Edward James Hughes OM (17 August 1930 – 28 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.
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.
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).
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.
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