Ted Hughes to join literary elite with Poets' Corner memorial

Former Poet Laureate is to be commemorated alongside Chaucer and Shakespeare
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The Independent Culture

It is only 12 years since his death but Ted Hughes is to be recognised as one of Britain's greatest artists as a memorial is erected to him in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner.

The memorial for Hughes, who was Poet Laureate from 1984 until he died from cancer in 1998, will lie in the south transept, alongside monuments for William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Blake and T S Eliot. He is the first poet to be so commemorated since Sir John Betjeman's memorial was erected in 1984.

The decision to place memorials in the Abbey rests with the Dean of Westminster, Very Reverend Dr John Hall, who said not every Poet Laureate was granted the honour.

"Deciding within a few years of people's deaths that they will be remembered in hundreds of years' time is of course impossible. And yet, it is sometimes right to make such a decision, as deans have done over the centuries. By no means every Poet Laureate has been commemorated in Poets' Corner. But the overwhelming weight of advice I have received suggests that this is the right decision," he said.

Hughes' widow, Carol, celebrated the decision and paid tribute to her late husband's "unique enthusiasm for life". "I am thrilled that something of his colossal presence will haunt the aisles of Westminster Abbey. Once the memorial is in place, I hope that those already familiar with Ted's work will see it as a fitting tribute, and those visitors who come across it unexpectedly might be inspired to discover his work for themselves," she said.

She also revealed that his appointment as Laureate had come as "something of a shock to the literary community", considering the dark, sometimes stark, subject matter of his poetry, as well as his much-publicised marriage to the American poet, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide by gassing herself in 1963. She had separated from Hughes by then but he was hounded by some feminists and Plath devotees after she died and some even accused him of driving Plath to her death with his infidelity. In 1969 Hughes suffered another loss when his mistress, Assia Wevill, also gassed herself and their daughter in an apparent copycat suicide.

Mrs Hughes said: "As a writer who appeared to be outside if not beyond the Establishment, he may not have seemed the obvious candidate. It was perhaps a surprise then to see over the years how much he relished the role."

The Dean's decision yesterday was preceded by a vigorous campaign led by a coalition of writers and poets including Seamus Heaney and Sir Andrew Motion.

Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, called Hughes a "visionary poet", and Sir Andrew, another former Laureate, said he introduced a "new kind of landscape into English poetry". The dedication of the memorial to Ted Hughes, which has not yet been designed, is expected to take place in 2011.

Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, said it was an "exciting and brave decision" to memorialise the poet so soon after his death, and testimony to the Establishment's confidence in his reputation enduring for decades to come.

Hughes was born on 17 August 1930 in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, and raised on local farms. According to him, "My first six years shaped everything". He studied at Cambridge University and first published poetry in a journal launched with fellow students called St Botolph's Review. It was at the launch party for the magazine that he met Plath, and they married in 1956. They separated in 1962.

As Plath's widower, Hughes became the executor of her personal and literary estates. He oversaw the publication of her manuscripts, including Ariel in 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 defended his actions as motivated by consideration for the couple's young children. He wrote about his relationship with Plath, and his response to her suicide, in Birthday Letters. It was his final collection and one of his most successful works.

Hughes' first book of poems, Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957 to immediate acclaim, and over the next 41 years, he wrote nearly 90 books, winning numerous prizes and fellowships.

Poet's Corner: Lesser-known artists remembered at Westminster Abbey

*Cædmon – The earliest English poet whose name is known. He was an Anglo-Saxon herdsman who was originally ignorant of "the art of song" but learned to compose one night in the course of a dream, according to the 7th-century monk Bede. He later became an accomplished religious poet. His only known surviving work is "Cædmon's Hymn".

*Edmund Charles Blunden – Poet, author and critic born in 1896. Like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he wrote of his experiences in the First World War in verse and prose. For most of his career, Blunden was also a reviewer for English publications. He ended his career as Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

*Christopher Anstey – Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he distinguished himself for his Latin verse. In 1754, he left Cambridge to work on the family estates. He published nothing of note until a visit to Bath in 1766 resulted in his famous rhymed letters, The New Bath Guide or Memoirs of the Blunderhead Family. He ended his days as a country squire at the age of 80.

*Robert Laurence Binyon – The poet, dramatist and art scholar was best known for his work For the Fallen often used in Remembrance Sunday services. He read Classics at Oxford and won the Newdigate Prize for English verse in 1891. On graduation, in 1893, Binyon worked for the Department of Printed Books of the British Museum, becoming the Keeper of Oriental Prints and Drawings in 1913.