Letters of Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes; Selected and edited by Christopher Reid

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




784 Pages


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Ted Hughes described letter-writing as “excellent training for conversation with the world.” These nearly 300 letters—selected from several thousand—show him in all his aspects: poet, husband and father, lover of the natural world, proud Englishman, and a man for whom literature was a way of being fully alive to experience.

There are letters dealing with Hughes’s work on classic books, from the early breakthrough Lupercal to the late, revelatory Birthday Letters. There are letters discussing, with notable frankness, his marriages to Sylvia Plath and then to Assia Wevill. After marrying Carol Orchard, in 1970, Hughes ran a farm in Dorset for several years, and there are letters touching on his interest in
astrology, his strong and original views of Shakespeare, and his passion for farming, fishing, and the environment in general. Letters to Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin situate Hughes among his peers as never before.

Letters of Ted Hughes reveals the author as a prose writer of great vigor and subtlety. It deepens our understanding of—and our admiration for—this great twentieth-century poet.


Praise for Letters of Ted Hughes

"Undoubtedly it is his letters to and about Sylvia Plath that will hold the widest interest; they also contain some of his most directly expressive writing. Before getting to them, though, there are some splendid perceptions among the mass of explicating."—Richard Eder, The New York Times

"There are two ways to talk about the new Letters of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid. The first is to approach Hughes’s correspondence as an illuminating aesthetic record, the clearest insight we’re likely to get into the mind of a poet viewed by some critics as one of the major writers of the 20th century. The second way is to discuss, well, 'It.' 'It,' of course, is what Hughes called 'the Fantasia,' the swirling, decades-long hoo-ha brought about by his relationship with Sylvia Plath: their brief, difficult marriage; their separation due to Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill; and Plath’s suicide shortly thereafter. 'It' ultimately involved a series of bitter clashes over Plath’s legacy, the occasional illicit removal of the surname 'Hughes' from her tombstone (by aggrieved Bell Jar fans), a series of disputed biographies, at least one lawsuit, endless critical appraisals, re­appraisals and re-­reappraisals, a lame song by Ryan Adams ('I wish I had a Sylvia Plath,' Adams croons, apparently unaware that they don’t come in six-packs) and the inevitable film featuring Gwyneth Paltrow flopping around with Daniel Craig. 'It' is a big deal . . . Hughes is a good letter writer, which is to say his letters are immediately interesting and accessible to third parties to whom they aren’t addressed . . . Hughes can turn out a memorable description (biographies of Plath are 'a perpetual smoldering in the cellar for us. There’s always one or two smoking away'), and his offhand observations about poetry can be startlingly perceptive ('Surrealism . . . is basically analytical'). There are correspondences here with a number of well-known writers—Seamus Heaney, Robert Lowell, Yehuda Amichai—and the notes by Reid are uniformly helpful and occasionally amusing . . . If there’s one letter that sums up the personality that emerges in this collection, it’s a note Hughes sent to Philip Larkin on Nov. 21, 1985. Larkin and Hughes had been rivals for most of their lives, a fact of which both poets were acutely aware. In private, Larkin gave Hughes such compliments as 'He’s all right when not reading!'; Hughes returned the favor by complaining that various newspapers 'have prostrated themselves and finally deified' Larkin. Yet as Larkin lay dying, Hughes reached out with a letter of extraor­dinary tenderness and decency that is also possibly the most boneheaded piece of correspondence ever addressed to the mordant, brittle, doubting Larkin. Here’s what Hughes wrote: 'Ever since I heard you’d been into hospital I’ve been wanting to communicate something which for some reason I’ve assumed you’d reject outright. . . . I simply wanted to let you know somehow of the existence of a very strange and remarkable fellow down here, quite widely known for what seem to be miraculous healing powers. . . . He’s called Cornish. . . . He explains his "power" as some sort of energy that flows from him and galvanizes the patient’s own auto­immune system.' Bear in mind that these sentences are addressed to the author of a poem called 'Faith Healing,' which is not, to put it mildly, an endorsement of faith healing. The whole episode is so earnestly miscalculated as to achieve a kind of grandeur . . . It’s hard not to have sympathy for Hughes. However taxing his personality may have been for others, his own life was never easy, and he seems to have moved through it with more stoicism, good humor and humility than most writers manage. For him, little mattered but the poetry. As he writes: 'I hang on tooth and nail to my own view of what I do—which is a view from the inside. It is fatally easy to acquire, through other people, a view of one’s own work from the outside. As when a child is admired, in its hearing, for something it does naturally. Ever after—that something is corrupted with self-consciousness.' His work and life now exist in a place well beyond such self-­consciousness, a place no less mythic than the realm populated by figures like Apollo, Asclepius and Bran."—David Orr, The New York Times Book Review

"This is a book, like the letters of Keats, which will be read in 200 years' time."—Philip Hensher, The Spectator

"This year's most surprising and rewarding book."—Blake Morrison, The Guardian

"Reid’s succinct annotation allows the full, unique personality to blaze out unimpeded, and the result is magnificent. No other English poet’s letters, not even Keats’s, unparalleled as they are, take us so intimately into the wellsprings of his own art."—John Carey, Sunday Times (London)

"Against death the poet Ted Hughes elaborated his own mythology. Birds and beasts were involved—crows, hawks, tigers, foxes, and wolves. So were metamorphosis, shamanism, and the collective unconscious—the White Goddess, the Ghost Dance, and Carl Jung. But he also wore Shakespeare like a second skin, and plundered as well the folklore and literatures of France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. It was a mishmash, this mythology—no wonder he was so forgiving of Yeats and his faeries—but no matter what you hear from those with a peculiar investment in blaming the crude philandering Hughes for the suicide of his brilliant and beautiful wife, Sylvia Plath, there was nothing 'primitive' about it. Hughes was as much a sophisticated student of anthropology and comparative religion as he was a radio playwright, a translator into English of Wedekind, Lorca, and Racine, and the author of more than a dozen books for children. Instead of primitive, all these modern poets may actually have been too highly evolved for the rude world they were stuck in; they grew gills for breathing not in water but in words. Still, such words! Letters of Ted Hughes, some three hundred of them selected and edited by Christopher Reid, is all performance and seduction. No matter whom he's writing to, the poet assembles a scaffold on which to stage his spectacle—a farce, a tirade, a wheedle, an insinuation, a brief for the prosecution or defense. The letters of Byron come to mind, and of D. H. Lawrence, and of Flannery O'Connor: none of them seemed to know how to slack off. Is Hughes occasionally disingenuous? Well, yes. When your wife kills herself, and then the other woman, the third party in a very literary relationship, kills herself too, you have to feel somehow . . . implicated. (No surprise, then, that he should choose to marry, in 1970, a nonliterary unneurotic farmer's daughter, with whom he lived happily for the next twenty-eight years.) But we know from Plath's own notebooks that she had been suicidal before she ever met Ted. We appreciate from these letters his ferocious determination to protect their two children from body-snatching ideologues, even former friends like A. Alvarez, whose Savage God so exploited Sylvia as The Little Mermaid. We may be surprised to learn that Hughes himself is Plath's best critic, more persuasive of her genius than the foofaraw of Freudians. And if we still feel he needs punishing, there is ample evidence that he agreed. Even when he's gone fishing, which is far too often in these pages, a shadow pursues him down the decades—what he calls 'Sylvia's particular death-ray quality.' The myth of Orpheus, he tells us, was the first story to occur to him after Sylvia's death: 'The shock twist was that Pluto answered: No, of course, you can't have her back. She's dead, you idiot."—John Leonard, Harper's Magazine

"Few other tragedies have given rise to as much rumor and gossip as the suicide of Sylvia Plath on February 11, 1963. Perhaps it was the particularly gruesome nature of her death—she killed herself using the gas oven in her kitchen while her two children, Nicholas and Frieda, lay sleeping—that gripped the popular imagination. But as Plath became a martyr to legions of readers who seized upon her brilliant canon as if the writings were holy texts, her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, was increasingly portrayed as the villain in a sensational plot, the person mainly responsible for his wife’s psychic distress. Every prying eye in the literary world was cast upon Hughes and the children just when they should have been left alone to grieve. Hughes remained silent on the matter for much of his life, and it is for this reason, more than any other, that his letters are essential reading. As literature, they are magnificent pieces of prose—intense, beautiful, lyrical, passionate, wise. What makes them all the more striking, however, is how nakedly they confess, how honestly they lay bare the writer’s soul—how utterly different they are from most of his verse . . . Almost from the beginning, Hughes was a famous poet, and though Plath herself successfully places several poems in prominent magazines, she seemed to play the part of the pupil, and he the wise teacher. Plath’s many insecurities, including those about her poetry, have been well documented, but Hughes was always encouraging and a close, careful critic of her work. In letter after letter (to Plath and to others), he championed her visionary talent, her ‘startling poetic gift,’ with not the slightest hint of rivalry or jealousy . . . One finishes the Letters of Ted Hughes as if emerging from a great watery depth, exhausted, almost gasping for air. The tragedies of his life were so acute, the heartbreak and guilt and defiance so overwhelming, the personality so towering, that one gets the feeling at times that the world did not extend much beyond the poet and his immediate circle of friends and loved ones . . . I can't help wondering, in our age of hurried e-mail transmission, with its flurries of sentence fragments and half phrases, if this long and storied epistolary tradition has come to an unfortunate end. If our great contemporary writers do indeed preserve their 'in' and 'sent' boxes, will these repositories one day reveal an artistry as rich and complete as do the great letter of earlier times? One can only hope."—Sudip Bose, The American Prospect

"Since the British poet laureate Ted Hughes died of cancer in 1998, his estate has released a stream of new publications: his Collected Poems; translations of Greek plays; selections from Shakespeare; and now a whopping 758-page Letters of Ted Hughes, chosen and edited by Hughes' longtime editor, Christopher Reid. These letters are the most intimate look the public has had of Hughes, and the portrait they create is fascinating, exasperating and at times deeply moving. In the introduction, Reid says the book contains only a sampling of Hughes' tremendous output of correspondence. Naturally, readers will wonder about the ones that were left out—and Hughes, if he were alive, would likely still be infuriated by the public's relentless inquisition into his personal life. I can relate to both sides . . . Much attention will obviously go to the letters Hughes wrote his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, through their fraught courtship and marriage up to her suicide in 1963. Those charged years of their relationship became the pivotal event of Hughes' life. Through his remaining 35 years, he raised their children Frieda and Nicholas; saw his relationship with Assia Weevel (the woman he left Plath for) end in a copycat suicide that also took the life of their young daughter; went on to remarry; and eventually become poet laureate, with its requisite public functions and attentions to the royal family. Yet Hughes' marriage with Plath—so creatively attuned, so unresolved and traumatic—remained a pervasive undercurrent of his poetry, prose and correspondence."—Sheila Farr, The Seattle Times

"If you like the author, these sort of books are like a Christmas gift, an invitation into the mind of the person who created some of your favorite books. Hughes wrote more than 40 books of poetry during his life (he died in 1998), including Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. In this collection, he writes about his marriage to Sylvia Plath, as well as about other people whose paths he crossed (including W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot). Plus, Hughes is just a wonderful writer, and getting a glimpse into his world should prove interesting."—Kevin Walker, The Tampa Tribune

"People my age began college in the Sylvia Plath Era (early '70s), and her widower Ted Hughes was almost daily burned at the stake by well-meaning but single minded feminist critics. What remained lost to so many was his being the closest thing to a contemporary English poetic genius, second only perhaps to the younger Seamus Heaney and the still-living Larkin and Auden. He was clearly the greatest nature poet in the language since Lawrence. His hawk and vulture series are the gold standard of bestiary verse cycles, and he unashamedly explored that richest and most mystical terrain of animal consciousness, which he believed held the secret of human hatreds. One of the 1973 vulture poems has the ancient bird addressing Prometheus: 'Today is a fresh start/Torn up by its roots/As I tear the liver from your body.' What is amazing in Hughes is how much of his primal, blood-moon, psychically violent poetic treatments receive their first blueprints in missives to fellow artists and friends. Christopher Reid has taken 2500 pages worth of letters, stretching through five of Hughes’s seven lived decades, and pared them mercifully down to about 750. Like Robert Graves, to whom some of the original group may have been addressed, Hughes was drawn to highly complex symbolic structures. Where the gyre system of Yeats was crafted from unearthly, intersecting abstractions, Hughes got his pastiche of shamanism and the group unconscious from the foul rag and bone shop of the British countryside. This comes across in the letters he wasn’t forced to write, but felt obliged to, to the Queen Mother when he was serving as Poet Laureate. Hughes draws soaring, Blakean diagrams on the etymology of the Queen Mum’s name, with foxes and owls and meandering limbs of diagrammed sentences one can only imagine her nodding over after her legendarily copious bedtime gin and tonics. And much like a shaman, Hughes saw the poet as a healer, a bearer of medicinal powers that found tap-roots in ancestral magic and undiluted beauty rather than must-infested deities. The letters well chronicle the war of imaginative systems Hughes maintained with critics and fellow symbol hunters and gatherers. After his virtually unreadable book on Shakespeare’s mimetic structures, Hughes answered pans of his tome with observations that 'King Lear was the Llud who was Bran,' and 'Apollo, Asclepius and Bran were Crow Gods.' Of course, he signed himself onto whatever lineage this was with declarations that 'My hawk is the sleeping, deathless spirit of Arthur/Edgar/Gwyn/Horus—the sacrificed a reborn self of the great god Ra.' Sensing our need for reassurance with these references and correspondences, he concludes 'I don’t just jot these things down, you know.' Fine, but we still don’t get most of the allusions without annotation, something we are not used to in his kind of especially accessible 'earth poetry' . . . The gems here are notes on poetic technique and academic stress relief dashed off to fellow artists: discussions of scansion with Robert Lowell, of the religious impulse with the diehard, crankily atheistic Larkin, and the simple peace of fishing and 'lake-wandering' with younger, later friends like the novelist Graham Swift. These letters, as much as his poems, are filled with what replenished his energy: the stench and texture of animals and their unknowable, strangely imagined homes; the ululation of bird-crowded, piping orchestral forests; the sensation of teetering in a boat barely big enough to contain his giant frame, the line for his next idea laying slack on the lee water, waiting to stiffen with a strike."—Richard Wirick, Bookslut

"Hughes (1930-98), author and translator of over 40 books of poetry, prose, drama, and children's literature, was also a most prolific letter writer who kept in contact with family, friends, and members of the literary community for years. Reid, Hughes's friend and editor for the last eight years of his life, has whittled a lifetime of letters down to 300—selected from several thousand—to present the writer in his many roles (husband, father, poet, naturalist, citizen of England, and man of letters). Describing letter writing as 'an excellent training for conversation with the world,' Hughes discusses in his missives his work; his relationships with Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill, and Carol Orchard; and his interests in astrology, nature, environmentalism, Shakespeare, and farming. Most notably, perhaps, are the insights the letters provide into the writer's state of mind and work ethic. Hughes was always a prolific and engaging poet even in the worst of times. Frank, illuminating, and occasionally painful, this collection is recommended."—Pam Kingsbury, Library Journal

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TED HUGHES (1930–98) produced more than forty books of poetry, prose, drama, translation, and children’s literature, including, in his last decade, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Tales from Ovid, and Birthday Letters.
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  • Ted Hughes; Selected and edited by Christopher Reid

  • Ted Hughes (1930–98) produced more than forty books of poetry, prose, drama, translation, and children’s literature, including, in his last decade, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Tales from Ovid, and Birthday Letters.

    Christopher Reid’s most recent book of poems is Mr Mouth (2006). For many years the poetry editor at Faber & Faber in London, he is now a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull.