Kevin Saving on
Ted Hughes – The Unauthorised Life
By Jonathan Bate
(William Collins, 2015)
The way we judge our contemporaries reflects at least as much illumination upon ourselves as it does upon them. Ted Hughes' 'legacy' seems to be both 'mythic' as well as literary -with the preponderance now weighted firmly towards the former. His fraught marital relationship with Sylvia Plath continues to overwhelm his own poetic standing -so much so that when a 2003 study of the two writers was entitled Her Husband, the intended irony barely registered.
It is gradually becoming clearer that the vast majority of Hughes' finest work occurred in his first two published collections, The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal (both written before he was thirty). For the remainder of a highly-prolific career his verse veered between the weirdly phantasmagorical (Crow), the unevenly confessional (Birthday Letters) and the downright bad (Gaudete).
Jonathan Bate, professor of English Literature at Oxford University, published a landmark biography of John Clare some years back, but here his touch seems much less certain -possibly because a good many of the people to whom Hughes was close are still very much alive. That said, although highly sympathetic towards its subject, this book is (thankfully) no hagiography. Hughes' personal warts- his philandering (amounting almost to satyriasis), his somewhat kooky fixation with astrology, his hopelessly naïve flirtation with Thatcherism, all come through. But so, too, do the personal kindnesses, the passionate environmentalism and the quasi-mesmeric capacity to attract the enthusiasm of the young.
The salient facts of Edward James Hughes' life, a life encompassing many sadnesses, are already sufficiently well-known and this new biography rehearses those facts in an orderly, balanced and accurate -if sometimes exhaustive- manner. A feeling persists, however, that Hughes was at least partially culpable of attempting to manipulate his own 'legend' and that Bate has sedulously followed him in assigning a greatness of stature that was, somehow, never quite there.
Kevin Saving © 2016