In America, Ted Hughes is still best remembered by many as the husband who drove Sylvia Plath to suicide. Even in Britain, news he will be given a plaque in Westminser Abbey’s Poet’s Corner brings out expressions of revulsion from some readers.
Such reaction is understandable, if uncharitable and lacking in sophistication. After all, Plath, who killed herself in 1963, gained posthumous fame for her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and for the “Ariel” poems she was working on at the time of her death.
The “Ariel” poems, which can be read, in part, as a deeply personal challenge to patriarchy, made Plath a feminist icon and Hughes a villain. The blow to Hughes’ reputation in some quarters worsened when the woman he left Plath for, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their four-year-old daughter in 1969.
Personal tragedies aside, Hughes led a long and productive life as a major poet and children’s author. He served as Britain’s poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. In 2008 the London Times named him fourth on its list of the 50 most important British writers since 1945.
John Burnside published an evocative essay in praise of Hughes in Sunday’s Guardian, recalling the first time he heard the poem “The Thought Fox:”