"Every work of art stems from a wound in the soul of the artist ... Art is a psychological component of the auto-immune system that gives expression to the healing process. That is why great works of art make us feel good."
Hughes started writing by composing comic poems "for classroom consumption" at the age of 11. At Pembroke College, Cambridge he began studying English but, finding his own writing stifled, changed to archaeology and anthropology.
He did his national service with the RAF as a mechanic in Yorkshire, with "nothing to do but read and reread Shakespeare and watch the grass grow". Jobs to support himself while writing – though the urge to produce children's stories was also financial – included "rose gardener, night-watchman in a steel factory, zoo attendant, schoolteacher, and reader for J Arthur Rank".
Did you know?
Having resisted all publicity, Hughes's last interview was given to the American fishing magazine Wild Steelhead and Salmon; he had felt confident he would not be asked about Sylvia Plath.
Hughes took a magical, shamanic view of poetry: it is "a journey into the inner universe", "an exploration of the genuine self", "a way of making things happen the way you want them to happen". Always critically valued, his dense, bloody poetry of the natural world made him a surprise poet laureate in 1984. With his last works, Metamorphoses and Birthday Letters, published without fuss while he struggled with colonic cancer, he found runaway success (Birthday Letters was said to be the fastest-selling book of poetry ever, though this probably had a lot to do with the Plath myth).
Of his work for children, How the Whale Became offers ageless creation myths. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, though leaning towards the New-Age, is criticism written from love; the translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses is a sustained tour de force. Of his original poetry, the Crow sequence, red in beak and claw, epitomises Hughes's vision; while Birthday Letters, a moving and redemptive literary document, sees the achievement of a new kind of poetry.
Blake and Yeats, with their mystical influences, conception of the poet as shaman and muscular relationship with the natural world are both strong influences.
Now read on
The Yorkshire Moors are as much a character in Wuthering Heights as they are in Hughes's poetry; many of Plath's poems are echoed or responded to in Birthday Letters.
1999's The Iron Giant ("It came from outer space!") was loosely based on the children's story The Iron Man.
The Epic Poise: A Celebration of Ted Hughes (ed Nick Gammage) contains tributes to Hughes, meditations on individual poems and new poems for Hughes, with contributors including Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Roger McGough and Marina Warner.
Useful links and work online
· Extract from Tales from Ovid: Creation, Four Ages, Lycaon, Flood
· Extract from Hughes's translation of The Oresteia
· Work and Play
· Selected poems, mostly from Crow
· Earth-Moon: website devoted to Ted Hughes
· British Library's Hughes collection