Opinion: Ted Hughes makes it to Westminster

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.

Matters did not improve for Hughes when yet another affair drove Assia to an even more frightful despair. In 1969 she fed her 4-year-old daughter sleeping pills, brought her bed into the kitchen, turned on the gas oven without lighting the flame, and there died with her child. Assia Wevill wrote in her journal that it had been Plath’s ghost who forced her to take her life — and in such a way.

“Axes,” wrote Sylvia Plath —

After whose stroke the woods ring

And the Echoes!

Echoes traveling …

Hughes “looked like Heathcliff,” said one of his mistresses, “rough, passionate and forceful.” He nevertheless suffered. Years later he published “Birthday Letters,” one of the most best-selling collections of poetry ever. In it he tried to explain his life with Sylvia, who was prone to depression and had tried suicide once before she met Hughes.

I was a fly outside the window pane

Of my own domestic drama.

Your life was a liner I voyaged in

Inside your bell jar …

Slowly, Hughes' reputation began to recover from the twin tragedies of his life. He remarried, and went on to become Britain’s Poet Laureate in 1984. He published many plays and children’s books as well as poems before he died of complications during surgery for colon cancer in 1998.

At his funeral, Irish poet Seamus Heaney said: “No death in my lifetime has hurt poets more. He was a tower of tenderness and strength, a great arch under which the least of poetry’s children could enter and feel secure. His creative powers were, as Shakespeare said, still crescent … the veil of poetry is rent and the walls of learning broken.”

Hughes’ son, Nicholas, committed suicide last year. His daughter recently blamed her grandmother, Sylvia’s mother, for the breakup of her parent’s marriage — a challenged judgment that opens the old wounds in Hughes’ stormy life.

By no means are all poet laureates memorialized here. But for Hughes, Westminster Abbey is history’s trump card.

In his poem, “The Thought Fox,” Hugues wrote:

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox

It enters the dark hole of the head.

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,

The page is printed.