A Response to The Letters of Ted Hughes

Letters of Ted Hughes selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Published by Faber & Faber 2007, £30.00 (hardback), 756 pages.

Although I find the Letters of Ted Hughes to be a hugely important publication, as editor of The Wolf I have resisted the urge to include an extensive critical review of the book (of the type printed in the LRB and TLS).

Instead I have sought detailed responses from frequent recipients of Hughes' letters throughout his writing career.

I would like to thank all three recipients for their munificent responses.

- James Byrne

Keith Sagar

750 pages are nowhere near enough to represent the full range and depth of Hughes' letters. This selection, excellent as it is, is a mere taster. I hope that Faber is planning, in the long term, an edition of the collected letters. The letters to which these most closely compare are those of D. H. Lawrence. Two years after Lawrence's death Aldous Huxley published a splendid selection of some 500 letters (about the same number as in the present volume); but the Cambridge edition of the Collected Letters contained another 5,000. I imagine Hughes' collected letters will be at least that many. There are sixteen letters to me in Christopher Reid's selection, which is a perfectly reasonable number in proportion to other recipients, but nevertheless leaves me anguished at the absence of so many equally wonderful letters from the 145 Ted sent me. Whatever category of letter one looks at, those about his personal relationships, his work-in-progress, his travels, his responses to the work of others, his thoughts on large issues such as conservation, pollution, hunting and fishing, the monarchy, the occult, one always feels 'but there are many other letters just as good as these'.

Every time an envelope appeared on my doormat with Ted's distinctive writing, I felt a mixture of delight and guilt: delight at the treat in store for me, but guilt that Ted had spent yet another chunk of his valuable time writing to me, when he could have been getting on with his own work. And of course it was not just me. Lots of other correspondents, often complete strangers, received more and longer and finer letters from Ted than they ever expected.

Before I met him I was well aware of Ted's reputation for being reserved and unapproachable. When I met him, in 1970, this reserve lasted a matter of minutes, after which he became relaxed, affable, humorous and communicative. The same thing happened in his letters. When he knew that I was writing a book on him, he expressed many fears and reservations. But when he had read the first two or three chapters, he realized that he had nothing to fear, and his reticence disappeared. I had resolved in advance never, either in correspondence or conversation, to ask him about the meaning of his work, still less about his private life, and never to point a camera at him. These proved to be very wise decisions. We had plenty to talk about, having been born within four years and about ten miles of each other, and into a similar class. We had both been to Yorkshire Grammar Schools and Cambridge. We had a shared interest in animals and ecology, and, of course, in literature, especially poetry. Our correspondence soon covered all these matters, and, with no prompting from me, he gradually began to speak freely to me about his work in progress (sending me early drafts for my comments) and even, eventually, about intimate matters such as his relationship with Sylvia Plath.

Several of Ted's letters to me contained detailed expositions of his works. These were always in response to chapters I had sent him on The Art of Ted Hughes . Except in a few cases where I had missed the point completely, he never attempted to influence my interpretations, merely to elaborate on points I had made. He believed that a poem was like a house, in that when it was finished the builder had no further rights over it: it belonged to those who lived in it. I seldom changed what I had written, except for inserting, with his permission, a few supporting or clarifying passages from his letters (at the risk of making my own prose seem very pedestrian).

In the light of all this (which emerges clearly enough even in the relatively few letters to me in The Letters of Ted Hughes ) it was particularly galling to me when my second critical study of Ted, ( The Laughter of Foxes , 2000), was rejected by Christopher Reid (on behalf of Faber) on the grounds that it was 'ventriloquial'. Both Ted and I had been scrupulous to avoid any such thing.

Only at the very end of his life, when he knew his days were numbered, do I believe that Ted gave any thought to the possibility that his letters might ever be published. There were one or two to me in the final weeks, which, I felt, were his last efforts to set the record straight.

When, in the seventies, I began to specialize on Hughes, as well as Lawrence, I never expected to find so many similarities between them. Both were extremely prolific, and both poured out their lives unstintingly in letters as well as published works. In each case the mere setting of pen to paper, whether to write a poem or an essay or a letter, released the full imaginative flow. Frieda Lawrence's wonderful epitaph for her husband would have been equally appropriate for Ted Hughes:

What he had seen and felt and known he gave in his writing to his fellow men, the splendour of living, the hope of more and more life he had given them, a heroic and immeasurable gift.

Terry Gifford

The publication of Letters of Ted Hughes not only confirmed the enquiring and wide-ranging intellect behind the essays and reviews in Winter Pollen, but also constituted, in itself, a serious contribution to a huge variety of debates in English culture. Edited with tact and invaluable notes by Christopher Reid, the letters provide a glimpse into a major writer's intellectual and emotional autobiography. (Reid made a point of saying at Faber's launch party that Carol Hughes had left him to make his own selection without interference.) Reid is right in saying that the dominant spirit of the letters is one of 'generosity'. Some readers will be surprised to find that in the first flush of success Hughes was not just passing on his new-found contacts with publishers, but was, in fact, sending to publishers the manuscripts of close friends. But throughout these letters Hughes is offering family, friends and complete strangers alike an uncompromised and fully developed train of thought drawing from his grasp of a surprising range of esoteric forms of knowledge and experience. The two letters to me written in 1994 and 1997 I had assumed to be unexpectedly fulsome because Hughes wanted to lay material down for the future. I now realise that he offered a huge amount of time and thought to people, like me, whom he had not met. (I wanted to be able to keep a critical objectivity in writing about his work, uncompromised by friendship - and I thought that he would live forever and there would be time to change my mind.)

Imagine my surprise to find in the archive at Emory University that Hughes had spent a substantial amount of time writing a letter in answer to my question about how he justified fishing that is marked at the top 'Not sent'. There is no duplication of material in the letter that Hughes wrote the following day and did send to me. This first letter, he'd obviously realised when he'd finished it, was about other forms of hunting and had not addressed my question about fishing. But its style is warmly conversational. He presents his evidence and then steps back to ask, 'What would you make of that?' before going on to give his own conclusions. In the unsent letter he wrote, 'So again, the question: If what I say is so what is your conclusion? Mine is, on balance: for the sake of the deer and foxes I'm ready to tolerate a lot of conflict, i.e. internal conflict, conflict of conscience.' The letters are characterised by this direct form of address from an enquiring intellect and a capacity for honest emotional self-examination.

Christopher Reid's selection provides a volume of letters that will stand comparison with others in our culture. The integration of personal experience - of responsibility for challenging relationships, for his art, for the environment and for contemporary culture - with a wide range of reading and reflection, reveals the whole person in continuous struggle with what is ultimately a dissatisfaction with having made the right choices in his life. Personal disappointment, agonising grief, and the feeling that things have not turned out quite right through his choosing the wrong road, provide a counterpoint to the celebration of the later work and the apparent fatalism of Birthday Letters .

Reid gives an indication that he could have produced three more volumes of equal quality. Today Daniel Weissbort, who is working on a book about Hughes and translation, has written to me to say, in passing, how much we need a Complete Poems , just as we need a Complete Translations , in order to engage with these important but neglected aspects of Hughes' work, a full assessment of which is yet to come. (Neil Roberts, in Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (2006), is the only critic to have given attention to translation so far.)

Reid admits that the lengthy contextualising annotations required prevented him from including letters engaging with environmental pollution and Hughes' full commitment 'to the research and lobbying that were necessary. As he amassed evidence and read the scientific papers, he became a true expert, well able, for instance, to face interrogation at public inquiries' (2007: xi). Ed Douglas's article 'Portrait of a poet as eco warrior' in the Observer (4. 11. 2007, Review section pp. 10-11) provides a clue to Hughes' little-known environmental activism in the Southwest that would be revealed in a Complete Letters , including the establishment of the Westcountry Rivers Trust to monitor water quality which became a national body to co-ordinate all regional Rivers Trusts (see my essay in the April 2008 issue of the online journal Concentric). I'm intending to give a full account of Hughes' environmentalism in a book on Hughes to be published by Routledge in 2009. Meanwhile, the Letters adds to our, as yet unfulfilled, ability to engage with what I call 'the reconnected work of Ted Hughes'.

Daniel Weissbort

Christopher Reid, to whom some of the letters are addressed, has scrupulously edited this first selection of letters from Ted Hughes' voluminous correspondence. It will be a revelation to many. My feeling - and that of others of his circle of friends - is that a selection of the letters might well have appeared long ago and had this happened, it is unlikely that some of the more lurid fantasizing about Hughes would have taken place, since it would have been at once evident that the individual who had written these letters could not possibly be the ogre so often depicted! What is clear, therefore, is that the stereotypical view of Hughes does not stand up for a moment against the evidence so clearly on display in these letters, many of which are tender and all of which are clearly written with great attention to detail, style and the effect they are likely to have.

Hughes' letters were mostly written by hand and in pen and were as painstakingly composed as any of his other writings, certainly his essays. Indeed, a number of these letters are in themselves essay-like or, it seems, drafts for essays, though always with the recipient carefully in mind. Besides the kind of unguarded gossip and casual expressions of opinions that one might expect in letters, intended for an individual, rather than for the world at large, there are some highly focused first attempts to work out his complex ideas, say, about Shakespeare and many other subjects that were of vital concern.

I was told that Hughes would sometimes rewrite letters to be sure he had got it right. What is clear is that he regarded words as important far beyond their immediate effect. Once set down, words apparently had a certain status and his had to be respected. Hughes wrote with care and, above all, with a sense of responsibility, extremely rare, especially in these days of random and reckless e-mailing.

What we have in the Letters is not just Hughes' always interesting and often quite original views and observations, but also a record of his many and diverse friendships and his care and compassion for people close to him - of which there was a good number. He seems to have fully absorbed what is evident to anyone who has had anything to do with teaching, that validation is urgently needed in a world were invalidation is the norm and has become almost reflex. If Hughes goes onto the attack, it is formidable but usually in self-defence, and even then his counter-attack, though fierce, is also full of humour - he was a master of comical invective and characterization, sometimes turned against contemporaries whose influence he regarded as harmful, though even when his dislike or disapproval have been activated, appreciation is not far distant - as in the case of Philip Larkin who Hughes, and many others thought was likely to succeed John Betjeman as Poet Laureate. To Hughes' - and almost universal surprise Hughes himself was chosen. (Certainly he was the best choice on literary merit since Tennyson.)

What I would stress is the loving concern evident in these letters, for the many people, including his own children, of course, who mattered to him, his eagerness to be of practical help to them, his appreciation of the human need for validation, reassurance, encouragement. His splendid gifts of expressiveness were fully employed in attempting to help his friends. As I know myself, a letter from Ted was always welcome and empowering, often offering a necessary boost to one's self-esteem. He responded at once to appeals for help and sometimes offered radical remedies - I have to say I regret not taking the advice he did not shirk from offering on several occasions!

I feel sure that a Complete Letters of Ted Hughes, a formidable task for any editor, would be a very worthwhile project. In the meantime Christopher Reid must be saluted and thanked for this fine and judicious selection from the full range of letters Hughes wrote. Thank goodness for the preservation of one of the great letter-writers - on a par with Keats - in our tradition.

 

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