Ted Hughes, one of Britain's most prominent 20th century poets, is known for poetry that explores the natural world alongside human experience. In the introduction to Poet to Poet: Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage called Hughes “a poet whose great exploit was to bring the inner workings of the human brain into the wide world, and at the same time draw the outside world into the mind.” Hughes’ verse delves into the dark side of man’s consciousness, exploring human conflict and its animal counterpart. Often fusing mythology and folklore against a pastoral setting, Hughes draws on the 18th and 19th century Romantic movement, while his active, booming language recalls Shakespeare. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote children’s books and plays.
Hughes was born in Yorkshire, England in 1930. He began writing poetry as child, heavily influenced by his rural surroundings and by his fascination with mythology and folklore. After spending two years in the Royal Air Force, Hughes enrolled in Pembroke College in Cambridge in 1951. Hughes briefly pursued a degree in English literature, but decided to study anthropology and archaeology instead. After graduating from Cambridge, Hughes moved to London. When he wasn’t working odd jobs, he focused on his writing.
On February 25th, 1956, Hughes met Sylvia Plath at the first and only launch party of a literary magazine he founded with Cambridge friends. Both Hughes and Plath, who was studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship, wrote about this encounter in their journals. The couple married later that year. Hughes and Plath briefly moved to America, where both poets took up University teaching positions, but eventually settled in Devon, England. The couple had two children, Frieda and Nicholas. Though tumultuous, their marriage lasted until Plath’s suicide in 1963. Notably, Hughes destroyed Plath’s final journals.
Hughes’ first collection of poetry, The Hawk and The Rain, was published in 1957 to glowing reviews. The volume received the Galbraith prize. Hughes’ later volumes, including Crow and the illustrated Flowers and Insects, continued with the themes of nature present in The Hawk and The Rain. His poetry often features commanding, omnipresent first-person speakers, powerful enjambments, and brutal, uncompromising perspectives of mankind. His verse is customarily hyperbolic and populated with onomatopoeia, both of which contribute to the dramatic overtones of his work.
Controversy surrounding Hughes’ private life is discussed just as frequently, if not more, than his poetry. It was widely believed that Hughes’ behavior, including sexual affairs, drove Plath to suicide. However, in 1998, Hughes published his last collection of poetry, Birthday Letters, which explored his turbulent relationship with Sylvia Plath. In a review for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that the poems in Birthday Letters “dazzle not only with verbal dexterity but also with clear-hearted emotion. They are clearly the work of a poet writing out of the deepest core of his being.” The collection received the T.S. Eliot Prize.
Hughes died three months after the publication of Birthday Letters. He was the Poet laureate of England, a position he’d held since 1984.