I am told that there is social commentary ‘hidden’ in Ted Hughes’s poems and I have to take part in a seminar discussing this. I have looked everywhere for information about this, can you help?”.

Most of the books which deal with Ted’s poetry talk about this in a general way but it is hard to give you a reference to a single, concise commentary.

An interview which Hughes gave to Ekbert Faas (Appendix in The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Press, Santa Barbara, 1980) contains some of his views about the role of the poet as shaman, flying to the Otherworld to bring back healing energies for a sick society.

Generally, you should keep in mind that Hughes saw nature as a powerful and continuous force of which we are a part. He frequently contrasted the energies of Nature with the destructive influences of arrogant humans who think they can control Nature. In the poems ‘Thistles’ (THCP 147) and ‘Snowdrop’ (THCP 86), for example, he demonstrated Nature’s strength, the renewable energies of it, as well as the whole cyclic process of death and rebirth which is fundamental to Nature. He included Mankind in this cycle.

In his two essays on ‘Myth and Education’ (one of which is reprinted in Winter Pollen (WP 136-153), he also expressed his belief that our emphasis on rational, scientific thinking (especially as it has influenced teaching) has educated us to regard imagination and instinct as subjective, irrational, unscientific and therefore not to be trusted. Because of this, he believed that our society has so lost its imagination that we can no longer empathize with others, and so wars and horrors are born. Through his poetry, he attempted to heal this rational/imaginative split by stirring and restoring our imagination, using all our senses to create vivid and emotive images (as in ‘The Bull Moses’ (THCP 74), ‘An Otter’ (THCP 79) and in many of the Moortown poems, for example).

Hughes was also deeply concerned with the state of the environment. In 1969, he and Daniel Weissbot were instrumental in helping their friend David Ross to found Your Environment, a quarterly magazine which called itself “Britain’s First Environmental Magazine”. Hughes and Weissbort helped edit the first two issues, then became ‘Advising and Contribuing Editors’ until Autumn 1972, when the prominent physicist and environmentalist, Walter C. Patterson, took over as sole Editor. For the third issue (Volume I, No.3, Summer 1970), Hughes contributed an essay on Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution. A shorter version of this essay is published in Scammell (Ed.)Winter Pollen, Faber. 1994. The subject matter of Your Environment was “conservation, pollution, population pressure and containment”. The stated object was “to help improve the way we all live”. Continuing topics in the magazine, which ran for three-and-a-half years, were household issues such as non-returnable bottles, toxic detergents, packaging, and garden chemicals; a ‘Whitehall Diary’ recording environmental issues discussed in parliament; the water supply; defoliants; transport; and science news. Daniel Weissbort remembers that the magazine was “a money loser”, but that it was “very much part of the ethos of the time”. He commented, too, that Hughes was very involved in promoting and practising organic farming.

Hughes did a great deal of practical work to help raise awareness of issues like river pollution. Some of his ecological activities are recorded in the recent essay, ‘Portrait of a poet as eco warrior’ by Ed Douglas (The Observer, Sunday, November 4, 2007). Ted also wrote letters to The Times about (amongst other things) the exploitation of fishing areas (LTH 3 Dec. 1957); and the decline of Otters (see his letter to environmental campaigner and farmer, Mark Purdey, LTH 7 Feb. 1987).

In 1987, The Times published ‘First Things First’, an “ecological dialogue” (THCP 730), and in Ted’s letter to Michael Hamburger (LTH12 Sept. 1987), he discusses this and his views on politics and pollution.

The poem ‘The Black Rhino’ (THCP 763, and Note p.1296) was written to help raise funds to save the Black Rhinoceros and was published in the Daily Telegraph (24 October 1987).

Hughes was also instrumental in the founding of the Sacred Earth Drama Trust. The Trust was initiated after a conference organized in Assisi in 1986 by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh to “encourage people of all ages to become involved in environmental thinking and practice by first involving the creative spirit”. Sacred Earth Dramas (Faber, London, 1993), with an introduction by Ted Hughes, is a collection of winning plays from a competition suggested by Hughes and sponsored by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Arts for Nature in 1990. The genesis of the whole idea is described in Ted Hughes’s letter to Matthew Evans (LTH, Feb. 7, 1990).

In 1991, ‘Lobby From Under the Carpet’ (THCP 837) was published in Save the Earth (ed. J. Porritt, Turner, Sept. 1991) a companion book for a broadcast associated with the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Brazil, where worldwide environmental policies were discussed. The poem was also published in The Times (9 April 1992).

In 1992, Hughes provided an introduction to a book of photographs, Your World (HarperCollins, 1992)the profits of which went to the United Nations Environment Programme. At the same time he contributed an article to The Observer Magazine (Nov. 29, 1992) to accompany some of the photographs from the book.

The stories, The Iron Man and The Iron Woman, which Hughes wrote for children, describe a desecrated, polluted land and provide a wonderfully imaginative mythic solution to the problem. In a letter to Sheila Roberts (LTH Autumn 1968) Ted described The Iron Man as “a blueprint imaginative strategy for dealing with neurosis.”

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

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