Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

2015 has brought us a whopping, meticulously researched biography of Ted Hughes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_hughes). Academic superstar Jonathan Bate (http://www.jonathanbate.com/) has published extensively on Shakespeare and written the life of John Clare. In Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life he offers what is sure to be the standard biography of Hughes for decades to come. It is also sure to be controversial.

Controversy began immediately concerning the relationship with the poet’s estate, which is controlled by Hughes’s widow Carol. Jonathan Bate was originally given the nod for an “approved” (rather than “authorised”) “literary life”, but this was later revoked. The reason given was that the author was straying too far from his remit. Bate was refused permission to quote at length from Hughes’s archive.

Hughes’s reputation had fluctuated and become thoroughly entangled with the discussion around the suicide of his poet wife Sylvia Plath following his affair with Assia Wevill. In the year of his death 1998, stricken with the cancer that would kill him, he published Birthday Letters. This was the book of poems about and addressed to Plath. Whether this was from a guilty conscience, or to protect himself and their children from the attacks of the “Women’s Libbers” who had claimed Plath as martyr to their cause, is still debated. But the picture Bate gives us is a noble, tragic one. The section covering the fateful days in the bitter winter of 1963 is based on previously unseen journals and draft poems; it is, in Bate’s words, “Ted’s telling”.  Hughes is depicted as shuttling between Plath, Wevill and, unknown to both of them, another woman, Susan Alliston. Sometimes he and Plath seem close to reuniting – she cooks him dinner; they talk of being together in Devon in the summer. Seven days later, she’s dead. Whatever the personal reasons for Hughes’s infidelities, which continued after his marriage to Carol in 1970, and included a “serious affair” in the last decade of his life, Plath’s death marked him for life.

The picture Bate gives us of Hughes is of a poet kept from truly expressing himself by forces within and without. Anyone wanting confirmation of Hughes’s virility and promiscuity, the “extreme vigour of his lovemaking”, and his personal charisma, will find it here, for example in the description, from a “personal communication”, of a woman who was “so viscerally attracted to him” when she met him at a party “that all she could do was go the ladies’ room and vomit”. Beyond the lurid personal detail are the analyses and assessment of the poetry as it intersects with the life. As with many literary biographies of poets, the question that needs most urgent answer is – was the poetry the life?


672 pages in William Collins

First published 2015

ISBN  978-0008118228


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Jonathan Bate                              Ted Hughes

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