Imaginative, comprehensive biography of the writer best known in the United States not for his own work, but for his tragic marriage to the doomed Sylvia Plath.
Ted Hughes (1930-1998), the late, great poet laureate of England, always reckoned that his life was his sole currency. But which life? Bate (English/Oxford Univ.; Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, 2009) ventures that there are two chief parts to Hughes’ “poetic self,” the one that really counts: a Wordsworth-ian impulse for authenticity and a Coleridge-an impulse for exalted vision, battling between symbolism and confession. That argument is somewhat highfalutin, but Bate works it well throughout the pages of this long study, which gets points for being as much thematic as chronological. Notwithstanding, even Bate cannot escape the posthumous arm of Plath, whose unhappy circumstances led the already private Hughes to wall himself off even further, one reason this biography, which opens and closes with legal squabbling, is unauthorized even two decades after Hughes’ passing. In her new book M Train, Patti Smith wonders why Plath is buried so far from home and hearth and Hughes, and Bate’s sensitive narrative offers no end of clues. Of greater interest than Hughes’ love life to students of writing are such matters as the gestation of The Iron Giant and his “thought-foxes,” dreams both splendid and frightening. Bate recounts the critical reception of Hughes’ work as he proceeds, but in the end, the literary judgments, rock-solid, are his: “Some of the poems in The Hawk in the Rain now read like period pieces. There is sometimes a clever literary allusiveness that does not feel real.” That notion of reality is important, for Hughes was a writer of masks as well as birds and stones, and Bate’s explication of his works will be of much use to students of literature.
Unauthorized, yes, but worthy of becoming the standard life of Hughes. Illuminating, elegant, and excellent.