This paper concerns the life of Ted Hughes and poems selected from his main works. I begin by presenting an overview of the poet's life, which is indispensable in understanding his works of art. I then analyze ten poems to help us have an insight into the distinctive character of his writings.
Edward James Hughes was born on 17 August 1930 in a terraced house in the village of Mytholmroyd, deep in a valley in West Yorkshire and within walking distance of Brontë country. His father, William Hughes, a carpenter, was one of only seventeen men from an entire regiment who had survived the battle of Gallipoli in the First World War. When Hughes was eight, the family moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire, where William ran a newsagent and tobacconist shop. Ted Hughes was educated at Mexborough Grammar School and explored the moors, having a fascination for the wildlife in the Pennines. After leaving school, he spent two years in National Service as a wireless mechanic in the Royal Air Force in Yorkshire, after which, in 1951, he went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge.
He read English for two years, and finding it sterile, changed to a course in Archaeology and Anthropology. After graduating in 1954, he took a number of odd jobs in London: rose-gardener, night-watchman, scullion in a zoo, and script reader at the J. Arthur Rank film company. Frequenting Cambridge, he decided in February 1956 to start a poetry magazine, St Botolph's Review, with some friends. It was at a party to celebrate the publication of the first issue that he met a Bostonian called Sylvia Plath, then a Fulbright scholar at Newnham College.
Four months later, Hughes and Plath married in London and found a flat in Eltisley Avenue near Granchester Meadows in Cambridge. After Plath graduated from Cambridge in May 1957, they both moved to Boston in the U.S.A., where they taught and wrote from 1957 until 1959. When they returned to England, they rented a small flat in Chalcot Square in London. Their first child, Frieda, was born there in 1960, and they then moved into a large house, Court Green, in Devon. In 1962, their son Nicholas was born. Soon afterwards, however, Hughes fell in love with Assia Wevill, a poet who visited from London, where she lived after having resided for a long time in Canada. After Plath and Hughes separated, it was tragic that Plath took her own life in February 1963.
In 1970, after Wevill committed suicide the previous year, in a mimicking way to Plath, Hughes married a nurse called Carol Orchard, and they lived in Court Green in Devon, where Hughes entered a remarkably productive period of writing in which he produced his major works. Consequently, he was recognized as a distinguished post-war poet, which culminated in his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1984. On 28 October in 1998, he died of cancer, only twelve days after he visited Buckingham Palace to receive the Queen's Order of Merit.
Seeking the true way of healing, Hughes takes a shamanic approach to thinking about animals and writing about them. In his first collection of poems, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), he deals with the exuberance of energy, the war experience of his father, mass destruction, and the like. "Childbirth," one of the poems in the book, contrasts the ordinary world with the chaos that threatens a pregnant woman. In the poem, numbers have the symbolic role of restoring order to the surroundings familiar to her.
"Mayday on Holderness" in his second poetry collection, Lupercal (1960), evokes a grotesque scene of a heap of wastes and mess caused by the Battle of Gallipoli. One image dominating this poem is the sea, where deep-sea fish live among the debris, garbage, and wreckage, and in which the sea symbolizes everyday life, which absorbs everything into it. Another image is a digestive organ that eats up everything, including leftovers, as a mute eater.
In "The Voyage" in Lupercal, the sea is nothing but a mystery, incomprehensible to humans. This is reminiscent of John Donne's poem, "Air and Angels," as Professor John Cary has pointed out. In the sea, there is something beyond the experience of men who feel isolated from the world due to the rebuffs of their lovers.
According to the astronomy of the 15 th-16 th century, it is supposed that the earth, composed of the dusts of stars which exploded in pre-historic times, will be eaten up by other stars. Based on this idea, "Fire-Eater" in Lupercal, the poet, who is considered a small fire or life on the earth, entertains an ambition of eating big fires, which are gods seen in the shape of stars. Ironically, though, he eats earth instead of fire, after being pierced by a star.
In "The Bear" in Wodwo (1967), the poet looks into the skeletal structure of human beings, confronting a bear, which is thought to eat its own meat. As a trial of the initiation of a shaman who wants to acquire esoteric power, he needs to meditate on his own skeleton.
"Ghost Crabs" in Wodwo is about enormous creatures that crawl out of the sea and stagger along the seashore. They enter into the unconsciousness and dreams of human beings on earth, looking to possess the whole world. They are inducing our souls into the nightmare of irrationality and are horrific in the sense that they are totally unaware of the destructive influence they have upon us. This poem, in which crabs are represented as psychopomps, looks at the self-consciousness of modern man, who is divided internally and externally.
A hard-driving knight in "Gog, III" in Wodwo, believes in the principle founded on the puritanical belief that repudiates what his lover wants him to do. Having a negative view of women's bodies, he does not listen to her. Controlling natural energy, and inevitably disappointing her, he is characterized as a leading figure produced in the context of culture, religion, and society, which is contrasted with Coriolanus who succumbs to his mother's plea.
Asking questions about modern thoughts in terms of literalism, Crow, a central character, in Crow, From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970) makes us understand how they are illusory, false, and unfounded. Theories such as scientific determinism, the teachings of Christianity, and sexuality as a driving force, among others, bring forth just words, which have no gripping power on the contemporary mind.
Gaudete (1977), a narrative poem composed of a series of episodes, shows the poetic perception and metaphysical visions, and explores the relationships between inner and outer natural energies in the stories of mythology and folklore. One of them particularly draws our attention because it depicts the death of Sylvia Plath, which reminds us of the scene in Samson Agonistes.
In conclusion, Hughes, who was disappointed in Christianity, creates a poetic world influenced by ancient mythologies and rites of fertility. Although he is sometimes criticized for the brutality, violence, and sex he makes use of in his works, he attempts to attain a world that surpasses such phenomena. Considering that violence can be viewed as the intrinsic vitality animals have in nature, and that it should not be suppressed by reason, he perceives the emergence of a good conscience through the negative words and images, in trying to find a possible way to restore Eden.