Ted Hughes, O.M. (1930-1998)


Edward Hadley (Open University, UK) presents a biographical sketch of Ted Hughes.

Born on 17 August 1930, Edward James 'Ted' Hughes would, over the course of his life, produce some of the most important and innovative poetry written in English in the twentieth century. As a child, Hughes lived with his father, William, his mother, Edith Farrar, and his elder siblings Gerald and Olwyn at 1 Aspinall Street, Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire. Aged seven, he moved to Mexborough where William ran a tobacco shop. His immediate family would all become involved in Hughes’s poetic career at various points and for different reasons; Hughes drew upon his father’s experiences as a frontline soldier during the First World War to inform some of his finest war-verse; his mother’s voice is registered literally and figuratively in a number of poems, but she is most keenly felt in Remains of Elmet (1979); Gerald Hughes, who emigrated to Australia, is present in a number of poems and Olwyn was to become Hughes’s literary agent. In many ways, the Hughes poetic product was a cottage industry which flourished in much the same way as the landscape of his native Yorkshire had sustained a vital industrial heritage. These elements of family, nature and the apparent duality of his admiration and repulsion of man-made enterprises, so present in his early life, were all to figure in Hughes’s verse.

After serving his national service at a remote RAF station, Hughes went up to Pembroke College,Cambridge, to read English literature. It was on the strength of his juvenile verse that Hughes was accepted into the university; poetry had served him well, and so he served poetry by dropping his studies of literature, which he regarded as damaging to his verse, instead taking a degree in anthropology and archaeology, graduating in 1954. Hughes held down a range of jobs after graduating, but returned to Cambridge regularly where a number of his friends (and literary circle) remained. Together, they published what was to be the only issue of St Botolph’s Review, a slight journal of poetry and criticism which featured verse by Hughes and his contemporaries. It was at the launch party for their journal that Hughes first encountered American Fulbright scholar, Sylvia Plath, who Hughes and his friends regarded as a poet of dubious merit. Nevertheless, Hughes and Plath began a romantic attachment to one another which led to marriage in 1956.

After a European honeymoon, Hughes and Plath went to America where both briefly held teaching posts. Plath submitted a typed manuscript of Hughes’s poems to a poetry competition judged by Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender. It won the competition and The Hawk in the Rain (1957) became Hughes’s first published collection of poems. Simultaneously criticised and commended for its sometimes brutal depiction of both the natural and the human worlds, The Hawk in the Rain established a reputation for Hughes as a major emerging talent. It was a success followed by Lupercal (1960) in which emerge more finely tuned poems that still bear the strength of his first collection. It was in the same year that Plath gave birth to their first child, Frieda Rebecca. The family moved to Court Green, a house in North Tawton, Devon, in August 1961. This property remained in Hughes’s possession for the rest of his life.

For any number of reasons, the marriage between Hughes and Plath gradually began to fracture. A combination of jealousies, personal anxieties, suspicions and other speculations were likely to be among the contributing factors. Hughes left Plath for Assia Wevill to whom he had been introduced and with whom he had conducted an affair. Plath returned to London with the children (their son, Nicholas Farrar, was born in January 1962), and on 11 February 1963, she took her own life by gassing herself.

Hughes was deeply affected by Plath’s death and it is likely that it contributed significantly to the downturn in his poetic output for a number of years. His third collection, Wodwo (1967), was comprised mainly of poems he had written prior to Plath’s suicide. Yet these poems hint at a new direction in Hughes’s verse, less formally refined than those in previous collections, and the inclusion of short stories and a play seems to indicate a willingness to experiment, to innovate, and to reform his poetic altogether. In 1969, in a tragic repetition of previous events, Wevill committed suicide, taking with her the daughter she had had by Hughes. The following year, Hughes married Carol Orchard, with whom he remained until his death.

Hughes’s poems of the 1970s seem generally occupied with sequences dedicated to the revival of myth in verse. The bleak and sardonic poems of Crow (1970) typify this approach, but so too do Cave Birds(1976) and Gaudete (1977) with their unusual blend of subversive humour, personal belief system and ancient lore. Conversely, by the end of the decade, Hughes’s poems of and for rural Britain are distinctly un-mythical. Moortown Diary and Remains of Elmet demythologise Hughes’s agricultural enterprise in Devon and his childhood landscape respectively. These collections offer different poetic styles as they report back from the frontline of the success and failures of humankind on two very different but equally oppressive landscapes. River (1983) takes a similar approach, but Hughes’s figuring of the rivers he depicts and the life that depends on them is less terse and more spiritually orientated. Indeed, the environmental activism which is present in his rural poems is probably at its most acute in the poems of River and its subsequent revisions.

Hughes was appointed Poet Laureate of Great Britain in 1984 with his Laureate verse collected in Rain-Charm for the Duchy in 1992. The following year Hughes published his key prose work, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1993). Its reception seemed divided between those who considered it an important and original appreciation of Shakespeare’s complete works, whilst other dismissed it as a lengthy and idiosyncratic appreciation of Shakespeare refracted by Hughes’s personal belief system. Hughes would later write that he believed the time spent writing prose was directly responsible for a decline in his health.

Hughes’s translations (‘versions’) of classical poetry and drama dominated his output in the last decade of his life. His most notable translation was Tales from Ovid (1997) which secured Hughes the Whitbread Book of the Year prize. In early 1998, The Times newspaper started to publish poems from what was to be Hughes’s last collection of verse, Birthday Letters. The poems tell of Hughes’s relationship with Plath, both confirming and confounding the intense speculation about a life Hughes had kept very private. Like Tales from Ovid the year before, Hughes won the Whitbread Book of the Year prize for Birthday Letters though he did not live to collect his award, having succumbed to cancer and dying at his home on 28 October 1998. 

Shortly before he died, Hughes was appointed as a member of the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II. His poetic achievements in his lifetime seem to have often been of secondary interest with a salacious fascination about his private life with Sylvia Plath seeming to take precedence. Since his death, however, recognition for Hughes's achievements and writings has occurred with renewed vigour. His poetry seems to have emerged from the cloud of rumour and hearsay so that he may be justifiably acclaimed as one of the twentieth century's greatest poets.


Edward Hadley teaches for the Open University and is the author of The Elegies of Ted Hughes. He is also a course developer in Modern Poetry for SIM University, Singapore. His next book, Andrew Motion: A Critical Study, is to be published by Liverpool University Press.