Volume 76
Number 1
























LONG SHROUDED in a cloud of speculation and revulsion, the prolific and publicly aloof British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes has revealed himself to the world at last. This April, two years after Hughes’ death from cancer, Emory University opened the Hughes archive, a treasure trove of manuscript drafts, correspondence, scrapbooks, documents, photographs, and sound recordings.

Hughes agreed to sell the collection to Emory shortly before his death. Dating from 1940 to 1997, the two-and-a-half-ton collection arrived at Emory in 1997 packed in eighty-six seed and champagne boxes that had been stored in a barn next to Hughes’ thatched cottage in North Tawton, Devon. Staff in Emory’s Special Collections Department spent two years sorting and cataloguing the papers. The archive also contains a sealed footlocker to be opened in twenty-five years.

The collection has drawn scholars from around the world hoping to probe the creative intellect of a poet whose self-imposed public silence after the 1963 suicide of his wife, the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, kept him at arm’s length.

“That’s the value of the archive,” says Stephen C. Enniss, curator of literary collections at Emory who mounted an exhibition in April to commemorate the opening. “This is the raw material of the writer’s life. It gets us as close to Ted Hughes as we can come after his death.”

Born in 1930 in West Yorkshire, Hughes was a student at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied English, anthropology, and archaeology and published his earliest poems. Hughes’ first collection, A Hawk in the Rain, was selected as the best first collection in a poetry contest judged by British poets W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Stephen Spender. The success of Hawk launched Hughes’ literary career. During his lifetime, he published numerous poetry collections—including Lupercal, Crow, Mooretown, River, and Birthday Letters—as well as translations, children’s books, and Shakespearean criticism.

The piles of manuscripts in the archive reveal the craft of a great artist who methodically revised his manuscripts. His correspondence contains powerful prose.

“I would love to be around in fifty years’ time when Hughes’ collected letters are published,” Diane W. Middlebrooke, a professor of English at Stanford University who is at work on a book about Hughes’ later life, told the Times of London. “I think he’ll be remembered as one of the great letter writers of the twentieth century. It’s clear he did a lot of thinking in his letters.”

A large portion of the letters are written to Lucas Myers, a fellow writer and Hughes’ friend since their university days. Hughes’ letters to Myers include reflections on his own work, discussions of his ambitions and directions as a writer, and his views of other poets. (He describes Robert Frost as a “very queer old monologuing character, but very good,” and he criticizes e.e. cummings relentlessly.)

Not surprisingly, the archive’s opening resulted in a flurry of media attention to the documents relating to Hughes’ relationship with Plath. Given the couple’s habit of conserving paper by writing on the opposite sides of one another’s works, their literary relationship is almost impossible to ignore. One document that has received extensive media attention is a brittle piece of paper, torn and taped back together, containing a draft of Hughes’ unpublished poem “Digging”: “The robin stamps on its twig/The robin’s throat shakes out a banner,” it begins. Flip the paper over, and there is a page of text, slashed crosswise with a blue pencil, with the typewritten heading “The Bell Jar,” and the page number “Plath 254.” The text was not part of Plath’s final published novel.

Enniss describes the manuscript as a “wonderful metaphor” for the poets’ intertwined enterprise.

“What I find most intriguing is what this artifact says about the intimacy of their collaborative relationship,” he says. “There’s a degree of debate over whether their relationship was constructive, and who was the dominant talent and who fed whose work. When I see such things, it evokes for me a very collaborative literary life.”—Sharla A. Paul



© 2000 Emory University