Photo: Roy.akarshak / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Born: August 17, 1930
Born Place: Mytholmroyd, United Kingdom
Died: October 28, 1998
Death Place: North Tawton, United Kingdom
Cause of Death: Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
Spouse: Sylvia Plath (m. 1956; d. 1963) || Carol Orchard (m. 1970)
Edward James Hughes OM OBE FRSL (17 August 1930 – 28 October 1998) was an English poet, translator, and children’s writer. Critics frequently rank him as one of the best poets of his generation, and one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1984 and held the office until his death. In 2008 The Times ranked Hughes fourth on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.
Hughes was married to American poet Sylvia Plath from 1956 until her death by suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. Some admirers of Plath and critics blamed him for her death after the revelation of letters written by Plath between 18 February 1960 and 4 February 1963, which mention that Hughes had beaten Plath two days before she had a miscarriage in 1961, and that he also told Plath he wished that she were dead. His last poetic work, Birthday Letters (1998), explored their relationship. These poems make reference to Plath’s suicide, but none addresses directly the circumstances of her death. A poem discovered in October 2010, “Last Letter”, describes his version of what happened during the three days before her death.
Hughes was born at 1 Aspinall Street, in Mytholmroyd in the West Riding of Yorkshire, to William Henry (1894–1981) and Edith (Farrar) Hughes (1898–1969), and raised among the local farms of the Calder Valley and on the Pennine moorland. Hughes’s sister Olwyn Marguerite Hughes (1928–2016) was two years older and his brother Gerald (1920–2016) was ten years older. One of his mother’s ancestors had founded the religious community at Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire. Most of the more recent generations of his family had worked in the clothing and milling industries in the area. Hughes’s father, William, a joiner, was of Irish descent and had enlisted with the Lancashire Fusiliers and fought at Ypres. He narrowly escaped being killed when a bullet lodged in a pay book in his breast pocket. He was one of just 17 men of his regiment to return from the Dardanelles Campaign (1915–16). The stories of Flanders fields filled Hughes’s childhood imagination (later described in the poem “Out”). Hughes noted, “my first six years shaped everything.”
Hughes loved hunting and fishing, swimming and picnicking with his family. He attended the Burnley Road School until he was seven, when his family moved to Mexborough, then attending Schofield Street junior school. His parents ran a newsagent’s and tobacconist’s shop. In Poetry in Making he recalled that he was fascinated by animals, collecting and drawing toy lead creatures. He acted as retriever when his elder brother gamekeeper shot magpies, owls, rats and curlews, growing up surrounded by the harsh realities of working farms in the valleys and on the moors. During his time in Mexborough, he explored Manor Farm at Old Denaby, which he said he would come to know “better than any place on earth”. His earliest poem “The Thought Fox”, and earliest story “The Rain Horse” were recollections of the area. A close friend at the time, John Wholly, took Hughes to the Crookhill estate above Conisbrough where the boys spent great swathes of time. Hughes became close to the family and learnt a lot about wildlife from Wholly’s father, a gamekeeper. He came to view fishing as an almost religious experience.
Hughes attended Mexborough Grammar School, where a succession of teachers encouraged him to write, and develop his interest in poetry. Teachers Miss McLeod and Pauline Mayne introduced him to the poets Hopkins and Eliot. Hughes was mentored by his sister Olwyn, who was well versed in poetry, and another teacher, John Fisher. Poet Harold Massingham also attended this school and was also mentored by Fisher. In 1946, one of Hughes’s early poems, “Wild West”, and a short story were published in the grammar school magazine The Don and Dearne, followed by further poems in 1948. By 16, he had no other thought than being a poet.
During the same year, Hughes won an open exhibition in English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, but chose to do his national service first. His two years of national service (1949–51) passed comparatively easily. Hughes was stationed as a ground wireless mechanic in the RAF on an isolated three-man station in east Yorkshire, a time during which he had nothing to do but “read and reread Shakespeare and watch the grass grow”. He learnt many of the plays by heart and memorised great quantities of W. B. Yeats’s poetry.
In 1951, Hughes initially studied English at Pembroke College under M.J.C. Hodgart, an authority on balladic forms. Hughes felt encouraged and supported by Hodgart’s supervision, but attended few lectures and wrote no more poetry at this time, feeling stifled by literary academia and the “terrible, suffocating, maternal octopus” of literary tradition. He wrote, “I might say, that I had as much talent for Leavis-style dismantling of texts as anyone else, I even had a special bent for it, nearly a sadistic streak there, but it seemed to me not only a foolish game, but deeply destructive of myself.” In his third year, he transferred to anthropology and archaeology, both of which would later inform his poetry. He did not excel as a scholar. His first published poetry appeared in Chequer. A poem, “The little boys and the seasons”, written during this time, was published in Granta, under the pseudonym Daniel Hearing.
After university, living in London and Cambridge, Hughes went on to have many varied jobs including working as a rose gardener, a nightwatchman and a reader for the British film company J. Arthur Rank. He worked at London Zoo as a washer-upper, a post that offered plentiful opportunities to observe animals at close quarters. On 25 February 1956, Hughes and his friends held a party to launch St. Botolph’s Review, which had a single issue. In it, Hughes had four poems. At the party, he met the American poet Sylvia Plath, who was studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship. She had already published extensively, having won various awards, and had come especially to meet Hughes and his fellow poet Lucas Myers. There was a great mutual attraction but they did not meet again for another month, when Plath was passing through London on her way to Paris. She visited him again on her return three weeks later.
Hughes and Plath dated and then were married at St George the Martyr Holborn, on 16 June 1956, four months after they had first met. The date, Bloomsday, was purposely chosen in honour of James Joyce. Plath’s mother was the only wedding guest and she accompanied them on their honeymoon to Benidorm on the Spanish coast. Hughes’s biographers note that Plath did not relate her history of depression and suicide attempts to him until much later. Reflecting later in Birthday Letters, Hughes commented that early on he could see chasms of difference between himself and Plath, but that in the first years of their marriage they both felt happy and supported, avidly pursuing their writing careers.
On returning to Cambridge, they lived at 55 Eltisley Avenue. That year they each had poems published in The Nation, Poetry and The Atlantic. Plath typed up Hughes’s manuscript for his collection Hawk In The Rain which went on to win a poetry competition run by the Poetry centre of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association of New York. The first prize was publication by Harper, garnering Hughes widespread critical acclaim with the book’s release in September 1957, and resulting in him winning a Somerset Maugham Award. The work favoured hard-hitting trochees and spondees reminiscent of middle English – a style he used throughout his career – over the more genteel latinate sounds.
The couple moved to America so that Plath could take a teaching position at her alma mater, Smith College; during this time, Hughes taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In 1958, they met Leonard Baskin, who would later illustrate many of Hughes’s books, including Crow. The couple returned to England, staying for a short while back in Heptonstall and then finding a small flat in Primrose Hill, London. They were both writing, Hughes working on programmes for the BBC as well as producing essays, articles, reviews and talks. During this time, he wrote the poems that would be published in Wodwo (1967) and Recklings (1966). In March 1960, Lupercal came out and won the Hawthornden Prize. He found he was being labelled as the poet of the wild, writing only about animals. He began to seriously explore myth and esoteric practices within as shamanism, Buddhism and alchemy, perceiving that imagination could heal dualistic splits in the human psyche and poetry was the language of the work.
Hughes and Plath had two children, Frieda Rebecca (b. 1960) and Nicholas Farrar (1962–2009) and, in 1961, bought the house Court Green, in North Tawton, Devon. In the summer of 1962, Hughes began an affair with Assia Wevill who had been subletting the Primrose Hill flat with her husband. Under a cloud of his affair, Hughes and Plath separated in the autumn of 1962 and she set up life in a new flat with the children.
In 2017, previously unpublished letters were described in which Plath accuses Hughes of physically abusing her months before she miscarried their second child in 1961.
- 1957 The Hawk in the Rain
- 1960 Lupercal
- 1967 Wodwo
- 1970 Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow
- 1972 Selected Poems 1957–1967
- 1975 Cave Birds
- 1977 Gaudete
- 1979 Remains of Elmet (with photographs by Fay Godwin)
- 1979 Moortown
- 1983 River
- 1986 Flowers and Insects
- 1989 Wolfwatching
- 1992 Rain-charm for the Duchy
- 1994 New Selected Poems 1957–1994
- 1997 Tales from Ovid
- 1998 Birthday Letters — winner of the 1998 Forward Poetry Prize for best collection, the 1998 T. S. Eliot Prize, and the 1999 British Book of the Yearaward.
- 2003 Collected Poems
- 2016 A Ted Hughes Bestiary: Poems
Volumes of translation
- Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind
- Blood Wedding by Federico García Lorca
- 1968 Yehuda Amichai, Selected Poems by Yehuda Amichai, Cape Goliard Press (London, England), revised edition published as Poems, Harper (New York, NY), 1969.
- 1977 Amen by Yehuda Amichai, Amen, Harper (New York, NY)
- 1989 The Desert of Love: Selected Poems, by János Pilinszky, Anvil Press Poetry (Greenwich, UK)
- 1997 Tales from Ovid by Ovid Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY)
- 1999 The Oresteia by Aeschylus, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY)
- 1999 Phèdre by Jean Racine, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY)
- 1999 Alcestis by Euripides, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY)
Anthologies edited by Hughes
- Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson. Faber and Faber. 2004. ISBN 978-0-57-122343-5.
- Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Faber and Faber. 2003. ISBN 978-0-57-113586-8
- A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. Faber and Faber. 2000. ISBN 978-0-57-123379-3.
- A Choice of Coleridge’s Verse. Faber and Faber. 1996. ISBN 978-0-57-117604-5.
- With Seamus Heaney, ed. (1982). The Rattle Bag. Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0-57-111976-9.
- With Seamus Heaney, ed. (1997). The School Bag. Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0-57-117750-9.
- By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember. Faber and Faber. 1997. ISBN 978-0-57-119263-2.
- 1965: Modern Poetry in Translation (literary magazine)
- Here Today (anthology for children). Hutchinson. 1963.
Short story collection
- 1995 The Dreamfighter, and Other Creation Tales, Faber and Faber, London, England.
- 1995 Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories, Picador, New York, NY.
- 1967 Poetry Is, Doubleday, New York.
- 1967 Poetry in the Making: An Anthology of Poems and Programmes from “Listening and Writing, Faber and Faber, London.
- 1992, revised and corrected 1993 Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
- 1993 A Dancer to God Tributes to T. S. Eliot. (Ed) Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York.
- 1994 Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, (essay collection) Edited by William Scammell, Faber and Faber (London), Picador USA (New York) 1995.
Books for children
- 1961 Meet my Folks! (illustrated by George Adamson)
- 1963 How the Whale Became (illustrated by George Adamson)
- 1963 The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People (illustrated by R.A. Brandt)
- 1964 Nessie the Mannerless Monster (illustrated by Gerald Rose)
- 1967 Poetry in the Making
- 1968 The Iron Man (first illustrated by George Adamson and in 1985 by Andrew Davidson)
- 1970 Coming of the Kings and Other Plays
- 1976 Season Songs (illustrated by Leonard Baskin)
- 1976 Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems (illustrated by Leonard Baskin)
- 1978 Moon-Bells and Other Poems (illustrated by Felicity Roma Bowers)
- 1981 Under the North Star (illustrated by Leonard Baskin)
- 1984 What is the Truth? (illustrated by R. J. Lloyd), for which Hughes won the Guardian Prize
- 1986 Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth (illustrated by Chris Riddell)
- 1987 The Cat and the Cuckoo (illustrated by R. J. Lloyd)
- 1988 Tales of the Early World (illustrated by Andrew Davidson)
- 1993 The Iron Woman (illustrated by Andrew Davidson)
- 1993 The Mermaid’s Purse (illustrated by R. J. Lloyd, Sunstone Press)
- 1995 Collected Animal Poems: Vols. 1–4, Faber & Faber
- The House of Aries (radio play), broadcast, 1960.
- The Calm produced in Boston, MA, 1961.
- A Houseful of Women (radio play), broadcast, 1961.
- The Wound (radio play), broadcast, 1962.
- Difficulties of a Bridegroom (radio play), broadcast, 1963.
- Epithalamium produced in London, 1963.
- Dogs (radio play), broadcast, 1964.
- The House of Donkeys (radio play), broadcast, 1965.
- The Head of Gold (radio play), broadcast, 1967.
- The Coming of the Kings and Other Plays (jbased on juvenile work).
- The Price of a Bride (juvenile, radio play), broadcast, 1966.
- Adapted Seneca’s Oedipus, produced in London, 1968).
- Orghast (with Peter Brook), produced in Persepolis, Iran, 1971.
- Eat Crow, Rainbow Press, London, England, 1971.
- The Iron Man, juvenile, televised, 1972.
- Orpheus, 1973.
- The Burning of the Brothel (Turret Books, 1966)
- Recklings (Turret Books, 1967)
- Scapegoats and Rabies (Poet & Printer, 1967)
- Animal Poems (Richard Gilbertson, 1967)
- A Crow Hymn (Sceptre Press, 1970)
- The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar (Richard Gilbertson, 1970)
- Crow Wakes (Poet & Printer, 1971)
- Shakespeare’s Poem (Lexham Press, 1971)
- Eat Crow (Rainbow Press, 1971)
- Prometheus on His Crag (Rainbow Press, 1973)
- Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow (Illustrated by Leonard Baskin, published by Faber & Faber, 1973)
- Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (Rainbow Press,1974)
- Cave Birds (illustrated by Leonard Baskin, published by Scolar Press, 1975)
- Earth-Moon (illustrated by Ted Hughes, published by Rainbow Press, 1976)
- Eclipse (Sceptre Press, 1976)
- Sunstruck (Sceptre Press, 1977)
- A Solstice (Sceptre Press, 1978)
- Orts (Rainbow Press, 1978)
- Moortown Elegies (Rainbow Press, 1978)
- The Threshold (illustrated by Ralph Steadman, published by Steam Press, 1979)
- Adam and the Sacred Nine (Rainbow Press, 1979)
- Four Tales Told by an Idiot (Sceptre Press, 1979)
- The Cat and the Cuckoo (illustrated by R.J. Lloyd, published by Sunstone Press, 1987)
- A Primer of Birds: Poems (illustrated by Leonard Baskin, published by Gehenna Press, 1989)
- Capriccio (illustrated by Leonard Baskin, published by Gehenna Press, 1990)
- The Mermaid’s Purse (illustrated by R.J. Lloyd, published by Sunstone Press, 1993)
- Howls and Whispers (illustrated by Leonard Baskin, published by Gehenna Press, 1998)
Many of Ted Hughes’s poems have been published as limited-edition broadsides.