Ted Hughes

From New World Encyclopedia

Edward James Hughes, Order of Merit, known to the world as Ted Hughes, (August 17, 1930 – October 28, 1998) was best known for writing children's literature and poetry. Born and raised in England, he served as the country's Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. Hughes was consistently listed by critics as one of the best poets of his generation.[1]

Hughes stated that poems, like animals, are each one "an assembly of living parts, moved by a single spirit." In his early works Hughes questioned humanity's function in the universal scheme. Seriously interested in shamanism, hermeticism, astrology, and the Ouija board, Hughes examined in several of his later animal poems the themes of survival and the mystery and destructiveness of the cosmos.[2]

He married the American poet Sylvia Plath. They formed a unique literary bond that ended in tragedy when he left her for another woman and she committed suicide.

Early life

Ted Hughes was the third child born to Edith Farrar and William Henry Hughes on August 17, 1930. Hughes was raised where he was born in the small farming community of Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire. He loved his childhood home, delighting in the scenery of barren rocks, rolling hills, and often stark landscapes. Hughes' siblings, Olwyn (1928) and Gerald (1920), often explored the region together as children. Gerald, who was ten years older than Ted, would lead these expeditions, and they would spend days hiking and camping. Gerald would spend the nights filling Ted's head with stories of mythology and Native American lore, often referring to Mytholmroyd as a prehistoric land. Ted loved these stories and many of his sentiments about his home are illustrated in the poems he composed. According to Hughes, "My first six years shaped everything."[3]

When Hughes was seven, his family moved to Mexborough, South Yorkshire. Here the parents opened a newspaper and tobacco shop. The children felt uprooted and loathed the small mining town. Gerald disliked it so much that he moved away, taking a job as a gamekeeper. Ted began to have bouts of loneliness and sadness because he missed the adventures with his elder brother. Eventually, he struck out on his own to explore his new home and in the process he came in contact with a local farmer who lived on the edge of the town. He allowed Ted to explore his hills and fields and Ted relished in the return to nature. It was during one of his walks that Ted came face to face with a fox, this encounter was the inspiration for Ted's poem, "Thought-Fox."


Once Hughes started Mexborough Grammar school, things in his new hometown began to brighten. He made friends, one boy in particular, whose family owned a large estate. Hughes often would stay entire weekends fishing and hiking on the estate. He also began to write. He loved writing comic book stories, short stories, and poetry. His English teacher was delighted with his work and often encouraged him in his writing. Because of this, Ted saw the publication of his poem, "Wild West" in the 1946 issue of the school magazine, followed by others in subsequent years.

After graduation from high school, Hughes enlisted for two years in the National Service (1949-1951). His assignment was a serene one. He was stationed as a ground mechanic at a three-man station in Yorkshire. Hughes admits that he spent his time reading and rereading Shakespeare. When the two years came to an end, Ted applied to the University of Cambridge and was accepted.

When Hughes entered Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1951, he began his studies of English, but he soon felt his creativity was being hindered. In 1953 he changed to Anthropology and Archaeology, but still wrote poetry in his spare time. Hughes' first major break came in June, 1954, when the university magazine, Granta, published the poem, "The Little Boys and the Seasons."

Hughes graduated from Cambridge in 1954, but found himself unable to find a satisfactory profession. He worked at several odd jobs while he wrote. Two years later friends of Hughes decided to begin their own literary magazine, St. Botolph's Review. The magazine's first (and only) issue featured several of Hughes' poems. There was a large launch party for the magazine and it was here that he met Sylvia Plath. She saw him and was attracted to him instantly. Plath impressed Ted with her recitation of one of his poems, showing that she was a true fan. They began a passionate two month relationship that soon turned into discussions of marriage.


Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married on June 16, 1956. They had the ideal honeymoon in Spain, full of love, scenic landscapes, and relaxation, before they settled in London. It was Plath who typed Hughes' manuscript for The Hawk in the Rain and submitted it to a competition for first time authors. The competition was sponsored by the Poetry Centre of the Young Man's and Young Women's Hebrew Association of New York. There were over 250 entries in the competition and judges such as W.H. Auden and others made the final decision. Hughes book of poems took the prize and was published in America. It was an instant success and Hughes became a celebrity in America. As soon as Plath had finished her Masters degree at Cambridge, the couple moved to the United States. They visited Cape Cod, but eventually settled in Boston, Massachusetts.

Plath was offered a teaching post at Smith College and Ted taught a semester of creative writing at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It was while Hughes was living in America that he met, Leonard Baskin, who would become one of his closest friends. Baskin was an accomplished artist, especially in the area of sculpting and graphic arts. This friendship brought about several creative collaborations on poetry and other arts. Together they wrote such well-known poems as "Season Songs," "Under the North Star," and "Flowers and Insects."

Hughes and Plath decided to spend several months traveling and writing. They went on a camping trip across the country, and it was during this time that Hughes finished Lupercal and Plath wrote The Colossus. Although both wrote extensively, it was Hughes who was quickly becoming popular in American society. Plath had a hard time accepting the fact that her own country was more accepting of her foreign husband than they were of her. This, among other things, led her to fall into severe bouts of depression that took a toll on the marriage. Hughes previously knew of Plath's battle with clinical depression, but it rapidly became an issue in their relationship. Hughes was uncertain as to how he should handle Sylvia's resentment at his success in America, so in December 1959, the couple decided to move back to England.

Upon returning to England the couple moved into a tiny flat in London and they welcomed their first child, Freida Rebecca Hughes. While adjusting to parenthood, Plath began writing her most famous novel, The Bell Jar and Ted wrote poetry, although most of it was rejected. While his poetry was being rejected he turned to writing essays, reviews, and articles for newspapers and magazines. In addition, he also served as host for a series of radio talks for the BBC's Listening and Writing program. During this time Hughes took a break from writing adult poetry, and began experimenting with children's stories and short poems. In 1961 his children's book, Meet My Folks was accepted for publication. At this same time, the family bought a small parsonage in Devon Court Green, North Tawton.

By the time the couple's second child, Nicholas Farrar Hughes, was born in 1962, the marriage had reached crisis status and the couple separated. Much of the frustration came from Sylvia's illness, but Ted's infidelity was a contributing factor. Plath grew angry at Ted and Assia Wevill's flirtatious behavior when she and her husband David would visit. When Plath confronted him over an affair that had scarcely begun, Hughes left for London and Assia.

Tragedy strikes

The couple separated and Ted and Assia moved in together, while Plath stayed in the country with the children, writing a poem a day. It was at this time that Plath produced her most famous poetry in a compilation titled, Ariel. After a few months of severe depression, Plath committed suicide by sticking her head in a gas oven. She taped up the openings of the children's bedroom door and opened the window so the gas wouldn't penetrate their room. Hughes was devastated and the blame for her death was placed immediately and squarely on his shoulders.

However, Hughes and Wevill continued to live together, unmarried, and they eventually had a daughter together. Alexandra Tatiana Eloise Wevill, nicknamed Shura, was born on March 3, 1965. In 1969 more tragedy struck Hughes. Wevill killed four-year-old Shura and herself by first taking several pills (and having Shura do the same) and then turning on the gas of the oven and dying a similar death as Plath.

By this time public sentiment toward Hughes spiraled downward as the tragic deaths of three females in his life became a hot topic of discussion. Hughes retreated with Freida and Nicholas to the countryside and stayed completely out of the public spotlight. He did very little writing during this time.

Writing Career

Hughes began his writing career by taking inspiration from the nature that surrounded him during his youth. As his writing matured he came to rely upon myth and the bardic tradition. Hughes' first collection, Hawk in the Rain (1957) was an instant success, attracting considerable critical acclaim. Hughes was the recipient of several prizes during his writing career, including honors from the Queen. In 1959 he also won the Galbraith prize which brought $5000. Many consider Crow (1970) to be his most significant contribution to the world of poetry. Hughes also enjoyed translating foreign poetry and ancient stories, such as Tales from Ovid (1997).

In addition to poetry and translation, Hughes wrote classical opera librettos and children's books. During the time Hughes was alone with his children he seemed to focus only on children's stories and fables. His writings were often aimed at comforting Freida and Nick after their mother's suicide. The best known of these is The Iron Man. This story later served as the inspiration for Pete Townshend's rock opera of the same name, and the animated film The Iron Giant.

In the last year of his life, Hughes spent a considerable amount of time finishing projects started years before, doing audio recordings of his own poetry, and putting together a significant compilation of his most famous works.


Ted Hughes won awards for his writing in four different decades. They include:

  • New York Poetry Center First Publication Award (1957)
  • Guinness Poetry Award (1958)
  • Somerset Maugham Award (1960)
  • Hawthornden Prize (1961)
  • City of Florence International Poetry Prize (1969)
  • Premio Internazionale Taormina (1973)
  • The Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry (1974)
  • Signal Poetry Award (1979 for Moon-bells and Other Poems, 1983 for The Rattle Bag, co-edited with Seamus Heaney, 1985 for What is the Truth?)
  • Guardian Children's Fiction Award for What is the Truth? (1984)
  • Heineman Bequest of the Royal Society (1980)
  • Guardian Children's Fiction Award (1985)
  • Kurt Marschler Award (1985)
  • Whitbread Award for 1997 and 1998
  • Forward Prize (1998)

Later Life

In August 1970, Ted Hughes married the daughter of a Devonian farmer, a year after Wevill's suicide. Carol Orchard, a nurse, was 20 years his junior. While living in the countryside, Hughes worked diligently at publishing Plath's last writings, Ariel. He was the executor of Plath's personal and literary estates so he edited, organized, and compiled her writings. He received only scorn and criticism for what he did with Plath's writings. He received no money from their publication, yet one critic after another accused him of changing her words, changing her intent, and being untrue to what she would have wanted. It is true that Hughes did destroy Plath's last diary before she killed herself, but whether it was to protect his own image, or that of Plath and the children can't be known by anyone but Hughes.

After the death of John Betjeman in 1984, Hughes served as England's Poet Laureate until his own death. He used this post to promote his strong ideals about conserving the environment. He also received the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II just before his death in 1998. Hughes published, Birthday Letters his final book of poems in 1998. It discussed in depth his love, marriage, and heartache surrounding Plath.

Ted and Carol lived in the country together until Hughes died of cancer on October 28, 1998. A funeral was held at a church in North Tawton, and by his special wishes (and special Royal permission), he was cremated, with his ashes scattered on Dartmoor, near Cranmoor Pool.

In 2003 he was portrayed by British actor Daniel Craig in Sylvia, a biographical film of Sylvia Plath.

In March of 2009 his son took his own life, 46 years after his mother gassed herself while he slept. Nicholas Hughes hung himself at his home in Alaska after battling against depression for some time. He was unmarried with no children of his own and had been a professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.[4]



  • (1957) The Hawk in the Rain
  • (1960) Lupercal
  • (1967) Wodwo
  • (1968) The Iron Man
  • (1970) Crow
  • (1977) Gaudete
  • (1979) Moortown Diary
  • (1979) Remains of Elmet (with photographs by Fay Godwin)
  • (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.
  • (2003) Collected Poems

Anthologies edited by Hughes

  • Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson
  • Selected Verse of Shakespeare
  • A Choice of Coleridge's Verse
  • Seneca's Oedipus
  • Spring Awakening by Wedekind (translation)
  • Phedre by Racine (translation)
  • The Rattle Bag (edited with Seamus Heaney)
  • The School Bag (edited with Seamus Heaney)
  • By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember
  • The Mays


  • A Dancer to God
  • Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being
  • Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose
  • Difficulties of a Bridegroom
  • Poetry in the Making

Books for Children

  • How the Whale Became
  • Meet my Folks!
  • The Earth Owl and Other Moon-people
  • Nessie the Mannerless Monster
  • The Coming of the Kings
  • The Iron Man
  • Moon Whales
  • Season Songs
  • Under the North Star
  • Fangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth
  • Tales of the Early World
  • The Iron Woman
  • The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales
  • Collected Animal Poems: Vols. 1-4
  • Shaggy and Spotty


  1. The Daily Telegraph. The Greatest Poet of His Age. Retrieved May 30, 2007.
  2. Books and Writers. Ted Hughes Biography. Retrieved May 30, 2007.
  3. Skea, Ann. Ted Hughes: Timeline. Retrieved May 30, 2007.
  4. Nicholas Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s son commits suicide Timesonline.co.uk. Retrieved March 31, 2009.

Further reading

  • Feinstein, Elaine, Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet. W. W. Norton and Company 2001. ISBN 0393049671
  • Middlebrook, Diane, Her Husband: Hughes & Plath a Marriage. Viking Adult 2003. ISBN 0670031879
  • Moulin, Joanny (editor), Ted Hughes:Alternative Horizons. Routledge (UK) 2004. ISBN 9026519737
  • Sagar, Keith, The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes. Liverpool University Press 2000. ISBN 0853235759

Preceded by:
John Betjeman
British Poet Laureate
Succeeded by:
Andrew Motion


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