Hughes had initially intended to study English literature, but found the department’s curriculum too limited—archaeology and anthropology proving to be areas of the academic arena more suited to his taste. Two years after graduating, Hughes and a group of classmates founded the infamous literary magazine St. Botolph’s Review—known more for its inaugural party than for its longevity (a single issue). It was at that party that Hughes met Sylvia Plath. They were wed in 1956 and remained married for six and a half years, having two children, Frieda and Nicholas.
A few months after their marriage, Plath entered a number of her husband’s poems in a competition judged by W. H. Auden, among others. Hughes was awarded first prize for his collection The Hawk in the Rain (1957). With his next publication, Lupercal, in 1960, Hughes became recognized as one of the most significant poets to emerge since World War II, winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1960 and the Hawthornden Prize in 1961.
Hughes grew increasingly interested in folklore and mythology, beginning with his collection Wodwo (1967), which was comprised of short fiction, poetry, and a radio play. This work led Hughes into a fascination with one of the most solitary and ominous images in folklore, that of the crow. He published his best-known volume of poems, Crow,in 1971. The New York Review of Books said that Crow was “perhaps a more plausible explanation for the present condition of the world than the Christian sequence.” Among his other books of poetry are Gaudete (1977), Cave Birds (1979), Remains of Elmet (1979), Moortown (1980), River (1984), Flowers and Insects (1986), and Wolfwatching (1990).
The publication of Birthday Letters in January 1998 was one of the most talked-about literary events of the decade. A volume of eighty-eight poems, Birthday Letters told one of the most powerful stories of postwar literary history: the romance of Hughes and Plath, from their first meeting in 1956 until her suicide in 1963. In it, Hughes—who had never commented publicly about their relationship—presented his artistic statement about their life together. The poems (with two exceptions) were written in the form of letters addressed to Plath—some love letters, others recollections, ruminations, animal poems, and ventures into myth. Birthday Letters won the Forward Prizeand the Whitbread Book of the Year Prize, which was awarded to Hughes for a second straight year.
Hughes served as Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II from 1984 until his death in October 1998 at the age of sixty-eight.