The best poems by Ted Hughes selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Ted Hughes (1930-98) remains one of the most divisive English poets of the second half of the twentieth century, and not just because of the controversy surrounding his marriage to Sylvia Plath. But whereas a very different poet like, say, Philip Larkin has attracted criticism because of things he did or views he held, many still find themselves able to enjoy Larkin’s poetry without necessarily being a fan of the man. But Ted Hughes’s poems are almost as controversial as Ted Hughes the man.
Where should the poetry fan begin when seeking to explore his work? Or what are the ‘highlights’ from his long and prolific poetic career? It’s impossible to narrow it down to a definitive list of ten poems, but in this post we’ve tried to pick ten of the finest Ted Hughes poems which give an indication of his range while also, we hope, emphasising what made Hughes such a distinctive voice in English poetry.
Note: we’ve linked to those poems which others have reproduced online, but one of the poems is not available anywhere. However, we would recommend getting hold of the Collected Poems of Ted Hughes or, for a more affordable selection of his poetry, Ted Hughes – New Selected Poems 1957-1994. We have also written a detailed introduction to the style and themes of Hughes’s work here.
Ted Hughes: a brief overview of his work
Feel free to skip this section and go straight down to the selection of Hughes’ poems.
Hughes came onto the poetic scene with his debut 1957 collection The Hawk in the Rain (which his wife, Sylvia Plath, had placed with a publisher for him), and he was quickly being touted by critics as an exciting and distinctive new voice in English poetry. Over the next four decades, Hughes would be a prolific poet, with landmark collections including Lupercal (1960), Wodwo (1967), Crow (1970), Remains of Elmet (1979 – about the ancient landscape of his homeland, rural Yorkshire), Wolfwatching (1989), and Birthday Letters, which appeared in 1998 shortly before his death.
This last collection broke a 35-year silence from Hughes about the death of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. However, in between these major volumes there were other, less significant but still interesting works, such as the bizarre 1977 narrative work Gaudete (about a priest who becomes a sexual deviant) and the 1992 collection Rain-charm for the Duchy (collecting some of Hughes’ poems written in his official role as UK Poet Laureate, a post he held from 1984 until his death; one of his last Laureate poems was an elegy on the death of Princess Diana in 1997). Hughes also translated numerous works of classical literature, including Tales from Ovid (1997) and Aeschylus’ trilogy the Oresteia (1999).
1. ‘The Thought-Fox’.
This poem, from Hughes’s first collection The Hawk in the Rain (1957), explores the writer’s struggle to find inspiration, which is depicted in the poem by the fox.Rejecting the typical poetic trope of the stars, the poet is gratified to sense the arrival of the ‘thought-fox’, a fox whose presence gradually becomes clearer and more vivid. ‘The Thought-Fox’ is one of the most celebrated poetic accounts of the act of writing poetry and the attendant search for poetic inspiration.
The poem had its origins in one of the most significant events of Hughes’s young life: while he was studying English at the University of Cambridge, Hughes found that studying poetry was having a deleterious effect on his own poetry: he was writing virtually no new poetry, because he felt suffocated by the ‘terrible, suffocating, maternal octopus’ of literary tradition. While trying to work on a literary-critical essay for his degree, Hughes retired to bed at 2am, having been unable to write the essay. That night, he had a dream that a large fox walked into his room, its eyes filled with pain. It came up to his desk, laid a bleeding hand on the blank page where Hughes had tried and failed to write his essay, and said: ‘Stop this – you are destroying us.’ Hughes, who had a lifelong interest in portents, took this as a sign. In his third year, he transferred from English to anthropology and archaeology – and his poetry-writing took off again.
This story probably provided Hughes with the genesis for ‘The Thought-Fox’ – a poem in which Hughes struggles, not to write an analysis of a poem, but the poem itself. We’ve offered some further thoughts on this poem here.
This poem offers a great way into the world of Ted Hughes’s poetry. It’s short, almost Imagist in its concision and focus on its central image – that of the white flower, described memorably with its ‘pale head heavy as metal’ in this eight-line masterpiece.
Rather than giving us an idyllic or sentimental poem about the fragile or delicate beauty of the snowdrop, Hughes describes the flower in terms that recall the predatory weasel and crow, with the snowdrop’s ‘pale head heavy as metal’ (that last word so near, and yet so far, from ‘petal’) picking up on the weasel and crow which look as if they have been ‘moulded in brass’.
One of Hughes’s most frequently anthologised poems, ‘Pike’ is another poem from quite early on in his career. Hughes conveys the idea of this fish, ‘three inches long’, being somewhat bigger and more dangerous than it actually is, inviting us to view the fish as the descendant of a larger, primitive pike which once swam the world’s waters.
4. ‘View of a Pig’.
This poem almost reads like a sequel to the pig-slaughtering scene in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – and Hardy was an important influence on Hughes. The speaker of this poem looks down at a dead pig and remarks how utterly dead it is, and contrasts its now deadened and lifeless state with the warm, active creature that is the living pig. This is done unsentimentally and without inviting judgment about the poor pig’s fate.
5. ‘Night-Ride on Ariel’.
This is the one poem from Hughes’s 1998 collection Birthday Letters – which topped the bestseller lists when it appeared, shortly before Hughes’s death – which we’ve included on this list, but the poems Hughes wrote about his relationship with Sylvia Plath form an important part of his work and ‘Night-Ride on Ariel’ is a good example of how Hughes engages with Plath’s work in Birthday Letters, poring over Plath’s troubled life, her depression and her electric-shock treatment, while he looked on, unable to help. The whole of Birthday Letters is well worth reading. (We’ve picked some of Plath’s best poems here.)
6. ‘King of Carrion’.
Hughes wrote the cycle of poems about ‘Crow’ in the late 1960s, several years after Sylvia Plath’s death. Crow was a far more experimental and avant-garde book than Hughes’s previous volumes of poetry, and ‘King of Carrion’ is an accessible but representative poem from this enthralling if unsettling collection. Described by Hughes’s biographer Sir Jonathan Bate as an anti-bible, Crow is arguably Hughes’s masterpiece.
7. ‘Hawk Roosting’.
Here is another great Hughes poem about a bird of prey, in the same tradition as his Crow sequence of poems. The hawk is the speaker of this poem, declaring his dominion over the world and asserting that just as he has always been in charge, so he will remain the mighty creature he is, the pinnacle of Creation.
8. ‘Esther’s Tomcat’.
This wonderful poem might easily have featured in our pick of the best cat poems, but we only discovered this classic Hughes poem after we’d compiled that list. So it features here in our rundown of great Ted Hughes poems, for its brilliant eye for detail when it comes to describing animals – and few poets have had a better eye for such a thing than Hughes.
This early Ted Hughes poem, about the Bishop of St. Davids in Wales who was burnt at the stake in 1555 under the Marian persecutions, contains Hughes’s trademark attention to the violence and pain inherent in the natural world. Hughes emphasises the bloody and horrific nature of Ferrar’s death (Hughes spells his name Farrar), but also stresses that Ferrar was defiant to the last.
10. ‘Telegraph Wires’.
Although he’s best-known as a nature poet Ted Hughes also wrote a number of fine poems about modern, man-made phenomena – if one can count telegraph wires as ‘modern’ in the late twentieth century. Hughes’s description of the wires connecting one town to the next ‘over the heather’ takes a characteristically sinister turn towards the end of the poem.
But nature is always there in a Ted Hughes poem, and so it is with ‘Telegraph Wires’. Immediately, we find ourselves among a ‘lonely moor’: it could almost be Wuthering Heights country, the landscape of Emily Brontë but also Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Wuthering Heights’, as well as Hughes’s own homeland, of course (he grew up in Yorkshire). As if the poet (or we, the reader) were able to create this landscape as easily as the telegraph wires were made by man, we are told to ‘Take telegraph wires’ together with that ‘moor’ in order to create something ‘alive’ …
Themes of Ted Hughes’ work: some concluding observations
Prominent themes in Hughes’ poetry include nature (of course), especially the struggle for survival that is inherent within nature, as well as myth (he was a devotee of Robert Graves’ 1948 book The White Goddess, which argued for a mythical basis for poetic inspiration, centred on the triple goddess of maiden-mother-crone) and war (his father’s experience fighting in the First World War left a profound mark on Hughes). This partly explains why nature, for Hughes, is often treated in warlike terms: if not the greatest nature poet England has ever produced (some would argue that John Clare should take that mantle), Hughes is certainly the greatest nature poet writing about the natural world as a Darwinian theatre of cruelty and brutality. Of course, he also celebrates the power and awe of nature too. With this in mind, it’s perhaps best to think of Hughes’ work as being about survival, first and foremost. In ‘Snowdrop’ (1960), the flower flourishes even before the winter has given way to spring, and despite the harsh and unpromising surroundings; in Crow (1970), the trickster-figure of Crow is famously ‘stronger than Death’.
Complement this pick of the greatest Ted Hughes poems with our selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s best poetry and our top ten Thomas Hardy poems. Alternatively, check out our pick of the 10 greatest Shakespeare plays.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.