The program, The Ted Hughes Letters, aired on BBC 2 on 29th October, 2007. The letters were written between Hughes’ entry to Cambridge and 1972. The program was developed and presented by the novelist, Jane Feaver.
The book based on the program, The Letters of Ted Hughes, was published by Faber & Faber in 2007. The ISBNs are:
Thanks to DebRA for her work transcribing these poems.
My early life, first consciousness to age 9, revolved around my brother’s world and the animals that we searched for in it. I had a peculiar, obsessive relationship to wild creatures. Simply their near presence. It’s a physical reaction, like a kind of ecstasy.
Jane Feaver: Ted Hughes was born in 1930 in Mytholmroyd, a small town in West Yorkshire to William and Edith Hughes. He was the youngest of 3 children. He had an elder sister, Olwyn, and a brother, Gerald who was 10 years older and whom he clearly hero-worshipped.
When I was 9, the whole thing, by a fluke, was intensified. We moved to South Yorkshire where my parents bought a newsagent’s and tobacconist’s shop in a mining town right in the thick of the coal and steel belt. Simultaneously, the War started and my brother went off into the RAF. We hardly saw him again until 1945, 6 years later. But before he went he located, right next to the town we lived in, and divided from it by a poisonous river, a completely wild stretch of farms. These became his new kingdom which I entered with him. When he went of they became mine. So, for the next 5 years I had to keep our Palaeolithic Eden going on my own, and I did that.
Jane Feaver: Although Ted was an intensely private man, he was remarkably frank and open to his correspondents, sometimes to people he didn’t know. These sketches of his childhood, for instance, are prompted by questions written to him by an MA student at Oxford.
When I was 11, I got to grammar school and discovered that what I wrote amused my classmates and my English teacher. That focussed my interest, I suppose, but with my brother gone I came under the influence of my sister. She was ahead of me at school and an academic star. She also has a very forceful personality. Also, as it happened, she had a sophisticated taste in poetry.
Jane Feaver: Olwyn and Gerald were amongst Ted’s earliest correspondents. In 1951 Ted went up to Cambridge to study English from where, in his second term, he writes to Olywyn.
Sometimes I think Cambridge wonderful. At others, a ditch full of clear, cold water where all the frogs have died. It’s a bird without feathers; a purse without money; an old, dry apple. All the gutters run pure claret. There’s something in the air, I think, which makes people very awake. I’ve joined the archery club and I’m very keen.
Jane Feaver: By the end of his second year, disillusioned with the study of English literature, Ted had switched to archaeology and anthropology. He outlines for Gerald a new daily routine for feeding himself and his imagination.
I buy meat and roast it in front of my fire, which brings people slavering from the other side of the college to cram their nose in my keyhole. I do this in the middle of the night. I go to bed about 11 and get up at 2.30 in the morning. Then I work and sing and spring about amusing myself and draw grotesque figures on my walls until about 7. Then, I got to bed until 9.30. By this means I get two first sleeps and feel fresh as a flower. The second, 7 to 9.30 sleep, is always full of the most marvellous dreams and this is the best part of my day. This is like leading two lives. The night is so still and empty and I’m alone in it so completely that it’s like the great pursuits, shootin’ and fishin’ and smirkin’ at the distance.
Jane Feaver: When Ted left university he was prepared to take on any kind of work that allowed him time to write. He worked as a rose-gardener, as a night-watchman, and briefly in the kitchens at London Zoo. When he writes to Olwyn in May, 1956, he’s contemplating going to Spain to teach English. Events, however, are to take a decisive turn.
I have met a first rate American poetess. She is really good. Certainly one of the best female poets I’ve ever read and a damn site better than the run of good male. Her main enthusiasm at present is me and she thinks my verses are as good as I think they are and has, accordingly and efficiently, dispatched about 25 to various immensely-paying American mags. For the last month I have lived about the strongest life I ever did live. The main thing about it, and the thing that has saved it from being just absurd, is that I’ve written quite a bit. As I’m miserable and fit for nothing if I don’t write continuously I shall, from now on, shape my life around writing instead of squeezing writing into my life where I can.
Jane Feaver: Sylvia Plath had come to Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship. She met Ted at a party to launch a student magazine, The St Botolph’s Review, and the attraction between them was instantaneous. Within a matter of months they were married. But in that first year they were often apart, Sylvia completing her course in Cambridge, where they were keeping the marriage a secret; and Ted, living with his parents in Yorkshire, visiting London or Cambridge to see her at weekends.
Dearest, darling Sylvia. What have I done today? A mouse could not find it if a second of honest labour were a pound of toasted cheese. The impression is that I’ve come down an Everest of indolence on my – yes – my bum. I was roused by the nearest thing to your own ponky warmth, which was the wonderful letter. A relic for our fifteenth child’s fifteenth child. This morning I could work up absolutely no interest in my stupid play. Nor had I the spirit for anything else. Yesterday, I felt like writing but today – blank. I’ve read somewhere in Freud that when a person is suddenly deprived of someone he loves and has built into his life his working powers often fail temporarily. Though I should have thought they would be stimulated. I read a bit. Dawdled a bit. And, finally, went out with my Yeats, intending to read on the moors. I went up where it was luminous that evenin’ and I sat there reading Yeats aloud until I was frozen and my fingers were numb.
Jane Feaver: The letters arrive almost daily and are full of exhortation and encouragement.
If you write whatever attracts you and you write it as hard as you can and as rich then you can’t miss! And a pox on your imitators who will be the new breed of outnumbering gnats. Just write it off in your own way and make it stand up off the page and jump around the room. Then even if you’re writing about your aunt Agratat’s animated carrots it will sell.
Jane Feaver: One of the original St Botolph’s gang from Cambridge, Lucas Myers, a postgraduate from Tennessee, became a close friend of Ted’s. In November 1956 Ted fills him in on developments, both domestic and literary.
To explain this address and rumours you’ve probably been receiving let me tell you that Sylvia and I were married June 16th.
Harper’s, did you know, are holding a poetry contest. The entry has to be 60 pages – poems – by someone who has published no book of poems. The judges are Spender, Auden, Marianne Moore. The prize is publication in America and England! I can manage about 50 aught pages – 30 or so poems – only a few that you’ve seen. Considering the enemy – that trinity – I have small hopes.
Jane Feaver: In fact a telegram arrives on 23rd February, 1957 which, as Sylvia wrote to her mother, made she and Ted, ‘jump about, roaring like mad seals’. Ted writes to his sister, Olwyn, the same day.
This morning I had news-and-a-half! You remember that contest for which I was getting those poems into a book? I’ve won it! You must celebrate it mildly and at not too great expense. I had a telegram this morning from New York and Sylvia has not stopped dancing since. It’s music for a month.
Jane Feaver: The next day, Ted writes to Gerald. Crookhill was the estate where Ted had fished as a teenager with his school friend, John Wholey, ‘Johnny’.
Though I haven’t been fishing for 7 years I dream every, single night that I’m fishing. Often, it’s the canal at home, vastly altered. Sometimes flowing swift and very deep with sharks. Mostly, it is Crookhill. I have every kind of fishing adventure. There’s always a big fish and whenever I dream I catch that, the day after I sell a poem! One night I dreamed I caught the grandfather pike at Crookhill – at the corner near the outflow. You and Johnny were pullin’ at its fins and I was heaving down the slope. We had 20 feet of it out and still most of it was in the pond! The next day I sold my first poem – and got married.
Sylvia is my luck completely!
Jane Feaver: In May that year, Ted writes to his parents, Edith and William, to celebrate the forthcoming publication of his first book of poetry, The Hawk in the Rain.
This morning we got specially good news. Faber & Faber wrote to me and told me that Mr TS Eliot likes my poems very much indeed, congratulates me on them and they will publish the book! Eliot is Chief Oracle at Faber’s. I shall be the first poet, ever, to publish his first book in both countries and only about the third to publish any book of poetry simultaneously in both countries!
Jane Feaver: In June of that year, 1957, Ted and Sylvia set sail for America for Sylvia to take up her teaching post at Smith College, a condition of her scholarship. Ted writes a letter to Olwyn from the ship touching on an apparent falling-out between her and Sylvia when they were all staying together at The Beacon, Ted’s parents’ house in Yorkshire.
The days at home were ill-starred. Don’t criticise Sylvia too badly about the way she got up and came after me. After her exams, etc., I suppose she felt nervy. She did, that was obvious. But the Beacon is too small for 5 or 6 people. Especially if one of them has an obsession about resting. And everyone was walking in and out and up and down continually. She admires you more than any English woman she’s ever met! Her immediate face when she meets someone is too open and too nice. Smarmy – as you said. But that’s the American stereotype she clutches at when she is, in fact, panic-stricken. Or, perhaps, and I think this is more like it, her poise and brain just vanish in a kind of vacuous receptivity. Only this American stereotype manner then keeps her going at all. She says stupid things, then, that mortify her afterwards. Her second thought, her retrospect, is penetrating, sceptical and subtle. But she can never bring that second thinking mind to the surface with a person until she has known them some time. She’s hard to bring out, in fact. You saw how much better she was the last day. Don’t judge her too much on awkward behaviour. I’m sure you see what she’s really like. She’s no angel. But there’s a balance to her worst side. She’s a miserable past which I’ll tell you about gradually.
Jane Feaver: By the end of June they’d arrived in Sylvia’s home town of Wellesley, Massachusetts and Ted writes to Olwyn again with his first impressions.
What a place America is! Everything is in cellophane! Everything is 10,000 miles from where it was plucked or made! The bread is in cellophane that is covered with such slogans as de-crapularised, re-energised, multi-cramulated, bleached, double-bleached, re-browned, unsanforised, guaranteed no blasphemin’! There is no such thing as ‘bread’! You cannot buy ‘bread’! And 50 processes that side of the wrappins these loaves saw the last molecule of their original wheat! This is my main impression of America. It is a temporary expedition in which we are living on food we brought to last the expedition out. And we mustn’t put up houses to last more than a year because we shall soon be goin’! And everything is a temporary fixture and we’ve so much to get done before we leave that there’s no time to do more than sleep and hurry.
Jane Feaver: That summer, as a wedding present, Aurelia, Sylvia’s mother, rented the couple a cottage on Cape Cod, though their stay is not as idyllic as it might have promised.
Her mother bought us this cottage – dowry almost – for the summer hoping that we would relax and write. At first the cost of the place, $70 a week, so got on my nerves that I couldn’t do anything. A too-costly article paralyses my appreciations; it paralysed Sylvia too. We sat. We got brown on the beaches. We idled for 3 weeks. Then we had a black week in which Sylvia lay, helpless with sheer depression. And I went about with a melon grafted onto the side of my head. A corpulent, drumming devil in the likeness of an abscess and swelling, the abscess right in my ear. This black week broke last Sunday, 3rd or 4th when we rode 5 miles to the nearest doctor. It was strange because a long, tedious spell of 98 degrees per day broke with it. The rain fell as I have never seen it. Thunder was continuous. I saw 3 trees that lightning had struck within 20 yards of the road! Anyway, the doctor’s magic was good. The ear had cleared up by Tuesday, Sylvia cleared up and, suddenly, we’d begun to write like angels and apply our brains like the bits of electric drills.
Jane Feaver: In the autumn they moved into a flat in Northampton from where Ted, initially at a loose end, writes to his friend, Lucas Myers.
Sylvia is teaching. At present I’m doing nothing. I sit for hours like the statue of a man writing. Except that during the third or fourth hour a bead of sweat moves on my temple. I have never known it so hard to write. I have never, of course, tried to write before. Since I came I’ve got about 4 poems, which seem to me an improvement. Publishing all the poems I had has done one thing. Made it impossible to go on writing in that fashion. I shall get a part-time job, I think.
The girls, their number and their surprising likeness, one to another, and their machine-glaze of hyper-health are almost unnerving. Chromium Dianas!
Jane Feaver: At the end of 1959, after two and a half years, they decided to return to England. By this time Sylvia was pregnant with their first child. When they arrived in London, they eventually found a flat to rent near Primrose Hill where, on the 1st April, 1960, Frieda Rebecca was born.
The baby’s head appeared like a mushroom and the midwife guided it every second. Then, all at once it slid clean out looking exactly like a pink, translucent balloon – baby shape – smeared all over with a whiteish, cream-like wet flour. The cord was around its neck but not tightly. A little girl.
Jane Feaver: Despite the domestic upheaval, literary life for both poets remained active. Lupercal, Ted’s second collection, was published in April and Sylvia’s first book of poems, The Colossus, was due for publication in October of that year. The couple are invited to literary dinners.
We had dinner with Eliot and Spender and their wives. Very pleasant. Eliot is whimsical and pleasant. At the same time very remote. He talks staring at the floor between his feet when he’s sittin’ and looks up only to smile at his wife. His smile is like that of a person recovering from some serious operation. Spender chatted so much that he wrote us a letter afterwards apologising. But he was charming. I didn’t expect to like him at all and found him almost congenial. They talked exclusively of the Bloomsbury group and its satellites. Literary gossip. Eliot isn’t at all unguarded in his remarks. He has huge, thick hands! Unexpected.
Jane Feaver: When it came to writing to Aurelia, Sylvia’s mother, Ted was a dutiful son-in-law. He addresses her here on the pitfalls of fatherhood and literary celebrity.
It’s not true that only women have children, for instance. I think the general psychological upheaval is quite as severe for the father. This was complicated, as an illness might be, by the fact that when I got back here, having left in 1957 as a complete unknown, I found myself really quite famous and was deluged by invitations to do this, give readings, do that, meet so-and-so, etc. And many doors were comfortably wide open that I had never dreamed of being able to enter. And places such as the BBC, which I had been trying to penetrate for years, suddenly received me as a guest of honour! Naturally I wanted to take advantage of some of this, telling myself that there was a real advantage there to be taken. And so, besides the profound inner revolution caused by Frieda’s arrival, I had to manage also the profound inner revolution of becoming something of a public figure. The first of these revolutions was natural and welcome and good in every way. The second was unnatural, cruelly against myself and I think it cost me a great deal more in the way of energy. To enter ‘literary life’ is, in fact, to enter a small, windowless cell, empty, under a stunning spotlight and left to your own devices in the knowledge that millions of invisible eyes are watching through the walls.
Jane Feaver: The increasing sense of scrutiny and entrapment led Ted to resurrect his dream of living in the countryside. In August, 1961, the couple, who’d been searching in Devon, found a house in North Tawton, just north of Dartmoor. Ted writes to tell Danny Viceport, another old Cambridge friend.
As you see, we’re in Devon! Peace! Space! London departed like a headache. So, from now on I hope my life will be privacy, my own thoughts, my own amusements, my own time, with occasional raids on the world. London was beginning to build – had built – an ants’ nest between my ears that never gave me peace. But, as I say, the 200 miles have exterminated that miraculously. We’ve a sort of farm-house in a rather grim, little village but are quite private in our 2 acres with apple trees, fancy trees, garden, out-houses etc. Some day, we hope, it will be ours. At last! A place to dump things.
Jane Feaver: In January, 1962, Sylvia gave birth to their second child, Nicholas Farrar. In mid-May they invited for the weekend a literary couple who’d taken over the lease on their London flat, the Canadian poet, David Wevill and his wife, Assia. As it turned out, this visit was to instigate an affair between Assia and Ted which, over the summer, drove Sylvia to a pitch of jealousy and despair. Sylvia and Ted began talking of separation, though they set off together for Ireland in September. But when Sylvia returned to Court Green alone at the end of their stay she seemed determined on divorce. Here, in the late summer, Ted talks through with Olwyn details of his earnings, his writing, and possible marital arrangements.
My earnings are gradually becoming steady. My books earn about £7 a week, which is amazin’. Most of it is reprints in anthologies and such things. If I’ve done nothing else I’ve written more perfect anthology pieces than anybody alive. I’m trying to fix Sylvia up in Spain for the winter. Then, by next Spring, have this spare cottage renovated and a nanny living in. Let her write and be company for her. Besides, as soon as I clear out, she’ll start making a life of her own, friends of her own, interests of her own.
Jane Feaver: By the beginning of December, 1962, it seemed that the marriage was definitely over. Gerald is told,
All this has been terrible, especially for Sylvia. But it was inevitable. And now the storm centre of it recedes into the distance I can only be relieved that I’ve done it. The one factor that nobody but quite close friends can comprehend is Sylvia’s particular ‘death-ray’ quality. In many of the most important ways she is the most gifted and capable and admirable woman that I have ever met! But, finally, impossible for me to live married to. Now we’re trying to get a biggish flat in London where Sylvia can live with the 2 children. Only in London can she get a girl to live in and look after the kids and she needs that if she’s to write and work.
Jane Feaver: They found a flat for Sylvia in Primrose Hill, a flat where Yeats had once lived, and by mid-December, Sylvia and the children were installed there. That winter was one of the worst on record. In February, 1963, Ted writes with devastating news to Olwyn.
On Monday morning, at about 6 am, Sylvia gassed herself. The funeral’s in Heptonstall next Monday. She asked me for help, as she so often has. I was the only person who could have helped her. And the only person so jaded by her states and demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it.
Jane Feaver: It was another month before he could face the task of writing to Sylvia’s mother.
It has not been possible for me to write this letter before now. I shall never get over the shock and I don’t particularly want to. I have seen the letters Sylvia wrote to my parents and I imagine she wrote similar ones to you, or worse. The particular conditions of our marriage, the marriage of two people so openly under the control of deep psychic abnormalities, as both of us were, meant that we finally reduced each other to a state where our actions and normal states of mind were like madness. My attempt to correct that marriage is madness from start to finish. The way she reacted to my actions also has all the appearance of a kind of madness. Her insistence on divorce – the one thing in this world she did not want. The proud hostility and hatred, the malevolent acts that she showed to me. When all she wanted to say, simply, was that if I did not go back to her she could not live. We were utterly blind. We were both desperate, stupid, and proud. And the pride made us oblique. She especially so. I know Sylvia was so made that she had to meet out terrible punishment to the people she most loved. But everybody’s a little bit like that and it needed only intelligence on my part to deal with it. But the difficulties caused by that, the fact that, on the surface, the situation was no more difficult than the normal one for separated couples, it was better than most in that she had money, fame, prospering plans, many friends. All these things delayed the working of our reconciliation. I don’t ever want to be forgiven. I don’t mean that I shall become a public shrine of mourning or remorse. I would sooner become the opposite. But if there is an eternity I am damned in it. Sylvia was one of the greatest, truest spirits alive and in her last months she became a great poet and no other woman poet, except Emily Dickinson, can begin to be compared with her. And certainly no living American.
So, now, I shall look after Frieda and Nick and you are not to worry about them. I will write as often as I can about them.
I didn’t know how to start this letter and now I don’t know how to end it.
Jane Feaver: Immediately after Sylvia’s death, Ted moved into her flat to take care of the children. He decided to sell Court Green and had found a house in Yorkshire, Longbank, near his parents, which he wanted to buy. However, the sale and purchase of the respective houses fell through and by Christmas of that year, Ted was back in Devon with the children and Olwyn, who’d come to help look after them.
Things are going on fairly normal. It’s been one of the most overpowering Springs I remember. Everything seemed to come together. It’s looking a bit more burned out, now, and the land here has just vanished under weeds. I scythe for an hour a day but don’t really make much headway. The soil is so incredibly rich! There are foxgloves in the front garden a foot taller than I am.
Jane Feaver: The relationship with Assia continued, though it was frought not least by Ted’s parents’ manifest disapproval of her. In February, 1965, although Assia was heavily pregnant with Ted’s child, she was living apart from him in London where he writes to her,
Do you know what oppresses me? The thought that you save my letters. You said recently, I forget what, but enough to make me think someday somebody might get hold of those letters and make hay. Assia, I’m foolishly oppressed enough as it is with bloody eaves-droppers and filchers and greedy curiosity. And if you’re going to be sitting on all that for some Suzette suddenly to lay her hands on then I can’t write freely! As it is I’m always expecting my notes to get intercepted so I don’t write a fraction of what I would.
Jane Feaver: Ted’s apparent paranoia was due, in part, to the interference he felt from stirrers and gossips in his life since Sylvia’ death. Assia and Ted’s child, Shura, was born on 3rd March, 1965. And in February of the following year, with relations on a more even keel, Frieda and Nicholas, Ted, Assia and Shura, moved to a house in Galway with the idea of eventually settling in Ireland. Ted continues to write to Aurelia.
The children are in paradise! Nicky is now a boy. He’s extremely intelligent. The other day he said to me, ‘What is very warm and yellow but doesn’t burn its paint off and is in this room?’ The answer, believe it or not, was the sun’s light! I wish I could have recorded his guiding hints and red herrings while I was trying to guess. I couldn’t guess. Though it is, as you can see, a legitimate riddle. Frieda is the best companion in the world.
Jane Feaver: The next month, having moved to a smaller cottage on the west coast, Ted tells Gerald,
This place is a mild paradise for me at present. We moved yesterday from our sumptuous home to a much older, wilder place. £2 a week! A house annexed to a big farm, big for this region at the top of Cleggan Bay right on the west coast. I have a great, ramshackle room of silence to work in. I look out at heathery hillside and, if I stand, I can see the open Atlantic. The village is about 1 mile away. It’s a blue, still day. I’ve worked fairly steadily for 6 weeks and now I’m going quite smoothly and plenty of improvement still in hand. The kids are brimming over. Assia is here with me and a complete success!
Jane Feaver: The Irish stay marked some sort of respite. But in the early summer of 1966 the troop returned to Devon and Court Green, where Ted’s parents were now living. Although Assia and Ted intended to return to Ireland, domestic arrangements proved so chaotic that they never did. When Vicky Watling, Ted’s cousin, announced her intention to visit, Ted writes,
You let us know the exact dates of your descent into this ninth circle and there will be some preparations. The domestic factor is sweat-shop foundry which I own and which is now running reasonably smoothly with not more than 8 screams a day, 7 pints of blood lost, 15 guineas’ work of equipment, cups, plates etc., 3 inches of floor worn off – corners ground smooth – 12 tons of food fed into 7 ovens with a net product of 1 dirty nappy, 1 inch of baldness, 2 wrinkles – permanent – and 1 desperate, howling laugh into the darkness and silence, which comes down at about 1 am. All this cannot take one new adjustment without a complete overhaul and 3 or 4 days propaganda to all personnel. In other words, if you take us by surprise, the house will fall on us all and you will be over!
Jane Feaver: By 1967, the relationship in the household between Ted’s parents and Assia had become so dire that Ted suggested Assia and Shura move back to London. Ted was absorbed in his writing and several other literary projects including early in 1968 working with the director, Peter Brook, on a version of Oedipus for the National Theatre. In the autumn of that year Ted’s parents returned to Yorkshire. Although Assia didn’t move back to Court Green, the idea seemed to be that she and Ted might find a house together away from Devon and from relatives. In March, 1969, they were still looking, this time in Northumberland but with no success. Assia then returned to London. A few days later, deeply depressed, she gassed herself and their daughter in a way that was horribly reminiscent of Sylvia’s suicide. Ted writes to Assia’s sister, Celia Chaikin,
I should have written to you long ago but I felt so absolutely smashed and not capable of talking to anyone about what has happened. I’ve gone through these last weeks in a daze. Everything has become horrible to me. I cannot believe how I never knew what was really happening to her. Our life together was so complicated with old ghosts and dozens of near separations over the years. But we belong together so completely and so deeply that her repeatedly testing me, saying that we’d better separate for good, was just like a bad habit, part of our old difficulties and so when she repeated it on that last day over the phone, there was nothing new. Nothing we hadn’t got over dozens of times before. I feel, now, my life has gone completely empty. I know if I had only moved, if I had only given her hope in slightly more emphatic words in that last phone conversation she would have been okay. But I was totally exhausted and nearly off my head with other distractions. Usually, one of us could pull the other out of it. But on that day we were both exhausted. And then she acted so quickly! If only she’d gone away for a week anywhere she’d have jerked me out of my apathy and confusion. Little Shura was the most wonderful little girl. Full of fire!
Jane Feaver: Meanwhile in Yorkshire, Ted’s mother, Edith, was in hospital. In May, 1969, she died. This loss, so soon after the appalling deaths of Assia and Shura, left Ted reeling. In the spring of 1970, he wrote to the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, whom Assia and he had met and befriended, about Assia’s death and about the genesis of the poems that were to become Crow.
After Assia and Shura died I did not know how to write to anybody. I carried your letter around, unopened. I carried her sister’s and father’s letters around, unopened. I was just paralysed. And I’m still not much improved. I’ve been swallowed up this past year. I made a move to get away and of all the places, I moved to a house that she and I once tried to buy. I haven’t written anything for a year. I was writing a long series of poems about a crow-being. A sort of saga that puts this crow through all sorts of extremes. At the absolute nadir it dragged me into a great depression and Assia with me. And then the thing happened. So I have this depressing collection of poems about a crow.
Jane Feaver: Crow was eventually published on 12th October, 1970 and dedicated to the memory of Assia and Shura. In August that year, Ted had married Carol Orchard, the daughter of a local Devon farmer, and he decided that they should set up home at Longbank in Yorkshire. In September, Gerald and his wife came over from Australia to visit them. Ted was clearly traumatised by the events of the previous years and his behaviour was erratic and unpredictable. Later, he tries to explain himself to his brother.
This last 6 months has been the bitter end of this last 2 years. From the age of about 16 to 17 my life has been quite false. And since Ma’s death and Assia’s, this false arrangement has been falling to pieces with great drama. Finally, I think I’ve reached the end of it where I can begin again! Not easy to describe and probably not interesting. It’s left me in a strange state feeling I now have to begin again, from scratch, in myself. I imagine that I have now reached the end of it and everything appears to me in quite different terms. The hellish feeling has lifted off somewhat and I’m, I’m getting active again. It has meant the end of all sorts of dreams. Temporarily, I hope. Anyway, I’m now getting going and my aim is to build myself up to the point where I can once again live in a home and a decent spot and live the enviable life. As it is, all I can manage is a very confined arrangement of things where working comes first. Putting everything before my writing is just what caused all my disasters.
Jane Feaver: Much of 1971 was spent in Paris and then Persia when Ted was working again with Peter Brook and his actors. That autumn the Hughes moved back to live at Court Green, a house in the end that Ted had been unwilling to let go. Frieda and Nicholas were settled in boarding school in London and Devon provided them with a familiar home for weekends and holidays. In 1972 Ted and Carol acquired a small farm, Moortown, 6 miles from their home, and began to stock and run it with the help of Jack Orchard, Carol’s father. Writing to the poet and translator, Michael Hamburger, Ted seems sanguine about the positive impact farming was having on his writing.
Since we last met I got this opportunity and decided to go the whole hog. I bought a farm! So far it’s proved to be the best decision I’ve so far managed, just about. Though incredibly expensive. Carol’s father, who was a farmer, manages the whole thing, actually. All I do is struggle to stay uninvolved. Though, inevitably, I spend a great deal of time on it. The whole thing is too interesting to resist. It’s reconnected me to the only world I belong to in any way. Which I felt I was beginning to lose. And so far as I can judge, it has helped my writing. Mainly by making it impossible for me to gad about and showing me the real, precious value of each hour. Which I did not learn 20 years ago as I should have done.
Jane Feaver: The reconnection Ted talks about here is a return to the world he’d known and understood and loved as a child. There is a sense, not lost on him, that he may have come full circle. When he was 19, Ted wrote a poem, Song, which he referred to emphatically decades later in his 60s as,
The one song I sang in Arcadia that came to me, literally, out of the air, utterly unaware of all that lay ahead.
O lady, When the tipped cup of the moon blessed you
You became soft fire with a cloud’s grace;
The difficult stars swam for eyes in your face;
You stood, and your shadow was my place:
You turned, your shadow turn’d to ice
O my lady.
O lady. When the sea caressed you
You were a marble of foam, but dumb.
When will the stone open its tomb?
When will the waves give over their foam?
You will not die, nor come home,
O my lady.
O lady. When the wind kissed you, You made him music for you were a shaped shell
I follow the waters and the wind still
Since my heart heard it and all to pieces fell
Which your lovers stole, meaning ill,
O my lady.
O lady. Consider when I shall have lost you
The moon’s full hands, scattering waste,
The sea’s hands, dark from the world’s breast,
The world’s decay where the wind’s hands have passed,
And my head, worn out with love, at rest,
In my hands, and my hands, full of dust.
O my lady!