By Emily Gordon
Ted Hughes, Britain’s poet laureate, died Wednesday of cancer at age 68 in his Devon home. Known as much for his tragic marriage to American poet Sylvia Plath as for his own formidable work, Mr. Hughes spent decades in the light of a public scrutiny that was highly unusual for a modern-day poet.
He was born Edward James Hughes in 1930 in Mytholmroyd, England, the son of a carpenter. After serving two years in the Royal Air Force, Mr. Hughes went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, first studying English, then switching to archaeology and anthropology. Upon graduation he moved to London, where to support his writing he worked as a script reader, as a gardener and at a zoo. (His extensive knowledge of animals would become crucial to his poetry, which often drew on the violence of the natural world.)
In 1957 in Cambridge, Mr. Hughes met the brilliant, and still unknown, young Plath. They married within a few months and moved to Amherst, Mass. Their meeting - instantly dramatic and literally bloody (in a fierce embrace, she bit him hard on the cheek) - foretold the passionate combat that would characterize their life together.
That same year, Mr. Hughes published his first book of poems, “The Hawk in the Rain,” followed by “Pike” (1959) and “Lupercal” (1960), which won a Somerset Maugham Award and the 1961 Hawthornden Prize. In 1962 his “Selected Poems” appeared, by which time Mr. Hughes and Plath had returned to England. After Plath committed suicide in 1963, Hughes stopped writing poetry for nearly three years.
Even after he returned to writing, producing an astonishing number of volumes of poetry, prose, translations, children’s books, plays and criticism - more than 75 over his lifetime - Plath continued to haunt him.
He came under fire in his role as her literary executor. (Though Mr. Hughes had left her for another woman - Holocaust survivor Assia Wevill, who later killed herself along with her child by Hughes - their divorce had not yet gone through at the time of Plath’s death.)
Mr. Hughes provoked a sustained outcry for withholding some of Plath’s work and papers from publication and denying scholars permission to quote. He omitted the angriest poems about him from her book, “Ariel”; he lost an unfinished novel; in an act that appalled Plath’s students and fans, he destroyed the last volume of her diaries.
The conflict between Mr. Hughes’ perception of his family’s privacy (his two children by Plath; daughter Frieda, and son Nicholas, are now in their 30s) and her literary and historical stature has produced its own field of scholarship and discussion, resulting in works that include Janet Malcolm’s “The Silent Woman.” It has been an emotional subject for many nonacademics as well. Repeatedly, people have chipped the name “Hughes” from Plath’s gravestone in Yorkshire. Throughout the years, while providing introductions and corrections, Mr. Hughes would not speak about his former wife, and the subject had seemed closed.
Yet earlier this year Mr. Hughes, who was appointed poet laureate by Queen Elizabeth in 1984, made a dramatic reversal and published “Birthday Letters,” a substantial volume of poems about Plath’s indelible influence on his life. By publishing the book in the last stages of the cancer he had kept secret for 18 months, Hughes ensured, and perhaps sanctioned, a perpetual interweaving of their words and lives. While often uneven, the book is startingly raw and tender.
Critics have praised Mr. Hughes for his willingness to take risks in his subject matter, his interest in mythic themes and the richness of his language, characterized by one critic as having a “nearly Shakespearean resonance.” With equal insistence, others have objected to his fascination with gore and the animal world and dismissed him as a “cult poet.” In his poem “Pibroch” (from the book “Wodwo,” 1967), all of nature is caught up in destruction and change:
Minute after minute, aeon after aeon,
Nothing lets up or develops.
And this is neither a bad variant nor a tryout.
This is where the staring angels go through.
This is where all the stars bow down.
—Published in Newsday, October 30, 1998
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, an editor, critic, copywriter, and pre-web internet nut. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent many years as a New Yorker fan blog. The project garnered some nice compliments and press.
The blog’s now treading the territories of punctuation, publications, movies, design, and other things that stir me.
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