Stare of an eco-warrior

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life. By Jonathan Bate.Harper; 662 pages; $40. William Collins; £30.

APPROPRIATELY for one born in the small, remote Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd and who translated classical writers such as Euripides and Ovid, Ted Hughes was obsessed by the power of myth; and it had a crucial impact on his life and on his work. In a magisterial new biography Sir Jonathan Bate, professor of English literature at Oxford University, likens the poet’s life to a Greek tragedy, with the death of Hughes’s first wife, Sylvia Plath, as the first of a series of devastating events. Plath’s suicide, in 1963, was followed six years later by that of Assia Wevill, who had succeeded her in Hughes’s affections; and she took their four-year-old daughter with her. That same year another former lover died of cancer; his mother, too, Hughes believed, of shock. Finally, 11 years after his own death in 1998, his adored son Nicholas took his life, “the one thing that would have destroyed him.”

The scandal that arose from the circumstances of Plath’s death and Hughes’s well-founded reputation as a promiscuous and energetic lover created a bitterness on both sides of the Atlantic that was to pursue him until the acclaimed publication of his final volume of verse, “Birthday Letters”, a few months before he died. This moving account of his seven years with Plath, an American poet who was a flawed figure with a history of mental illness, evoked sympathy and some degree of closure. The suggestion that multiple infidelities were a form of fidelity to Plath may sound like special pleading but there is no doubt that she was the great love of Hughes’s life—the Cathy of “Wuthering Heights” to the Heathcliff of his native moors—and that her ghost was with him to the end.

In his poetry Hughes was torn between the mythic “vision” of Coleridge and the elegiac “authenticity” of Wordsworth. A keen observer of the natural world, an “eco-warrior” in later life, he moved from work steeped in myth, claw and cage, a harsh, monosyllabic world of hawk, pike and crow, to poetry of a more reflective nature. Throughout he was deeply influenced by his early reading of Carl Jung and Robert Graves’s “The White Goddess” as “Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright and lust.”

Sir Jonathan is thorough. He has spent five years in the archives and examined 100,000 pages of manuscripts. Hughes told his long-suffering second wife Carol, about whom the reader hears little, that he did not want an authorised biography; though there were hints to his sister Olwyn that spoke otherwise. Initially Sir Jonathan had Mrs Hughes’s co-operation, but then, concerned that a “literary life” might be turning into a full-blown biography, she withdrew it. Hence the subtitle “The Unauthorised Life”, a term which can also be taken as descriptive of an unbridled existence governed by passion and sense of vocation rather than social convention.

Correct though they may be, Sir Jonathan’s sweeping assertions—“Lupercal” is “without doubt” Hughes’s “best and most characteristic volume of poetry”; Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” is “the loveliest poem in the English language”—and his scorn for reviewers by whom things were “unobserved” can grate, as does his talk of “lovely little” books. However, he writes with sympathy and perception about Hughes and his poetry, and displays tact in shielding the identity and feelings of several of those caught up in the maelstrom of the poet’s life. No doubt there will be further and fuller biographies of Hughes once all those involved are dead. This fine book tells readers as much as they need to know for now.