It was Rudyard Kipling, that fervent chronicler of the British Empire and rapt celebrant of the depths and mysteries of England and Englishness, who first initiated Ted Hughes into the magic of poetry. During Hughes’s third year at Mexborough Grammar School in Yorkshire his English teacher read the class a series of episodes from The Jungle Book; the fourteen-year-old Hughes so enjoyed these that on his next trip to the Mexborough town library he took out Kipling’s Selected Poems. “I fell completely under the spell of his rhythms,” he recalls in one of the many extraordinarily detailed and informative letters with which he responded to inquiries about his work from graduate students. As an illustration of his aping of Kipling’s “pounding rhythms and rhymes” he quotes a typical line of his teen verses: “And the curling lips of the five gouged rips in the bark of the pine were the mark of the bear.” His early verse stories, he relates, were all set in regions exotic to a boy growing up in Yorkshire in the 1940s—the American Northwest or Far West, the Brazilian jungle, or Africa.
Bears and other wild beasts rip regularly through the exotic dream wildernesses of Hughes’s poems, emerging from the Brazilian jungle of his subconscious to leave their gouged marks on the bark both of his mind and of the collective one of his vast readership. Hughes may not have outsold Kipling—who, bizarrely, never became poet laureate, though in many ways eminently suited to the role—but his poetry permeated the national consciousness in a manner rivaled in the latter half of the twentieth century only by that of Philip Larkin, who, needless to say, came up with a cutting mot when he realized that his own refusal of the laureateship on the death of John Betjeman left the field open for Hughes: “I like Ted,” he’d quip, “but in a just society he wouldn’t be the Poet Laureate, he’d be the village idiot.”
The laureateship fuses poetry and sovereignty in a weird, rather unsettling way, but Hughes, as many letters make clear, was an ardent supporter of the monarchy, and got on well with the Queen, the Queen Mother, and Prince Charles; indeed his fawning thank-you notes to the last two rather set the teeth on edge, or at least they brought out the republican in me. “My sense of the honour,” he writes in 1989 to the Queen Mum after a weekend at the Royal Lodge in Windsor,
which does overawe me rather as we drive in through the gates, was swallowed up again, just as before, in that intense pleasure. Though I do feel that we guests glow, also, in Your Majesty’s enjoyment of every moment.
With Charles he bonds in 1993 over the occult significance of foxes and fox-sightings, and optimistically suggests that a family outing to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest must have “laid a magic finger on …