One of the most important poets of the post-war period, Edward James Hughes (1930-1998), was drawn towards the primitive. He was enchanted by the beauty of the natural world, frequently portraying its cruel and savage temperament in his work as a reflection of his own personal suffering and mystical beliefs - convinced that modern man had lost touch with the primordial side of his nature.
Born in Mytholmroyd, a remote mill town in West Yorkshire, Ted (as he was known to his friends and family) was enormously affected by the desolate moorland landscape of his childhood, and also by his father's vivid recollections of the brutality of trench warfare. Indeed, his father, who was then a carpenter, was one of only seventeen men from his regiment to have survived at Gallipoli during the First World War.
At the age of seven his family moved to Mexborough (also in Yorkshire), where his parents opened a stationery and tobacco shop. Here he attended the local grammar school, where he first began to write poetry - usually bloodcurdling verses about Zulus and cowboys - before doing two years' national service in the Royal Air Force. He later won a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he started reading English Literature but switched to archaeology and anthropology, subjects that were a major influence on the development of his poetic awareness. Here he immersed himself in the works of Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats and read Robert Graves's “The White Goddess” (1948).
Following his graduation in 1954, he moved to London, where he had a number of interesting jobs, including zoo keeping, gardening and script reading for J. Arthur Rank. He also had several of his poems published in university magazines. In 1956 he and some Cambridge friends started up a literary journal called St. Botolph's Review. It lasted for only one issue but at the inaugural party Ted met his future wife, the then unknown American poet, Sylvia Plath.
Much has been written about the Hughes/Plath relationship since that first portentous meeting, but few can doubt that these two brilliantly creative people were enormously attracted to one another, almost from the moment they were first introduced. Within just a few short months they were married and living in the USA, where Hughes taught English and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. And before the year was out, he had won an American poetry competition, judged by W.H. Auden, Sir Stephen Spender and Marianne Moore. Hughes once said of this contented period:
"We would write poetry every day. It was all we were interested in, all we ever did." – Ted Hughes
Plath assisted him with the preparation of his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), a work that was quite extraordinary in its treatment of natural subjects. He continued to live in America for the next few years, being partly supported by a Guggenheim Foundation grant, before returning to England in 1959. He then went on to win the Somerset Maugham award and the Hawthornden prize for his second book, “Luperca”l (1960); confirming his reputation as one of the most important poets of the post-war period.
The next few years of Ted's life have since become the subject of much biographical speculation. However, the simple facts are that he and Plath had two children and moved to Devon in 1961. Their marriage began to disintegrate shortly thereafter and Hughes started an affair with Assia Wevill. He split from Plath and she committed suicide in her London flat in 1963. In 1969 Wevill also killed herself and their child. He married Carol Orchard in 1970 and spent the rest of his life trying to protect his and Plath's children from the media. Hughes published only children's poetry and prose in the years following the death of his first wife.
His next major work was “Wodwo” (1967), which took its title from a character in the medieval romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, and highlighted his increasing interest in mythology. He travelled to Iran in 1971, where he wrote the verse/drama “Orghast” in an invented language. Some of his other collections include “Crow” (1970), “Cave Birds” (1975), “Season Songs” (1976), “Gaudete” (a long poem on fertility rites, 1977), “Moortown” (1979), “Remains of Elmet” (1979) and “River” (1983).
Hughes was also one of the originators of the Arvon Foundation and was awarded an OBE in 1977. In 1984 he was appointed Poet Laureate and went on to publish “Rain-Charm for the Duchy and other Laureate Poems” (1992). Then in 1995 he composed a poem about Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, for her 95th birthday, likening her to a six-rooted tree. He also wrote many reviews and essays, some of which were collected in “Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being” (1992), “A Dancer to God: Tribute to T.S. Eliot” (1992) and “Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose” (1994). In addition to all this he also wrote many wonderful plays and books for children, including his remarkable fantasy “The Iron Man”. And when, just months before his death, Hughes released “Birthday Letters”, a collection of poems about his life with Sylvia Plath, it became an immediate bestseller throughout the English speaking world and was widely praised for its searing honesty.
Ted Hughes died of cancer on 28th October 1998, having just been appointed to the Order of Merit. Andrew Motion followed him as Britain's Poet Laureate.