The Life of a Poet

By Elaine Feinstein

W. W. Norton & Company

Copyright © 2001 Elaine Feinstein.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-393-04967-1

Chapter One


Edward James Hughes, the third child of William and Edith Hughes, was born on 17 August 1930 in Mytholmroyd, a village set in a narrow cleft of the Yorkshire Pennines. The valley owed its livelihood to wool weaving, first as a cottage industry, then in factories powered by the water mills of the industrial revolution. Even today, chimneys for mills, known as ‘lumbs’, mark the whole landscape. Mytholmroyd, too, had its ‘lumbs’ and there was a Moderna blanket factory over the canal bridge near Hughes’ family house, although by the 1930s the Depression had begun to close down the village textile industry.

    The Hughes family lived at 1 Aspinall Street in Mytholmroyd for the first seven years of Ted's life. This was a respectable row of grey and yellow Yorkshire brick houses, far less cramped than those of the industrial Midlands. Several of the other families in the street were related to the Hughes family. Ted's Aunt Hilda lived at number 13, and his Uncle Albert at number 19, both siblings of Edith and also part of the Farrar family, who could trace their descent back to the Norman Ferriers and could number Nicholas Ferrar among their forebears.

    The Hughes family went to the Methodist Zion Chapel every Sunday while the children were growing up, although Edith had been brought up as a Wesleyan and William's family were High Church. The people in Aspinall Street valued thrift, hard work and cleanliness, strengths that enabled Ted, like D.H. Lawrence, to manage on little money with some grace in later life. He was less attracted to the Puritan ethic that underpinned these habits. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Parson Grimshaw, a hell-fire Methodist, had preached in the nearby pulpit of Haworth, where the Brontë family were to live, and the people of the valley still remained some of Wesley's most fanatical enthusiasts. Like many other energetic small boys, Ted found Sunday attendance so boring that he sometimes liked to imagine himself as a wolf running wild in the woods. In later life he wrote of the Zion Chapel holding women ‘bleak as Sunday rose-gardens’ and men with ‘cowed, shaven souls’. He even wrote: ‘But everything in West Yorkshire is slightly unpleasant. Nothing ever quite escapes into happiness.’

    In those days Aspinall Street was not yet covered with tarmac, and housewives were proud of their white doorsteps. Donald Crossley, a childhood friend who lived at number 9, remembers how

Mrs Baldwin in the top house would come out — in those days they wore these aprons and a fancy cap on their heads — and she would come to the door and play Old Joe with us. Because they were very prim and proper and used to swill out — they came and swilled the flags with a brush and water. And then they put a white stone on the step — you had what was called a scouring stone and they put this white mark on the step. And woe betide you if they'd just done it one morning and going to school you trod on it, you were in for it?

    William Henry Hughes, Ted's father, was a carpenter by trade, a strongly built man, although not as tall as his two sons grew to be. His mother, Polly, had been widowed young, and had had to bring up three children with very few of her own family around to help. In William's youth he had been a keen footballer; he played for Hebden Bridge and had been invited to become a professional. In those days, however, footballers were offered less money than he could earn as a carpenter, so he decided against it.

    William was one of only seventeen survivors of a whole regiment of the Lancashire Fusiliers who had been slaughtered at Gallipoli and, in Ted's memory, he was so shattered by his experience that he remained reluctant to speak of it even when other soldiers were exchanging stories. In his son's poems, William is usually sitting in a chair, wordless; but on Sunday mornings Ted and his sister Olwyn, who was two years older, sometimes lay one on each side of their father listening to stories of the First World War.

    Photographs show William looking jolly enough, and Ted recalls that his laugh had indeed survived ‘nearly intact’, despite all those memories of soldiers slithering about in the mud. But nightmares had him calling out in his sleep. William had been a brave soldier, carrying back injured men from the front line many times until he collapsed with exhaustion, and winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his heroism. He was wounded several times, once in the ankle by machine-gun fire, and was only saved from being hit in the heart by his paybook, which stopped a piece of shrapnel. He was fortunate to survive another occasion, when a shell failed to go off as it buried itself between his feet.

    Men from every part of the valley had died in those battlefields, and sometimes an entire street of families lost their sons through a mistaken order to advance. Ted could never escape the sense of a whole region in mourning for the First World War. In later life he refused to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. The image of his father in his poem ‘Dust As We Are’ is almost that of a corpse, or a piece of funereal statuary with ‘marble white’ muscles. Ted's vision of trench warfare — the ugliness of the landscape and the helplessness of those trapped within it — came from the stories of other veterans, including his Uncle Walter, who felt himself cursed by a German prisoner before going up the line, only to be hit by a bullet in the groin.

    William had golden hair which, as a child, Ted liked to comb, learning as he did so the fragility of the human skull beneath. In his poems his father is often perceived as walking like one of those war-wounded in tranced shell-shock who haunt the post-war German cinema as somnambulists. Yet even when economic depression took hold of the cotton towns of South Lancashire and the wool towns of the West Riding, William Hughes continued to provide adequately for his family.

    Ted's mother, Edith, was a Farrar and proud of it, but there was no sense in the Hughes family, as there had been in that of D.H. Lawrence, of a mother who was a class above her husband. Edith was handsome and immensely capable. She had olive skin, the hair of a Red Indian and strong features. Her three children, to judge from photographs, took their good looks from her, although Olwyn had fair hair as a child and Ted's was brown rather than black. Edith is remembered by Ted's friend Donald Crossley as ‘a really lovely woman. I can't ever remember her raising her voice to me — I used to go playing in there with Teddy. When it was raining, we went playing in one another's houses ... There was a long kitchen ... Women in those days were more or less supposed to stay at home and look after the family, which they did. I don't think Ted's mum ever went out to work.’ Crossley's own mother worked as an odd weaver; that is, part-time on the factory looms while her children were at school. Feminism was not an issue in these parts, though Hughes recalls: ‘Actually my father regularly washed up — he liked it.’ Edith was thrifty, and prided herself on being a good manager. She could make jam and gooseberry pies and traditionally Northern dishes, though later on Sylvia Plath would complain about her cooking. She also had the dressmaking skills of the period, and could cut out patterns, stitch and machine seams. She was a good, hard-working mother and housewife, and she wanted the best for her children.

    For all her practical common sense, Edith had a strong sense of the supernatural. In Hughes’ story ‘The Deadfall’, which was at least partly based on memories of his childhood, he speaks of a woman dreaming of the cries of dying men on the night of the Normany landings. He relished her belief in ghosts. Miriam, Edith's sister closest to her in age, had died in her teens and Edith frequently spoke of feeling her sister's presence sitting on her bed. In one of Hughes’ late poems, written on the anniversary of his mother's death on 13 May, he describes her vision of Miriam changing over the years into the figure of an angel. In that poem, too, he describes his mother telling Miriam real or imagined events of the life she had shared with Ted: galloping out, for instance, over the heather to bring him a new pen, or reflecting that what she had enjoyed most was thinking of her children simply being alive somewhere.

    Hughes once described the whole village as dark, with the sun hardly rising about Scout Rock in winter, yet in many ways it was an idyllic childhood. Banksfield Road, which ran across Aspinall Street, led directly into fields after only a few houses. The boys growing up there had easy access to farmland and trees. They could swim in the Calder river in summer and play cowboys and Indians and hide-and-seek in Redacre Wood. Even Zion Chapel was a social centre for dances and amateur dramatics as well as functioning as a place of worship.

    The group of friends who centred around Ted — Brian Seymour, Derek Robertson and Donald Crossley, who was rather younger — would play together after school or during the school holidays. Perhaps none of the boys in that group of friends had Ted's native talent, but none was given the same opportunities either. One became a lorry driver. Crossley, who later in life was a skilled painter of local landscapes, left school at fourteen to take a job as a presser in a clothing factory, learning little more than how to use a bucket of water, a cloth and a wooden block. They played together happily enough as young children, sometimes pretending to be trappers looking for birds and foxes, or fishing in a canal a few yards behind the terrace house where he lived. With a long-handled, wire-rimmed, curtain-mesh net, the boys fished for loaches. These were sluggish cigar-shaped fish fringed with beards and moustaches, which lived in crevices between the stones on the old sides of the canal, and poked their heads out when the boys stamped their feet. Loaches could be tickled gently until they swam into a net. Ted liked to keep those he caught in a two-pound jam jar, which his mother allowed him to stand on the kitchen windowsill, or outside the kitchen door in bowls and buckets. The canal itself, which seemed so magical to Crossley as he recalled his boyish memory of it, is scarcely four feet wide, its water still and brackish in appearance. At the other end of the towpath, where there is more of a current, stands a pub called Stubbings Wharf. Ted's father went there by bus on a Sunday and sometimes took his youngest child with him.

    The boys shared the usual love of mischief, and sometimes liked to dam with stones a stream of water that ran down Banksfield Road, which produced a great flood when it was let out. Crossley remembers Ted as having a tremendous laugh. There is still some sign of an early painting on the wall of 1 Aspinall Street under the arch where Ted, who had found a tin of Colman-mustard-coloured paint, had followed a bump in the brickwork to outline a skull and crossbones. Crossley was eleven months younger than the other three boys and smaller, and so was ‘often put on’. He spoke without rancour of a time when Ted and a group of friends tied him to a tree in Redacre Wood. On Guy Fawkes night — called ‘Plot Night’ — the boys used to collect wood there for a fire that they then built on a piece of spare land opposite Ted's house.

    Ted's passion for animals was known to the family from his earliest childhood and for his fourth birthday he was given a thick, green-backed book of photographs of them, along with descriptions of their natural history that were rather too adult for so young a child. He liked to try and copy these pictures, and was excited by his childish attempts to draw them. He was more successful in making plasticine models of them. On Saturdays, when the family went shopping in Halifax, Ted was allowed to choose lead animals from Woolworths, until he had so many species that they stretched round the fender.

    He enjoyed collecting living creatures even more, catching mice by snatching them from under the sheaves at threshing time, and finding frogs in ditches. He liked to keep the creatures in his pockets. Crossley recalled how a girl called Betty Lumb, a bit older than himself, told him just before Ted died that he had once put a frog down her back at primary school. ‘So I wrote to Ted and said, "Do you remember putting a frog down Betty Lumb's back?" and back came the letter, "Yes, I do remember putting a frog down her back. Does she remember stoning me? I remember getting a stick and trying to fend them off like a whirling dervish."’ It is entirely typical of Ted that, ill as he then was, he had written back to a boy he remembered from sixty years earlier, and that he should at the same time offer him the hospitality of his house at Moortown and Court Green.

    Ted was clearly the hero of friends his own age, but it was his brother, Gerald, ten years older, who was the most important figure in his own early childhood, making it a paradise by teaching him to fish, trap animals and shoot. According to Crossley, Gerald was even more handsome than Ted, with a magnificent build. He was a highly talented boy, with a gift for painting, particularly in watercolours. He had a passion for hunting and shooting, which were not common pursuits among other people in the village. William had no interest in them, although Ted's Uncle Walt seems to have been involved on some excursions. But the fourteen-year-old Gerald got up at four every morning to climb the hillside and shoot whatever he could find. He took his younger brother with him from the age of three or four. They camped in the neighbouring valleys of Hardcastle Crags and Crimsworth Dene, where Gerald taught Ted how to set up a tent and to light fires. Edith had great faith in the common sense of her children and never worried about them. At first, Ted acted as retriever, picking up the animals that his brother shot; later on Gerald taught the boy to use a gun. There were rabbits, magpies, owls, weasels and curlews to be shot. What Ted enjoyed about shooting was the way it made him alert to the whole landscape, so that he was aware of every bird and animal alive in it. Gerald was a very imaginative boy himself, and liked to pretend he was a North American Indian from the palaeolithic age; Ted in later life spoke of ‘living in his dream’.

    It was Gerald who took him climbing to the top of Scout Rock. Ted remembered the alarming exhilaration of being up there at the age of six, in another world that he had been trying to imagine for so long. Beyond the Rock lay the moors, the landscape in which the Brontës had been at home. Ted was too young then to do more than relish the vast skies, violent winds, the scent of peat and heather, and to register the horizon that made a visible magical circle surrounding him. The moors were far too wide for a young child to think of crossing them, but his childhood was given space and life by these explorations.

    Ted remembered one particular expedition to camp with his brother and their Uncle Walt in Hollins Valley as the most important single experience of his life up to the age of twenty-five. It remained so vividly in his memory that thirty years later he could remind Gerald that he only shot one rabbit on that occasion and that a small bird shot in a young tree had been pointed out to him by his uncle.

    Some part of that childhood delight still lived on in Hughes when he wrote of the valley as part of Elmet, the last Celtic kingdom in England, whose main stronghold was Heptonstall. In the seventeenth century this inhospitable terrain made an excellent hideout for those in flight from the law; Defoe, for instance, hid there from his creditors.

    Even as a boy, Ted Could see that the wildlife of the moors had a harsh struggle for survival, yet in later life Hughes speaks of climbing back down into the comfortable valley as a return to the pit, and of passionately wanting to escape the constricted life there. ‘At the same time, all that I imagined happening elsewhere, out in the world, the rock sealed from me, since in England the world seems to lie to the South.’

    In 1937, however, the boy's whole landscape changed. Edith came into a small legacy after the death of her mother, and William was able to buy a newsagent's and tobacconist's shop. The family moved to Mexborough, an industrial town in South Yorkshire, and the shape of Ted's childhood was changed at a stroke. His brother Gerald, now seventeen, did not move to Mexborough with the family but chose instead to take a job as a gamekeeper in Devon. However, he must have returned often to see his family and Keith Sagar in Laughter of Foxes quotes an Indian war-song that Gerald chanted to his brother when Ted was about nine:

I am the woodpecker
My head is red
To those that I kill
With my little bill,
Come wolf, come bear and eat your fill
Mine's not the only head that's red.

    Mexborough is a bleak mining town, which at that period was blighted by the effects of the industrial slump and was so deeply pervaded by pollution that those who lived there ‘lived in it, coughed in it, spat it out, scrubbed at it and frequently died of it’. Even after the industrial revolution had begun to grind to a halt, pitheads and cooling stations continued to mark the landscape. The terraced houses of the workers who sustained the mine-owners’ prosperity still stand, barely touched either by the Second World War or by much in the way of gentrification.

    The Hughes family had no history of involvement with the terrible colliery accidents, recorded in sepia photographs in the town's museum. Yet Ted, returning to the town in the aftermath of the death of John Fisher, his favourite teacher, from lung cancer in the 1980s, remembered the pervasive, sulphurous odours in which he had spent the early part of his life, almost without noticing them.

    Equally pervasive was the ethos of self-denial. ‘Pleasure deferred’, Margaret Drabble calls it in The Peppered Moth. Hughes, in letters to his brother, saw it as the refusal to acknowledge that one's own desires had any legitimacy. He was in rebellion against such joyless virtues. He was entranced by Lawrence and Blake, and could have echoed the aphorisms from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’.

    Ted, by his own account, was uninterested in working hard at primary school but at eleven he won a place at Mexborough Grammar School easily enough, following in the steps of his sister Olwyn. The school had a tradition of good teaching; indeed Drabble's mother won a place to Newnnham College, Cambridge, when a pupil at the school some twenty years earlier.

    Freud once said that a mother's favourite son is strengthened by that approval for the rest of his life. Over the years Olwyn has always said that her mother loved all her children equally. However, there is a scrap of a note written to Gerald which suggests that Ted always believed her eldest son was his mother's favourite. Lucas Myers, a close friend of Ted's from Cambridge days, remembers a letter from him in 1958 in which he wrote that ‘a younger brother could never grow up with the completeness of the elder’. His awareness of his position in the family may have derived from his study of anthropology. In the Paris Review interview he spoke of those who came from a close-knit family: ‘The moment you do anything new, the whole family jumps on it, comments, teases ... There's a unanimous reaction to keep you how you were.’

    Ted missed his brother Gerald, who had made his childhood so happy for him, although he soon learned to explore on his own, often getting up early on purpose before school as his brother had taught him. He discovered two rivers — the Don and the Dearne — in walking distance of his house. Close by those rivers were hollows where the wildlife was prolific. He found that if he silently climbed up the side of one of these hollows and peered over the hedge, he could frequently surprise some creature there, busy with its own vivid life.

    His friends at primary school were the sons of colliers and railwaymen; Ted would play with a gang of boys ‘kicking about the neighbourhood’ after school, but he kept his weekends for himself. At Mexborough Grammar he made friends with John Wholey, a boy in Olwyn's class. Wholey was the son of the head keeper on Crookhill, a local estate, which was later sold to Doncaster local authorities as a sanatorium for TB patients. John's father had once worked as a gamekeeper for Lord Halifax, the first Earl, who had served as Foreign Secretary under Sir Anthony Eden. Wholey was fascinatingly knowledgeable about country life and Ted learned a great deal from him. His friendship with John gave him access to acres of parkland, woods and a huge lake, where he had his first experience of fishing for pike. It was with John Wholey, too, that Ted put three baby pike into a fish-tank at school, feeding them regularly at first. The boys forgot about them over a school holiday, and returned to find the three fish reduced to one: an act of cannibalism recorded in Ted's poem ‘Pike’.

    Ted's interest in pike fishing in his teens approached an obsession. He spoke of dreaming regularly about pike and about one particular lake where he did most of his fishing. ‘Pike had become fixed at some very active, deep level in my imaginative life.’ It was as if pike had become symbolic of his inner, vital being, though he would hardly have been able to articulate that thought in his teenage years. He remained more interested in the world outside school than anything he learned there, and he returned to Mytholmroyd in the long school holidays to visit his Aunt Hilda and to see his old friends. But the move to Mexborough was in other ways crucial to his development as a poet.

    His father's newspaper shop was big and busy, with excitements of its own. Ted was able to read the comics and boys’ magazines freely there, and these were to be the basis of his first attempts at storytelling. He also formed the habit of buying the Shooting Times and the Gamekeeper, which he read avidly, since he continued to be obsessed with shooting, fishing and trapping. These magazines made a link between the world of outside-school freedom and the world of book-knowledge, which he might not have acquired while Gerald was there to teach him all he needed to know. In the early days the Hughes home held few books, although Edith read poetry and particularly loved Wordsworth. The only stories that Ted heard as a young child were ones told by his mother and usually made up by her. It was Edith who brought a children's encyclopaedia into the house; it included a section on folk tales, which Ted read with great delight.

    Gerald's absence was felt by the whole family. Ted must have observed how much his mother missed her older son. Among the fragments of undated letters from Ted to Gerald, one scrap, typed from a letter written just before Ted and Sylvia Plath left Great Britain for the United States, makes the point sharply: ‘I will write a journal to Ma. She was very pleased at hearing from you frequently. You must remember that you're her best in a way I never could be and that your writing regularly could make up for my not writing, whereas my writing every day could not make up for your silence.’ Edith missed her elder son all the more when, two years after the move to Mexborough, the Second World War broke out and Gerald enlisted in the RAF.


Excerpted from TED HUGHES by Elaine Feinstein. Copyright © 2001 by Elaine Feinstein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.