Ted Hughes

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.


Further Reading on Ted Hughes

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).