Reading this second major biography of Ted Hughes, is like running a marathon ill prepared: there are highs and there are lows and by the end you question the validity of the experience.
My objections to Bate’s approach should not be viewed as a weakness: the research is magnificent, even if the toll of the blood and sweat involved often shows in the writing, but I doubt if Bate has left any available stone uncovered.
Available is the key word: the seeds of several books in the future surely lurk in the correspondence between Hughes and Seamus Heaney, under lock and key presently, because Hughes was the most copious letter writer in English poetry since Keats, using correspondence to untangle the critical mesh, much like Van Gogh to his brother.
But here’s the rub. Too often the effect of a wonderful and elucidative passage – Bate is a superb critic – about a poem (Epiphany) or a sequence of poems (Crow) is marred by the leap from high brow to low, with an unnecessary aside into Hughes’ admittedly not straight-forward sex life.
Bates, to paraphrase Jim Morrison, can change the mood from glad to sadness in an instance, by abruptly detouring into a flow of prurience. Let’s agree that Hughes could be lascivious, but does that justify a salacious approach by a biographer?
Do we need to know, having driven for four and a half fours to meet a lover, that Hughes insisted on having sex on the spot? Or that he was partial to rough love making or shagging outdoors? Or that he had a coven, as consensual as the late diarist, the MP Alan Clark? Isn’t Hughes, though dead, entitled to a degree of separateness about the workings of the inner sanctum of his heart?
If not, where does a biographer draw a line? In The Thought Fox, the young poet is warned in a dream how if he pursues a certain path as a student, he will kill his imagination. Focusing on how Hughes performed in the privacy of a bedroom does Bate a disservice.
But when Bate is good, he is very good. The chapter on Shakespeare And the Goddess of Being is superb, and Bate does not wear his authority on Shakespeare lightly. Throughout, Shakespeare is Bate’s prism to elucidate a Hughes mannerism or a Hughes approach to a literary conundrum.
It seems to me that the Hughes who emerges from Christopher Reid’s edited Collected Letters and the interviews between Heaney and Denis O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones is far removed from the Hughes of this biography, and I know whose company I’d prefer.