17/08/1930 – 28/10/1998
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
(“The Thought Fox”)
Primarily recognised as a poet, Edward (“Ted”) Hughes was one of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century and a former Poet Laureate. He is remembered for collections including Crow and Remains of Elmet as well as Birthday Letters, his late record of his tempestuous marriage to fellow poet Sylvia Plath, and his children’s fable The Iron Man.
Primarily recognised as a poet, Edward (“Ted”) Hughes was one of the most important and influential writers of the Twentieth Century. Born in Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley in Yorkshire he was influenced by that landscape throughout his life and his collection Remains of Elmet particularly references the ancient Celtic kingdom that is the foundation of West Yorkshire. He spent much of his childhood and adulthood in the countryside around his home and his poetry returns time and again to observations of this world and its changing landscape in anthologies including Moortown, River and his critically acclaimed creation stories for children The Dreamfighter.
The son of a WWI veteran - his father was one of only seventeen survivors of a regiment all-but massacred at Gallipoli - Hughes was a natural dissenter; much in the style of fellow working-class writer D.H. Lawrence. His first published collection, Hawk in the Rain was, in part, a reaction against the futility of war.
A marriage of minds
The ill-fated relationship between Ted Hughes and the poet Sylvia Plath has accrued so much notoriety and interest as to have achieved near mythic status. The two first met at a party to celebrate the publication of St Botolph’s Review, a student-edited journal where Hughes’ first poems were published and they were married just four months later.
In 1962, Hughes began an affair with aspiring poet Assia Wevill, prompting the couple to separate. Plath took her own life in 1963, after a long struggle with depression. Hughes remained silent on the details of their relationship until his collection Birthday Letters was published in 1998, immediately prior to his death. An instant bestseller it went on to win the Forward Poetry Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whitbread Poetry and Whitbread British Book of the Year prizes.
After Plath’s suicide, Hughes gave up writing poetry until the artist Leonard Baskin requested he write some poems to accompany some pen and ink drawings; the result was Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, published in 1970 which is widely regarded as Hughes’ greatest work.
Laureateship and legacy
Hughes was a prolific writer, not only of poetry but also plays, translations, scripts for radio and television and many children’s books. He wrote one of his best-loved works, The Iron Man, for his own children after their mother’s death with the first edition, illustrated by the artist and cartoonist George Worsley Adamson, being published in 1968. It was followed by the accompanying volume The Iron Woman in 1993, a powerful response to human destruction of the Environment.
In 1984 Hughes was made Poet Laureate, taking over from Sir John Betjeman, a surprise to everyone (including Hughes) who had assumed it would go to Philip Larkin. Hughes died in 1968, leaving behind a substantial body of published work as well as many unpublished letters. His dedication to supporting the work of aspiring writers is remembered in the annual Ted Hughes Prize for poetry, inaugurated in 2009. In 2010 he was immortalised in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
His life was one of tragedy and extraordinary achievement in equal measure, many of the newspapers reporting on his death were more concerned with the ongoing drama of the Hughes/Plath mythology than his work but Lachlan Mackinnon’s obituary for The Independent, captured the prevailing Hughes legacy: ‘Ted Hughes wrote great poems in a time which cared little either for greatness or for poetry.’