‘Hughes at his most characteristic was a poet of claws and cages: Jaguar, Hawk and Crow. A poet who turns event and animal into myth’.
Ted Hughes was, arguably, one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century. After studying his poems in high school, I was interested to learn more about the man himself, and Jonathan Bate has succeeded in presenting an in-depth analysis of Hughes’s personality as well as his works.
Bate charts Hughes’s life as a series of catastrophes, love affairs and, most importantly, poems. The volume of poems, letters and diary entries left behind by Hughes presented Bate with a great challenge and the thoroughness of his research cannot be faltered.
The running argument throughout the book is that ‘Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency, between Coleridgean vision and Wordsworthian authenticity’. Bate’s uses Hughes’s archive to chart the course of his poetic journey – he shows that although Birthday Letters, his most personal collection of poems, was not published until the last year of his life, Hughes actually began writing that particular collection of poems at the beginning of his career, but did not want to publish them for fear of revealing too much of himself.
This inner struggle that Hughes faced quite obviously became heightened after his wife’s death. Bate is critical in his introduction of previous biographers of both Hughes and Sylvia Plath for having too much of a focus on this relationship. However, in his own works Bate did not resist the temptation to constantly refer to their romance. Indeed, I think it has been proven that a succinct biography of either of these great writers cannot be achieved without a heavy focus on the affect they had on one another, both alive and dead.
There is, of course, the question of how much blame should be attached to Hughes for the deaths of Sylvia and his second wife Assia, who also killed herself and their child by asphyxiation, a question that Bate skirts around and does not answer directly because he says that through his work he seeks to ‘explain and not condemn’.
This attitude is also apparent in they way he conveys his work’s most shocking revelation: that on the night Sylvia killed herself, Ted was with Sue Alliston at the flat he first shared with Sylvia. Hughes was somewhat of a Casanova character and it appears that he could not function without some sort of relationship, illicit or otherwise, on the go. Although Bate shies away from appointing any blame, after reading this book, it is my opinion that, unfortunately, Hughes’s promiscuous nature did play a significant role in causing the destruction that surrounded him.
As with any autobiography, Bate’s work has to be read with a degree of caution. In this particular case because of its move from “authorised” to “unauthorised” during the writing process. This was due to a “falling-out” between Bate and Hughes’s late wife, Carol. Also, there have been questions and issues raised since its publication, with Carol arguing in The Times that several facts were fabricated or overstated which overshadows its reliability.
Moreover, one of the main criticisms that I have of this book is Bate’s continuous comparisons between Hughes and Wordsworth; indeed, both are Great English Poets but at times the argument is a bit pretentious. Likewise, the likeness between Hughes and Plath to Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights is rather cliched.
Overall, Bate’s unauthorised version of Ted Hughes’s life is very insightful but perhaps a bit too much is made of his struggle to reveal his poetic self and come to terms with Sylvia’s death. There are quotes from Hughes’s poems scattered throughout and each is given an in-depth analysis which, at times, is very well done and probably close to what Hughes himself was attempting to portray. This book is very dense, and does take a lot of effort, but it is worth a read although caution must be observed.