Ted Hughes, 1930-1998

  • Share
  • Read Later
The private manner of his death betrayed the poet’s secret world. Only his family, his publisher and a tightly knit circle of close friends knew that Ted Hughes, the British poet laureate and by common consent one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, had cancer and had been struggling reclusively with it for 18 months. Finally, Hughes passed away Wednesday night at the age of 68, Faber & Faber, his publisher, announced Thursday.

Fans were shocked, but unsurprised that he had chosen to keep the illness to himself. This was, after all, a man who struggled quietly for 35 years with the emotions bequeathed to him by the suicide of his first wife, the tortured American poet Sylvia Plath. His refusal to speak out about the 1963 incident in which Plath gassed herself after Hughes left her for another woman had led many to presume that he was hard-hearted, if not a murderer (and they kept hacking his name off her Yorkshire gravestone). That was until the sudden and unassuming launch of "Birthday Letters" earlier this year, in which Hughes finally let loose all the pent-up feelings about his former love the only way he knew how -– through poetry. "I see you there, clearer, more real/ than in any of the years in its shadow/ as if I saw you that once and never again," he wrote. "You were a new world. My new world."

"Birthday Letters" was quite a departure. Hughes’ main talent lay in his powerful depiction of the savagery of nature -– the brutally Darwinian animal world, the intense reality of the English countryside -– and a mournfully steady eye for detail first praised by his mentor T.S. Eliot. He was not a natural choice for poet laureate, whose official duties include celebrating the queen’s birthday and commemorating other royal occasions. Many feared that like Wordsworth, one of his predecessors in the role, his talent and love of nature would be stifled. But Hughes sparkled. His 1997 offering, "Tales of Ovid," won the Whitbread Book of the Year award -– a top literary prize -– for what the judges called its "greatness and sublimity." He brought an uncompromising perspective to the laureate role, too. For example, his 1986 poem in praise of Prince Andrew’s wedding to Sarah Ferguson raised eyebrows for focusing on details like the Coke cans that were left lying in the streets.

When Hughes died, Faber & Faber chairman Matthew Evans would only say "the loss to his family is inestimable." If he meant to include the extended, global family who have felt touched by and connected to Hughes’ work, Evans was right on the money.