Book review:  Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life

ANY poetry-lover who encountered Ted Hughes at the Listowel Writers Week in the 1980s is unlikely to forget this Yorkshire-man’s overwhelming presence. 

His massive, handsome frame filled the doorway of the bar at the Listowel Arms Hotel, turning all heads and silencing the midday drinkers.

He was a giant of a man with a voice that could topple the side-wall of a cottage, and with lips that scattered words like shrapnel across the battlefield of his life.

A scholar and sheep-farmer, a brooding ambitious man who believed that astrology wasn’t a pseudo-science but an intuitive art, he had been born at the solar midnight as an assertive Leo who needed seclusion.

He spent his childhood on the moors, hunting, shooting, trapping and fishing with his older brother, but he was acutely aware of a parallel atmosphere to this idyllic boyhood, a sorrow in the air of the valleys that came from the 13,000 Great War dead of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

During the Second World War he would hear the bombers overhead and sense vibrations in the walls as bombs fell relentlessly on industrial Rotherham and Doncaster, less than eight miles from his bedroom window.

Many of his generation of Englishmen were complicated, restless, rootless creatures; damaged almost beyond domestic repair by the displacement of English life during the War.

A deepened awareness of cruelty, and a literary impulse to describe it in nature and human relationships, was part of that metallic, impersonal weather in English writing of the late 1940s and the 1950s. 

We find it in William Golding and John Osborne, in Philip Larkin and John Fowles — in men who are collectors and hoarders rather than husbands; men whose first great instinct is the animal instinct of flight, of quick escape from any kind of emotional engagement.

It was into such a damaged national atmosphere that a bevy of vivacious, colourful and beautiful young Americans entered, one of them a young woman from Smith College, a poet on a Fulbright scholarship.

Her name was Sylvia Plath, and she ‘was ready for something new and big and preferably involving a fight,’ as Jonathan Bate describes her in this book. When the two student poets met one night in Falcon Yard at Cambridge Sylvia had already read his poem ‘Casualty’ and she quoted his own violent lines to him. 

He responded by tearing off her hair-band and her earrings. Soon, they were together by the fire making love, with Hughes mistakenly calling her ‘Shirley,’ the name of his then current girlfriend.

But the die of their lives had been cast, their relationship as fellow poets and husband and wife would be marked not by violence, but by the violent urgency of their ambition and their language: as Sylvia wrote ‘I lust for him, and in my mind I am ripped to bits by the words he welds and wields.’

Bate, the biographer, has to rely more heavily on reports from the lives rather than full quotations from the poems. Hughes did hoard every trivial thing as if paper were an endangered species; or as if what had happened could be recycled, somehow, in the way everything was recycled during the War. 

The problem was that after Sylvia Plath’s suicide the events could never be changed by being recycled, however assiduously or aesthetically.

Sir Jonathan Bate, brilliant scholar and winner of both the James Tait Black Prize and the Hawthornden Prize, has earned the wrath of the Hughes estate, but mainly the disapproval of Carol Orchard Hughes, Ted’s widow.

The family considers that he has painted too negative a portrait of his hero; that he hasn’t credited the redemptive action of the poetry itself. This is never a happy situation for the literary biographer, as most impulses to write a biography are driven by a single instinct or hypothesis.

In this case, Bate’s over-arching thesis is that Ted Hughes never recovered from the death of his poet-wife; that Plath’s suicide played on his imagination through his subsequent life, ruining his relationships and destroying his early promise as a great poet.

There is a lot to be said for this thesis and this biography is very nearly convincing. It could be argued that after The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal and Wodwo Hughes never published another completely convincing collection of poems.

The beautiful lines are sometimes there (in the poems about Jack Orchard, his sheep-farming father in law, for example), but the holistic stand-alone authority of a complete lyric is never there again. 

In a sense, Bate is arguing that Hughes, in his unmediated melancholia never ceased to be disturbed by the loss of his passionate, estranged first wife.

He took flight and never stopped. As Bate sees it, the suicide and infanticide of Assia Wevill, Hughes second wife as well as the long shadow of the lost mother that reached as far as the suicide of Hughes and Plath’s brilliant scientist-son, Nicholas, all fold into that single fateful event of Plath’s death. 

Hughes, as poet, did recover a kind of perfection in Birthday Letters, a late collection where he restores Sylvia’s presence, with poignant echoes of Thomas Hardy and Robert Graves.

It is a belated, late attempt to say goodbye to it all by recapturing it all. But the exceptional Birthday Letters only serves to prove Bate’s singular thesis — the energy for the intense lyric moment was a Hughes-Plath thing: without Sylvia there was no continuing electricity. After Wodwo, perhaps as early as after Lupercal, Hughes merely re-created myth, story and pastiche rather than fresh poetry.

‘The task of the literary biographer is not so much to enumerate all the available facts as to select those outer circumstances and transformative moments that shape the inner life in significant ways’ is how Bate explains the methodology of his biography.

The available facts on Ted Hughes are vast. Hughes wrote thousands of pages of notes, drafts and diaries, and tens of thousands of pages of letters. 

When moving his great archive to Emory University, he withheld 22 notebooks containing 500 pages of poetry and 800 pages of autobiographical writing. His later work is the distillation of this relentless note-taking. If we were to produce a slim ‘shilling-life’, as Auden might call it, we’d have to carry out an inhuman act of compression. 

But the facts of the life would remain the same: here is one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century, belonging entirely to that century in method and temperament.

Here was a supremely handsome man, after whom women lusted — Assia’s description of him tells us all we need to know ‘There he is coming down the orchard in his plaid shirt carrying something. His superb legs and thighs — the beautiful Anatomical Man. One of God’s best creatures. 

Is God squandering him on me? ... He ventures everything. His lovely, long risks of grasp. Sometimes little yelps of greed, but all accounted for. He is one of God’s best creatures. Ever. Ever.’

There is no accounting for such love. Or for the goodness of women in love and the risks they are willing to take for their men. Such capacity for risk is life-enhancing, and should have led to so much prolonged happiness.

The tragedy of Ted Hughes life was that death lurked so close to these available, abundant loves.

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life

Jonathan Bate

William Collins, €21.99


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