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 His Royal Highness Prince William. It cannot have failed.”
Schoolchildren in Britain no longer come across Kipling in class, but Hughes remains a staple of the English teacher hoping to infuse a love of poetry into his or her charges. In his introduction to a short selection of Hughes’s poetry, the wonderfully gifted poet Simon Armitage—also a Yorkshireman—remembers the catalytic effect of being given Hughes to read in school:
My own experience as an uninspired and uninspiring secondary school student is one shared by many of the same age group, in the way that Hughes’s poems were the first captivating moments in English literature, and were read and described by teachers who could not hide their enthusiasm for the work or their eagerness to share it. Poems like “Wind,” “The Bull Moses,” “The Horses” and of course “Hawk Roosting” are not only fastened in the imagination of a whole generation, but for some, like myself, were a kind of Rosetta Stone—the means by which the surrounding world could suddenly be translated, understood, and experienced. It is a particular virtue of Hughes’s poetry, and one that he shares with only the very best poets, that clarity and complexity can exist simultaneously, like clear, still water, into which a person can see to a ponderous depth. No one could ever accuse Hughes of simplicity or superficiality, and yet his poems have an immediacy that students, even of a young age, find alluring and true. They draw the reader in, like black holes, whose event-horizons are instant, but whose intensities are infinite and utterly absorbing.
Armitage’s final metaphor here surely derives, perhaps unconsciously, from the most famous—and probably most often taught—of all Hughes’s early poems, “Pike,” which climaxes in a mystic vision of an ancient monastery pond. In its depths lurk fish who embody some occluded, primal, ferocious, specifically English, but now quiescent power:
A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them—
Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast
But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
If Kipling connected with the national psyche by hymning the heroic exploits of real soldiers willing to risk their lives in order to take up the white man’s burden, and so extend the pacific realm of the benign old Widow at Windsor with her “hairy gold crown on ‘er ‘ead,” a poem like “Pike” dreamily translates a similar awareness of national violence into the realms of nostalgia and myth. The ideal of depth is almost a leitmotif in Hughes’s letters, stories, and poems; action tends not to be lateral and expansive but inward and downward, like the spring of the thought-fox in the poem of that name—“with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox/It enters the dark hole of the head.”
His narratives unfold not in the boys’ own locales of his early verse stories or the writings of such as Kipling or Conrad—whose novels he used to read to Sylvia Plath each evening in Devon, while she worked ferociously on her rag-rug—but either in the “dark hole” of his head or in the equally “dark hole” of poverty-stricken, post-empire, postwar, utility England, where all, as Plath liked to point out, was the color of dinge. “England/Was so poor!” he recalls her exclaiming in a corrosive diatribe in “The Beach,” included in Birthday Letters ; is everything black, she demands, because black paint is cheaper? The whole country seems to her one long
funeral of colour and light and life!
London a morgue of dinge—English dinge.
Our sole indigenous art-form—depressionist!
And why were everybody’s
Garments so deliberately begrimed?
Grubby-looking, like a camouflage? “Alas!
We have never recovered,” I said, “from our fox-holes,
Our trenches, our fatigues and our bomb-shelters.”
That “Alas!” neatly catches the perverse, pompous pride Hughes allows himself to take in defending the honorable poverty into which his country had fallen after its depleting triumphs over Germany and the forces of evil. He might have done better to embark on a discussion of the bankrupting effects on Britain of postwar US foreign policy, but it was always his way to mollify rather than confront Plath when she took off on a jag, and, despite the inclement weather of a dreary November day, he decides to whisk her off to one of the region’s many “magnificent beaches,” Woolacombe Sands. Again alas!—after a tedious journey—the waters off Woolacombe Sands prove as unlike the waters off beautiful Nauset, which “pour green bean over blue” (“Daddy”), as it’s possible to get:
I walked to the water’s edge. A dull wave
Managed to lift and flop. Then a weak hiss
Rolled black oil-balls and pushed at obscure spewage.
Resolutely nurturing her fury, Plath refuses even to get out of the car.
This enthralling selection of Hughes’s letters doesn’t of course include the birthday ones he published in the last year of his life, which won just about every British literary prize going and ended up atop the UK best-seller list. It covers over fifty years, opening with a delightful spoof-literary love letter, and ending with a rapturous description of the ceremony at which he receives the Order of Merit (“the one everybody wants”) from the Queen, accompanied by a proud scale drawing of the medal itself, which he calls a “very beautiful, intense object.”
Inevitably it is the letters written between his first meeting Plath at a party in Cambridge, during which she bit him on the cheek (“the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks,” he broods in Birthday Letters, “was to brand my face for the next month./The me beneath it for good”), and her suicide seven years later, which will come under most scrutiny, and be seized on by the legions still obsessed with the unending case of Plath vs. Hughes. It is, after all, the story “we all grew up on,” as Michael Hofmann put it in a review of Hughes’s Collected Poems published in Poetry a few years back, though that “all” should probably be a little qualified: when an action brought by a psychiatrist, who believed a character in a film of The Bell Jar was identifiably based on her, came to court in 1987, Hughes and his codefendants had to select from a panel of sixteen Boston jurors; not one of the sixteen had ever even heard of Sylvia Plath—“or so,” Hughes mutters darkly, “they said.”
And for Hughes it wasn’t a “story” at all, but his life, and that of his children: hence the tone of searing, almost disbelieving outrage in which he upbraids his former friend Al Alvarez for relating details of Plath’s last days in Fitzroy Road in his study of suicide, The Savage God, published in 1971. Extracts of this memoir were serialized ahead of book publication in the Sunday newspaper The Observer, and Hughes found intolerable the thought of his wife’s death being served up as an item of “higher entertainment” for the “peanut-crunching crowd” that Plath had already eerily imagined unwrapping her in a “big strip tease” in “Lady Lazarus.” “Nothing,” Hughes writes to Alvarez after the first extract appeared, “can excuse the swinish mindlessness with which you are exploiting this,” and he insisted, in no uncertain terms, that the second extract be withdrawn.
In fact the memoir was written with tact and delicacy, as Alvarez fruitlessly tried to point out to Hughes, even venturing to suggest that the piece might dispel the “cloud of vague and malicious rumours” that had gathered around the couple’s separation and her death. Hughes, however, was having none of it; to parade before the public the details of her last night and morning, and then to interpret her death drive according to Alvarez’s particular psychoanalytical and cultural schema, was equivalent to “sticking electrodes in her children’s brains”: