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British Poet Laureate Hughes, Plath Husband, Dies at Age 68

By Marjorie Miller
Los Angeles Times
LONDON

British poet laureate Ted Hughes, whose failed marriage to the tortured American poet Sylvia Plath earned him the wrath of many feminists but inspired some of his best writing, has died of cancer. He was 68.

The reclusive poet, ranked by some critics alongside such 20th-century greats as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, died at his home in Devon on Wednesday.

"After a valiant 18-month fight against cancer, Ted Hughes died yesterday. The loss to his family is inestimable," Hughes's publishers at Faber and Faber said. He had asked his friends to keep the cancer secret.

In Britain, Hughes was known as an enormously successful author who made poetry popular. His version of the Racine play "Phedre" is being staged in London now. "Tales of Ovid," his reworking of Ovid's "Metamorphosis," was awarded the Whitbread Book of the Year prize by a jury that called it a work of "greatness and sublimity."

And his "Birthday Letters," a collection of passionate poems on his tumultuous love and seven-year marriage to Plath unexpectedly published in January, won rave reviews and became a best seller.

But in the United States, the troubled Hughes-Plath marriage itself may be more famous than any of Hughes' stunning poems about love or nature.

Hughes left his wife for another woman shortly before Plath committed suicide on Feb. 11, 1963, by sticking her head in a gas oven. Many Plath fans blamed him for her death, although she already had tried to kill herself three years before she ever met him.

For 35 years, Hughes chose not to defend himself against those who shouted "Murderer" at his poetry readings and painted him as the villain who had deprived the world of more Plath poetry. His surname was repeatedly chipped off Plath's gravestone in Yorkshire, northern England, and his silence seemed to feed the rage against him.