Ted Hughes was born Edward James Hughes in Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire in August of 1930. His parents were William Henry and Edith Hughes who raised him among the farms of the Calder Valley and surrounding moorland. Hughes’ father was a joiner and of Irish descent. He fought with the Lancashire Fusiliers and was almost killed at Ypres.
As a young boy, Hughes loved any activity that allowed him to spend time outside. He often went picnicking with his family, hunting, and swimming. Hughes attends the Burnley Road School until he was seven years old. At this point, the family moved to Mexborough. While there Hughes’s parents ran a local shop. These days saw an increase in the boy’s interest in animals. He spent a great deal of time on the Manor Farm at Old Denaby. It would later feature in some of his earliest poetic work.
Hughes went on to attend Mexborough Grammar school where his teacher encouraged his natural writing ability. He was introduced to poets such as T.S. Eliot and George Hopkins. In 1946, Hughes’ juvenile poem, ‘Wild West’ was published in the school magazine, The Done and Dearne.
In 1951 Hughes studied English at Pembroke College. While there he came to feel stifled by academic restraints. He did not excel as a student but a few poems appeared in Chequer. One fairly well-known piece, ‘The little boys and the seasons’ was written during this time. He published the work in Granta under a pen name. Hughes soon moved to London where he worked in a number of different positions. At one point he was a washer-upper at the London Zoo. This job allowed him to observe the animals he’d come to love up close.
Marriage to Sylvia Plath
In February of 1956, Hughes met the American poet, Sylvia Plath. She was studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship. Plath has already begun to establish a name for herself by winning awards and publishing prolifically. The two would not meet again for a number of weeks. They dated over the next three months and were married in June of 1956. While their marriage would decline dramatically in the years to come, the first years were happy. They both pursued their writing careers independently.
The couple returned to Cambridge and lived on Eltisley Avenue. Plath and Hughes both had poems published that year in The Nation and The Atlantic. Around this same time period, Hughes’ ‘Hawk In The Rain’ won a poetry competition which included publication by Harper. This allowed Hughes access to an audience he had not previously had. The book was released in September of 1957 and he won the Somerset Maugham Award.
The couple soon moved to America so that Plath could take up a teaching position at Smith College. Hughes taught for a time at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He was also working on programs for the BBC and writing essays and reviews. These years saw him write the poems which would eventually make up Wodwo and Recklings, published in 1966 and 1967. Hughes’ subject matter still focused heavily on a topic he’d always loved, animals. His image was developing accordingly, thus inspiring him to explore the myths of shamanism and Buddhism.
While married, Hughes and Plath had two children, a boy, and a girl. In the summer of 1962, Hughes began seeing another woman causing an irreparable rift to develop between himself and Plath. She moved into a new apartment with the children later that year. Many years later letters surfaced which described Hughes physically abusing Plath during their relationship. These abuses may or may not have led to the miscarriage of their second child in 1961.
Later Life and Death
In early 1963, Plath took her own life. Hughes was devastated by this event and wrote that from here on out his life was effectively over. He oversaw the publication of Ariel, a fact which bothered some critics and advocates for women’s rights. It is thought that he destroyed one of Plath’s later journals detailing their final days together.
Hughes married again in 1970. The new couple remained together until his death. They lived-in West Yorkshire where he set up the Rainbow Press. He published his own work as well as that of Seamus Heaney and many others. In December of 1984, he was named Poet Laureate. A number of years later he was made a member of the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II.
In October of 1998, Ted Hughes suffered a fatal heart attack. He was cremated in Exeter.