In his poetry, Ted Hughes often identifies himself with a hawk, fox, jaguar or crow, but this new biography suggests that louse, rat or swine might be more appropriate. Given the frequent sordidness on display in this book, there is little wonder that the Hughes estate withdrew its initial support and denied its author, Jonathan Bate, the right to extensive quotation from his subject’s poems and archives.
Making the best of this disadvantage, Bate — a distinguished Shakespeare scholar as well as provost of Worcester College in Oxford, England — proudly calls his book “unauthorized,” implying its intellectual independence. But that word can’t help but suggest those sleazy tell-alls about Hollywood movie stars. In fact, this biography reads like two books: one an intelligent, even donnish work of criticism that connects the poems to the life, the other a sensationalistic anthology of gossip and subdued malice.
In Britain, Ted Hughes (1930-1998) is generally regarded as one of the two major poets of his generation, the other being Philip Larkin. Hughes’s first collections — “The Hawk in the Rain” (1957) and “Lupercal” (1960) — could scarcely contain their young author’s explosive, jagged poetry, as brutal as it was breathtaking. Twentieth-century English verse, with a few exceptions, suddenly seemed far too ladylike or gentlemanly.
Many Americans, nonetheless, may be only faintly aware of Hughes as a poet or as the author of that modern children’s classic “The Iron Giant,” or even as co-editor, with his friend Seamus Heaney, of two enchanting anthologies, “The Rattle Bag” and “The School Bag.” In the popular imagination, he is, above all, the cheating husband who drove his American wife, Sylvia Plath, to suicide.
It is, of course, more complicated than that. Even though Hughes was in bed with one of his girlfriends when Plath turned on the gas, she may have been led to suicide not just by her husband’s infidelity, but also because of rejection by a lover of her own. According to Bate, that lover was A. Alvarez, then the most influential poetry critic in England and a notable champion of Plath and Hughes. The biographer maintains that Alvarez’s once-famous book, “The Savage God,” presents a highly skewed version of Plath’s last days. Whatever the truth, her death became the central event of Ted Hughes’s life.
The opening pages of any biography are often tedious, unless you are a fan of family genealogies and, in this case, overlong descriptions of the Yorkshire landscape. However, Bate rightly emphasizes young Ted’s love for nature and animals, as well as his closeness to his brother, Gerald, and sister, Olwyn (who, in later life, became the poet’s literary agent). A passion for reading and an influential teacher helped win the working-class boy a scholarship to Cambridge.
Hughes, it would seem, possessed irresistible sexual magnetism from adolescence on. One girlfriend follows another until the night at a Cambridge party when he glimpses the seductive and experienced Plath. The electricity between them is instant; there are kisses and love bites on the dance floor. As Bate says of feisty Sylvia, “She was ready for something new and big and preferably involving a fight.” Before you know it, the two have shucked current lovers and are a couple, and then precipitously, blissfully, husband and wife.
Halfway through their six-year marriage, though, cracks appear. When the two are teaching for a year in the United States, Plath worries that her hunky husband seems over-friendly with some female students. Then, after the couple returns to England, “The Hawk in the Rain” makes its author almost Byronically famous. Meanwhile, Plath reveals increasing emotional instability, occasionally lashing out at her husband. Before long, she has good reason to, as he takes up with Assia Wevill and Susan Alliston. He is in the arms of the latter on the fateful day.
Hughes feels sorrow, loss and regret over Plath’s suicide, although not, so far as I could tell, any high degree of guilt. But he immediately recognizes the blazing greatness of the poems written in her last four months — the poems published in “Ariel” — and spends much of his later life promoting and protecting her legacy. Secretly throughout the years, he also works on verse-memories of Plath, publishing them shortly before his death as “Birthday Letters.” Publicly, he endures a barrage of personal attacks, most notoriously Robin Morgan’s poem “Arraignment,” which assailed him as an abusive husband and a womanizer.
Sad to say, there is real truth to the old accusation. Although Bate’s analyses of Hughes’s poetry can be abstract and hard to follow — in part because he isn’t allowed to quote anything at length — many of his other pages are almost voyeuristic. Every time you read a sentence about an attractive tour guide or the wife of a painter, you know that there’s going to be one more notch on the Hughes bedpost. Usually, the poet is juggling two or three relationships at the same time.
Yet Bate indicates that women surrendered eagerly to the poet’s Heathcliffian glamour and his sometimes brutal physicality. Early in his affair with Wevill, his lovemaking grew so violent one night that he injured her. Another woman recalls that the poet’s idea of foreplay was to throw her on the floor. Paradoxically, Hughes thinks of himself as a devoted worshiper of woman as “the White Goddess.” Yet in Robert Graves’s book of that name, the poet is the sacrificial victim, not the other way round. As Hughes once said, “All the women I have anything to do with seem to die.”
Not all of them, certainly, if only because of the sheer number. But several do: Wevill gasses herself and their little daughter, Shura. Even for a poet, though, Hughes seems remarkably insensitive to other human beings. After he marries the 22-year-old nurse Carol Orchard, he almost immediately leaves her at his home in Court Green to mind his children by Sylvia while he toddles off for a week with another woman. Bate rationalizes Hughes’s crass behavior as “partly a function of his fidelity to the memory of Sylvia. After the end of his first marriage, never again would he let a woman possess the whole of him. Never again would he allow himself to be fully caged.” Must have been swell for Carol.
Bate also concludes that the poet instinctively gave himself entirely to the moment:
“That is why when he told the woman in south London he would come to live with her permanently, he meant it. And why when he was back at Court Green saying that he would never leave, he meant it. And it is also why he loved writing, fishing and sex, in all of which there is a sense of total absorption, a unity of mind and body, an escape from the shadows of the past and the responsibilities of the future.”
In his later years, Hughes, as the poet laureate of England, produced the mad, gargantuan, Gravesian prose work, “Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being” — very well summarized by Bate — and the exquisite “Tales From Ovid,” one of my favorite books. His collected letters have been likened to those of Keats. I even love Hughes’s audio recording of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” But having read Bate’s exhaustive biography, I feel depressed that art should grow out of so much death and emotional devastation.
Dirda is a regular book reviewer for Style and the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.”
The Unauthorised Life
By Jonathan Bate
HarperCollins. 662 pp. $40