“Live like a Mighty River.” {Ted Hughes’ advice to his son.}

{Ted Hughes}

In 1986, acclaimed English poet, Ted Hughes, writes one of the most beautiful letters to his 24 year old son, Nicholas, in which he touches on the deepest, most painful aspects of the inner child—with poetic sensitivity and scissor, parent hands. 

Sadly, just as Nicholas’ mother—equally celebrated American poet, Sylvia Plath—had committed suicide 23 years earlier, Nicholas (an expert biologist), takes his life in 2009, at age 47.


{Ted, Sylvia & Nicholas}


If you’ve ever been a child, you still are one.

And that vulnerable, misunderstood and often quieted, shut down part of you, might find a long-sought puddle in Hughes’ words and hopefully forget that the world is watching and start jumping in it, uncontrollably, for at least another hundred years.


Dear Nick, 

I hope things are clearing. It did cross my mind, last summer, that you were under strains of an odd sort. I expect, like many another, you’ll spend your life oscillating between fierce relationships that become tunnel traps, and sudden escapes into wide freedom when the whole world seems to be just there for the taking.

Nobody’s solved it. You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses.

I came to America, when I was 27, and lived there three years as if I were living inside a damart sock—I lived in there with your mother. We made hardly any friends, no close ones, and neither of us ever did anything the other didn’t want wholeheartedly to do.

(It meant, Nicholas, that meeting any female between 17 and 39 was out. Your mother banished all her old friends, girl friends, in case one of them set eyes on me—presumably. And if she saw me talking with a girl student, I was in court. Foolish of her, and foolish of me to encourage her to think her laws were reasonable. But most people are the same. I was quite happy to live like that, for some years.)

Since the only thing we both wanted to do was write, our lives disappeared into the blank page. My three years in America disappeared like a Rip Van Winkle snooze. Why didn’t I explore America then? I wanted to. I knew it was there. Ten years later we could have done it, because by then we would have learned, maybe, that one person cannot live within another’s magic circle, as an enchanted prisoner.

So take this new opportunity to look about and fill your lungs with that fantastic land, while it and you are still there. That was a most curious and interesting remark you made about feeling, occasionally, very childish, in certain situations.

Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child. To get beyond the age of about eight is not permitted to this primate—except in a very special way, which I’ll try to explain.

When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. And your self-reliance, your Independence, your general boldness in exposing yourself to new and to-most-people-very-alarming situations, and your phenomenal ability to carry through your plans to the last practical detail (I know it probably doesn’t feel like that to you, but that’s how it looks to the rest of us, who simply look on in envy), is the sort of real maturity that not one in a thousand ever come near. As you know.

But in many other ways obviously you are still childish—how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle.

But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it.

So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’.

But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But when they too, sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child.

Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced.

Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim.

And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool—for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful.

So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner.

And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line—unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears.

And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive—even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources—not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy.

That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember.

But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self—struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence—you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself.

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. 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.

It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems—he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.

And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy.

End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.


As found in Letters of Ted Hughesto enjoy with a large cup of tea.



*Thanks to the wonderful Letters of Note for first sharing this gem.


More Timeless wisdom in Old Correspondence:

>> Henry Miller to Anaïs Nin: “Come closer to me, come closer, I promise you, it will be beautiful.”

>> “Nothing good gets away.” ~ John Steinbeck on love: A letter to his son.

>> Charles Bukowski on quitting his job & doing what he loved.

>> “Dear Sir, I like words.” ~ Best cover letter for & by a writer. 



{Little creatures, you & I.}



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Andrea Balt
Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Rebelle Society, Wellness Alchemist at Rebelle Wellness & Professional Dream Chaser at Creative Rehab. Unfinished book with a love for greens, bikes and poetry; raised by wolves & adopted by people; not trying to make art but to Be Art. Holds a BA in Journalism & Mass Communication, an MFA in Creative Writing & a Holistic Health Coach degree from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition®. In her work she tries to reflect the wholeness of the human experience by combining Art & Health + Mind & Body + Darkness & Brilliance into a more alive, unabridged and unlimited edition of ourselves. She is also on a quest to reinstate Creativity as one of our essential Human Rights to (hopefully and soon) be included in the UN Declaration. Connect with her in the Social Media Jungle via Facebook, Twitter & Instagram and sign up for her FREE MuseLetter.


  • Richard La Rosa
    Richard La Rosa commented on December 5, 2012 Reply
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful letter — it sparked a lively conversation with a friend over coffee this morning. This concept of the inner child as the core personality resonates with me very strongly, as a person that has maintained a strong connection with children as an educator and also as a parent come to the game late in life. Sadness descends upon me whenever I think of all the people I know that have sacrificed their inner child on the altar of maturity.
    • Andrea Balt
      Andrea Balt commented on December 6, 2012 Reply
      Always happy to spice up your coffee. I agree that some of us have kept the inner child more alive than others but I also think we’ve all sacrificed It to some extent. I don’t think we can survive in the adult world without some kind of inevitable damage to the inner child. The child itself wouldn’t (couldn’t) survive. “It” isn’t fit for the real world, just like our “adult” compromised version is not fit for real, abundant uncompromising life.The more I evolve (older I get), the more I see the paradox at the center of everything human. I guess in the end, we have to learn to live with all our parts and use each accordingly – not to cancel but to benefit the other parts. Make mighty peace with ourselves and be like water. And like the ancients living through us, and at the same time… like nobody else.
  • thelindseyoneill commented on December 7, 2012 Reply
    This is so touching. My 32 year old eyes read it to myself, through semi-tear stained eyelids, while all my parts inside listened to the words, and curled up around each other just a little bit more. Thank you for this. I never realized how aware so many in the world are of the multitude of parts within—I think as Ive gotten older, I’ve seen jaded and cynical beings as people who sometimes know more than others, people who are more sophisticated, more mature, people who knew the truth about the tooth fairy or the poof of smoke that is Santa Clause well before others did, and that parts of us at times feels the fool for being “behind” in what other parts within us came to know as “reality” and “awareness.” The self-proclaimed label of naivety has ridden along on some of our shoulders for these sort of things, these “mis-beliefs” sometimes yelling in our heads or our ears, when what feels light and authentic and in touch with our inner children wants to come out, but gets fearful of the world seeing its true and pure beauty. Our adult “shells” are here as the representation of the sum of all of these parts we have carried with us along the way, and also to keep those other parts that are every age we have ever been feeling safe and held in the wider world. At the same time, as Ted says, those child-like parts want, need, and deserve to exist and feel loved, protected, and even cherished in this world as we continue to venture forth. For what is our purpose here if not to make peace within ourselves, among all of our parts, to share with others what gifts those pieces hold, to self-express, to self-explore, and to touch the lives of others with our own authentic spirits and souls. When we are truly ourselves in this life, and all of our ever-evolving parts, we allow others to do and be the same. I think they call that freedom.
  • Osmara Vindel
    Osmara Vindel commented on December 15, 2012 Reply
    Life and death together are so precious yet so fleeting… Thanks you for this piece Andrea. Namaste.
  • lisandboo commented on January 16, 2013 Reply
    Love this. It is just stunning. Thank you for sharing.
  • Lucy Bullivant commented on September 21, 2013 Reply
    Wow, he understood all of this, all of these profound truths, and could articulate them, and the painful irony is that two of his closest loved ones were, in tragic turns of events, lost to the world..how utterly wretched and sad. I can’t remember the timing of the suicides, and I can’t find my Hughes biography at the moment. Did he also write a lot about the sense of abandonment the child inside can often easily feel, and what that void seems to be ‘speaking’? Reading his words is for me a balm, a reknowing of the reality I carried all along (but was for a long time rather unconscious about) that it is for each of us to cherish our inner 8 year old selves..

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