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.