Obituary: Ted Hughes, OM, Poet Laureate and Patron of the Society

Members will have been saddened to hear of the death on 28 October 1988 of Ted Hughes. Few people knew of his illness.

Ted Hughes was a great poet, easily ranking among the first English poets of the century. He emerged in 1957 with The Hawk in the Rain, new, dense and vigorous, its vivid imagery, drawn from his Pennine home landscape, and becoming the mark of all he did. His fourth volume, Crow (1970) will ensure his influence: the dark, spiky, intensity of that marked also a succession of personal tragedies to him and to others (his first wife, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide in 1963). Here was an English voice, not at all metropolitan, not recently heard. Sylvia Plath’s death was vehemently laid at his door, probably unfairly. His last two solo books were the wonderful Tales from Ovid (1997) and the wholly unexpected Birthday Letters (1998), love poems about Sylvia.

In the Spring of 1992 a letter was published in the Times inviting response to a proposal to agree celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Tyndale’s birth, on 6 October 1994. This letter, from the ‘William Tyndale Committee’, was drafted by Sir Edward Pickering. The response was enormous, and from it came the amazing Tyndale Quincentenary celebrations and the formation of the Society. The six signatories included Ted Hughes. Though on his Devon farm he wanted to avoid entanglements in societies, we were honoured that he agreed to be a Patron.

On a sunny afternoon in June 1996, on the lawn at Magdalen College, I was persuaded by the President to hold bait to draw out of the Lodgings two men who were secretly working there, avoiding interruption. The lawn was colourful with academics enjoying the Garden Party that follows the ceremony of Encaenia, the honorary degree giving. I stood at the edge holding two dishes of strawberries and cream. Out towards me, blinking in the sunlight, came Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, who were working on The School Bag. Some months before, I had been instructed to see if the Poet Laureate wanted to continue as our Patron. I had put off writing the letter. Standing with him under the tree, I presently asked the question, as gently as I could. I was taken aback by the friendly vehemence with which he insisted that being Patron of the Tyndale Society was particularly important to him, and we would drop him if we dared.

We have indeed been honoured.

David Daniell

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