British Library's £500,000 Ted Hughes catch

• Huge archive includes letters, diaries and drafts
• Former poet laureate wrote about Sylvia Plath

The enormous literary archive of Ted Hughes, that includes letters, drafts of poems, journals, diaries and his innermost thoughts, has been bought by the British Library, it announced yesterday.

Curators regard the £500,000 purchase as being of inestimable importance. The 220 files and boxes will take up to a year for a British Library cataloguer to sort so it can be fully accessible by the end of next year. Jamie Andrews, head of modern manuscripts, said the archive was "critical to the study of twentieth century poetry".

Hughes, poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998, has been argued by some as being the finest English poet of the last century and a major influence on many of his contemporaries. His first wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide at the age of 30, months after he left her for Assia Wevill. Wevill also killed herself months after Hughes left her.

Hughes refused to talk publicly about Plath. How he really felt was revealed in the year of his death with Birthday Letters, an intense collection of poems about their relationship and her death.

Items in the archive reveal that they were poems he had worked on for 28 years, almost dominating his life. In one letter to fellow poet Seamus Heaney, Hughes writes: "Given the funny old physical corner I've got myself into and the mysterious role in my life that SP's posthumous life has played - publication came to seem like a matter of life and death."

In another letter to poet Kathleen Raine he says the poems were too "raw and unguarded" to be published. He adds: "If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago I might have had a more fruitful career - certainly a freer psychological life."

The archive includes Hughes' fishing journals and also many personal diaries that record his increasingly vivid dreams and reflections on his family and past.

The archive shows that Hughes would regularly write on used paper, and when he heard of a private school closing down he bought its used exercise books. P Hunt, who went to Vicars Hill school in Boldre, may not realise it, but his 'HISTRY' exercise book is now in the British Library.

The Library is also releasing two CDs of Hughes reading his own work. Next Monday a celebration of Hughes will be held at the Library featuring Heaney, Alice Oswald and Simon Armitage.

Hughes' widow, Carol Hughes, said: "Ted was a man of these islands - their landscapes, rivers and wild places - and it is fitting that papers covering such an important part of his creative life should be deposited with such a prestigious institution here in Britain."

Contributor

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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