Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin © British Library Board


The poet Ted Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire, in 1930. His father, William, was a joiner who had fought in the First World War; his mother, Edith was a tailor who loved walking, and bought Hughes a small second-hand library of poetry after he was praised by his English teacher.

The family bought a newsagents in Mexborough, South Yorkshire when Hughes was seven, and Hughes went to the local grammar school, where he read Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter, and roamed to Manor Farm, on the nearby River Don at Old Denaby. He came to know it ‘better than any place on earth’, and his first animal poem, ‘The Thought Fox’, and first story, ‘The Rain Horse’, are both based on its memory.

After two years of military service largely spent reading, he took up an open exhibition to study English at Cambridge in 1948, awarded on the strength of his poetry. Deciding the course was suffocating his talent, he switched to Archaeology and Anthropology.

On graduation, he worked in various jobs, met and married the poet Sylvia Plath, and entered his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain into a prize judged by the poets W H Auden, Stephen Spender, and Marianne Moore in 1957. Alive to the rhythms of nature, and expressing them in metrical patterns more like Anglo-Saxon than the more restrained, almost courtly diction of his contemporaries, Hughes seemed startlingly different: he won the prize, and the book was published.

Hughes’s writing is immensely various, and almost always passionately concerned with the relationship between nature and industry. It ranges from popular children’s books such as The Iron Man (1968), to critical works such as Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), adaptations and translations such as Tales from Ovid (1997) and Crow (1970), an epic sequence interrupted when his partner Assia Wevill took her own life. His 88-poem account of his relationship with Plath, Birthday Letters (1998), was an instant best-seller and multiple prize-winner.

In 1984, Hughes succeeded John Betjeman to the Poet Laureateship; his first poem was ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’. Besides a profound belief in poetry as a healing force, his legacies include the establishment of the Arvon Foundation for creative writing, and Modern Poetry in Translation: a magazine he founded with Daniel Weissbort in 1965, to counteract what they saw as the insular tendencies of British poetry.

Further information about the life of Ted Hughes can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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Ted Hughes and war

Article by:
Helen Melody
Power and conflict, Literature 1950–2000

Helen Melody investigates how the First and Second World Wars shaped Ted Hughes's life and work.

An introduction to Birthday Letters

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Neil Roberts
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Professor Neil Roberts explores the development of Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes’s 1998 poetry collection that was written over a period of 25 years and concerns Hughes’s relationship with the American poet Sylvia Plath.

'The Thought-Fox' by Ted Hughes: a close reading

Article by:
Neil Roberts
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Published in Ted Hughes’s first collection, ‘The Thought Fox’ is a poem as much about poetic inspiration as it is a vivid impression of the animal. Here, Professor Neil Roberts explores the poem’s use of allusion, imagery and rhyme.

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