Ted Hughes’ Papers in the British Library,
© Roy Davids
I worked on these papers for over six months before they were sold to the British Library and prepared a seventy-page description of them. My background is that I have worked with manuscripts and archives for fifty years during which time I was Head of the Book and Manuscripts Department at Sotheby’s and ran my own business as a dealer. Besides organising the sale of the first part of Ted Hughes’s archive to Emory University in 1996/7, I have worked on historical, literary, political and scientific archives of all sorts. These have included the papers of Sylvia Plath, Sir Winston Churchill, Julian Barnes, John Osborne, Edna O’Brien, Alan Sillitoe, George MacBeth, Peter Redgrove, Siegfried Sassoon, Douglas Dunn and Tom Paulin.
I can say, almost without fear of contradiction, and on the basis of my wide experience, that I do not know of another archive so revealing as this second portion of Ted Hughes’s papers.
It is crucial for a full, rounded – and new – understanding of Hughes the man and the artist. While concentrated on the last, the most successful years, of his life, it contains significant amounts of early material and from all stages in his life and career. The portion of the important archive sold to Emory University in 1996/7 was in many senses the ‘formal’ part mostly relating to his by then published works. By and large, Hughes did not release during his lifetime, manuscript material revealing of himself and his personal life.
The British Library portion contains, for instance, all the manuscripts, published and unpublished, of his self-revealing Birthday Letters, the most successful volume of poetry in the twentieth century, one of the most successful of all time, having sold something more than 500,000 copies worldwide. Seamus Heaney made the point in his funeral oration: ‘His creative powers were, as Shakespeare said, still crescent’. In fact his last works are among the most acclaimed that he ever wrote and after 1996 he received an extraordinary number of literary awards for those works, particularly Birthday Letters. An indication of the richness of these papers is that not only are the drafts and final versions of the 88 poems in the published version present, but also the same for 100 entirely new and unpublished Birthday-Letter-sequence poems, including the recently published ‘undiscovered’ poem ‘What did happen that Sunday night… ’
Hughes’s reputation has soared since the first portion was sold to Emory. He indubitably established himself as the most important English poet of the last quarter of the twentieth century, at least. His range, depth, skill and influence tower above those of any other poet of his generation.
The portion of the archive now in the British Library is as extensive as many writers’ entire lifetime product – Hughes was prolific and urgent to his last; and deeply resented his death (he literally raged against the dying of the light). But, what is extraordinary, is that here, in contrast to the first part of the archive in Emory, he, as it were, steps out from behind the ‘formal’ mask (and the ‘silent rugged’ exterior apparent to those who did not know him) where until his later years he chose to position himself both personally and in his work.
Here his opinions stand raw, frequently unrefined by any deliberate artistic process. He approaches so many subjects head on, unguarded and directly, writing, for instance, overtly ‘I’ poems – a public stance only really openly adopted late in his career as a writer and one in which for a long time he did not believe, thinking of it, as he says herein in a letter to Seamus Heaney, as not being ‘the authentic creative way’, which is waiting for things ‘to emerge inadvertently, in some oblique fashion through some piece only symbolically related to it.’. The archive reveals that he wrote in a more personal mode from much earlier on (at least the 1970s). These poems and drafts have richnesses and colours very different from what might be seen as his ‘normal’ approach. In a letter to Seamus Heaney in the archive Hughes describes his natural inclination towards this ‘slanted’ approach even when contemplating writing Birthday Letters – though, by and large, he avoided it there (‘… The realisation that I had to rid myself of the whole log-jam pile-up – as a matter of urgency – dawned as I was doing the Shakespeare book. I sometimes wondered if the Shakes [sic] tome wasn’t the poem I should have written – decoded, hugely deflected and dumped on shoulders that could carry it… ’).
Here, too, is all the material he kept back as too personally revealing of himself (his self-doubts, and self-recriminations (flagellations almost), anguishes, paranoia even, opinions of friends (many very telling), history of fibrillation etc.) and writing about subjects more directly and fully than in published material or in unpublished material elsewhere. His views of Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill are less guarded here and there is much new and freer material – including very many poems and details retained only in drafts. Much of it is in effect a dialogue with himself, within himself. Some of this material he kept back at the time of the first sale was of work which he intended to go over and make more of. The numerous accounts of dreams are vivid and extraordinary (often with interesting contextualising remarks). A great deal of it, which it is noteworthy he kept from his wife Carol and me, his friend and adviser on manuscripts, was only found after his death and astonished us. My belief is, confirmed by his secrecy about it and the nature of the materials themselves, that Ted never intended these papers to form part of his archive or legacy. I truly believe it was his intention to have silently destroyed them. That he did not is only to the massive gain of literature and our comprehension of genius.
A marvellous feature of these papers is their repeated confirmation of Ted Hughes’s tremendous facility and genius in writing both poetry (clearly much of it impromptu, and of considerable length) and prose, and especially of the fluency of his almost pyrotechnical richness in metaphor (apparent everywhere). Most of what is here is extremely well written and vivid – almost any of his accounts of anything are publishable – he seemed incapable of writing anything that was not interesting and well-expressed. Drafts are often in successive stages.
There are far more manuscripts here for unpublished poems than published ones. The handwriting makes it clear that manuscripts come from numerous periods of his adult life, many really quite early. It is not perhaps out of place to remind oneself that even clean typescripts can preserve texts or variant readings not otherwise surviving. The drafts of course go from preserving hitherto unknown entire poems to more or less extensive variant readings and fascinating detail (e.g. his poem ‘9 Willow Street’ once began ‘Poetical address. Robert Frost / Told me he’d once lived there, too… ’).
There is an obvious potential for the publication of numerous books of poems and of prose (even of his ‘occasional’ writing and diary entries) and of theses in the material in this portion of the archive – including marvellous publications (properly edited and illustrated by professional fishermen) of his frequent and fully recorded fishing trips. These contain tremendous detail, reveal his joyful obsession with the pursuit and are full of local detail and description. In short, the British Library portion of the archive has quintessential material for any putative biographer or new or variorum editions of Hughes’s works, including Birthday Letters and Crow. No ‘Complete Poems’ can be done without it. There are potential books on the 1980s trial, on Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill, as well, including 30 new poems in addition to the 20 published in Capriccio.
The acquisition of these papers by the British Library placed it at the forefront of Ted Hughes studies.
See also my essay on The Making of Birthday Letters on the Earth Moon web site for Ted Hughes.
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