Ted Hughes was one of the most prominent British poets of the twentieth century, scrutinised as much for his high-profile personal life as for his work. On Friday 16th October, scholar Jonathan Bate explored the relationship between his life and work, discussing his recent biography, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, in a talk organised by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities). Bate, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, was joined by a panel of Hughes experts, each of whom focused on a different aspect of his oeuvre and reputation, casting light on the many shades of Hughes’ life and poetry.
Seamus Perry, Head of the English Faculty at the University of Oxford, described Ted Hughes as a Romantic figure, akin to Byron or Shelley, while hinting that Bate’s biography succeeded in reviving a human portrait of the poet. Oliver Taplin, Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Magdalen College, focused on Hughes’ rewriting of Classical drama, particularly Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Euripides’ Alcestis. Taplin linked both to events in Hughes’ life, suggesting that a parallel existed in the latter, for example, between the suicide of Alcestis and that of his first wife Sylvia Plath.
Each speaker peppered their brief presentation on the poet with anecdotes, giving the talk the feel of a reunion: long-term acquaintances meeting in memory of a friend. Though intimate, the gathering was far from exclusive. The audience members, participating in the form of smiles and nods of agreement, were invited along too. This friendly, familial atmosphere was affirmed in the exchange between Bate and Anne Farrar Donovan, Hughes’ cousin. Donovan talked about Ted in forgiving terms, highlighting the difficulties that his lifestyle inevitably caused to his family: notably the suicides of both Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill (who also killed their young daughter), and Hughes’ second marriage to 21-year-old Carol Orchard. But she was also keen to emphasise Ted’s kind personality and interests, from his love for old Morris Traveller cars, to his habit of bestowing the family company’s trousers as gifts.
While the panellists focused on personal yarns and conveying the different sides of Hughes’ figure, questions from the audience steered the conversation towards the difficulties of writing a biography. Bate here concisely outlined the pros and cons of writing about someone whose relatives and friends are still alive. The immense privilege of interviewing Hughes’ close family was complicated by the delicate issue of privacy: which facts are best left unsaid? And – a question that has become embroiled within the work’s reception – how can one be sure these are facts at all? The author’s responses were intelligent and measured, forming a thought-provoking overview of biographical ethics. Bate ended by quoting the poet’s sister, Olwyn, aptly summarising the tensions that continue to dominate accounts of Hughes’ life: “He was a kind man: he did not want to hurt anyone, and he ended up hurting everyone.”