Sir Jonathan Bate began his glittering career as a scholar of the Romantic period, and in writing this big and impressive life of Ted Hughes he has found himself faced with the difficulties that might face any biographer of Romantic genius. As with Byron or Shelley, the challenge is not to make the story interesting but rather to try and keep its innate sensationalism within more humanly scaled bounds. Hughes was obviously one of those people to whom extreme things happened. Most of us, for example, do not receive notes saying, ‘If you come near my wife again I will kill you’, but this episode crosses the pages of the book without the temperature noticeably rising. As rapidly emerges from this absorbing and deeply acquainted account, Hughes was a charismatic figure and the events of his life, tragic and tragicomic alike, normally occurred on a large scale, as though predisposed to become the stuff of legend. Bate cites the recollection of a woman who encountered Hughes at a party and felt so overcome by his presence that she had to go to the loo to throw up. Well, these things happen.
No doubt, like Byron and Shelley, Hughes hankered at times for a life of more normal dimensions. When a ferocious new tax inspector was appointed to look into the bad tangles of his financial affairs, Hughes was dismayed to learn she was called Mrs Skinner. ‘Why does everything have to be so symbolic?’ he complained to a sympathetic friend. But really, symbolism feels the tenor of his way. Somehow exemplary is the story of Hughes leaving a restaurant called (mais oui) La Pomme d’Amour with Emma Tennant when he is assaulted by a familiar, foaming stalker, dispassionately described by Bate as a ‘schizophrenic homosexual poet’. Hughes remains utterly cool: he belts the crazy man into the car and with a penknife meaningfully slits a piece of paper in half in front of his assailant’s face, before releasing him into the unwitting crowds of Notting Hill. ‘He won’t trouble us again,’ Hughes said. And he didn’t. If people only knew the truth about his life, Hughes once told an acquaintance, they would be ‘surprised that it’s so mundane, so ordinary’. On the evidence of this book, however, it is not at all obvious that they would.
As Bate remarks, the story of the stalker, which Tennant tells so well, was probably improved a bit; but it is never easy to divide fact from mythology in Hughes’s case, in good part because he was such an instinctive self-mythologist. One of his best stories is of a prophetic burning fox that visited him while he was an undergraduate and instructed him to abandon English literature as an academic discipline. It is a great story, one iteration (there are several) of which is collected in his collection of prose Winter Pollen; but it is also a wonderfully artful piece of fable-making that serves the purposes of Hughesian self-definition and quite lacks that weird sense of unmeditated inconsequence that accompanies, say, the visionary reports of Blake. Part of the magnetism, at once wonderfully fruitful and utterly destructive, that worked between him and Sylvia Plath was their mutual instinct to turn life into a spontaneous kind of folklore: everyone at Cambridge thought of the undergraduate Hughes as a kind of Heathcliff, and, as Bate remarks, they had hardly fallen in love before Plath was ‘projecting herself as Cathy’. At other times she liked to joke that Hughes was her version of Lady Chatterley’s gamekeeper. Neither analogy set a very hopeful precedent. Bate is not a corrosive sceptic, but he gently corrects the record at numerous points. For instance, one of the poems about Plath dwells on a precursor suicide in the same building, a Belgian girl who had a dog. Bate has tracked down someone else who lived in the same building, according to whom ‘she was English and did not own an Alsatian’.
Hughes had important relationships with his two siblings. His sister, Olwyn, fearsomely protective of his interests and rivalrous with his women, was a dominant presence, and Bate portrays her very well; but in a way it is his older brother, Gerald, absent in Australia for most of the story, who stands out in this biography as the more significant, as the steady and emotionally sorted-out alternative self that Hughes loved and admired but could never emulate. Gerald’s likeable memoir, Ted and I, is a little masterpiece of normality that accompanies, like a piece of wholly plausible apocrypha, the more legendary accepted version. If only they had lived closer together, Hughes told his brother late in life, ‘I’m sure my life wouldn’t be half so silly’. Hughes writes very beautifully in his book of creation myths, How the Whale Became, about the ways in which the animals, before they became themselves, had to practise being the animals they wanted to become: the lions practised being lions and the linnets being linnets, and finally, after a time, they turned into those things. The wistfulness of his account of this self-defining process is sweet and poignant; this biography conveys the feeling that, unlike Gerald, and for all his extraordinary power and accomplishment, Hughes never really managed to turn into himself. The animals in his poems, wholly and unthinkingly themselves, are less biological creatures than examples of self-possession, like the ‘Pike … perfect/Pike in all parts’, no less entrancing for being so wholly alien to Hughes’s own sense of how things felt.
It was Hughes’s belief that every poet had a foundational myth, and he devoted many of his later years to figuring out what Shakespeare’s was. Bate, an eminent Shakespearean among other things, is generous about the deep eccentricity of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, which is indeed a thing of fascination, even if, as Bate implies, it is not a book you would want your students to spend too much time with. Hughes’s own deepest preoccupation, as it emerges from this book, was not really to do with nature or primitive energies or the White Goddess or the corruptions created by Enlightenment rationalism, but rather the death of Plath, which became the preoccupying myth of his creativity. In this sense, the book does not revise but rather handsomely confirms the hunch that most people must have always had: ‘Sylvia Plath’s death was the central fact of Ted Hughes’s life’. But, as Hughes himself said, it was precisely the one fact that he could not bring to the surface of his poetry, or at least not of his published poetry, and the result was a career that, in his own eyes, had been largely frittered away on displacement activities. ‘He had excluded and suppressed the main thing’, as Bate paraphrases him; denied the ‘more fruitful career’ that might have been his, as Hughes himself put it. It was only belatedly, with the publication of his poems to Plath’s ghost, Birthday Letters, that he came to some sense of self-realisation, and by then he was already ill with the cancer that would kill him. Bate is able to refer authoritatively to an immense amount of Plath-haunted poetry that lies unpublished in the Hughes collection in the British Library, much left in complicated successive drafts, all of which will no doubt be an editorial nightmare for a team of scholars one day. He couldn’t stop writing about her.
Bate thoroughly persuades us that Hughes came to think of his writing career as a life with a hole in it, as his great contemporary Philip Larkin once said of his own. But I wonder if Hughes was right. The work he produced in the 1970s, which he described as ‘piddling about’, includes some of his very greatest poems, and not the least achievement of Bate’s book is to suggest that, alongside the recognised brilliance of the early animal poems and the inimitable cartoon absurdism of Crow, Hughes’s poems of middle age are his real masterpieces – especially the farm poems from Moortown, the lovely poems of fancy that he collected in Season Songs and the oblique reminiscences of his Yorkshire childhood in Remains of Elmet. The fortunes of this last book have been harmed by its looking so pretty, with its large pages and the memorable photographs by Fay Godwin, but it must be one of the best volumes of verse of the second half of the century, up there with Larkin’s High Windows and Heaney’s Field Work. The poems have a Wordsworthian pitch: they are full of the pathos of human endeavour, of admiration for the understated tenacity of hard lives, of something like social anger coupled with what Wordsworth would have recognised as ‘natural piety’. The poems in Birthday Letters, by contrast, seem to me too involved with material that mostly didn’t escape a sense of colossal self-punishment and a thoroughly understandable yearning for a self-exculpation that never arrived. Hughes could behave as badly as Byron or Shelley ever did, and his views could be, as Bate disarmingly puts it, ‘bonkers’, but the characteristic that finally comes to distinguish him is a bloodied kind of fortitude, and that is something that this accomplished biography, sympathetic but never simply exonerating, captures very movingly.