BORN: 1930, Mytholmroyd, England
DIED: 1998, North Tawton, England
GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction
The Hawk in the Rain (1957)
Earth Owl (1963)
The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights (1968)
Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970)
Birthday Letters (1998)
Ted Hughes used a rich, vibrant language to explore themes that were mythic, earthy, and elemental. Throughout his long poetic career, Hughes was interested in confronting the rougher instincts that govern people's relationships with one another and with nature. When he began writing poetry in the 1950s, Hughes's verse signaled a dramatic departure from the more polite
and understated styles of the period. He is also widely remembered, not always positively, as the husband of the brilliant but troubled poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Poetry and Plath Ted Hughes was born as Edward James Hughes on August 17, 1930, in Mytholmroyd, a small town in Yorkshire, England. His father was a carpenter who had seen service in World War I. Throughout his life (and even in his death, where his ashes were scattered on a remote hillside miles from any road), Hughes remained connected to the atmosphere of the English countryside. He did not write about rolling in the daffodils as his predecessor William Wordsworth did; Hughes employed a darker vision of the literal and symbolic ruggedness of the landscape.
After attending school in South Yorkshire, where he began writing poetry, he was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge in 1948 that he took after a brief stint in the Royal Air Force. He studied English literature for two years, then switched to archaeology and anthropology, two subjects that were of immense importance to his work.
While at Cambridge, he published little, but spent his time working as, among other things, a rose gardener, a schoolteacher, and a zoo attendant. All three of these jobs are reflected in his poetry in later years. It was at a literary party in Cambridge in 1956 that he met a fellow student, the American poet Sylvia Plath. Within four months they were married. Plath encouraged Hughes to work harder at getting his poems published, and his first book, The Hawk in the Rain, was published to acclaim in both the United States and Britain in 1957.
Suicides After a short period teaching in Massachusetts, Hughes and Plath returned to settle in England. They had two children and moved to a thatched cottage in a small Devonshire village. When Hughes fell in love with another woman, his marriage to Plath collapsed. Plath moved back to London, where, in a depressed state, she committed suicide in February 1963. Hughes was deeply affected by her death and wrote little poetry for the next three years. He instead devoted much time and studious care to the editing of Plath's poems and journals. After many decades of refusing to speak about her to the public, he surprised everyone shortly before his own death by publishing Birthday Letters (1998), a series of candid and intimate poems about Plath and their stormy relationship.
From the early 1960s on, Hughes published a great deal of prose, which contains valuable hints for understanding his later poetry. Hughes's prose demonstrates his continuing interest in myth, folklore, the occult, and
the spirituality of primitive man. These ideas eventually fused with his established interests in animals and nature, which resulted in what is widely considered Hughes's major work, Crow (1970). Hughes in fact created, in the course of writing these poems, an elaborate folktale about the dark side of nature. Hughes has said in an interview: “The first idea of Crow was really an idea of style….to write his songs, the songs that a Crow would sing. In other words, songs with no music whatsoever, in a super-simple and a super-ugly language which would in a way shed everything except just what he wanted to say.” The pessimistic view of life found in Crow can perhaps be explained by personal tragedies that happened in Hughes's life a year and a half before Crow was published. His companion, Assia Wevill, killed herself in March 1969 in the same manner as Plath and also took the life of the young daughter she had with Hughes.
A New Direction Hughes married his second wife, Carol Orchard, in 1970. Hughes began expanding his work to drama, children's literature, literary criticism (especially of William Shakespeare), translations of Greek classics, and illustrated books. He settled in the countryside of Devon and became involved in farming, especially sheep and cattle raising, which he writes of in Moortown (1979). These poems, written in a wide variety of styles, describe the everyday experience of life in the countryside. Rather than stressing the unbridgeable gaps between mankind and animals, as in his earlier poems, Hughes writes of livestock here with a farmer's easy familiarity. The farm presents a continuing cycle of birth and death in which the human beings participate, as in bringing calves and lambs into the world or putting diseased animals out of their misery. The book is dedicated to the memory of Jack Orchard, Hughes's father-in-law. Hughes remembers him at work about the farm, shearing sheep, building a fence in a December downpour, and doing everything as a man who is instinctively at home with his work and moving in harmony with nature.
In 1984 Hughes was appointed poet laureate, the honor of being the “national poet” of Britain, given to just one person at a time until their death. The laureateship is usually given to poets whose writings are uncontroversial in style and theme, but Hughes shattered that stereotype for all future poets of his country. He died at his home in North Tawton, England, on October 28, 1998.
Works in Literary Context
Hughes's poetry takes part in the modernist movement, dating from the 1900s up to the 1950s and beyond, which was a reaction to the strict realism and conventional morality of literature in the Victorian 1800s. Modernist art is more abstract, impressionistic, and symbolic than Victorian art. It is also less confident than Victorian art, expressing themes of self-exploration, pessimism about the present and future, and doubt about what a single individual can do to stem the tide of violence and cultural decay—all themes made urgent throughout the period of the two world wars. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf shared with Hughes an exploration of individual consciousness sometimes expressed in fragmented, difficult language.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Hughes's famous contemporaries include:
The Beatles (1960–1970): John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr became the most popular and progressive rock band of their time, inspiring an outburst of artistic creativity and confidence throughout Europe and America during the 1960s.
Samuel Beckett (1906–1989): Irish playwright and poet who found a dark humor and sense of futility in people's attempts to find meaning and lasting happiness in an uncaring universe.
Carl Jung (1875–1961): Swiss analytical psychologist who theorized that “archetypes”—familiar myths, symbols, and images—are part of the “collective unconscious” of mankind.
Robert Lowell (1917–1977), American poet who, like Hughes, wrote technically sophisticated and heavily symbolic verse.
Animals Hughes's works, however, perhaps have the most in common with the poetry of D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence is more widely known for his novels, but his poetry often deals with the alien world of animals in a flexible language that seeks to capture something of each animal's style and nature. Where Lawrence's work deals with one animal at a time, often focusing on themes of sexuality and violence, Hughes often places his animals in a much wider context of nature as a whole and frames them with mythology and symbolism. Hughes often wrote about mankind most effectively by excluding it entirely: By writing about animals and showing us what mankind is not, he offers insight into what mankind is and has the potential to be. Animals participate in the cycles of natural energy from which man has grown distant. For example, in Crow, the black bird symbolizes the lowest common denominator of life, the stubborn will to live that outlasts even the worst disasters.
Landscape Hughes is also one of the most important contemporary poets of the natural landscape. There is a long tradition of “pastoral” poetry that dates back to the ancient Greeks. These decorative and exaggerated poems (almost always written by courtly city dwellers who spent little time in the actual countryside) celebrated the simple, romantic lives of idealized shepherds and shepherd-esses who spent their days pining for one another and gazing at the peaceful hillsides. With the Romantic movement (1790s–1830s), poets such as William Wordsworth and John Keats found a new (although sometimes sentimentalized) realism in nature, making claims of its restorative power for mankind's gentler nature. Modernist poets generally avoided nature poetry—Hughes is one of the few exceptions—as they tended to focus instead on the psychology of the individual. The untamable wildness that Hughes finds in animals and nature has been a dominant influence on many contemporary poets, such as Michael Longley and Thom Gunn. As interdisciplinary scholars shape the new field of animal studies, Hughes's distinctive voice is likely to find an even wider audience.
Plath's Influence The one poet who had the greatest impact on Hughes was the same poet on whom he had the greatest impact—Sylvia Plath. Plath and Hughes encouraged one another to strive for more complex and personal expression and to explore with great honesty themes of longing, memory, and identity. After Plath's death, Hughes edited and promoted her writing (as well as destroying some of it to protect their children, as he claimed), and his last major work was a collection of poems he wrote about their life together titled Birthday Letters.
Works in Critical Context
Ted Hughes enjoyed a rapid rise to fame, thanks in part to a prestigious poetry contest he won at the age of twenty-seven. His first book, The Hawk in the Rain, was picked up by a major publisher in England and the United States in 1957 and received very favorable reviews. Critics were impressed by the surprisingly confident and mature poetic voice of the young poet.
There were some misfires in Hughes's career. One was his collaboration with theater director Peter Brook, Orghast, which was written and performed in Iran. Hughes created an entirely new language with the intention of communicating emotionally, beneath the level of logical comprehension. Another critical failure was his narrative poem Gaudete (1977), a grim and poorly constructed tale of a priest who is replaced with an evil double who seduces his parishioners into a sexual cult.
Hughes has also received criticism from Sylvia Plath's devoted readers, some of whom would boo at Hughes's readings, blaming him for her depression and suicide. Judged on its own merits, however, Hughes's poetry for adults has consistently received favorable reviews, and even those critics who find it unnecessarily violent or pessimistic still appreciate its vigor and technical virtuosity.
Hughes received many honors for his children's writing, including the Kurt Maschler Award, the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction, and, on three occasions, the Signal Poetry Award. In assessing Hughes's contributions as a children's writer, critic and editor Keith Cushman noted the continuity between his work for younger and older readers, especially in his later years, when poetry for children was an integral part of Hughes's overall artistic achievement. Cushman writes, “The effort to reach the child's imagination with poetry, to nurture it, to preserve it and keep it whole, must be recognized as being of paramount importance to the literary faith of Ted Hughes.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Hughes often examined animals and the natural world in contrast with human action and society. Here are other works that focus on nature as a means of understanding humans:
“Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), a poem by William Wordsworth. This classic poem of the Romantic period captures Wordsworth's philosophy on the power of nature.
Walden (1854), a collection of essays and recollections by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau famously spent more than two years, mostly in solitude, in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. His book contains many close descriptions of the animals and natural features of Walden.
Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (1923), a collection of poetry by D. H. Lawrence. These poems describe the sometimes shocking and amusing nature of animals and plants, showing what we can learn from the unselfconscious way they are in tune with the cycles of birth, life, and death.
The Call of the Wild (1903), a novel by Jack London. This short novel is told from the perspective of a domestic pet dog, Buck, who returns to a primitive world to become the leader of a pack of wolves.
Responses to Literature
- How did Sylvia Plath influence Ted Hughes's life and work? How did he influence hers?
- Read Hughes's Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. Do you find the crow to be symbolic, or do think the poems are more meaningful if the crow is just a crow?
- Is poetry about nature more or less relevant in our time, with the rise of cities and the spread of suburbs? What new perspectives can nature poetry take, and how has Hughes's work contributed to that?
- How do archeology and anthropology influence Hughes's work?
Feinstein, Elaine. Ted Hughes, The Life of a Poet. New York: Norton, 2003.
Gifford, Terry and Neil Roberts. Ted Hughes: A Critical Study. London: Faber & Faber, 1981.
Hirschberg, Stuart. Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes: A Guide to the Poems. Portmarnock, Ireland: Wolfhound Press, 1981.
Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted
Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1994.
Roberts, Neil. Ted Hughes: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Sagar, Keith. The Art of Ted Hughes, enlarged edition. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Scigaj, Leonard M. The Poetry of Ted Hughes: Form and Imagination. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1986.
Scigaj, Leonard M., ed. Critical Essays on Ted Hughes. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.
Wilson, Jane. Backing Horses: A Comparison between Larkin's and Hughes' Poetry. Potree, Scotland: Aquila, 1982.
Centre for Ted Hughes Studies. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www3.sympatico.ca/sylviapaul/hughes_index.htm.
Kazzer, Claas. Earth–Moon: A Ted Hughes Website. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www.earth-moon.org.
Skea, Ann. The Ted Hughes Homepage. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www.zeta.org.~auannskea/THHome.htmom.
Ted Hughes (born 1930) was an eminent English poet who led a resurgence of English poetic innovation starting in the late 1950s. He was named poet laureate in 1985.
Ted Hughes was born in 1930 in the Yorkshire town of Mytholmroyd in England. His home backed onto a canal, while close by was the main road from the Yorkshire woolen towns to the cotton centers of Lancashire over the Pennine hills. This landscape was indelibly to shape his future poetry as he struggled to create a usable language that could accommodate poetry and literature to the demands of an increasingly post-literate society.
In the 1950s Hughes went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he started to "read" English but changed to anthropology as he felt that the academic study of English literature conflicted with his search for poetic creativity. It was at Cambridge in 1956 that he met the American poet Sylvia Plath whom he later married. The marriage produced a son and a daughter before Plath's suicide in 1963. During the time they were together an important process of mutual aesthetic stimulation took place, and it is a relationship that has fascinated some critics almost as much as that between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
In 1957 Hughes' first book of poetry, Hawk in the Rain, was published to immediate acclaim and placed him as a leading exponent of what the critic A. Alvarez called the "new depth poetry." Hughes' poetry revolted against the depiction of landscape in romantic and genteel terms—this had been a dominant tradition in English poetry from the time of the Lake poets of the early 19th century and had received a new impetus from the Georgians before World War I. However, Hughes was also reacting to the modernism of such poets as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot and the concern for ritual and ceremony and was instead preoccupied with developing a more vital and direct link with animals and nature. In many ways this was a brutal and violent depiction of struggle and a Darwinian interest in the survival of the fittest. Hughes later stated that as a boy he had been fascinated by animals, seeing them as representatives of another world which was "the true world." The only relationship, though, as a boy from the town was one of catching or killing animals, and this reinforced the idea that animals were by nature victims of man's aggressive impulses.
Hughes' attitude to animals was a direct and self-conscious one, and he did not see them as strange and alien creatures and as representatives of mysterious hidden forces like D. H. Lawrence. The poem "The Horses," for instance, in The Hawk in the Rain speaks of horses as "Grey silent fragments of a grey silent world" and ends with the poet's later memory of meeting the horses in "hour-before-dawn dark": "In din of crowded streets, going among the years, the faces, /May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place."
Hughes became especially known for his graphic depiction of struggle and conflict such as the poem "Pike" in his second volume Lupercal in 1960: "Three we kept behind glass, /Jungled in weed: three inches, four, /And four and a half: fed fry to them-/Suddenly there were two. Finally one." The poem was also important for linking this natural struggle to the search for another England with which a number of poets of Hughes' generation were concerned. The pond in which Hughes used to fish in "Pike" had: "Stilled, legendary depth: /It was as deep as England. It held/Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old/That past nightfall I dared not cast." The discovery of this England was clearly an immense task as the weight and burden of tradition was lifted away from English culture. For Hughes, though, this was an opportunity for the affirmation of a relationship with the surrounding landscape which, in his early period at least, was not burdened by Christian myth and ritual. His employment of pagan imagery thus, to some extent, distinguished him from the more religious concerns of Plath.
In the case of the poem "Hawk Roosting" in Lupercal, however, he was accused by some critics of writing a paean to fascist power as he depicted an animal in anthropomorphic terms: "I kill where I please because it is all mine. /There is no sophistry in my body: /My manners are tearing off heads." Similarly in the later collection Crow (1970) where he had chosen a considerably less aggressive natural symbol, "A Childish Prank" was seen as demeaning the relation between men and women as "Crow laughed. / He bit the Worm, God's only son, /Into two writhing halves." On the other hand, in Hughes' later poetry the beginnings of a healing process can be seen to have occurred as Hughes celebrated a more varied view of nature beyond that of struggle and survival. In Moortown (1978) the "Birth of Rainbow" offers a more optimistic view of procreation as the birth of a calf is described, while Hughes moved towards a fuller acceptance of the Christian tradition:" … then the world blurred/And disappearing in forty-five degree hail/And a gate-jerking blast. We got to cover. / Left to God the calf and his mother."
Hughes' poetry established his pre-eminence in English poetry at an early stage and indicated a resurgence of English poetic innovation after a long period of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish dominance. Hawk in the Rain won the First Publications Award in New York in 1957 and Lupercal won the Hawthornden Prize in 1961. Hughes won the Guinness Poetry Award in 1958 and the Somerset Maughan Award in 1960 and was a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow in 1959-1960. He also became a children's poet, publishing Meet My Folks in 1961, The Earth-Owl and Other Moon People in 1963, and Nessie, The Mannerless Monsterin 1964, together with collections of children's stories. Hughes saw children's verse as a vital accompaniment to his poetry for he saw children as an important potential audience for poets, especially through the use of tapes and videos in schools.
Hughes' varied contributions to poetry led to his finally succeeding the late Sir John Betjeman as poet laureate in 1985. The appointment marked a radical departure from the genteel view of poetry of his popular predecessor. While clearly a major English poet, Hughes cannot be described as simply celebrating Englishness from a standpoint of inward-looking nationalism. Many of his early poems especially share a more general post-modernist concern with struggle and the violent affirmation of identity, and some more traditionally-minded critics have seen them as rather alien to the English spirit of harmony and compromise.
Since becoming poet laureate in 1985, Hughes' publications include verse: Flowers and Insects (1989),Moortown Diary (1989), Rain-charm for the Duchy (1992), New Selected Poems 1957-1994 (1995); libretti: Wedekind, Spring Awakening (1995); stories: Tales of the Early World (1988), The Iron Woman (1993), The Dreamfighter (1995), Collected Animal Poems (1995); and prose: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), Winter Pollen (1994), and Difficulties of a Bridegroom (1995). In 1996, Hughes translated and published two dozen passages from Latin poet Publius Ouidius Naso's Metamorphoses.
Additional information on Ted Hughes can be found in Keith Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes (Cambridge, 1975); Margaret D. Uroff, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1979); Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Critical Study (London, 1981); Keith Sagar (editor), The Achievement of Ted Hughes (Manchester University Press, 1983); David Porter, "Ted Hughes" in The American Poetry Review (1971); Anthony Libby, "God's Lioness and the Priest of Sycorax: Plath and Hughes" in Contemporary Literature (1974); and Michael Wood, "We All Hate Home: English Poetry since World War II" in Contemporary Literature (1977). □