Sarah Lyall (obituary date 30 October 1998)
SOURCE: "Ted Hughes, 68, a Symbolic Poet and Sylvia Plath's Husband, Dies," in New York Times, October 30, 1998, p. 1.
[In the following obituary, Lyall discusses Hughes's life and death from cancer at the age of 68.]
Ted Hughes, the British poet who was known as much for his doomed marriage to the American poet Sylvia Plath as for his powerful, evocative poetry, replete with symbolism and bursting with dark images of the Devonshire countryside in which he lived, died Wednesday, his publisher said. He was 68.
Hughes, Britain's poet laureate, had been suffering from cancer for about 18 months, but had told only his closest friends and had never discussed details of his illness, said Matthew Evans, the chairman of Faber and Faber, Hughes's publisher. "He felt that being ill was, for him, very private," Evans said. Hughes died at his home in North Tawton.
It was his illness, and his sense that time was running out, that persuaded Hughes to publish his last work, Birthday Letters, a collection of poems about his fraught, fragile relationship with Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, soon after the two separated. After a silence of 35 years, in which Hughes had steadfastly refused to discuss Plath publicly or to respond to charges—leveled in her own work and by her admirers—that his callousness had led to her death, Hughes's decision to finally speak out was extraordinary. The book became a best seller in Britain and the United States, rare for a book of poetry, and was a personal turning point for Hughes.
"It was a piece of work he wanted to get out before he died," Evans said in an interview. "He regarded it as being of personal importance. It was the nearest thing to an autobiography."
The book, which drew a sometimes loving picture of a brilliant but emotionally unstable woman with a passion for suicide that seemed hard-wired into her very being, was widely praised. Friends of Hughes saw it as a vindication of a man who had lived for decades in the shadow of his far more famous wife, taking on a guilt that should not have been his.
But the book did not end the debate over the strange, terrible time surrounding Plath's death, already described in her own remarkable poems and journals, jagged cries of pain that at times laid the blame for her troubles on Hughes's broad shoulders. Many Plath scholars said that Hughes had behaved with remarkable callousness toward his wife, neglecting her genius and abandoning her and their two small children at a time when she was clearly crying out for help.
Whatever the truth, Hughes, by then ill with the disease that would kill him, got the last word in the 35-year discussion. "The publication was a very important moment for him." Evans told the Press Association. "He was putting another side, and there was a great deal of understanding after that book was published."
Edward James Hughes was born on Aug. 17, 1930, in Mytholmroyd, a small mill town in West Yorkshire surrounded by bleak, barren moors. When he was 7, his family moved to Mexborough, a coal mining town to the south, and his father gave up his old profession—making portable wooden buildings—and bought a newspaper store. By then, the young Ted had developed a lifelong passion for the countryside, for animals, and for hunting, a passion that would inform his poetry in the years to come.
"He wanted to capture not just live animals, but the alive-ness of animals in their natural state: their wildness, their quiddity, the fox-ness of the fox and the crow-ness of the crow," wrote Thomas Nye in The Times of London.
Surviving Isolation Steeped in Shakespeare
After attending the local schools, Hughes served for two years in the Royal Air Force, working as a radio mechanic on an isolated three-man station in northern Yorkshire, with "nothing to do but read and re-read Shakespeare and watch the grass grow," he said. He then went to Cambridge, where he was celebrated as a clever, handsome student with great personal magnetism and an aura of brooding mystery that made him particularly attractive to women. He took a number of jobs after graduation, working variously as a gardener, a night watchman, a zoo attendant and a script reader.
He met Plath, an American studying at Cambridge, at a party there in 1956. Their attraction was instantaneous. Plath wrote in her journal: "That big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I came into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard into my eyes and it was Ted Hughes."
The two got married just four months later, and woke each morning at dawn, brimming with ideas. "We would write poetry every day," Hughes once said. "It was all we were interested in, all we ever did. We were like two feet, each one using everything the other did." In 1957, Hughes published his first volume of poetry, Hawk in the Rain, full of brutal, dramatic images of nature, to a chorus of praise in which he was acclaimed as the most important British poet to emerge after World War II.
"Hughes's poetry signaled a dramatic departure from the prevailing modes of the period," wrote the critic Robert B. Shaw. "The stereotypical poem of the time was determined not to risk too much: politely domestic in its subject matter, understated and mildly ironic in style. By contrast, Hughes marshaled a language of nearly Shakespearean resonance to explore themes which were mythic and elemental."
A Brutal Winter Exacerbates Misery
Though Plath found herself living in the shadow of her increasingly well-known husband, the two made up a celebrated and, for a time, happy literary couple, living briefly in the United States, where both spent several months writing at Yaddo, the artists' colony in upstate New York, and Hughes worked for a year as an English teacher at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Their life together in England was less successful. Plath found the Devon countryside, which her husband loved, heartless, bleak and uninviting. When they moved back to an unheated, uncomfortable flat in north London before one of Britain's bitterest winters in half a century, she fared no better, finding it increasingly difficult to beat back the suicidal tendencies that had plagued her on and off for years.
As her relationship with Hughes unraveled, she became distraught and wracked by self-doubt. In February 1963, soon after Hughes left her for his married lover, a fellow poet named Assia Wevill, Plath carefully laid out milk and bread for her sleeping children, put her head in the oven, and gassed herself.
Reverence for Plath, Contempt for Hughes
Plath's suicide had far-reaching and unexpected consequences. It drew a blaze of attention to her work, much of which had been written in a burst of despairing, frenzied creativity in the last months of her life. She became a feminist icon, celebrated as a passionately creative woman stifled by the confines of motherhood and by a husband who misunderstood and betrayed her.
It also put terrible pressure on Hughes, who was vilified by many for what they saw as his complicity in Plath's death, but who never publicly tried to defend himself.
It didn't help his reputation that, six years later, Assia Wevill killed herself and the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Shura, using gas, as Plath had....
Ted Hughes' 'the Jaguar' Essay
Ted Hughes' 'The Jaguar'
How effectively does Hughes convey the power of the jaguar?
Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Jaguar’ describes the animals in a zoo and their lifestyles. It also compares them to the jaguar, which is an animal that lives differently to the others in the way that it views its life. The poem depicts the jaguar as powerful, but in what way? The first line of Ted Hughes’ poem the jaguar is:
“The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.”
From the very first three words it is clear that the apes are tired, and the fact that they are in the sun adds to the sleepy air. I think this line was deliberately chosen to begin to convey the monotonous lull of everyday life in the zoo and set a drowsy mood.
They are “adoring” their fleas, which is not a word commonly used in these circumstances. Playing with fleas is normal behaviour for apes, but the use of the word adoring suggests that they are glad of the distraction in their lethargic state. From this line, the apes do not sound threatening, more bored.
The second line has a rather different tone; it tells of the parrots that screech as if on fire. Parrots do indeed screech, so this is literal, but it has connotations of pain or perhaps boredom. Obviously they are not literally on fire, so these words could have been chosen to help exhibit their brightly coloured plumage or to remain with the painful image and to display their banshee-like screaming. The end of the line includes enjambment and expresses how the parrots strut like “cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.” “Cheap tarts” may also have connotations of the bright, tacky colours of parrots’ feathers, but the parrots also mean to attract attention with their screeches and strutting.
Line three goes on to speak of the tiger and lion, who are apparently “fatigued with indolence”. Again the tone is of sleepiness and possibly boredom, and the idleness of the animals in question. The animals are tired, and in the wild they would probably be more likely to be hunting rather than lazing about in the middle of the day.
This particular line is also an example of enjambment, as it runs into the next verse.
The last words of the first stanza are: “tiger and lion” and the first words of the second are: “lie still as the sun.” The end of the first stanza is therefore going on to a different subject, which intrigues the reader into moving to the second stanza. Again the word “sun” is used, so the warm, drowsy image returns, and as the sun is stationary, so are the animals. The following lines include some especially carefully chosen diction, as they describe the boa-constrictor which has a coil in it’s tail, which supposedly “is a fossil”. This metaphorical sentence is quite powerful, as the use of the word fossil depicts the stillness of the snake and also suggests that it may have been in such a position for a long time. This is also supported by the use of a metaphor rather than a simile, which would...
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