Ted Hughes, 68, the British poet laureate whose stormy marriage to the anguished American poet Sylvia Plath dogged his reputation after her suicide, died of cancer Oct. 28 at his home in Devon, England.

A collection of searingly intense poems by Mr. Hughes published this year, "Birthday Letters," shed new light on his difficult six-year marriage to the tortured Plath. It brought him sympathy and won him mostly rave reviews, although some skeptics accused him of trying to cash in on his relationship with his wife, whose work made her a feminist icon.

The reclusive Mr. Hughes had chosen not to defend himself after Plath's suicide on Feb. 11, 1963, months after he had left her for another woman. She gassed herself in the kitchen, leaving milk and cookies for the couple's two small children in the next room.

Some Plath fans called Mr. Hughes a murderer, and over the years, his name was repeatedly hacked off her gravestone in Yorkshire, northern England.

He was named poet laureate of Britain in 1984 and since then had written verse for state occasions and for the opera, as well as plays and prose. He also campaigned for river conservation and gave readings in a voice that could belong only to one of his calling. But his link with Plath continued to define him in the literary world.

Matthew Evans, chairman of Mr. Hughes's publishing company, Faber and Faber, said that there was "a great deal of understanding" after "Birthday Letters" was published. The 80 poems, startling in the intimacy they revealed, spoke of his love for Plath and told of their meeting, marriage and separation.

Of the first time the couple made love, Mr. Hughes wrote:

You were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish.

You were a new world. My new world.

So this is America, I marveled.

Beautiful, beautiful America.

Mr. Hughes refused to be interviewed about the poems, which he began writing in secret in the late 1960s.

But in a letter read to reporters by his editor, Christopher Reid, he called the book "a gathering of the occasions -- written with no plan over about 25 years -- in which I tried to open a direct, private, inner contact with my first wife, not thinking to make a poem, thinking mainly to evoke her presence to myself and to feel her there listening."

Mr. Hughes and Plath married in 1956 after meeting at Cambridge. In 1957, they came to the United States, where she taught at Smith College and he taught at the University of Massachusetts. They returned to England in 1959 and continued to write and publish poetry.

Plath had had a history of mental problems and had first attempted suicide three years before meeting Mr. Hughes. She killed herself shortly after Mr. Hughes took up with another poet, Assia Wevill.

By the early 1970s, Plath's electrifying verse and her autobiographical novel of a young woman in torment, "The Bell Jar," had made her a heroine of the growing feminist movement.

Mr. Hughes, who tightly controlled access to his wife's papers and the permission to quote from her work and who destroyed her last journal, was cast as a smothering villain. It didn't help his reputation that Wevill committed suicide in 1968, also by gassing herself.

In "Birthday Letters," Mr. Hughes recounted a long, draining battle with his wife's emotional instability. He wrote that he had seen trouble when he first met Plath, then a 23-year-old Fulbright scholar.

He said the scar on her face, from a failed suicide attempt a few years earlier, gave him pause. Later, while helping her grow as a poet, he said, he was uneasy about the sinister thoughts revealed in her work.

Critics of Mr. Hughes's motives accused him of trying to blame Plath and make money off her reputation. But "Birthday Letters" brought mostly accolades, and his admirers said the poems should quiet some of the hostility toward him.

Mr. Hughes gave no explanation for the publication of the book, which sold far more widely than poetry normally does. The fact that he had cancer was not revealed before his death.

Poet Andrew Motion, writing in the Times of London, said that reading "Birthday Letters" was "like being hit by a thunderbolt."

"Anyone who thought Hughes's reticence was proof of his hard heart will immediately see how stony they have been themselves," Motion wrote. "It closes in a heart of darkness, a black hole of grief and regret. We stare into it feeling changed and enriched."

The book was dedicated to the couple's children, Nicholas and Frieda. At the time of its publication, Frieda, a 34-year-old artist, said in a newspaper interview that she had lived under the burden of her mother's suicide.

"I never read my parents' poetry until a couple of years ago," she said. "I even rejected the chance to study my father's work for school exams. It was too close to home."

Mr. Hughes was the son of a carpenter, born Aug. 17, 1930, in the bleak mill town of Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire. He began writing poems in grammar school. After studying at Cambridge University, he took a number of part-time jobs to support his writing.

His first volume of poems, "Hawk in the Rain," was published in 1957 and set the scene for his later work with its unsentimental and savage view of the natural world.

Mr. Hughes, who remarried in 1970, published more than 35 poems and collections of verse, three works of prose, two opera librettos and four stage plays. He was a successful children's writer as well, publishing five poetic works for young people and seven stories, including the popular "The Iron Man" -- published in 1968 in the United States as "The Iron Giant." In January, he won the Whitbread Book of the Year award for "Tales of Ovid," his reworking of Ovid's "Metamorphosis," which the judges described as a work of "greatness and sublimity."

Mr. Hughes's last appearance in public was this month when he accepted the Order of Merit, a rare honor, from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. CAPTION: Ted Hughes's "Birthday Letters," published this year, shed light on his marriage to Sylvia Plath. (1986 PHOTO) ec