Roger Elkin[1]: 'Ted Hughes and "A Separate Little Self"'

Surveying Ted Hughes's achievement primarily in the first two volumes – The Hawk In The Rain (1957) and Lupercal (1960) – Stan Smith notes,

Hughes … rarely writes directly of personal relationships. Any outgoing of the self to others simultaneously exposes it and adds new and unknown factors to its precarious equipoise.[2] [emphasis added]

This observation is supported by Hughes's own comments. In interview with Blake Morrison in 1993, talking about Sylvia Plath's later poems, those recording what he elsewhere calls "the death of the old false self in the birth of a new real one"[3], Hughes declares

The shock of Sylvia's writing, when she really began to write, was that she was doing the very opposite of what she would normally have considered a proper thing to write about … What she'd done was to reclaim her entire psychology.[4]

What was at stake for Hughes was not Plath's poetic achievement, but the contrast between her late poetry-writing strategy and what he intuits had been the (agreed?) use of "self" in their poetry:

My notion was always that it's the one thing you don't do: you don't write about yourself.[5]

In many ways, Hughes's concern is an extension of Smith's observation, and also of what Stephen Spender has identified as the dilemma facing the modern poet confronted with the dichotomy between the public image resulting from his fame and the private persona from which he draws his inspiration:

Poetry is the balancing of unconscious and conscious forces in the mind of the poet, the source of the poetry being the unconscious, the control being provided by the conscious … The unconscious forces are below the threshold at which he becomes aware of himself as having an identity; but his "name" also is below the threshold where it requires attributes of character, performer, reputation, family, and all those things …

Today, true poets must feel, I think, a growing distrust of their own "names" which are to an ever-increasing extent sold to the reading public … on grounds totally irrelevant to poetry (the poet's achievements, academic status, or unacademic misdemeanours, etc.). The result is that poets find themselves forced to escape from their public persona, either into the unconscious pre-named and ‑labelled activity, or into an intellectualism which rises superior to givers of labels. Sometimes … these two opposites seem combined: an extreme intellectuality is fused with an ability to plunge into the subconscious depths.[6]

Hughes's personal position in 1960 and his subsequent development mirror Spender's analysis. The Hawk In The Rain had been generally well-received, winning Hughes the New York Poetry Center First Publication Award (1957), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1959), and the Somerset Maugham Award in 1960. The publication of Lupercal had confirmed Hughes, at least in the eyes of A. Alvarez, then poetry critic for the Observer, as "a poet of the first importance"[7], and in 1961 the collection was awarded the Hawthornden Prize. Sylvia Plath's letters for 1960 are littered with references to requests for Hughes to give readings, to letters from editors seeking poems, and to commissions for programmes from BBC radio. Frequent mention is made to cocktail parties and dinners with the established London literati – T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Jennings and Roy Fuller.[8] As Alvarez states, "This was Ted's time. He was on the edge of a considerable reputation … He was in command."[9] Moreover, following Spender's analysis, Hughes's poetry from Lupercal onwards became increasingly "intellectualized", while simultaneously exploring the subconscious as source for the mythic parallels that pointed the thematic arguments of the later works such as Crow (1970), Gaudete (1977) and Cave Birds (1978).

However, before these works, Hughes was engaged between 1960 and 1970 in the process of establishing for himself, if not for a wider public, a "poetic" persona or "separate little self"[10] which, until the publication of the Collected Poems (2003), was "hidden" in several limited edition and/or uncollected poems and sequences written for adults – "Fishing At Dawn", "Poltergeist", "Dully Gumption's Addendum" and the cycle "Dully Gumption's College Courses" – and which were available only in the limited edition Recklings (1966) and literary magazines.[11] Furthermore, between 1960 and 1970, Hughes's primary creative publication was in the field of literature for children: as well as radio broadcasts aimed at children, seven books were published: Meet My Folks! (1961); The Earth-Owl and Other Moon People (1963); How The Whale Became (1963); Nessie The Mannerless Monster (1964); Poetry In The Making (1967); The Iron Man (1968); and The Coming of The Kings and Other Plays (1970). It might be considered that Hughes's concentration on this particular area is synonymous with that "separate little self": "separate" in that it is regarded, generally, as a distinct category from his writing for adults; and "little" because, being for children, it is considered not to be as significant. Certainly, the "self" which emerges from the writing for children is worthy of critical enquiry and exploration; especially in the light of the importance Hughes puts on the place of imagination in children's education. Simultaneously, these works are poetic restatements of Hughes's ideas about cultural and historical developments, class, society, language, education, religion, science, and the schism between modern man and Nature that feature in his prose-statements, interviews and non-poetic writings.

A consideration of aspects from some of the above works – both the writing for children (poetic and dramatic) and for adults (poetic and expository) – might help to put into perspective both Smith's comment and Spender's analysis while simultaneously serving to illuminate Diane Wood Middlebrook's assertion that, as well as the autobiographical details which feature in Birthday Letters (1998),

Hughes … has hidden something in plain sight. So far, readers and commentators have been successfully put off the scent by Hughes's foxy stratagem of claiming to be a very private man. His withdrawal into Devon and Yorkshire, where he lived for nearly forty years far from the hub of literary life preserved his privacy within a wide penumbra … But while he was still alive and holding off the journalists, Hughes was steadily cooperating in the coherent organization of a very large amount of information about himself, aimed at posterity. That's the man I'm looking for: the one who left the materials … hidden in plain sight.[12]

[read the next part here]


[1] Roger Elkin's primary interest in Hughes's poetry lies with Recklings, (Turret Books, 1966, limited edition of 150 copies); and its relationship to the Hughes canon.
See, Roger Elkin, "Neglected Auguries in Recklings", in Keith Sagar (ed.), The Challenge of Ted Hughes, (St. Martin's Press, 1994), pp. 11–39;
Roger Elkin, "Breaking Ground: The Uncollected Recklings Poems", in Joanny Moulin (ed.), Lire Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, (Edition du Temps, 1999), pp. 101–122;
Roger Elkin, "Hidden Influences in the Poetry of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath", 2009,

[2] Stan Smith, "Wolf Masks: the Early Poetry Of Ted Hughes", New Blackfriars 56, (September 1975), pp. 414–426.

[3] Ted Hughes, consulting ed., in The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Fran McCullough, (New York: Dial Press), 1982, p. xii.

[4] Blake Morrison, "Man of Mettle", The Independent on Sunday, Review, (5 September 1993), pp. 32–34.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Stephen Spender, "Warnings from the Grave", The New Republic, vol. 154, no 25, (June 18, 1966).

[7] A. Alvarez, "An Outstanding Young Poet", Observer, (27 March, 1960).

[8] Sylvia Plath, Letters Home, Correspondence 1950–1963, selected and edited by Aurelia Schober Plath (Faber & Faber, 1975). See letters for: March 3, 1960 (pp. 368–9); May 5, 1960 (p. 380); June 24, 1960 (p. 386); July 9, 1960 (p. 389); and October 26, 1960 (p. 397).

[9] A. Alvarez, The Savage God, (Harmondsworth, 1971), pp. 21–22.

[10] Ekbert Faas, "Ted Hughes and Crow", London Magazine, (January, 1971), pp. 5–20, (p. 13).

[11] Poetry references are to Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, (Faber and Faber, 2003), hereafter cited as CP. 
The poems also appeared separately in a variety of publications:
"Fishing At Dawn", New Statesman (26 May, 1961); CP, p. 126;
"Poltergeist", Spectator (November 25, 1960), p. 859; CP, p. 142;
"Dully Gumption's Addendum", Poetry, Chicago, (2 May, 1962), pp. 92–94; CP, p. 126;
"Dully Gumption's College Courses", (March 1961), Recklings, pp. 20–22; CP, p. 98.

[12] Diane Wood Middlebrook, "In Search of the Autobiography of Ted Hughes", in Joanny Moulin (ed.), Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons, (Routledge, 2004), p. 110.

About the Author
Roger Elkin

Roger Elkin contributed the essays "Hidden Influences in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes" and "Ted Hughes and 'A Separate Little Self'" to this site.

His contribution "Breaking Ground: The Uncollected Recklings Poems" was published in Lire Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems 1957-1994 and his "Neglected Auguries in Recklings" was published in The Challenge of Ted Hughes.

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