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Ted Hughes, Britain’s Poet Laureate

Edward James Hughes is one of the most outstanding living British poets. In 1984 he was awarded the title of the nation’s Poet Laureate. He came into prominence in the late fifties and early sixties, having earned a reputation of a prolific, original and skilful poet, which he maintained to the present day. Ted Hughes was born in 1930 in Yorkshire into a family of a carpenter. After graduating from Grammar School he went up to Cambridge to study English, but later changed to Archaeology and Anthropology. At Cambridge he met Sylvia Plath, whom he married in 1956.

His first collection of poems Hawk in the Rain was published in 1957. The same year he made his first records of reading of some Yeatss poems and one of his own for BBC Third Programme. Shortly afterwards, the couple went to live to America and stayed there until 1959. His next collection of poems Lupercal (1960) was followed by two books for children Meet My Folks (1961) and Earth Owl (1963). Selected Poems, with Thom Gunn (a poet whose work is frequently associated with Hughes’s as marking a new turn in English verse), was published in 1962.

Then Hughes stopped writing almost completely for nearly three years following Sylvia Plath’s death in 1963 (the couple had separated earlier), but thereafter he published prolifically, often in collaboration with photographers and illustrators. The volumes of poetry that succeeded Selected Poems include Wodwo (1967), Crow (1970), Season Songs (1974), Gaudete (1977), Cave Birds (1978), Remains of Elmet (1979) and Moortown (1979). At first the recognition came from overseas, as his Hawk in the Rain (1957) was selected New Yorks Poetry Book Societys Autumn Choice and later the poet was awarded Nathaniel Hawthorns Prize for Lupercal (1960).

Soon he became well-known and admired in Britain. On 19 December 1984 Ted Hughes became Poet Laureate, in succession to the late John Betjeman. Hughes has written a great deal for the theatre, both for adults and for children. He has also published many essays on his favourite poets and edited selections from the work of Keith Douglas and Emily Dickinson (1968). Since 1965 he has been a co-editor of the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation in London. He is still an active critic and poet, his new poems appearing almost weekly (9:17)

Judging from bibliography, Ted Hughes has received a lot of attention from scholars and literary critics both in the USA and Britain. However, most of these works are not available in Lithuania. Hence my overview of Hughes criticism might not be full enough. The few things I have learned from reading about Ted Hughes could be outlined as follows. Some critics describe Hughes as a nearly demonic poet, possessed with the life of nature, a poet of violence (4:162), his poetry being anti-human in its nature (12:486).

According to Pat Rogers, his verse reflect the experience of human cruelty underlying the work of contemporary East European poets such as Pilinszky and Popa, both admired by Hughes. Hughes concern with religion gave inspiration to his construction of anti-Christian myth, which was mainly based on the famous British writer and critic Robert Ranke Graves book The White Goddess (1948) and partly on his own studies of anthropology (12:486). Speaking of his early poems, the critics note that at first they were mistakenly viewed as a development of tradition of English animalistic poetry (6:414) started by Rudyard Kipling and D. H. Lawrence.

G. Bauzyte stresses that Hughes is not purely animalistic poet, since in his animalistic verse he seeks parallels to human life (4:163). In I. Varnaites words, nature is anthropomorphised in his poems (5:61). Furthermore, G. Bauzyte observes that Hughes poetics are reminiscent of the Parnassians and in particular Leconte de Lisles animalistic poems. She points out, however, that the latter were more concerned with colour, exotic imagery and impression, while Hughes work is marked by deeper semantic meaning.

His poetical principals are fully displayed in the poem Thrushes – spontaneous, intuitive glorification of life, akin to a birds song or Mozarts music (4:162). The four main sources of Hughess inspiration mentioned are Yorkshire landscape, where he grew up as a son of a carpenter, totemism studied by the poet at Cambridge and theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer (4:161, 6:414). The main themes, as singled out by I. Varnaite, are: nature, the world of animals, man, the relationships between man and nature (5:61).

Hughes often defies traditional poetical cannons, imploring stunning contrasts and surreal imagery (4:162). He was also noted for his language and laconism of style. According to V. A. Skorodenko, Hughes uses contrasting images, unexpected free associations and sometimes vulgar words (6:416). I. Varnaite describes Crow and it sequels as repetitive, sometimes too naturalistic and even vulgar (5:62). Like Hughess animals, man is also cruel and predatory already in his early poetry (5:62). As I. Varnaite put it, to Hughes, the most admirable beings are the most ferocious and violent ones.

Similarly, the critic Edwin Muir points out the ferociousness of Hughes imagery by calling it admirable violence (9:9). This might be an argument in favour of those, who see some fascist tendencies in Hughess verse (4:63, 5:62). G. Bauzyte observes that in his negativism, Hughes is close to the American poet Emily Dickinson. In his Manichaean vision of the world darkness often prevails over light, cold over warmth, hatred over love (4:163). Speaking of predecessors, Hughes is said to be kindred to Dylan Thomas in the way that they both celebrate the natural and their images are taken from the nature (6:414).

Hawk in the Rain, for instance, has the feel of D. Thomass and M. Hopkins poetry, where the man becomes the joining link between the earth and the fulcrum of violence, the hawk figuring in the poem, thus responding to the Thomas poetical credo the man is my metaphor (4:163). The critics also note differences between the two poets. By contrast with Thomas, Hughess world is indifferent to suffering and pain it is filled with (6:415) and, while Thomas is purely anthropomorphistic, in Hughess work, the human being is viewed as a part of animalistic world.

For Hughes, there is no great difference between a man and a beast, inasmuch as stoicism and rational will are the only qualities distinguishing people from animals and enabling them to resist the universal chaos. In the opinion of A. Skorodenko, Hughess concept of the world fully unfolds in his books published in the seventies Crow, Cave Birds and Gaudete! , where he collaborated with the American sculptor Leonard Baskin, who drew the pictures, which inspired the poems. Hughes vision of the world in those cycles approach the quality of a myth.

Blood there figures as the ultimate metaphor and goes through all stages of life – from the archetypal pulsation in primal unity to its complete opposite, Littleblood. The principal idea in the latter books is that blood rules the world, the governing motif for all actions being sexual drive to ensure the output of offspring. Along other new tendencies, V. A. Skorodenko also observes a shift in the poets outlook reflected in the poems written in the eighties, where the man is no longer metaphysically solitary as in the earlier books, but becomes a part of nature and through it of the whole of Universe (6:417).

I. Varnaite points out the influence of Arthur Schopenhauers philosophy on Hughess verse. According to her, many poems translate a number of Schopenhauers theses into the language of modernistic poetry (4:61). Robert Stuart interprets Hughes works in the light of Nitzscheanism, while other critics find some of Hughes poems being under Heideggers influence (ibid. ). I. Varnaite also notes that the poets worldoutlook is a complex one and cannot be one-sidedly simplified to one philosophical school.

Among possible influences she mentions folklore, myths and religions other than Christianity. However, drawing parallels between Hughess work and Schopenhauerss philosophy, she writes that, to both of them, animate and inanimate nature have the same essence and contain the element of the Will of the Universe. I. Varnaite concludes with the statement that Hughes is a nihilist speaking of inner emptiness, the dead universe, bleakness, the nothing, nothingness, brutal will… and his vision of future seems to be no more optimistic than the present and past (4:67).

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