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The Queen and the Poet

This story comes from Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother by William Shawcross.

Queen Elizabeth spent the first months of 1998 convalescing from a broken hip. After Easter she went to Scotland to spend two weeks at Birkhall.

Ted Hughes, who was by now seriously ill with cancer, came again with his wife to experience what he had called, after his last visit, 'the healing warmth of your kindness to me'. It was to be their final encounter. The fishing was not at its best that spring, but Hughes was pleased because that gave them 'more time to lounge and loll and gaze and meditate'. He particularly enjoyed an afternoon when, after lunch at Polveir, they just sat and listened to the river.

He had brought the Queen Mother his new book Birthday Letters, a series of poems about his life with Sylvia Plath. When the Queen Mother asked him why he had published them, he replied that he thought it was important for him as 'a kind of purging', and he had done it for his children and for himself. Since he had published the book (and ignored everything the critics had said about it), 'I have felt vastly unburdened. It has quite changed my life and whole outlook for the better.' He thought that Queen Elizabeth had helped change his life too. 'When I remember your gesture and your words, "We must be strong!" I feel it like a huge smile of joy, like a surge from a tremendous battery, going through me as well. And I remember it constantly.'

He needed all such strength to resist his illness. On 16 October he and his wife Carol went to Buckingham Palace where the Queen bestowed upon him the Order of Merit. A few days later, on 28 October 1998, Ted Hughes died.

Queen Elizabeth sent a wreath of yellow, white and cream flowers; they accompanied his coffin, and Carol Hughes then cast them upon the waters of his favourite river, the Torridge in Devon. The following May Queen Elizabeth attended Hughes's memorial service in Westminster Abbey. She walked up the long aisle on the arm of Prince Charles. At the end, the congregation heard Hughes's rich Yorkshire voice reading the Song from Shakespeare's Cymbeline. As it echoed round the ancient church many were moved to tears.

Fear no more the heat o' the sun

Nor the furious winter's rages;

Thou thy worldly work hast done,

Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney sweepers, come to dust.

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