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Opinion: Ted Hughes makes it to Westminster

Controversial British poet laureate and former husband of Sylvia Plath gets memorialized alongside Byron and Browning.

On the left: A sketch of British poet Ted Hughes by Sylvia Plath entitled "Portrait of me, made by Sylvia Plath, circa 1957" released by Bonhams auctioneers in central London, Sept. 29, 2005. (Bonhams/Handout/Reuters) On the right: An undated photo taken of Britain's Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who died on Oct. 28, 1998, after an 18-month fight against cancer. Hughes was hailed by some critics as one of the country's greatest writers this century. (Reuters)

LONDON, U.K. — I am in Westminster Abbey where kings and queens are crowned, and many of them buried. In the south transept is what is known as poet’s corner. Here is a statue of William Shakespeare, elbow on his books. Over there on the stone floor are plaques for Tennyson, Byron and Browning, and on that wall Keats and Shelley. Geoffrey Chaucer, who died in 1400, has his tomb here, and there’s a statue of William Wordsworth sitting. There are even some Americans immortalized in the abbey — Longfellow and T.S. Eliot, for example.

France may have its painters, Italy its art and opera, and German culture its matchless composers. But for England it’s poetry, and here is where the immortals are memorialized.

Late last month it was decided that Ted Hughes would be commemorated here as well, a poet who has been revered and reviled as few others have, a poet whose life story and tragedies once threatened to overwhelm his art in Britain, and even more so in America. Not since Lord Byron has a poet’s reputation been so controversial.

For Ted Hughes was the man who, in 1956, briefly courted and wed the American poetess, Sylvia Plath. They met at Cambridge University, where Plath went after Smith College in Massachusetts. They married, and after a brief teaching stint in Boston they returned to England to live on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. They had two children, Nicholas and Frieda.

In 1957 Hughes burst upon the scene with the publication of his “Hawk in the Rain,” which won immediate acclaim. For the next 41 years he would win prize after prize.

He was born in 1930, a Yorkshireman, and a poet of nature in the great English tradition. But his poetry had its dark, apocalyptic side and his images were not always pretty. Not for Hughes Wordsworth’s “field of golden daffodils.” Hughes' daffodils were “baby-cries from the thaw” lifting out of the same bulbs every year:

Ballerinas too early for music, shivers

In the draughty wings of the year.

On that same groundswell of memory,  fluttering

They return to forget you stooping there

Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,

Snipping their stems.

To his critics Hughes was the one who snipped the slender stem of Syliva Plath’s life. A man of unbridled passions, Hughes fell for a fellow poet’s wife and the idyll of his married life with Plath in Devon was over. His mistress, Assia, was a Jewish refugee who had escaped the Holocaust, lived in Israel for a time, and married David Wevill to live in Devon — too close to the flame, as it turned out.

The affair wrecked both marriages, and Plath left for London where, in 1963, having learned that Assia was pregnant, she carefully sealed her children’s room from the gas, and went into the kitchen to put her head in the oven.

I am inhabited by a cry. Nightly it flaps out

Looking with its hooks for something to love,

wrote Plath in one of her last collections of poetry, “Ariel.”

Hughes detractors, especially in America in that era of the women’s movement, blamed him for her suicide at age 30 with a vengeful vehemence. The furor became so great that vandals hacked the name Hughes off of Sylvia’s grave stone.