A splen­did, mad, brave imag­i­na­tion

A greater fig­ure than Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes was the best poet in English since W. H. Au­den, Philip Hen­sher writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE last let­ter in Ted Hughes’s col­lected let­ters is to his aunt Hilda, re­count­ing the way in which the Queen awarded him, two weeks be­fore his death, the Or­der of Merit. It reads like a dream of wish ful­fil­ment: ‘‘ Then I gave ( the Queen) a copy of Birth­day Let­ters — and she was fas­ci­nated. I told her how I had come to write it, & even more so how I had come to pub­lish it. I felt to make con­tact with her as never be­fore. She was ex­tremely vi­va­cious & happy- spir­ited — more so than ever be­fore. I sup­pose, talk­ing about those po­ems, I was able to open my heart more than ever be­fore — and so she re­sponded in kind.’’ This is not a con­sid­ered let­ter, as that re­peated more than ever be­fore’’ sug­gests, but a pas­sion­ately felt one. It’s well known that Hughes’s re­la­tion­ship, as lau­re­ate, with the monarch and her fam­ily was warmer and more di­rect than any lau­re­ate with a monarch since Al­fred, Lord Ten­nyson’s with Queen Vic­to­ria. It was not just a shared knowl­edge of live­stock and an en­joy­ment of fish­ing. Rather, it was a shared be­lief in the mys­ti­cal, twinned sta­tus of queen and court poet. No one else could have done the job half as well and some of Hughes’s lau­re­ate po­ems, par­tic­u­larly Rain- charm for the Duchy , are as won­der­ful as any­thing he wrote. I don’t sup­pose they talked much about Jung or ana­paes­tics to­gether, but I guess that two minds in unique po­si­tions recog­nised each other, and I can well be­lieve that he opened his heart and she re­sponded in kind.

Hughes was an enor­mous, as­ton­ish­ing fig­ure from that first stu­pen­dous vol­ume, A Hawk in the Rain , to the very last, Birth­day Let­ters. He looks like prob­a­bly the great­est poet in English since W. H. Au­den, whom he didn’t care for much. Years ago the prin­ci­pal in­ter­est of this vol­ume would have lain in an inside ac­count of his mar­riage to Sylvia Plath and the way her sui­cide and post­hu­mous rep­u­ta­tion bore down on him. Birth­day Let­ters , pub­lished months be­fore his death, in my view put an end to all spec­u­la­tion about her for years to come and pro­vided an en­tirely plau­si­ble ac­count of the tragedy with­out un­due blame or self- ex­cul­pa­tion. Af­ter­wards, Hughes seemed like a big­ger and greater fig­ure than her. Th­ese let­ters il­lu­mi­nate this splen­did, brave, mad imag­i­na­tion.

It can’t be de­nied, though, that Hughes’s myth- mak­ing and un­der­stand­ing of his art are dif­fi­cult to fol­low or to agree with. Oddly, the only tal­ents he gives real praise to among his con­tem­po­raries are, Plath aside, very small tal­ents. For him, Stephen Spen­der was the out­stand­ing poet of the MacS­paun­day gen­er­a­tion. Moth­ers writ­ing on be­half of their teenage sons’ lyric ef­fu­sions got gen­er­ous re­sponses. His most tal­ented con­tem­po­raries are dis­missed in an un­just phrase or two. Like many of the very great­est — Beethoven couldn’t think of any­one to ex­press ad­mi­ra­tion for ex­cept Luigi Cheru­bini, when asked di­rectly — he had lit­tle in­ter­est in writ­ers of his time who were not mak­ing in­ad­e­quate at­tempts to write like him.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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