Ted Hughes

This Foldout looks at some aspects of the life and works of Ted Hughes

His life

The poet was born Edward James Hughes on 17th August 1930 at 1 Aspinall Street, Mytholmroyd, the youngest of three children of carpenter William Henry Hughes and Edith (née Farrar)

He had an older sister, Olwyn, and brother, Gerald.

He attended Burnley Road Primary School, Mytholmroyd.

In 1937, the family moved to Mexborough, South Yorkshire. His parents ran a newsagents and tobacconists shop. The children disliked Mexborough and Gerald left home to become a gamekeeper.

Ted went to Mexborough Grammar School. He began writing verse at the age of 11 and was encouraged by his teachers. His poetry is characterized by its harsh portrayal of the more cruel aspects of nature. He said that the foreboding and violent atmosphere of his poems was influenced by his father's accounts of service in Gallipoli during World War I, and his own early experiences on the moors of the Calder Valley, where he hunted small game with his brother and developed a keen interest in the natural world.

In 1948, he won an Open Exhibition to Pembroke College, Cambridge but first completed two years' National Service – where he was a ground wireless mechanic in the RAF on a 3-man station in east Yorkshire – before going to University in 1951 to read English. In 1953, he changed to archæology and anthropology. In June 1954, his poem The Little Boys and the Seasons was published in the University magazine Granta under the pseudonym Daniel Hearing.

In 1956, he and a group of friends decided to produce a poetry magazine – St Botolph's Review, and at the inauguration party for the Review on 25th February 1956, he met American writer Sylvia Plath, who had come to Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship and was studying at Newnham College.

On 16th June 1956, the couple married and spent their honeymoon writing in Benidorm, Spain.

After graduating, he worked as rose gardener, night-watchman, zoo attendant, and script reader for J. Arthur Rank before becoming a teacher.

In 1956, Sylvia typed up a manuscript of his work and entered it in a competition for a first book of poems in English which was sponsored by the Poetry Centre of the Young Men's & Young Women's Hebrew Association of New York. From the 287 entries, the judges – W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Stephen Spender - chose The Hawk in the Rain. The prize was immediate publication in 1957. The book received much critical praise, and established Hughes as an important and innovative poet.

The couple lived in the USA from 1957, teaching and attending a writers' colony – Hughes taught one term of Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and Sylvia took up a teaching appointment at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. The couple moved to Boston and Sylvia decided to dedicate herself to full-time writing.

In 1958, the couple met sculptor and graphic artist, Leonard Baskin, with whom Hughes developed a relationship, producing collaborative works such as:

After a camping tour across the USA in the summer of 1959, the couple spent the autumn in the artists' colony at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs.

The couple returned to England in December 1959, and after a short stay at Heptonstall, they moved into a tiny flat in London.

Their daughter Frieda Rebecca was born on 1st March 1960. Hughes wrote a series of talks in the BBC's Listening and Writing radio programme, and essays, reviews and articles for newspapers and magazines including The New Statesman and The Listener. In August 1961, the couple moved to a parsonage at Court Green, North Tawton, Devon. Hughes stayed in Devon for the rest of his life.

A son, Nicholas Farrar, was born on 17th January 1962. The marriage began to show signs of strain. Ted had an affair and left Sylvia for another woman – Assia Wevill – and Sylvia burned much of his material.

In 1962, the couple separated and Sylvia returned with the children to London to start divorce proceedings. Depressed and ill during the worst winter for many years, Sylvia committed suicide – gassing herself – in February 1963 and is buried at Heptonstall. Ted then took the children, and was granted a lecturer's salary at the University of Vienna for five years.

In 1965, Hughes was as a judge in the National Children's Poetry Competition of the Daily Mirror, later the W.H.Smith National Literary Competition. In July 1967, the first Crow poem appeared in The Scotsman, and later in 1967, he edited A Choice of Emily Dickinson's Verse.

In March 1969, his partner Assia took her own life and that of their 4-year-old daughter Alexandra Tatiana EloiseShura – taking pills and then gassing herself as Sylvia had done, and in May, Hughes's mother died.

In 1970, he bought Lumb Bank House at Heptonstall, and this later became The Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, a part of the Arvon Foundation, providing residential writing and poetry courses. He was unsettled and moved between England and Ireland.

In August 1970, he married Carol Orchard, daughter of a neighbouring farmer, and settled in Devon.

Ted collaborated with Peter Brook on Oedipus, and in 1971, they staged productions at Brook's International Centre for Theatre Research in Iran. In Iran, Ted worked on several poems which were later collected in Prometheus on His Crag and he edited his Shakespeare collection entitled A Choice of Shakespeare's Verse. When he returned to England, he retreated from the public, and bought Moortown farm in Devon and dedicated himself – apart from writing – to farm work, and breeding sheep and cattle with his father-in-law, Jack Orchard. His books Moortown and Moortown Diary date from this time.

There was considerable controversy about his editing of Sylvia's work. He destroyed or lost entries from the journals, and re-ordered his wife's final collection – Ariel. After 35 years he broke his silence on the subject, and his final collection – The Birthday Letters – records their relationship.

He published translations, several books of verse for children, translations, and a volume of prose entitled Winter Pollen [1994]. Other works are listed below

He was awarded the OBE in 1977. On 19th December 1984, after Philip Larkin had turned down the post, Ted was appointed Poet Laureate on the death of John Betjeman – becoming the youngest Poet Laureate since Alfred Lord Tennyson. He used the post to promote one of his most urgent concerns: protection of the natural environment.

In January 1998, he broke his silence on Sylvia Plath's death with the publication of Birthday Letters, a collection of 88 poems, which caused a literary sensation and shot to the top of the best seller lists. In summer 1998, he was appointed a member of the Order of Merit.

He died on 28th October 1998 at his home in Devon, after battling for 18 months against cancer of the liver.

Hughes loved Devon and regarded it as home. There is a granite memorial stone, between the sources of the rivers Teign, Dart, Taw and East Okement on northern Dartmoor, into which Hughes had requested his name be carved. Prince Charles who owns the Duchy of Cornwall was a friend of Hughes, and gave permission for this. Hughes also asked for his ashes to be scattered in the area.

It was his wish that his last play, Alcestis, be premièred in the Calder Valley. This was done by the Northern Broadsides company in 2000. The play had its radio première on BBC Radio 3 in November 2001.

There are plans for a memorial theatre and a Ted Hughes Poetry Centre in Mytholmroyd.

He blocked several attempts to make a film of his life. In 1998, there was a proposal for a project starring Meg Ryan. In October 2002, the BBC filmed a biographical film – Ted and Sylvia – starring Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow.

In October 2008, the British Library bought 220 files and boxes of manuscripts, letters, journals, personal diaries and ephemera for the sum of £500,000.

More details can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The council erected a Blue Plaque in his memory at 1 Aspinall Street

Some of his works

His writings include:

He also edited many anthologies:

There are many other essays, plays and books of poetry which he wrote and edited, including:

Some of his awards

Ted Hughes received several literary prizes and awards:

See Broadbent's Foundry, Mytholmroyd, Donald B. Crossley, Elmet Trust and Walter Farrar

© Malcolm Bull 2023
Revised 12:02 / 29th September 2023 / 22572

Page Ref: X586

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