Retro Review: The Letters of Ted Hughes
My Anglo-American literature course ‘The Poetry of Violence 1902-2002’ is something of a holdover from when I was more interested in poetry than I am now, but it’s a course I enjoy teaching a lot and one which I look forward to returning to each year. Having already looked at World War I poetry, TS Eliot, and a representative selection of verse from World War II, I’m now approaching the point where the Third Years and I discuss the work of the divisive English poet Ted Hughes. Not a bad time so to revisit this piece I wrote for the Sunday Business Post a little over four years ago (which, like a lot of my SBP journalism, seems to have vanished from their website).
Selected and Edited by Christopher Reid
Review by Val Nolan
Arguably the greatest English-language poet since Yeats, Ted Hughes never conformed to the stereotype of the weedy, introverted writer. A vigorous, rugged outdoorsman, a fisher of pike, salmon and women, Hughes was an obsessive letter-writer and this 740 page selection represents only a quarter of his extant correspondence. But what an astonishing quarter it is.
Among its many tantalising insights, his devotion to Sylvia Plath – his first wife – will surprise many. His earliest letter to her begins: ‘that night was nothing but getting to know how smooth your body is. The memory of it goes through me like brandy.’ The notes which follow are stupefied with longing: ‘Love love love love love love, from your Ted,’ he writes constantly.
Yet Plath’s suicide in 1963, followed six years later by that of Hughes’s partner Assia Wevill, who also killed their child, was adopted as a cause célèbre by the developing women’s movement. Hughes was demonised, publicly, and the story of ‘the mysterious role in my life that her posthumous life has played’ is now well known. ‘I was the only person who could have helped her,’ he says, ‘and the only person so jaded by her states and demands that I could not recognize when she really needed it’. Despondent, Hughes turned his grief into one of the most staggering poetic oeuvres of the Twentieth Century and, as a result, became one of literature’s best known and most controversial figures.
Writing about a Faber party in 1960, he brings to life the famous ‘Pride of Poets’ photograph which saw him in the company of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice. Auden, says Hughes, has a face ‘like a Viking seaman’ while ‘MacNeice was drunk and talked like a quick-fire car salesman’. Spender was also drunk, ‘silly-giddy like Mabel Brown at her 9 year old birthday party,’ but Eliot, meanwhile, ‘has been ill’.
Other poets, such as Philip Larkin, were the subject of generous and fanciful dispatches which Hughes himself described as ‘fan’ letters. ‘What a remarkable map of the heavens you’ve been carrying around,’ says Hughes, enclosing the hand-drawn horoscope he cast for Larkin. And this to a man who wrote, in his own letters to Faber: ‘No, of course Ted’s no good at all. Not a single solitary bit of good.’
In accepting the position of Poet Laureate in 1984 – which many believed would go to Larkin – Hughes found a wider readership. He revitalized the role, particularly through his work with children (or ‘younger readers’, as he liked to think of them), but critics found his Laureate verses to be trying, particularly their deliberate imperialistic overtures and their tendency towards flattery of the Royal Family. Looking back though, Hughes’s enduring attachment to the idea of the Monarchy makes his Laureateship less surprising. More amusing is his domestic depiction of life with the Royals: ‘Visited the Queen on Thursday,’ he wrote to his brother. ‘Had a nice talk.’
More formal in his poetry, Hughes utilised Lions and crowns to represent the ‘twin totems’ of British identity (consciously British now, where earlier his concern had been with the English): ‘The Lion, for me, can be nostalgic pageantry but the crown quite real,’ he writes. ‘Incomprehension of the Lion,’ as expressed by critics, ‘is a sign that the country’s falling to bits.’
In discussing his work throughout this volume, Hughes is wry and engaging. One long letter provides a wonderful close-reading – destined to be pillaged, wholesale, by literature students – of a poem from his first masterpiece, Crow, while a long letter discusses how his early nature poems evolved into the visceral iterations of sex and violence which comprise the great sequences of Cave Birds and Gaudete. Only our sexuality, he declares, ‘carries the seeds of humanity and joy’. For all of this, however, Hughes was clear: ‘I would prefer to know as little as possible about what is written about my writing.’ He had been burned before, of course, by the invasive interest of antagonistic Plath scholars.
Even posthumously, the poet’s personal life remains closely guarded. One of the few failures of this volume is the absence of letters to Carol Orchard, the farmer’s daughter he married in 1970. Still, there are hints of his tenderness in letters to others. ‘My wife is a wonder,’ he says. ‘After 18 years of marriage I’d do anything to marry her again tomorrow.’
As a poet and critic, Hughes was utterly unique. The correspondence here, touching astrology, shamanism, Shakespeare, politics, farming, fishing, and every conceivable subject between, is more varied and more alive than the best work of most other writers. The letters of others, Plath and Larkin included, look drab by comparison.
- Val Nolan teaches Twentieth Century literature at NUI Galway.
This article originally published as ‘Letters of Pain and Pleasure’ in the Sunday Business Post, 2nd December 2007, Agenda supplement, p. 24.