‘More controversy and scandal attaches to his name than that of any of other figure of literature with the exception of Lord Byron’.
These are the words of the literary critic and Ted Hughes specialist Jonathon Bate. This statement is especially apt for a man accused of driving two women to identical suicides; destroying the journals of Sylvia Plath; and for his reputed cruelty and violent character. This image is only embellished when reading his work: in ‘Hawk Roosting’ we read the aggression of ‘I kill where I please’ and the megalomania of ‘I hold Creation in my foot’.
I will grant that aggression is a key concern of the poem, however, it belongs to the persona and not the poet as I have so often heard. I shall not try to deny or negate the controversies orbiting Hughes but I shall always object to drawing an equivalence between the poet and the poems; it is lazy criticism which ignores what the poem says.
Of course, the literary world has not neglected his work and he continues to be ranked as one of the greatest English poets of the century. However, in the public sphere his prominence has waned. This is due to the aforementioned equivalency in which we have let the poet eclipse the poems.
To my mind, Hughes’ brilliance is the very reason why he is paradoxically unpalatable and relevant for our society. The past several decades have placed a premium upon the individual. This is an idea that we see in advertising, the exponential growth of social media, and (to be frank) the narcissism that abounds in modern culture. Moreover, it is also a common observation that we are increasingly isolated from the natural world and tend to think of it idyllically or not at all. When reading Hughes’ work, especially his earlier poems, these zeitgeists are challenged. This is understood better after reading ‘Poetry in the Making’, the most explicit explanation of his poetics. He says that his principle interest is to capture ‘things which have a vivid life of their own, outside mine’. His most characteristically ‘Hughsian’ poetry does exactly this. ‘Hawk Roosting’ for example explores what it means to be an avian predator; it may invite judgement, but to commit one’s self misses the point. One should read the hawk’s experience as being outside of human experience in which usual value judgements become artificial and imposed. His poetry depicts the natural world as violent and indifferent to the human world. Thus, his work flouts our personal and anthropological narcissism; a view which shall become more relevant as the environment grows ever more precarious and ever more violent.
Apart from offering a re-evaluation of nature his work is worth reading for its sheer originality. For example, ‘Crow’ takes pride of place as arguably his most unique and brilliant work. The collection is a cycle of poems about a crow as a quasi-mythological entity exploring a dark and surreal landscape. The mythological mode is seen in the surreal aetiologies the texts offer. For example, in ‘Crow’s Fall’ the crow was once white and decides to attack the sun only to ‘return charred black’. Unlike the god-like hawk the crow is promethean, and, instead of a direct confrontation with nature the poem engages with ideas of mythological narrative. This contrast is fascinating to those familiar with his work and only becomes richer on multiple re-readings.
If one considers ‘Hawk Roosting’ to be from the first phase of his career and ‘Crow’ from his second, then the third must be his collection ‘Birthday Letters’. By the 1990s Hughes had left behind his characteristically ‘Hughsian’ voice of identifying with an indifferent natural world and instead fashioned a confessional voice. The poems also work in a cycle but instead depict his relationship with Sylvia Plath; one which he had remained silent upon since her suicide in 1963. The poems are an honest and forthright portrayal of their relationship and is the extraordinary product of more than thirty years of work.
It is at this point one is reminded of my previous sentiments; that the poet and the poems should remain separate. Whilst the inspiration may have been the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes the poems are not explicitly about them but rather a persona and a former lover. Their value is not purely invested in their relationship: it is the words on the page which are important. Whilst autobiographical anecdotes may elaborate and deepen our understanding of the inspiration behind the poems it does not deepen our understanding of the poems themselves. In this article, I have therefore endeavoured to focus on the work and not life of the poet.
As I have said I shall not deny that Ted Hughes did terrible things. He did have extra-marital affairs; he did treat Sylvia Plath borderline abusively; and he did leave her for another woman. In the BBC documentary ‘Ted Hughes: Stronger than Death’ Simon Armitage says that it is important to see the connection between Hughes and his work. I have no doubt that his life informed his work: he admits this much in ‘Poetry in the Making’. However, this approach does not let us read the poems productively. I am not apologising for his actions, however, his life and work, though related, should be recognised as separate.
To bring Hughes further into public consciousness we must not give into the tempting fallacy of equivalence. We must adopt a formalist reading and take the poems on their own terms: a harder, though ultimately more rewarding path.