The man and his myths

by James Belfield / 31 December, 2015
What began as an account of Ted Hughes’ life based on rare access to private papers ended up an unauthorised – and revealing – biography.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Any guide to living a poetic life should linger long on the tension between reve­lation and obfuscation.

And few have trodden the poet’s tragic wheel more completely than Ted Hughes, who went from rural Yorkshire child, badgering and foxing his way through leafy dales, to celebrated poet ­laureate who dined and angled with ­royalty but could never escape the deaths and gossip that dogged him.

In tackling Hughes, esteemed Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate has had to battle with many levels of a life lived in the public glare but often retold through the poet’s own penchant for myth, ­mystery and metaphor.

Probably the first was the practicality of dealing directly with those whom Hughes left behind when he died aged 68 in 1998 and, to start with, Bate seems to have had the family – specifically widow Carol – on his side.

Since any retelling of Hughes’ life is bound to centre on his infidelities, promiscuity and the seven tumultuous years of his marriage to American writer Sylvia Plath, her suicide and the subsequent attacks Hughes endured from those who blamed him for her death and the control of her literary estate, any authorised biography would be assumed to tread carefully.

But after four years of family-allowed access to private collections, and archives at the British Library and Emory ­University, Atlanta (which houses Hughes’ 6000-book personal library and an ­incredible two-and-a-quarter tonnes of original manuscripts), that relationship was severed.

The result has been a solicitor’s letter from Carol Hughes demanding an apology from Bate for a “damaging and offensive” biography and an inability on Bate’s part to quote extensively from the boundless bundles of primary sources with which he’d become so familiar.

Bate explains in his introduction (itself a description of a deposition made by Hughes 20 years after Plath’s death ahead of a defamation court case surrounding biographical elements in Plath’s novel The Bell Jar) that the “life is invoked in order to illuminate the work; the biographical impulse must be at one with the literary-critical”.

But although Hughes’ family have preferred to see him obscured beneath verse, their row has had the bitterly ironic consequence of casting a spotlight more directly on some of the contentious events detailed in this now Unauthorised Life.

Revelations gleaned from the archives dwell on Plath’s suicide in 1963 and that of their son Nicholas in 2009; the death of Hughes’ lover Assia Wevill, who gassed herself and their daughter Alexandra; his publisher’s secretary Susan Alliston, with whom he is in bed on the night Plath dies; the unnamed party guest who is so overcome by lust for the huge poet that she has to excuse herself to throw up; the Adelaide Poetry Festival, which yields three con­­­­­­­quests in the form of press officer, journalist and poet; and the unnamed London lover from his final years.

It’s clear from the archive that throughout Hughes’ life he played on and agonised over the tension between the public role of a famous poet and the desire to guard his and his ­family’s private life.

He strode around Cambridge during his university days in double-dyed black corduroy and long black coat; he earnt a half-blue for archery, drank hard and chased (and frequently caught) the opposite sex – all actions designed to cultivate a poet’s role.

His initial collection, The Hawk in the Rain, may have set the tone for his poetry being seen as dealing with mythical reinterpretations, violent nature and the act of writing, but it also established him alongside Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney as one of the late-20th century’s most important English-language poets.

But Bate shows that throughout subsequent releases – including small-volume, high-price collections and individual poems for magazines – Hughes fought against his instinct to draw on auto­biographical elements.

Ted Hughes biographyWhen shortly before his death Hughes did tackle explicit autobiographical, elegiac poetry in Birthday Letters, he revealed the sort of details that Bate had access to in the journals, which “expose Ted at his most self-aware and self-critical”.

It’s telling that Birthday Letters imme­diately topped best-seller lists, won critical acclaim and took out leading literary prizes – Bate surmises that his delay in producing confessional poetry was “the tragedy of his career”.

TED HUGHES: THE UNAUTHORISED LIFE, by Jonathan Bate (HarperCollins, $49.99)

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