The following is a rough sketch attempting to combine key events in Ted Hughes' life and a history of major publications into something that conveys a general idea of where he came from and what was the background to some of his work. It is neither intended as a full biography nor do the works mentioned present a full bibliography. There currently exists no full, reliable biography of Ted Hughes. (A lengthy review of Elaine Feinstein's work was published on this site.)
This present text grew from a draft intended (in slightly different form) for a paper on Ted Hughes many years ago — and a draft it still is. As such it draws heavily on publications and information provided by other authors, most notably Keith Sagar and Ann Skea.
For additional biographical detail, please refer to Ann Skea's Timeline, published on her site at ann.skea.com.
Edward James Hughes was born on 17 August 1930 in 1, Aspinall Street, in Mytholmroyd [pron. »my-tholm-royd« as in »my«/»mine«], a village in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, England. He was the third child of Edith Farrar and William Henry Hughes.
Mytholmroyd, where Ted and his older sister and brother, Olwyn and Gerald, grew up, is surrounded by the stark, barren moorscape of the Yorkshire Pennines. For centuries, the area was dominated by the clothmaking industry, and many of its spinning and weaving mills and cottages, mill chimneys and reservoirs can still be seen today. The valley's Rochdale Canal and the railway line also date from the industrial boom-time of this part of England.
Mytholmroyd is located in an area the overall mood of which can change dramatically with the weather. On a rainy day, the village and the valley bottom can be quite dark and depressing — an impression that must have been heightened by the much higher levels of smoke in the 1930s and the blackened walls of most houses. Venturing onto the moors on such a day, you're likely to be met by a blasting wind and rain pelting at you almost horizontally.
On a bright and sunny day, however, the area can be uplifting and exhilarating, with the gentle curves of the moors rolling away in the distance.
From quite early on, Gerald, who was 10 years older than Ted, took his younger brother along on little adventure expeditions, hunting and camping [cf. e.g. »The Rock«]. These outings and Gerald's habit of mythologising their outdoor world as prehistoric or native American, left a strong and lasting impression on him, and one that at times he would be hankering after for the rest of his life.
In 1938 the family moved to Mexborough, a mining town in South Yorkshire, where the parents opened a newsagent's and tobacconist's shop. Uprooted, the children thoroughly disliked the new place and Gerald soon left home to become a gamekeeper [cf. Poetry in the Making: 16].
Missing the adventure outings with his brother, Mytholmroyd friends and landscape, Ted searched for exciting places and soon got friendly with a farmer at the end of the village on the opposite bank. Here, he could roam fields and small patches of forest and marsh close by the river. And apparently it was here that he made the striking encounter, coming face to face with a fox, that later became an inspiration for the famous »Thought-Fox«.
Shortly after beginning Grammar school, Ted made friends with a boy two years older than him. John's father was head forester on a nearby estate, and his family lived there in »The Lodge« by the gate. Soon enough, Ted began to regularly retreat there, often staying over for the whole weekend, hunting and fishing, spending his time with his new friends and their family.
It seems that around the same time (age 11), he started writing comic verse, as he claims, for »classroom consumption« [Paris Review, Vol. 37, No. 134, 1995, 59]. His writing was much encouraged by his English teachers at Mexborough Grammar School [cf. e.g. Keith Sagar: Ilkley Exhibition Catalogue, 1975, unpaginated], and in June 1946 one of his early poems (»Wild West«) and the outline of a short story (later developed further in »The Harvesting« in Wodwo) were published in the Grammar school magazine The Don and Dearne, followed by further poems in the July issue of 1948.
During the same year, Hughes won an Open Exhibition in English to Pembroke College, Cambridge, but chose to do his National Service first. Finishing school, he was given a copy of Robert Graves's White Goddess, a book that was to have a great influence, particularly on his early writing.
His two years of National Service (1949—1951) seem to have passed comparatively easily. Hughes was stationed »as a ground wireless mechanic in the RAF on an isolated three-man station in east Yorkshire — a time of which he mentions that he had ›nothing to do but read and reread Shakespeare and watch the grass grow‹« [Sagar: Ted Hughes, 3]. Next was university.
Hughes entered Cambridge in 1951, full of hope that reading English might help his own writing. However, his hopes were soon diminished as his studies proved rather stifling for his own creativity [cf. e.g. »The Burnt Fox« in Winter Pollen]. As a consequence, he changed to reading archaeology and anthropology in 1953. Nevertheless, it seems he wrote little at the time. In June 1954, the University magazine Granta published his poem »The Little Boys and the Seasons« under the pseudonym Daniel Hearing [Ilkley, unpaginated].
Hughes graduated in June 1954 and, to support himself, worked in several part time jobs. In 1956 some friends of Hughes decided to launch their own poetry magazine, the St. Botolph's Review. At the inauguration party for the Review (25 February) — the first (and only) issue of which carried several of his poems — he met Sylvia Plath, who had come to Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship.
Plath and Hughes married on 16 June 1956 and spent their honeymoon in Benidorm, Spain.
Later the same year, Sylvia Plath typed up a manuscript of Hughes' and sent it off for a competition for a first book of poems in English, sponsored by the Poetry Centre of the Young Man's and Young Women's Hebrew Association of New York. From 287 entries the judges (W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Marianne Moore) chose The Hawk in the Rain [Ilkley, unpaginated]. The prize was publication by Harper.
When Sylvia Plath had finished her M.A., the young couple travelled to the US and spent their Summer at Cape Cod. In Autumn 1957 Sylvia took up a teaching appointment at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, while Ted taught one term of Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. On 18 September The Hawk in the Rain was published.
In 1958 they met sculptor and graphic artist Leonard Baskin, and a fruitful and lifelong creative relationship developed between him and Hughes, resulting in such collaborations as Crow, Cave Birds, Moon-Whales, Season Songs, Under the North Star, A Primer of Birds, Flowers and Insects, Capriccio and Howls and Whispers.
Hughes and Plath moved to a small apartment in Boston and Sylvia Plath decided to give up her academic career and dedicate herself to full-time writing. »Here, in addition to much of Lupercal, Hughes wrote Meet My Folks! and most of the stories, later collected in Wodwo« [Ilkley, unpaginated].
After a camping tour across the United States in the Summer of 1959, the couple spent the Autumn in the artists' colony Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, where Plath finished The Colossus and Hughes Lupercal. At Yaddo, Hughes met Chinese composer Chou Wen-chung who invited him to write a libretto for The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol) [Ekbert Faas: Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe, 1980, 25]. Ekbert Faas reports that »their plans never materialized, but Hughes rewrote the entire Bardo Thödol several times [...]« [Faas, 25].
Shortly after the publication of Ted Hughes' Lupercal (March 1960), Sylvia Plath gave birth to their daughter, Frieda Rebecca. During the year, Plath worked on The Bell Jar, while Hughes rejected much of what worked on at the time. Some of the pieces, which Keith Sagar characterized as »exercises in new styles, not quite brought off« [Ilkley, unpaginated], were later collected in a limited edition as Recklings. In addition to this, and for financial support, Hughes began a series of radio talks in the BBC's Listening and Writing programme, he wrote essays, reviews and articles for newspapers and magazines like The New Statesman and The Listener.
On 7 April 1961, Faber & Faber published his first children's book, Meet My Folks!, a light-hearted series of heavily rhyming poems about imaginary relatives. At the end of August the young family moved to Devon where they had bought Court Green, an old parsonage.
On 17 January 1962 their second child, Nicholas Farrar, was born. But the marriage already seems to have been in crisis so that the couple separated. Hughes moved back to London at the end of September while Plath and the children followed two months later. It was during this time that Sylvia Plath wrote what is generally recognised as her most powerful poetry, Ariel.
Sylvia Plath died, taking her own life, in February 1963.
After Sylvia's death, Ted Hughes took the children and eventually moved back to Devon. A lecturer's salary granted to him by the University of Vienna for five years [Paris Review, 62] allowed him to support himself and the children.
For several years from 1963 onwards he published next to no new poetry for adults, though writing reviews and criticism for newspapers and magazines. Instead, he seems to have concentrated on writing for children. How the Whale Became, his first collection of fable-like stories for children, and The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People, a remarkable collection of poems set on a Moon at »the bottom of our dreams« [Poetry in the Making, 110], were both published in November 1963. Notably, and similar to major themes in his works for adults, Hughes continued to develop the main thematic strands of both books.
In April 1964, Faber & Faber published Nessie the Mannerless Monster, originally a commission for Vogue a few years earlier. In 1965 Hughes worked as a judge in the National Children's Poetry Competition of the Daily Mirror, later the W.H. Smith National Literary Competition. With Daniel Weissbort he co-edited (and contributed to) Modern Poetry in Translation, aiming at the introduction of ›foreign‹ poetic voices into the British literary landscape. Two radio plays for children were broadcast: The Tiger's Bones and Beauty and the Beast, followed, over the next years, by The Coming of the Kings (1967), Sean, the Fool, the Devil and the Cats (1968) and Orpheus (1971).
In 1966, Hughes started writing the first Crow poems. Two limited editions for adults were published: Recklings and The Burning of the Brothel. In May 1967, Faber & Faber published Wodwo, containing poems, five short stories and a play, some of which date back as far as the early sixties. In July the first Crow poem appeared in the Scotsman, and in December, based on his work for the BBC's Listening and Writing programme, Faber published Poetry in the Making. In addition, there was the limited edition Scapegoats and Rabies and he began working with Peter Brook's National Theatre Company on Seneca's Oedipus.
In February 1968 The Iron Man was published, followed by the first performance of Seneca's Oedipus in March, and Hughes edited A Choice of Emily Dickinson's Verse.
1969 saw the print publication of Oedipus. In March, tragic personal events once again overshadowed his life, when his partner Assia Wevill took her life and that of their daughter Shura (born in 1967). Hughes' mother died shortly afterwards, in May.
In August 1970, Ted Hughes married Carol Orchard, daughter of a Devon farmer, and finally settled down in Court Green. On 1 September 1970, Faber & Faber published The Coming of the Kings and Other Plays, followed on 12 October by Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, a poetic cycle sparked by a collaboration with Leonard Baskin. During the same year the first »Myth and Education« essay appeared in Children's Literature in Education.
Since the production of Oedipus, Ted Hughes and Peter Brook had continued their collaborative work in which Hughes provided »germs of plots and suggestive dramatic situations« [Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, xi] for rehearsals and for Brooks experiments with different forms of expression on stage. Over the Summer 1971, then, Hughes accompanied Brook's International Centre for Theatre Research for one of their experiments in theatre which would culminate in a performance at the 5th Shiraz-Festival at Persepolis, Iran.
For source material, Brook had returned to Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound and related sources while Hughes developed »Orghast«, a new ›language‹ which aimed at communication beyond words, while attempting to short-circuit the actors out of habit and imprisonment by concrete language [cf. A.C.H. Smith: Orghast at Persepolis, 1972].
While in Iran, Hughes worked on several poems later collected in Prometheus on His Crag. He edited his Shakespeare collection: A Choice of Shakespeare's Verse containing a foreword that already hinted at ›Shakespeare's myth‹, which Hughes would later explore more fully in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.
Returning from Iran, Hughes retreated further from the public. He bought Moortown farm and, apart from writing, dedicated his time to farm work, breeding sheep and cattle, helped by his father in law, Jack Orchard. In 1972, Faber & Faber published Selected Poems: 1957—1967 and a second (augmented) edition of Crow.
Little is known of Hughes' life during the following years until the mid-eighties. Naturally, he continued writing, exploring new themes and developing older ones that preoccupied him. His major publications between 1973 and 1984 include the following:
In 1980, Keith Sagar organised the first Ted Hughes conference, the contributions to which were collected in The Achievement of Ted Hughes. While the 1980s also saw the publication of many major works for children, Hughes also continued his efforts publishing Sylvia Plath's work often earning nothing but criticism for it. Important publications between 1980 and 1985 include:
On 19 December 1984, following the decline to take of the offer by Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes was appointed Poet Laureate in succession of the late John Betjeman. Writing the occasional poem to commemorate some royal event, Hughes also used the post to promote one of his most urgent concerns: protection of our natural environment. His life withdrawn from the public continued through the eighties more or less until the publication of Birthday Letters, shortly before his death.
Major Publications between 1985 and 1995 include:
Over the last few years of his life, Hughes had turned away from essay writing that had preoccupied him for much of the early nineties. He seems to have taken a deliberate move back to translation and theatre, an attempt to break free from writing prose and original verse — a re-orientation. Spring Awakening — a translation of Frank Wedekind's Frühlingserwachen — was published in 1995, soon followed by a translation of Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, staged in London in the autumn of 1996.
It is odd to see that in hindsight, by the mid-ninetees it seems as if Hughes was trying to put his house in order, establishing a canon of what he considered his best work, selling manuscripts and correspondence to a university, issuing tape recordings, returning to long-abandoned projects.
In Spring 1997, the Robert W. Woodruff Library of Emory University (Atlanta, USA) acquired an archive including drafts of poems from each of Hughes' published collections as well as literary correspondence, photographs and related materials (shipping weight 5,000 pounds).
Sparked by his contribution to the collection After Ovid, Hughes translated several passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses — a book that seems to have preoccupied him on and off throughout his whole career. These were published in 1997 as Tales from Ovid, for which Hughes won the Whitbread Award. In 1997 Faber published several cassette tape recordings, mainly of his works for children, as well as Shaggy and Spotty, a picture book illustrated by David Lucas.
Moreover, there was a new audio cassette version of Crow, in which Hughes included parts of the previously unpublished link narrative while returning the poem »Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days« to its original context in the Crow narrative. With Seamus Heaney, he collaborated on the edition of The School Bag — a remarkable companion volume to The Rattle Bag.
Early in 1998 followed the publication of Birthday Letters, for which in early October he received the Forward Prize. In the Summer Ted Hughes was appointed a member of the Order of Merit.
On October 28 1998, Ted Hughes died of cancer at the age of 68.
Among the awards Hughes received over the years were: