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About this book

This innovative casebook introduces readers to wide-ranging critical dialogue about the work of Ted Hughes, one of the most popular and influential British poets of the twentieth century. In twelve new essays, international authorities on Hughes examine and debate his work, shedding new light on familiar texts.

Split into two parts, the first half of this book examines Hughes' work through cultural contexts, such as postmodernism and the carnivalesque, while the second part uses literary theories including postcolonialism, ecocriticism and trauma theory to interpret his poetry. Providing fresh inspiration and insights into the various diverse ways in which Hughes' writing can be interpreted, this volume is an ideal introduction to both literary theory and the work of Ted Hughes for literature students and scholars alike.

Table of Contents



Ted Hughes (1930–98) is a major English poet of the twentieth century whose work is read and studied at all stages of the education system, from the early years (The Iron Wolf ), through primary school (The Iron Man) and secondary school (Ted Hughes: Poems Selected by Simon Armitage) to university (Crow). Few undergraduate students, for whom this book is intended, will be unfamiliar with the work of Ted Hughes.
Terry Gifford

Readings through Cultural Contexts


1. Hughes and Myth

Though it is widely acknowledged that Ted Hughes’s work is ‘mythic’ in its breadth and depth, confusion may arise as to what exactly we mean by that word. This chapter sets out to clarify Hughes’s own understanding of mythology, to demonstrate his prowess as an interpreter of specific mythic forms, and to explore the connection he makes between myth and literature.
Laurence Coupe

2. Hughes and Post-Modernism

There have been relatively few interpretations of Hughes as a ‘postmodernist’ poet, a lacuna in his critical reception that, on the face of it, is somewhat surprising.1 Postmodernity has been characterized by many of its theorists as denoting a seismic cultural shift against a period of modernity that, from the Enlightenment on, held fast to a belief in the demystifying power of scientific and rational thought, and the inevitable human ‘progress’ such empowering discourses of knowledge seemingly bring in their train. Even this thumbnail sketch gives credence to Dennis Brown’s description of the discordant and playful registers of Hughes’s Crow — including those of ‘Fleet Street, the movies, and street talk’ — as a postmodern challenge to ‘the positivistic, rationalising monologism of Western master narratives’.2 Charles Olson, one of the first to employ the term, writes of the ‘post-modern’ urge to get outside ‘the Western Box’;3 and Crows irreverent polyvocality certainly lends it voice(s) to his imperative. Olson’s comprehension of the ‘modern’ he sought to move beyond includes Anglo-American poetic Modernism, especially that of T.S. Eliot.
Alex Davis

3. Hughes and Intertextuality

‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.’1 So wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) in his 1841 essay Self-Reliance Five years earlier the publication of Emerson’s essay Nature had marked the beginning of American Transcendentalism, and Self-Reliance was his latest rearticulation of the tenets of this new intellectual movement, of which more in a moment. For now, I wish to propose the line quoted above as an apt motto for a 22-year-old Ted Hughes, asleep in his Pembroke College room in 1951, having finished for the night his struggle to write the latest weekly essay required by his University of Cambridge English degree. From this motto we might tease out other sympathies, and we will follow that thread as far as we can down the Transcendental lineage which Emerson began. This is the essence of intertextuality: the notion that implicit conversations exist between texts even in the absence of explicit direct reference. This notion will be crucial for us here, for, despite some generous common ground, Hughes had little or nothing to say about most Transcendental writers. What he wrote and what they wrote, however, have quite a lot to say to each other.
David Troupes

4. Hughes and the Absurd

When we think of the Absurd as a literary term, we think primarily of drama, and specifically of such continental writers as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Albert Camus. We do not think of Ted Hughes. This is partly because Hughes himself rarely used the term, and spoke of Beckett only disparagingly. But many poems from the first third of Hughes’s career seem to me to be purer manifestations of the Absurd than we can find in any other British writer of the period. The only acknowledgement of this I am aware of is a passing comment by Elaine Feinstein: ‘Hughes grappled with a darkness that few English poets of the time felt any necessity to allow into their poetry. His vision is comparable only to Beckett’s in its bleakness.’1
Keith Sagar

5. Hughes and the Carnivalesque

Ted Hughes studies, and modern interest in literary theory which was initiated by structuralism, made each other’s acquaintance late in the day, and among the first theoretical texts to be thought useful were the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895–1975) writings about carnival. This is not surprising. Mainstream poststructuralist thought typifies the rational scepticism that was anathema to Hughes and to many of his most sympathetic early critics, and Bakhtin himself was hostile to what he called ‘theoreticism’: ‘Being cannot be determined in the categories of non-participant theoretical consciousness — it can be determined only in the categories of actual communion, i.e., of an actually performed act.’1 Above all Bakhtin’s notion of carnival, with its hostility to all forms of dogma, its valuation of the transgression of boundaries, and its idealization of folklore and a pre-modern, prescientific social order, has seemed in tune with Hughes’s poetry and ideology.
Neil Roberts

6. Hughes and Gender

Traditionally, Ted Hughes has not had a great reputation among feminists. The gap that was created by the death of Sylvia Plath and opened up by the more partisan of her ‘supporters’ was never quite bridged during his lifetime. Whether criticized for self-protective and defensive motives in his administration of Plath’s literary estate, or, in the most extreme case, identified as a ‘one-man gynocidal movement’ in Robin Morgan’s poem ‘Arraignment’, Hughes was invariably cast in the role of the misogynist by American feminists in particular.1
Janne Stigen Drangsholt

Readings through the Frames of Theory


7. Structuralist and Poststructuralist Readings

The structuralist method of textual interpretation that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s advocated an objective, quasi-scientific way of reading texts. Heavily influenced by French theorists in the fields of linguistics and philosophy, structuralists concentrated on the closed system of oppositions and parallels contained within a text that revealed a comfortable ‘solution’ for, or interpretation of, that text. In the wake of modernist experimentations with narrative and language, and a mid-century existentialist trend in French philosophy, poststructuralism later questioned these supposedly stable structuralist interpretations, exploring instead the instability of language, texts and the oppositions that could be invoked to interpret a text. This chapter provides a brief introduction to these movements followed by structuralist and poststructuralist readings of some of Ted Hughes’s poems. Hughes’s work has frequently been interpreted with reference to contexts such as his biography or his geographical location at the time of writing. During his lifetime, critics often wrote to Hughes to ask for explanations of certain lines from his poems that they felt they could not interpret without further information.
Gillian Groszewski

8. Psychoanalytic Readings

Ted Hughes (1930–1998) and the French theorist Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) were contemporaries. Lacan belonged to the previous generation, but both men published their major works roughly at the same time. Lacan’s texts collected in Écrits and the essential book XI of the seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis had first been produced in the 1950s and 1960s, although they were not published in their English translations before 1977. These dates correspond to Hughes’s poetic career between The Hawk in the Rain (1957) and Gaudete (1977). Lacan’s seminars went on being published piecemeal into the first decade of the twenty-first century. It is most unlikely that they ever read one another, and yet they had much in common in spite of their potential antagonism, which is perhaps only natural between two gurus of sorts. Lacan and Hughes were a Freudian and a Jungian, and a Frenchman and an Englishman into the bargain. Very early on Hughes came under the influence of Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), whom he must have started reading around 1951, when he went up to Cambridge, with the result that he endorsed much of the ideological disagreement between Freud and Jung, which represented the difference between philosophical empiricism and romantic idealism.
Joanny Moulin

9. Trauma Theory Readings

In a letter to his son, justifying his decision to publish his account of his relationship with Sylvia Plath in Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes wrote of his need to resolve his feelings about his first marriage:
That was the big unmanageable event in my life, that had to be somehow managed — internally — by me. Somehow through my writing — because that’s the method I’ve developed to deal with myself. (LTH 711)
Daniel O’Connor

10. Postcolonial Indian Readings

This chapter is a modest attempt to reread Ted Hughes’s poetry from an eclectic perspective offered by postcolonial theory and by some aesthetic concepts from Indian traditions.1 Postcolonial theory is mostly concerned with issues and ideas arising from those countries and peoples who were once colonized by imperial European powers and who have eventually gained political independence. However, this term has also evolved into an umbrella term for problematizing and challenging power, and sites of resistance to any form of dominance, authority and privilege. Postcolonial theory also includes reading and writing from a non-Eurocentric perspective. Because it is concerned with human relations with the natural world, this chapter inevitably also draws from ecocriticism.2 There is also here an Indian feminist reading3 which endeavours to seek out the contemporary relevance of Hughes’s poetry in a posthumanist context.4 In all, this chapter argues for a multidimensional holistic perspective on the poet’s concerns while attempting to explicate some selected poems from a non-Eurocentric perspective.
Usha VT, Murali Sivaramakrishnan

11. Posthumanist Readings

Since the publication of Hughes’s first poetry collection The Hawk in the Rain, scholars writing on his animal poems have done so in terms — philosophical, ethical, moral and aesthetic — that betray a trenchant, albeit laudable, humanist mode of intellectual inquiry. In this same period of time another kind of thinking has emerged out of a number of disciplines straddling the arts and sciences that in many instances has challenged this mode. The second kind of thinking — a posthumanist mode of intellectual inquiry, mentioned at the end of the last chapter — forms the basis of the following discussion of Hughes’s work which is aimed at broadening critical approaches to Hughes. Drawing mainly on the work of posthumanist animal scholar Cary Wolfe, it examines Hughes’s poetry according to what Wolfe distinguishes as two trajectories of posthumanism —‘posthumanist posthumanism’ and ‘humanist posthumanism’1 — and according to two areas of posthumanism — animal studies and systems theory.
Iris Ralph

12. Ecocritical Readings

Ecocriticism is literary and cultural criticism from the viewpoint of environmental concern. Does a literary work help us think scrupulously about environmental threats such as catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss? Is it helpful or harmful to our social and individual efforts to prevent disaster? Does it confront us with the ecological implications of the stories it presents, including implications reaching far across space and time? These questions form the criteria by which ecocritics evaluate texts. The basic hope is that environmental criteria will become an expected part of debate about all kinds of new artistic work, and that this will be a sign of a general shift in cultural values and, most importantly, in everyday behaviour.
Richard Kerridge
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