By Mark Ford
Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate
William Collins, 662 pp, £30.00, October 2015
ISBN 978 0 00 811822 8
So much in the life and work of Ted Hughes was weird and transgressive that even now, 18 years after his death, it is hard to feel confident that his actions and beliefs and literary achievement can be judiciously and authoritatively assessed. For a start, he wrote and published at such a rate: Jonathan Bate’s bibliographic tally of Hughes’s books runs to more than seventy items, while the various Hughes archives contain nearly a hundred thousand pages of manuscript material. The vast Collected Poems edited by Paul Keegan and published in 2003 presents a poet who insistently ‘o’erflows the measure’, to borrow a phrase from Antony and Cleopatra, veering, rather like Shakespeare’s Antony, between the sublime and the bathetic, the uncannily sure-footed and the hysterically overblown. Is early, nature-fixated Hughes best, red in tooth and claw, or the minatory spinner of parables in Crow of 1970, or should the palm go to the bestselling Birthday Letters, in which Hughes told his side of ‘the most tragic literary love story of our time’, to borrow the headline on the 17 January 1998 front page of the Times, which paid £25,000 for the privilege of breaking news of the book to the world? All that Hughes enthusiasts can really agree about is the wisdom of drawing a veil over royal poems such as ‘The Song of the Honey Bee’, written for the short-lived marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, or ‘A Masque for Three Voices’, composed in honour of the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday. Yet even at his worst, as in these lines from the survey of 20th-century history he includes in his tribute to the Queen Mum, one can’t help marvelling at the sheer unlikeliness of what he’s up to:
Einstein bent the Universe
To make war obsolete.
Ford swore his wished-for wheels would rush
The century off its feet.
The Soviet Butcher Bird announced
The new age with a tweet.
The butcherbird is in fact native to Australia, but that doesn’t stop Hughes punning on its name in his off-kilter search for a way of introducing the massacres that followed the Russian Revolution.