The life and work of Ted Hughes

Born in Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire in 1930, the landscape of Ted Hughes’s youth would have a massive influence on his later work as a poet.
He served in the Royal Air Force before attending Cambridge, where he studied archeology and anthropology, with a particular interest in myths and legends. 

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath

He met and married the American poet Sylvia Plath in 1956 and it was she who encouraged him to submit his work to a contest run by The Poetry Centre, going as far as typing it up and submitting it for him, this was something she would do throughout their marriage.

The Judges, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender, selected Hughes manuscript as winner and the resultant book The Hawk in the Rain (1957) secured Hughes’s reputation as a poet of importance. 

Hughes had a long, prolific career and published volumes including Lupercal (1960),  Crow (1970),  Selected Poems 1957-1981 (1982), and his final work, The Birthday Letters (1998). Hughes also published a raft of children’s books, including The Iron Man (1968). With Seamus Heaney.  He edited the anthologies The Rattle Bag (1982) and The School Bag (1997). 

Hughes was the  executor of Plath’s literary estate and he edited several volumes of her work, while remaining an incredibly prolific poet, translator, editor, and children’s book author in his own right.

In 1984, Ted Hughes was appointed Poet Laureate, a post he held until his death. He was also awarded the Order of Merit, one of Britain’s highest honours.

Hughes’s poetry is dominated by nature, especially by animals. His work captures not only the portrait of the animals, but their lives and spirit, their very wildness.  

Though Hughes is now finally recognised as one of the great poets of the 20th century, his career and his reputation during his own lifetime were marred by two events. The first was the suicide of Plath in 1963, The second, the suicide in 1969 of Assia Wevill, the woman he had an affair with and eventually left Plath for.

Further, his regretable decision to destroy Plath’s final diary and his constant refusal to allow her poems be published alienated him from the  literary community. 

In all of this, Plath became a symbol of the oppressed and Hughes was seen as her oppressor. His readings were often disrupted by protestors. He was accused by some of  having murdered Plath. 

Hughes’s decisions regarding Plath’s writings where regarded by friends as symptomatic of is desire for privacy; he refused to discuss his marriage to Plath after her death and so it came as a surprise to many that, in 1998, Birthday Letters, a collection of prose poems inspired by his relationship with Plath was published. 

The collection was received with a mix of praise and censure; to some, Hughes’s desire to break the silence around Plath’s death was welcomed, to others, Hughes would always be seen as the oppressor.

Hughes married Carol Orchard in 1970, and spent the remainder of his life writing and working a small holding in Devon. He died from cancer, on October 28, 1998. A memorial to him was unveiled in the famed Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in 2011.

There are many who still consider Hughes only in the light of his relationship with Plath, seldom considering him as the incredibly talented poet that he was. In an effort to balance that, I have selected a few of my own favourite works that I feel will give you an introduction to the poet who was a distinctive and important voice in English poetry.

If, after reading these examples, you want to know more about Ted Hughes the poet, rather than Ted Hughes the man. Then I have made some recommendations at the end of the article.

Poetry from Ted Hughes.

‘Snowdrop’. This poem is one that hones in on a central image – that of the snowdrop, and describes it so beautifully in a poem that comprises a mere eight-lines.

Now is the globe shrunk tight
Round the mouse’s dulled wintering heart.
Weasel and crow, as if moulded in brass,
Move through an outer darkness
Not in their right minds,
With the other deaths. She, too, pursues her ends,
Brutal as the stars of this month,
Her pale head heavy as metal.

‘The Thought-Fox’. This is a wonderful poem, from Hughes’s first published collection The Hawk in the Rain (1957), It will resonate with many as it is inspired by the writer’s struggle to find inspiration.

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

‘View of a Pig’. In this poem, Hughes considers the carcass of a slaughtered pig and then compares it to the busy living animal it was. There is no sentimentality and no judgement of those who took the life of the creature but the reader can guess at a subtext.

The pig lay on a barrow dead.
It weighed, they said, as much as three men.
Its eyes closed, pink white eyelashes.
Its trotters stuck straight out.

Such weight and thick pink bulk
Set in death seemed not just dead.
It was less than lifeless, further off.
It was like a sack of wheat.

I thumped it without feeling remorse.
One feels guilty insulting the dead,
Walking on graves. But this pig
Did not seem able to accuse.

It was too dead. Just so much
A poundage of lard and pork.
Its last dignity had entirely gone.
It was not a figure of fun.

Too dead now to pity.
To remember its life, din, stronghold
Of earthly pleasure as it had been,
Seemed a false effort, and off the point.

Too deadly factual. Its weight
Oppressed me—how could it be moved?
And the trouble of cutting it up!
The gash in its throat was shocking, but not pathetic.

Once I ran at a fair in the noise
To catch a greased piglet
That was faster and nimbler than a cat,
Its squeal was the rending of metal.

Pigs must have hot blood, they feel like ovens.
Their bite is worse than a horse’s—
They chop a half-moon clean out.
They eat cinders, dead cats.

Distinctions and admirations such
As this one was long finished with.
I stared at it a long time. They were going to scald it,
Scald it and scour it like a doorstep.

‘King of Carrion’. Hughes wrote an entire cycle of poems about ‘Crow’ in the 1960s, Crow was a new departure for Hughes, being more experimental than his previous poetry.

His palace is of skulls.

His crown is the last splinters
Of the vessel of life.

His throne is the scaffold of bones, the hanged thing’s
Rack and final stretcher.

His robe is the black of the last blood.

His kingdom is empty-

The empty world, from which the last cry
Flapped hugely, hopelessly away
Into the blindness and dumbness and deafness of the gulf

Returning, shrunk, silent

To reign over silence.

‘Pike’. This is one of Hughes’s best known poems and again, Hughes, as he so often did, focuses on the single image or idea this time of a fish, a diminutive Pike. Hughes in this piece invites the reader to imagine not only the fish, but what it is descended from.

Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads-
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

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

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb-

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks-
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them-

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

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly toward me, watching.

‘Esther’s Tomcat’. This is another poem that demonstrates Hughes wonderful  eye for detail when it comes to describing animals – and few had better.

Daylong this tomcat lies stretched flat
As an old rough mat, no mouth and no eyes.
Continual wars and wives are what
Have tattered his ears and battered his head.

Like a bundle of old rope and iron
Sleeps till blue dusk. Then reappear
His eyes, green as ringstones: he yawns wide red,
Fangs fine as a lady’s needle and bright.

A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,
Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks
While the knight rode fighting its clawing and bite.
After hundreds of years the stain’s there

On the stone where he fell, dead of the tom:
That was at Barnborough. The tomcat still
Grallochs odd dogs on the quiet,
Will take the head clean off your simple pullet.

Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point-blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings

Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon
Nightly over the round world of men
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.

‘Telegraph Wires’.  It would be a mistake to pigeonhole Hughes as ‘only a  nature poet,’ he also wrote, though not so prolifically about the man-made world. In this poem his description of the telegraph wires that connect one town to another becomes characteristically ominous towards it end.

Take telegraph wires, a lonely moor,
And fit them together. The thing comes alive in your ear.

Towns whisper to towns over the heather.
But the wires cannot hide from the bad weather.

So oddly, so daintily made
It is picked up and played.

Such unearthly airs
The ear hears, and withers!

In the revolving ballroom of space
Bowed over the moor, a bright face

Draws out of telegraph wires the tones
That empty human bones.

Thank you for reading, I hope this short selection of his work will inspire you to seek out more by Ted Hughes. We recommend Ted Hughes – New Selected Poems 1957-1994 or to learn more about his writing technique we suggest Poetry in the Making: A Handbook for Writing and Teaching in which Hughes explores the contruction of poems by himself and by others.

Dave Kavanagh

About the contributor

Dave Kavanagh takes a closer look at the often maligned but always brilliant poet, Ted Hughes.

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