Ted Hughes, England's new poet laureate, is perhaps better known in this country for his brief and tragic marriage to the late Sylvia Plath than for his own extraordinary work. His selection as poet laureate on Wednesday at the relatively young age of 54 may help bolster his reputation here.
American poet and critic M.L. Rosenthal calls Hughes "the most striking single figure to emerge among British poets since the last war."
Hughes succeeds the late Sir John Betjeman, who died six months ago. Although his verse was not even vaguely the equivalent of that of past laureates -- John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Bridges and John Masefield among them -- Betjeman was a beloved figure in Britain who appeared frequently on television as a kind of genial don and celebrator of things British. The succession has been a subject of intense interest in Britain, and this past summer one paper even published a poll of favored candidates.
Philip Larkin was a close friend of Betjeman's and was considered the favorite to succeed him. Larkin, however, has not written poetry in years and frequently said he doubted if he would ever add to his brilliant, if slim, collected works. At times Larkin seemed to shy away from the post when asked about a possible appointment. He lives in Hull, where he worked for many years as a university librarian.
The laureateship "really is a genuine attempt to honor someone," he said in a recent interview. "But the publicity that anything to do with the palace gets these days is so fierce, it must be really more of an ordeal than an honor."
Edward James (Ted) Hughes is the son of a Yorkshire carpenter and has worked as a rose gardener and as a night watchman at a film studio. He is a Cambridge graduate. He and his third wife, the former Carol Orchard, live on a farm in Okehampton, Devon. He has a son and a daughter from his marriage to Plath. "There is no reason for me to become a more public figure," he said of his appointment. "It will be business as usual."
The poet laureate, who is recommended by the prime minister and appointed by the monarchy, is encouraged to write commemorative poems to coincide with state occasions, though it is not mandatory. When Prince Henry was christened in London yesterday, there was no poem from Hughes. "There wasn't time," he said. "For the rest, I'll have to let the muse be my guide."
For his services, the poet laureate receives 100 pounds a year and a case of wine. Hughes will now be considered part of the queen's household.
Hughes' poems have often been compared with those of D.H. Lawrence and Robinson Jeffers, the American poet whose landscape was the Northern California coast and whose symbols were the hawk and the sea. In his poems, Hughes is obsessed with the natural world. It is a violent and dangerous place, filled with birds of prey.
Critic Calvin Bedient calls Hughes "our first poet of the will to live . . . Robinson Jeffers picked up the topic occasionally, the hawk on the wrist . . . Hughes is its master and at the same time mastered by it. The subject owns him, he is lord of the subject."
Hughes' most famous poetic creation is the crow, a figure that began appearing in his work 17 years ago. Dark, ubiquitous, intelligent, omnivorous, the crow becomes a figure of irony at various historical scenes. He hovers over Hughes' work again and again -- in "Crow Improvises," "Crow Tyrannosaurus," "Crow's Last Stand." Christopher Porterfield calls the crow a "comic Kilroy" who appears at the creation and the holocaust.
Hughes was married to Plath, the American poet, from 1956 until her suicide in 1963. She is the author of the novel "The Bell Jar" and several volumes of verse, which vividly describe her depressions and desperation, and is closely associated with the "confessional" school of American poets.
While Plath's poems frequently concentrated on herself or on a poetic presentation of herself, Hughes says he has a preference for things that "have a vivid life of their own, outside mine." Hughes has always been that way. From the very beginning of his career he has listened for hope in the sound of horses in the field, otters in the stream, crows in the branches.
Here are the first two stanzas from "The Thought-Fox," published in 1957 in Hughes' first book of verse, "The Hawk in the Rain."
I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loveliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness. . .