Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 874
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.