Obituary: Ted Hughes

Lachlan Mackinnon
Friday 30 October 1998 00:02 GMT

WHEN SIR John Betjeman died in 1984, it was widely felt that his obvious successor as Poet Laureate would be Philip Larkin. Larkin, however, made it abundantly clear that he would refuse the position, and the availability of Ted Hughes seemed at the time providential. His subsequent conduct of the office made it seem that he could only ever have been the logical choice. Not only did this imposing, craggily handsome Yorkshireman look the part - more so than any Laureate since Tennyson - but he used the post to continue on a more public stage his campaign for the imagination and against what he saw as our despiritualised and disembodied civilisation. The Laureateship became significant in an almost unprecedented way.

The division between the public and private faces of the poet was none the less profound, partly because of a temperamental desire for privacy, partly because of the catastrophes which haunted his adult life. Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire, in 1930. In a prose reminiscence he recalled how a much older brother would take him out shooting, "and I had to scramble into all kinds of places collecting magpies and owls and rabbits and weasels and rats and curlews that he shot". His earliest encounters with nature were associated with a seemingly natural violence. At the same time, the child Hughes fished daily, beginning what was to be a lifetime sport.

Violence of another kind was inscribed into his family history. Hughes's father was a survivor of Gallipoli, who seems never to have recovered from the horror of his experiences. Hughes was to remember combing his father's hair; "After mother's milk," he wrote,

This was the soul's food. A soap-smell


Of the massacre of innocents. So the soul


A strange thing, with rickets - a hyena.

No singing - that kind of laughter.

Behind these grim lines we can hear a vehement repudiation of Wordsworth's "Fair seedtime had my soul".

Hughes was eight when his family moved to Mexborough, an industrial town, where his parents opened a small shop selling tobacco and stationery. Appalled, his brother left home to become a gamekeeper, but Hughes looked back on the move with gratitude because soon he discovered first a farm, then a private estate, on which he could continue his exploration of the natural world in solitude. "My friends were town boys, sons of colliers and railwaymen, and with them I led one life, but all the time I was leading this other life on my own in the country. I never mixed the two lives up. I still have some diaries that I kept in those years: they record nothing but my catches." Early, he learnt the privacy essential to poetry, which he began to write when he was 15 and attending the local grammar school.

Hughes's natural ability in literary studies led to his winning a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where for his first two years (1951-53) he read English. He enjoyed it, but found writing essays increasingly difficult until, late in his second year, after unsuccessfully wrestling half the night with an essay, he went to bed and had a dream. What he saw was "a fox, but the size of a wolf". The creature approached Hughes's desk and "spread its hand - a human hand as I now saw, but burned and bleeding like the rest of him - flat palm down on the blank space of my page. At the same time it said, `Stop this - you are destroying us.' Then as it lifted its hand away I saw the blood-print . . . in wet, glistening blood on the page." Hughes changed course and spent his final year reading Archaeology and Anthropology.

After completing his degree, Hughes drifted for a couple of years, living largely in London, working for a time in Slough, revisiting Cambridge. He was variously a rose- gardener, a zookeeper, a nightwatchman. In 1955 Hughes met, and in 1956 married, an American poet two years younger than himself, Sylvia Plath. At first they lived in Cambridge, where Hughes worked as a teacher, then in 1957 went to the United States. Hughes taught at Amherst, Plath at Smith, then they spent time together at Yaddo, the writers' retreat. However, Plath had entered Hughes's work for a prestigious American competition which he won, and the publication of The Hawk in the Rain (1957) established him immediately as a leading younger British poet.

The linguistic energy with which Hughes conveyed sense-experience owed something to Hopkins, but his voice was all his own. At the same time, some critics feared that the poet was attracted to violence in an amoral, Nietzschean way, a charge which echoed through the whole of his career.

In December 1959 the young couple returned to England, where they lived first in London, then in Devon. In April 1960 they had a daughter, Frieda, and in January 1962 a son, Nicholas. The publication of Lupercal (1960) had confirmed Hughes's reputation and won him further prizes. The marriage, though, became increasingly troubled.

Plath had been hospitalised after a suicide attempt well before she met Hughes. Paradoxically, his influence on her as a writer was entirely beneficial, but his interest in shamanism perhaps led her to attempt to confront her demons too nakedly. In a late poem, Hughes remembered bitterly the writing- table he made for her and "the sweat I soaked into / Finding your father for you and then / Leaving you to him." The formal, ambitious, inert clockwork of Plath's earlier poems was replaced by something much darker, stranger, maybe never completely achieved but unforgettable in the work of the last months of her life.

As the marriage deteriorated, Hughes fell in love and began a relationship with Assia Wevill, the wife of a fellow poet. Plath was undone by his infidelity, and in October 1962 she asked him to leave. In December she moved to London with their children. During January 1963 Plath became seriously depressed, and on 11 February she committed suicide by gassing herself. Whether she meant to die or not is still a vexed question. Hughes destroyed the final volume of her journal because he did not want her children to see it, but with his sister Olwyn he oversaw the publication of the writing which secured her legend.

Plath's death was over the years to force Hughes into reclusiveness. As her reputation grew, and she became a feminist icon, many women came to see him as responsible, as an archetypally bad patriarch. Her grave was repeatedly defaced (to remove her married name) and Hughes's public appearances were susceptible to disruption, which meant that a charismatic performer was largely lost to the poetry- reading circuit. Hughes was entirely successful in protecting the privacy of his and Plath's children into adult life but the dignified silence with which he largely confronted his accusers never satisfied them.

Tragedy redoubled itself when Assia Wevill gassed herself and Shura, her daughter by Hughes. Hughes's writing deteriorated: his next adult volume, Eodwo (1967), has some spectacular moments but is distinctly uneven, while Crow (1972) is his spectacular worst. In the interim, though, he had begun what was to be an extremely successful career as a writer for children. The Iron Man (1968) has proved an enduring favourite. He began writing plays and continued to write prose fiction, though neither is of great importance to his reputation.

Hughes played a major part in the establishment in 1968 of the Arvon Foundation. Under its auspices thousands of aspirant writers have received professional tuition on residential courses; indeed, for some years he lent the foundation a cottage he owned at Lumb Bank, in Devon. His Poetry in the Making (1967) gathered a series of radio talks on creative writing for the young. Hughes's permanent commitment to poetry in education rested on his belief that through writing we could get back in touch with the souls and bodies repressive modern rationalism had stolen from us.

Crow, dedicated "In Memory of Assia and Shura", is a caricaturist's scream of horror. Hughes explained it as an example of trickster mythology, but no amount of theoretical underpinning can redeem the volume's thin rhetoric. Yeats defined rhetoric as the will doing the work of the imagination, and the unevenness of Hughes's later writing can be explained by the tension between the two. Cave Birds (1975) is as harsh and willed as Crow. Gaudete (1977) is a quasi-religious horror story set in an English village, almost unintelligible as narrative but with some firm descriptive moments. Remains of Elmet (1979), originally a collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin, is a set of Yorkshire poems which are often very moving.

In 1970 Hughes married Carol Orchard, with whom he lived happily in Devon until the end of his life: in Moortown (1979) he finally returned to poetic form. The title sequence was a verse journal of Hughes's life working on the Devon farm owned by Jack Orchard, Carol's father. Shorn of all mythology, these poems simply give us the experience they record with an astonishing directness. The other poems in the book were still troublingly uneven, though, and it was not until River (1983) that Hughes produced a book of uniform power. River contains the poems of a fisherman, beautifully observed, fanciful, delicate and exact. Wolfwatching (1969) was again very patchy.

In 1992 Hughes collected his Laureate poems as Rain-Charm for the Duchy. The title poem is magnificent: the others record a heroic attempt and ultimate failure to establish a new courtly idiom. In subsequent years, the republication of Hughes's poems in new editions (all his animal poems together, for instance), had given a feeling that the decks were being cleared. New Selected Poems (1995) added to this impression, though it closed with new poems which seemed to reflect on the two relationships which had ended in suicide.

Astonishingly, what followed was masterwork. Tales from Ovid (1997) took 24 passages from Ovid and recast them in Hughes's idiom. The book was a distinguished addition to the tradition of imitation. Then, early this year, Birthday Letters was published unannounced. For more than 25 years, it emerged, Hughes had been writing about his relationship with Sylvia Plath (a handful in New Selected Poems), and now he gave the story as he saw it. Critics made the highest comparisons - for instance, with Hardy's "Poems of 1912-13", also about a dead first wife.

Hughes's reputation and the fascination of his subject made an early over-reaction likely, but in this case the poems deserve their renown. Hughes had never focused on life between humans in this way before, and the sheer pain he recorded moved readers to tears. Their effect in the classroom, with readers who knew nothing of Plath, was more overwhelming than that achieved by any of his much-taught earlier writing.

Hughes's concern with the environment puts him in the mainstream of much modern thought. His belief that the women's movement reflected the unleashing of primeval forces was a little more eccentric, though, and in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992) Hughes revealed an almost private world of abstruse learning and mythological speculation which was startlingly irrelevant to its subject. His selected essays, Winter Pollen (1994), offer a calmer account of what was none the less a very singular world- view. Hughes ably cleared his love of natural energy from the charge of loving violence for its own sake. Raising one's eyebrows at the wilder reaches of his thought seems as irrelevant as noting his archaic and ardent royalism. These things were as necessary to his imagination as the spirit- world was to Yeats, and his best work rises free of them.

When time has winnowed the harvest of an extraordinarily productive career, a substantial body of very remarkable verse will be left. Ted Hughes wrote great poems in a time which cared little either for greatness or for poetry. So doing, he conferred dignity on the Laureateship which was rightly his. It seemed only right that in August the Queen appointed him to be one of the 24 members of the Order of Merit, an honour in her personal gift. He was invested by her as OM 12 days before he died.

Edward James Hughes, poet: born Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire 17 August 1930; OBE 1977; Poet Laureate 1984-98; OM 1998; married 1956 Sylvia Plath (died 1963; one son, one daughter) (one daughter deceased by Assia Wevill), 1970 Carol Orchard; died London 28 October 1998.

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