Ted Hughes

[hyooz or, often, yooz]

Edward James Hughes OM (17 August 193028 October 1998) was an English poet and children's writer, known as Ted Hughes. Critics routinely rank him as one of the best poets of his generation. Hughes was British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death.

Hughes was married from 1956 to 1963 to the American poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. His part in the relationship became controversial, to some feminists and (particularly) US admirers of Plath, who even accused him of murder. Hughes himself never publicly entered the debate, but his last poetic work, Birthday Letters (1998), explored their complex relationship, and to many, put him in a significantly better light.

In 2003 he was portrayed by British actor Daniel Craig in Sylvia, a biographical film of Sylvia Plath.

Early life

Hughes was born on 17 August 1930 at number 1, Aspinal Street, in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire to William Henry and Edith (neé. Farrar) Hughes and raised among the local farms in the area. According to Hughes, "My first 6 years shaped everything". When Hughes was seven, his family moved to Mexborough, South Yorkshire, where they ran a newsagents and tobacco shop. He also had a brother, Gerald, who was ten years older, as well as a sister, Olwyn, two years older. His writing was encouraged by his teachers at Mexborough Grammar School, and in 1946 one of his early poems Wild West and a short story were published in the Grammar school magazine The Don and Dearne, followed by further poems in 1948.

During the same year, Hughes won an Open Exhibition in English to Pembroke College, Cambridge, but chose to do his National Service first. His two years of National Service (1949—1951) passed comparatively easily. Hughes was stationed as a ground wireless mechanic in the RAF on an isolated three-man station in east Yorkshire — a time of which he mentions that he had nothing to do but read and reread Shakespeare and watch the grass grow. Next he went to university.

Personal life

Hughes studied English, anthropology and archaeology at Pembroke College, Cambridge. At this time his first published poetry appeared in the journal he started with fellow students, St. Botolph's Review, and at a party to launch the magazine he met Sylvia Plath. He and Plath married at St George the Martyr Holborn on 16 June 1956, four months after they had first met.

Hughes and Plath had two children, Frieda Rebecca and Nicholas Farrar, but separated in the autumn of 1962. He continued to live at Court Green, North Tawton, Devon irregularly with his lover Assia Wevill after Plath's death on 11 February 1963, but the relationship eventually lost its appeal for him, and he became involved with other women. As Plath's widower, Hughes became the executor of Plath’s personal and literary estates. He oversaw the publication of her manuscripts, including Ariel (1966). He also claimed to have destroyed the final volume of Plath’s journal, detailing their last few months together. In his foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, he defends his actions as a consideration for the couple's young children.

Six years after Plath's suicide by asphyxiation from a gas stove, on 25 March 1969, Assia Wevill murdered her four-year old daughter by Hughes and committed suicide in the same way as Plath had done; Alexandra Tatiana Elise, nicknamed Shura, had been born on 3 March 1965.

In August 1970, Hughes married a nurse called Carol Orchard. They remained together despite his many affairs over the years, until his death. He received the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II just before he died.

Ted Hughes continued to live at the house in Devon, until his fatal heart attack on 28 October 1998, while undergoing treatment for colon cancer. His funeral was held at North Tawton church, and he was cremated at Exeter, with the ashes scattered on Dartmoor, near Cranmere Pool (by special Royal permission).

Seamus Heaney, speaking at Ted Hughes' funeral, in North Tawton on 3 November 1998, said:

No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft. No death in my lifetime has hurt poets more. He was a tower of tenderness and strength, a great arch under which the least of poetry's children could enter and feel secure. His creative powers were, as Shakespeare said, still crescent. By his death, the veil of poetry is rent and the walls of learning broken.

A memorial walk from the Devon village of Belstone to Hughes' memorial stone above the River Taw was inaugurated in 2005 on land belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. The granite memorial is somewhat controversial locally—according to some sources, it was airlifted into place on the moors using Prince Charles' helicopter, an honour not afforded to any other Devon figure.


Hughes' earlier poetic work is rooted in nature and, in particular, the innocent savagery of animals, an interest from an early age. Tennyson's phrase "nature, red in tooth and claw" could have been written for Hughes. He is acutely aware of the mixture of beauty and violence in the natural world, and writes of it with fascination, fear and awe. He finds in animals a metaphor for his view on life: animals live out a struggle for the survival of the fittest in the same way that humans strive for ascendancy and success. A classic example is Hawk Roosting.

His later work is deeply reliant upon myth and the bardic tradition, heavily inflected with a modernist, existential and satirical viewpoint. Hughes' first collection, Hawk in the Rain (1957) attracted considerable critical acclaim. In 1959 he won the Galbraith prize which brought $5,000. His most significant work is perhaps Crow (1970), which whilst it has been widely acclaimed also divided critics, combining an apocalyptic, bitter, cynical and surreal view of the universe with what appears to be simple, sometimes (superficially) badly constructed verse. Hughes worked for ten years on a prose poem "Gaudete", which he hoped to have made into a film. It tells the story of a survival struggle between twins, and it illustrates the pattern of love and strife in his most intimate relationships. It was printed in 1970. Hughes was very interested in the relationship between his poetry and the book arts and many of his books were produced by fine presses and in collaborative editions with artists, for instance with Leonard Baskin.

Tales from Ovid (1997) contains a selection of free verse translations from Ovid's Metamorphoses. In Birthday Letters, Hughes broke his silence on Plath, detailing aspects of their life together and his own behaviour at the time. The cover artwork was by their daughter Frieda.

In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote classical opera librettos and children's books. One of these, The Iron Man, was written to comfort his children after Sylvia Plath's suicide. It later became the basis of Pete Townshend's rock opera of the same name. Hughes was appointed as Poet Laureate in 1984 following the death of John Betjeman. It was later known that Hughes was second choice for the appointment after Philip Larkin, the preferred nominee, declined, because of ill health and writer's block. Hughes served in this position until his death in 1998. In 1993 his monumental work inspired by Graves' The White Goddess was published. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being is considered to be a great and unique work amongst Shakespeare studies. His definitive 1,333-page Collected Poems (Faber & Faber) appeared in 2003.




Anthologies edited by Hughes


Books for Children

Compositions with words by Ted Hughes

  • Paul Crabtree: Songs at Year's End. Vier Gesänge nach Gedichten von Ted Hughes. for five-part mixed choir a cappella. Berlin 2006. (There came a Day; The Seven Sorrows; Snow and Snow; The Warm and the Cold)



  • The Epic Poise: a celebration of Ted Hughes, edited by Nick Gammage, Faber and Faber, 1999.
  • Ted Hughes: the life of a poet, by Elaine Feinstein, W.W. Norton, 2001.
  • Bound to Please, by Michael Dirda pp 17–21, W.W. Norton, 2005.
  • Ted Hughes: a literary life, by Neil Roberts, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

External links

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