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 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.