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This review is taken from PN Review 184, Volume 35 Number 2, November - December 2008.

TRANSLATORS FROM THE NATURAL WORLD NEIL ROBERTS, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan) £45
ASHLEY BLAND CROWDER and JASON DAVID HALL, Seamus Heaney: Poet, Critic, Translator (Palgrave Macmillan) £45

Neil Roberts is one of the foremost critics of Ted Hughes's poetry. This recent study treads a delicate path between literary biography and literary criticism. The book tracks Hughes's literary career from juvenilia to the late translations and Birthday Letters and makes use of archive materials, personal papers and letters. As a literary life, it is something of a hybrid, a work of biographical criticism once frowned on by the new criticism, let alone the post-structuralist critique to which he occasionally and for the most part unnecessarily refers. As an exploration of a life defined by a deep sense of literary vocation it has many insights into the development of Hughes's talent, his literary relationships and his extraordinary capacity for self-mythologisation. At the centre of the latter tendency is the story of the 'burnt fox', a story which changes over the years from a warning against the sterility of Cambridge English, to a symbol of the shamanistic, irrational sources of poetic inspiration, to an ironic reflection on the divisions in his life and work between the critical and the creative. As Roberts points out, however, 'The Thought-Fox' - the poem which resulted from the initial dream-vision - is written in a style which is entirely consistent with the literary legacy of the Cambridge faculty, a style which then and now attracted the kind of analytical criticism which Hughes appeared to disdain. In fact Hughes was himself a fine critic, as the essays collected in


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