(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Ted Hughes’s work is like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ without the Christian focus but with the thick pictures and thumping energy. His poems are not about looking out windows but about being outdoors where the work is hard and life is physical and instinctual and calls for strong feelings, not drawing-room irony or mental finesse. Even when he makes a fool of himself, Hughes makes his work seem as though he had to write it.

Especially in the title section of the book—the first—Hughes takes nature for his theme and shows as much of it as he knows as a sheep and cattle rancher on his father-in-law’s farm in Devon. The violence of nature is in storms, where “Cows roar/Then hang their noses to the mud” (“Rain”). In “Orts,” Hughes partly describes a heat wave like this: “The desert has entered the flea’s belly.” Winter comes in “New Year Exhilaration” with the “Rolling of air weights” and while “The river/Thunders like a factory.” There is violence in the cattle grinding into each other in “Dehorning,” and shortly before the storm breaks in “Feeding Out-Wintering Cattle at Twilight.” In a windy snow, “The field smokes and writhes/Burning like a moor ...” (“Bringing in New Couples”). Another kind of violence in nature occurs in “February 17th,” where a strangled lamb is stuck in the birth canal and the speaker has to cut its head off and reach inside the ewe and pull the rest out. Everything in nature, including man, pummels and is pummeled (“Prometheus on His Crag,” 14), and even in myth the hero is “torn to pieces” (“Actaeon”). There is also the violence of the hunt in “Fox Hunt” and of the kill in “Orts” in which a fly is trapped and mashed backside-first by a spider.

There seems to be no thought in nature, only action, which sometimes immobilizes man’s world (“Tractor”) or threatens to ruin it (“Last Load”). In animals, nature moves without thought but instinct as the calves rush about and end back at their mothers’ udders (“Turning Out”). Even when a calf sleeps, its “ears stay awake” (“Happy Calf”), and it instinctively keeps trying to feed until it learns how (“Teaching a Dumb Calf”). Machines themselves are like animals, as when the tractor is “Shuddering itself into full heat,” and animals like machines, as when a predatory fish on the ocean floor is seen as a “Gadget of spectrum hunger frenzy” (“Photostomias”), and when hounds are called “A machine with only two products—/Dog shit and dead foxes” (“Fox Hunt”).

If action without thought is a basic feature of nature, so is struggle and endurance. In “Feeding Out-Wintering Cattle at Twilight,” the cattle are thrown around as they battle to feed, and in “Fox Hunt” the fox runs for its life from the hounds until either “his lungs tatter” or he makes the wrong turn. The struggle is man’s too as he labors to get the hay in before the storm breaks (“Last Load”), and forces a calf and its mother together for feeding (“Teaching a Dumb Calf”), and strains to get a barbed wire fence up (“A Monument”).

Similar to the fox, birds struggle to stay alive searching “everywhere/For ... safety” (“Poor Birds”). The calf in “Little Red Twin” is sick and gets wedged in a harrow in murderously hot weather, but survives. The sheep are in chaos after shearing, but gradually “fit themselves to what has happened” (“Sheep”). In the human world, even old age tries to stay alive, and every morning “Pulls its pieces together” (“Old Age Gets Up”).

Life seems to be a kind of glorious tragedy in three acts to Hughes. Act I is birth, and there are hardly any easy ones in Hughes’s poems. The calf in “Struggle” has to be all but yanked out, and although the one in “Surprise” slides out almost unnoticed, the lambs in “Last Night” are stillborn and one is left with its frantic mother and eaten by predators, as is one of the lambs born in “Ravens.” Again and again, Hughes presents a bloody afterbirth to point out the indelicacy of birth, even in its beauty, which he acknowledges when he describes the calf “Collapsed wet-fresh from the womb, blinking his...

(The entire section is 1726 words.)