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Hughes, Edward James [Ted]free

  • Keith Sagar

Edward James Hughes (1930–1998)

by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1971

© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Hughes, Edward James [Ted] (1930–1998), poet and writer, was born on 17 August 1930 at 1 Aspinall Street, Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, the youngest of the three children of William Henry Hughes (1894–1981), joiner, and his wife, Edith Farrar (1898–1969), a tailor. The Farrars traced their ancestry back through the father of Nicholas Ferrer, founder of the religious community of Little Gidding, to William de Ferrières, who came over with William the Conqueror. On the Hughes side there was certainly Irish and possibly Spanish or Moorish blood. But Hughes's immediate forebears were descended from farmers and hand-loom weavers from the poor slopes of the Pennines, forced by the industrial revolution down into the mills of the Calder valley. The valley was the main link between the woollen towns of Yorkshire and the cotton towns of Lancashire. It was so narrow in places that the river, the canal, the railway, and the trunk road could only get past the mills and houses, pubs, chapels, and graveyards, by weaving over and under each other. Hughes's earliest memories were of being in a 'shadow-trap'.

Childhood and education

In Hughes's childhood his maternal grandmother's family was still farming at Hathershelf. Otherwise, most of the family for two or three generations had worked in some capacity in the local woollen and clothing industries. Two of his uncles, Walter and Tom Farrar, were the prosperous owners of a clothing factory. William Hughes could have become a professional footballer, but chose to become a joiner. At the age of twenty he was one of 30,000 young men to join the Lancashire Fusiliers, of whom 13,642 were to be listed killed. William Hughes was awarded the DCM 'for conspicuous courage and great leadership' at Ypres. Uncle Walter had been wounded, and William saved from death by the pay-book in his breast pocket. The imagination of the growing Hughes was shadowed by fearful images of trench warfare, images which were not difficult to match with the harsh images of nature struggling to survive and sometimes failing on the exposed moors.

Nevertheless Hughes had a happy childhood. A few yards away from Aspinall Street was the canal where the local children would fish for loach. Hughes and his friends would explore the nearby woods, or climb through fields towards the exhilaration of the moor with its heather and bilberries and curlews and wide horizons (the same moor which a few miles further north becomes the Brontë country). Though the Calder may have been 'the hardest worked river in England', most of its tributary valleys were beautiful and unspoiled. Edith Hughes loved walking, and took her children at every opportunity to picnic, and swim in the pools. There were shopping trips to Halifax where Ted would choose another lead animal for his collection. Best of all were the paradisal hunting and camping trips with his brother Gerald, ten years older, his guide to the secret magical places.

Hughes attended Burnley Road School in Mytholmroyd until 1937, when the family moved to Mexborough, a grimy mining town in south Yorkshire, where his father had bought a newsagent's and tobacconist's shop. There Hughes attended Schofield Street junior school. The move marked the end of the close relationship between the brothers, Gerald becoming an assistant gamekeeper in Devon for a year, then serving in the RAF during the war, and subsequently emigrating to Australia. Hughes often wondered in later life whether it would have been better to emulate his brother than to follow the literary life.

It was not so easy to escape from Mexborough, but Hughes soon discovered Manor Farm, on the Don at Old Denaby, which he came to know 'better than any place on earth'. His first animal poem, 'The Thought Fox', and his first story, 'The Rain Horse', were both memories of encounters there. At about thirteen his new friend John Wholey introduced Hughes to the Crookhill estate above Conisbrough, where his father was head gardener and gamekeeper and a fount of knowledge on flora and fauna. There was an idyllic pond with huge pike. Hughes soon became part of the family, often staying with them over the weekend. Sometimes Ted went off for hours by himself with a book or pencil and paper. He would read poems or passages of Greek drama to Edna, John's older sister. The two boys cycled all over south Yorkshire fishing and shooting. Fishing became, for Hughes, a religious activity, a way of connecting his own life to a larger non-human life. It was also a perfect metaphor for the poetic act, drawing unknown life out of the darkness into the light of consciousness.

At eleven Hughes had discovered Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter in the library of Mexborough grammar school, and this became his bible for two years. Hughes's introduction to poetry came not so much from school as from native American war songs chanted to him by his brother. His own earliest poems were Kiplingesque ballads about Zulus or the Wild West or complaints about having to study when he could have been shooting or fishing. After Gerald's departure Hughes's older sister Olwyn became his mentor. She was very well versed in poetry. When Miss McLeod, his first form English teacher, praised his writing, Hughes's mother bought him a whole secondhand library of classic poets, including the Warwick Shakespeare. Hughes discovered folk-tales for himself. His favourite teachers, Pauline Mayne and John Fisher, fostered his creative writing, and Mayne later introduced him to Hopkins and Eliot. He received Robert Graves's The White Goddess as a gift from Fisher. By the age of sixteen he had no thought of becoming anything but a poet.

In 1948 Hughes won an open exhibition to Pembroke College, Cambridge (as a 'dark horse' on the strength of his poems), but before he could take it up he had to serve as a national serviceman for two years. For most of the time he was a radio mechanic at a remote radar station at Fylingdales in north Yorkshire, where he had little to do but read Shakespeare and Yeats until he knew them almost by heart. By the time he got to Cambridge his 'sacred canon' was fixed: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot; but Cambridge English alienated him. He felt that analytical criticism and the elevation of great writers to a higher plane than common mortals stifled the imaginative creativity of the students. He later referred to 'the terrible, suffocating, maternal octopus' of the English poetic tradition, and the difficulty of making one's own voice heard 'against that choir' (Hughes, Winter Pollen, 1994, 193). In his second year he dreamed that he was visited by a scorched and bleeding fox the size of a man, which said to him 'You're killing us':

I connected the fox's command to my own ideas about Eng. Lit., & the effect of the Cambridge blend of pseudo-critical terminology and social rancour on creative spirit, and from that moment abandoned my efforts to adapt myself. I might say, that I had as much talent for Leavis-style dismantling of texts as anyone else, I even had a special bent for it—nearly a sadistic streak there,—but it seemed to me not only a foolish game, but deeply destructive of myself.

Sagar, 46

Hughes decided to change from reading English to archaeology and anthropology. His knowledge in these fields fed directly into his poetry, and in the lean years of the 1960s he was able to support himself and his children partly by reviewing books in these subjects regularly in the weekly magazines. Some of these books, such as Mircea Eliade's Shamanism, deeply and permanently affected him.

Hughes graduated in 1954. In that same year he published his first poem (other than in his school magazine), 'The Little Boys and the Seasons' (under the pseudonym Daniel Hearing), in Granta, and also wrote the first of the poems which appeared in The Hawk in the Rain (1957). Hughes lived partly in Rugby Street, London, and partly in Cambridge and tried a number of jobs including rose gardener, night-watchman, dishwasher at the cafeteria in London Zoo, and reader for J. Arthur Rank.

First marriage and early success

Hughes and a group of his friends, Lucas Myers, Daniel Huws, David Ross, and Daniel Weissbort, decided to launch their own poetry magazine, the St Botolph's Review (named after the former rectory where Myers resided and which the rest regarded as their spiritual home). The first issue contained four poems by Hughes. A 23-year-old Fulbright scholar from Northampton, Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), was at Newnham College. She read the first and only issue of the review, memorized some of the poems by Myers and Hughes, and attended the party celebrating the launch of the review at Falcon Yard on 26 February 1956 with the express intention of meeting them. There was a strong immediate attraction between Plath and Hughes. Their second meeting did not take place until 23 March, when Plath visited Hughes in London on her way to Paris. She stayed with Hughes on her return three weeks later. They were married by special licence of the archbishop of Canterbury at St George the Martyr's Church, Bloomsbury, on 16 June (a date chosen because it is James Joyce's Bloomsday). Hughes did not learn until later the full story of Plath's psychological history, the suicide attempts, hospitalization, and electroconvulsive therapy she later wrote about in her novel The Bell Jar (1963). He was unprepared for her sudden mood swings and irrational outbursts. At the best times he felt their love bonded them 'into a single animal, a single soul' (Flounders); at the worst 'each of us was the stake impaling the other' (9 Willow Street). The vicissitudes of their relationship were recorded at the time in Plath's journals, and decades later in Hughes's Birthday Letters (1998).

The honeymoon began by showing Paris to Sylvia's mother, Aurelia. Then, with only a rucksack and typewriter, they set off for Spain. On their return they lived at 55 Eltisley Avenue, Cambridge. Hughes taught English and drama at a local secondary modern school. In August Hughes took Plath to meet his parents, who had returned to the Calder valley to live at Heptonstall Slack. In Cambridge, Plath, who believed that her husband's poetry was the most rich and powerful since that of Yeats and Dylan Thomas, had typed out almost all his poems and submitted them, as The Hawk in the Rain, to a competition for a first book of poems being run by the Poetry Centre of the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association of New York. In February 1957 the judges, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Marianne Moore, awarded the first prize—publication by Harper and Row—to Hughes. Marianne Moore wrote: 'Hughes' talent is unmistakable, the work has focus, is aglow with feeling, with conscience; sensibility is awake, embodied in appropriate diction' (introduction to the US edition). When the book was published in September, the reviews were almost unanimously enthusiastic. Hughes described his poems as bulletins from the battle between vitality and death. The book was as original in style as in content. Hughes rejected the Latinate and courtly iamb in favour of bludgeoning trochees and spondees. The strong alliteration, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole gave his poems an impact not heard in English verse since the demise of Middle English. Sylvia Plath ordered the poems so that the book began with the arresting lines:

I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag upHeel after heel from the swallowing of the earth's mouth,From clay that clutches my each step to the ankleWith the habit of the dogged grave …

The reviewers welcomed The Hawk in the Rain as a release from what Charles Tomlinson called the 'failure of nerve' of those poets represented in New Lines (1956) who had had enough of the big themes and had chosen to restrict themselves to ordinary events in ordinary language. Hughes, on the other hand, was 'all for opening negotiations with whatever happened to be out there' (Faas, 201). The book won a Somerset Maugham award.

Poetry, 1957–1963

In June 1957 the Hugheses went to the USA, where Plath had obtained a teaching post at her old college, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. Here Hughes met W. S. and Dido Merwin, and the sculptor and engraver Leonard Baskin, who later worked with Hughes on several books and who talked to him about the Hebrew mystical tradition. In the following year he taught briefly at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and gave a reading at Harvard. In June the Hugheses rented a flat in Boston. Plath, suffering from writer's block and depression, began to see her psychiatrist again. In April 1959 Hughes was awarded a Guggenheim scholarship which eventually enabled him to escape from an exile of which he was becoming weary. But before that they toured North America by car, and spent eleven weeks at the Yaddo artists' colony at Saratoga Springs, New York. There Hughes finished his second volume of poems, Lupercal (1960), and worked with the Chinese composer Chou Weng-Chung on a libretto for The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

After his return to England at the end of the year Hughes wrote poems later published in Wodwo (1967) or Recklings (1966), and several unpublished radio plays. In February 1960 the Hugheses, with help from the Merwins who lived nearby, found and furnished a cramped apartment at 3 Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill, London. On 1 April Frieda Rebecca Hughes was born there. Hughes and Plath shared the childminding, with Plath writing in the morning and Hughes in the afternoon. Lupercal had been published two weeks earlier and won the Hawthornden prize. Here Hughes took further his attempt to come to terms with the apparent violence of nature—'Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn'—drawing increasingly on myth. The reviews were largely favourable, but the media had found a label to stick on Hughes—'animal poet'. Of course he did have the ability to conjure up the vital distinctiveness of any creature, but it was not widely recognized that animals were for him 'a symbolic language which is also the language of my whole life' (Paris Review, 81). Animals bellowed the evidence that humans wrapped in sophistries. Hughes could also enter into the spirit of plants and landscapes so that they too became part of that language.

Like Blake and Yeats, Hughes fully recognized the dangers of scientific rationalism and the limitations of Christianity. Like them he believed that imagination had the capacity to heal the disastrous dualistic split in the human psyche, to embrace both inner and outer worlds, to unify male and female, body and spirit. He saw it as essentially holistic, biocentric, a religious or visionary faculty, and part of the essential survival gear of the race. He believed that poetry is a language for perceiving connections, relationships, systems, wholes, for escaping the tyranny of the ego and of received ideas. Hughes therefore sought to open himself to alternative modes of knowledge such as astrology (which he often used to determine the publication dates of his books), Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, shamanism, and the hermetic sciences—alchemy, Rosicrucianism, cabbala. Some of his works have a hidden (or, in the case of Cave Birds, 1975, overt) alchemical structure.

In 1961 Hughes simplified some of the exercises he had been using with Plath to release her true poetic voice (concentration techniques and dreams) as a series of radio talks for schools, later collected as Poetry in the Making (1967). These perfectly pitched talks had a huge impact on the teaching of creative writing in schools. Hughes made many other broadcasts for schools, and, though public appearances were often an ordeal for him, gave a great many readings in schools, inspiring generations of children with a love of poetry. He also judged many competitions for children's writing, and (with his friend Seamus Heaney) edited two school anthologies, The Rattle Bag (1982) and The School Bag (1997). Roger McGough described Hughes as 'our greatest ambassador for poetry'.

While Hughes was at the BBC being interviewed by Moira Doolan, the producer of the Poetry in the Making series, Plath, in a jealous rage (he was half an hour late), destroyed all his work in progress. When a second child was on the way, they needed a larger home. They hoped that in the west country they would be able to live more cheaply and quietly. They found Court Green, a large cottage with some medieval walls, a courtyard, and an orchard, next to the village church at North Tawton near Dartmoor.

In her first months at Court Green, Plath seemed very happy; but her poems became more and more doom-laden as she found her 'Ariel' voice. Nicholas Farrar Hughes (d. 2009) was born there on 17 January 1962. Among the visitors to Court Green the following spring were David and Assia Wevill. Assia (1927–1969; former married name Lipsey) was a darkly attractive German-born Jew, whom Sylvia saw as a rival. When Plath discovered in July that she and Hughes were indeed having an affair, she ordered him to leave. In November Plath decided to rent a flat in Fitzroy Street, London, for the winter. There Hughes visited her regularly and babysat for her. He felt that things were moving towards a reconciliation. In the coldest winter for years Plath succumbed to serious depression, and on 11 February 1963 gassed herself.

Hughes returned to Court Green with Olwyn looking after the children. He responded to the death of Sylvia Plath with two agonized poems, 'The Howling of Wolves' and 'Song of a Rat', after which he lapsed into a poetic silence for three years. He supported his family by broadcasting (including several plays for children), reviewing in the weeklies, and with a large award from the Abraham Woursell Foundation at the University of Vienna. He began to write critical essays, on Keith Douglas, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Vasco Popa.

Writings for children

Though many of Hughes's works for children grew out of the stories he told his own children and nonsense poems he wrote for them, he evidently had a vocation for writing for children, since his earliest children's poems (Meet my Folks!, 1961) and stories (How the Whale Became, 1963) were written before the birth of Frieda, and he continued to write for children long after his own were grown up. How the Whale Became was clearly inspired by Kipling's Just So Stories. But in two subsequent collections of creation stories, Tales of the Early World (1988) and The Dream Fighter (1995), he made the genre his own. Its flexibility allowed for comic tales of God's bungling, the tragic plight of the bee which must spend its life gathering more and more sweetness from the flowers to counter the sadness in its veins from the demon's tears of which it had been made, the anti-racist satire of the polar bear's absurd prejudice in favour of whiteness. In 1967 Hughes wrote the most popular of all his works for children, The Iron Man (1968), subsequently made into both a rock opera by Pete Townshend (1993) and an animated film, The Iron Giant (1999). The story is Hughes's attempt to counter such false myths as St George and the dragon, where the hero's task is simply to destroy what he does not understand or feels threatened by. Hogarth, the boy hero of the story, persuades the iron man to use his strength for constructive purposes, and the iron man in turn transforms the energies of the demonic dragon to creative ends. In the sequel, The Iron Woman (1993), Hughes passionately attacks the sacrilege of pollution.

Hughes's poems for children began with the nonsense of Meet my Folks! (1961) and The Earth Owl and other Moon People (1963) but gradually acquired the sacramental vision of Season Songs (1975), Under the North Star (1981), and What is the Truth? (1984). Hughes's works for children cannot be clearly separated from his adult works. Season Songs, for example, though not written specifically for children, was designed to remain 'within hearing' of young readers.

Most of Hughes's plays for children began as radio plays for schools. They infuse traditional material with his typical transforming power. In Orpheus he clearly used the myth to help him come to terms with the loss of Sylvia Plath, but could permit himself to envisage reunion with her spirit only in a work for children. Hughes tried to make all his works for children ‘upbeat’, giving them strength and confidence to tackle the trials of life. In his works for adults, on the other hand, there are no wishful solutions—'everything must be paid for'.

Poetry, 1966–1979

When he began to write adult verse again, in 1966, Hughes's poems had shed the rhetoric, the 'masculine persuasive force' of his earlier work, for a new, moving simplicity, partly influenced by such eastern European poets as Popa and Janos Pilinszky, by Lorca's idea of the duende, and by Buddhism. In 1966 he published Recklings and in 1967 Wodwo—a large collection of poems, stories, and a play (The Wound)—which he described as a single adventure, 'a descent into destruction' (Faas, 205).

Ted and Assia worked together translating Yehuda Amichai. Their daughter, Alexandra Tatiana Elise (‘Shura’) Wevill, was born in March 1965, and in October that year Assia and Shura moved to Court Green. In the following spring Hughes took them to Ireland for several months. His parents stayed at Court Green, where he thought the milder weather would do his mother good, but by the time he returned she was too ill to move. His parents were never able to accept Assia, who was obliged for many months to care for four adults (one bedridden) and three children. Early in 1968 she returned to London, where, though Hughes visited her as often as he could, she became very depressed.

During these years Hughes was active in the organization of international poetry festivals to combat what he felt to be the insularity of English poetry. In 1965 he and Daniel Weissbort launched Modern Poetry in Translation. Hughes also served on the literature panel of the Arts Council.

In 1966 Hughes had begun to write some poems to accompany Leonard Baskin's drawings of crows. The project grew into a folk epic, The Life and Songs of the Crow, a prose quest narrative to be studded with hundreds of poems. Crow is initially a Trickster, mischievously or inadvertently making creation go wrong. Then he begins his largely unconscious quest to discover who made him and for what purpose. It is a search for his own mother, whom he encounters frequently, but never recognizes, since he projects onto her the monstrous images generated by his own split psyche. He tries to kill her. But gradually he develops a conscience and the desire to become a man. He recapitulates most of the errors of western man. Eventually he is helped by an Inuit shaman to understand the way things are. The intention was that he would ultimately pay for his crimes and reach the Happy Land where his bride (his transfigured victim) awaits him.

In March 1969 Hughes gave his first televised reading in Manchester. From there he and Assia went house-hunting on Tyneside. Hughes then returned to Devon, where the news reached him that on her return to London, Assia had gassed herself and their daughter on 25 March. He could not proceed with the resolution of the Crow story, but published the darkest poems from the first two-thirds of the story 'in memory of Assia and Shura'. Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970) had a huge impact, provoking both admiration and horror, but was widely misunderstood because of the absence of the prose context and the ending. Crow's quest was completed in Cave Birds.

The publication of Crow provided another opportunity for hostile critics to renew their charge that Hughes was the high priest of a cult of violence. Fay Godwin's much published photographs of Hughes looking bleak in a leather jacket reinforced the public perception of him as craggy and unapproachable. He was, of course, large and imposing, in presence as well as physique, but it was shyness, not aggression, which masked, for those who did not know him, his essential gentleness and generosity.

Hughes's mother died in May 1969. On 19 August 1970 Hughes married Carol Ann Orchard (b. 1947/8), a nurse at Exeter General Hospital, and the daughter of Herbert John Orchard, a Devon farmer. In September 1969 Hughes had bought a mill owner's house, Lumb Bank, at Heptonstall Slack. Hughes, Carol, and the children lived there for a time, but it proved too cold and damp and they decided to return to Court Green. After Hughes had spent a considerable amount on the renovation of Lumb Bank it was leased in 1975 to the Arvon Foundation. Hughes was subsequently enormously supportive of Arvon's creative writing courses. In 1971 Hughes, Olwyn (who had been acting as Hughes's agent since 1965), and Keith Gossop founded the Rainbow Press, which published fine limited editions of nine of Hughes's books over the next decade. Also in that year Hughes wrote the introduction to A Choice of Shakespeare's Verse in which he first sketched his idea of the 'tragic equation' from which his Shakespeare book later developed.

Hughes's relationship with Peter Brook had begun with his adaptation of Seneca's Oedipus for Brook's 1968 National Theatre production, with John Gielgud as Oedipus. The summer of 1971 was spent in Persia with Peter Brook's company working on Orghast (written in a synthetic language designed to be universally understood) for the Shiraz festival. In Persia, Hughes also wrote Prometheus on his Crag (1973), which he described as 'a numb poem about numbness', but in which Prometheus eventually comes to terms with the vulture which torments him and transforms it into the midwife of his reborn self. He declined Brook's invitation to join the company in Africa, but provided him with about a hundred scenarios to use on the tour. Some of these were inspired by the Sufi classic The Conference of the Birds.

In 1972, as an investment for the children of the profits from Plath's novel The Bell Jar, and in the hope of tempting his brother Gerald to return home, Hughes bought Moortown, a 95 acre farm, where, together with Carol and her father, he bred sheep and South Devon cattle. After the death of Jack Orchard in 1976 the stock had to be sold, but the farming experience had produced many poems published in Season Songs (1975) and Moortown (1979). These poems, together with Adam and the Sacred Nine (1979), reaffirmed Hughes's vision of spirit grounded in the world of mud and blood.

At the Ilkley literature festival in 1975 Hughes read from two major new works, Cave Birds and Gaudete (1977). Cave Birds enacts an alchemical purgation, resurrection, and wedding. At the beginning the protagonist is a gross cockerel 'ridiculous with cocky pride' (Six Young Men). He dies, and his spirit, now a crow, is hauled before a bird court in the underworld for correction. Stripped to the bone, he and his former victim, now his bride, reassemble each other in the lovely poem 'Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days'.

Gaudete ('Rejoice!') started out as a film script but developed into an ambitious work, drawing heavily on folklore, myth, and, particularly, Wolfram's Parzival. Lumb, an Anglican minister, is abducted by spirits who confront him with the task of curing the stricken goddess in the underworld. They replace him in his parish with a substitute whose priapic energies disrupt the bourgeois world. Hughes's original intention had been to tell the stories of both Lumbs, but the experiences of the real Lumb were finally distilled into a series of forty-five short and mysterious prayers based on the Dravidian vacanas. These deeply felt poems are among Hughes's finest. Lumb prays to be enlisted, alongside the loyal grass-blade, the sleek blackbird, and the grim badger (jaw-strake shattered by the diggers' spade) as one of the goddess's warriors:

Let your homeBe my home. Your peopleMy people.

These dense and difficult works were closely followed by Remains of Elmet (1979) in which Hughes, responding to Fay Godwin's photographs, returned to his roots and evoked the spirit of the Calder valley. He could not regret that the moors, into which so many lives were ploughed like manure, were now breaking free from the harness of men. The image of stone returning to the earth is one of many images for the restoration to nature of her own, the healing and rededication of the holy elements before man can approach them again with clean hands, with respect and humility, and for purposes more natural, sane, and worthily human than the enslavement of body and spirit which had characterized industrialism and its supporting protestantism.


In spite of his reference to collaboration as 'like running a three-legged race', much of Hughes's finest work was in this form: Cave Birds with Leonard Baskin, Remains of Elmet with Fay Godwin, and River (1983) with another photographer, Peter Keen. In Three Books (1993) Hughes produced revised versions of these works closer to what he might have written without collaborators.

Hughes's work had an extraordinarily fertilizing effect on the work of other poets, especially the young, artists, and musicians. Exhibitions of works of art inspired by Hughes were staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1979 and Manchester Art Gallery in 1980. His work of the 1970s and early 1980s brought him a long way from the sometimes bludgeoning poetry of the 1950s and the bleak verse of the 1960s, to poems of air and light almost purged of self.

Hughes was awarded the OBE in 1977. In the 1970s and 1980s he gave up a great deal of his time to judging poetry competitions, and gave many readings, especially to schoolchildren. His distinctive, deliberate voice, giving full value to every cadence and nuance of a poem, inspired many listeners to a love of poetry. However, at readings in Australia in 1976 and the USA in 1977 he was heckled by radical feminists accusing him of the murder of Sylvia Plath. Feminists later defaced Plath's gravestone in Heptonstall cemetery, repeatedly removing the name Hughes. The administration of the Plath estate became a millstone to Hughes, and he later gave the Plath copyright to their children.

Frieda Hughes was now becoming a successful painter and poet in Australia, and Nicholas, having graduated from Oxford with a degree in zoology, had become a specialist in freshwater biology. Hughes joined him in Kenya, Iceland, and Alaska. Hughes also made frequent fishing trips, particularly to Scotland, Ireland, and British Columbia. Drawing on these and on his intimate knowledge of his local rivers, the Taw and the Torridge, Hughes wrote River (1983):

But water will go onIssuing from heavenIn dumbness uttering spirit brightnessThrough its broken mouth.

Several of the best poems are hymns to Hughes's sacred fish, the heroic salmon.

In December 1984 Hughes was appointed to succeed John Betjeman as poet laureate. The appointment startled the literary world, but many felt, especially after the almost immediate publication of his first laureate poem, 'Rain Charm for the Duchy', that Hughes could transform the office and become virtually the national shaman. These hopes soon faded as the subsequent laureate poems turned out to be mainly arcane tributes to members of the royal family.

Late works

In spite of the demands of the laureateship, Hughes continued to give much of his time to working for various charities, answering at length most of the many letters he received, especially from children, and making constructive comments on poems which were sent to him. His letters make wonderful reading, whether they are about his work in progress, other writing, the spirit of place, or more personal and mundane matters.

After Hughes reviewed Max Nicholson's The Environmental Revolution in 1970, environmental and ecological concerns came to figure more and more centrally both in his poems and in his life, and led to his working for such organizations as the Atlantic Salmon Trust, Farms for City Children, and the Sacred Earth Drama Trust (which he founded). He won the admiration and friendship of Prince Charles. This aspect of Hughes's work inspired the aerial ballet which was to be the central feature at the Millennium Dome.

Hughes spent the first three months of 1983 writing a long and intense essay on Leonard Baskin, 'The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly', which is essentially a statement of faith in the therapeutic function of art. It was the beginning of a decade in which most of Hughes's energies went into prose, especially Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992) and his essays on Eliot and Coleridge, collected with the best of his earlier prose in Winter Pollen (1994).

Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being was a colossal undertaking, the culmination of a lifetime's absorption in Shakespeare. He aimed to demonstrate that there exists a paradigm or 'tragic equation' deriving initially from 'Venus and Adonis', which expresses the most profound aspects of Shakespeare's creative psyche and dramatic method, and which can be found behind almost every mature work. The book was received with such virulence by the academic Shakespeare scholars that it seemed these reviewers were more interested in jealously protecting their territory than in exploring Shakespeare's imaginative processes; it was as though an upstart crow had suddenly surpassed them all. Other reviewers were more enthusiastic, one claiming that Hughes was the first adequate reader that Shakespeare had ever had.

Most of the poems Hughes had written between 1983 and 1989 were collected in Wolfwatching (1990), which included several poems about his family. Though Hughes had written most of Birthday Letters (1998) by 1994, he felt that it would have been kinder to himself had he written and published that poetic account of his relationship with Sylvia Plath much earlier. He also believed that devoting so much of his energies to prose for several years (a defection from the demands of poetry) had destroyed his immune system and made him vulnerable to the cancer which was diagnosed in 1997. In that year Hughes sold most of his vast collection of his own manuscripts to Emory University in the United States.

Hughes's New Selected Poems (1995) contained sixteen poems about Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill which passed unnoticed, so that the publication of eighty-eight poems about Sylvia Plath in Birthday Letters came as a shock to most readers, who had assumed that Hughes would maintain to the end his silence on the subject of his relationship with Plath. Here all his reservations about 'confessional' poetry were dropped. Sales were enormous. Most of the anticipated opposition melted away before the candour and vulnerability of the poems. They revealed that both Hughes and Plath had believed that the release of Plath's demon into her poetry would be therapeutic. But that demon, assuming the form of her dead father, had proved more than they could cope with.

Apart from Birthday Letters, Hughes's energies in his last years went mainly into ‘translations’ (he usually worked from literal translations) and work for the theatre: versions of Wedekind's Spring Awakening (1995), Lorca's Blood Wedding (1996), Racine's Phèdre (1998), Aeschylus's The Oresteia, and Euripides's Alcestis (1999). He also spent a good deal of time recording many of his own works, Eliot's poems, and the whole of his anthology By Heart (1997).

In 1998 Birthday Letters won the Forward, T. S. Eliot, Whitbread, South Bank, and book of the year prizes. Tales from Ovid (1997) also won several awards. The Oresteia was prepared for production at the National Theatre, and Tales from Ovid was adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In October 1998 Hughes received the Order of Merit from the queen at Buckingham Palace. Just two weeks later, on 28 October, Hughes died from cancer of the colon in the London Bridge Hospital. He was buried at St Peter's Church, North Tawton, on 3 November. A memorial service, attended by Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, and the prince of Wales, was held at Westminster Abbey on 14 May 1999.


  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004) [Olwyn Hughes; Carol Hughes; John Wholey]
  • E. Faas, Ted Hughes: the unaccommodated universe (1986)
  • Paris Review (spring 1995)
  • A. Skea, ‘Timeline’, in K. Sagar, The laughter of foxes: a study of Ted Hughes (2000)
  • C. Fraser, ‘Reshaping the past: the personal poetry of Ted Hughes’, PhD diss., University of New England, Australia, 1998
  • E. Feinstein, Ted Hughes: the life of a poet (2001)
  • A. Stevenson, Bitter flame: a life of Sylvia Plath (1989)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.
  • K. Sagar and S. Tabor, Ted Hughes: a bibliography, 1946–1995 (1998)


  • BL, corresp. and literary manuscripts, Add MS 88918, 83684–98, 53784
  • Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, corresp. and proofs
  • Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, Robert W. Woodruff Library, papers
  • U. Lpool, letters and papers relating to Seneca's Oedipus, literary MSS
  • University of Victoria, British Columbia, McPherson Library, corresp. and literary MSS
  • BL, letters to Keith Sagar, Add MS 78756–61
  • BL, letters to Ann Skea, Add MS 74247
  • BL, letters to Rosemarie Rowley, Add MS 83260
  • BL, letters to Elizabeth Compton, Add MS 88612
  • BL, letters to Jack Brown, Add MS 88613
  • BL, letters to Peter Keen, Add MS 88614
  • BL, papers relating to the publication of River, Add MS 88615
  • BL, letters to Terence McCaughey and his wife, Ohna, Add MS 88616
  • BL, corresp. with Glyn Hughes, Add MS 88617
  • BL, Ann Skea Papers relating to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Add MS 88978
  • BL, corresp. with Olwyn Hughes, Add MS 88948
  • BL, corresp. with Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts, Add MS 88988


  • BFINA, ‘Ted Hughes: in his own words’, Channel 4, 24 Dec 1998
  • BFINA, Close up, BBC 2, 25 Dec 1998


  • BL NSA


  • R. McKenna, photograph, 1959 (with Sylvia Plath), NPG; see illus. in Plath, Sylvia (1932–1963)
  • H. Cartier-Bresson, photograph, 1971, NPG [see illus.]
  • L. Baskin, ink and wash, 1972, priv. coll.
  • L. Baskin, fibreglass relief, 1978, priv. coll.
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at Death

£1,417,560 gross; £1,196,737 net: administration with will, 1999, CGPLA Eng. & Wales