaic, mythic, or primordial forces explored by Hughes. Hughes certainly belongs to the tradition of English landscape poets, such as Andrew Marvell, William Wordsworth, or D. H. Lawrence; however, his vision of the natural world suggests that any attempt to control nature results not only in damaging the natural world but also in the distortion and destruction of the human spirit.