Fishing for inspiration - Ted Hughes' journals

The newly unveiled journals of Ted Hughes have revealed how many of his poems were inspired by fishing trips to Scotland, reports Tim Cornwell

THE archive of the late poet laureate Ted Hughes, acquired by and unveiled at the British Library yesterday, will undoubtedly fascinate his many fans.

Bought for 500,000, the papers shed new light on his phenomenally successful book of poems, The Birthday Letters. Centred on his first wife Sylvia Plath, who killed herself in 1963, it was published in the year of his own death, 1998. But the 220 files and boxes of manuscripts, letters and diaries also reveal another of Hughes's passions – for fishing. There are 20 fishing journals, mixing memories and impressions with accounts of a good catch. Six of them record visits to Scotland, between 1979 and 1987. "Maybe the prettiest and most satisfying days' fishing I ever had. The loneliest place – the most unpredictable fishing," he wrote after one trip.

Over several years from the 1980s to the summer before his death, Hughes was a regular visitor at the Grimersta fishing estate and lodge on Lewis. He was an expert salmon fisherman and penned verses to members of the Grimersta staff.

"Fishing was very important for Hughes, both as recreation and as a metaphor of his poetry," says the British Library's curator of modern literary manuscripts, Rachel Foss.

She quotes the last lines of his poem Salmon-Taking Times:

So delicate

I touch it and its beauty-frailty crumples

To a smear of wet, a strengthless wreckage

Of dissolving membranes – and the air is ringing.

It is like a religious moment, slightly dazing.

It is like a shower of petals of eglantine.

The novelist and poet Robert Nye, who knows Hughes's work and family well, points to his early poem, Pike. Hughes writes of the pond's

Stilled legendary depth:

It was as deep as England. It held

Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old

That past nightfall I dared not cast."

"He enjoyed fishing for himself, the physical thing, but also metaphorically he saw it as an analogy for writing a poem," Nye says. "Catching a fish was like writing a poem; Pike is very much about that."

Hughes's archive has been sold by his estate, run by his widow, Carol Hughes, for 500,000. The Birthday Letters material includes works written on old school exercise books he bought in bulk, and an early contents list for something under the working title The Sorrow of the Deer.

"Ted was a man of these islands, their landscapes, rivers and wild places," Ms Hughes says, "and it is fitting that papers covering such an important part of his creative life should be deposited with such a prestigious institution."

Hughes was poet laureate from 1984 to his death on 28 October, 1998, aged 68. Events and festivals marking the tenth anniversary of his death include a reading by Frieda Hughes, a poet who is his and Plath's daughter.

The diaries in the archive span from the 1950s through to the 1990s, recording daily events, dreams and reflections on his family and his past. There is also correspondence with fellow poets, including Seamus Heaney and Andrew Motion.

Hughes's love of fishing was learned growing up in Yorkshire, but it became "a kind of metaphor for the creative act," says Foss."This idea of pulling something out of the darkness, into the light of consciousness."

He visited to Balmoral, invited by the Queen Mother, also a keen angler. "He raved about Scottish fishing and was very proud of the fact that she invited him up there," says Nye.

He came up to Grimersta with friends from Devon, where he lived and also fished. The estate is a mix of lochs, rivers and streams on the west coast of Lewis, and was owned at the time by an exclusive syndicate of 25 people.

"He was an excellent fisherman, he just had that gift of opening people's eyes to what was around him," says one staff member. Her two sons ghillied for Hughes, and he wrote comic verses for one of them about life there.

"He taught them so much, about fishing and nature. He gave them the gift of being able to see things around them in a new light and the value of nature. "He just liked being in touch with nature – that sounds a bit trite, but he loved the idea of man versus fish."

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