Ted Hughes: 1930 - 1998 The god of granite who could shatter stones with plain words

MY FIRST, and most recent, exposure to the flinty and percussive rhythms of Ted Hughes's verse both came in settings a world away from the classroom or the armchair. This morning, that point deserves some stress. For this often secretive and embattled man did more than anyone since Tennyson to give great English verse a deep public presence. His impact in the air and on the tongue far outweighs the formal honours symbolised by his accession to the thankless role of Poet Laureate in 1984.

When, this January, he issued Birthday Letters - the unheralded sequence about his marriage to Sylvia Plath that constituted his scorching swansong - it struck a vast reading public with a force that no book of English verse had matched since Lord Byron published Childe Harold in 1812. Scandal or prurience could only explain a fraction of its power to shock or move. In a demystified age, the poet born (in 1930) in the perfectly named Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd laid bold claim to the titles and ambitions of a tribal bard. He made good those claims.

That success rested on his enduring power to tap into the underground currents of English speech and draw up a language to be heard as much as read. In the Sixties, I sang in a children's choir and can recall stretching my mouth around the hilarious, angular and uncanny words of Meet My Folks! as we rehearsed a musical version of his first major work for children. With the playful virtuosity that showed off a command of rhyme and metre unequalled since WH Auden, Meet My Folks! connects the domestic and the demonic in a way that Hughes made his own. In this dementedly funny Hughes household, a crack in the teacup could lead straight to the land of the dead.

Hughes went on writing, brilliantly, for children for the next 30 years, up until The Iron Woman in 1993. His personal landscape included their untamed imaginations, just as it embraced the opaque minds of animals, and the foggy myths that informed his verse, from the pagan echoes of Lupercal (1960) to the sexy, gory shape-shifters in last year's Tales from Ovid. Children, creatures, and the supernatural beings that haunt collective memory: these made up the eldritch battalions that helped Hughes fight the bloodless legions of modernity. Was he serious about this assault on rootless reason? As serious as your life, as critics grudgingly acknowledged when he released his vast patchwork of mystical scholarship, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, in 1992.

I last heard late Hughes at its finest a few weeks ago. His new translation of Racine's Phaedra for the Almeida company is, quite simply, the first adequate English version of the greatest French tragedy in 300 years. Russet-locked, wild with desire, Diana Rigg writhes in her semi-incestuous passion for her stepson with the aid of words that ignite at every line. Hughes was a master of knockout simplicity as well as myth-encrusted density. Here his plain words could break stones. "Their love exists. It exists!" Rigg screams when she finds she has a rival. Unlike many poets, he really died at the height of his powers. This century, only the late flowerings of Hardy and Yeats can compare.

As Hughes the wild-maned, post-DH Lawrence nature-poet conquered school textbooks in the Sixties and Seventies, Hughes the husband and widower of Sylvia Plath won a more curdled kind of fame. Their relationship famously began at the Cambridge party where the leggy, high-achieving New England scholarship girl and the hunky recent graduate virtually chewed chunks out of each other (Birthday Letters refers to "the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks/ That was to brand my face for the next month. The me beneath it for good"). It ended, as the world knows, with Plath's suicide in 1963 in the wake of Hughes's adultery. The marriage and her death unleashed as much shrewd, dubious or downright stupid judgement as any literary partnership in history.

What did the rising tide of censure do to Hughes's work, apart from the practical insults that climaxed with the erasure of his name from Plath's gravestone by a gang of feminist avengers? The answer has to be a lot of harm, over many years, but a harm that the amazing late harvest of Tales from Ovid and Birthday Letters itself had all but redeemed.

The climate of suspicion, if not hostility, drove Hughes inward. He retreated to his house in mid-Devon with his second wife Carol. To gauge Hughes's long-hidden anger at his academic-political critics, feel the bitterness behind a poem such as "The Dogs are Eating Your Mother" (from Birthday Letters): "Let them/Jerk their tail-stumps, bristle and vomit/Over their symposia."

Legally, too, he all but disappeared. His decision to place the often tiresome ministrations of his sister Olwyn Hughes between himself and the controversies around the Plath estate made him few friends. The tone of critical and biographical studies darkened. Hughes's alleged destruction of Plath's journals added an apparent artistic to an emotional crime. Eventually, Olwyn licensed the poet Anne Stevenson to write her biography of Plath in 1989, in part as a counterweight to Linda Wagner-Martin's sharply anti-Hughes life. The book was widely challenged as some sort of whitewashing "official version".

Poetically, Hughes's mythic landscape often lost contact with plausible human emotion. Harsh rustic rhythms invigorated Yorkshire and Devon-based works such as Remains of Elmet in 1979 and Moortown Diary a decade later . Yet the grim-faced Hughes often looked and sounded in these post-Plath years like a sort of exiled god. He vanished for a long spell behind his eminence.

The work he sponsored as patron or editor - creative-writing courses with the Arvon Foundation, the two fine anthologies (The Rattle Bag, The School Bag) co-selected with Seamus Heaney, his own edition of Plath's poetry - made him even more of a monument instead of a mover. And when his Laureate poems tried to weave the kitsch of British royalty into his image-world, in works such as "Rain Charm for the Duchy" (1992), the results could be as embarrassing as state-sponsored verse usually is.

Then time, and talent, did its work. As the two children of his first marriage grew, Hughes's fiercely defensive care for them relented a little. Secondary, commissioned work on other texts - versions of plays by Wedekind and Lorca - seemed to activate a fresh wave of creativity. The poems about Plath that he had written sporadically, over 25 years, began to cohere into the verse-novel of Birthday Letters, a tale inscribed in blood and tears about two chained souls who "ransacked each other for everything/That could not be found".

How much Hughes's illness hastened or sharpened this process of witness no one can yet say with confidence. What is undeniable is that Hughes's publishers, Faber & Faber, strove hard to prevent knowledge of his cancer from getting into print. In any case, the damns burst and the clouds lifted. Hughes's final two volumes promptly walked off with every award they competed for. (This month, Birthday Letters won the 1998 Forward Prize; Tales from Ovid won the Whitbread and WH Smith awards.)

Hughes ended his career garlanded in glory, but it had precious little to do with serenity. In 1957, his poem "The Thought-Fox" imagined the poet's inspiration as a feral predator, with a "sudden sharp hot stink of fox" that "enters the hole in the head". In 1998, "The Rabbit Catcher" compares Plath's work with the warm corpses of hunted animals.

In a genteel age for British literature, Hughes claimed for poetry a rougher, grander fate - and counted all the costs that came with it. His savagely compelling final phase reminds me most of WB Yeats, who at the end forsook his own high-flown visions to lie down in that murky place "where all the ladders start/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart".

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
New Articles
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam