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Thursday, October 29, 1998 Published at 13:25 GMT


Quiet man of intense verse

Ted Hughes: his intense poetry stirred the nation

The BBC's Nick Higham on Ted Hughes
Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who has died aged 68, had a reticent, ascetic personality which was greatly at odds with his deeply passionate verse.

He is likely to be remembered as one of Britain's greatest 20th-century poets.

Ted Hughes was one of the most acclaimed and significant poets of his generation.

He won many national and international awards, including the Hawthornden prize and the Queens Medal for poetry.

He was appointed Poet Laureate in December 1984 - in some ways a surprise choice to succeed Sir John Betjeman.

Ted Hughes was born in West Yorkshire. The son of a carpenter, he went to grammar school, and Cambridge University.

[ image: His marriage to Sylvia Plath was troubled]
His marriage to Sylvia Plath was troubled
As a boy he used to go for walks on the moors, where his deep understanding of nature developed. At Cambridge he met and married his first wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath, who was later to commit suicide.

Hughes was much influenced by the recollections of his father, who fought at Gallipoli in World War I, and some of his poems include references to the slaughter there.

Hughes' unsentimental images of animal life are not to everyone's taste, but he rejected charges that his poems were violent. These lines are from Hawk Roosting, published in 1960:

I kill where I please because it is all mine
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads.

Hughes said: My poems are not about violence, but about vitality. What excites my imagination is the war between vitality and death in the natural world.

Acclaim at 30

His first major collection of poems, The Hawk in the Rain, published in 1957, won instant acclaim and four years later Lupercal took the Hawthornden prize. Hughes was still only 30.

After that nearly all his books had more than one element - drawings, photographs, prose, as well as the verse.

Crow - a nihilistic book with no lack of death and blood - and Gaudete, published in 1977, were the other main collections on which Hughes' reputation was based.

He wrote children's verse, plays and stories, notably The Iron Man, published in 1968.

A private man

Hughes was a tall, powerful man with a hawk-like profile. He was also a very private person.

When he was made Poet Laureate in 1984, a writer in The Times said it was a bit like appointing a grim young crow to replace a cuddly old teddy bear.

A small New Poetry poll in 1979 voted him best poet writing in English, ahead of Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney.

Hughes and Sylvia Plath had two children. He married again in 1970.

New heights

In January 1998 Ted Hughes' reputation hit new heights when he was awarded the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year Award for Tales Of Ovid, a re-working of classical Greek mythology.

This year also saw the Birthday Letters - a collection of poems which, for the first time, shed light on his troubled marriage to Sylvia Plath.

Many feminists and admirers of Plath had held Hughes responsible for his wife's suicide in 1963, accusing him of abandoning her for another woman at a time when she was emotionally unstable.

His name was repeatedly removed from Plath's grave by vandals.

Critics said the Birthday Letters showed Hughes as a man deeply in love and tortured by his wife's unstable nature and not as an indifferent betrayer as he has often been depicted.

His last public appearance came on 16 October when the Queen awarded him the Order of Merit - a rare honour in the gift of the monarch bestowed on only 24 people at any one time.

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