Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was born in Yorkshire, in the small village of Mytholmroyd. His father was a carpenter and later became a shopkeeper, but his disturbed memories of his experiences in World War I, when he was one of a handful in his regiment to survive the slaughter of the British troops at Gallipoli, were a haunting presence in the family's life. After finishing grammar school Hughes spent two years in the Royal Air Force, stationed at a lonely radio station in Yorkshire where he spent most of his time reading. Pembroke College, at Cambridge University, followed his military service. Although he switched from studying English to archaeology and anthropology, he continued to read voraciously, and his later writings showed the influence of books like The White Goddess, by the English novelist and poet Robert Graves, that he read at this time.
Following his graduation in 1954, he spent two years working a series of jobs in London, and then he returned to Cambridge to start an unsuccessful literary magazine with friends. At the inaugural party he met a young American college student who had recently come to England on a Fulbright scholarship. Her name was Sylvia Plath, and within a few months they were married. They spent two years at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, from 1957 to 1959, where he taught English and creative writing. Both Hughes and Plath spent every moment they could find writing poetry. As he said later, "It was all we were interested in, all we ever did." By the time they returned to England in 1959, he had already begun publishing successfully, which aggravated tensions that already existed in their marriage. Despite two children and a period of life in rural Devon, they became increasingly estranged, and when Hughes began an affair with another woman, Plath left him, moved to London with their children, and in 1963 committed suicide.
For American readers this seemed to sum up Hughes's career, but he went on to write dozens of books on a variety of subjects as well as a body of poetry that placed him among the most prominent poets of his generation. In 1981, he was named England's poet laureate. Often he was bitterly attacked for what many critics felt was his role in Plath's suicide, and as her literary executor he aggravated the situation by destroying portions of her personal diaries. It was not until the end of his life that he spoke out about their relationship, in a collection of poems that described their marriage and its tragic ending. The book Birthday Letters, published in 1999, became an international best seller, even if it didn't placate his enemies or entirely please his friends.