In 1960, writer Ted Hughes described in a letter a “moral fable” that formed a permanent cornerstone of his writing:
“… when you hurt something or somebody else, there is also a spirit in you which receives the hurt.”
He was describing a story he had written about a hunter who kills a hare and then seems to become a hare, at least in his mind.
Ted Hughes has been one of the steadfast companions of my life. Like other nerd children I learned early to keep company with writers, and the writers who’ve accompanied me through life are more real and complete to me than acquaintances and, often, friends. Hughes’ poetry has been, for me, a literary reflection of my own understandings of nature, masculinity and human life. He’s important to me.
Ted’s “moral fable” echoes strangely across the years since his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide during their estrangement, and his mistress, Assia Wevill, mimicked that suicide during her own estrangement from the poet and killed their infant daughter in the same horrific act.
Hughes subsequently became a mythic demon to Departments of Women’s Studies at universities across the planet. To me, however, he remains a mentor, a guide and a sort of friend.
So it’s eerie now reading his correspondence in a 700-page map of his personal life from callow teenage missives to friends to the poignant letters of his last days. The final letter was written nine days before his death from cancer in 1998, and describes the human perspective on his interactions, as Poet Laureate of England, with the Royal Family.
I’m not a great fan of literary biographies or collections of letters, generally, but Christopher Reid, the editor of the letters, has brought me a wonderful gift in this collection. I knew Hughes’ writing. I’ve read all his published poems several times. Now I know a little bit about the Yorkshire country kid, the giddy college boy, the ambitious young writer, the contrite father and the aging, famous poet. It’s been a little like a trip with a long-time friend that results in a new, deeper relationship.