The poetry genius of Ted and the teacher who unlocked it

The poetry genius of Ted and the teacher who unlocked it

By Antony Clay | 29/01/2021

The poetry genius of Ted and the teacher who unlocked it


IF ASKED to name a British poet, the name Ted Hughes would probably be among the first to come to mind.

Known for startling poetry collections such as The Hawk in the Rain, Wodwo, Birthday Letters and Crow — and the much-loved children’s book The Iron Man — Hughes (below) is one of the most talented literary figures the country has produced.

A gruff Yorkshireman, he was born in Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire.

But he spent his formative years in Mexborough, where his poetic talent began to develop.

It was a group of teachers who, during his time at Mexborough Grammar School, encouraged Hughes to read poetry by the likes of TS Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Miss McLeod and Pauline Mayne have been cited as teachers who helped the young Hughes — but one tutor in particular became so important to the poet’s development that it led to a lifelong friendship, with Hughes giving a eulogy at his funeral.

That man was John Fisher.

The popular and dedicated teacher helped Hughes begin his literary journey and, under his tutelage, published his early poems, including Wild West, and a short story in school magazine the Don and Dearne.

John Fisher was also significant in encouraging the talent of another poet, Harold Massingham, a collier’s son who published three collections — Black Bull Guarding Apples (1965), Frost Gods (1972) and Sonatas & Dreams (1992) —  and had poems printed in publications such as the New Yorker.

Fisher encouraged Hughes through school, as he did with many other students, many of whom came to a tribute in Mexborough — which later evolved into the annual Ted Hughes Festival.

The event included a short talk on the teacher’s importance to Ted Hughes, readings, and recordings of Hughes’ poems and of other poets important to the teacher.

Hughes left the school to do national service in 1949 and then went on to study English, and later anthropology and archaeology, at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Throughout his life, he kept in contact with Mr Fisher.

Dr Steve Ely, senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Huddersfield and director of The Ted Hughes Network, said:  “Fisher taught Hughes in the three years he spent in the sixth form at Mexborough Grammar School.

“A tall, good-looking and charismatic man who had served as a naval officer in the war, Fisher was a highly cultured man with a love of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Lawrence and Beethoven.

“Fisher was also a maverick with a Pythonesque sense of humour and he developed bantering relationships with students that were perhaps not typical of the time.

“Hughes quickly fell under Fisher’s spell. His poetic and artistic tastes were shaped under Fisher’s influence.

“He worked as sub-editor on the school magazine, under Fisher’s supervision. He would visit Fisher and his wife Nancy at their home on Church Street, Mexborough, every Sunday night, where they would discuss poetry and listen to Fisher’s Beethoven LPs.

“Hughes became so enamoured of Fisher that some of his schoolfriends thought that he began to model his appearance on him.”

Dr Ely said Mr Fisher played “an important role” in securing Ted Hughes’ student place at Pembroke by helping him prepare for the entrance exams.

Dr Ely said: “Hughes later recognised Fisher’s colossal importance to his career by sending him a signed copy of every book he published.

“Fisher visited Hughes at his home in Devon, where he settled in 1961, and Hughes would often visit him in Mexborough.”

Fisher’s neighbour on Church Street, Dorothy Andrew, retained a copy of the eulogy which was at the heart of the special tribute event for Fisher organised by the Ted Hughes Project (South Yorkshire) on April 24, 2018, at St John the Baptist Church in Mexborough.

Fisher was born in 1914 in the town of Millom near Barrow-in-Furness — built as a new town from 1866 — and later studied English at the University of Sheffield, graduating in 1934.

He started his career as a student teacher at Mexborough Grammar in 1935, where he worked until his retirement in 1974, by which time he had attained the role of second deputy head and master in charge of the sixth form college.

Another notable pupil who came under his wing during his time as a teacher was former Rotherham MP from 1963 to 1976 and junior health and social security minister Brian O’Malley.

Fisher married Nancy in 1938 and they had a daughter, Angela.

When Fisher became ill with terminal cancer in 1979 Hughes visited him almost every weekend.

Fisher’s encouragement of Hughes took the form of introducing the student to the poetic works of many great writers.

One such book — given to Hughes at 18 — was The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which he kept reading at university and which is credited with developing his poetic vision. Indeed, Hughes used the book’s inspiration to write Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being in 1992, one of his few prose works.

So, when people think of the genius of Ted Hughes, it would also be right to think of the man who encouraged that flowering of creativity.

Hughes was grateful throughout his life to his teacher. In his eulogy, the feted poet described his mentor as a “uniquely-gifted loveable man”, and noted that for many pupils he had become “their chief spiritual guide through their most precarious and formative years”.

Hughes said Fisher’s sense of duty kept him in Mexborough, teaching the literature he loved and wanted others to love

“John Fisher lived a life of service, of duty, and he knew it too,” he added. “If it were ever suggested that he might like a change, and live in some prettier part of the globe than South Yorkshire, it was quite clear — he saw at once that he could not.

“He would have regarded that as abandoning his duties and emptying his life.

“He had committed his life to serving the young people of industrial South Yorkshire, and whatever that entailed was the only life he wanted.”

Hughes said Fisher had a rare ability to make his young charges see the beauty of great literature, as he himself had, and thereby help them to perhaps lead more fulfilled lives.

Or as Hughes put it in the eulogy: “Many English teachers can unlock the treasure-house... John Fisher was one of the few who could then use the treasure to unlock people.

“Opening those treasures, he could open people.”

What better tribute could a teacher of literature have than to be lauded by one of the country’s greatest wordsmiths?

It is true that a great teacher can change a life.