Ted Hughes, named England’s poet laureate in 1984, has always written about nature, especially animals, and River is no exception. The river in this book is both stage and major character in a play whose plot is controlled by the seasons from winter to fall, whose other characters are a variety of animals and man himself, and whose themes are death and renewal.
As a stage and the props that go with it, the river in this book is not ordinary. In Hughes’s view in “Flesh of Light,” it has an origin that smacks of the divine; it comes from the “boiling light” of “The mill of the galaxy.” It can also be decked out as Hell with its “furnace boom,” the human actors on it “possessed/ By that voice in the river,/ And its accompaniment/ Of drumming and flutes” (“The Gulkana”). More sinister than this, the river, visited by “the snow princess” of winter in “Japanese River Tales,” can be transformed into “a gutter of death.” In addition to these, the river is the machinery behind its scenes, the “Engine of earth’s renewal” cranking up in the spring, repairing itself, and a summer wine that “Swells from the press/ To gladden men.”
As a character in the play of the seasons, the river is cast in several female roles. It is Eve in “Torridge,” “A novelty from the red side of Adam.// She who has not once tasted death.” It is a young girl eloping while her father the landscape “Claws weakly at her swollen decision” (“Fairy Flood”), “a beautiful idle woman” (“Low Water”), and a bride (“Salmon-taking Times”). It is a maternal character with a “Heavy belly” in “River Barrow” and the gruesome victim of a cesarean with no issue in “New Year.” It is both male and female, “the swollen vent/ Of the nameless/ Teeming inside atoms,” whereby it says “Only birth matters” (“Salmon Eggs”).
The fluidity, so to speak, of the river’s guises extends to the supernatural. In “Last Night,” it is an “evil” presence, in “The Gulkana,” it is the “deranging cry” of a monster, “A stone voice that dragged at us,” while in “River,” it is a god “uttering spirit brightness/ Through its broken mouth.”
A great variety of animal characters have roles to play in and about the river. There are the land animals. The mink embodies play, gluttony, and lust in “The Merry Mink.” In “Salmon-taking Times,” the pigs are “Tumbling hooligans/ Piling in the narrows,” and in “That Morning,” the bears are almost human, joining the fishermen and “Eating pierced salmon off their talons,” taking their nourishment from the river as the ewe in “Four March Watercolours” does, stepping into the river “to replenish her udder,” playing a sort of allegorical character who stands for spring. There are birds, too. The kingfisher is a dazzling irritant, a spirit of chaos, in “The Kingfisher.” In “Last Act,” the damselfly is a “dainty assassin,” and the cormorant is both the antagonist who outduels the fisherman narrator in “A Cormorant” and the cold-blooded figure of death itself in “A Rival.” Finally, there are fish, perhaps the most important characters in the book besides the river itself. Of these, the eel is “The nun of water,” a predator which is almost beyond relating to because it is so old and single-minded, and the cock minnows are anchorites who “have abandoned contemplation” to have “A stag-party, all bridegrooms, all in their panoply” (“Under the Hill of Centurions”). Sea trout enter the scene, too, playing the part of happy morons.
By far the most important characters among the fish, however, are the salmon. Hughes sees them as tragic, even godlike. Their one aim is to procreate, and they accept the challenge of all obstacles to do so. Somehow, enough survive to lay and fertilize eggs, though “forty-odd thousand” of these may be “milked” by humans, and those fish which manage to make it to the spawning...
(The entire section is 1637 words.)