Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2589
Much of the sensibility of Hughes’s poetry can be defined by several consistent elements. The influence of The White Goddess, the landscape of Hughes’s childhood, and the connection between literary influences and the vernacular speech of his Yorkshire environs are essential elements of Hughes’s poetics. Familial concerns are less self-evident; Hughes seldom seems overtly autobiographical or confessional. Nonetheless, it should be noted that Hughes has written of his family, such as his mother’s ancestry (“The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar” in The Hawk in the Rain) and his father’s ordeals in World War I (“Dust as We Are” and “For the Duration” in Wolfwatching).
Perhaps the earliest and most intellectually formative influence was that of The White Goddess. Given as a prize to Hughes from his grammar school, Graves’s work initiated an interest that continued in Hughes’s anthropological studies at Cambridge and further developed throughout his life. Hughes remained an assiduous reader of myths, folklore, ethnology, and poetry. Graves proposes that myth, particularly of fertility and renewal, is the authentic language of poetry. Hughes considers poetry or myth as the means for reintroducing the community to its origins or sources of the energy of renewal. In many ways, Hughes’s long dramatic poem Gaudete is the culmination of his vision of division, struggle, and atonement through transformation as described in The White Goddess. In this work, nature and the human world are divided; there is a human desolation and the impending apocalyptic aftermath of a psychomachy (or a conflict of the soul with the body). At each turn, the poem’s mock-epic hero, Lumb, faces a distorted vision of the White Goddess as an expression of death.
Directly linked to the idea of mythopoeia is Hughes’s attention to the natural landscape. The physicality of Hughes’s diction corresponds to his focus on natural objects. As a child, Hughes would accompany his older brother in the hills and moors, retrieving what his brother shot. In his Poetry in the Making, Hughes describes that “at about fifteen my life grew more complicated and my attitude toward animals changed. I accused myself of disturbing their lives. I began to look at them, you see, from their own point of view. And about the same time I began to write poems.” To be a mythmaker, Hughes implicitly knew that he must be a naturalist. Examples of Hughes’s engagement with his natural landscape are to be found throughout his collections of poetry. Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is the sequence of thirty-four poems in the collection Moortown. In these poems, Hughes details the human toil of farming, the rhythms of farm life, and the profound intersection of the human world and the natural world beyond. It is the toil of the farm, the continual birthing and death, and the seasons’ demands that reinitiate an understanding of nature and the intimate connection between the human body, the psyche, and the world of nature.
Hughes’s influences are often cited as the poets Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and D. H. Lawrence. In an interview with the critic Ekbert Faas, Hughes argues that whatever “speech you grow into, presumably your dialect stays alive in a sort of inner freedom, a separate little self. . . . [I]n the case of the West Yorkshire dialect, of course, it connects you directly and in your most intimate self to middle English poetry.” The title poem of the collection Wodwo illustrates this point. The word “wodwo” appears in the anonymous Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1375-1400) and means a wild man of the woods, and in Hughes’s poem “wodwo” represents the centrality of the unconscious and the mythic demand to be named: “But what shall I be called am I the first/ have I an owner what shape am I.” The childhood core of experience—language and landscape—remain in the poet and provide the energies for the writing of poetry.
In the collection Crow, Hughes offers several directions in understanding these various influences: The figure of Crow is the consummate poet-bard, the primordial storyteller and memory for an entire culture; an Everyman, hero, and clown—the prototypic figure of the Trickster found throughout the world’s mythologies. The language of the poems is direct and vernacular; it rejects Latinate words for words rooted in the archaic and Anglo-Saxon. Crow investigates the centrality of the Anglo-Saxon-Norse-Celtic roots in the English language and psyche that are, Hughes argues, constantly repressed.
Hughes’s work is also often described, or disparaged, as violent. Such violence is, in fact, the violence of transformation, part of Graves’s interpretation of myth as a movement through birth, life, death, and renewal. The violence ascribed to Hughes’s work is also an attribute of the language and rhythms that he uses: The language is compact, highly stressed, and direct. Hughes responded to the question of violence in his interview with Faas by stating that “Any form of violence—any form of vehement activity—invokes the bigger energy, the elemental power circuit of the Universe.” Throughout his work, Hughes argues that the epoch’s destructive activities—particularly World Wars I and II and the environmental crisis—have destroyed both humanity’s contact with the natural world and the rituals that maintained the health of the world’s communities. Hughes’s poetry attempts to renew contact with nature, not through accommodation but on nature’s own elemental terms. “Hawk Roosting,” from Lupercal, is often cited as an example of Hughes’s celebration of violence. Through its utterly direct language and its inhabitation of the perching hawk, the poem, however, provides a needed contact with the natural world and its powers. The hawk comes to represent nature thinking. The poem contains echoes of the biblical book of Job; indeed Job’s inability to understand his unmerciful God parallels the fruitless efforts to understand nature. The poem warns against confusing human identities with those of the hawk, for to do so will distort nature, as well as humankind. In Hughes’s vision, nature offers no compromises.
First published: 1957 (collected in The Hawk in the Rain, 1957)
Type of work: Poem
The poet imagines a fox’s approach through the night, which is a metaphoric reverie of the writing of poetry.
“The Thought-Fox” appeared in Hughes’s first collection of poems, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), and is one of his most celebrated and anthologized poems. This poem contains many of the stylistic and thematic elements that have come to define Hughes’s poetry. In terms of Hughes’s poetic development, this poem was unmistakably his breakthrough, signaling his departure from the rhetorical and Metaphysical poetry and his movement toward mythmaking.
The poem comprises a reverie by immediately invoking the imagination in the first line: “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest.” The alliteration in this line suggests a casting of a spell. The first stanza of this twenty-four-line poem arranged in quatrains evokes solitude; plainly, the writer is working late at night alone, the only sound being “the clock’s loneliness.” Beyond the writer’s domain of time and the blank page exists the primordial force of the imagination.
The poet becomes actively aware of the approach of the nearness of the other or the imagination in the second stanza. The poet stands at literal and figurative thresholds: He stares at a blank page, which becomes the dark window, the starless sky, and then into the forest’s darkness. In the third stanza, the poet has crossed these various thresholds to make contact with this totem-figure of the unconscious or the imagination. Both the poet and the metaphorical fox are tentative in their approaches. The rhythm enacts the moment-by-moment movement of the reverie. The selection of simple words underscores the directness of the experience and the rhythm of the poem’s trancelike chant: “Two eyes serve a movement, that now/ And again now, and now, and now/ Sets neat prints into the snow.”
The fourth stanza traces the movement of the fox through the trees. Gradually the blank, snowy page fills with print, the tracks of the thought-fox. The poem is simultaneously depicting the transcription of a poem from the imagination onto the page and describing the moment of inspiration. The fifth stanza is the most abstract while also seeking to convey the fullness and primordial magic of reverie as the poet is swept into the “deepening greenness,” or vitality, of the imagination. The force of the reverie overwhelms the poet, until the sudden physical presence and departure of the fox in the sixth stanza occurs: “Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox/ It enters the dark hole of the head.” The imagination at this moment shows its immediacy and power; the fox is no longer a shadow but dangerously close before vanishing and leaving the page printed, scented with its presence, its territory marked. The imagination, for Hughes, is a primordial force; its presence is both creative and predatory. The poem implies that it is necessary, however, to engage these archaic powers if one is to write an authentic poetry.
First published: 1983 (collected in River, 1983)
Type of work: Poem
The poem is a meditation on the sanctity and continuity of the river, the salmon, and life.
“Salmon Eggs” is the closing poem of Hughes’s collection River (1983). The collection itself is a sequence of forty-three poems offering both description of river life and meditations on the spiritual and physical ecology. “Salmon Eggs,” as the final poem, offers an affirmation: “Only birth matters/ Say the river’s whorls.”
There are two movements in the poem. One is the horizontal flow of the river, its journey downstream, oceanward, toward conclusion and, implicitly, extinction. The other movement is vertical, from the sky, penetrating the water’s surface, probing the sediments. The poet occupies the intersection of these two movements and travels their axis. The poem opens in the past tense, suggesting that had the reader arrived sooner he or she, too, would have seen the salmon. The second stanza, cast in the present moment, gives witness to the salmon’s fatal exhaustion after spawning. Throughout the poem, there are images of fertility and birth, as well as exhaustion and extinction. These two conditions are never isolated; one always informs the other. For Hughes, the essential role of the poet is to be at the intersection of these movements, to witness and record them.
“Salmon Eggs” continues with the poet or speaker describing his reverie: “I lean and watch the water/ listening to water/ Till my eyes forget me/ And the piled flow supplants me.” Rather than the incantatory archaic and totemic being invoked, as in “The Thought-Fox,” this poem’s reverie carries the poet into the geologic and biological world of catkins, spiders, “mud-blooms,” and “Mastodon ephemera.”
The speaker notes that “Something else is going on in the river/ More vital than death.” Death is merely part of nature’s overarching processes. Hughes sees everywhere the continuity of life—“The river goes on/ Sliding through its place, undergoing itself/ In its wheel.” The conventional symbol of the river as a coursing of life is certainly evoked here, as well as the vision of life as cyclical. The river is also understood in poetry and myth as the process of time, encompassing both time’s passage and eternity—rivers, such as the Styx of Greek mythology, lead to death, as well as to immortality. Hughes’s image of the wheel becomes identified as the water mill, a common image in the English landscape, and one that has come to represent both time and fate. The poet communes with the river and invokes a blessing upon the river and upon the salmon, “Sanctus Sanctus/ Swathes the blessed issue.” The river becomes a holy “font . . . swaddling the egg.” In the course of the river “Only birth matters.” The poem closes with the river’s movement spreading to encompass the sun and earth. The final line—“mind condenses on old haws”—suggests the crystallization of consciousness or awareness in the same way that dew condenses on the leaves of a hawthorn hedge.
First published: 1998
Type of work: Poetry
The poet chronicles his relationship with his former wife, poet Sylvia Plath, and the aftermath of her suicide.
Birthday Letters, a popular best seller, earned Hughes critical acclaim, receiving the Forward Poetry Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the Whitbread Prize for Poetry, and the Whitbread British Book of the Year Award. This collection of eighty-eight poems, written over a period of twenty-five years and published just months before the poet’s death, created a literary sensation because of its depiction of intimate details of Hughes’s life with Sylvia Plath. After Plath’s suicide, Hughes remained stoically silent regarding her death. The publication of this book, thirty-five years later, broke that silence.
The book is arranged chronologically, and its first poem, “Fulbright Scholars,” illustrates Hughes’s initial glimpse of Plath. As its title suggests, the poem re-creates an uncertain memory of seeing a photograph of Fulbright Scholars, in which Plath would have appeared. Hughes places Plath on a pedestal in the poem, unapproachable: “Maybe I weighed you up, feeling unlikely.” He describes her “American/ Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.” Finally, at poem’s end, Hughes quietly compares this first vision of Plath to the taste of a first peach: “It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted./ I could hardly believe how delicious.”
“St. Botolph’s” chronicles Hughes’s first meeting with Plath at a party celebrating the publication of a literary magazine. He devotes much space to a physical description of his future wife. Again, he describes her as “American,” comments on her long fingers, her hair, her smile, and a scar from her earlier suicide attempt while still an undergraduate. Hughes ends the poem with the effects of their first kiss, “the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks/ That was to brand my face for the next month.”
Hughes incorporates the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus in “Life After Death,” a poem recounting his, and their children’s, grief after Plath’s suicide. The eyes of the couple’s son show a remarkable similarity to those of Plath and become “wet jewels,/ The hardest substance of the purest pain/ As I fed him in his high white chair.” Similarly, “his sister grew/ Paler with the wound/ She could not see or touch or feel.” The family is comforted by the sound of wolves from a nearby zoo: “The wolves lifted us in their long voices./ They wound us and enmeshed us/ In their wailing for you, their mourning for us.” At the end of the poem, Hughes compares his two children to the mythic founders of Rome, “two babes, who have turned, in their sleep,/ Into orphans/ Beside the corpse of their mother.”
The second-to-last poem in the collection, “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother,” is one of only two poems not addressed to Plath. This poem is addressed to the couple’s children, Frieda and Nicholas, to whom the book is dedicated. The poet warns his children: “Protect her/ And they will tear you down/ As if you were more her. . . . Let her be their spoils.” However, the poem ends on a note of hope: “Imagine/ These bone-crushing mouths the mouths/ That labour for the beetle/ Who will roll her back into the sun.”
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