Ted Hughes: An Introduction

© Ann Skea

The following article was first published in English In Australia, No. 74 (AATE),in December 1985, as a resource for teachers. The information is still relevant, but since 1985 much more of Hughes’ poetry (as well as prose, plays and children’s books) has been published and his work has been the subject of a number of books of analysis and interpretation. My own book, Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest, provides detailed analysis of many of the poems in River, Remains of Elmet and Cave Birds.

Ted Hughes died on October 28th, 1998, at the age of sixty-eight.

“Blood and Guts”

“Poetic voice of blood and guts” said a headline in one newspaper announcing the appointment of Ted Hughes as the new Poet Laureate last November [ The Guardian, Dec. 20, 1984]. It was fairly typical of the surprise with which the media greeted this appointment because Ted Hughes, it seems, is for most people a difficult poet. His poetry is not easily understood like that of his popular predecessor, John Betjeman. Also, he is still frequently described as a poet of blood and violence, which is not quite the expected style of the official composer of ‘Royal Odes’. Hughes’ friends, too, expressed surprise at the appointment, for, despite his recent OBE and Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, Hughes is far from the conventional public figure. He is a blunt Yorkshireman, as likely as any of his fellow Yorkshiremen to call a spade a ‘bloody shovel’.

Although Hughes has lived in Devon for many years now, the significance of his Yorkshire origins for an understanding of his poetry is great. And one way of helping students (and teachers, too) to enjoy his work is to approach it through an understanding of the man himself-the experiences which have made him what he is and which have shaped the ideas which motivate him.

Hughes began writing poetry when he was about 15 and his first book of poems was published when he was 27. He was born in the small Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd on August 17th, 1930, and his star sign is Leo. This star sign is of some significance to Hughes, whose first wife, Sylvia Plath, once described him as having pockets stuffed with horoscopes. Leo is symbolised in ancient astrological writings as Corvus, The Raven, a bird which is closely related to the crow. And Hughes often uses a crow as a symbol for the dark, subconscious side of human nature (see his volume of poems called Crow).

Yorkshire background

Yorkshire covers a large part of the North of England. In the western part, where Hughes was born, it is a rugged county of bare moors and mountains, often cold, rainy and windy in summer, and bleak and snowy in winter. This part of England was the home of the Brönte family and the setting for Emily Brönte’s novel Wuthering Heights, and the people who are born there have certain characteristics which set them apart from other English people. They are a tough, hardy breed, descended from the Brigantes who were one of the earliest Celtic tribes of Britain. The area was once so inaccessible that it became an ideal place to hide, and it is no accident that the name ‘Brigante’ sounds very like the word ‘brigand’, which has come to mean bandit or robber in the English language.

In 1856, novelist and chronicler, Elizabeth Gaskell, wrote of Yorkshiremen:

        Their accost is curt; their accent and tone of speech blunt
        and harsh. Something of this may, perhaps, be attributed to
        the freedom of mountain air and of isolated hill-side life,
        something be derived from their rough Norse ancestry. They have
        a quick perception of character, and a keen sense of humour.
        The dwellers among them must be prepared for certain uncompli-
        mentary, though most likely true, observations pithily expressed.

Strangers are traditionally “summered and wintered and summered again” before they are accepted. And Hughes, in a poem called ‘For Billy Holt’(NSP.164) writes that Yorkshiremen have

                        A far veiled gaze of quietly
                        Homicidal appraisal.
                        A poverty
                        That cuts rock lumps for words.

The significance of all this is that Hughes is frequently accused of writing poetry which is unnecessarily rough and violent when he is simply being a typically blunt Yorkshiremen, describing things as he sees them. For example, his Moortown poems (which began as a journal recording his farming experiences) are not at all like the traditional romantic view of nature for which English poets are famous. There is no trace in them of the kind of sentiments expressed in Elizabethan poet, Robert Herrick’s, lines – “Fair daffodils we weep to see you haste away so soon”, or Wordsworth’s – “I wandered lonely as a cloud / that floats on high o’er vales and hills”.

Yet, to hear Hughes read poems such as ‘Ravens’(M.37; NSP.184) or ‘Orf’(M.46), is to hear him express the tenderness he feels for the animals of which he writes, as well as his almost overwhelming awareness of the constant presence of birth and death in farming life. Hughes has lived close enough to nature to know, at first hand, the cruelty that exists beneath the beautiful surface. Characteristically, Hughes does not soften or hide these cruel facts but presents them in vivid, exact descriptions, which often arouse such negative emotions in his readers that they reject the poems altogether.

The questions which need to be asked about many of Hughes’ poems are:

        – is the poet showing only cruelty and violence?
        – is this a realistic description of a situation?
        – does the poet deliberately set out to arouse conflicting emotions
        in the reader and, if so, how does he do this? (Hughes, for example,
        often personifies the animals so that we identify with them more

Sensitivity and Understanding

It is important, also, to consider the degree of sensitivity and understanding, the degree of empathy with his subject, which is required for the poet to succeed in arousing strong emotions in his audience. The poem ‘February 17th.’(M.39; NSP.186), is a good poem to examine in this respect, as the gory farming details of a stillbirth are contrasted with a gentle, loving description of the way the lamb should have been born:

                        He should have
                        Felt his way, tip-toe, his toes
                        Tucked up under his nose
                        For a safe landing.

The man’s concern for the lamb’s mother, too, is very evident in the poem, and his disgust at the bloody job he has to do.

Hughes, as a man and as a poet, frequently does not conform to the conventions which society expects of him, and naturally this upsets people.

Having grown up in a working-class background, Hughes left High School with a scholarship to Cambridge University, where the literary set came mostly from the upper-class. He quickly established a reputation for being rather wild, and someone who was at Cambridge when Hughes was there commented that for a while there was some question as to whether it would be Hughes or Cambridge which would survive the experience.

Physically, Hughes is tall (over 6ft) and dark. He likes to wear black clothing, and he is often careless of his appearance. One critic has called him “Heathcliff”. Another described him as “The Incredible Hulk of English literature”. He is clever, strong minded and outspoken, and his interests cover a huge range of topics, including magic, mythology, world religions, language and music.

The Role of the Poet

Hughes has some very definite ideas about poetry and its functions, and about his own role as a poet. He has written and spoken a great deal about these ideas and, as might be expected, he deplores the sentimental, artificial approach to poetry, likening it to
        The manner of a dear, sweet lady telling the vicar’s
        six-month old baby girl about the doings of her little
        pussy cat.

Poetry, for him, is to do with the world of imagination, He calls it “a journey into the inner universe”, and “an exploration of the genuine self”. Poetry (he once wrote} is one way to

        unlock the doors of those many mansions inside the head
        and express something – perhaps not much, just something – of
        the crush of information that presses in on us… Something
        of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are…
        Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our
        bodies from moment to moment like water in a river…  (PIM.124)

Hughes believes that poetry is a magical and powerful way of reaching our feelings and emotions – our subconscious, natural energies. He believes that these energies have been repressed by an emphasis on the scientific approach to life and teaching. We are taught, he says, that emotions are dangerous, can distort our judgment, should not be relied upon when we have decisions to make, and that they have nothing to do with truth.

Nearly all schooling makes this kind of division: regarding the rational skills needed for maths and science, for example, as somehow superior to the skills needed for art and music.

Hughes sees this as wrong. He believes that it leads to inflexibility and dead-ends: to the sort of thinking that leads to war and destruction. Time and again, in his poetry, Hughes celebrates the natural energies, shows how they exist in mankind, and makes the point that human wholeness depends on an acceptance of all aspects of our nature. In particular, he believes that we must recognise ourselves as part of the natural world, subject to the same forces of nature as all other living things.

The poem ‘Egg Head’ (HIR.35; NSP.10)presents this point of view by showing a man whose brain shuts out the beauty and the wonders of nature with “wide eyed deafness of prudence”, “juggleries of benumbing”, and “Braggart-browed complacency”. The man tries to set himself apart from nature, but the irony of his egotism – his “staturing ‘I am’ “ – is his “dewdrop frailty” in the face of nature’s power. No amount of self-deception can overcome the reality of death – “the looming mouth of the earth” which waits for all living things. No amount of “sophistry” can finally resist “the flash of the sun, the bolt of the moon”.

Creativity is necessary for survival and it requires both imagination and logic. Hughes sees it as the job of any kind of artist to help release our suppressed creative energies, and he believes that poetry is particularly effective for this purpose. Often, he sees himself as a shaman, a kind of tribal medicine man who makes symbolic journeys to the underworld of the subconscious to bring back lost souls and to cure sick people. The words, the symbols, the images and the musical rhythms of the poetry, are, for him, like the shaman’s magic drum which helps him on his journey. It is these which stir our imagination, and the effect is a magical release of emotional energy.

Hughes and Plath

Hughes’ own experiences with the powerful natural energies have been dramatic. In 1956, whilst at Cambridge University, he met the American poet, Sylvia Plath, and within four months of that meeting they were married. The intensity of their relationship was expressed in the poetry that each of them wrote at that time.

Ted for example wrote:

                        There is no better way to know us
                        Than as two wolves, come separately to a wood.
                        Now neither’s able to sleep-even at a distance
                        Distracted by the soft competing pulse
                        Of the other;…
                          … Neither can make die
                        The painful burning of the coal in its heart
                        Till the other’s body and the whole wood are its own.
                        Then it might sob contentment toward the moon.
                                                 ‘A Modest Proposal’ (HIR.25).

It is characteristic of Hughes that this is not a conventional, romantic love poem.

Similarly, in a poem of Sylvia’s called, ‘The Queen’s Complaint’ (SPCP.28), we get some idea of the impact which Ted made on her:

                        In the ruck and quibble of courtfolk
                        This giant hulked, I tell you, on her scene
                        With hands like derricks,
                        Looks fierce and black like rooks;
                        Why, all the windows broke when he stalked in.

And she wrote to her mother:

        I have never known anything like it. For the first time in my
        life I can use all of my knowing and laughing and force and
        writing up to the hilt all the time, everything …  I feel a
        growing strength. I do not merely idolise him, I see right into
        the core of him.(LH. April 19, 1956)

With two such intense, ambitious and unusual people, the marriage can hardly have been dull. For seven years Ted and Sylvia lived together, apparently quite happily if Sylvia’s letters to her mother can be believed. Then, just after the birth of their second child, Nicholas, things went badly wrong. Ted fell in love with another woman and, by mutual agreement, he and Sylvia parted and began divorce proceedings.

Sylvia and the two children lived on in their house in Devon for a while, then they moved to a flat in London. It was the worst winter England had experienced for many years. Sylvia, who had always suffered painful sinus problems, was ill, but she was writing furiously and producing at least one good poem a day – sometimes two or three. Physically and emotionally she was at the end of her tether and she sought psychiatric help. In February 1963, she committed suicide by gassing herself.

No-one will ever know the full story. Sylvia had attempted suicide at least once before, when she was 18. On that occasion she had been found by a fortunate accident and she subsequently spent some time in a psychiatric hospital being treated for depression. Much of what she experienced then appears in her novel, The Bell Jar, which was written and published shortly before her death.

In spite of the fact that Sylvia seemed to be fully recovered by the time she met Ted Hughes, some critics have suggested that there is evidence in her letters, journals and poetry, particularly in the period just before her death, of the sort of personality which is associated with manic-depressive disorder.

As might be expected, Sylvia’s death affected Hughes profoundly. Shortly after her death, he wrote the anguished poem ‘The Howling of Wolves’(W.178; NSP.84) (which takes its title from William Blake’s proverb - The howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. Hughes wrote one other poem at this time, ‘The Song of the Rat’(W.162; NSP.76), then nothing for three years.

Because the poetry of both these people expresses, as Hughes puts it, their “inner life”, it is often possible to look at their work and know what their feelings were at the time a particular poem was written. This is dramatically illustrated by two poem which may well to be related to incidents concerned with their marriage breakdown. Sylvia apparently heard about the ‘other woman’ through a phone call. Her poem ‘Words, heard by accident, over the phone’(SPCP.202) seems to describe this event and her feelings.

Hughes’ poem, ‘Do not Pick up the Telephone’(NSP.215), may also refer to the same period, although it was not published until 1980 ( in Ploughshares(6:82-7)). It is a powerful poem which sounds, when Hughes reads it himself, like an incantatory curse. It certainly shows how Hughes feels about the telephone. Strangely, teenage students often identify strongly with the sentiments expressed in the poem, although presumably for quite different reasons to Hughes. Because of this, it is a good poem with which to begin a discussion of some of the characteristics of Hughes’ poetry, and to illustrate the way in which the poet’s emotions, energy and intellect, as well as his experiences, are brought together to shape his work.

Note: Audio tapes on which Ted Hughes reads some of the poems mentioned in this article are:

Ted Hughes and R. S. Thomas, The Critical Forum Series, Norwich Tapes, 1978

Ted Hughes and Paul Muldoon, Faber Poetry Cassette (ISBN 0 571 13080 9)

Abbreviations and Bibliography:

HIR Hughes, T. The Hawk in the Rain, London, Faber, 1968

M Hughes, T. Moortown, London, Faber, 1979

NSP Hughes, T. New Selected Poems 1957-1994, London, Faber, 1995

PIM Hughes, T. Poetry in the Making, London, Faber, 1969

SPCP Hughes, T.(Ed.) Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems, London, Faber, 1981

W Hughes, T. Wodwo, London, Faber, 1971

LH Plath, A.(Ed.) Sylvia Plath: Letters Home, N.Y., Harper and Row, 1975

© Ann Skea. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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