‘A Response to the Letters of Ted Hughes

by Terry Gifford

[Originally commissioned for Wolf 17, 2007, pp. 65–6.]

The publication of Letters of Ted Hughes in 2007 not only confirmed the enquiring and wide-ranging intellect behind the essays and reviews in Winter Pollen, but constituted in itself a serious contribution to a huge variety of debates in English culture. Edited with tact and invaluable notes by Christopher Reid, the letters provide a glimpse into a major writer’s intellectual and emotional autobiography. (Reid made a point of saying at Faber’s launch party that Carol Hughes had left him to make his own selection without interference.) Reid is right in saying that their dominant spirit is one of generosity. Some readers will be surprised to find that in the first flush of success Hughes was not just passing on his new-found contacts with publishers, but was himself sending to publishers the manuscripts of close friends. But throughout these letters Hughes is offering family, friends and complete strangers alike an uncompromised and fully developed train of thought drawing from a grasp of a surprising range of esoteric forms of knowledge and experience. The two letters to me written in 1994 and 1997 I had assumed to be unexpectedly fulsome because Hughes wanted to lay material down for the future. I now realise that he offered a huge amount of time and thought to people, like me, whom he had not met. (I wanted to be able to keep a critical objectivity in writing about his work, uncompromised by friendship – and I thought that he would live forever and there would be time to change my mind.)

Imagine my surprise to find in the archive at Emory University that Hughes had spent a substantial amount of time writing a letter in answer to my question about how he justified fishing that is marked at the top ‘Not sent’. There is no duplication of material in the letter that he wrote the following day and did send to me. This first letter, he’d obviously realised when he’d finished it, was about other forms of hunting and had not addressed my question about fishing. But its style is warmly conversational. He presents his evidence and then steps back to ask, ‘What would you make of that?’ before going on to give his own conclusions. In the unsent letter he wrote, ‘So again, the question: If what I say is so what is your conclusion? Mine is, on balance: for the sake of the deer and foxes I’m ready to tolerate a lot of conflict, i.e. internal conflict, conflict of conscience.’ The Letters are characterised by this direct form of address from an enquiring intellect and a capacity for honest emotional self-examination.

Christopher Reid’s selection provides a volume of letters that will stand comparison with others in our culture. The integration of personal experience - of responsibility for challenging relationships, for his art, for the environment and for contemporary culture – with a wide range of reading and reflection, reveals the whole person in continuous struggle with what is ultimately a dissatisfaction with having made the right choices in his life. Personal disappointment, agonising grief, and the feeling that things have not turned out quite right through his choosing the wrong road, provide a counterpoint to the celebration of the later work and the apparent fatalism of Birthday Letters.

Reid gives an indication that he could have produced three more volumes of equal quality. Today Daniel Weissbort, who is working on a book about Hughes and translation, has written to me to say, in passing, how much we need a Complete Letters, just as we need a Complete Translations, in order to engage with these important but neglected aspects of Hughes’s work, a full assessment of which is yet to come. (Neil Roberts, in Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (2006), is the only critic to have given attention to translation so far.)

Reid admits that the lengthy contextualising annotations required prevented him from including letters engaging with environmental pollution and Hughes’s full commitment ‘to the research and lobbying that were necessary. As he amassed evidence and read the scientific papers, he became a true expert, well able, for instance, to face interrogation at public inquiries’ (2007: xi). Ed Douglas’s article ‘Portrait of a poet as eco warrior’ in the Observer (4. 11. 2007, Review section pp. 10-11) provides a clue to Hughes’s little-known environmental activism in the Southwest that would be revealed in a Complete Letters, including the establishment of the Westcountry Rivers Trust to monitor water quality which became a national body to co-ordinate all regional Rivers Trusts (see my essay in the April 2008 issue of the online journal Concentric). I’m intending to give a full account of Hughes’s environmentalism in a book on Hughes to be published by Routledge in 2009. Meanwhile, the Letters adds to our, as yet unfulfilled, ability to engage with what I call ‘the reconnected work of Ted Hughes’.

Related Publication
Book Cover

The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber & Faber 2007/2009; [more].

Related Publication
Ted Hughes: Selected Translations (Cover)

Selected Translations, Faber & Faber 2006, was selected and edited by Ted Hughes's Cambridge friend Daniel Weissbort. It opens a door into a part of Hughes's oeuvre that readers and researchers rarely look into ... [more].

Related Publication
Terry Gifford: Ted Hughes

Terry Gifford: Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009 [more].

About the Author
Terry Gifford

Terry Gifford is co-author (with Neil Roberts) of Ted Hughes. A Critical Study (1981), and author of Ted Hughes (2009). He is a regular contributor to this site, including several essays.