Page last updated at 07:02 GMT, Wednesday, 15 October 2008 08:02 UK

Library acquires Hughes archives

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Ted Hughes
Hughes was Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998

Hundreds of unpublished poems, letters and notebooks by former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes have been acquired by the British Library.

The archive focuses on the poet's final collection, Birthday Letters, which explored his tragic marriage to Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963.

Drafts and notes reveal he worked on the collection for more than 25 years.

Jamie Andrews from the British Library said the archive "would change Hughes scholarship in a substantial way".

"Anyone compiling a complete collection of his poems will need to examine this collection," added Andrews, who is the library's head of modern literature manuscripts.


Hughes' widow Carol said: "Ted was a man of these islands - their landscapes, rivers and wild places - and it is fitting that papers covering such an important part of his creative life should be deposited with such a prestigious institution here in Britain."


Birthday Letters, published only months before Hughes' death in 1998, was Hughes chronological account of his relationship with Plath.

It sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide and received both the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whitbread Book of the Year award.

Hughes penned some of his drafts in school notebooks

The archive reveals that his initial notes for the collection were made in the 1960s in a series of used school jotters, which Hughes had bought in bulk.

His dense scrawls clutter the pages like brambles, as scraps of ideas and abandoned verses reveal his ongoing struggle to come to terms with Plath's death.

Many of the unpublished works were apparently too personal to have been aired during Hughes' lifetime, with one poem starkly stating:

You were the tailor of your own murder
Which imprisoned you
And since I was your nurse and protector
That sentence was mine, too

"The rawness of the poems certainly makes them a lot less guarded than what became Birthday Letters, which he very carefully ordered to create the idea of a narrative," notes Andrews.

"But, even with the unpublished poems, we have to be clear these are not the unmediated truth, these are something that's got to be worked through."

However, it is not just the shadow of Plath's death that Hughes tackles in his notes.

One poem, which opens with the line "Cambridge was our courtship", is a tender recollection of the couple's first meeting.

How would it feel to have your tatty old school book be the starting point for this touchstone of British literature?
Razia Iqbal, BBC Arts correspondent

Elsewhere, a "mind map" sees the poet organising his thoughts and themes on his wife's life in a diagram-form.

He draws out themes in a spidery carousel - jealousy, critics, fairy godmother - jotting down ideas that germinated into verse.

"He started with little one-sentence aide memoires, then wrote prose and worked that into poetry," says Andrews.

"But there was an in between phase where he worked out the ideas on a variety of astrological charts.

"He was trying to tie them into some kind of supernatural, super-mystical tradition."

'Log jam'

Ted Hughes' diaries
Diaries, letters and correspondences with translators feature in the archive
By the time he had readied Birthday Letters for publication, Hughes' jagged handwriting had become more expansive and relaxed - suggesting a man more at peace with his demons.

In personal letters, he says it had been necessary to write about his tragic relationship with Plath to "relieve the log jam" of his creativity.

Evidence of this comes in the numerous uncompleted poems he was working on at the time of his death from cancer in 1998 - also included in the archive.

The collection was purchased from Hughes' estate for 500,000 - including a 200,000 donation from The Friends Of The British Library - and consists of more than 220 files and boxes of manuscripts.

"We were really bowled over to find out how much there was," says Andrews.

Aside from the Birthday Letters manuscripts, scholars will have access to journals, personal letters, dream diaries and correspondence with critics and translators.

The range and extent of the material on offer rivals - and may even eclipse - the collection housed at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, which includes Hughes' personal library and letters to his lover, Assia Wevill.

Andrews says the British Library hopes to work with the American institution to further the study of Hughes' life and work.

The library's acquisition includes funding to catalogue and preserve the Hughes collection, which is expected to be fully available for research by the end of 2009.

In the meantime, it hopes to keep a blog chronicling the cataloguing process, as it has done for the Harold Pinter archive that was acquired in December 2007.

A notebook containing early drafts of Birthday Letters, revealing that Hughes had originally planned for the volume to be entitled The Sorrows of the Deer, will also be displayed in library from 15 October 2008.

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Poet Hughes' birthplace for sale
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