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".