Hughes is considered one of England’s greatest and prodigious poets of the last century. Despite the controversies surrounding his domestic life with its promiscuous and masculine sexuality, his poetry gained recognition for its realistic portrayal of man in the natural world - he was closely connected to the earth; trees, fields, flowers and especially wild animals.
While earlier views sought to elevate man into the angelic modes, the modern world accepts that we are closely related to nature, both plants and the animal world. Rather than lament this, Hughes recognises our links to the animal kingdom; the animal in ourselves, the potential for explosive violence, cruelty and barbarity but also celebrates the instinctive primal sensual energy of the natural animal in us all. He does this in an objective, detached and scientific manner avoiding shame, guilt or sentimentality.
Gerald Hughes, his elder brother by nine years, in his book, Ted and I, recounts an anecdote at school, where a teacher commenting on Ted's description of "a wildflower's gun breaking in the cold with frost chilled snap" - That's poetry! Ted's response, "Well if that's poetry, that's the way I think and I can give you no end of it". Already there is evidence of the coiled violence Hughes perceives in nature.
As a modern poet, Hughes appreciates the fragility of life; its fragmented nature, its lack of certitude, its disconnected nature and our desperate need and quest for a sense of direction and purpose. Much of his poetry deals with the dark night of the soul.
His work also probes the psychic fields, clairvoyance and the supernatural. His poem Ouija deals with the toying of the supernatural both he and Sylvia engaged in.
Hughes's first volume of verse, THE HAWK IN THE RAIN (1957), which included some of his best poems, such as 'The Thought-Fox' and the title poems, 'The Hawk in the Rain'.
In 1957, Hughes met an American Fulbright scholar and poet, Sylvia Plath. It was mutual attraction at first sight. From then on their lives, careers and destinies became intricately entwined.
The argument about what happened that first night is typical of the controversies that have raged ever since. Whose truths should prevail? Hughes’s? Or Plath’s, albeit spoken in the voice of her dramatic interior? Or in his Poetry?
These questions are the crux of the Plath/Hughes enigma that has dogged literary biography for 50 years and they are resurfacing
The whole question of “the truth” in biography is almost a literary conundrum. It lies behind Hughes’s bitterness towards the biographers and hagiographers of Plath, and his overzealous protection of his and his children’s right to privacy. And it lies behind the viciousness with which the biographers, hagiographers and literary theorists have dealt, in turn, with Hughes’s perceived secrecy and reticence and, in some cases, obfuscation over the details of his life with Plath and the circumstances of her death.
When he was 40, (1970) Hughes finally collected and published an unfinished project, abandoned after the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath. It became perhaps his most famous work, CROW.
Now he reached into the ferocious, a surreal collection of apocalyptic poems where violence lives alongside suffering, but where irony cuts and bevels the edges with a sharp, fierce humour.
In 1977 he was awarded an OBE and in 1984 he was appointed poet Laureate. Hughes has become Britain first poet, revered even above Larkin.
His final work, a study of Sylvia Plath's life, BIRTHDAY LETTERS, appeared in 1998 and became an immediate bestseller, reviving the controversies over her death by suicide in 1963. Written over a period of thirty years the letters addressed to an absent recipient attempting to come to grips with the story of his tumultuous marriage to Sylvia Plath and give his side of the story of their separation. Both were prone to violent emotions. He described it as "How strange that we have to make public declarations of our secrets".
His Private Letters indicate his motives and the therapeutic effect of exposing himself:
‘I’m not sure the effect of writing the poems isn’t just too raw’.
at the end of the project
It was so great, I was sorry I hadn’t done it before. Writing released a bizarre dream life, and I realised how much had been locked up inside me.
“I hope each of us owns the facts of her or his own life,” Hughes wrote, in despair, to London’s Independent newspaper in 1989 after someone had chiseled his name off Plath's gravestone.
This question of who “owns” truth?
The enigma of the Hughes Plath relations dominated the public arena from time to time. Without doubt, that enigma would not exist without Plath’s suicide, no matter the quality or otherwise of her poetry, the nature of her marriage or the pathetic details of her life. Her death is the enigma’s life-blood, just as much as it has become her poetry’s.
Hughes’ laying-bare of private lives, in the form of these apparently personal verse-letters to Plath, presents a public statement exposing his interpretation of events.
According to Nadeem Azam:
Some detractors of Hughes, who had maintained a campaign against him because of his adulterous behaviour, softened their vilification of the poet after the publication in 1998 of “Birthday Letters” in which, for the first time, he poured out his heart to the world and delved into his relationship with Plath.......
Birthday Letters produced a caricature of feminism as always pitying Plath and blaming Hughes as a man with no heart to speak of. This, of course, enraged legions of people who felt sympathy for Plath.
The British literary critic Asad Yawar said the anthology “was an apologist diatribe concealed in honey” the feminist poet Robin Morgan told “Newsweek”: “My teeth began to grind uncontrollably.”
There’s no question of Hughes finding ways to forgive himself for leaving Plath. By giving us his account of her psychic history inside his portrait of their domestic history, he creates a long perspective in which sudden actions become comprehensible – or at least inevitable. “What happens in the heart simply happens.”
Conflicting perspectives attempt to ascertain the truth by looking at issues from other sides. Ascertaining the truth is extremely difficult but by objectively considering the evidence we have some chance of understanding their predicaments.
In order to understand BIRTHDAY LETTERS, you need to know the details of their relationship and have some understanding of Sylvia Plath’s poetry especially “Daddy”, “Lady Lazarus”, “Ariel” and “Whiteness I have Known”.
There is a wealth of material on the internet on the life of Ted Hughes.
Links to background on Ted Hughes:
[Go Back A Page] [Top Of Page]