When Nicholas Hughes was in his early 20s, his father, poet Ted Hughes, advised him on the importance of living bravely.
“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated,” Hughes wrote to his son, who committed suicide at 47 last week at his home in Fairbanks, Alaska, 46 years after Nicholas’ mother, poet Sylvia Plath, killed herself.
“And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”
From the time that Plath died, in 1963, Ted Hughes had tried to protect and strengthen their children, Frieda and Nicholas, from their mother’s fate and fame. He burned the last volume of his wife’s journals, a decision strongly criticized by scholars and fans, and waited years to tell his children the full details of Plath’s suicide.
And only near the end of his own life, in his “Birthday Letters” poems, did he share his side of modern poetry’s most famous and ill-starred couple.
Nicholas Hughes, who was not married and had no children, hanged himself March 16, Alaska State Troopers said. He was a man of science, not letters, the only member of his immediate family not to become a poet. A fisheries biologist, he spent nearly a decade on the faculty of the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a professor of fisheries and ocean sciences. He left in December 2006, according to the university’s Web site.
Hughes’ older sister, poet Frieda Hughes, issued a statement through the Times of London, expressing her “profound sorrow” and saying that he “had been battling depression for some time.”
“His lifelong fascination with fish and fishing was a strong and shared bond with our father,” Frieda Hughes wrote. “He was a loving brother, a loyal friend to those who knew him and, despite the vagaries that life threw at him, he maintained an almost childlike innocence and enthusiasm for the next project or plan.”
Nicholas Hughes graduated from the University of Oxford in 1984, and received a master of arts degree from Oxford, in 1990, before emigrating to the United States and getting a doctorate from the University of Alaska.
Hughes’ family history was an “urban legend” that was passed around from student to student at the University of Alaska. But it was a subject no one discussed with him, said Kevin Schaberg, a former student in a fish ecology class taught by Hughes.
“It was obviously something he did not want to talk about,” said Schaberg, who added that he knew Hughes struggled with depression. “I never brought it (his family) up. He never brought it up.”
Hughes was only 9 months old when his parents separated and was still an infant when his mother died in February 1963, gassing herself in a London flat as her children slept. A few months earlier, she had written of Nicholas: “You are the one/Solid the spaces lean on, envious/You are the baby in the barn.”