British Library Acquires Expansive Ted Hughes Archive

by Staff

A major collection of the papers of poet Ted Hughes was acquired on Tuesday for roughly one million dollars by the British Library in London. The archive consists of over two hundred boxes containing manuscripts of Hughes's poems, journals, ephemera, and letters to his literary contemporaries, including poets Seamus Heaney and Kathleen Raine, the Web site 24 Hour Museum reported.

Scholars and readers of the poet and his first wife, Sylvia Plath, may find the archive of particular interest for Hughes's papers related to his final book, Birthday Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The collection, published shortly before Hughes’s death in 1998, was received by many as an homage to Plath, who took her own life in 1963. The collection contains map-like notes for and early versions of poems that appear in the book, whose working title was "The Sorrows of the Deer."

"The archives show the conflicts he was going through—how he worked things out in prose before working them up into poetry," said Rachel Foss, curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library, adding that Hughes wrote Birthday Letters over a period of twenty-five years. "It absolutely gives the lie to the idea that Birthday Letters was a rush, a spontaneous overflow of emotion that he just got out onto the page."

In a letter to Heaney, dated New Year's Day 1998, Hughes said of the poems in the volume, "Because I’d come to the point where there seemed no alternative, I just couldn’t bear to go on with them stuck in my craw." Hughes went on to say, "Publication came to seem like a matter of life and death."

According to the Canadian Press, the library plans to have the archive, which also includes literature for children and unfinished writings on Shakespeare, catalogued and available to researchers by the end of 2009.