Edward James ‘Ted’ Hughes was one of the greatest English language poets of the twentieth century. Born in the West Riding town of Mytholmroyd in 1930, he moved with his family to Mexborough (forty miles to the south, but still part of the West Riding) in 1938 where he was formed as a poet and published his first poems in the Mexborough Grammar School magazine, The Don & Dearne.
In 1951, after completing two years of National Service as a RAF radar operator at Patrington in Holderness, Hughes took up the Open Exhibition to Pembroke College (Cambridge University) that he had won in his final year in the Sixth Form at Mexborough Grammar School. Although he did not publish any poetry as an undergraduate, he maintained links with the University after leaving and taking up residence in London, and he published his first adult poems in the student magazines Chequer, Delta and St. Botolph’s Review in 1954 and 1955.
It was at the launch party for the last-named magazine in February 1955 that Hughes met the American poet Sylvia Plath, who he was to marry in June of that year and with whom he shared an intense and productive artistic relationship until Plath’s suicide in February 1963. The two travelled extensively and lived in London before settling in North Tawton, Devonshire, in 1961.
In 1957 Hughes’s debut collection, The Hawk in the Rain, was published to great acclaim in Britain and in the United States. Hughes’s reputation as a major poet was secured with the publication of his second collection, Lupercal, in 1960. In the late fifties and early sixties Hughes also wrote extensively for children (Meet My Folks, Nessie the Mannerless Monster). He also wrote several short stories, radio plays, reviews and articles, establishing himself not only as a poet, but as a versatile ‘man of letters’.
Sylvia Plath’s death catalysed a turbulent period in Hughes’s personal life in which he lived variously in London, Yorkshire, Ireland and Devon. He continued to write reviews and radio plays, and in 1967 he published another acclaimed collection, Wodwo. In 1968 he published his children’s classic, The Iron Man. From the mid-1960s Hughes was engaged in writing the surreal and blackly comic Crow poems (Crow would be published in 1970 and was the volume more than any other that established Hughes’s international reputation). However, Crow was an unfinished project —Hughes abandoned it in April 1969 after Assia Wevill, his partner since 1962, killed herself along with their daughter Shura.
In the 1970s Hughes began to rebuild his life and, after the nihilism of Crow, began to write in a more life-affirming manner. After collaborating with theatre director Peter Brook on the Orghast project, out of which arose Prometheus on his Crag (1971), Hughes acquired Moortown Farm near his home in North Tawton, which he now shared with his second wife Carol, whom he had married in 1970. Ted and Carol farmed Moortown with Carol’s father Jack Orchard, and two collections arose from that experience — Moortown (1979), and less directly, Season Songs (1976).
Hughes wrote prolifically during the 1970s, with Cave Birds (1975), Gaudete (1977), Moortown and Remains of Elmet (1979) following quickly on from each other. During this period Hughes was also publishing high quality limited editions of his works via the Rainbow Press and the Morrigu Press.
In 1983 Hughes published River, a collection arising from his lifelong obsession with fishing. In November the following year Hughes was appointed Poet Laureate. Hughes’s acceptance of the Laureateship puzzled and bewildered many of his admirers, for political reasons and for reasons related to his artistic status — Hughes was a major poet and most incumbents of the role have historically been minor figures. However, Hughes had accepted the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1974 and in fact had always been a Monarchist, holding a quasi-mystical view of the office. Hughes took the role of Poet Laureate seriously and his service was greatly valued by the Royal Family. He apparently developed particularly warm relationships with Prince Charles and the Queen Mother. In recognition of this service, the Queen awarded Hughes the Order of Merit in 1998.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s Hughes published a number of collections, including Flowers & Insects (1986), Wolfwatching (1989) and Elmet (1994 — a collection of the poems he had written about his natal upper Calder Valley). Although these books contained excellent work, they were not as consistent as his earlier work and Hughes’s reputation began to wane in this period. The weakness of much of his Laureate work, renewed broadsheet and academic controversy about Hughes’s management of the estate of Sylvia Plath, and aspects of his conduct during their marriage, contributed to this sense of decline, as did the almost uniformly negative critical reception given to Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Hughes’s encyclopaedic and idiosyncratic reading of Shakespeare (1992).
However, Hughes’s reputation was restored with the publications of Tales from Ovid (1997) and Birthday Letters (1998) — in which Hughes addresses his relationship with Sylvia Plath — both of which saw the poet operating at the top of his game. Birthday Letters became the fastest selling book of poems of the twentieth century. Both Tales from Ovid and Birthday Letters won the Whitbread Prize. Accordingly, Hughes’s death from colon cancer on 28 October 1998 came as a great shock. Although he had been suffering from the illness for over a year, he had kept the news secret from all but close friends and family. Posthumously published translations of the Oresteia, Alcestis and Phèdre (all 1999) confirm that Hughes was cut short in the midst of a considerable late flowering. Almost twenty years after his death — with all his books still in print and at least four organisations in Britain alone (the Ted Hughes Society, The Elmet Trust, The Ted Hughes Project (South Yorkshire) and The Ted Hughes Network) seeking to study, celebrate and commemorate his work, life and legacy — Hughes’s reputation as one of the language’s great poets seems secure.