“I have to write about Ted Hughes as an essayist but I cannot find material/criticism on this. Can you help?”

You will find lists of reviews of all Ted Hughes’ published books in Sagar and Tabor, Ted Hughes: A Bibliography (Mansell, 1983, 1998), but there does not seem to be much in the way of critical comment on Ted’s essays. Below, I offer my own thoughts on the subject.

I have found Hughes’ essays, reviews and prose invaluable in my own work, because they provide insight into his beliefs, ideas and purposes. Especially important, are his two essays on ‘Myth and Education’. The first listed below has been republished in Winter Pollen (WP 136). The second is largely the same but with a few interesting differences.

‘Myth and Education’, Writers, Critics and Children, (Ed. Fox et al, Heinemann, 1976)
‘Myth and Education’, Children’s Literature in Education 1, (APS Publications, March 1970, pp.55-70).

I have always regarded ‘The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly’ (originally published as Ted’s introduction to The Complete Prints of Leonard Baskin (Ed. Fern and Sulllivan, New York Graphic Society, Little Brown, 1984; republished WP 84)) as a seminal essay, and the letters from Ted to Leonard Baskin which are now in the British Library confirm this (cf. LTH 9 Nov. 1983). In 1983, Ted told Baskin that it was the most important prose piece he had ever written (it was written before Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being); and he worked on it for an extended period of time. It seems to me, that everything he said about Baskin in that piece applied, also, to himself.

Ted’s ‘Introduction’ to A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse (Faber, 1971), which is reprinted in Winter Pollen as ‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’(WP 103), is also important, especially as it is Ted’s earliest attempt to present Shakespeare’s work as a reflection of the times in which he wrote. It has some good comment on the language Shakespeare used; and in some ways I think Ted thought of himself as living in similarly divisive times. In Shakespeare’s time, religion divided the people and the imaginative energies were suppressed along with idolatry: in our times, science and the emphasis on rationality as the basis for all our knowledge represses and devalues the imaginative faculty (Ted’s description of the photographer’s uninvolved, unimaginative view of the world, in his ‘Myth and Education’ essay, illustrates just that).

You should be able to find a number of reviews of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), and you will find that many reviewers did not understand or appreciate it. It is, indeed, a difficult book, but an important one, especially for understanding Ted’s own work. In a letter to John Carey (LTH 6 Oct. 1998), which was one of the last letters Ted wrote, he acknowledges some of the difficulties the book presents to readers. Those who do see the ‘picture’ and divine the ‘equation’, as many Jungian scholars seems to do, consider the book to be a major work, full of insight, and valuable for many reasons: those who don’t, reject and deride it. I know from personal experience that some academics have not read the book but still regard it as Ted’s encroachment on their own field of expertise and speak scathingly about it to students. I also know that Ted was correct when he said that few people (including many of those academics) have read all of Shakespeare’s work (as he had, many times). Ted’s extensive correspondence with both Donya Feuer and Keith Sagar (copies of which are in the British Library) show how freely he discussed the thesis he presents in the book, how well knowledgable readers understood it, and how willing Ted was to change and adjust his views as a result of the discussions he had with them.

Ted’s prose writing often reflects his pedagogic zeal. He was very much a teacher, and he was especially keen to inspire young people and to stimulate their imaginations. The pieces in Poetry in the Making (1976)(WP 11) demonstrate this. They also show that he never ‘talked-down’ to children and that he was adept at choosing anecdotes and poems which could capture their attention. The Iron Man and The Iron Woman also demonstrate Ted’s efforts to stir the imagination of children, as well as his belief in the value of myth and story.

It seems to me that Ted’s work, right from the start, was all about the importance of valuing our imaginative, subjective powers as a balance to our rational, objective powers, and that almost everything he wrote in his reviews, essays and prose reflects that.

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© Ann Skea 2008. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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