The 1940s – Mexborough to Cambridge

In Mexborough, Ted initially went to Junior School in Schofield Street. In 1941 or 42, he entered Mexborough Grammar School where he soon became friends with a boy from Olwyn's class, John, and his sister Edna. John and Edna's father was head gardener and game keeper on an estate several miles from Mexborough which served as a sanatorium at the time. They lived at "The Lodge" (now demolished) by the gate. The estate was surrounded by fields and included a big park with old trees and a smallish pond, as well as extensive woodlands. It came to approx. 100 acres in total and proved a perfect place for two boys exploring and looking for adventure. Ted was soon allowed to spend whole weekends there.

John and Edna's father happily shared his extensive knowledge of animal, plants and the countryside with the children and Edna remembered him waking them at night when there were badgers about to watch them. He also seems to have been an important influence in instilling a sense of responsibility for nature, animals and one's actions in Ted.

On several occasions, Ted mentioned that it was around that time, at around 14 or 15, when his attitude to animals changed [cf. e.g. "Capturing Animals" and "So Quickly It's Over"]:

… at about fifteen my life grew more complicated and my attitude to animals changed. I accused myself of disturbing their lives. […] And about the same time I began to write poems. Not animal poems. It was years before I wrote what you could call an animal poem and several more years before it occurred to me that my writing poems might be partly a continuation of my earlier pursuit. ["Capturing Animals": 11]

In the early 1940s, the former Hall of the estate (now demolished) and the surrounding park of the estate were used as a sanatorium for men with terminal tuberculosis. There were several open shelters in the park where the patients could lie out in the fresh air, and there are accounts of Ted walking through the park toward the Hall and shoutingly quoting poetry to the amused patients.

From around the age of eleven, Ted began to write "comic verse" for "classroom consumption" ["The Art of Poetry LXXI": 59] which was inspired mostly by the comics he read before they were sold in his parent's shop. The shop also gave him access to boys' magazines and journals such as Game Keeper and Shooting Times, which also seem to have influenced his writings. His mother also supported his literary leanings and apparently bought a whole second-hand library of classic poetry after Ted's first English teacher had praised his writing [cf. Keith Sagar, entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography] – even though Ted couldn't remember reading it at the time. Among the most important books for him at the time was Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter.

With Gerald gone, Ted's sister Olwyn became a major influence, and he later recalled that she had a sophisticated taste in poetry and literature. 

Looking back, Hughes always described his discovery of folklore from a children's encyclopedia as his first literary shock (followed by the 'shocking' discoveries of Kipling and later of Yeats).

I remember the shock of reading those stories. I could not believe that such wonderful things existed. […] throughout your life you have certain literary shocks, and the folktales were my first. From then on I began to collect folklore, folk stories and mythology. ["The Art of Poetry LXXI": 59–60]

This seems to have happened around the age of 13. At around 14, he encountered Kipling's poems and he was completely taken by his use of rhythm.

[…] I began to write […] long sagas in Kiplingesque rhythms. I started showing them to my English teacher – at the time a young woman in her early twenties, very keen on poetry. I suppose I was fourteen, fifteen. I was sensitive, of course, to any bit of recognition of anything in my writing. I remember her – probably groping to say something encouraging –  pointing to one phrase saying: ›This is really … interesting.' Then she said, ›It's real poetry.' It wasn't a phrase; it was a compound epithet concerning the hammer of a punt gun on an imaginary wildfowling hunt. I immediately pricked up my ears. That moment still seems the crucial one. ["The Art of Poetry LXXI": 60]

Hughes's literary explorations were much encouraged by his English teachers, in particular John Fisher and Pauline Mayne, who also introduced him to authors such as Eliot, Hopkins. Still at school, he discovered Yeats's via the last part of his "Wanderings Of Oisin" and so Yeats became his passion in poetry up to and through university ["The Art of Poetry LXXI": 61].

To equip himself, he tried to learn his favourite verse by heart :

I imitated things. And I read a great deal aloud to myself. Reading verse aloud put me on a kind of high. Gradually, all this replaced shooting and fishing. […] I used to sit around in the woods, muttering through my books. I read the whole of The Faerie Queene like that. All of Milton. Lots more. It became sort of a hobby-habit. ["The Art of Poetry LXXI": 60–61]

Around the age of sixteen, the idea of becoming a poet apparently took more definite shape. In June 1946, one of his early poems ("Wild West") and the outline of a short story (which he later rewrote into "The Harvesting" in Wodwo) were published in the Grammar school magazine The Don and Dearne, followed by further poems in the July issue of 1948.

In 1948, he won an open exhibition in English to Pembroke College, Cambridge, but chose to do his National Service first. At the time, Britain still had a system of mandatory conscription under which every healthy man between 17 and 21 was expected to serve in the army for one and a half years. Hughes served as a radio mechanic in the RAF

on an isolated three-man station in east Yorkshire — a time of which he mentions that he had 'nothing to do but read and reread Shakespeare and watch the grass grow' [Sagar: Ted Hughes, 3].

Before he went to university, John Fisher gave Hughes a copy of Robert Graves's White Goddess – a book that became very influential on Hughes's concepts and was also very popular among his friends at university.

[Note: I may add further parts to this as I find the time. However, much of Hughes biography from the time he entered Cambridge onwards is fairly well covered. For a quick overview I recommend Opens external link in new windowAnn Skea's Timeline.]

House in Main Street, Mexborough (2004)
House in Main Street, Mexborough (2004)
View across to Old Denaby (2004)
View across to Old Denaby (2004)
Manor Farm today (2004)
Manor Farm today (2004)
Manor Farm today (2004)
Manor Farm today (2004)
Manor Farm today, view across toward Mexborough (2004)
Manor Farm today, view across toward Mexborough (2004)
Crookhill, gate area, close to the site of The Lodge (2004)
Crookhill, gate area, close to the site of The Lodge (2004)
Crookhill, overgrown pond (2004)
Crookhill, overgrown pond (2004)
Crookhill, view from top of the park, close to the site of the hall (2004)
Crookhill, view from top of the park, close to the site of the hall (2004)
Doodles inside the back cover of Hughes' grammar school Bible [Image by kind permission © Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University]
Doodles inside the back cover of Hughes' grammar school Bible [Image by kind permission of Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University © Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University]
Inscribed page of <em>The White Goddess</em> by Robert Graves. A gift to Hughes by his English teacher John Fisher; [Image by kind permission © Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University]
Inscribed page of The White Goddess by Robert Graves. A gift to Hughes by his English teacher John Fisher; [Image by kind permission of Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University © Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University]