As a poet, Ted Hughes often wrote about nature's savagery. In his personal life, the British Poet Laureate, who died Wednesday at age 68, often seemed visited by a similar kind of cruel senselessness. His first wife, Sylvia Plath, killed herself in 1963, leaving him to raise their two children. At the time, Hughes was having an affair with Assia Wevill, who in 1969 also killed herself and their child.
Over the years, the particulars of Hughes' tragic life took on an almost mythological dimension, one that threatened to overshadow his poetry. Relentlessly attacked by critics, especially feminists, who found him hardhearted -- some of them even blamed Hughes for Plath's death -- he fought diligently for his and his children's privacy. For 34 years he refused to discuss Plath's suicide, and it seemed he would carry his feelings about his former wife and writing companion to the grave. But this past January, aware that he was dying of cancer, Hughes finally spoke, in an extraordinary and extraordinarily intimate collection of poems, "Birthday Letters." In his review of "Birthday Letters," Jay Parini wrote, "Ted Hughes has given us a huge gift here, one that has cost him dearly." In her accompanying essay on Hughes, Kate Moses wrote, "They are poems vivid with tenderness and sincerity, appreciation, incredulity, humility and courage, and like tea
left steeping too long, tannic with sorrow."
Born in Mytholmroyd, a remote Yorkshire town, Hughes attended Cambridge University, where he met Plath. The two were married in 1956. He published his first collection of poetry, "The Hawk in the Rain," in 1957. The book won a new-poets competition judged by W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Marianne Moore and was published to wide critical acclaim. Hughes went on to publish more than 35 collections of verse, several plays and works of prose, and two opera librettos. He was also a successful children's book writer -- his most popular children's book, "The Iron Giant," was published in the United States in 1968.
Upon word of his death, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Hughes "a towering figure in 20th-century literature who even in his last years was producing great works."