Ted Hughes, Britain’s Poet Laureate

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Edward James Hughes, a renowned British poet, was awarded the title of Poet Laureate in 1984. He gained prominence as a prolific and skilled poet during the late fifties and early sixties. Born in 1930 in Yorkshire, Hughes came from a family of carpenters. He attended Grammar School before studying English at Cambridge, later switching to Archaeology and Anthropology. It was at Cambridge where he met Sylvia Plath and they married in 1956. In 1957, Hughes published his first collection of poems titled Hawk in the Rain and made recordings for BBC Third Programme, reading some of Yeats’s poems along with one of his own. The couple then moved to America until 1959. Following this period, Hughes released his next collection Lupercal in 1960, followed by two children’s books called Meet My Folks (1961) and Earth Owl (1963).

Selected Poems, with Thom Gunn, was published in 1962, marking a new turn in English verse. After Sylvia Plath’s death in 1963, Hughes stopped writing for almost three years. Despite this, he went on to publish prolifically in collaboration with photographers and illustrators. Some of the volumes of poetry that followed Selected Poems include Wodwo (1967), Crow (1970), Season Songs (1974), Gaudete (1977), Cave Birds (1978), Remains of Elmet (1979), and Moortown (1979). Initially, he gained recognition overseas, as Hawk in the Rain (1957) was selected as New York Poetry Book Society’s Autumn Choice and he received Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Prize for Lupercal (1960). Eventually, he became well-known and highly regarded in Britain. On December 19, 1984, Ted Hughes became Poet Laureate, succeeding the late John Betjeman.

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Hughes is a prolific writer for both adult and children’s theatre. Additionally, he has written numerous essays on his favorite poets and has edited collections of Keith Douglas and Emily Dickinson’s work (1968). Since 1965, Hughes has co-edited the London-based magazine Modern Poetry in Translation. Despite being an active critic and poet with new poems regularly published, his bibliography suggests that he has garnered significant attention from scholars and literary critics in both the USA and Britain. However, many of these works are not accessible in Lithuania, so my understanding of Hughes’ criticism may be incomplete. Based on my readings, here are a few key insights about Ted Hughes.

According to some critics, Hughes is often referred to as a somewhat dark poet, deeply connected to the natural world, and known for his violent and anti-humanistic poetry (4:162, 12:486). Pat Rogers suggests that his work reflects the themes of human cruelty found in the writing of contemporary East European poets like Pilinszky and Popa, both of whom Hughes admired. Hughes also drew inspiration from his interest in religion, using it to create an anti-Christian myth influenced by Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess (1948) and his own studies in anthropology (12:486).

When discussing his early poems, critics have noted that they were initially seen as a continuation of the English tradition of animalistic poetry, which was established by Rudyard Kipling and D.H. Lawrence (6:414). G. Bauzyte argues that Hughes is not strictly an animalistic poet, as he seeks to draw connections between animal life and human experiences in his animalistic verse (4:163). I. Varnaites suggests that Hughes anthropomorphizes nature in his poems (5:61). Additionally, G. Bauzyte observes that Hughes’ poetic style is reminiscent of the Parnassians and particularly of Leconte de Lisle’s animalistic poems. However, she notes that while de Lisle focused on color, exotic imagery, and impressions, Hughes’ work is characterized by deeper semantic meaning. His poetic principles are fully exemplified in the poem “Thrushes,” which is a spontaneous and intuitive celebration of life, akin to a bird’s song or Mozart’s music (4:162).

The main sources of Hughes’s inspiration include the Yorkshire landscape, his upbringing as the son of a carpenter, his study of totemism at Cambridge, and the theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer (4:161, 6:414). The key themes in his work, as identified by I. Varnaite, encompass nature, the animal kingdom, humanity, and the interplay between man and nature (5:61). Hughes frequently challenges conventional poetic norms by employing striking contrasts and surreal imagery (4:162). Additionally, he is known for his distinct language and concise style. V. A. Skorodenko points out that Hughes uses contrasting images, unexpected associations, and occasionally coarse language (6:416). I. Varnaite characterizes Crow and its sequels as repetitive, at times overly realistic, and even crude (5:62).

Hughes’s early poetry depicts man as cruel and predatory, much like his portrayal of animals. According to I. Varnaite, Hughes holds the most admiration for beings that are ferocious and violent. Edwin Muir also highlights the ferociousness of Hughes’s imagery, describing it as admirable violence. This viewpoint provides support for those who argue that there are fascist tendencies in Hughes’s verse. G. Bauzyte notes that Hughes’s negativism aligns him with the American poet Emily Dickinson. In his Manichaean worldview, darkness often triumphs over light, cold over warmth, and hatred over love.

Regarding predecessors, Hughes is often compared to Dylan Thomas because they both celebrate nature and derive their imagery from it (6:414). For example, in Hawk in the Rain, Hughes’s poetry embodies a similar essence found in the works of Thomas and Hopkins. In this poem, the man symbolizes the connection between the earth and the rawness of violence, with the hawk representing the poet’s metaphorical inspiration (4:163). Critics also highlight distinctions between these two poets. Unlike Thomas, Hughes’s poetic world is filled with indifference towards suffering and pain (6:415). Additionally, while Thomas solely personifies elements, Hughes incorporates a view of humanity as an integral part of the animal kingdom.

According to Hughes, the distinction between humans and animals lies solely in their stoicism and rational will, as these qualities allow them to resist the chaos of the world. A. Skorodenko believes that Hughes’s portrayal of the world is most evident in his seventies publications: Crow, Cave Birds, and Gaudete!. These books were a collaboration with sculptor Leonard Baskin, who provided illustrations that served as inspiration for the poems. In these cycles, Hughes’s interpretation of the world becomes almost mythical. Blood is presented as the ultimate metaphor in these works, representing all stages of life – from primal unity and pulsation to its complete opposite, Littleblood. The central idea in these later books is that blood governs the world, with the driving force behind all actions being the sexual drive to ensure procreation.

According to V. A. Skorodenko, there has been a shift in the poets outlook reflected in the poems written in the eighties. In these poems, the man is no longer metaphysically solitary as in earlier books. Instead, he becomes a part of nature and, through it, of the whole Universe (6:417). I. Varnaite believes that Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy has influenced Hughes’ verse. She suggests that many poems translate several of Schopenhauer’s theses into the language of modernistic poetry (4:61). Robert Stuart interprets Hughes’ works based on Nitzscheanism, while other critics believe that some of Hughes’ poems are influenced by Heidegger (ibid.). I. Varnaite also points out that the poet’s worldview is complex and cannot be simplified to one philosophical school.

According to I.Varnaite, among potential influences on Hughes’s work are folklore, myths, and other religions besides Christianity. However, I.Varnaite also draws a parallel between Hughes’s work and Schopenhauer’s philosophy. According to this perspective, both Hughes and Schopenhauer believe that animate and inanimate nature share the same essence and embody the Will of the Universe. As a conclusion, I.Varnaite argues that Hughes is a nihilist who speaks of inner emptiness, the lifeless universe, bleakness, nothingness, and the brutal will. Moreover, she suggests that Hughes’s vision of the future is no more optimistic than the past and present (4:67).


  1. Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes Selected Poems. London: Farber and Farber Ltd., 1962.
  2. Ted Hughes. Lupercal. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.
  3. Ted Hughes. The Hawk in The Rain. London: Farber and Farber, 1986.
  4. XXa. Vakar Europos Literatra. II dalis (1945-1985). Vilnius: Vilniaus Universiteto leidykla, 1995.
  5. Literatra Nr 36 (3). Vilnius: ISSN 0202-3296, 1994.
  6. Anglijskaya Literatura 1945-1980 (ed. by Saruchanyan, A. P.). Moscow: Nauka, 1987.
  7. Anglijskaya Poeziya v Russkich Perevodach. XX Vek. Moscow: Raduga, 1984. – 848 p.
  8. Ivasheva, Valentina Vasiljevna. Literatura Velikobritaniji XX Veka. Moscow: Visshaya Shkola, 1984.
  9. Walder, Dennis. Ted Hughes. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1987.
  10. Walder, Dennis. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Great Britain: The Open University Press, 1976.
  11. Stuart, Robert. English Poetry 1960-1970. England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  12. The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature (ed. by Rogers, Pat). New York: University Press, 1990. – p. 486-489.
  13. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (ed. by Ousby, Ian). USA: Cambridge University Press, 1991. – p. 484-485.
  14. Hopkins, John. Guide to literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: University Press, 1994. -775 p.
  15. Lotman, Jurij Michailovich. Struktura Chudozhestvennogo Teksta. Moscow: Isskustvo, 1970.

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