Ted Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire in 1930. In 1948 he won a scholarship to Cambridge, which he took up after National Service. It was during his time at Cambridge that he met the poet Sylvia Plath, whom he married in 1956. A year later, his first book of poems, The Hawk in the Rain, won a prestigious competition, the prize for which was publication on both sides of the Atlantic. After a stint in America Hughes and Plath returned to live in London and then, in the early 1960s, they began looking for somewhere to live in the countryside. They found a house between Exmoor and Dartmoor in the small market town of North Tawton, Devon. This was to be Hughes's home from 1961 until his death in 1998. On moving there, Hughes wrote to his friend Daniel Weissbort:
"As you see, we're in Devon – peace; space, London departed like a headache. So from now on I hope my life will be privacy, my own thoughts, my own amusements, my own time with occasional raids on the world" [Letters, Faber, 2007].
In the 1970s, with Carol Orchard, his second wife, and his father-in-law, Jack Orchard, Ted Hughes worked a small farm, Moortown, half a dozen miles from where he lived. He documents his experience of farming at a very particular moment, just shy of massive agricultural change, in poems that were to become Moortown Diary (1979).
Hughes is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the natural world and a significant proportion of his mature work – which, as well as poetry for adults and children, includes stories, plays, criticism and librettos – was written when he was living in Devon. From the beginning, his subject matter was closely bound to the rural landscape of his childhood memory, which, when he arrived in Devon, became minutely realised in the wildlife and the rivers, hedgerows and deep lanes of that county.
Hughes was a colossal presence in the English literary landscape. He became Poet Laureate in 1984 and received the Order of Merit in 1998. He was also a force to be reckoned with in the political landscape of the West Country, a passionate environmentalist and campaigner. He was a founder of the West Country Rivers Trust and President of the Charity Farms for City Children, established by his friends, children's author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare. He was a key figure, too, in the Arvon Foundation – founded by John Moat and John Fairfax – whose first centre for aspiring writers was established in the early 1970s at Totleigh Barton near Sheepwash, Devon. In 1975 a second centre opened in Yorkshire at Lumb Bank, a house that had once been Hughes's home.
Hughes's published works include Tales from Ovid (1997) and Birthday Letters (1998), which won the Whitbread Prize in consecutive years, and, posthumously, Collected Poems (2003), Collected Poems for Children (2005), Selected Translations, edited by Daniel Weissbort (2006), and Letters of Ted Hughes (Faber, 2007).
The principal Hughes collection held at Exeter is the complete set of manuscripts and typescripts collectively entitled Cave Birds, some 232 sheets of draft and finished text and notes. The university also owns a set of portrait photographs of the author taken by Noel Chanan in 1979 in Leonard Baskin's Devon studio, and a bound manuscript of Hughes's collection for children, Under the North Star (1981), originally conceived as a gift for the Baskin children, which contains fine copies of the poems and a pen and ink drawing of a brook trout in the poet's distinctive hand.
The library also possesses a typescript of a letter from Hughes to the then Chancellor of the University, Sir Rex Richards, explaining the poem 'Remembering Teheran' which he read on the occasion of receiving his Honorary Doctorate from the University. There is further interesting material relating to Hughes in the Arvon Foundation archive – letters and documents which show the writer in a very active role within the organisation – and letters and books by the poet in other parts of the collection, most notably in the library and archive of his friend, Charles Causley.
Ted Hughes, Collected Poems (Faber, 2003).
Ted Hughes, Letters (Faber, 2007).