As part of the BBC’s poetry season, Britain’s famous wordsmiths of yesteryear and today are being put in the spotlight. In Ted Hughes: Stronger than Death, the late poet’s legacy is reanimated for fresh scrutiny. Often inspiring, always moving, the show gives a comprehensive overview to those unfamiliar with Hughes’s work. For those who began watching with conclusions about his private life, a refreshingly wide spectrum of opinion is given which will challenge established views, positive or negative. The story reveals an intensely emotional man who for most of his life was subsumed by his quite brilliant art, often placing it above the needs of those closest to him.
Romantically, Hughes never lost sight of his West Yorkshire roots despite his success. Stronger than Death sanctifies this link through a combination of panoramic footage and reflective contributions from admirers, imbuing Hughes with affable humility. Its main strength however is the coherent montage of images, ranging from absorbing interviews to snippets of Hughes reading his work, demonstrating the breadth of his influence and influences.
Hearing Hughes’s soothing, rich voice coax out images drenched in nature’s wars is one of the most beautiful oxymorons in literature. ‘Hawk Roosting’, from his 1960 collection Lupercal, remains his masterpiece. The predatory bird’s mesmeric hubris, ‘Now I hold creation in my foot’, combined with the terseness of its serrated thoughts, should in an ideal world create new legions of fans. And how can one surpass the immortal line from ‘Examination at the Womb-Door’ in 1970’s critically worshipped Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, ‘but who is stronger than Death? / me, evidently.’ Despite the focus on his personal life, there is no shortage of analysis of Hughes’s poetry, the emotional impact of which has conclusively survived his death.
If one is to try to understand Hughes’s art, one must regrettably delve into Hughes’s private life. Hughes’s relationships with women were brutally shaped by his devotion to poetry, and vice versa. However his aficionados spin it, it is impossible to deny that the great poet contributed to the mental breakdown and tragically premature death of his wife Sylvia Plath in 1963, at the age of 30. His affair with Assia Wevill, coupled with his insatiable desire to produce perfect art, drove the mentally vulnerable Plath over the edge. Stronger than Death’s most searing moment is when Plath burns her husband’s work in a revenge for his infidelity, at the sight of which Hughes revels, urging her to pour her fury into her poetry. In this moment, he seems morally incapacitated, deliberately estranged from the consequences of his artistic drive.
Contrastingly, Frieda Hughes, Ted and Sylvia’s daughter, tearfully relaying the savage retribution her father experienced after Plath’s and Wevill’s tragic suicides will make even Hughes’s most caustic detractor revise their views. The source of the backlash came from the nascent feminist movement of the seventies, which adopted 1965’s Ariel, Plath’s renowned poetry collection that Hughes helped publish, as their bible and Plath as their figurehead. One cannot help but sympathise with Frieda’s criticism of feminists who, despite not knowing the intimate circumstances of Plath’s demise, formed a view of him they considered axiomatic, resulting in Hughes being spat at when leaving public readings. Frieda’s comments make one realise that we make similarly unkind judgements about ordinary and famous people embroiled in tawdry events reported in sleazy tabloids every day. We don’t have all of the facts, yet we casually make judgements based on what little we know. Therefore, conversely, it is perfectly understandable that feminists adopted the haunting poetry of Plath and detested Hughes. From an outsider’s perspective, a position most people observe this from, Hughes looks partially complicit in Plath’s downfall. Whatever the case, his personal life should not detract from the wonderful work he bequeathed us.
Hughes was a poet before he was a husband, a father and a man. He lay himself prostrate before every single poem he wrote, so deep was his reverence. He gave himself up to something that, in the words of Melvyn Bragg, was his salvation. For Hughes, poetry was something that could change the world, an attitude not repeated as commonly as one would wish today.
Ted Hughes: Stronger than Death is available on iPlayer now.
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