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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ted Hughes (1930-1998) - byname of Edward J. Hughes


English poet, dramatist, critic, and short story writer, married to the American poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. Hughes stated that poems, like animals, are each one "an assembly of living parts, moved by a single spirit." In his early works Hughes questioned man's function in the universal scheme. Seriously interested in shamanism, hermeticism, astrology, and the Ouija board, Hughes examined in several of his later animal poems the themes of survival and the mystery and destructiveness of the cosmos.

For they will have their rights.
Their jurors are to be assembled
From the little crumbs of soot. Their brief
Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it.

(in 'Her Husband', Wodwo, 1967)

Edward James Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire. The Rochale Canal, yards from the family home at 1 Aspinall Street, by which he grew up, was polluted by chemicals. From the age of five, he was hooked on fishing, although he started to fish in the canal. The family moved in 1938 to Mexborough, a coal-mining town in South Yorkshire. At first, they lived behind and above a newspaper and tobacco shop, where Hughes's parents William and Edith Hughes made their living. Later they were able to buy a detached house. The harsh landscape of the northern England moors had a strong influence in Hughes's poetry. 

William and Edith (née Farrar) were warm-hearted people – Edith was famous for her jams and gooseberry pies; William was a carpenter, who later turned news agent. He had participated during World War I in the battle of Gallipoli, and was one of the 17 who survived from his regiment. Edith's family traced their ancestry back to a certain William de Ferrers, who fought in the Battle of Hastings. Her ancestors also included Bishop Farrar, on whose death – he was burned at the stake – Hughes wrote in a 1970 poem. 

After studies at the Mexborough Grammar School, Hughes served two years in the Royal Air Force. From grammar school he won a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. Shorty before entering Cambridge, he was given by his English teacher a copy of Robert Graves' The White Goddess; the book had a deep impact on his mind. Hughes studied first English and come to hate the writing of his weekly English essay. He then switched to archaeology and anthropology after he had a dream in which he saw a fox appearing in his room. It placed a bloody pawn on the blank page in front of him, and said, "Stop this. You are destroying us." Hughes specialized in mythological systems, which provided much material for his poetry. (He interpreted the fox as the Romantic natural  man, being slowly murdered by "the spirit of surgery & objective analysis".) Upon graduating in 1954, he settled in London, where he worked as a zoo attendant, gardener, and script reader for J. Arthur Rank.

With his friends Hughes founded in Cambridge a literary magazine St Botolph's Review. At a student party he first saw an unknown poet, Sylvia Plath. The meeting anticipated their tumultuous relationship – she bit him on the cheek, so hard that it bled. They married within a few months; possibly it was Sylvia who proposed.

In 1957 the couple moved to the US. Hughes taught English and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Disgusted with American culture and mass-produced luxury, he wanted to return to England; "I'd rather eat mud than live in America", he said. For her birthday he gave a pack of tarot cards. Later on she purchased a crystal ball to see what their future holds. Hughes consulted the Quija board for bets on soccer.

Plath typed up the manuscript of Hughes's The Hawk in the Rain (1957), his first volume of verse. It included some of his best poems, such as 'The Thought-Fox' and the title poems, 'The Hawk in the Rain'. "I imagine this midnight moment's forest: / Something else is alive / Beside the clock's loneliness / And this blank page where my fingers move." (in 'The Thought-Fox') It was followed by Pike (1959) and Lupercal (1960), which won a Somerset Maugham Award (1960) and the 1961 Hawthornden Prize. Hughes's collection Selected Poems (1962), with Thom Gunn, is considered a new turn in English verse.

During this period Hughes also supported Plath through her depressions and encouraged her when publishers rejected her work. "I sometimes feel a paralysis come over me: his opinion is so important to me", she wrote in her journal. Hughes and Plath returned to England in 1959 and in 1961 they moved to Devon. Plath suspected him of infidelity, first falsely but then correctly when Hughes met Assia Wevill, a German-born, cosmopolitan woman who had been married three times. At that time she was married to the Canadian poet David Wevill.

Hughes's first collection of poetry for children was Meet My Folks! (1961). How the Wale Became (1963) was a collection of creation stories. Both How the Whale Became and The Iron Man (1968) were dedicated to his children. What Is Truth? A Farmyard Tale for the Young (1984) won the Guardian Children's Book Prize and the Signal Poetry Prize. The Iron Man was originally written for his own children.

This widely translated book tells about a huge Iron Man whose origin is unknown. He steals all tractors, threshers and digging machines from local farmers – he has an insatiable appetite for metals. The farmers try to capture the strange, rusty being. However, the Iron Man escapes from a trap. A young boy befriends with him and leads him to a scrapyard, where the Iron Man has all kinds of metal scrap, from old cars and stoves to bicycles, to eat. A giant Space-Bat-Dragon-Angel appears from the space – its head is the size of Italy and it threatens to eat the villages and cities of the world. The Iron Man defeats the creature. The bat starts its journey back to Orion, its home star, singing a song which brings peace on earth. The book inspired the animated movie Iron Giant (1999) and had a sequel, The Iron Woman (1993).

After Sylvia Plath's suicide in London in 1963, Hughes stopped writing poetry for nearly three years while editing and publishing her poems. He also helped to gain public recognition for Plath's Ariel, a collection of poems, which had appeared in 1965. It was not until 1971, when Hughes explained to his children that their mother had committed suicide. According to Elaine Feinstein, whose well-balanced biography on the author came out in 2001, he never recovered from the loss. Hughes divided his time between London and Court Green, his Devon house. Plath's death made Hughes a pariah in the eyes of some writers. Many feminist critics cited her poems, in which Hughes was represented as a "brute". Moreover, his name was chipped off her tombstone in Yorkshire and his poetry readings were disrupted by shouts of "murder". The writer Germaine Greer later admitted, ''Ted Hughes existed to be punished..."

At the age of 40, Hughes produced perhaps his most famous work, Crow (1970), a series of story-poems. The protagonist, "Crow", is an embodiment of vitality that challenges the supremacy of "Death". At the end of the poem, a man and a woman are ready to whisper "Your will is our peace" in mistaken allegiance to the serpent; Crow kills and eats it.

The memory of Plath started to haunt Wevill, who feared that Hughes would leave her. In 1969, the tragedy continued when she killed herself and Shura, their four-year-old daughter. Wevill gave Shura sleeping pills and turned on the gas oven, lying down with her on a mattress. Two decades later, in Capriccion (1990) Hughes wrote: "After forty I'll end it," you said / laughing / (You were serious) as you folded / your future / Into your empty clothes. Which / Oxfam took."

Hughes edited a number of collections of verse and prose. He was a founding editor of Modern Poetry in Translation magazine and one of the founders of the Arvon Foundation. Hughes' adaptation of Seneca's Oedipus was produced in 1969 at the National Theatre. In 1971 Hughes travelled to Iran where he wrote the verse drama Orghast for the director Peter Brook. He was awarded in 1977 an OBE and in 1984 he was appointed poet Laureate, at the age of 54. Interested in the work of Yehuda Amichai, Hughes made the poetry of this prominent Israeli writer known for English readers.

In addition to his literary career, Hughes took up various causes, such as the preservation of salmon in British rivers. He strongly spoke against the capture of salmon by nets. As a fisherman, he had several decades of experience on the rivers Taw and Torridge. In 1983 he contributed to Anne Voss Bark's book, West Country Fly Fishing. Writing to his friend he said, "Even twenty years ago they produced 1/3 of all salmon in the West Country. Last year only 43 salmon were caught on the Torridge. (It used to be a thousand to 1500.) It's become a far, sewer." (in Ted Hughes by Terry Gifford, 2009, p. 23) With the fishing photographer Peter Keen he collaborated in River (1983).

Hughes stated in Poetry in the Making (1970) that there is no ideal form of poetry or writing. His work ranged from free verse to highly structured rhyme schemes. He gradually abandoned traditional forms and stated that the "very sound of metre calls up the ghosts of the past and it is difficult to sing one's own tune against the choir." Though he wrote for young adults a wide variety of finely illustrated poems, plays and prose, he did not soften his themes of life and death with sentimentality. Hughes often embodied the primal forces of nature as mythical animals, such as the pike ("With a sag belly and the grin it was born with. / And indeed they spare nobody."), the hawk, and the crow. The element of death is a part of the cycles of nature as in 'There Came a Day' but not without a sudden humor: "There came a day that caught the summer / Wrung its neck / Plucked it / And ate it."

Hughes's study of Sylvia Plath's life, Birthday Letters (1998) became an immediate bestseller. He received all the major literary awards in Europe, but not the Nobel Prize. In 1998 he was appointed the Order of Merit. Hughes died of cancer on October 28, 1998, in Devon.

For further reading: Eight Contemporary Poets by C. Bedient (1974); The Art of Ted Hughes by K. Sagar (1978); Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe by E. Faas (1980); Ted Hughes: A Critical Study by T. Gifford and N. Roberts (1981); The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm (1994); Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet by Elaine Feinstein (2001); Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev (2006); Ted Hughes by Terry Gifford (2009); Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate (2015); The Voice of Nature in Ted Hughes's Writing for Children: Correcting Culture's Error by Lorraine Kerslake (2018); The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes by Mark Wormald (2022); Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Writing between Them : Turning the Table by Jennifer D. Ryan-Bryant (2022). Note: Andrew Motion followed Ted Hughes as Britain's poet laureate. Suom.: Hughesin runoja on myös julkaistu antologiassa Maailman runosydän, toim. Hannu Tarmio ja Janne Tarmio (1998)

Selected works:

  • The Hawk in the Rain, 1957
  • Pike, 1959
  • The House of Aries, 1960 (radio play)
  • The Earth Owl and Other Moon People, 1960
  • Lupercal, 1960
  • Meet my Folks!, 1961 (rev. 1987)
  • The Calm, 1961 (play)
  • A Houseful of Women, 1961 (radio play)
  • The Wound, 1962 (radio play)
  • New Poems, 1962 (ed., with Patricia Beer and Vernon Scannell)
  • Selected Poems, 1962
  • How the Whale Became, 1963
  • Difficulties of a Bridegroom, 1963 (radio play)
  • Epithalamium, 1963
  • Here Today, 1963 (ed.)
  • Five American Poets, 1963 (ed., with Thom Gunn)
  • Dogs, 1964 (radio play)
  • Keith Douglas: Selected Poems, 1964 (ed.)
  • Nessie the Mannerless Monster, 1964
  • The Coming of the Kings, 1964 (radio play; pub. 1970)
  • Beauty and the Beast, 1965 (radio play)
  • The Tiger's Bones, 1965 (radio play; pub. 1970)
  • The House of Donkeys, 1965 (radio play)
  • Sylvia Plath: Ariel, 1965 (ed., with O. Hughes)
  • The Burning of the Brothel, 1966
  • The Price of a Bride, 1966 (radio play; pub. 1968)
  • Animal Poems, 1967
  • Gravestones, 1967
  • Recklings, 1967
  • Wodwo, 1967
  • Poetry Is, 1967
  • Poetry in the Making, 1967
  • The Head of Gold, 1967 (radio play)
  • Scapegoats and Rabies, 1967
  • A Choice of  Emly Dickinson's Verse, 1968 (ed.)
  • Orghast, 1968 (with Peter Brook)
  • The Demon of Adachigahara, 1968 (libretto; pub. 1969)
  • Yehuda Amichai: Selected Poems, 1968 (translator, with A. Gutman)
  • Seneca's Oedipus, 1968
  • The Iron Man, 1968
    - Rautamies (suom. Sinikka Sajama, 1993)
    - Film: The Iron Giant (1999), dir. Brad Bird, starring Jennifer Aniston, Christopher McDonald, Harry Connick Jr., Cloris Leachman, Vin Diesel; also the basis for Pete Townshend's 1989 concept album The Iron Man (1989)
  • Sean, the Fool, the Devil and the Cats, 1968 (play; pub. 1970)
  • I Said Goodbye to Earth, 1969 (with Gavin Robbins)
  • Five Autumn Songs for Children's Voices, 1969
  • The Coming of the Kings and Other Plays, 1970
  • Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow, 1970
  • Coming of the Kings and Other Plays, 1970
  • Amulet, 1970
  • A Crow Hymn, 1970
  • A Few Crows, 1970
  • Fighting for Jerusalem, 1970
  • Four Crow Poems, 1970
  • The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar, 1970
  • A Choice of Shakespeare's Verse, 1971 (ed.)
  • Crow Wakes, 1971
  • Eat Crow, 1971 (play)
  • Shakespeare's Poem, 1971
  • Poems, 1971 (with R. Fainlight, A.Sillitoe)
  • Orghast, 1971 (play, with Peter Brook)
  • Autumn Song, 1971
  • Orpheus, 1971 (play; pub. 1973)
  • In the Little Girl's Angel Gaze, 1972
  • Selected Poems 1957–1967, 1972
  • Prometheus on His Crag, 1973
  • Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow, 1973 (illustrated by Leonard Baskin)
  • Ted Hughes Story of Vasco, 1974 (play)
  • Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, 1974
  • Cricket's Choice, 1974 (contributor)
  • Cave Birds, 1975 (illustrated by Leonard Baskin; rev. 1978)
  • The Interrogator: A Titled Vulturess: Poem, 1975
  • The New World, 1975
  • Eclipse, 1976
  • Earth-Moon, 1976
  • Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems, 1976 (illustrated by Leonard Baskin; rev. Moon-Whales, 1988)
  • Season Songs, 1976 (illustrated by Leonard Baskin)
  • János Pilinszky: Selected Poems, 1976 (ed. and tr. with János Csokits)
  • Gaudete, 1977
  • Sunstruck, 1977
  • Chiasmadon, 1977
  • Another Republic, 1977 (translator)
  • Yehuda Amichai: Amen, 1977 (ed. and tr. with Yehuda Amichai)
  • Sylvia Plath: Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose Writings, 1977 (ed. and introduction)
  • Moon-Bells and Other Poems, 1978 (illustrated by Felicity Roma Bowers)
  • Orts, 1978
  • Moortown Elegies, 1978
  • A Solstice, 1978
  • All around the Year, 1979 (with Michael Morpurgo)
  • Moortown, 1979
  • Henry Williamson: a Tribute, 1979
  • The Threshold, 1979 (illustrated by Ralph Steadman)
  • Adam and the Sacred Nine, 1979
  • Broadsides 1979-83;  Four Tales Told by an Idiot, 1979
  • In the Blacj Chapel, 1979
  • Remains of Elmet, 1979 (rev. 1994)
  • Yehuda Amichai: Time, 1979 (translator, with Yehuda Amichai)
  • The Pig Organ, 1980
  • New Poetry 6, 1980 (ed.)
  • Under the North Star, 1981 (illustrated by Leonard Baskin)
  • A Primer of Birds, 1981
  • Sky Furnace, 1981
  • Sylvia Plath: The Collected Poems by Plath, 1981 (ed.)
  • Arvon Foundation Poetry Competion: 1980 Anthology, 1982 (ed., with S. Heaney)
  • The Ratllebag, 1982 (ed., with S. Heaney)
  • Selected Poems 1957-1981, 1982 (rev. New Selected Poems 1957, 1994, 1995)
  • River, 1983 (with Peter Keen)
  • West Country Fly Fishing: An Anthology by Anne Voss-Bark, 1983 (contributor)
  • What is the Truth?  A Farmyard Fable for the Young, 1984 (illustrated by R. J. Lloyd)
  • River, 1984
  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1985 (ed., with Frances McCullough) - Sylvia Plathin päiväkirjat (suomentanut Kristiina Drews, 1997)
  • Sylvia Plath: Selected Poems, 1985 (ed.)
  • Flowers and Insects, 1986
  • Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth, 1986 (illustrated by Chris Riddell)
  • T.S. Eliot: A Tribute, 1987
  • The Cat and the Cuckoo, 1988 (illustrated by R. J. Lloyd)
  • Tales of the Early World, 1988 (illustrated by Andrew Davidson)
    - Tarinoita maailman lapsuudesta (suom. Caj Westerberg, 1993)
  • Wolfwatching, 1989
  • A Primer of Birds: Poems, 1989 (illustrated by Leonard Baskin)
  • János Pilinszky: The Desert of Love, 1989 (translator, with J. Csokits)
  • Capriccio, 1990 (illustrated by Leonard Baskin)
  • Rain-Charm for the Duchy and Other Laureate Poems, 1992
  • Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, 1992
  • Rain-charm for the Duchy, 1992
  • A Dancer to God: Tributes to T. S. Eliot, 1992 (ed.)
  • The Mermaid's Purse, 1993 ((illustrated by R. J. Lloyd)
  • The Iron Woman, 1993 (illustrated by Andrew Davidson)
    - Rautanainen (suom. Kristiina Drews, 1995)
  • Collected Animal Poems, 1995
  • Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, 1994 (edited by William Scammell)
  • New Selected Poems 1957–1994, 1995
  • Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories, 1995
  • The Dreamfighter, and Other Creation Tales, 1995
  • A Choice of Coleridge's Verse, 1996 (ed.)
  • Tales from Ovid, 1997 (translator; Whitbread Award 1998)
  • Birthday Letters, 1998
    - Syntymäpäiväkirjeitä (suom. Alice Martin, 1999)
  • Howls and Whispers, 1998 (illustrated by Leonard Baskin)
  • Alcestis by Euripides, 2000 (translator)
  • Collected Poems, 2003
  • Letters of Ted Hughes, 2007 (ed. Christopher Reid)
  • My Brother Bert, 2009 (pictures by Tracey Campbell Pearson
  • A Dancer to God: Tributes to T. S. Eliot, 2011
  • A Ted Hughes Bestiary: Poems, 2016 (selected by Alice Oswald)
  • The Thought Fox: Collected Animal Poems. Vol 4, 2019

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