Ted Hughes Obituary

On October 28, Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate of England, died at the age of 68 after an 18-month battle with cancer. A renowned and influential poet, Hughes was equally well known as the husband of the controversial American poet Sylvia Plath.

He was born on August 30, 1930, in Mytholmroyd, a small mill town in West Yorkshire, England. Growing up in the country provided Hughes with a lifelong fascination with animals and the natural world. But rather than believing nature was a benevolent, healing presence, he saw it as fraught with violence and betrayal. He went to Cambridge University and studied anthropology and archeology, married Sylvia Plath, and published his first book of poems, The Hawk in the Rain, in 1957. His work was immediately recognized and praised -- his language was so different from the characteristically cautious ironic voices that populated British verse at the time. Hughes also brought allegorical poetry back from historical irrelevance and adopted it for modern times. His best poems illustrated how Ovid, Shakespeare, and Hopkins could be supremely relevant for every modern poet. Subsequent work such as Lupercal (1960) and Crow (1970), further developed these influences. Interested in Greek mythology, Hughes' most unusual work, Orghast (1971), was a play based on the Prometheus legend which employedan invented language intended to prove that sound itself can express complex human emotions. Other books developed themes based on the concepts of Robert Graves, and he has also written several children's books. In 1984, he was made Britain's Poet Laureate, a prestigious ceremonial position which mainly requires the poet to provide poems upon state occasions.

When Hughes discovered he was ill, he chose to publish Birthday Letters, a collection of poems which explored his relationship with Sylvia Plath. It was the first time in 35 years that he had offered any defense to the vast number of critics who held him responsible for her suicide because of his callous treatment of Plath by abandoning her at a particularly vulnerable time in her life. One of the few books of serious poetry to ever make the bestseller list, Birthday Poems was doubtlessly read by people more curious about the allegedly sensational nature of the poems than the artistic quality of the work.

It was an interesting decision on Hughes' part to publish Birthday Letters considering that Plath's fame has all but overshadowed his own as a writer, because this means he may primarily be remembered as her husband. But Hughes was always mindful of her profound influence on his life. In a 1995 interview in Paris Review he stated, "Our minds soon became two parts of one operation. We dreamed a lot of shared or complementary dreams. Our telepathy was intrusive. ... Throughout our time together we looked at each other's verses at every stage." The best poems in the book present a complex relationship far beyond the crude speculations of his harshest critics. Rather than further exploiting painful personal details, it seems this final work allowed Hughes to redeem his life with Plath from the public sphere and finally return a crucial part of his past to himself. -- Stacy Bush

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