Ted Hughes (1930-98) is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential English poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Below, we introduce the work of Ted Hughes by focusing on some of his key influences and a number of the major recurring themes in Hughes’ work. We’ll try, as ever, to throw in a few interesting facts and quotations along the way, as is our way at IL Towers.
Ted Hughes: a brief overview of his work
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).
Influences on Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes got the bug for poetry after his brother chanted native American war songs at him. This is significant not least because it foregrounds several important features of Hughes’ own work: its preoccupation with war, Hughes’ interest in ritual and especially primal and ancient rituals, and the oral quality to Hughes’ work (he was a powerful reader of his own poetry, often holding audiences spellbound by his performances: you can hear him reading one of his poems here). Hughes’ schoolteachers introduced him to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot.
Of these two, Hopkins would prove the more lasting influence. Unlike many English poets of the later twentieth century, who turned to T. S. Eliot and the modernists for their inspiration, or else to W. H. Auden and those poets who followed (and reacted against) modernism in the 1930s, Ted Hughes went back to nature poets for his inspiration: not just the Romantics but the innovative Victorian nature poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) and the Edwardian and ‘Georgian’ nature poet of the early twentieth century, Edward Thomas (1878-1917). Indeed, the arresting opening line of one of Hughes’s earliest great poems, ‘The Thought-Fox’ – ‘I imagine this midnight moment’s forest’ – can be viewed as a summoning of Hopkins’s famous opening line from ‘The Windhover’: ‘I caught this morning morning’s minion…’ It’s appropriate, of course, that such an allusion should appear in a poem that is about the struggle for poetic inspiration.
Indeed, Hughes had a more fraught relationship with poetic tradition than many other twentieth-century poets. T. S. Eliot championed the role of tradition in a famous essay, arguing that a modern poet should use the literary canon to underscore his own individuality most fiercely. We ‘hear’ Eliot’s own voice most clearly in those lines of his that borrow from, transform, or critique the words or ideas of other poets, as his great poem The Waste Land demonstrates. Eliot, a critic as well as a poet who often lectured on literary topics to huge audiences – one of his lectures, in 1956, was attended by nearly 14,000 people – took an altogether more analytical or academic approach to English poetic tradition. By contrast, Hughes disliked studying the rich tradition of English poetry so much that he even abandoned his studies in English Literature at Cambridge, switching to Archaeology and Anthropology in his third year. He later commented on the debilitating effect of the ‘terrible, suffocating, maternal octopus’ of literary tradition, which stifled his own poetic creativity. In short, Hughes was a poet who felt he couldn’t create his own poems while taking apart or analysing the poems of others.
Instead, Hughes read widely in his own time, ‘studying’ in a far less academic sense the work of nature poets like Hopkins and Thomas (the latter, noted for his unsentimental treatment of nature, as in ‘A Cat’, Hughes called ‘the father of us all’) as well as war poets like Wilfred Owen (whose influence can be seen on Hughes’ frequent use of pararhyme in his work). Indeed, Edward Thomas was both a nature poet and a war poet – he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917 – so his importance for Hughes was arguably twofold. After Thomas, probably the key twentieth-century influence on Hughes was D. H. Lawrence. For all their differences in style, Lawrence reinforced the importance of valuing instinct over rationality, or ‘blood’ over ‘brain’. And instinct is a key part of Hughes’s poetry, whether it’s rooted in individual action or Darwinian behaviour.
Themes of Ted Hughes’ work
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’.
After he graduated from Cambridge in 1954, Hughes had held a number of jobs, including rose gardener, night-watchman, dishwasher at the cafeteria in London Zoo, and reader for J. Arthur Rank. Working at London Zoo gave Hughes the opportunity to observe the behaviour and appearance of a wide variety of animals, and this clearly informs his work. But whilst his early work from, say, the publication of The Hawk in the Rain in 1957 until Wodwo in 1967 is primarily focused on nature (with myth and religion being secondary), there is a shift in the late 1960s, while Hughes is working on Crow – a volume which, as Hughes’ biographer Jonathan Bate has shown, Hughes viewed as an ‘anti-Bible’ which replaced Christianity with another belief system, a new myth based on pagan influences, blood, and the wilder aspects of nature. Crow is also, formally, a very different kind of work from the poems in Hughes’ earlier collections, closer to the free-verse experiments of the modernists, and to the psalm-like structure of Biblical verses, than the traditional stanzas (albeit with Hughes’ trademark use of pararhyme) which we find in Lupercal, for instance. This interest in religion – and in challenging organised religion by ambitiously trying to come up with a whole mythology of Hughes’ own creation – continued into the 1970s in works like Gaudete, with its emphasis on free love (practised, controversially, by a man of the cloth). Hughes’ later work returns to the form and themes of his earlier career in many ways.
Specifically, it is the individual’s survival that matters the most for Hughes, and this is what we see again and again in his poetry: Crow is an individual, the snowdrop is notably singular in that poem, and the hawk that speaks in ‘Hawk Roosting’ is solitary. Solitariness and individuality are far more common in a Hughes poem than collective or group-belonging. It’s the individual’s survival, often against the odds, that exercises his imagination. Tellingly, this may also partly go back to his father: William Hughes was shot in the chest during the First World War, and only saved by the paybook in his breast pocket. Nowhere more clearly is this prominent theme seen than in Crow, which is to Hughes’ work what The Waste Land was to Eliot, not because it is necessarily his most accomplished work but because it is nevertheless his ‘masterpiece’, his truest and most powerful statement of his own distinctive vision and style.
To conclude this introduction to Ted Hughes’ work, it’s worth echoing the question which Michael Schmidt poses in his brilliant study The Lives Of The Poets: is Ted Hughes a ‘nature’ poet in the traditional sense, or are his images of nature ‘symbolic enactments of human types and aggressions’? Is nature – whether a flower, a fish, a hawk, a fox, or a crow – ever ‘just’ itself in the work of Ted Hughes, or is it a symbol for something beyond the poem? There are, after all, key poems which suggest that a fox is not just a fox in a Hughes poem – ‘The Thought-Fox’, for instance, shows this duality of nature in his work right from the beginning. Arguably, Hughes is a great nature poet because he is not ‘merely’ a nature poet – not that nature isn’t a sufficient topic for the purview of a poet, on its own. But Hughes’ work spans a much vaster world than the theatre of animals and plants: it raises questions about human activity, from industrialisation to war to religion and much, much more besides.
Image: Portrait of Ted Hughes by Reginald Gray, 2004; via Wikimedia Commons.