Britain loses its poet to cancer Tribute: Typically, Ted Hughes' poems spoke of nature's power. But recently, they explored his relationship with Sylvia Plath.

October 30, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Ted Hughes was a poet with passion and a past. Blessed with talent and stalked by controversy, he illuminated an unforgiving natural world with his brawny prose.

Yet his life, career and reputation were forever linked to his stormy marriage to his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the doomed poet turned feminist icon, who committed suicide.

Even with yesterday's announcement that Hughes, 68, died Wednesday after an 18-month struggle with cancer, his admirers expressed concern that past tragedy would again overshadow the mountain of work created by Britain's Poet Laureate.

"What his friends and the literary critics would like is the acknowledgment that whatever happened in his life ... he was one of the great 20th-century writers," said Matthew Evans, chairman of Hughes' publishers, Faber and Faber.

"We're not dealing with a lightweight who just happened to have a bad marriage to a very good poet," Evans added. "We're talking about a major, major figure. I hope the work stands over and above his private life."

On the strength of the work alone -- major poetry collections, an assortment of children's projects and popular anthologies edited with Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney -- Hughes stands as one of Britain's great post-World War II poets.

Britain's Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, said: "He wrote for young and old alike. He brought the power of nature alive, and his latest poems, exploring the depths of relationships, were enormously moving."

From the first flush of success with the 1957 publication of "The Hawk in the Rain" to this year's "Birthday Letters," the astonishing career coda that burrowed into his relationship with Plath, Hughes' work was filled with muscular imagery and shrouded with love and pain.

He wrote in "The Jaguar":

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.

Over the cage floor the horizons come.

Born Aug. 17, 1930, in the remote Yorkshire town of Mytholmroyd, where his father worked as a carpenter and shopkeeper, Hughes rose to worldwide fame and became Britain's Poet Laureate in 1984, a post that paid 70 British pounds -- about $115 -- and a case of wine a year.

After graduating from Pembroke College at Cambridge in 1954, he financed his budding career by working a succession of jobs -- rose gardener, night watchman, zoo attendant, schoolteacher and reader for the film company J. Arthur Rank.

In 1956, he went to a literary party where he met Plath, who was studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship. It was a tempestuous meeting.

Plath wrote: "He kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off and my favorite silver earrings. 'Hah, I shall keep!' he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face."

They married four months later, lived in America two years and returned to England in '59, where their two children were born.

Plath had a history of mental problems. In February 1963, she committed suicide months after Hughes left her for another woman, who later killed herself and the child she had with Hughes.

Hughes, who married Carol Orchard in 1970, never spoke publicly of the tragedies in his life. But some feminists vilified him. Other opponents trekked to Plath's grave in Heptonstall, Yorkshire, and chipped the name Hughes off the headstone.

It was with this year's publication of "Birthday Letters" that Hughes delved into his doomed affair with Plath. Written across the decades, and timed for the 35th anniversary of Plath's death, the 88 poems -- 86 of them to Plath -- caused a shock wave. The volume was dedicated to their children, Frieda and Nicholas.

"He said at the time that this is the book he had been working on, on and off ever since Sylvia Plath died," Evans said. "He felt the time had come to let the book go. And interestingly, the book let him go. Whether this had anything to do with his illness is a matter of speculation. Whether he was clearing the decks, I don't know."

In a recent interview, Hughes said, "Quite suddenly, I realized I had to publish them, no matter what the consequences."

His humanity was there for all to see on the printed page.

He wrote in "9 Willow Street":

Each of us was the stake

Impaling the other.

"You feel it's written in a burning continuous process, like she's just left the room," poet Andrew Motion wrote earlier this year in The Times of London. "Reading it is like being hit by a thunderbolt. Its power is massive and instant."

Critics also praised Hughes' other recent works, including his verse translation of "Tales from Ovid," which won three major awards, including the Whitbread Book of the Year in January. Two weeks ago, Hughes last appeared in public when he accepted the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

As news of Hughes' death spread through London yesterday, the country began to sing the praises of the poet.

"He was a towering figure in 20th-century literature who even in his last years was producing great works, and his contribution to the body of great British poetry was immense," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

Motion, professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia and a long-time friend of Hughes', said, "It was a stroke of luck to be living when his poems were coming into the world."

He told Britain's Press Association that Hughes provided a modern vision of England. "On the face of it his poems are about animals, nature and wildlife, but careful reading allows us to see them as a metaphorical or allegorical way of reconciling past and present," he said.

Motion added: "I don't want this to sound rehearsed, but there is no question that he is one of the great poets of this century and one of the greatest of all time. His work will be up there forever."

Hughes is survived by his wife and children.

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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