For a huge book somewhat solemnly intended as a further pillar for a huge reputation (complementing a Collected Poems in 2003 and a Selected Translations in 2006), these letters of Ted Hughes are surprisingly relaxed and readable. But first a few reservations. The general reader should not feel guilty about passing rapidly through some of the long epistles addressed to enquiring scholars. In these Hughes can at one point offer clear and enthralling – and often very moving – accounts of how he came to be a poet and how he practises the art (see a marvellous 1992 letter to Anne-Lorraine Bujon, a French MA student), and at another indulge abstruse and repetitive speculations about the origins of poetry in mystical forces and astrological influences. He had once thought of making a living casting horoscopes; later he would haggle (in vain) with Charles Monteith, his editor at Faber, about ‘the chosen hour’ for bringing out his books.
This propensity for unhelpful mystical elaboration can also emerge when he writes about writers whose work he reveres. The young Hughes praises the ‘clarity, precision, conciseness and power’ in Jonathan Swift; learning and repeating one paragraph ‘can energise whatever you write’. Yet by 1995 he oddly regards Swift as ‘(like