Next month, a Ted Hughes memorial will be laid in Westminster Abbey. Terri White looks back at the secret life of a 20th-century literary outlaw
The life of poet Ted Hughes had it all. Infidelity. Misery. Scandal. Madness. Tragedy. All played out against a raw, wild British landscape. Over the decades, thousands of column inches have been filled with sensationalist tales of his intensely painful personal life — the death of first wife and fellow poet Sylvia Plath at her own hand in 1963, and the copycat suicide of his next partner Assia Wevill, just six years later. Hughes’ considerable burden of grief made all the more unbearable by the fact that Wevill also took their four-year-old daughter Shura to the grave.
Speculation about his home life and conduct as a husband, as a man, was luridly rife, while he kept a stoic silence. He’s been labelled a tortured genius, selfish brute, brooding sociopath, even a murderer. The myth of Hughes is truly the stuff of fish-and-chip paper. But the fiercely private Yorkshireman’s passion for nature paints a picture of a very different man.
Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, in 1930 — a brutal, rugged landscape dominated by Scout Rock, a cliff face towering 600ft above the town. It was described by Hughes as “my spiritual midwife” and the place “where the division of body and soul, for me, began.” Over the rock is bleak moorland, and it was here, from the age of about four, that Hughes would accompany his brother Gerald — 10 years his senior — to fish, trap, shoot, hunt and camp. Hughes said later: “I became completely preoccupied with his world of hunting. Up to the age of 17 or 18, shooting and fishing and my preoccupation with animals were pretty well my life — apart from books.”
This was a formative time for Hughes’ growing obsession with the outdoors. He spent hours roaming the local terrain, woods and rivers. He began making plasticine animals, before buying lead ones from Woolworths and then graduating to the living, breathing variety. He plucked frogs from ditches and snatched mice from under sheaves at harvest time. He kept creatures in his pockets or filled buckets and jam jars by the kitchen door.
It was during these years that Hughes had his first glimpse at the brutality of the natural world. One summer, he accidentally left three pikes he’d caught in the school’s fish tank for the duration of the holidays. Upon returning in September, just one fish remained; the other two having succumbed to an act of cannibalism. This was to inspire one of his most famous works, Pike.
The bloody savageness of the natural world was a life-long fascination for Hughes and one that he desperately sought to understand. In the poem Coming Down Through Somerset, he vividly recounts finding a badger dead on the road, which he took home to observe as the flesh rotted and the flies circled.
He would turn to this brutality to both reflect and deal with his own pain and suffering in later life. Hughes’ fourth book of poems, Crow, was completed in the years following the suicides of his partners. It’s, unsurprisingly, his bleakest poetry.
Fishing remained a huge part of Hughes’ life up until his death in 1998. “That he enjoyed it terms it mildly,” says Dr Edward Hadley, founder of The Ted Hughes Society and author of The Elegies Of Ted Hughes. “Obsession is nearer the mark. In a letter to [fellow poet and friend] Seamus Heaney, Hughes wrote that angling had become ‘a 24-hour convulsion of the central nervous system’.”
A subscriber to The Gamekeeper since his teens, Hughes was not just an ardent, but also skilled, fisherman. Canadian Professor Ehor Boyanowsky, a friend of the poet who went on a fishing trip with Hughes every year for a decade, describes him as “a true angler. Not the best caster, not a fly tier, not a rod techie, not even an aggressive wader, but someone who will catch fish if anyone can. A fish hawk.”
It was on one of their trips that Hughes triumphantly caught his biggest fish — a 19.5lb rainbow trout. Similarly, Hughes enjoyed hunting, having been his brother’s ‘retriever’ on their childhood expeditions, collecting the animals he shot before learning to use his brother’s gun himself. Though, unlike fishing, this was a practice he, one day, stopped abruptly. He came upon a wounded grouse when walking to Wuthering Heights with Plath and instinctively wrung its neck. His American wife was intensely horrified, prompting Hughes to declare that he never wanted to kill an animal again.
A PRIMITIVE URGE
These most masculine of pursuits went far beyond hobbies for Hughes. They were essential to his existence. He once told Boyanowsky: “If they ever abolish fishing, I would have to leave the country. I’d have to go and live in a land where I can still keep hold of the world… To lose that would be like learning to live without kidneys.” Hughes was concerned that modern men had lost touch with their primal nature, with what made them men. “Nature is the cycle of life and death and the natural way of experiencing it is as a hunter-gatherer,” explains Boyanowsky. “His belief was that if you lost that connection and relied more on the virtual world — whether it be the media, video games, the artificial built-up world — we become diminished. We have to renew that connection.”
Experiencing nature first hand was, for Hughes, necessary to keep our humanity. “Fishing provides that connection with the whole living world,” he said. “It gives you the opportunity of being totally immersed, turning back into yourself in a good way.”
The furore over his personal life never abated and the natural world served increasingly as Hughes’ sanctuary. “He found the peace and solitude nature offered away from his painful experiences,” says Hadley. Out in the elements, he was no longer the brutal husband of the dead poet. “He’d arrive in Vancouver [for their fishing trip] and be anonymous,” remembers Boyanowsky. “He loved that. He loved the idea that he could go through the looking glass. Once I introduced him to an acquaintance who asked what he did, and he replied: ‘I’m a scribbler.’ It was like being reborn as a naive. There were no expectations on anyone’s part.”
This was a world in which Hughes felt he could comfortably be himself — an ease shown when he chose to give an incredibly rare interview to US fishing magazine Wild Steelhead & Salmon, which was published in 1999, after his death. Over the 6,500-word profile, his usual truculence was replaced with a convivial, easy manner. It was the last interview he ever gave.
After Hughes died from cancer following an 18-month illness, his remains were scattered at a secret spot, close to the source of Dartmoor’s River Taw. A fitting resting place of the man for whom the unforgiving terrain was always home. No noise, no labels, no judgement. As the inscription on the stone laid there says, he is simply “Ted Hughes”.
Savage Gods, Silver Ghosts by Ehor Boyanowsky is available on amazon.co.uk