Ted Hughes was born Edward James Hughes in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, England. His father was William Hughes, a carpenter and a veteran of World War I. As a boy, Hughes spent much of his time fishing, hunting, and studying animals. His fascination with the cruelty and the power of the natural world inspires him to write the most famous and distinctive poems. After two years of national service in the Royal Air Force, he studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, where he read English before changing to archaeology and anthropology. It was at Cambridge that he met the American poetess Sylvia Plath, whom he married in 1956. Plath encouraged him to pursue his poetic vocation, and they lived together in the United States, teaching and writing, until 1959. Hughes’s first collection of poems, The Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957, followed by Lupercal (1960) and Wodwo (1967).
Many of the finest poems in these volumes describe animals, characteristically using bold metaphors and dramatic, physical language. They often concentrate on the deadly violence of the natural world, made manifest in jaguars, pikes, hawks, and even thrushes.
By examining the ruthless, instinctive behaviour of animals, Hughes revealed the distance between human civilization and its primitive origins. His poetry continually seeks to reconnect language to its unconscious source. In his use of sprung rhythms and onomatopoeic sounds, Hughes was following the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. However, the presiding influence during this period was D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence, who had an English working-class background similar to Hughes’s, had explored primitivism and the unconscious in animal poems such as “Snake” (Complete Poems, 1964).
In 1970, Crow was published, the most savagely nihilistic—and controversial—volume of poetry Hughes wrote. Some critics saw this bleakness as, in part, arising from Hughes’s reaction to the tragedy of Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963, and to the death of his companion Assia Gutman in 1969. Crow is a related sequence of poems in which Hughes, drawing on various mythologies, reworks legends of the Creation and the Apocalypse. The sequence is conveyed in the mocking vision, and by the harsh, unmusical voice, of the crow, a trickster who often opposes and thwarts God. Myths and spiritual teachings inspired Hughes, as they did earlier poets such as William Blake and W. B. Yeats, and after his formal anthropological training at Cambridge University, he immersed himself in the study of dreams, occult symbolism, and shamanism. Later poetic sequences using mythic themes are Gaudete (1977) and Cave Birds (1975).
Hughes’s poetic sensibility is rooted in Britain’s changing landscapes and her ancient, often bloody history, concerns which produced volumes such as Remains of Elmet (1979) and River (1983). His status as a national poet was given official recognition in 1984, when he was appointed Poet Laureate following the death of Sir John Betjeman. Hughes’s laureate verse is collected in Rain-Charm for the Duchy (1992). There is no consensus about Hughes’s stature as a poet. Many readers have found his mythic verse puzzling, even confused and impenetrable. Critics have also complained that a misanthropic obsession with violence has detracted from any subtler qualities in his poetry. However, he has influenced many contemporary poets, including Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, whose early volume The Death of a Naturalist (1966) owes a substantial debt to Hughes. Alongside his work for adults, Hughes produced many volumes of children’s poetry, including Meet My Folks (1961), Season Songs (1975), and Under the North Star (1981).
His story The Iron Man (1968) is considered a children’s classic (a sequel, The Iron Woman, appeared in 1993). For the theatre he translated Seneca’s Oedipus (1968), and collaborated with director Peter Brook on Orghast (1971), a drama written in an inverted language. He edited several anthologies, and published selections from, among others, Shakespeare, Keith Douglas, and Sylvia Plath. Much of Hughes’s occasional criticism is collected in Winter Pollen (1994), but his most significant critical work is Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), a monumental study of fertility myths in Shakespeare’s verse and drama. His New Selected Poems 1957-94 was published in 1995. He caused a literary sensation in January 1998 with the publication of Birthday Letters, a collection of poems that deals explicitly with his relationship with Sylvia Plath. Hughes won the Whitbread Book of the Year award the same year for his work Tales From Ovid (1997), and again a year later for Birthday Letters. Also in 1998 he was awarded the Order of Merit (limited to 24 members), following the death of Sir Michael Tippett. Ted Hughes died at his home in Devon on October 28, 1998.