W. S. Merwin (review date 6 October 1957)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Something of His Own to Say," in New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1957, p. 43.

[In the following review of The Hawk in the Rain, Merwin praises Hughes's young talent for its originality and intelligence.]

Ted Hughes is a young English poet; The Hawk in the Rain is his first book. Its publication gives reviewers an opportunity to do what they are always saying they want to do: acclaim an exciting new writer. There is no need, either, to shelter in the flubbed and wary remark that the poems are promising. They are that, of course; they are unmistakably a young man's poems, which accounts for some of their defects as well as some of their strength and brilliance. And Mr. Hughes has the kind of talent that makes you wonder more than commonly where he will go from here, not because you can't guess but because you venture to hope.

Whatever he may be writing ten years from now, Mr. Hughes in his first book has already achieved a great deal. The poems abound in the one sort of originality that ultimately matters; they are quick with a life that is uniquely their own. They are not without occasional echoes, not so much of other poets in particular (Robert Graves, perhaps, as distinctly as any) as of bits of the current poetic tradition. Indeed, if anything these echoes enhance the excitement of reading the poems since they are able to contain such echoes without ever slipping into any of the expected varieties of contemporary poetry, and without ever leaving any doubt as to whether someone else could have written them. Mr. Hughes has obviously been a poetically inclined undergraduate like so many others; his difference from most of them is something he was born with.

He trusts his gift and his art, both of which are considerable. He strains them, in fact, here and there. It is good to see a capacity for incaution (especially in a period when most of the poetry is as careful and coffee-spooned as it is at present) combined with an ear, a sense of form and development, and a poetic intelligence, all of a high order. His poems do not. as often happens, run together on recollection; one feels that the autonomy of each poem was there from its conception. This may be one of the reasons that makes it hard to quote any fragment that is either representative or that stands happily by itself without the whole poem. The beginning and end of "The Dove-Breeder" may do as well as any, in the space:

     Love struck into his life
     Like a hawk into a dovecote.
     What a cry went up!
     Every gentle pedigree dove
     Blindly clattered and beat,
     And the mild-mannered
     Shrieked at that raider.
     Yet he soon dried his tears
     Now he rides the morning
     With a big-eyed hawk on his

It should be mentioned that The Hawk in the Rain was chosen by Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender to receive the First Publication Award of the Poetry Center of the New York Y.M. and Y.W.H.A. That organization is to be congratulated for making possible the publication of this book.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Ted Hughes 1930–1998

British poet, playwright, children's author, and editor.

See also Ted Hughes Criticism (Volume 2), and volumes 4, 9, 14.

Named Poet Laureate of England in 1984, Hughes is a versatile poet who is perhaps best known for creating powerful poems that feature bold metaphors and resonant language, imagery, and speech rhythms. He often comments on the human condition through the use of myth and symbol, describing natural phenomena and animals in evocative language. Hughes contends that Western civilization has overvalued intellectual faculties, dividing humans both from their instinctual urges and from nature. He suggests that the poet can be a reunifying source by employing such creative energies as imagination and emotion, as well as rationalization, to probe the mysteries of nature and life. In Hughes's poetry, according to Seamus Heaney, "racial memory, animal instinct and poetic imagination all flow into one another with an exact sensuousness." While Hughes is regarded as one of the most accomplished poets to emerge since World War II, he is often discussed more for his relationship with American poet Sylvia Plath than for his work. His seven-year marriage to Plath has been a source of controversy and speculation, and his silence on the subject was considered by his detractors to be a sign of guilt over her death. Not until Birthday Letters (1998), a poetry collection created over the span of a quarter of a century, did Hughes present his side of his tumultuous relationship with Plath.

Hughes was born Edward James Hughes on August 17, 1930, the youngest child of William Henry Hughes and Edith Farrar Hughes. In 1948, Hughes won an Open Exhibition to Cambridge University, but delayed his enrollment for two years to serve in the Royal Air Force. After completing his service, Hughes entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, to study English but switched in his final year to study anthropology. In the two years following his graduation, Hughes published several poems in Cambridge literary magazines and supported himself by working a number of odd jobs. In 1956, he met Sylvia Plath, who was at Cambridge as a Fulbright fellow; within four months, they were married. After Plath's suicide in 1963, Hughes took an active role in raising their children, Frieda and Nicholas. Hughes grew up in the rugged landscape of Yorkshire, and the natural world became central to his poetry. His father fought in the trenches of World War I and violent imagery is a central feature in much of Hughes's work. His poems do not idealize nature, but present the brutal, ugly aspects and violent struggles inherent in the natural world. Hughes died of cancer, at the age of 68, in 1998.

Hughes's early poetry is emotionally intense and features elaborate imagery and natural settings. His first book, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), made an immediate impact on critics, poets, and readers. The poems in this volume display charged, assonant language which commentators likened to that of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Critics were particularly impressed with the sensual language of "The Thought-Fox," one of Hughes's most anthologized poems. Lupercal, (1960), Hughes's second volume, confirmed his reputation as an important and inventive young poet. Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970), is considered one of his most startling achievements. The poems follow the adventures of Crow from the genesis of life to nuclear apocalypse, presenting Hughes's version of the creation story. The protagonist, the Crow, is at war with the world, including his creator. Throughout his long journey, Crow experiences individual and universal tragedies and assesses both human pretension and life itself with coldly sardonic observations. The poems in Remains of Elmet (1979), Moortown (1979), and River (1983) offer vivid descriptions of animal life and nature and generally project a more positive view of humanity than Hughes's previous works. Remains of Elmet traces the history of the Elmet region of England as it develops from an ancient kingdom to a modern industrial area. Moortown is composed of four sequences of poems. "The Moortown" sequence, which was singled out for acclaim by critics, recounts in diary form Hughes's experiences as a dairy farmer deeply engaged in the birth and death cycles of animals. The poems in River follow a series of rivers through the course of a year, describing their sundry landscapes and animal life. These volumes reveal what many agree are Hughes's finest qualities as a poet: his ability to evoke the natural world in rich, sensuous detail and his unsentimental yet respectful view of life. In Birthday Letters, Hughes reveals many personal feelings and intimate details regarding his relationship with his wife, Sylvia Plath.

Hughes is one of a very few contemporary British poets to have gained a significant reputation outside of Britain. In England, Hughes's stature is reckoned not only with regard to his unique poetic achievement but to the effect of his style and ideas on his younger contemporaries. In the 1950s, Hughes's poetry signalled a dramatic departure from the prevailing modes of the period. The stereotypical poem of the time was determined not to risk much: politely domestic in its subject matter, understated and mildly ironic in style. By contrast, Hughes marshalled a language of nearly Shakespearean resonance to explore themes which were mythical and elemental. Many critics felt Hughes's appointment as Britain's Poet Laureate in 1984 rather incongruous, given that the Laureate's role typically involved celebrating the Christian milestones of the monarchy, including marriages and christenings. Hughes's poetry encompasses mythology and pre-Christian religion and often presents Christianity as a destructive force. Despite the incongruity of the appointment, commentators praised the work that Hughes produced while he was Laureate. In addition to his poetry, Hughes has distinguished himself for other literary endeavors as well. His ambitious critical study entitled Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), his insightful social and literary criticism, and his poems and books about poetry for children have also been commended.

Daniel Hoffman (review date 18 April 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Crow, in New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1971, pp. 6, 35-6.

[Hoffman is a poet and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. In the following review, he analyzes Hughes's Crow, calling it "a new version of the gospel."]

"In the beginning was Scream," begins a poem revising the Book of Genesis. Ted Hughes's substitution, on this early page in Crow, of Scream for Word suggests the violent, primitive energy and the furious assault upon despair which striate the nearly 80 poems in this book. Reading Crow is a profoundly disturbing experience. This is no mere book of verses, but a wild yet cunning wail of anguish and resilience, at once contemporary, immediate, and as atavistic as the archaic myths it resembles.

In Crow, Ted Hughes, like Blake among others before him, has written a new version of the Gospel.

     Crow realized there were two
     One of them much bigger than the
     Loving his enemies
     And having all the weapons.

And who is Crow? He is offered in the same relation to ourselves as the totem bird or animal of an Indian tribe to the members who believe in its myths. That is to say, sometimes Crow is literally a crow, but he is also a protagonist, like man, in what Santayana called "this great disaster of our birth."

In the beginning, God begat Nothing—

     Who begat Never
     Never Never Never
     Who begat Crow—
     Screaming for Blood
     Grubs, crusts
     Trembling featherless elbows in the nest's filth

Crow's begetter, God, is his adversary. The needs of his body betray him. To eat he must murder. Sex is the trap he is caught in. Language betrays him; in "Crow Goes Hunting," words pursue but cannot catch his thought's quarry.

All this violence of birth and anguish of experience are clearly distillations from the disasters of our public life, as well as from inner wounds. His repertoire includes "Crow's Account of the Battle":

     Reality was giving its lessons,
     Its mishmash of scripture and physics,
     With here, brains in hands, for example,
     And there, legs in a treetop.
     There was no escape except into death.
     And still it went on—

This nightmare of unending carnage and suffering animates every level of the poet's mind. It is one reason why Crow "shivered with the horror of Creation" after the Creation, just as, toward the end of the book, it makes him foresee a ghastly mating-scene between two mutations, survivors of the bomb, who "seem to be eating each other."

Among British poets, Hughes is the most haunted inheritor, from Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, of the sensibility shaped by the appalling slaughter in World War I. His father was gassed in the trenches in that war; growing up in its aftermath, Hughes has come to see the cosmos as a battlefield. His is the world-view of a betrayed Fundamentalist, who, discovering that God has no care for man's fate, understands the universe to be governed not by divine love but by power. In Hughes's earlier books, Nature appeared as a field of violent struggle where only the fittest survived. Such Darwinian determinism required its own unforgiving theology. These views of life are not meliorated in Crow. With a startling, composite myth, Hughes explores our fate in such a universe.

Crow's life is a harrowing series of combats. He becomes Heracles, wrestling Proteus the shape-changer. He becomes St. George also, and the dragon is his monstrous nightmare. He "followed Ulysses till he turned / As a worm, which Crow ate"; "Drinking Beowulf's blood, and wrapped in his hide, / Crow communes with poltergeists out of old ponds." Not surprisingly (since Hughes has adapted Seneca's "Oedipus" for Peter Brook), Crow becomes Oedipus in several poems, and in a ballad sings of him:

     O do not chop his winkle off
        His Mammy cried with horror
     Think of the joy will come of it
        Tomorrer and tomorrer
                    Mamma  Mamma

These are some of the stations in Crow's adventure. "He cannot be forgiven. / His prison is the earth." Crow tries "Nailing heaven and earth together," but "Man could not be man nor God God." Yet "Crow / Grinned / Crying: 'This is my Creation' / Flying the black flag of himself."

Is there no redemption on Crow's horizon? It would seem not. This is not God's fault, for "He made the Redeemer." But "When God went off in despair / Crow stropped his beak and started in on the two thieves."

If God is usually a masculine principle of force, is there for Crow no complementary feminine principle of love? Too much to hope for; "Love" is a word in God's mouth (in "Crow's First Lesson"), but the world cannot pronounce it. Woman is as much to be feared as is God, or any other titanic force in man's or Crow's life: "Her smiles were spider bites / So he would lie still till she felt hungry." runs "Lovesong." Yet, in "Crow's Undersong":

     She has come amorous it is all she has come for
     If there had been no hope she would not have come
     And there would have been no crying in the city
     (There would have been no city)

As these quotations suggest, Hughes's style is direct and violent, a plain style for an Apocalypse. He uses simple, repetitive rhetorical patterns like those in primitive incantations. He also adopts the surrealists' simulations of dream-linkages, in which madly dissimilar objects rattle around in the poem. Hughes's violent images are often in danger of centripetal dissolution, a danger not always avoided in Crow. When objects are used with insufficient conviction of their identity as themselves, there results an indulgent, arbitrary violence which obscures rather than dramatizes the theme, as in "Criminal Ballad" and the middle lines of "Crow and Mama."

But mostly Crow's croaks crackle with terrible surprises. These poems are resonant with the sufferings that have made them; they go off in the reader's mind like time-bombs, one to a page. The poet has delved into the deepest part of his unconscious as well as his conscious mind. What he has discovered there is none of the conventional consolations; but there is one solace. Although there's no Redeemer coming to save Crow, he survives. Crow is a lough bird. Neither God nor man, wars nor words can kill him off. He is moved, not by hope (for there's little of that) nor by love (for it is denied him), but by the sheer resilience of the life-force. The last word is sung by "Littleblood," who inhabits the gnat and the crocodile: "Grown so wise grown so terrible / Sucking death's mouldy tits, / Sit on my finger, sing in my ear, O littleblood."

"Crow" was suggested as a theme to Hughes by the artist Leonard Baskin. A providential conception, for Hughes had read anthropology when at Cambridge, and some years ago he had come on a book which served his needs as Weston's From Ritual to Romance had served Eliot's—by clarifying the role to be played by the hero of his imagination. In Mercia Eliade's Shamanism, Hughes found described the part enacted in primitive cultures the world over by "technicians of ecstasy." Shamans pass through initiations, ascend to the heavens or descend to the underworld, encounter monsters and spirits of the dead, are instructed by sacred beasts in hidden mysteries, and return under obligation to chant their secrets to the uninitiated. Crow is such a sacred beast, and the singer of his songs such a seer.

For Hughes this role in a modern society is played by the poet, whose sufferings and spiritual adventures provide the equivalents of the shaman's vision. Such a view of the poet is both primitivist and romantic, nor does it cover all cases. But where it may be applied, it is indeed true.

Clearly there is a vast range of emotions about which Crow's songs arc dumb. If Ted Hughes has offered, from his shamanic vision, only the most minimal consolations, and no experiences of sensuous pleasure, of love, or of spiritual delight; if the straightened path his Crow flies is as barren of the relief of comedy as of the promise of redemption, well, what can we say but so be it. In the irrational way of true poetry, we are nonetheless enriched by his songs of cosmic terror and desolation. We can but be thankful for what he has brought us of the experiencing of deep fears, the human terrors which must be confronted and fully owned before they can be mastered.

In doing this, despite Crow's negative gospel, Hughes has redeemed his universe from vacuity and endowed suffering with significance. For what he acknowledges is vibrant with numinous energies. Where there is God, if only in His might and not in His consoling gifts, our life participates in the divine power. And Crow celebrates that life. That is what these bleak crow-songs affirm.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Hawk in the Rain (poetry) 1957
Lupercal (poetry) 1960
Meet My Folks! (juvenile poetry) 1961
The Wound (drama) 1962; revised version produced 1972
The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People (juvenile poetry) 1963; published as Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems, 1976; revised edition published as Moon Whales, 1988
The Burning of the Brothel (poetry) 1966
The Price of a Bride (juvenile drama) 1966
Gravestones (poetry) 1967; published as Poems, 1968
Poems: Ted Hughes, Fainlight, and Sillitoe (poetry) 1967
The Iron Giant: A Story in Five Nights (juvenile literature) 1968
I Said Goodbye to the Earth (poetry) 1969
A Few Crows (poetry) 1970
Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (poetry) 1970; revised edition, 1972 and 1981
Fighting for Jerusalem (poetry) 1970
Eat Crow (drama) 1971
Selected Poems, 1957–1967 (poetry) 1972
The Iron Man [based on his juvenile book] (drama) 1973
Orpheus (drama) 1973
Prometheus on His Crag: 21 Poems (poetry) 1973
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (juvenile poetry) 1974; revised and enlarged edition published as Season Songs, 1975
Cave Birds (poetry) 1975; enlarged edition published as Cave Birds: An Alchemical Drama, 1978
Earth-Moon (juvenile poetry) 1976
Gaudete (poetry) 1977
Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence (poetry) 1979
Moortown (poetry) 1979; published as Moortown Diary, 1989
Under the North Star (juvenile poetry) 1981
The Rattle Bag: An Anthology of Poetry [editor with Seamus Heaney] (poetry) 1982
Selected Poems: 1957–1981 (poetry) 1982; enlarged edition published as New Selected Poems, 1982
River (poetry) 1983
What Is Truth?: A Farmyard Fable for the Young (juvenile poetry) 1984
Flowers and Insects: Some Birds and a Pair of Spiders (poetry) 1986
Tales of the Early World (poetry) 1988
Wolfwatching (poetry) 1989
Moortown Diary [originally published in Moortown] (poetry) 1989
Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (critical study) 1992
Tales From Ovid [translator] (poetry) 1997
Birthday Letters (poetry) 1998


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sarah Lyall (obituary date 30 October 1998)

SOURCE: "Ted Hughes, 68, a Symbolic Poet and Sylvia Plath's Husband, Dies," in New York Times, October 30, 1998, p. 1.

[In the following obituary, Lyall discusses Hughes's life and death from cancer at the age of 68.]

Ted Hughes, the British poet who was known as much for his doomed marriage to the American poet Sylvia Plath as for his powerful, evocative poetry, replete with symbolism and bursting with dark images of the Devonshire countryside in which he lived, died Wednesday, his publisher said. He was 68.

Hughes, Britain's poet laureate, had been suffering from cancer for about 18 months, but had told only his closest friends and had never discussed details of his illness, said Matthew Evans, the chairman of Faber and Faber, Hughes's publisher. "He felt that being ill was, for him, very private," Evans said. Hughes died at his home in North Tawton.

It was his illness, and his sense that time was running out, that persuaded Hughes to publish his last work, Birthday Letters, a collection of poems about his fraught, fragile relationship with Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, soon after the two separated. After a silence of 35 years, in which Hughes had steadfastly refused to discuss Plath publicly or to respond to charges—leveled in her own work and by her admirers—that his callousness had led to her death, Hughes's decision to finally speak out was extraordinary. The book became a best seller in Britain and the United States, rare for a book of poetry, and was a personal turning point for Hughes.

"It was a piece of work he wanted to get out before he died," Evans said in an interview. "He regarded it as being of personal importance. It was the nearest thing to an autobiography."

The book, which drew a sometimes loving picture of a brilliant but emotionally unstable woman with a passion for suicide that seemed hard-wired into her very being, was widely praised. Friends of Hughes saw it as a vindication of a man who had lived for decades in the shadow of his far more famous wife, taking on a guilt that should not have been his.

But the book did not end the debate over the strange, terrible time surrounding Plath's death, already described in her own remarkable poems and journals, jagged cries of pain that at times laid the blame for her troubles on Hughes's broad shoulders. Many Plath scholars said that Hughes had behaved with remarkable callousness toward his wife, neglecting her genius and abandoning her and their two small children at a time when she was clearly crying out for help.

Whatever the truth, Hughes, by then ill with the disease that would kill him, got the last word in the 35-year discussion. "The publication was a very important moment for him." Evans told the Press Association. "He was putting another side, and there was a great deal of understanding after that book was published."

Edward James Hughes was born on Aug. 17, 1930, in Mytholmroyd, a small mill town in West Yorkshire surrounded by bleak, barren moors. When he was 7, his family moved to Mexborough, a coal mining town to the south, and his father gave up his old profession—making portable wooden buildings—and bought a newspaper store. By then, the young Ted had developed a lifelong passion for the countryside, for animals, and for hunting, a passion that would inform his poetry in the years to come.

"He wanted to capture not just live animals, but the alive-ness of animals in their natural state: their wildness, their quiddity, the fox-ness of the fox and the crow-ness of the crow," wrote Thomas Nye in The Times of London.

Surviving Isolation Steeped in Shakespeare

After attending the local schools, Hughes served for two years in the Royal Air Force, working as a radio mechanic on an isolated three-man station in northern Yorkshire, with "nothing to do but read and re-read Shakespeare and watch the grass grow," he said. He then went to Cambridge, where he was celebrated as a clever, handsome student with great personal magnetism and an aura of brooding mystery that made him particularly attractive to women. He took a number of jobs after graduation, working variously as a gardener, a night watchman, a zoo attendant and a script reader.

He met Plath, an American studying at Cambridge, at a party there in 1956. Their attraction was instantaneous. Plath wrote in her journal: "That big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I came into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard into my eyes and it was Ted Hughes."

The two got married just four months later, and woke each morning at dawn, brimming with ideas. "We would write poetry every day," Hughes once said. "It was all we were interested in, all we ever did. We were like two feet, each one using everything the other did." In 1957, Hughes published his first volume of poetry, Hawk in the Rain, full of brutal, dramatic images of nature, to a chorus of praise in which he was acclaimed as the most important British poet to emerge after World War II.

"Hughes's poetry signaled a dramatic departure from the prevailing modes of the period," wrote the critic Robert B. Shaw. "The stereotypical poem of the time was determined not to risk too much: politely domestic in its subject matter, understated and mildly ironic in style. By contrast, Hughes marshaled a language of nearly Shakespearean resonance to explore themes which were mythic and elemental."

A Brutal Winter Exacerbates Misery

Though Plath found herself living in the shadow of her increasingly well-known husband, the two made up a celebrated and, for a time, happy literary couple, living briefly in the United States, where both spent several months writing at Yaddo, the artists' colony in upstate New York, and Hughes worked for a year as an English teacher at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Their life together in England was less successful. Plath found the Devon countryside, which her husband loved, heartless, bleak and uninviting. When they moved back to an unheated, uncomfortable flat in north London before one of Britain's bitterest winters in half a century, she fared no better, finding it increasingly difficult to beat back the suicidal tendencies that had plagued her on and off for years.

As her relationship with Hughes unraveled, she became distraught and wracked by self-doubt. In February 1963, soon after Hughes left her for his married lover, a fellow poet named Assia Wevill, Plath carefully laid out milk and bread for her sleeping children, put her head in the oven, and gassed herself.

Reverence for Plath, Contempt for Hughes

Plath's suicide had far-reaching and unexpected consequences. It drew a blaze of attention to her work, much of which had been written in a burst of despairing, frenzied creativity in the last months of her life. She became a feminist icon, celebrated as a passionately creative woman stifled by the confines of motherhood and by a husband who misunderstood and betrayed her.

It also put terrible pressure on Hughes, who was vilified by many for what they saw as his complicity in Plath's death, but who never publicly tried to defend himself.

It didn't help his reputation that, six years later, Assia Wevill killed herself and the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Shura, using gas, as Plath had.

As executor of his late wife's estate, Hughes found himself caught in a thicket of conflicting interests. With each new work by Plath that he published—her journals, her Collected Poems, which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982, and various volumes of poetry—he was accused of artfully omitting parts he found awkward or distasteful, of acting more like a censor than a champion.

And when he admitted that he destroyed the last volume of Plath's journals, saying that he did not want the couple's children to see it, he unleashed a barrage of criticism that never abated.

To make matters worse, Plath's posthumous fame threatened to completely overshadow his own career, particularly in the United States. Stymied by how fiercely he protected Plath's work—he often refused to allow the use of quotations from her letters and poems—some of Plath's biographers cast him as the villain in her life story. When he tried to read his own poetry in public, his readings were disrupted by pro-Plath protesters who accused him of murder. Plath's gravestone, which bore her married name, was repeatedly defaced, the "Hughes" chipped off.

Plunging Into Writing With Roots in Nature

But Hughes, who married his second wife, Carol, in 1970, threw himself into his own writing, even as he became increasingly wary of intrusions into his private life and angry at the vast industry of people interested in him only because of Plath. He produced dozens of books of poetry and prose, writing for both adults and children. He also produced translations, wrote plays, campaigned for :he environment, and edited volumes of poetry by Plath and others.

His best-known poetry, which includes Moortown, a group of 34 poems that describe Hughes's experiences working on a Devonshire farm with his father-in-law, is rooted in the natural world, and can veer abruptly from tender lyricism to staccato violence.

Hughes's reputation went through ups and downs throughout his career. "He has been dismissed as a connoisseur of the habits of animals, his disgust with humanity barely disguised, labeled a 'voyeur of violence,' attacked for his generous choreographing of gore," wrote Carol Bere in the Literary Review. "Others consider him to be the best poet writing today—admired for the originality and command of his approach; the scope and complexity of his mythic enterprise; and the apparent ease and freshness with which he can vitalize a landscape, free of any mitigating sentimentality."

The Natural World Used Metaphorically

Speaking to the Press Association Thursday, the poet Andrew Motion, a longtime friend of Hughes, said he presented "a vision of England which managed to bring the whole of the history and traditional past into play with a present that is recognizably modern."

Motion continued: "On the face of it, his poems are about animals, nature and wildlife, but careful reading allows us to see them as a metaphorical or allegorical way of reconciling past and present."

The poems in Birthday Letters, Hughes's often heartbreaking account of his relationship with Plath, were written much more simplistically, as straightforward narratives that behave like prose. When the book was published, the poet's legion of friends, who knew him as a loyal and generous man who was almost bigger than life, with his imposing physical presence, his strong, eagle-like face, his enormous, bushy eyebrows and his thatch of thick unruly hair, said that he had finally succeeded in exorcising the ghosts of the past.

In 1984, Hughes was made Britain's Poet Laureate, a high-profile but rather strange job that pays $112 and a case of wine a year, and requires the incumbent to write stately poems on solemn occasions like, in Hughes's case, the Queen Mother's 90th birthday and the death of the Princess of Wales.

He won numerous awards for his work over the years, including the Whitbread Book of the Year prize in 1997 for Tales From Ovid, a translation of Metamorphoses. Earlier this month, he was awarded the Forward Poetry Prize for Birthday Letters, but, in a sign of his weakening condition, sent a speech instead of accepting the prize in person. "I would far sooner be here with you than where I am," the speech said.

Earlier this month, Hughes became one of just 24 holders of an Order of Merit in Britain (new ones are awarded only when holders of the title die). His acceptance of the honor, in Buckingham Palace two weeks ago, was his last public appearance.

He is survived by his wife and by his two children with Plath, Frieda and Nicholas.

In an interview in 1993, five years before Birthday Letters was published, Hughes mused about the benefits of using writing to understand the past. For 25 years, he had been secretly working on his poems about Plath, and although he didn't mention her, he was undoubtedly considering whether it was time to break his long and painful silence.

"It means the world becomes yours," he said. "If you don't do it, it drifts away and takes a whole piece of yourself with it, like an amputation. To attack it and attack it and get it under control—it's like taking possession of your life, isn't it?"

Marjorie Miller (obituary date 30 October 1998)

SOURCE: "Britain Loses Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, 68, to Cancer," in Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1998, pp. Al-2.

[In the following obituary, Miller discusses Hughes's career and life upon his death from cancer.]

British poet laureate Ted Hughes, whose failed marriage to the tortured American poet Sylvia Plath earned him the wrath of many feminists but inspired some of his best writing, has died of cancer, it was announced Thursday. He was 68.

The reclusive poet, ranked by some critics alongside such 20th-century greats as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, died Wednesday at his home in Devon, in southwestern England.

"After a valiant 18-month fight against cancer, Ted Hughes died yesterday. The loss to his family is inestimable." Hughes' publishers at Faber & Faber said. He had asked his friends to keep the cancer secret.

In Britain, Hughes was known as an enormously successful author who made poetry popular. His version of the Racine play "Phedre" is being staged in London now. Tales From Ovid, his reworking of Ovid's Metamorphoses, was awarded the Whitbread Book of the Year prize by a jury that called it a work of "greatness and sublimity."

And his Birthday Letters, a collection of passionate poems about his tumultuous love and seven-year marriage to Plath unexpectedly published in January, won rave reviews and became a bestseller. More than 90,000 copies have been sold so far.

But in the United States, the troubled Hughes-Plath marriage itself may be more famous than any of Hughes' stunning poems about love or nature.

Hughes left his wife for another woman shortly before Plath committed suicide Feb. 11, 1963, by sticking her head in a gas oven. Many Plath fans blamed him for her death although she already had tried to kill herself three years before she met him.

For 35 years, Hughes chose not to defend himself against those who shouted "Murderer!" at his poetry readings and painted him as the villain who had deprived the world of more Plath poetry. His surname was repeatedly chipped off Plath's gravestone in Yorkshire in northern England, and his silence seemed to feed the rage against him.

Then without warning, Birthday Letters appeared "like a thunderbolt," as the poet Andrew Motion wrote in The Times of London.

"Anyone who thought Hughes' reticence was proof of his hard heart will immediately see how stony they have been themselves," Motion wrote. "It closes in a heart of darkness, a black hole of grief and regret. We stare into it feeling changed and enriched."

The book is still making waves. The New Yorker magazine this month published a poem by Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney called "On First Looking Into Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters." It reads, in part:

     Passive suffering: who said it was disallowed
     As a theme for poetry? Already in 'Beowulf'
     The dumbfounding of woe, the stunt and stress
     Of hurt-in-hiding is the best of it—

In a letter issued at the time of the book's publication, Hughes said he had never intended to publish the poems written over a quarter of a century but suddenly felt compelled. His death now sheds light on that urgency.

Hughes was a striking man with angular cheeks, a chiseled nose and probing, gray-blue eyes. "Meeting Hughes is like being watched by a fox, or perhaps a wolf," author John Cornwell once wrote in a magazine article.

The son of a carpenter, Hughes was horn Aug. 17, 1930, in the blackened mill town of Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire. He began crafting poems in grammar school and, after studying at Cambridge University, took part-time jobs to support his writing.

His first book of poems, The Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957 and won immediate acclaim for its unsentimental and violent views of nature. He went on to publish dozens of collections of verse, prose, opera libretti and plays. He also published children's poetry and stories, including a popular one in the United States called The Iron Giant.

Hughes met Plath at Cambridge, where she was a Fulbright scholar, and the two married in 1956. The author of The Bell Jar and Ariel swung between extremes of exhilaration and depression, as did her writing. The literary couple had two children. Nicholas and Frieda, before Hughes left Plath for Assia Wevill, the wife of a friend, and Plath committed suicide.

In 1969, Wevill killed herself and Shura, the daughter she had with Hughes. But it was Plath's anguished life and death, after leaving cookies and milk for their children in the next room, that have captured the public's imagination and much of Hughes'.

In writing Birthday Letters, Hughes said he had "tried to open a direct, private, inner contact with my first wife, not thinking to make a poem, thinking mainly to evoke her presence to myself and to feel her there listening." The title apparently stemmed from Hughes' belief that Plath was reborn in death.

Eileen Aird, a Cambridge University professor and poetry critic, called the book "astounding, reparative and very loving." She said she was saddened by Hughes' death.

"Whatever went on between Hughes and Plath, he was a brilliant poet," Aird said.

Christopher Reid, poetry editor of Faber & Faber, said Hughes was a great teller of truths.

"He could say things so … truthfully and wittily you just burst out laughing. I think that is one of the great things he gave to literature of our time—the need to tell the truth, however black, however grim, unlovable it might be. I don't think anybody in our time has written better about nature, about the wild, about the elements, about the primitive that's both out there in the world and inside us," Reid said.

Hughes was married again in 1970 to Carol Orchard, a farmer's daughter from Devon. In 1984, he was made Britain's poet laureate, an honor bestowed for life by the monarch and which brings payment of about $117 and a case of wine every year.

Hughes' last appearance in public was 13 days ago, when he received the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Membership in the British order is bestowed on those who particularly distinguish themselves in science, art, literature or the promotion of culture.

The queen issued a statement Thursday saying she was "very saddened" by his death. "She was grateful for the opportunity to recognize his work and achievements before he died," a palace statement said.

Also before he died, Hughes saw the publication of daughter Frieda's first book of poetry, Wooroloo.

Robert Holkeboer (review date Summer 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Gaudete, in World Literature Today, Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, p. 467.

[In the following review, Holkeboer lauds Hughes's Gaudete.]

Praise for Hughes has been grudging for some reason. Called the finest poet of his generation (the competition scarcely threatens this equivocal honor), he is at the same time patronized as a flashy wordsmith, master of the consonantal dazzle, like Fry or Dylan Thomas, the rhetoric meretriciously masking and emptiness beneath, a certain cruel sentimentality. Hughes deserves better.

Gaudete, his first volume of poetry since Crow (1971), is an extraordinary book, strange, visionary and deeply moving. Its protagonist is an Anglican minister by the name of Lumb (the name suggests a functionary—dumb, numb, lumbering) abducted from his sleepy parish by spirits who fashion a new Lumb, an exact replica, out of an oak log. The new Lumb ministers to his parish in a Dionysian way, seducing its women and forming a coven of worshipping supplicants. The poetic narrative culminates in a ritual sacrifice interrupted by the outraged, loggish Apollonian husbands who attack Lumb and kill him. The original Lumb returns, apparently altered inexorably by his concourse with the fairies, and wanders the countryside making inquiries of nature and composing hymns (collected in an epilogue) to a nameless deity.

This preposterous scenario tends to reduce Hughes's book to the level of surrealist nonsense. But if we accept the donnée, we are treated to the wonderful spectacle of a rather ordinary, recognizable world touched by a Dionysian invader. It's often a funny world, with flowerpots falling, legs askew, caged birds liberated—a celebration of love and libidinal release. Women whose homes are "icebergs of taste, spacing, and repose" find themselves anointing their faces with bluebells. They become infected with the "steel-cutting acetylene" of religious mania. They romp like young dogs in the changeling's embrace. The Dionysian flame burns brightly for a time, then gutters and dies, as Apollonian virtues once again take possession of the town and the original Lumb returns to earth, his "hymns" neither Dionysian nor Apollonian, but merely tragic.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Ted Hughes with Carolyne Wright (interview date November/December 1998)

SOURCE: "What Happens in the Heart," in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, November/December, 1998, pp. 3, 12-3.

[In the following interview, Hughes shares personal revelations about his relationship with Sylvia Plath.]

Just when every literary critic and Sylvia Plath devotee thought that they had sorted out the truth about Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, along came the February 27, 1998, publication of Hughes' Birthday Letters, a remarkable sequence of love poems about his and Plath's tumultuous seven-year marriage. In front-page articles on both sides of the Atlantic, critics and poetry lovers speculated as to why Hughes, Britain's Poet Laureate since 1984, had abruptly broken his unrelenting and controversial silence about his life with Plath, 35 years after she laid her head on a gas oven door and committed suicide. Nobody, it seemed, had any idea that Hughes was quietly composing this poetic memoir over the last three decades.

Nobody, that is, except a few close friends and at least one serendipitously encountered individual. In November 1989, Hughes himself had disclosed this extraordinary information to me in a most unlikely place—on a boat cruise on the Buriganga River in Bangladesh. What he was writing would clarify the true nature of his and Plath's relationship, Hughes had told me, and he intended to publish it posthumously. Although he never asked me to keep his revelation confidential, I knew of his reticence about Plath, I deeply respected his implicit trust, and though I startled a few literary friends by mentioning that this conversation had occurred, I never told anyone the substance of it. But I carefully took notes and recorded impressions against the day when the writings to which he had alluded were at last published.

Although February is a signal month for Hughes—it marks the anniversary both of his and Plath's dramatic meeting in 1956 and of her death in 1963—it remains somewhat of a mystery why Hughes decided to publish Birthday Letters this past February. Nevertheless, the book promises to be one of the century's most compelling memoirs in verse, and we can be glad that Hughes is still very much here to share it with us.

Ted Hughes had come to Bangladesh as Chief Guest of Honor at the Second Asia Poetry Festival, a Bangladesh government-sponsored event held in Dhaka in November 1989. I was a Fulbright fellow in the second month of what would be a nearly two-year stay in Dhaka, translating the work of Bangladeshi women poets and writers for an anthology in progress; I had already spent two years in Calcutta translating West Bengali women poets and writers. The writers and literary people with whom I worked urged me to attend the festival, preparations for which dominated newspaper headlines and reports on the sole national television channel.

"It will be very prestigious," my new Bangladeshi friends said. "And you will meet the guest of honor, that great Asian poet, Ted Hughes." They laughed at their own wit; some of them, uncertain about the g-h-e-s sequence in this English surname, pronounced his name Ted HUGE-es. It would have been impolite to correct them, and I enjoyed this rendition too much to want to change it. In the coming months, it became an affectionate allusion: Whenever we reminisced about the Asia Poetry Festival, my Bangladeshi friends and I would wonder aloud how "HUGE-es Saheb" was doing, if he had written anything about his visit.

I met Hughes on the first day of the festival, during the mid-morning tea break after the opening session. Across the room, he towered head and shoulders above the clusters of Bangladeshi journalists and the Thai and Indonesian and Bhutanese guest poets resplendent in their national dress, (I could see in him "that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me," as Plath had called him in her journal entry about their first meeting in February 1956—"HUGE-es Saheb" indeed.) Except for a few Soviet poets with blond hair and gray eyes—who counted geographically as Asian but who hovered at the edges of the room, talking among themselves—Hughes was the only other person besides myself of European ethnicity. The famous craggy features were unmistakable, though the dark hair of his youth had silvered; and the tall, rangy, broad-shouldered figure had filled out, conveying an impression of massive, solid gravitas. In his dark woolen suit, he could have been a former American football player turned professor of English Literature.

Still a bit apprehensive, I hung back, talking with a Dhaka journalist I had met a few weeks earlier; but I thought I glimpsed a flicker of curiosity across the Poet Laureate's face when he noticed me, the Anglo woman in a sari, balancing a teacup and chatting with Bengalis in their language. When we were introduced a few minutes later, Hughes turned his attention to me with a warmth and focused concentration I had not expected. Hearing my American accent, he smiled: "It seems we're the only native English speakers here." He signed my battered copy of Crow—which I had brought with me from America though I had had no idea that I would soon meet its author in Dhaka. He asked me to sit with him and his government-provided liaison during the next session, and recount how I had become interested in the Bengali language and its literature.

"You can function here as a real bridge between cultures," he said. He wanted me to explain to him some of the nuances of the Bengali conversations swirling around us, the cultural context within which this poetry festival operated, the qualities of the Bengali women's poetry I was translating.

I was awed and flattered and humbled to think that there was anything I could tell the Poet Laureate of England; but for the duration of the festival, Hughes invited me to join in his activities there, and in the cultural programs and local sightseeing that the government had arranged for his days in Dhaka. Sitting beside him in the Osmany Hall auditorium for the rest of the morning session, exchanging occasional comments and making impromptu translations of Bengali speeches, I felt included in an open literary circle of global extent. Hughes emanated a powerful presence; but his charisma seemed free of affectation—a quiet, self-contained vitality that allayed any uncertainties I may have had about him. He was immensely interested, in a reserved, low-key way, in the exotic cultural efflorescence around him. He did not act like an Eminence; nor was there any trace, in this man in his late fifties, of arrogance or a will to domineer—none of the rough edges or spirited self-absorption of youth. He seemed very much a gentleman, with a thoughtful, deliberate manner: Did I also detect a profound sadness, the trace of decades-old psychic wounds? Perhaps I was only projecting from all that I had read about this famous poet-couple, but I could begin to glimpse why the young Sylvia Plath would have been so wildly attracted to the youthful Ted Hughes—to his physical and psychic magnetism, and above all to his profound and genuine kindness. He was someone with whom, I imagined, she sensed she could find not only mutual poetic inspiration and passionate romance, but also psychic shelter from her own terrors and inner demons.

On the final day of the Asia Poetry Festival, Ted Hughes and I stood at the railing of the Rangapalli, the launch rented by the organizers for the obligatory noubihar, the river cruise to which all guests of honor in Bangladesh are subjected. We talked, resting our elbows on the polished railing in the full sun of a tropical mid-November, leaning into the view before us—the Buriganga River's procession of fishing skiffs and cargo barges with patched sails, hand-adzed scows that groaned to their gunnels with harvested ríce or jute stalks, boatmen poling in slow motion upstream to the nearest docking, singing river ballads in mournful modes. The banks of the river were dotted with clusters of banana plants and date palms, faded pastel houses and small mosques, and sandy stretches where groups of village women slapped wet clothes on flat rocks.

In this unlikely setting, we leaned on the railing and talked, in the cordial tones of recently acquainted junior and senior colleagues, of how amazing it was, especially for him, to be here. We talked about accents—how the English spoken in Bangladesh (as a second language, learned in school) was much closer in its pronunciation and intonations to British than to American English, and how his mother had encouraged her children to move away from the West Yorkshire dialect of their youth and learn a more standard speech at school and through the BBC. He noted my American accent, and said that he had become very familiar with American English when he lived for two years in the United States with—and here be hesitated ever so slightly—"with, you know, my late wife Sylvia."

I almost stopped breathing. He had mentioned her: It was as if he had uttered one of the forbidden names of God. So private was this topic for him—from all that I had read and heard—that he never answered interview questions about her, and never spoke of her with journalists or biographers. But here was the man himself bringing her up, gesturing toward the river as if that would call forth her image in the syllables of her name. What could I say in reply, without trampling on sacred space? As he went on about how the river scene before us might have figured in her poetry, I murmured something neutral, sympathetic, but not as deeply sympathetic as I meant—I didn't want the eagerness and awe I felt to interfere.

"Yes," I said, "she would have found this world quite an experience." And then, rashly: "It must be (I searched for bland but empathetic adjectives) amazing and strange to dwell in the aftershadow of that life, the events (I couldn't bring myself to say separation or suicide) of the time, and the ongoing attention to her, the legend she's become …" I stopped, afraid that I had already overspoken.

But he was leaning his elbows on the railing, his hands folded, fingers interlaced—a stance for continuing a conversation. "Yes," he nodded, looking out at the figures on the riverbank. "Very much so. But I've avoided all the biographies, the cult that's grown up around her." He then asked if I had seen the recent biography, Bitter Fame, by Anne Stevenson. I had not—the book had just begun to appear in stores as I was leaving the U.S. for Bangladesh. (I had read much of Hughes' and Plath's own poetry, as well as A. Alvarez' searing account, in The Savage God, of Plath's last days and details of her suicide; Marjorie Perloff's 1984 article, in The American Poetry Review, which took Hughes severely to task for his editing of the Ariel poems; and a memoir-essay by Hughes' long-time friend Lucas Myers, which I perused in a literary magazine one afternoon in the late 1980s, and which recounted the Cambridge University days when Plath and Hughes first met. This piece presented nuanced but deeply sympathetic portrayals of both poets. It would also appear as an appendix in the Stevenson book in 1989, but without prior publication credit; despite extensive searches through the various guides to periodical literature, I have been unable to recall or identify the journal in which I first read it.) Stevenson had been commissioned to write Bitter Fame, Hughes said. At first it was to be a monograph, but then it expanded into a much larger volume after she gained access to papers held by Sylvia's mother and brother.

Stevenson had approached him at one point, Hughes continued. He told her that he wouldn't stop her, but he would give no interviews, and would have nothing to do with the writing of the book. Ultimately, he said, he did check and correct some facts, and reordered a few points of chronology. He had read some reviews of Bitter Fame, and had gotten the impression that it was the first biography that portrayed Sylvia in all of her complexity, not just in a uniformly favorable light—it pointed out how self-defeating she could be, how difficult to live with.

"But she wasn't so difficult, not at all." He gazed down into the river water, with what looked like a fond, rueful smile. "Actually, she was quite cheerful, bright, even a bit—how to say this—diffident? She always went along with what others wanted. Only when jealous was she difficult—she'd fly into a rage, become almost someone else. But she was a very good mother, very devoted to the children." He pronounced "children" with an emphasis that conveyed the full gravamen of his fatherhood. Other companions and family members notwithstanding, he had been—I realized—the children's sole parent for most of their lives. And they, in turn, were his flesh-and-blood connection to Sylvia, their faces the mirrors out of which her face went on gazing into his.

     Your son's eyes, which had unsettled us
     With your Slavic Asiatic
     Epicanthic fold, but would become
     So perfectly your eyes,
     Became wet jewels,
     The hardest substance of the purest pain
     As I fed him in his high white chair.

Hughes continued to reminisce about their life together, and for an hour while I hardly dared to breathe, the sun seemed to stand still above the launch, above the river gliding away beneath it, above the entire turning world. There must have been a magic circle around us, because for that lime no one on the crowded launch broke away from the throngs snacking and chattering elsewhere on deck to approach us. No one looking at us as we stood there could have discerned from our appearances—the tall, broad-shouldered man with silvering hair, dressed in a linen jacket, sports shirt, and slacks; the small woman in an Indian salwar kameez of block-printed cotton—that such an extraordinary conversation was taking place.

Hughes talked quietly, in measured tones, but all that he said was vivid, urgent—as if his subject were not a dead woman but a beloved friend and former lover who had recently moved to another city. He spoke of Plath with respect, admiration, affection—there were no traces of rancor or resentment. I was amazed: not only that he had so much to say, but that he would share his recollections with me, ain a setting in which we were both sufficiently displaced from our usual circles even to meet and to have such a dialogue. Whatever I had previously read about this famous poetic couple, I wanted to divest myself of any prior notions and just listen. And what I heard were some of the stories surrounding the poems in process, the memories out of which, even as Hughes recounted them, the poems must have been growing.

"Yes, she was very easy to be with," Hughes said. "The thing about which she was most uncompromising—besides her poetry—was facing herself." She was completely fearless about confronting the devastating aspects of her own character, he said, no matter where her self-discoveries might lead.

     In the myth of your first death our deity
     Was yourself resurrected …
     … Our newborn
     was your own self in flames.
     You were a child-bride on a pyre.
     Your flames fed on rage, on love
     And I was your husband
     Performing the part of your father
     In our new myth—

"She had tremendous physical courage as well," he said, and then chuckled as he recounted a curious incident from the days shortly before they met, in Cambridge in February 1956. Sylvia had been horseback riding a few times a week in the countryside around Cambridge, but since the stables were located down among the colleges, she had to ride through town to reach the country. On this occasion, her horse bolted and galloped back to the stable; Sylvia lost her stirrups, slipped out of the saddle, and started to fall, but somehow managed to hang on. "What a sight that must have been!" Hughes shook his head at the image of Sylvia clinging to the underside of the horse's neck like a monkey as they galloped through the streets of Cambridge. Though the story was amusing, Plath could have been badly injured. But it had been quite the topic of conversation about town at the time, and Hughes was intrigued because he had just met her.

It was uncanny to hear this man in late middle age express his younger self's concern for the physical safety of a woman already decades dead.

     … I can live
     Your incredulity, your certainty
     That this was it. You lost your stirrups. He galloped
     Straight down the white line of the Barton Road.
     You lost your reins, you lost your seat—
     It was grab his neck and adore him
     Or free-fall. You slewed under his neck,
     An upside-down jockey with nothing
     Between you and the cataract of macadam,
     How did you hang on? You couldn't have done it.
     Something in you not you did it for itself.

"We were such kids!" Hughes exclaimed, shaking his head at the memory. They actually went to Westminster Abbey to get married, he said, because it was Sylvia's favorite place in all of London. They searched out the Dean—dragged him out of his study to perform the ceremony, with one friend as witness. The Dean took them aside and aside, "Look here, this isn't how it's done." The young couple had no idea.

     … if we were going to be married
     It had belter be Westminster Abbey. Why not?
     The Dean told us why not. That is how
     I learned that I had a Parish Church.
     St George of the Chimney Sweeps.

Hughes' voice was full of the amazement of those months of whirlwind courtship and marriage; for him, standing at that boat railing under the hot November sun of 1989, it was as if that amazement were still new, fresh:

              You were transfigured.
       So slender and new and naked,
       A nodding spray of wet lilac.
       You shook, you sobbed with joy, you were ocean depth
       Brimming with God.
       Levitated beside you, I stood subjected
       To a strange tense: the spellbound future.

What amazed me, listening to this story, was how these young people, barely in their mid-20s, had made such bold, definitive, adult decisions. "You'd never have been able to do such grown-up things," I thought aloud, "if you had believed you couldn't." Hughes nodded. I realized that by November 1989, the number of years of the "spellbound future" that had passed since that transfigured Bloomsday 1956 wedding was a few more than the 30 years Plath had lived.

By now, the late-morning sun, shining directly down onto the deck where we stood, was beginning to burn; we moved into the shade. I was afraid that someone shouting out bids in the raucous "poem auction" in one corner of the cabin would notice us and approach. But no one paid any attention, so we negotiated a passage through the cabin without interference and continued our conversation at the deserted railing on the shaded side of the launch. It was in this shade, just beyond the poetic hubbub drifting from open portholes in the cabin, that Hughes' words took a profound turn.

"Yes, we did act decisively," he said, continuing the earlier thought. They had to, I thought—they didn't have much time: a little less than seven years from first meeting until Plath's death. "The children were so young when she died," Hughes said, "One and three years old." They would now be 27 and 29—the ages Plath was when she gave birth to them. "It must have been very difficult for them," I said. Then, daring to empathize with her: "And strange and difficult for her to leave them."

"Yes." Hughes' voice cracked a little with this affirmation. Her death had a great effect on them, he said, even though they were too young to understand what had happened. The boy had no memories of her at all.

     But his mouth betrayed you—it accepted
     The spoon in my disembodied hand
     That reached through from the life that had survived you.
     Day by day his sister grew
     Paler with the wound
     She could not see or touch or feel, as I dressed it
     Each day with her blue Breton jacket.

"Sylvia was a good mother, very devoted to the children," Hughes said again—a declaration that he repeated several times. In fact, much of his talk was of the children: their education, their adult lives, their bafflement over their mother's posthumous celebrity, their curiosity about what she was like as a person, and their incomprehension at having been, as it were, abandoned by the mother who, ironically, had always felt herself abandoned after her own father's death.

"Don't ever speak ill of your mother, I've told them," he said. "If not for her, you would never have been able to attend such good schools." Hughes went on to explain that, with the various books of hers, the royalties and the like, "we've gotten"—his voice deepened—"incredible sums." He hunched over the launch's railing and shook his head with wonderment.

"Ironic, isn't it," he went on, "because during her lifetime, she struggled to find a publisher." She sent her poetry collections again and again to America, he said, and was rejected by editors there, until finally the British publisher Heinemann took a chance with The Colossus. At the time of her death, Plath was known only to a small circle of other poets. All the fame, and income, came later—but at what cost. That was what many people had forgotten.

Hughes could very well have been talking about the conclusion of his poem "Ouija": "To please you and your mother," his younger self asks the Ouija-board spirit, "'Shall we be famous?'" Plath, horrified, snatches her hand back and rejects this question: "'Don't you see—fame will ruin everything.'" The older Hughes, recalling this moment, wonders if her shock and dismay came because she was hearing, and recoiling from, a message from a source deeper than that of the Ouija spirit: the "still small voice" of her own intuition:

     'Fame will come. Fame especially for you.
     Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes
     You will have paid for it with your happiness,
     Your husband and your life.'

Hughes has been harshly criticized, as executor of the Plath literary estate, for the pacing and quantity of materials he has edited and released for publication over the years. According to some, it has been too much; according to others, too little. But his comments on the deck of the Rangapalli were not the words of an heir-executor gloating over the profits, but of a man sorrowing over the uncountable cost that those "incredible sums" had exacted.

In the time she had, Hughes continued, Plath devoted herself to the children, but she became the mother they never knew. The girl, Frieda, remembered her for a few years, though.

     Just as when your daughter, years ago now,
     Drifting in, gazing up into my face,
     Where I worked alone
     In the silent house, asked, suddenly:
     'Daddy, where's Mummy?' The freezing soil
     Of the garden, as I clawed it.
     All round me that midnight's
     Giant clock of frost …

In the heated breeze off the midday river—with its thick, alluvial smells of raw jute and threshed paddy, rotting fish and vegetable matter, bilge from passing barges, and curried chicken cooking for our lunch in huge pots in the Rangapalli's galley, I shivered. The frosts and ice-slicks of that bitter English winter of 1963, the coldest in 60 years, seemed to be closing around us—where, after his wife's death, Hughes and his two orphaned children "made a deep silence / In our separate cots … We lay in your death, / In the fallen snow."

"You see, we had become …," Hughes paused, and his voice modulated strangely. "We had become so close, we had worked together so closely, it was uncanny—as if we had become one person." He spoke with a tenderness still raw, his words hovering over the river like the echo of a lover's voice from a quarter-century past.

     She wanted his assurance, weeping she begged
     For assurance he had faith in her. Yes, yes. Tell me
     We shall sit together this summer
     Under the laburmum. Yes, he said, yes yes yes.

They had told each other, he went on, that no matter what, even if there were physical separation, they could never really be apart, could never really be two separate people ever again. But then …

     Over and over and over and over he gave
     What she did not want or did
     Want and could no longer accept or open
     Helpless-handed as she hid from him
     The wound she had given herself, striking at him
     Had given herself, that had emptied
     From her hands the strength to hold him against
     The shock of her words from nowhere, that had
     Fatally gone through her and hit him.

I hardly dared to glance at him, but I did—and started slightly: In the spell his words had cast, I almost expected to see the gaunt, 32-year-old widower standing next to me, numb and haggard in the first access of grief. Instead, it was the middle-aged Hughes who leaned heavily on the railing, staring down into sunlight glinting off the glassy green wake unfurling from the Rangapalli's prow. In profile, his face looked haunted; one lock of silvering hair fell forward over his brow.

"But then she was gone, and when I looked for her inside myself, where she'd always been, she wasn't there." He uttered these words in a tone of horrified wonderment. "There wasn't anyone there"

     Then I crept through the house. You never knew
     How I listened to our absence,
     The house made newly precious to me
     By your last lonely weeks there, and your crying.
     I listened, as I sealed it up from myself
     I peered awhile, as through the keyhole,
     Into my darkened, hushed, sale casket
     From which (I did not know)
     I had already lost the treasure.

Hearing this, I was moved with as profound a sense of empathy and awe as any Shakespearean tragedy could have elicited. This was as close as anyone sharing such matters with me had ever come to conveying in words—quiet, understated, full of admiration and longing and regret nearly three decades vibrant—the tenor and texture of a life together. Hughes seemed to be a man chastened by the magnitude of what he had lost, under a life sentence of living in the long shadow of Plain's absence and, ironically, her continual life-in-death presence—not just in the recesses of his own memory, but in the incessant reminders breaking in from the outside world of media attention, critical acclaim, and detractors' opprobrium. I sorrowed for them both—"such kids!" he had exclaimed—who had loved each other so profoundly and who had both, in their own ways, abandoned or seemed to abandon the other—"broken the rules," as he called it.

"I've been writing out my own version of events," he went on, "but it will be published posthumously. If people knew the full story, when they learn what really happened between us, they'll be surprised that it's so mundane, so ordinary." After this, he lapsed into silence. We simply stood, gazing out over the river. Beyond the banks, the fields were flooded and green with half-grown shoots of the winter rice planting; or dry-soiled and giddy with mustard flower, the sudden brilliant sight of which is a Bengali idiom for being startled, for seeing stars. Then one of the Bangladeshi journalists approached us—hesitantly, almost on tiptoe, as if he could sense the reflective mood of the Poet Laureate and the woman standing next to him—to ask Mister HUGE-es, sir, if he could take a few snaps and ask a few short questions. Hughes turned to him with a patient smile, and the extraordinary conversation was over.

Unless Hughes was referring to another as-yet-unpublished writing, Birthday Letters is certainly not a document of any ordinary, mundane marriage. Even the closely observed minutiae of domestic life flash with the brilliance of 40-odd years of retrospection, and deepen with memory's double perspective, as the poet re-creates his younger self trying to comprehend the inner significance of key gestures and words, and his older self wonders if anything could have happened differently. The voice in the poems is that of a man trying to plumb the depths of a beloved woman's gifted mind and troubled psyche: He still loves her, is still wounded by her, and profoundly shaken by her death. The tenderness in these poems is naked but expressed with the decorum of a long-familiar sorrow, as if grief and the poet have matured together, as if grief is the companion he has married in her stead.

It was clear to me then, in 1989, that Hughes would go on living with Plath in the only way now possible—in words, in memory—perhaps to the end of his, days. In his reserved, understated manner, he was making a profound expression of the undying nature of love—of his love and respect and sorrow for the brilliant and tormented poet-wife of his youth. In his words to me, as in the poems he was even then writing, he was seeking a resolution to his own and their children's loss and grief, some way of coming to terms with his beloved's abrupt, irreversible departure—from him, from her children, from herself. He seemed to seek no less than a reconciliation across the very boundary between life and death.

     It goes with me, your seer's vision-stone.
     Like a lucky stone, my unlucky stone.
     I turn it, a prism, this way and that.
     That way I see the filmy surf-wind flicker
     Of your ecstasies, your visions in the crystal.
     This way the irreparably-crushed lamp
     In my crypt of dream, totally dark,
     Under your gravestone.

"What happens in the heart simply happens"—this insight comes to Hughes near the end of his poem "Child's Park." Bleak and serene at once, it seems to be the essence of tragic acceptance, and of the mature poet's enduring love, at the core of these heartrending poems.

John C. Witte (essay date Spring 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Wotan and Ted Hughes's Crow," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 38-44.

[In the following essay, Witte discusses the mythological influences on Hughes's Crow.]

Ted Hughes has collected in Crow what appear to be the fragments of apocalyptic experience. Everything in the world into which Crow survives seems about to explode, compelled by intolerable internal pressures. The most trivial event might be cause for astonishing cruelties. But unlike the brutal naturalism frequently explored in the earlier animal poems, in "Pike" and "Hawk Roosting," the violence in Crow has a martial character. The grass, even, "camps in its tussock / With its spears and banners." And Crow's are the warrior's trails: courage, cunning, the indomitable will to survive, and the sharpness of eye and talon. Battle, furthermore, provides metaphor for the two ideological conflicts dominating Crow's experience: first, Crow's aversion to the Christian myth and, second, Crow's struggle to find the words of song, of poetry in a culture loud (deafening) with the words of advertisements and life insurance policies. Nevertheless, Crow observes from a godlike remove, unhampered by moral concerns, reporting the ghastliest events with the emotionlessness of an immortal. He survives each of his own disintegrations without apparent harm.

Hughes's Cambridge study of anthropology must have exposed him to numerous crow-gods and -heroes—a figure represented in the pantheon of every major mythology—after which certain features of Crow might have been fashioned. Raven, the trickster-god of the Bering Strait Eskimos, is a source undeniably spotlighted by the inclusion of "Two Eskimo Songs." The influence of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a work with which Hughes acknowledges familiarity, is often discerned by commentators. These exotic intrusions notwithstanding, the mythic system from which Crow descends seems to be that of pre-Christian Teutonic culture. The most important model for Crow is the chief deity of Teutonic mythology, Wotan, lord both of battle frenzy and of poetry. "This particular mythology." explained Hughes in his review of a book on Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon paganism, "is much

deeper in us, and truer to us, than the Greek-Roman pantheons that came in with Christianity, and again with the Renaissance, severing us with the completeness of a political interdict from these other deities of our instinct and ancestral memory…. It's false to say these gods and heroes arc obsolete: they are the better part of our patrimony still locked up.

One of the many names for Wotan was Hrafnass, translated "raven-god." Two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, perched on the god's shoulders and reported to him each day's observations made flying over the embroiled battlefields of men. The ravens, whose names have been interpreted to mean animus, cogitatio, and mens (courage, cunning, and wisdom), came to be seen as animations of Wotan's spiritual qualities. For religious and mythological purposes, as the god's avatar, the raven became indistinguishable from Wotan. The tenth-century scaldic poet Thorbjorn Hornklofi, the favorite of the powerful king Harald Finehair, wrote a long poem called Hrafnsmál, or Words of the Raven, celebrating the adventures of the raven (Wotan), hungry for corpses, following the battles of conquest of the young king Harald.

The "King of Carrion" is one of the names Hughes gives Crow:

    There came news of a word.
    Crow saw it killing men. He ate well.
    He saw it bulldozing
    Whole cities to rubble. Again he ate well.

Crow, like Wotan, manages to be at the center of every fracas, war, storm, or frenzy, arriving, as he docs, "Screaming for Blood." When the patient is about to die, "Crow makes a noise suspiciously like laughter." The world of Hughes's vision, like that lorded by Wotan, is each day freshly bloodied, and Crow each day "eats well." Sharing the mythological properties of Wotan, Crow exercises the war god's prerogatives in the ancient tales as well, "Drinking Beowulf's blood."

Wotan was notorious for the delight he took in inciting men, especially kinsmen, to strife. In "Crow Blacker Than Ever" Wotan's wickedness appears in the gleeful malice with which Crow reverses the benevolent intentions of the Christian myth by leaving man and God no rest from each other: "The agony / Grew. / Crow / Grinned / Crying: 'This is my Creation,' / Flying the black flag of himself." The agonized grimace described as a "grin," the "scream and laughing in the cell." the desperate "laugh" after having exhausted weeping, the comic-strip buffoonery of "Peoples arms and legs fly off and fly on again." the "smiles that went off with a mouthful of blood": these wrenching oxymorons of the humorous and the heartless, the playful and the savage, are a predominating trope in Crow; herein Crow embodies the sinister aspect of Wotan, apparent wherever he is fully characterized.

In his role as lord of the dead, Wotan is described in "Examination at the Womb-Door": if death "owns the whole rainy, stony earth," then "who is stronger than death? / Me, evidently," says Crow. His access to the mysterious powers of the dead made Wotan the lord of magic, interpreter of runes and destiny, and the god of poetry and of poets, qualities in often striking contrast to his warring proclivity. Like Wotan, Crow has "Grown so wise so terrible / Sucking on death's mouldy tits."

Crow also has "the prophesy inside him," is "the hierophant" who sits at "the evil mirror," reading destiny: "Crow saw / Mistings of civilizations towers gardens / Battles he wiped the glass." Like Wotan, "Crow communes with poltergeists out of old ponds," gazing "into the quag of the past / Like a gypsy into the crystal of the future." In his capacity for "seeing" the spiritual world of the dead, Wotan's eyesight was his most treasured possession. In pagan art he is frequently depicted with large staring eyes. This explains the unusual concern with which Hughes treats Crow's eyes. When Crow "started at the evidence. / Nothing escaped him. (Nothing could escape)." In "Crow's Last Stand" the hero burns until "there was finally something / The sun could not burn, / … a final obstacle" against which it "rages and chars": "Crow's eye-pupil, in the tower of its scorched fort."

Poetry, in Teutonic mythology, is "the precious mead" that Wotan brought from the Other World (of the dead) and gave to the gods and to men. This is the role that Wotan played in the creation of man, bequeathing "breath" or "spirit," and its associated gifts, including poetry. As the god of inspired speech, Wotan himself was said to speak only in poetry. In "Glimpse," it is Crow's trembling poetic address "O leaves" that causes the metamorphosis signifying his possession of the Wotanic godhead, his own eyes staring "Through the god's head instantly substituted." This is the poetizing function appropriate to Crow as the modern avatar of Wotan, causing him to militate against all coercive and corruptive uses of language. "Crow's First Lesson" explores the disastrous effect of the language of Christian "love" on Crow. The "word." or perverted logos that destroys rather than creates in "A Disaster" similarly indicts the vocabulary of Christianity. "The Battle of Osfrontalis" catalogs what George Steiner called "the idiom of advertisement, wish-fulfillment and consensus-propaganda of consumer technocracies" over which Crow yawns. He wants to make poetry. About his love "He wanted to sing." "He wanted to sing very clear." Finally, "Littleblood" is Hughes's appreciation of Crow as his personal muse, an (ironically?) belated call for inspiration: "Sit on my finger, sing in my ear."

"There are now quite a few writers about who do not seem to belong spiritually to the Christian civilization at all," explained Hughes, seeming to include himself in their number. "Their world is a continuation or a re-emergence of the pre-Christian world." A major conflict in Crow is between the lustily amoral hero, a modern Wotan manifestation, and God, the tired yet powerful, inept yet kindhearted Father of Christianity. God loves Crow as He loves all unregenerated children, but Crow discovers an additional possibility: "Crow realized there were two Gods." The second is Wotan. It is Crow's misfortune that the God of Christianity, however bumbling, is the "bigger" of the two, has "all the weapons," and loves Crow's enemies, presumably those people responsible for what Hughes regards as "the oppressive deadness of civilization, the spiritless materialism of it, the stupidity of it." In Wotan/Crow Hughes seems to discover an alternative in which to "have one's spirit invested"—"new Holy Ground, a new divinity, one that won't be under the rubble when the churches collapse." It should be clear that Hughes's intention is not to glorify the ancient Teutonic god of battle, but to locale the descendants of Wotan in modern culture. It is, I presume, in order to prevent identification of Crow with Wotan that Hughes has carefully avoided commenting on his hero's antecedents. It is the Wotan archetype that animates Crow, the ever-present Wotanism that lies a dormant "seed in nature."

My main concern was to produce something with the minimal accretions of the museum sort—something autochthonous and complete in itself, as it might be invented after the holocaust and demolition of all libraries, where essential things spring again—if at all—only from their seeds in nature—and arc not lugged around or hoarded as preserved harvests from the past.

Hughes rediscovers the Wotan myth in its modern context.

Crow emerges from this process as an uncontrollable monster, the image of Wotan demented. His creative poetic capacity is repeatedly frustrated, while his savage appetites rage. This seems to be Hughes's view of the shape in which Wotan survives into the present day. Repressive Christian culture allows only this limited, neurotic manifestation of Wotanism, tolerating the somewhat scrofulous Crow rather than taking the brunt of "Wotan-the-awe-inspirer." Jung, likewise, asserted that it was the Christian missionaries who made Wotan into a minor devil. In this degenerated condition Crow is unaware that he is himself Wotan made manifest, "the Black Beast," discovering to his alarm "his every feather the fossil of a murder." He ends confused. "Trying to remember his crimes." Crow, like Hughes's jaguar, a symbol for man's baser nature, is "shoved down into the id and growing cannibal murderous with deprivation." "Crow's Account of St. George" traces the occupation of the saint's mind by Wotan grown murderous, no longer to be repressed by "numbers," the categories of scientific rationalism.

History, according to Jung, has undergone repeated cycles of repression and explosion of the energy of the Wotan archetype; "whatever else the gods may be," he observed in 1937, "they are past all doubt personifications of psychical forces." In times of spiritual and mental confusion and revolution, Wotan emerges as the ruling archetype.

The Hitler movement literally brought all Germany to its feet and gave us the old spectacle of a migration of the peoples—marking time. Wotan the Wanderer was awake…. Unless you wish absolutely to deify Hitler … you must fall back on Wotan as the force which seizes and possesses.

Hughes is conscious of the Wotanic character of the Nazi movement. He explains having written "another jaguarish poem … that actually started as a description of the German assault through Ardennes." He has exorcized this devil/ god before. From this point of view Crow is a study of the violent eruptions of the irrational that have shattered Western culture, and a warning of the consequences of repressing the Wotan archetype. Because poetry, says Hughes, "is nothing if not … the record of just how the forces of the Universe try to redress some balance disturbed by human error." What Hughes's inquiry has uncovered is grimly set forth in Crow: "we are dreaming a perpetual massacre." Instead of appraising the Wotanic presence and consciously controlling his tremendous energy, directing it to the revitalization of our "spiritless" civilization, we have become victims of his sudden detonations.

The alternatives that Hughes seems to suggest are either to pursue to their cataclysmic finale cultural fluctuations from periods of "oppressive deadness" to periods of bloody upheaval and revolution, or to boldly address ourselves to the Wotan archetype and achieve rapport with him, enjoying his inspiration rather than fearing his seizure. Hughes borrows a metaphor from quantum mechanics to describe the encounter with such an archetypal image.

Any form of violence … invokes the bigger energy, the elemental power circuit of the Universe…. If you refuse the energy, you are living a kind of death. If you accept the energy, it destroys you. What is the alternative? Accept the energy, and find methods of turning it to good, of keeping it under control—rituals, the machinery of religion.

George Steiner has directed us to the late poems of Sylvia Plath for an answer to the question "What poetry after Auschwitz?", to poems like "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" as moral witness of the inhuman behavior of "cultured" individuals. The poems in Crow may be included in this category of literature—necessarily risking the offense of sensibility—poems that nevertheless attach themselves to us by means of the sheer intensity of their vision, and the insistence with which they ask: What has gone wrong? "Blood was too like water / Cries were too like silence / … Blasting the whole world to bits / Was too like slamming a door." Reality has made a nightmare of the civilization built on Christian scripture and the physicist's determinism:

     Reality was giving its lesson,
     Its mishmash of scripture and physics,
     With here, brains in hands, for example,
     And there, legs in a treetop.

Hughes has recognized the need of Western culture to integrate the Wotan archetype if we are to be spared his periodic bloodlettings. Crow's quest, in Hughes's words, "to locate and release his own creator, God's nameless hidden prisoner," is finally the quest of all of mankind. Because Wotan, the source of devastating energy, "his mere eyeblink / Holding the globe in terror," is also the source of creative energy: "Sit on my Finger, sing in my ear, O Littleblood."

Donald F. McKay (essay date Spring 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCH: "Animal Music: Ted Hughes's Progress in Speech and Song," in English in Studies in Canada, Vol. VII, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 81-92.

[In the following essay, McKay discusses Hughes's use of and emphasis on language in Crow and Gaudete.]

In the blighted landscape of Crow, scarred with the repeated failures of genesis, it is startling to come across "Glimpse" close to the end of the book:

     "O leaves," Crow sang, trembling, "O leaves—"
     The touch of a leaf's edge at his throat
     Guillotined further comment.
     Speechless he continued to stare at the leaves
     Through the god's head instantly substituted.

Crow, bred out of God's abortive efforts to create, surviving on carrion and garbage, reveals this surprising capacity for awe, and attempts to sing in the manner of a romantic ode. This gesture toward lyric flight, "O leaves," is tossed up and shelved there, a striking exception to the book's policy of using words as stones or sandpaper for their cumulative weight or abrasive action. "O leaves" does preface another of the many failures documented in Crow, but it is a failure of a different order from, to take an example, the inability of the protagonist in "A Bedtime Story" to write his autobiography:

     But somehow his arms had become just bits of stick
     Somehow his guts were an old watch-chain
     Somehow his feet were two old postcards
     Somehow his head was a broken windowpane
     "I give up," he said. He gave up.
     Creation had failed again.

Unlike this routine silence of destitution, the silence of "Glimpse" is due to the presence of an overwhelming power in the leaves, a newly apprehended divinity.

Commenting on the prevailing anti-lyricism of Crow, Ted Hughes draws an analogy from folklore:

The first idea of Crow was really an idea of a style. In folktales the prince going on an adventure comes to a stable full of beautiful horses and he needs a horse for the next stage and the king's daughter advises him to take none of the beautiful horses that he'll be offered but to choose the dirty, scabby little foal. You see, I throw out the eagles and choose the Crow. The idea was originally just to write his songs, the songs that a Crow would sing. In other words, songs with no music whatsoever, in a super-simple, and a super-ugly language which would in a way shed everything except just what he wanted to say without any other consideration.

The prince has learned to distrust pleasant appearances, and to tap the power of ugliness instead. But his end is not cynical despair or absurdist philosophy, and neither is Hughes's. Both act in the faith that the route to achieving a greater beauty and stronger magic lies in the paradox of the negative way.

Along that route Hughes exposes and indicts the God of Christian humanism and rationalism, the God who is known through his logos, and whose failures are reflected in the corresponding corruption of human speech. The bankruptcy of the logos is narratively related in "A Disaster," where the word, "all mouth" is seen digesting man and his products, "sucking the cities / Like the nipples of a sow," absorbing civilization into itself. When it attempts to digest the earth, however, its efforts weaken and it shrinks "Like a collapsing mushroom."

     Its era was over.
     All that remained of it a brittle desert
     Dazzling with the bones of earth's people
     Where Crow walked and mused.

Crow's wasteland was produced, it seems, not by biblical or nuclear holocaust but by exhaustion, the senescence of a world view. What remains after the ero of logos comes to an end is the host of physical and oral gestures which fill the pages of Crow: grins, smiles, frowns, laughter, screams, and

     A cry
     As the newborn baby's grieving
     On the steely scales.

Song is the union of speech, which identifies us as human beings existing in a culture, and music, which for Hughes connects us to nature. Besides their rational cargo, Hughes believes, our voices are capable of a primal animal music, which has magical properties.

This animal music is very different, of course, from the conventionally "musical voice." The real virtuosi in this line are certain animals and birds—though their ranges are pretty limited. When they speak the spirits listen. Not many human voices can make the spirits listen.

It is one measure of Hughes's poetics that the condition of music docs not mean a lofty or abstract perfection but a state of communion with natural forces. In the poems at the end of Gaudete which address the nature goddess, music is construed as "the maneater / On your leash," which eats people and transfixes them.

Such music is only a ghostly presence in Crow, a desire, for Crow is unable to fit his corrupted speech to the music of earth, which has been "oversold like detergents." In "Crow Tries the Media," he yearns toward song, but finds that his tongue moves "like a poisoned estuary," an image which does connect speech with earth through mutual pollution. But the yearning itself, here as in other poems of absence like Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" or Olson's "In Cold Hell, In Thicket," signals the possibility of change and breaks the grip of stasis, like the first grudging movement of an intractable bolt. The progress from Crow to Gaudete may be seen as the poet's struggle to fashion speech worthy of the goddess, to complete Crow's lyric gesture somehow, and write love poems to the earth.

Toward this end Hughes then turned away from the speech of rational consciousness altogether and immersed himself in animal music. "Orghast" is the name of an extraordinary play directed by Peter Brook and of the language Ted Hughes invented/discovered for it. To do this Hughes descended a linguistic well, attempting to reach the level at which all men, regardless of native tongues, would instinctively understand. (Appropriately, it remains unpublished and so purely oral, although both the language and the workshops in which the play took shape have been chronicled and discussed.) Hughes sees Orghast as a language of the body, untainted by abstractions. In Orghast, he points out, it is impossible to say "is" without saying "light," and in many cases the meaning resides in the sound: KR means devour; ULL swallow; MAMA—a sound derived from the shape made by the lips taking the breast. Orghast appeals to Hughes for some of the same reasons the Chinese written character appealed to Pound and Fenollosa as a medium for poetry, as a grounding of language in sense, with the emphasis on aural rather than visual immediacy. Hughes takes up a physiological argument in somewhat the same spirit as D. H. Lawrence in Fantasia of the Unconscious, to dramatize the efficacy of aural over visual stimuli.

The deeper into language one goes, the less visual/conceptual its imagery, and the more audial/visceral/muscular its system of tensions. This accords with the biological fact that the visual nerves connect with the modern human brain, while the audial nerves connect with the cerebellum, the primal animal brain and nervous system, direct. In other words, the deeper into language one goes, the more dominated it becomes by purely musical modes, and the more dramatic it becomes—the more unified with total states of being and with the expressiveness of physical action.

To draw the inference: if Crow wishes to recover a sense of music he must descend lower into language and the nervous system, abandoning the human surface for the animal depths. Crow, as a humanoid animal, has himself been de-natured by God and moral strictures; he stabs grubs and eats them instinctively while worrying whether he ought to stop eating "And try to become the light." And out of this double bind, Hughes affirms, comes the ascendancy of visual over auditory modes of knowing.

     Grubs   grubs   He stabbed   he stabbed
     Weeping he walked and stabbed
     Thus came the eye's
                                  the ear's

The story immersed in the prespeech of "Orghast" is the governing myth of Hughes's work. It is, as Hughes sums it up, "the story of the crime against material nature, the Creatress, source of life and light, by the Violater, the mental tyrant Holdfast, and her revenge." Hughes's debt to Robert Graves's visionary poetics in The White Goddess is large, although he clearly digests and reconstructs the doctrine in his own way. Roughly speaking, it may be observed that Crow deals with the first part of this myth, the crime against nature, while Gaudete recounts one version of her revenge. But it should also be noted that the substance of the myth has underlain Hughes's writing from the outset, and lies implicitly in the concentrated acts of perception focused on animals, plants, and landscape in The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal, and Wodwo. It is, after all, a narrative formulation of Hughes's belief that poetry is a "depiction of the Universe redeeming a disturbed balance." In "Logos," a poem in Wodwo, the myth surfaces in a form which reveals its repercussions for language, in anticipation of "Orghast." Here, as in The White Goddess, it is God's insistence on absolute control and hoarding of all life unto himself that constitutes his crime and error—a situation reminiscent of the autocracy of Urizen in Blake's mythology. But this mental tyrant cannot hold the whole together by the strength of his will; creation "convulses in nightmare," as the sea pulls everything to pieces "except its killers, alert and shapely." The grandiloquence of the opening line, "God gives the blinding pentagram of his power," is cancelled by a casual dismissal in the last one, its sensational news of a matriarch presented as a piece of small talk in a trifling conversation about some well-intentioned bumbler: "God's a good fellow, but his mother's against him." While the logos disintegrates in the grinding of the sea, Hughes hears and transmits a descent towards prespeech, like the muttering of an old man approaching baby talk.

     A mumbling over and over
     Of ancient law, the phrasing falling to pieces
     Garbled among shell-shards and gravels,
                     the truth falling to pieces

Perhaps the poetry of Dylan Thomas is also a conditioning factor, especially in the third line just quoted, as the poet pushes logos toward babble. Hughes does voice his admiration for Thomas in a review of his letters, seeing him as a visionary poet aware, like Hughes, of an "infinitely mothering creation." And Hughes is able to exploit images and aural patterns like Thomas's without falling prey to his manner or rhetorical stance.

Between "Orghast" and Gaudete, Hughes published Season Songs, a cycle of poems on the seasonal pattern. Formally regular and thematically affirmative, these seem, when placed beside Hughes's other work, to be songs of innocence, and it is interesting to note that the book is listed on the dust jacket of Gaudete among his works for children. Season Songs speaks out of a rural context, where nature and man meet harmoniously, rather than out of the denatured landscape of Crow. Hughes lets his voice spread, leaving aside shamanistic urgency for the more regular, recurrent wisdom of the folk, while he focuses on domestic farm animals rather than shapely predators. Often these poems are cousins of ballads or pieces of lore: preserved in nursery rhymes. "Leaves" borrows its form from "Who Killed Cock Robin," while "The Golden Boy" is the mythic tale of the wheat which is buried, cultivated, slain, and eaten told in many folk songs and ballads like Burns's "John Barleycorn." "The Golden Boy" presents a version of Mary which adds the elements of fertility to the conventional religious figure, and equates love with the natural processes of growth. She might be taken as the presiding deity of Season Songs, mediating between the logos-God of Crow and the enraged nature goddess of Gaudete, exemplifying the "infinitely mothering creation" that Hughes associates with the vision of Dylan Thomas.

     But the Lord's mother
         Full of her love
     Found him underground
         And wrapped him with love
     As if he were her baby
         Her own born love
     And nursed him with miracles
         And starry love
     And he began to live
         And to thrive on her love

These lines are simpler than most in Season Songs, but they do illustrate the prevailing metaphorical and rhythmic strategies of satisfying and reinforcing expectations, as opposed to Hughes's usual strategy of forcing the pace with adventurous metaphors. The repetitions of diction, rhythm, and structure reinforce the underlying assurance of renewed fertility in Season Songs, whereas the recurrent phrasings and formulae of Crow work as reminders of the grinding stasis of the wasteland.

Gaudete is a rich, ungainly combination of literary forms, including surrealistic sequences, psychological realism, a short narrative in the manner of a folk tale, and tightly controlled love poetry. And this reflects the book's concentration on metamorphosis. Whereas Crow and Season Songs depict the stable circumstances of the wasteland and pastoral, Gaudete takes place when, as Hughes observed earlier in "Childbirth," "There was not looking at table or chair," when repressed primal forces seek expression in the sphere of ordinary reality. The writing in the prologue and the main body of the book is a protean medium shifting from long poetic lines into prose paragraphs, then back into verse, as the narrative proceeds. This passage from the main body of the narrative relates the torment of Mrs. Westlake, whose barren life has been thrown into relief by new passions she can't cope with:

     She feels the finality of it all, and the nearness and
     greatness of death.
     Sea-burned, sandy cartilage, draughty stars, gull-
     cries from beyond the world's edge. She feels the
     moment of killing herself grow sweet and ripe,
     close and perfect.
     The walls wait. The senseless picture frame.
     Eyes half closed
     She sits stupidly, like something cancelled.
                            the seconds to pass.

The writing has an attentive quality, as though it were tuning and re-tuning itself to the tenor of events and the turbulent emotions of the characters. The love poems in the epilogue are, then, a stylistic resolution which provides some of the satisfaction accompanying the emergence of a definite key, as well as a measure of their author's devotion to the goddess.

But as narrative, Gaudete is explicit, focusing centripetally, driving the point home. In this respect it contrasts with Crow, which suggests the existence of a core story or myth without divulging it, and coheres around the character of Crow himself. The full title, From the Life and Songs of the Crow informs us that the printed poems are but a selection, that the book could go on and on, reinforcing the overall impression of interminable time. Hughes consciously chose this form for his book, for he did have a mythic narrative about Crow in mind but decided against using it. The result is a book which both activates and denies our expectations of mythological coherence, brooding over version after version of botched genesis, suggesting a coreless culture too exhausted to hold itself to a centre. In Gaudete the earth spirits, no longer powerless to be born, hold creation in their grip, and the narrative takes on analogous insistence, both in the conclusive structure of plot and the procedures of style. Hughes frequently sets aside his talent for concision in favour of a writing heavy with description, laden with adjectives and exploratory phrases. He often stops the action and examines the scene before him (the book began as a film scenario) physically and psychologically, creating a sense of very dense, pregnant moments piling on top of one another until the climax breaks with their accumulated weight. In this passage Commander Estridge senses the gathering horror in the Beethoven sonata his daughter plays on the piano, built up with vague and ponderous latinate phrases like Conrad's in Heart of Darkness:

     The music she plays bewilders the old man.
     He cannot interpret those atmospherics
     And soundings and cries.
     It is shouting something impossible, incomprehensible, monstrous.
     The dutiful hands of his daughters
     Which control his days
     With routine breakfast egg and toast, with coffee,
     With crisply ironed clothes, and warmed bed—
     They are tearing him to pieces, elated
     Under those sickly, sulphurous blooms
     And the hellish upset of music.
     In the dark hall, walled with stuffed wild life,
     He listens. And he hears
     Something final approaching.
     Some truly gloomy horror is pushing.
     Something that makes nothing of names, or affection, or loyalty, or consideration.

This is the music of natural energy perceived from the vantage point of ordinary life, an unknown predatory power which is later revealed in the epilogue as the man-eating predator on the goddess's leash.

The central paradox of Gaudete is that the goddess's revenge is also her gift or blessing, as the title, meaning "rejoice," implies. A survey of its content docs little justice to Gaudete's richness in incident, but does elicit this prevailing doubleness, the situation of dialectical conflict aggravated to the point where only an apocalyptic conclusion is possible. In Crow the opposites, like the instinctive stabbing of grubs and moral guilt, cancel one another into ironic stalemate; here the conflict between natural energy and social forms explodes/flowers into tragically-shaped myth. Reverend Lumb (L'homme), an Anglican minister, is abducted by earth spirits and "duplicated" in a rite which involves tying him to an oak and lashing the two of them, until the oak becomes another Lumb (Limb). The Arguments tells us that the changeling is returned to earth to act in the minister's role, but the narrative presents us with a realistic version—a divided man who must now act as nature's agent but also wishes to be an ordinary man, free of these compulsions. He has. we learn, turned the Women's Institute into a fertility cult and secretly makes love to each of its members in the hope of procreating a dionysian saviour. The main body of the work consists of cinematic scenes from the last day of Lumb's ministry, in which we observe him, often through the eyes of another observer, going about his sexual mission, and villagers experiencing its repercussions. At the same time Lumb intends to escape, at the day's end, with Felicity, the girl he loves as an ordinary man. As his extremely busy day progresses, Lumb, moving with the speed and ardour of a doctor in an epidemic, is found out by both worlds. The men of the village obtain evidence of his sexual activities when a snooping poacher snaps a damning, hastily developed photograph, and Maud, Lumb's voiceless housekeeper and high priestess, uncovers his plan to run off with Felicity with the use of a crystal ball. Here, in camera and crystal ball, we have the two instruments of the book's vision, providing clear, satirically edged portraits and primal visions respectively. At the climax of the evening's rite Maud kills Felicity (whom Lumb, dressed as a stag, has just mounted ceremonially) and denounces the minister, breaking her silence with a "throat-gouging scream." The women, clad in animal skins, drugged, frenzied as Maenads, turn upon him and Lumb barely escapes—only to be hounded down and finally shot by the men, whose rage has been gathering momentum and direction at the pub. This portion of the book ends with the burning of all the bodies—Lumb's, Felicity's, and Maud's (she has committed suicide)—and the church which contains them.

Lumb has been the conductor of an energy which radiates to all the citizens, sharpening their lives into acuity. Each receives smaller doses of the vision/pain which afflicts him. As well as the examples of Mrs. Westlake and Commander Estridge cited previously, one might single out Dunworth, a weak executive who catches Lumb and his wife in the act and is unable to pull the trigger on his gun, suddenly overwhelmed by her beauty.

    Dunworth gazes back at his wife
    Almost forgetting where he is or what he is doing.
    He is helplessly in love.
    He stands there, in his child's helplessness,
    As if he had searched everywhere and at last somehow
    he had found her.
    An irresponsible joy chatters to be heard, somewhere
    in the back of his heard, as he gazes at her,
    Feeling all his nerves dazzle, with waitings of vertigo,
    As if he were gazing into an open furnace.

But it is in Lumb's poems in the epilogue that the paradox of impossible pain and irresponsible joy emerges most clearly, where the vision of Lumb is made accessible, ironically, by its distancing into art. A short, straightforward story, rather like a folktale ("In a straggly village on the West Coast of Ireland, on a morning in May") explains the provenance of the manuscript. Three girls tell the village priest about a strange tramp—the original Lumb, returned to earth "but changed," as the Argument laconically declares—who performed a miracle for them by drawing an otter out of the sea-lough with a kind of animal music.

He pursed his lips against the back of his hand. The girls waited. Suddenly their nerves seemed to shrivel, like a hair held in fire. An uncanny noise was coming from the back of the man's hand. A peculiar, warbling thin sound. It was like a tiny gentle screaming. A wavering, wringing, awful sound, that caught hold of their heads and was nearly painful. It was like a fine bloody thread being pulled through their hearts.

The priest is much moved by the story, and responds in a way that indicates Lumb's vision has reverberated inside.

'If that is a miracle,' he said finally. 'To bring an otter up out of the lough, then what must that poor man think of the great world itself, this giant, shining beauty that God whistled up out of the waters of chaos?'

And as he spoke the priest was suddenly carried away by his words. His thoughts flew up into a great fiery space, and who knows what spark had jumped on to him from the flushed faces of the three girls? He seemed to be flying into an endless, blazing sunrise, and he described the first coming of Creation, as it rose from the abyss, an infinite creature of miracles, made of miracles and teeming miracles.

This portion of the epilogue should not be overlooked, or hastily relegated to a transitional role, for it functions in Gaudete as Season Songs does in the stretch of Hughes's corpus to the present: the place where the energy of natural forces is accepted into human life, contained and ritualized by poetic forms and traditional beliefs. The priest, at a safe remove from its destructive force, is able to introduce the energy into the conventional framework of his belief, enlivening the body of Christianity without burning the church, in somewhat the same way that "The Golden Boy" brings fertility myth and the mother of God together in Season Songs. Hughes has always been aware of the need to domesticate the divine energy, and speaks of this in a theoretical way which is germane to the cases of Lumb and the priest. This is a facet of Hughes's art we sometimes overlook when we write or think of him as a celebrator of violence.

If you refuse the energy, you are living a kind of death. If you accept the energy, it destroys you. What is the alternative? To accept the energy, and find methods of turning it to good, of keeping it under control—rituals, the machinery of religion. The old method is the only one.

In the poems Lumb is a visionary casualty, another of the uncanny peasants, common in the celtic tradition, who have been broken into vision. His poems are seldom lyrical in the conventional sense, but spare and taut, filled with silences caught between lines or groupings of lines, as though spaces were left, as Dylan Thomas puts it, for whatever is not in the poem, to "creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in." Speech itself is seen as a corruption and construction of animals music (which Lumb is able to perform in a literal sense, as his miracle demonstrates), an imprisoning of the cries of birds and the "awkward gullets of beasts" that "will not chill into syntax."

     Words buckle the voice in tighter, closer
     Under the midriff
     Till the cry rots, and speech
     Is a fistula
     Eking and deferring
     Like a stupid or a crafty doctor.

When the poems do approach song, they catch the after-echoes of the goddess's predatory music and find a voice that is ancient and impersonal, reaching deeply into tradition. At times, as in the poem which follows, they resemble the celtic riddle poems, like Taliesin's "Hanes" and the "Song of Amergin," upon which Graves roosts and pecks in The White Goddess:

    She rides the earth
    On an ass, on a lion.
    She rides the heavens
    On a great white bull.
    She is an apple.
    Whoever plucks her
    Nails his heart
    To the leafless tree.

The poem announces her symbols, and sums up the ordeal of her worship. But the very fact of a multiplicity of symbols, coupled with the ease with which we are slipped from ass to lion to bull, pleads for their subservience to the energy beyond them. The poetic act is humble, pointing to manifestations of the goddess without claiming to exhaust them or drawing attention to itself. It is a wiser and sadder poetry than the unsung poem beginning with Crow's "O leaves" promises to be, looking back to the moment of intense vision as Crow looks forward to it. Where Crow failed to accomplish the pure music of nature in speech, Lumb knows that the attempt is, in a sense, blasphemous, an encounter with tabu, and restricts words to being accurate reporters, rather than riders, of that energy.

     Trying to be a leaf
     In your kingdom
     For a moment I am a leaf
     And your fulness comes
     And I reel back
     Into my face and hands
     Like the electrocuted man
     Banged from his burst straps.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Bayley, John. "The Stabbing Beak." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4753 (6 May 1994): 5-6.

Points out the humor in Hughes's essay collection, Winter Pollen, and asserts that the essays on Romantic poetry are most notable.

Bedient, Calvin. "Ted Hughes's Fearful Greening." Parnassus 14, No. 2 (1987): 150-63.

Discusses Hughes's attempts at reconciliation with nature in Moortown and River.

Bradshaw, Graham. "Hughes and Shakespeare: Visions of the Goddess." The Achievement of Ted Hughes, edited by Keith Sagar, pp. 52-69. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983.

Relates Hughes's ideas about Shakespeare to those of F. R. Leavis.

Cox, Brian. "Shakespeare's Myth." Hudson Review XLVI, No. 2 (Summer 1993): 390-94.

Asserts that Hughes's Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being reveals more about Hughes than it does about Shakespeare.

Cushman, Keith. "Hughes' Poetry for Children." The Achievement of Ted Hughes, edited by Keith Sagar, pp. 239-56. Athens: University of Georgia, 1983.

Discusses Hughes's children's poetry and its relationship to his poetry for adults.

Dickie, Margaret. "Ted Hughes: The Double Voice." Contemporary Literature 24, No. 1 (Spring 1983): 51-65.

Analyzes the conflicting double voices found in Hughes's poetry.

Ehrenpreis, Irvin. "At the Poles of Poetry." New York Review XXV, No. 13 (17 August 1978): 48-50.

Discusses Hughes's Gaudete and Anthony Hecht's Millions of Strange Shadows as representing opposite poles of poetry: the first a poetry of extremes, the latter a poetry of limits.

Faas, Ekbert. "Chapters of a Shared Mythology: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes." The Achievement of Ted Hughes, edited by Keith Sagar, pp. 107-24. Athens: University of Georgia, 1983.

Compares the poetic quests of Hughes and of his late wife Sylvia Plath.

Gifford, Terry and Neil Roberts. "Ritual and Goblin: Cave Birds by Ted Hughes." British Writing Today 6, No. 1 (January 1981): 17-24.

Lauds Hughes's Cave Birds as "Hughes's finest book to date."

Gough, John. "Experiencing a Sequence of Poems: Ted Hughes's Season Songs." Children's Literature Quarterly 13, No. 4 (Winter 1988): 191-94.

Praises Hughes for writing a sequence of poems, Season Songs, which can be read by children.

Lenz, Olivia Bottum. "Landscape of Our Dreams: Ted Hughes's Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 13, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 22-5.

Asserts that although Hughes has made Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems accessible to children with the use of simple vocabulary and rhymed couplets, these poems are also satisfying to an adult audience.

Levi, Peter. "A Worthy Laureate." Spectator 274, No. 8697 (March 1995): 34-5.

Describes what in Winter Pollen and New Selected Poems makes Hughes a worthy laureate.

Lomas, Herbert. "The Poetry of Ted Hughes." Hudson Review XL, No. 3 (Autumn 1987): 409-26.

Assesses Hughes's work over the course of the poet's career.

O'Brien, Sean. "Skyfuls of Fist and a Shower of Teeth." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4918 (4 July 1997): 25.

Lauds Hughes for his successful translation of Ovid's poetry.

Paulin, Tom. "Protestant Guilt." London Review of Books 14, No. 7 (9 April 1992): 10-11.

Discusses Hughes's Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being as a study of Shakespeare and the Protestant England in which he wrote.

Raine, Kathleen. "Ted Hughes' Ovid." Agenda 35, No. 1 (Spring 1997): 108-14.

Asserts that Ovid's work is a good fit for Hughes's own state of mind.

Richman, Robert. "A Crow for the Queen." New Criterion 3, No. 6 (February 1985): 90-2.

Traces the history of the Poet Laureate in England and the possible consequences of Hughes holding the position.

Scigaj, Leonard M. "Genetic Memory and the Three Traditions of Crow." Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 9 (1983): 83-91.

Points out Crow's failure to achieve selfhood in Hughes's poem by the same name.

Skelton, Robin. "Leaders and Others: Some New British Poetry." Kenyon Review XXX, No. 5 (1968): 689-96.

Asserts that man is not the main character in creation and God is no longer in charge in Hughes's Wodwo.

Warner, Marina. "Equating the Turbulence." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4646 (19 April 1992): 6-7.

Discusses how Hughes raises Shakespeare's work to the level of English myth.

Julian Moynahan (review date August 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Is There Life After Crow? Ted Hughes's Poetry Lately," in Poetry, Vol. CXXXVIII, No. 5, August, 1981, pp. 297-304.

[In the following review, Moynahan analyzes the quality and nature of Hughes's poetry since Crow.]

Among the moderns, Ted Hughes has aspired to go farther than any other in following up on the great Anglo-Irishman's tip: farther than Eliot with his Sweeney, Pound with his macho-man "Sestina Altaforte," Lawrence with his "Birds, Beasts and Flowers," Jeffers with his Monterey Peninsula hawks and rocks, Doc Williams with his "Elsie" from the Ramapo Range of North Jersey. Frost with his cackling "Witch of Coös," Maine. Of course, the search to renew poetry's energies from brutal, brutish, or primitive sources was not new to the twentieth century. It is a distinct current in nineteenth-century Romanticism. Think of Wordsworth's Leech-gatherer, a saurian figure amid the rocks and water pools of a far-off geological era. Think of Heathcliff, showing his teeth like a dog, in life and in death, in Emily Brontë's exquisite distillation of Brutal Romanticism, Wuthering Heights. Presumably the Leech-gatherer, if he had at last forgone his virtual mutism and turned poet, would have disappointed us. Surely this "grave liver" would have come on sounding like a born-again Christian. But what if Heathcliff had turned poet, instead of settling for a career of farming, land and money-grabbing, and brutal misanthropy, before starving himself to death for love of Catherine Earnshaw Linton? Is it possible that Hughes as poet is Heathcliff redivivus?

Well, not really. Actually Ted Hughes has much more in common with Emily Brontë. They were both raised in the same rugged district of the East Riding of Yorkshire and developed the same deep attachment to its wildest features. In both the attachment to wilderness is colored by mysticism of a gnostic character: i.e., at the heart of the natural and brute creation, wailing in the winds, glinting off from the vivid and vigorous life of the animals and birds there are forlorn, trapped demonisms, to be riskily searched out, lumped together, and released so that Spirit, or spirits—it's never clear whether gnostics are mono-, poly-, or pan-theists—may once again permeate the earth and irradiate the skies.

A final and important point of resemblance between Emily Brontë and Ted Hughes is that their entire creative undertaking may entail the facing, and facing down, of a diffuse fearfulness. There is a riveting description in Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë of how the sisters liked to take walks on the rough pasture-land at the top of the town of Haworth where they were occasionally set upon by fierce, half-wild dogs and mastiffs. It was always the physically slight and often ailing Emily who stood her ground with these animals, bringing them under control through sheer force of will and a willed courageousness that she probably developed in reaction to the bad conditions at home. These bad conditions include the clergyman father—that gloom spreader!—preferring to eat his suppers alone in the dark after the death of his wife, and his horrible habit of silently breaking up the parlor furniture when he through his daughters had done or thought something disobedient or merely disagreeable.

Noting the obsession in Hughes's poetry with the more strenuous aspects of parturition—blocked birth canals, torn vaginas, trailing afterbirths, and the like—it's tempting to trace Hughes's fearfulness to a problem with female gender characteristics and sexuality. But there could be other influences at work. One hears that his war-invalided father filled him up with horror stories about trench warfare in World War I. Also, Hughes belongs to the generations of British children who suffered extreme anxiety from the German bombing and rocket raids of World War II. He was ten in 1940, only fifteen when the war ended. We tend to forget that the V-2 rockets were still coming over within a few months of V-E Day.

Hughes's poetry often does appear to entail an imaginative exploration and working through of fearfulness. Crow, that low-life mystical bird, with his distinct resemblance to the mad, indestructible birds of the 1940's Looney-tune and Disney cartoons, and his specific trick of surviving annihilating explosions, may have first visited the boy poet in the dark during an air or rocket raid. The reader has already been exposed to Crow, and to the brutalities, beauties, and occasional downright badness of Hughes's earlier volumes. The question becomes, What has this black and fearful bard out of Yorkshire done for us, and to us lately?

Gaudete is novel-length, and is preceded and summarized by a prose "argument." and it's composed, like early Irish sagas, which Hughes gives evidence of having read around in, in a mix of verse and prose. The story is very sordid, once one strips away the mythic, pseudo-religious and magical hocus-pocus accompanying its telling. As certain events transpire—the seduction, impregnation, and degradation of an entire village of English women by a tireless, prepotent clergyman ; the fatal knifing of a drugged young girl at an orgiastic witches' coven where all the local mums and girl friends are on hands and knees, knickerless, and wearing badger, fox, and other animal pelts—the sinister and tawdry figures of Manson and the Reverend Jim Jones may visit the reader's mind. Gaudete however, derives less from the newspapers than from two popular English sources or traditions. The first is Village Gothic, the type of spook story of which John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, called in its cinema version. The Village of the Damned, is a fair specimen. The second is simply the immemorial English tradition of the randy vicar.

I would like to take seriously but cannot Hughes's portentous epigraphs from Heraclitus and Parzifal (Book XV, forsooth), or his claim in the "Argument" that the protagonist, the Reverend Nicholas Lumb, is really a log filled with "elemental spirit life" which other "elemental spirits" have put in place of the original clergyman, who has been "spirited" away and will reappear in due course, only way off in the West of Ireland, where he will roam about "composing hymns and psalms to a nameless female deity." These things really aren't much there in the story as told and must be written off as mere poetic license. Blame the poet's license also for the fact that Hughes's village contains no police constables. This becomes rather crucial when the local men, at last twigging on to what the log-lover has been doing with their women-folk, run him down, shoot, stab, and hammer him to a pulp and immolate him, along with a few other victims of murder and mayhem, in his own church.

As for the quality of the verse, well, what is one to say? I've never been able to abstract a style for scrutiny when the content seemed despicable or absurd. The man can write—and does—on and on. Here is a specimen, no more perfervid than any number of other passages in a narrative two hundred pages long.

     But he has drunk too much.
     And the finality of that dead girl lies at the centre of the day
     Like an incomprehensible, frightful dream.
     And her live sister is worse—all that loose, hot, tumbled softness,
     Like freshly-killed game, with the dew still on it,
     Its eyes still seeming alive, still a strange with wild dawn,
     Helpless underbody still hot.
     For minutes, driving in third gear. Westlake forgets where he is.
     While what she said about Lumb goes on and on in his head
     Like a taunt.

This is pretty slack, if not slack-jawed, writing when you look at it closely: the heavy-breathing epithets ("loose, hot, tumbled," etc.); the parade of loose similes; the manipulation of the line spacing to suggest emotions, scruples, and a drama that aren't really there. Let it be said, however, that Hughes shows some novelistic skill in rendering his sordid account from the viewpoint of various men and women of the village—blacksmith, barmaid, "country" people, et al.—and keeping it moving briskly along towards the final violent scenes. For the statistically minded, Gaudete's "Anglican Clergyman" copulates with either twelve or thirteen women in a single day. Hail to thee, log-spirit! indeed.

In 1971 Hughes was quoted in London Magazine as saying, "Any form of violence invokes the bigger energy, the elemental power circuit of the Universe." One of the worst things about Gaudete is that it is composed upon the premise of this shoddy notion.

Up next is The Birds: an Alchemical Cave Drama. In the book's own words, it may best be described as "a huddle of oracles." There are twenty-nine page-length poems matched with the same number of Leonard Baskin drawings of imaginary monstrous birds, some of whom appear predatory and pathetic at the same time.

Though designated a "drama" there is no "argument"; conflicts, recognitions, and reversals are lacking; and there are only hints of a progression in time or mood, or understanding (realization,). However, an early poem such as "The Scream" seems to refer to child life, whereas a later one, "The Knight" may be about a quest, in early maturity, into a type of wasteland situation. These are only guesses. For sure the poems are "oracular," meaning they make weighty pronouncements in language that is sonorous, all-knowing, and frequently incomprehensible.

My notes divulge an approving check for "Something Was Happening." This poem appears to be about how the speaker lost someone close to him, that person having been burnt up (in a car accident?) while he went on doing the usual things, unaware. The matching drawing shows a sort of hawk with greatly exaggerated legs and outspread talons stooping for a kill.

Later poems suggest rituals of interrogation, initiation, and baptism into the ways, such as they are, of the cave environment. The cave itself figures life, or death, or perhaps the sum of the two. In "A Green Mother," we are asked to assent to the claim that death leads on to organic rebirth through earth-magic. The cadaver comes alive again, perhaps in "the heaven of the tree," or in the gut of worm or bug, for "the earth is a busy hive of heavens." Hardy also liked to play around with this paradox of organic dissolution as rebirth, courtesy of the nitrogen transfer cycle, but, unlike Hughes, knew it for the mere conceit it was.

"As I Came, I Saw a Wood" is the "Paradiso" of the sequence, conflating the Dantean wood with ineffable vision through Hughes's invention of a naturalistic religious rite calling for earth-creatures, animals of some sort, to walk with "holy steps" and "in the glow of fur which was their absolution in sanctity." There are a few more poems to come, of which "Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days" is easily the best, but that last bit about the glow of fur, so woozy-pretentious, so vatic-vapid, so Dylan Thomas-warmed-over, has taken the heart out of me for tracing the sequence further. I will leave Cave Birds to its intended audience—working alchemists one presumes—with just a word about the drawings.

God they are ugly! Many depict creatures that are feathered men, right out of the Philadelphia Mummers parade, only more feral because of the cruel huge talons and great tearing beaks. There is some variety: "The Interrogator" is a vulture; "The Judge" is swollen with fat and nearly featherless; "The Executioner" is black and rooky-looking. The graphic gifts deployed are impressive, the general effect unpleasant.

With Moortown Ted Hughes returns to his strong suit, which is to write compellingly about English nature and animals. This is a wonderful collection of poems, the best of them up to the standard set by such anthology pieces as "Skylarks," "Hawk Roosting" and "Pike." The sequence is actually about the Devonshire farm on which the poet raised sheep and cattle during twenty years. It roughly follows the agricultural year, from late autumn through the rigors of early to late winter, into the genuinely magical renewals of spring, the sultry burgeonings of high summer, to end approximately at hay-gathering time—except that at the very end Hughes introduces some poems about a hired man and his death from lung cancer which go back to earlier months of the cycle ("The Day He Died"). I surmise that this man, a South African who chainsmoked at work and at rest, though he seldom rested, is the "Jack Orchard" to whose memory the volume is dedicated.

But only at the end does the human element become prominent. Before that the animals—cows and ewes, calves, rams, bulls, and lambs in their outdoor world—are at center stage—while the hardworking farmer-poet and his laborers are there but relatively invisible. Moortown celebrates the pain, stupor, glory, intensity and monotony of large-animal life. It is full of primary ordeals which are country necessities (viz., "Feeding Out-Wintering Cattle at Twilight," "Snow Smoking as the Fields Boil," and "Dehorning," which has been salvaged from one of the better sections of Gaudete). Beyond the domestic animals, there are the equally impressive lives and poignant ordeals of the field and hedgerow birds, the deer, a fox. Nothing is abated of the harshness of natural life, but there is no cruel dwelling on pain for its own sake, or almost none. At the opposite pole, there is no animal sentimentalism of the "All Creatures Great and Small" variety. Hughes teaches us that the brute creation is at least as mysterious and as charged as any other order of being. His is a home-grown religious vision without any of the difficulties raised by Christian theological claims such as Hopkins's "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."

Yet Hopkins is a strong influence on this volume:

     Rain. Floods. Frost. And after frost, rain.
     Dull roof-drumming. Wraith-rain pulsing across purple-bare woods
     Like light across heaved water. Sleet in it.
     And the poor fields, miserable tents of their hedges.
     Mist-rain off-world. Hills wallowing
     In and out of a gray or silvery dissolution. A farm gleaming,
     Then all dull in the near drumming. At field corners
     Brown water backing and brimming; in grass.
     Toads hop across rain-hammered roads.

If this isn't sprung rhythm, it's getting there. The very frequent use of present participles (which so well define the everlastingness or ever-recurringness of farm life), of close alliteration, of compounded Anglo-Saxon monosyllables ("mist-rain off-world") tell us that the great Jesuit is a frequent visitor at Moortown, arriving perhaps disguised as a windhover on a wimpling wing.

From my notes: "Feeding Out-Wintering Cattle at Twilight" is a good one from the title on, gets two checks. In it a battle is engaged between terror and joy. Hughes is so good on the emotionalism of healthy animals under particular conditions:

      … Night-thickness
      Purples in the turmoil, making
      Everything more alarming. Unidentifiable, tiny
      Birds go past like elf bolts.
      Battling the hay bales from me, the cows
      Jostle and crush, like hulls blown from their moorings
      And piling at the jetty.

Whereas "Tractor" is not for me. Something of an after-poem to Whitman's "Locomotive in Winter," it seems the thing won't start because it was left out and got frozen up. The animals can survive cold, the engine can't. What else is new?

Beautiful poems about an unexpected calving ("Surprise"); a ewe's vigil by her dead twins ("Last Night"); about the carrion birds which attack a still-born lamb ("Ravens"); about a lamb that "could not get born" ("February 17th"). And a wonderful, blowy poem about a calf that could and did ("Birth of Rainbow") under "this morning blue vast clarity of March sky." Births keeping pace with deaths, growth with decay, change mirroring permanence and the other way around, as the seasons slowly revolve.

"Little Red Twin," with its lovely summery close, and "Teaching a Dumb Calf" are about young animals in great distress but managing to pull through. As said before, it is greatly appealing in Moortown that the animals are the citizenry, the human actors merely their discreet, serviceable, rarely foregrounded attendants.

"Coming Down Through Somerset," however, is different, not really part of the Moortown sequence. It's worth pausing on because it seems to be an important poem for studying Hughes's morbidity or death-cult. The speaker, who is driving through England at night, spots a killed badger in his head lamps, stops to carry the corpse home with him. The rest is reflection and it goes something like this:

The dead animal is beyond change, for the changes of corruption will deposit an unchangeable remnant—skull, teeth and claws—a "something" that "has to stay." Possession of these remains becomes the poet's "stay," as in the familiar Frostian signification of the term. It gives him something with which to "block time," and to nourish his "moment of life."

There were other badgers before this one but he lost them all—the poet has had a lot of losses in his life. Now this one "has to stay." It's being dead helps, for otherwise it could get up and run off.

At the end, in contemplation, the poet deliberately confuses his identity with the badger's. "Watching his stillness, like an iron nail / Driven, flush to the head, / Into a yew post," he feels himself become the nailed up skull. The nailed up skull of a badger might do as a general emblem of the Hughesian oeuvre, Leonard Baskin should be informed.

The last poems of Moortown, from "A Monument" to "Hands," round off the sequence by writing about the farm laborers—shearers, handymen, dairymen—with intense, open-eyed affection and care. The highest praise, even love, are for the man who died, yet in "The Formal Auctioneer" we find Hughes watching his neighbors, who are in turn watching the cattle auctioneer:

     All eyes watch.
     The weathered, rooty, bushy pile of faces,
     A snaggle of faces
     Like pulled-out and heaped-up old moots,
     The natural root archives
     Of mid-Devon's mud-lane annals …

"Moots," of course, were the early English assemblies of freemen. I like it that here the not very clubbable bard, Ted Hughes, seems to acknowledge, if just barely, that there is a community, beyond the animals, and beyond the poets, of mere men in which he might claim membership if he chose.

The balance of the volume is taken up with three collections of poems which seem to me to represent a fall-back to Hughes's vatic or oracular manner. Since I am out of sympathy with this aspect of his work, I shall merely quote the jacket description:

There are three other sequences of poems here. "Prometheus on his Crag" developed from the background material of "Orghast"—the now historic drama Hughes invented with Peter Brook and the actors of the International Centre of Theatre Research, at the Shirza Festival in 1972. "Earth-Numb" is a consequence of occasional poems on the theme of that title. "Adam and the Sacred Nine" is a "magical" poem, in which the nine muses, as birds, raise fallen Adam.

To-wit, tu-whoo. Jug jug. Over and out.

Patricia Boyle Haberstroh (essay date Winter 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Historical Landscape in Ted Hughes's Remains of Elmet," in Clio, Vol. 14, No. 2, Winter, 1985, pp. 137-54.

[In the following essay, Haberstroh analyzes the changing landscape in Hughes's Remains of Elmet, and traces the historical forces which bring about the change.]

In Remains of Elmet, a volume of poems illustrated with photographs by Fay Godwin, Ted Hughes turns to a Yorkshire landscape to create a racial history which places the recent decline of the Calder Valley in an inevitable cycle of natural process and human response to that process. Hughes's headnote describes the latest disaster in the valley in which he was raised:

Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. They are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly.

While Hughes's note and Godwin's photographs describe a contemporary landscape dotted with abandoned textile mills, the volume of poems suggests that this collapse is the latest version of the disaster highlighted by the book's title: the defeat of Elmet, the last British kingdom to fall to the Angles. By focusing on Elmet, Hughes places the present plight of the Calder Valley in a historical perspective where the modern collapse recapitulates the disaster which occurred as the marauding Angles destroyed the last vestige of Celtic culture.

Hughes makes almost no reference to the specific details of the fall of Elmet; in this case the historical event serves as a signpost for the direction English culture would take in the centuries that followed. Elmet, located in a South Yorkshire valley, was one of two Celtic kingdoms fighting to survive during the Anglian attacks of the sixth and early seventh centuries. These small kingdoms, remnants of the larger Celtic population which had gradually disappeared after the Romans conquered Britain, flourished in Yorkshire where Celtic settlements reappeared as Roman power began to wane. Since it divided northern and southern Britain, Elmet blocked the unification of the invading Angles. Eventually, however, Edwin, exiled brother-in-law of the Northumbrian leader Aethelfrith, seized power after Aethelfrith's death and began to bring together the confederation of lands which eventually became Anglo-Saxon England. Elmet, having long withstood the Northumbrian pressure, finally yielded when Edwin expelled the Celtic king Certic. Baptized at York in 627, Edwin became the first Christian king of Northumbria. Indeed Bede, who sees Edwin as a great hero who brought peace to the land, mentions a debate in the royal council which brought about the acceptance of the Christian God and the rejection of pagan deities.

While the names of Edwin and Certic never appear in Remains of Elmet, readers familiar with Hughes's earlier poetry and prose could anticipate that he would come out on the side of the Celts against Bede's celebration of Edwin's victory. Hughes's inversion of Christian myth and ritual, particularly evident in Crow but obvious in much of his poetry, expresses attitudes revealed in a 1964 review of F. D. G. Turville-Petre's book, Myth and Religion of the North. Hughes argues that a pre-Christian mythology is part of a life "deeper" and "truer" in the English character "than the Greek-Roman pantheons that came in with Christianity, and again with the Renaissance, severing us with the completeness of a political interdict from these other deities of our instinct and ancestral memory." Of this pre-Christian mythology, Hughes writes: "It's false to say these gods and heroes are obsolete: they are the better part of our patrimony still locked up."

In the imagery of Remains of Elmet, Hughes draws upon that ancient mythology. The nature spirits, pre-eminent in the Celtic culture finally wiped out at Elmet, still lie deep in the English psyche and are beginning to reveal themselves as the valley wrestles free from the domination of the Christian mind. If the fall of Elmet cleared the way for the creation of Anglo-Saxon England and marked the end of Celtic influence, then the present collapse of the valley signals the end of that Christian culture that rose upon the ashes of Elmet. And, as this civilization topples, Hughes pictures the land reawakening: nature exercising her rights to the valley as the mills and chapels crumble.

Hughes does not view himself as unique in his appreciation of pre-Christian culture, arguing that many modern writers "do not seem to belong spiritually to the Christian civilization at all. In their world Christianity is just another provisional myth of man's relationship with the creator and the world of spirit." But like Lawrence, whom he acknowledges having read early in his life, Hughes maintains that English civilization lost its soul when it accepted Christianity's provisional myth. Partial blame for the present tragedy in the Calder Valley can be placed on the culture that superseded Elmet: one which denied fundamental natural instincts and refused to accept an equilibrium between the human and natural worlds which had been at the heart of Celtic culture. Lost with the Celts was a veneration of the power and energy of natural process.

Hughes finds proof for this lack of respect in the history of the Yorkshire landscape after the Celts disappeared. In the centuries following the collapse of Elmet, the invaders settled and shifted, abandoning the Calder Valley which in its decline became known as "The Waste." As Hughes explains in his headnote: "For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees." When the valley was once again settled, the farming population gradually evolved into the nineteenth-century industrial society which exploited the land for natural resources needed to build and operate the textile mills. Once again the land was sacked, this time nature subordinated to the demands of technology. Hughes draws a direct line from the early Christian Angles to the nineteenth-century industrialists, seeing the beginning and end of a cycle, the technological abuse of nature a final consequence of the Anglian conversion to Christianity and the latest example of turning the landscape into a waste. For Hughes, however, the ruined mills reveal that technological society is now doomed, like Elmet, to extinction. Agreeing with Yeats, under whose influence he was "spellbound" for six years, Hughes opts for a cyclical view of history, projecting inevitable change and disruption, foreshadowed presently by the gradual diminishing of the influence of Christianity.

As Hughes focuses on the limitations and consequences of the Christian culture that displaced the Celtic, he suggests that the history of the Calder Valley is bound up in inevitabilities inherent in natural process, inevitabilities de-emphasised in Christian dogma and ritual. Christian civilization grew from a religion whose God's human incarnation, in the figure of Christ, visited earth briefly, but then vanished to preside with the Godhead in an otherworldly paradise. Focus then shifted from the earth to an abstract heaven and hell, and the human drama began to revolve around a life after death, the present often overshadowed by the glow from a future paradise. Soon nature acquired overtones of evil, and the powerful energy inherent in natural process, guaranteeing both life and death, fell under the control of a mysterious but judgmental God who governed the universe and meted out punishment and reward. Rejecting this view, Hughes draws attention back to nature and locates heaven and hell within the visible world. Birth and death, creation and destruction occur as nature and humanity interact in the continuation of process. The potential for loss and recovery resides for Hughes in the known world. Elmet, then, can symbolize both loss, the assimilation of Celtic culture into Anglo-Saxon England, and recovery, those pre-Christian gods waiting to be unlocked as Anglo-Saxon England dies out.

While Elmet can be viewed as the historical prototype of the inevitable collapse of civilizations which thrived in the Calder Valley, the Celtic kingdom, as well as Anglo-Saxon England, fits into a larger context which stretches beyond the borders of recorded history. Both of these civilizations rose and fell in the moraine of a glacier, the prehistoric natural disaster which formed the valley. Because the glacier carved the "last ditch" that Elmet and subsequent cultures flourished in, the moraine holds the remains of the people who lived and died in the valley and becomes the repository of the past history of Yorkshire. The threat of another disaster, symbolized in the poems as another glacier, always hangs over the valley. Historical change, then, illustrated in the rise and fall of Elmet or in the growth and collapse of the modern mills and chapels, is incorporated into a larger cycle of natural process which transcends the limits of recorded history.

Hughes thus creates a poetic history of the Calder Valley ultimately more important for him than a conventional listing of names and dates. In these poems he weaves personal, familial, and racial experiences within the setting of a particular Yorkshire landscape whose face has been transformed from wilderness to populated hillsides many times over. Revealing the causes and effects of these transformations seems to be a major impetus for the poems, one which links past, present, and future in a very particular but ultimately timeless landscape. Hughes's fellow poet Richard Murphy rightly judges that Remains of Elmet is neither autobiography nor history, but that it incorporates both.

Autobiography influences to a great degree the emphasis on the inherent wilderness of Yorkshire, a wilderness that ultimately will not be subdued. The mills, so dominant in the landscape of Hughes's youth, are by-products of that rational mind exalted by Christian civilization at the expense of the natural and instinctive. Hughes's linking of mill and chapel symbolizes the fusion of technology and Calvinistic Protestantism which evolved within the Anglo-Saxon culture that replaced the Celtic. Giving priority to mind over instinct, to abstract idea over the "logic of the earth," the builders of these mills and chapels temporarily tamed the wilderness, but, in so doing, sowed the seeds of their own destruction, visible in the ruins now sprinkled across the valley.

Rising in the midst of these ruins, however, the ancient energy of nature reasserts itself, seen most obviously in poems which highlight the wild, natural beauty of the Yorkshire hills. Poem after poem in Remains of Elmet reveals "beauty spots" in a landscape Hughes knows well. Explaining his own fascination with such places. Hughes once described their enduring value and the ways in which they connect past with present:

Usually these places are famous for one thing—they look wild…. These are the remains of what the world was once like all over. They carry us back to the surroundings our ancestors lived in for 150 million years…. It is only there that the ancient instincts and feelings in which most of our body lives can feel at home and on their own ground…. Those prehistoric feelings, satisfactions we are hardly aware of except as a sensation of pleasure—these are like a blood transfusion to us, and in wild surroundings they rise to the surface and refresh us, renew us.

Written long before Remains of Elmet, the language of this passage—"remains," "ancient instincts," "rise to the surface"—anticipates both the imagery and theme of this volume and illustrates Hughes's belief that the world around us provides not only our link with the past but also our only hope for the future.

Autobiography also enhances the tone of Remains of Elmet as personal memories and experiences of the Calder Valley affect the poet's response. In describing the process at work in the valley, Hughes laments the loss but admires the gain, creating an ambivalence developed in tone, image, and structure. In the collapse of the mills and churches, the beauty and endurance of the natural wilderness are again revealed; but in that collapse a communal tragedy inheres, and for Hughes, by birth attached to that community, loss counterbalances gain. Sacrifice and salvation continually cancel each other out, creating a volume of poetry which succeeds because of the tension between the two. Hughes thus creates a unique poetic history of the valley, linking allusions to remote kingdoms like Elmet to images of the people who presently live in the valley. By choosing to set his poem in the "wildness" of the Yorkshire landscape, Hughes records both the suffering of those about to be swallowed up by the land, and the value of the beauty spots uncovered as the mills disappear, beauty spots that "refresh us, renew us." The landscape supplies a history of this continuing process.

Composing these poems after he had seen Godwin's photographs, Hughes inherited some of his images from her subjects. In earlier collaborations, most notably with Leonard Baskin, Hughes successfully fused his poems with the work of the other artist while simultaneously developing his own unique vision. Such is the case in Remains of Elmet where Hughes translates Godwin's photographs of crumbling lumb chimneys, abandoned mills, and church ruins into a poetic image of the misfortune wrought in Yorkshire by the twin forces of Christianity and technology. In a review of Max Nicholson's The Environmental Revolution, Hughes explains the impetus behind this image:

The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man. It is the story of his progressively more desperate search for mechanical and rational and symbolic securities, which will substitute for the spirit-confidence of the Nature he has lost…. It is a story of decline.

If effect, modern European civilization, as evidenced in the Calder Valley, has invested its values, hopes, and lives in the spirit of the machines housed in the valley's mills. But this spirit, unlike those that inhabit the natural world, may vanish in the strategic maneuvers of technological warfare. "Mill Ruins" records such a disappearance:

     One morning
     The shuttle's spirit failed to come back
     (Japan had trapped it
     In a reconstructed loom
     Cribbed from smiling fools in Todmorden).
     Cloth rotted, in spite of the nursing.
     Its great humming abbeys became tombs.

As this poem illustrates, children "Roaming for leftovers" then smashed these tombs and trailed "homeward aimlessly / Like the earliest / Homeless Norsemen." Such invasions and battles, echoing the early invasions of Britain, continue until all that remains are the ruins scattered across the landscape's corpse.

This same battle has been carried on, on another front, by English Christianity which ritualizes abstraction while it "deposes Mother Nature," worshipping paracletes instead of real birds. Christianity evolved into one of its most extreme forms in the Methodism of Yorkshire, a religion Keith Sagar describes as a repressive Calvinism which "bred strong values" but also produced "a self-righteous and self-denying puritanism, and an aggressive self-congratulatory materialism and philistinism"—fertile ground indeed for the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. Hughes reveals his own response to this religion in the poem "Mount Zion" where the speaker describes his early sense of deprivation: the blackness of the church wall blocking the moon above the kitchen window. Marched off to church, the speaker remembers the "mesmerized commissariat" whose cry "Beat itself numb again against Wesley's foundation stone." The final image of this poem highlights the Church's suppression of the natural world. A cricket, hidden in the church wall, sends out a cry—nature's song rising above the congregation's hymn. But this disturbing noise must be silenced, and the speaker remembers:

     Long after I'd been smothered in bed
     I heard them
     Riving at the religious stonework
     With screwdrivers and chisels.

Recurring images of blocking and smothering make concrete Hughes's condemnation of the Church's success in denying worshippers the beauty and sustenance nature can offer.

For Hughes, however, human force will be conquered as nature asserts its power. In the upper reaches of Top Withens, as Godwin's photograph reveals, the pioneers' stone dwellings are crumbling, "And the swift glooms of purple / Are swabbing the human shape from the freed stones." The wild heather, spreading across the moors, recovers the hills that men had built on, burying the very stones with which the hill walls and human dreams were realized. And in battles like this, another poem tells us, "Heather only toughens" … "listening / … For the star-drift / Of the returning ice." In lines like these, Hughes suggests that the heather, in its battle with the other elements, also faces annihilation when the returning ice, another glacier or equivalent disaster, bears down again upon the Calder Valley. This cyclical history of gain and loss, dominated by uncontrollable forces which must always be respected, encompasses not only the landscape, but also, in Yeatsian terms, the rise and fall of civilizations that live in that landscape. While Hughes admires, celebrates even, the remarkable power and indifference of the natural elements, he does not ignore the toll of human loss and suffering inherent in such a cycle.

The major effects on the valley of the combined force of technology and organized religion are pictured in Remains of Elmet in two major patterns of imagery, both describing vividly the battle between the wildness and freedom of the natural world and the restrictions imposed by the rational application of abstract principles—this battle another reflection of the Celtic-Christian-Anglo-Saxon conflict. Images of enclosure and subsequent paralysis prevail: the walling-in of land, whether hill walls which fence in farms, mill walls where machines governed human life, or church walls which both literally and metaphorically close off nature and the instinctive life. "Hill Walls" documents the first stages of this struggle, where the early farmers, "Exhilarated men," tamed the hills of the Calder Valley as they carved their farms across the body of the land:

     The great adventure had begun—
     Even the grass
     Agreed and came with them.
     And crops and cattle—

But now, as Godwin's pictures of crumbling hill walls show, only the remnants of those enclosures remain: "No survivors. / Here is the hulk, every rib shattered." And even while these farmers lived, Hughes insists in another poem, walls restricted them; "Spines that wore into a bowed / Enslavement" only temporarily mastered the hills:

     Their lives went into the enclosures
     Like manure. Embraced those slopes
     Like summer cloud-shadows. Left
     This harvest of long cemeteries.

As the most recent example of that historical process of enclosure which fenced in the English countryside, the Yorkshire mills and chapels become for Hughes a fitting symbol of the disastrous effects of such action.

To develop the imagery of enclosure, Hughes uses, again and again, the square, a geometric figure imposed by the human mind on nature. This figure appeared across the Yorkshire landscape as "pioneer hope" squared stone: "To be cut, to be carted / And fixed in its new place." The stone "let itself be conscripted / Into mills. And it stayed in position / Defending this slavery against all." Inside those mills, however, workers soon also "Stayed in position, fixed like stones" until "they too became four-cornered, stony," hardened against "the guerrilla patience / Of the soft hill-water" by the work that the mills demanded. The very rocks of the valley, free and wild in the natural landscape, imprisoned the valley inhabitants within the walls of the textile mills until they became:

     A people fixed
     Staring at fleeces, blown flames.
     A people converting their stony ideas
     To woven weave, thick worsteds, dense fustians
     Between their bones and the four trembling quarters.

That enclosing, squared stoniness tainted not only the mills but also the churches. In a poem facing Godwin's photograph of Heptonstall Old Church, Hughes chronicles the history of the church's influence upon the people of the valley:

     A great bird landed here.
     Its song drew men out of rock,
     Living men out of bog and heather.
     Its song put a light in the valleys
     And harness on the long moors.

Like the hill walls, however, the "hard foursquare scriptures" eventually "fractured" and the "cracks filled with soft rheumatism."

Enclosure and imprisonment paralyzed the valley, a condition reflected in Hughes's metaphors of arthritic and rheumatic diseases, the final, crippling impotence before the inevitable demise of the present generation. Throughout the volume, Hughes pictures the valley as the gullet of the glacier which continues to swallow settlements which have sprung up there. The trench that the valley has become holds now the remnants of the paralytic life of the mill towns: "The arthritic remains / Of what had been a single strength." This paralysis appears most vividly in the lonely people of the valley, cut off from the land and waiting for the end:

     The mantel clock ticks in the lonely parlor
     On the heights road, where the face
     Blue with arthritic stasis
     And heart good for nothing now
     Lies deep in the chair-back, angled
     From the window-skylines
     Letting lime moan its amnesia
     Through the telegraph wires.
     As the fragments
     Of the broken circle of the hills
     Drift apart.

The telegraph wire, symbol of technological advancements in communication, isolates these people from the land, accelerating the debilitation that has set in. People like these, "angled / From the window-skylines," suggest a parallel with the defeated Celts, who were also "angled" and trapped as English history moved along.

The disastrous effects of technological progress recur in the images of Remains of Elmet: lorries rumbling over a shaky canal bridge, silenced sewing machines and shuttles, jets overhead, acid rain from "Manchester's rotten lung." In "When Men Got to the Summit," Hughes juxtaposes allusions to historic victories for control of the valley (men reaching the summit symbolizing at least temporary control and success) with the modern feat of anchoring a television antenna high on the summit of a hill rock. Such juxtapositions present ironic victories, however, for the men who reach the summit are inevitably defeated. The television set, which "blinked from the wolf's lookout," represents progress, but it also shuts people off from the beneficial effects of daily intercourse with the natural environment and traps them in those four-squared houses now beginning to crumble.

Hughes has sounded this note in his earlier poetry, and Stuart Hirschberg explains the poet's analysis of the cause of the problem:

A man first determines the laws by which nature governs herself and then invents "numbers and equations and laws" which direct nature's laws against nature herself. In the process of exploiting the earth for her material wealth and beating her into submission man has undermined and poisoned his own existence…. But, of course, mother-earth's revenge is that when she goes, man goes with her.

Progress which led ultimately to collapse victimized the Calder Valley, and the landscape now absorbs the arthritic remains of a culture lulled into paralysis by the sound of machines, a people

     That fell asleep
     Under migraine of headscarves and clatter
     Of clog-irons and looms
     And gutter-water and clog-irons
     And clog-irons and biblical texts.

When the looms shut down, however, the ancient energy of the earth re-emerges, freeing rock that had been cut and tamed for mills and churches, tumbling down the enclosing walls, resurrecting and renewing a dead land. Counterpointing the images of disease, decay, and death in Remains of Elmet, those of birth and regeneration bring one into a reborn kingdom and a new church, a free and wild natural world where walls and squares no longer prevail. This world has been continually developing in Hughes's poetry: it is one where the goddess Nature presides. Hughes has described it in an earlier poem, "A Riddle," as the "changed, unchangeable world / Of wind and of sun, of rock and water." These four images again create in Remains of Elmet a world which, free from the limitations of technology and religion, furnishes the only antidote to the world of abstractions. In a 1967 review of the poetry of Vasko Popa, Hughes warns that we must invest our hopes in something deeper than what is lost if civilization disappears, and he illustrates in Remains of Elmet that that something is the beauty and permanence of the natural world. Against the backdrop of the prototypical Elmet, a kingdom over which nature spirits presided, Hughes pictures a timeless Calder Valley, a place of "a hill beyond a hill beyond a hill" and "a day beyond a day beyond a day beyond a day."

In Remains of Elmet Hughes presents this world, as he has done in Gaudete, Cave Birds, and Crow, in the imagery of Christian ritual. By secularizing Christian symbols, Hughes creates a non-Christian paradise centered in the natural world. The sacramental value of this world unfolds in the image patterns. An alternative to the abstractions of Christianity, and to the death and destruction produced by the scientific mind, a sacrosanct world of light, stone, water, and wind will, Hughes argues, sustain the soul when all else fails:

     They are
     The armour of bric-à-brac
     To which your soul's caddis
     Clings with all its courage.

Caddis, a fabric binding, ironically evokes the looms and mills to which the spirit of the Calder Valley has clung too long, and Hughes offers here, in place of that spirit, a new kind of binding to the earth. Drawing once again on the image of battle, Hughes pictures the combatants courageously holding on, like the last Celts in Elmet, armoured with nature's "bric-a-brac." Even though they eventually face death, these people participate in natural process rather than subvert that process through machines which exploit the land and then rust from disuse.

The celebratory tone developed by this imagery balances the bleakness created by the images of enclosure and decay, and the continual juxtaposition of contrasted images and tones energizes Remains of Elmet. Counterpointing the disintegrating world of the Calder mills and churches is an earthly paradise centered in "Bridestones": "Holy of holies—a hilltop chapel. / Actually a crown of outcrop rock— / Earth's heart-stuff laid bare." This world furnishes all the necessities for religious celebration. "The Big Animal of Rock" (captured in Godwin's photograph of a giant rock jutting out of the landscape) offers tribute to the great Earth-Mother whose power over human life must be witnessed:

     At the Festival of Unending
     In the fleshly faith
     Of the Mourning Mother
     Who eats her children
     The cantor
     The rock,

Likewise, the tree, "A priest from another land," suffering in an endless battle against heather, stone, and wild water, offers itself as a testament to the physical and spiritual energy in the landscape: "Transfigured, bowed— / The lightning conductor / Of a maiming glimpse—The new prophet." Quiet, natural enclosures like Hardcastle Crags serve as this world's temples in a paleolithic, silent valley where "the god lives" amid the "Meditation of conifers" and "the beech-tree solemnities."

Over and over again in this volume, Hughes invests trees, wind, water, and rock with sacramental value, the rock and stone symbolizing endurance ("a world / Of busy dark atoms / Inside the live wreathed stone"), the water, fluidity. In this changing, unchanging world, energy circulates to recharge the receptive landscape. Moving "out of nothingness into nothingness," the landscape undergoes a perpetual cycle of sacrifice, as "The light, opening younger, fresher wings / Holds this land up again like an offering," and resurrection, as it "Stretches awake, out of Revelations / And returns to itself."

Hughes leaves no doubt that the grandeur of such a world far surpasses the paradises of organized religions and indeed can be a compensation for death and destruction. The poem, "The Long Tunnel Ceiling," illustrates such compensation. A lorry carrying wool and cotton rumbles over the canal bridge, dislodging a brick, the first hint of the bridge's inevitable collapse suggesting also the decline of the entire valley. But as the brick hits the water and disappears below the surface, a trout appears—a miraculous emissary from another world. The fish, which had been carried from the upper hill streams into the town canal, provides a momentary, natural vision: an "ingot," a "treasure" of another kind. The trout displaces the brick, as it were, bringing with it the possibility of new life: "A seed / Of the wild god now flowering for me / Such a tigerish, dark, breathing lily / Between the lyres, under the tortured axles." Here the canal provides the speaker with a vision of another world, a world beneath the surface, under the soon-to-collapse bridge. Such moments are Hughes's epiphanies.

As these images demonstrate, water symbolizes permanence, connecting past to present. The water in the town canals recalls the glacier which inundated the valley, and, even though presently, as evidenced by Godwin's photographs, that water may be reduced to rivulets over cobblestone streets, the canal still offers trout and loach, remains of the "Prehistory of the canal's masonry." From the disastrous fullness of the glacier to the trickle in the street, water endures, linking the past to the present even as it foreshadows the inevitable disaster of the future:

      Heather is listening
      Past hikers, gunshots, picnickers
      For the star-drift
      Of the returning ice.

For Hughes the earth provides more gratification than the human mind can invent, the magical sound of cock-crows over the whole valley, the "time-long Creation" of hills, the high sea light which "Heaven glows through." The Word of this paradise becomes "The Word that Space Breathes." the sounds of the natural world and the singers therein. Gods and demons co-exist in this landscape, and visions come in moments when the world reveals its "beauty spots."

Revelations also come in dreams, as the last poem in the volume, "The Angel," demonstrates. In this poem Hughes draws on the imagery of the book of Revelation where the angels illustrate both the effects of God's wrath and his promise of salvation. The dreamer in Hughes' poem, however, sees not the Christian messenger of God, but rather an omen for the human loss that death represents. When the dreamer asks his mother if the angel is a blessing, her answer turns "the beauty to terror," and his ultimate revelation is of the finality of death, not the possibility of an afterlife:

      When next I stood where I stood in my dream
      Those words of my mother,
      Joined with earth and engraved in rock,
      Were under my feet.

The angel in this final poem does not reveal St. John's New Jerusalem, the heavenly city gained after a struggle on earth (and a city St. John describes as "foursquare"). For Hughes the earthly struggle and the recognition of death arc the dark side of a physical world which continually renews itself. Hughes's mother's spirit lies buried under his feet, in the Calder Valley, not in St. John's city of God. Allusions to a dead mother in this last poem recall the opening poem in the volume, dedicated to Hughes's mother, where the poet sees her image in his uncle's face:

     He has brought me my last inheritance,
     Archeology of the mouth,
     Treasures that crumble at the touch of day—

His uncle's approaching death foretells the loss of his inheritance; it will be buried with all the preceding generations of Yorkshire: "Any moment now, a last kick / And the dark river will fold it away."

The poet, then, must accept this inheritance, hear the Word, capture the last songs of the present singers of a "lost kingdom" before they disappear as natural process claims human lives. In so doing he will "save" them and preserve with his voice the voices of the past. Writing in 1970, Hughes argued that artists could create their own paradises from the world around them:

a vision of the real Eden, "excellent as at the first day," the draughty radiant Paradise of the animals, which is the actual earth, in the actual Universe: he may see Pan, whom Nietzsche mistook for Dionysus, the vital, somewhat terrible spirit of natural life, which is new in every second. Even when it is poisoned to the point of death, its efforts to be itself are new in every second.

As the poems in Remains of Elmet show, Hughes's vision of paradise includes change, loss, and death. One of the most beautiful poems in the volume, opposite a photograph of an old hill man looking down over the smokey valley, reverberates with Hughes's typical ambivalence, capturing the beauty of a dying generation's song:

     The map of their lives, like the chart of an old game,
     Lies open before them.
     Their yarning moves over it, this way and that,
     Occupying the blanks.
     Mills are missing. Chapels are missing.
     But what has escaped the demolisher
     Clings inside their masks—
     Puppets of the graveyard's dream.
     Attuned to each other, like the strings of a harp,
     They are making mesmerising music,
     Each one bowed at his dry bony profile, as at a harp.
     Singers of a lost kingdom.
     Wild melody, wilful improvisations.
     Stirred to hear still the authentic tones
     The reverberations their fathers
     Drew from these hill-liftings and hill-hollows
     Furthered in the throats.

Continually in Remains of Elmet Hughes associates words with stone, the durability of both counteracting the series of changes the valley has gone through. In this poem the singers of a lost kingdom are the poet's links to the past, the "authentic tones" of their ancestors and their "yarning" surviving long after the mills and chapels are gone, preserving some sense of permanence in the midst of change and handing on their inheritance to the future. In a poem like this one, Hughes confirms Yeats's judgment that "an aged man is but a paltry thing unless … Soul clap its hand and sing."

In confronting death and destruction, Hughes has always believed, as his earliest poems illustrate, that the imagination brings the outer and inner worlds into harmony:

The inner world, separated from the outer world, is a place of demons. The outer world, separated from the inner world, is a place of meaningless objects and machines. The faculty that makes the human being out of these two worlds is called divine.

Writing of János Pilinszky, whose poetry exposes the violence and terror of post-war Europe, Hughes insists that out of Pilinszky's poetic confrontation with horror, redemption is won:

The very symbols of the horror are the very things he has redeemed. They are not redeemed in any religious sense. They are redeemed, precariously, in some all-too-human sense, somewhere in the pulsing mammalian nervous-system, by a feat of human consecration: a provisional, last-ditch "miracle" which we recognize, here, as poetic.

Hughes's use of religious terminology is telling: miracles, redemption, are not only possible but also more meaningful when achieved through poetry. "Ghastliness and bliss are strangely married" in Pilinszky's poetry, but of this marriage, healing is born.

Hughes's judgment of Pilinszky's work gives some clues to both the motivation and the method of Remains of Elmet. Pilinszky's is a deeply personal response to a social situation which could easily give rise to despair, one to which silence might serve as the best comment. But Hughes's response to this poet serves to illustrate his faith in the redemptive value of poetry. With words "manifestly crammed with meaning," a "Universe of Death" can be redeemed. When we look at what Hughes has done in Remains of Elmet, we realize that these words apply to his poetry as well as to Pilinszky's.

There is no doubt that Hughes's personal sense of the Calder Valley adds a humanizing element to these poems. When the cemetery is not only symbolically the valley that consumes everything that grows in it, but also the family graveyard where "Thomas and Walter and Edith … Esther and Sylvia" are buried, personal loss heightens the community tragedy. This volume focuses on a landscape and a people faced with annihilation, but it is a place and people Hughes knows well, and this personal connection with the valley underpins his artistic expression of the tragedy taking place. Yet the time he spent in the valley also put him in touch with the wild beauty of the Yorkshire hills, allowing him to see beyond the surface to the enduring value of all that remains in the landscape. Remains of Elmet is a transitional volume in this respect; it falls between Gaudete whose mythic structure plots, in perhaps too detached a way, the downfall of Reverend Lumb, an Anglican minister who dies at the hands of forces he tries to repress, and the more successful elegies in Moortown, which memorialize the death of Jack Orchard, Hughes's father-in-law and a Devon farmer. In confronting so personal an outer world, by imagining the Calder Valley as a vast repository of lives spent in continuous battle, and the history of the valley as the social dimension of the natural cycle of birth, growth, and destruction, Hughes does indeed create a complex volume of poems.

The appropriate metaphor here is poet as archeologist, not surprising given Hughes's training at Cambridge in archeology and anthropology. One of the poems in Remains of Elmet, "The Ancient Briton Lay Under His Rock," focuses on the problem involved in the need to uncover the past and the corresponding impossibility of completely discovering it. The poem pictures a group that goes digging because they "needed that waft from the cave / The dawn dew-chilling of emergence, / The hunting grounds untouched all around us." Like the others buried in the Calder landscape, the Ancient Briton is a testament to his own time, an enduring witness to the past. Though his body cannot be recovered, "his pig-headed rock existed. / A slab of time, it surely did exist. / Loyal to the day, it did not cease to exist." Typically, the rock, the natural marker, survives the man, anchored in the landscape long after the human body disintegrates. As the searchers dig, however, the rock falls into the hole: "It escaped us, taking its treasure down." In the final lines of the poem, the searchers are left, laboring in "the prison" of their eyes, their sun, their "Sunday bells."

This poem recapitulates the predominant images of the volume: treasures and people buried in the landscape, the mysteries of rock and sun, the enclosing prison, the "stinging brows" laboring within range of the church bells, the people in the valley whose faces and voices hint of earlier generations. Ironically what is confirmed here is the mystery; all the digging leads the group to a typical Hughes paradox: a past which "did not cease to exist" but "lay beyond us." Out of this paradox, the structure of Remains of Elmet emerges.

The mysteries of time and death lie at the heart of this volume; they are introduced in the dedicatory poem where Hughes's mother's memory lives in his uncle's hands, "Keeping their last eighty years alive and attached to me." But the image of the uncle simultaneously signals the end, a theme repeated in the final poem where the Angel of Death appears "Low over Hathershelf" only to disappear "behind Stoodley, / Under the moor." The ominous words of the speaker's mother in this last poem, not specified though nevertheless understood, are that "something disastrous" which the entire volume reveals. The words of the dreamer's mother are engraved in rock under his feet, and her tombstone becomes the modern equivalent of that rock that marks the burial place of the Ancient Briton. Both of these, moreover, are linked to all the others in the graveyard that the Calder Valley has become, including those last Celts who died at Elmet. People are attached thus in Remains of Elmet, and the message from the past, for the present and the future, the overwhelming mystery human beings must confront, is their own death. To accept this is to acknowledge their part in the drama of natural process, and for this acceptance, nature offers as compensation a worldly paradise before death.

The tension Hughes maintains between two views of Calder, a dying valley in the last siege of the current battle, and a land stretching itself awake while the ancient energy renews it, creates the ambivalence central to an understanding of these poems. In achieving this, Hughes avoids the one-sided response which gave rise to the accusation that his earlier poetry celebrated violence, and deals with the complexity of living in a world where dynamic energy creates and destroys. In drawing upon the personal dimensions of life in the Calder Valley, Hughes can see the human abuse of the earth and the tragic helplessness of people at the mercy of natural forces. Not only do machines destroy nature, but nature destroys itself: "lets what happens to it happen." But Hughes can also reveal the wild, natural beauty of the Yorkshire valley that he knows so well, and it is important to notice that "what happens" can also give us a vision of the earthly divine. While Hughes sings of many lost kingdoms, his song celebrates what remains in the Calder Valley and in the world beyond that valley.

Neil Roberts (essay date Summer 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Ted Hughes and the Laureateship," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 3-5.

[In the following essay, Roberts discusses Hughes's appointment as England's Poet Laureate.]

The reported expectation of the 'literary world' that the laureateship would be awarded to a poet who had announced that he no longer wrote, and surprise that instead the immensely prolific Ted Hughes was chosen, makes its own comment. But even many of Hughes's admirers must, when the announcement was made, have thought it incongruous. Thinking of Hughes, the celebrator of everything in nature that threatens the decorousness of human arrangements, who has pronounced civilisation an evolutionary error, as a 'member of the royal household' is like thinking of Emily Brontë as lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. As David Holbrook remarked in a not otherwise perceptive critique, referring to the award of the Queen's Medal for Poetry, it is not possible to imagine Hughes reciting 'Song for a phallus' in Her Majesty's presence. How could this poet bring his gifts and imagination to bear on royal births and weddings? Even Betjeman, whom many thought ideally equipped for the task, did not produce any distinguished verse as Laureate, and those who have read the quatrain by Hughes engraved in Queen Square outside the Faber offices, to mark the Silver Jubilee, will not have been encouraged by it.

But the contempt in which liberal intellectuals hold the monarchy, the major source of popular ritual and mythology in our society, though possibly justified, is hardly a healthy thing, and it is part of Hughes's unconventionality that he is unlikely to share it. Trevor Griffiths described the most recent royal wedding as a great piece of street theatre. Griffiths was implying that the establishment can beat radical theatre at its own game, not at all exhorting writers to participate in the royal spectacle, but no one supposes the incongruity of Hughes's appointment is specifically political. It did not occur to me how specific, in another sense, it is until I read his first 'official' poem, published in the Observer on 23 December. The poem clarified my sense of incongruity but having read it I no longer felt that the appointment was absurd: a clear understanding of how outrageous Hughes's Lau-reateship is brings with it, on the contrary, a strong sense of challenge and excitement. The poem is titled, 'Rain-charm for the Duchy, a blessed, devout drench for the christening of Prince Harry'. Christening! The monarchy, of course, is a Christian institution, the Queen is the head of the Church of England, required by law to be a Protestant, the occasions that the Laureate is called on to celebrate are Christian rituals that take place in Christian churches. And those responsible for appointing the Laureate have chosen a poet who is pagan in the strongest possible sense, who has described the Christian God as 'the man-created, broken-down, corrupt despot of a ramshackle religion', who thinks the legend of our national saint represents a vicious relationship with the forces of nature (and has portrayed it in the most repellent terms in 'Crow's account of St George' and the Wodwo version of 'Gog', and rewritten it in his celebrated children's story, The Iron Man); who, above all this, is not merely a non-believer but is positively committed to a rival religion which, in his opinion, Christianity has done its best to stamp out but which will triumph either with our co-operation or at our expense. This, of course, is the religion of Neumann's 'Great Mother', Grave's 'White Goddess', the presiding deity of Hughes's three major mythological works, Crow, Gaudete and Cave Birds.

     Churches topple
     Like the temples before them.
     The reverberations of worship
     Seem to help
     Collapse such erections.
     In all that time
     The river
     Has deepened its defile
     Has been its own purification
     Between your breasts
     Between your thighs

This poem from the Epilogue to Gaudete gives the sense that is immanent in all Hughes's writing of the relation between Christianity and the Goddess. It is unthinkable that Hughes should regard the Laureateship as a platform for attacking Christianity but the poem in the Observer is at the very least a promise of something richer than doctrinal confrontation, something more convivial, warm and mannerly, yet uncompromised, creative and in its way subversive. The poem is an evocation of a thunderstorm and is in the relaxed, expansive, celebratory manner that has increasingly dominated Hughes's poetry since Season Songs and Moortown. It would not be out of place in River, though I think it is better than most of the poems in that volume. There is little internal evidence that it was written for the occasion, but the decision to use it was an inspired one, and its association with the royal christening gives it an enormous added dimension of meaning.

I referred to the poem from Gaudete because of these lines in the 'Rain-Charm':

     The Cathedral jumped in and out
     Of a heaven that had obviously caught fire
     And couldn't be contained.

This church is not collapsing but its subordination to the 'heaven' of the thunderstorm is as evident as is that heaven's pagan character. It seems appropriate that in the photograph of Prince Harry and his mother that accompanies the poem in the Observer, the Princess looks more than usually anxious. An unnamed person in the poem worries about the effect of the storm on the harvest but

     I was thinking
     Of joyful sobbings—
     The throb …

and this erotic language, in a way familiar to readers of River, leads into the evocation of the gratitude of each named and individualised river for the rain.

The link between the 'vertical, precious, pearled' rain, the 'weight of warm Atlantic water', and the parsimonious sprinkling of an Anglican baptism is of course the whole point of the occasion. And the effect, however far from Hughes's mind the christening might have been when he wrote the poem, is one of beautiful poise: a genuine hearty sense of blessing on the child, entirely in Hughes's own spirit, exploiting the fertility symbolism that pervades Christianity in disguise (most beautifully appropriate in 'And the Torridge, rising to the kiss, / Plunging under sprays, new born, / A washed cherub, clasping the breasts of light'); but also a lurking, goblin-like amusement at the disproportion between this drench and the wetting that the prince actually experienced in church—a disproportion to which that jumping cathedral is not irrelevant.

It is unlikely that Hughes's poetic development will be significantly influenced by his appointment, but if he is able to sustain the poise and integrity of this first poem he might turn the Laureateship into an organ for creatively exploring the role of religion, ritual and mythology in our society. If he does that, it will no longer be possible to call it—as a writer to the Guardian did—'this trivial post'.

David Holbrook (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Crow of Avon? Shakespeare, Sex and Ted Hughes," in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1986, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Holbrook traces some of Hughes's theories about Shakespeare and strongly disagrees with the poet's interpretation.]

Obviously, Shakespeare had problems with sexuality, and we encounter these over the Sonnets, over King Lear's outburst about the sulphurous pit. Hamlet's feelings about his mother, and in Timon. The intensity of the emotions isn't always modified within the overall meaning of the play—as the treatment of sexuality is perhaps absorbed in Antony and Cleopatra, even in its unresolved ambiguity.

A student recently thought he had found clues to these problems in an essay by Ted Hughes, in the Introductory Note to his Selection from Shakespeare. This selection is no doubt used in schools, and so the Note is worth examining. In discussing it we found with dismay that Hughes seeks to reduce Shakespeare to a single theme. To study the essay perhaps tells us more about Hughes and the contemporary mind than Shakespeare, who, according to this critic, was 'almost invariably hammering at the same thing—a particular knot of obsessions'.

We might accept that there are recurrent themes in Shakespeare—the contrast between appearance and reality, for instance—the outward form that belies the inner corruption or weakness; the dreadfulness of time; the hunger that is inherent in sexuality which can seem to threaten to eat up the whole world; the way in which that which seems pure may go corrupt more quickly and more catastrophically than what seems more satisfactorily mixed with earthiness. But once one embarks upon any such list of preoccupations, they seem, to anyone acquainted with Shakespeare's work, to stretch out inexhaustibly beyond our limited comprehension. We may recognise that they are the kind of preoccupation, often, into which modern psychoanalytical insights have yielded understanding, often to do with sexual experience: but these themselves are qualified again by a new recognition that the problems are even deeper—they have dimensions which belong to infantile fantasy, to feelings about the self and the mother's body, in very early life to the deepest (because earliest) problems of being. In Timon, for instance, it seems to me we cannot make proper connections between parts of the play unless we examine the symbolism in terms of what is meant by 'the breast', and the symbolic relationship between self and Mother Earth (who may also be a Witch).

Yet we must be doubtful, surely, of any attempt to reduce all Shakespeare's marvellous work to a single theme? This, however, is Hughes's intention:

In other words, the scope and variety of the plays conceals what a selection of this sort makes markedly plain (so naked that one almost has doubts about the propriety of it)—that the poetry has its taproot in a sexual dilemma of a peculiarly black and ugly sort. And when we look a bit further, we see that whatever else the plays lake account of, they are also doggedly bent on analysing and exploring that same dilemma. (my italics)

In Ted Hughes's Note we never, in fact, learn fully what this sensational dilemma is. Hughes reveals some qualms in the next paragraph:

This might be thought belittling and a disappointment, a pointless thing to do, to bring Shakespeare down to a single fundamental idea.

Yet 'singleness can be big': it can be all-inclusive. Even Shakespeare 'had only one nature': even Shakespeare (like Crow) 'was stuck with himself'.

Hughes's single fundamental idea about Shakespeare, it seems, is the symbolic fable which 'nearly all his greatest passages combine to tell' and which each of his plays tell 'in some form or other'. The way Hughes imposes his theory on the achievement seems to reduce all the plays to a retelling of the same theme—implicitly denying and belittling the immense progress to which Shakespeare's work testifies. All these are 'metaphors for his own nature' (as, of course, we are told, are Hughes's pigs and predatory birds).

Astonishingly, Hughes declares that 'most poets' 'never come anywhere near divining the master-plan of their whole make-up and projecting it complete'. But who would expect such a thing? Hughes writes as if he had no notion of the complex reality of a human self and the limitations of our attempts to apprehend it. Instead, he seeks some one sensational brutal truth in his subject, to be 'unmasked'.

Characteristically, he starts with Titus Andronicus: all one can say is—he would, wouldn't he?

Hughes goes on to speak of a 'skeleton-key fable': the elements of this 'provide the great things in the Histories and gradually dominate the essential shape of those plays (the shape we remember) in the polar opposition of Falstaff and prince Hal'. But, surely, the history plays differ so much? Henry IV, Part I embarks on the characteristic Shakespearean perspective on human nature: but who could reduce that play to a 'polar opposition' between Hal and Falstaff? One strange aspect is their affinity, in recognition of the common potentiality for baseness of human nature: any ruler must bear this in mind. In Henry IV, Part II Falstaff is a different character—corruption, vice and destructiveness are taking him over, while Ha! learns to accept the uncomfortable mantle of responsibility and the need for rule. In Henry V both arc quite different again. What can Hughes mean?

The 'fable' apparently is manifest in Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece where Shakespeare 'produced the whole fable, beautifully intact and very precisely analysed'. But what is it?

Hughes does not say—but asserts again it was his 'poetic powerhouse'. With Hamlet it becomes 'his main subject'. It 'reflects perfectly the prevailing psychic conflict of his times in England, the conflict which exploded, eventually, into the Civil War'. This is a large claim and perhaps owes something to Lawrence's rather wild pronouncements on Hamlet and history in Fantasia of the Unconscious?

Hughes tells us that the poetic imagination in Shakespeare is 'determined finally by the state of negotiation between man and his idea of the Creator'. And Hughes then turns to Elizabeth I and her virginity: there was he claims, 'an archaic mythological dimension beyond the immediate theological one': this led to what Hughes calls a 'grand spiritual court case' to do with the Queen. This has to do with

the drastic way the Queen of Heaven, who was the goddess of Catholicism, who was the goddess of Mediaeval and pre-Christian England, who was the divinity of the throne, who was the goddess of natural law and of love, who was the goddess of all sensation and organic life—this overwhelmingly powerful, multiple, primaeval being, was dragged into court by the young Puritan Jehovah.

Apparently this agitation 'was within everybody', yet to me it seems to illuminate little in Shakespeare's plays. If it applies at all, it must surely apply to Cleopatra, and I do not find that it does. For me, it illuminates nothing of the Elizabethan consciousness, as we know it from the literature.

When Elizabeth died, says Hughes, James 'openly threw his weight against the old goddess and all her idolatrous witcheries'—and then 'in a real sense the conflict within individuals went out of control'.

James's court was clearly more corrupt than Elizabeth's but her achievements were not only 'witcheries' surely? What evidence is there that the 'conflict within individuals' went out of control? Gradually the great amount of high tragic seriousness in drama declined. But what does Hughes mean by 'A divine representative of Jehovah, a Jehovah in fact, had actually and symbolically deposed the goddess': I cannot believe this means anything, nor does Hughes convince me that he makes the proper connections with the forthcoming Civil War, or indeed any of the forces in history which he flings into his melting pot. He does not convince me that his analysis of the divided consciousness of the time has anything to do with literature or history:

They could create a provisional persona, an emergency self, to deal with the crisis. They could create a self who would somehow hang on to all the fragments as the newly throned god and the deposed goddess tore each other to pieces behind his face. And this is where Shakespeare's hero comes staggering in. Mother-wet, weak-legged, horrified at the task, boggling—Hamlet.

Hughes seems to be making Hamlet, and, indeed, all of Shakespeare's work to a Hughes-myth, like Gog, Wodwo or Crow. Is that really Hamlet as we experience him: 'Mother-wet, weak-legged … boggling'?

It may be true that Hamlet's perplexities and procrastinations have to do with deep underlying feelings about his mother: but he has the problem that a ghost has told him that his father was murdered—while he himself is in an intensely dangerous situation. But how does Hamlet connect in Hughes' mind with the dead Elizabeth and the corrupt homosexual James I?

Very much as in ancient Greece, it was the moment of tragedy: the agonies of an ancient Dionysus in a world of suddenly hardening sceptical intellect and morality.

Who is the ancient Dionysus? James I? Where in Ancient Greece do we find an ancient Dionysus as the focus of tragedy? Is tragedy a product of Dionysiac agonies in a world of 'suddenly hardening sceptical intellect and morality'?

Hughes now turns to Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. His account of these is also wildly eccentric. He sees them as 'the two unjoined halves of a single story'

In the first, the Divine Power in female form offers her love with such fullness and intensity that ordinary defensive humanity does not know how to accept it. In the second, the Divine Power, enraged after rebuff, in male and destructive form (Mars is the Shiva behind the boar and behind Tarquin), completes the visitation fatally.

At this point Hughes makes his one observation that provokes agreement:

This shift from living female to angry male is a regular sequence or oscillation in religions, and very relevant here

—but one still wonders what relevance this has to Shakespeare. I cannot follow how he moves from these observations to see in the gap between these two poems

     'a frightening psychic event'
     —which is a key to the Civil War!

The theme apparently surfaced in Hamlet, is pursued ('with evident horror') in Measure for Measure and this should give us the clue as to what is missing from the two poems. Angelo is a 'chronic puritan': Isabella is a Lucrece figure. When Isabella pleads with Angelo for her brother's life this is 'the chaste puritan [who] pleads for the natural sin of her own blood'. But the point surely is that she is a complement to Angelo in not recognising it as the natural sin of her own blood? But how does this connect with Hamlet which is about a quite different set of problems? Hughes argues that the situation 'closely corresponds, obviously enough, with the situation in Venus and Adonis'.

The arguments are the same, and carried on with the same almost repulsively obsessive zest.

I am not convinced of the similarities between Venus and Adonis and Measure for Measure: Hughes seems to be working simply from his own kind of preoccupation with rape, projecting into Shakespeare his own mode of mental rage:

A demon has arrived. Angelo is suddenly, and dead against his will, influenced, as Dryden might say, by Venus—Angelo is no longer Angelo. His brittle Puritan mask is split.

But the point, surely, is that Angelo (whose name is ironic) is human: no demon need be invoked. He is not 'taken over' as (Hughes says) Adonis is by a boar. He is simply the human being who denies his mixed nature, and because of it is likely to fester more quickly than the common weeds, because of his posture as a lily. Hughes says he is a 'flower' in the place of a 'brittle puritan gentleman'.

This blood-splashed flower is what stands in the gap between Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Hughes excitedly pursues a strange and confusing amalgam of Measure for Measure, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece—surely three utterly different works, in terms of their tone and intention, their mode, their difference in immaturity and maturity of accomplishment.

Meanwhile, Angelo, destroyed only in his mask, has emerged as a lust-mad tyrant. His affinity to Tarquin is close. He rules—but he is not the rightful ruler. And how his lust has usurped the place of rule. As with Tarquin, it is the woman's very purity, her chastity, her freedom from lust and her opposition to it, combined with the dumb appeal of her physical beauty, which have inflamed him. Like Tarquin, he is ready to do murder if she will not submit … And like Tarquin, as it turns out, satisfaction will leave him quite a different person, a stranger to what he has done …

So many things are wrong in this paragraph that it is difficult to know where to start. What does 'destroyed only in his mask' mean? Angelo relies on his mask—his publicly-known probity as an upholder of the sexual laws—to browbeat Isabella: only at last is he exposed, and then only by tremendous resolution on the part of the woman in a moment of doubt and grave risk. Angelo is not at all like Tarquin, who is a straightforward villain. It is true that Isabella's chastity inflames Angelo, but one point of the play is that she is lacking in sympathy because she does not ultimately recognise that she is not free from lust, that she, too, is mixed and human—and so should show compassion. Isabella's physical beauty is by no means 'dumb'—her speech on being whipped with rubies reveals a deep undercurrent of suppressed sensuality (not that we wish she should yield her chastity to Angelo for Claudio's sake). And should we speak of 'satisfaction' where Tarquin and Angelo are concerned? And are they, 'afterwards', 'strangers' to what they have done?

In a vague sort of way the paragraph makes a rough (journalistic) sense. But it shows no delicacy of perception into the subtlety of Shakespeare's art. What it does reveal is the same kind of fascinated excitement in Hughes, at the machismo of the assault on woman (whose 'dumb' beauty calls on the beast in man) such as we find in Gog part II:

The boar that demolished Adonis was, in other words, his own repressed lust—crazed and bestialized by being separated from the intelligence and denied. The Venus which he refused became a demon and supplanted his consciousness. The frigid puritan, with a single terrible click, becomes a sexual maniac. (my italics)

There is a recurrent theme in Ted Hughes's response to experience, of a split-off force of some kind taking over a man. There is, for instance the poem in Crow in which a scientist takes arms against a hideous demon, only to find that he has slaughtered his wife and children. In some of these poems, as with the horseman in Gog, there is revealed an impulse to give way, with a strange kind of satisfaction, to such impulses, and to enjoy the orgy of destructiveness depicted if only as an act of mental rage. I find these poems deeply disturbing, for they seem to me to represent a tendency to give oneself up to the joys of hatred, a phenomenon which is clear enough, of course, in the more psychotic poems of Sylvia Plath. I believe also that the main appeal of Crow is in suggesting a parallel abandonment of oneself to a certain kind of blunt brutal and cynical resignation to mere 'survival', in a nihilistic spirit.

Here, behind the discussion of Shakespeare, one may detect a related model of human nature and conduct. A demon may take over in spite of oneself. The process is quite mechanical: it happens 'with a click'. A force shoots into the brain. Hughes sees the human organism as containing something like a beast or a boar within himself, and this force can 'supplant' his consciousness, so that with a sudden switch he can become a 'sexual maniac'. As critics of this kind of contemporary model have declared, the danger is that to assent to it implicitly encourages a feeling that we are not responsible for our actions: the impersonal forces that science recognises in matter or organic life determine our behaviour: matter seethes, while even the saints' brains are the bubbles of nothing: neither consciousness nor values can be real.

But even if we follow Hughes's notion of what can happen to the 'brain', the problem is that it is not clear whether Hughes is speaking of Shakespeare's mind, or Adonis's, or whose ('Adonis has become Tarquin'). (Are we in any case to simply read Shakespeare's works as psychodramas?)

Whoever it may be, this yielding to the beast, apparently, is triggered in Shakespeare by a 'simple' and 'one might think academic factor': 'Adonis's Calvinist spectacles, which divide love, the creative force of nature, into abstract good and physical evil'

Nature's attempts to recombine, first in love, then in whatever rebuffed love turns into, and the puritan determination that she shall not recombine in any circumstances, are the power-house and the torture-chamber of the complete works. (my italics)

This could be taken to say that the attempt to keep love and hate apart is the basis of all Shakespeare's work. In psychoanalysis the ineradicable combination of love and hate in us is called ambivalence, and surely if one were to ask where the problem of ambivalence is most courageously explored in literature, one might well answer—in Shakespeare's art (I leave aside consideration of the journalistic language 'power-house and torture chamber': I found it difficult in my discussions with students to bring Hughes's extravagant declarations within the sensible discussion of Shakespeare's art).

A Shakespeare who could create Angelo was no 'puritan' seeking in his own psyche to frustrate the recognition of ambivalence. He is disturbed to acknowledge man's potentialities for lust, and more by the perverse impulse in man to sully innocence and to rape chastity. In exploring these themes he often uncovers complexities of feeling in himself which seemed to have been almost unendurable, as when he makes Lear burst out against the 'burning, scalding, stench, corruption' in woman's body, or makes Timon rail against the whole Earth as a source of destructiveness. But none of this is illuminated by Ted Hughes's attribution of puritanism to Shakespeare, and nowhere can one find evidence that Shakespeare was puritanical in Hughes's sense. Indeed, one could argue that Shakespeare was as far from that kind of denial of man's true nature as it is possible to get. He was also profoundly aware of the dangers of the failure to 'recombine', to be able to accept that 'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine'. If anyone is painfully clear-sighted about human ambivalence, it is surely Shakespeare?

So Ted Hughes's Shakespeare seems very different from mine. But my difficulty is also to know whom he is talking about. Shakespeare did not go mad, nor did he turn into a murderer. Who is the 'high-minded puritan' in Hughes's account, who has rejected Nature's maddened force? Here it seems to be Hamlet:

And the vital twist, the mysterious chemical change, that converts the resisting high-minded puritan to the being of murder and madness, is that occult crossover of Nature's maddened force—like a demon—into the brain that had rejected her. Hamlet, looking at Ophelia, sees his mother in bed with his uncle and goes mad …

Hamlet goes mad partly on purpose, to disguise and confuse: partly because of his horror at a ghostly revelation of the dreadful death of his father (and his disturbing doubt of the authenticity of this account) and because of deep troubled feelings—about his mother's sexuality: and all these combining with his perception that Ophelia is being used to spy on him when his life is in danger. He does not go mad for the reason Hughes gives.

Hughes, however, runs through the tragedies and boils them down to the one theme:

Othello, looking at his pure wife, sees Cassio's whore, and goes mad … Lear, looking at Cordelia, sees Goneril and Regan, and goes mad …

Antony ('in a sense') goes mad: Coriolanus begins to act like a madman: so do Leontes and Posthumus. There is just enough of the truth in all this to hold the crude theory together: but the thumbnail summaries of the plots are grotesque ('Antony, looking at his precious queen, sees the ribaudred nag of Egypt betraying him to 'the very heart of loss' and goes—in a sense—mad')

And then everything is compressed further, beyond the common theme of distrust of woman, to this:

Shakespearean lust, this boar of blackness, emerging to do murder, accompanied—as a rule—by various signs of a hellish apparition, and leagued with everything forbidden

Perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust

combines with the puritan mind—a mind desensitized to the true nature of nature—and produced this strange being: Richard III, Tarquin, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth—men of chaos.

But these are not men of chaos in the same way, and their character and circumstances simply do not reduce to the extraordinary simplification. In the first line quoted, Shakespeare is defining lust and warning 'W. H.' against falling into such sterility. But the lust in Sonnet 129 is by no means a product of a 'puritan mind' which refuses to accept certain aspects of nature: on the contrary, Shakespeare in his insights anticipates the findings of modern psychoanalysis on the association of lust and murder, and the emptiness of mere acquisitiveness.

Hughes declares that 'the peculiar fact is, that it is just this man of chaos—from Aaron to Caliban—who is the mouthpiece of the poetry' (my italics). While Shakespeare (through the mouth of Prospero) may have acknowledged Caliban, it is surely a complete falsification of Shakespeare to declare that

Looking through the great passages, one sees that the mass of them belong to this obsessed, half-maniac—either in his full range, or just after. If he does not speak them, they describe him … This man of chaos is the killer of the king or the murderer of the woman, or both—

Shakespeare himself 'allowed' chaos, saw it as possible (as in the divided self of Macbeth). But Shakespeare was not a man of chaos: he is a man of order—even in the final anguish of Lear where we would not be able to endure the pain and horror unless Shakespeare were holding the tragedy together, secure in some capacity still to believe in the possibility of grace and love. It is true that many Shakespeare plays are concerned with the murder of the king and/or the violation of the woman: but this is only because Shakespeare is concerned with the extreme of moral action, and of the ultimate problems of human inter-relation, personal and social-political. Hughes's all-embracing theory becomes increasingly ludicrous:

This is the secret of one of Shakespeare's greatest strokes of genius. Then this suppressed Nature goddess erupts, possessing the man who denied her, and creating this king-killing man of chaos, Shakespeare has conducted what is essentially an erotic poetry into an all-inclusive body of political action—especially that action where a rightful ruler is supplanted by a half-crazy figure who bears in some form the mark of the beast.

Insofar as we can make any sense of it (Shakespeare reduced as it were to Orghast proportions) we can see that Hughes's essentially mechanistic-reductionist philosophy of existence makes it impossible for him to appreciate Shakespeare's triumph. So, Hughes goes on to seriously mis-read the later plays—because he cannot fit them into his sensational theory about a 'cauldron of sexual evil', and so forth. After Coriolanus 'Shakespeare begins to cheat'. In the last plays 'the young women, murdered by madmen or tempest', do not actually die—'they reappear to make everybody happy'.

The hard-won belief in the future, which Shakespeare achieved by such heroic and tremendous spiritual effort, means nothing to Ted Hughes. Instead he offers rambling conjecture and wild interpretation. Hamlet is Adonis, with a Tarquin-destiny; Othello is an over-ripe Adonis: Desdemona is Lucrece. King Lear is 'an immensely magnified close-up analysis of the inevitable destruction of Tarquin'. So, we move on to Cromwell! ('Was the juvenile Cromwell enjoying Shakespeare's revelation by telepathy …?') The Shakespearean fable is 'really' the account of how (in the religious struggle England 'lost her soul'.

To call that event a 'dissociation of sensibility' is an understatement. Our national poems are tragedies for a good reason.

Surely the 'dissociation of sensibility' was not intended by Eliot to refer to any 'loss of soul', but to a division between modes of sensibility, thought and feeling, and this has nothing to do with the problems of lust and murder which Hughes has been discussing. Nor has the great tragic era of Shakespeare's time anything to do with the dissociation of sensibility: nor has tragedy anything to do with the loss of the nation's soul.

And so, to the Restoration!

As one might expect, in this 'strong' 'black' interpretation, Hughes's greatest incomprehension, and his most offensive insult to Shakespeare, is to be contemptuous of Ferdinand and Miranda:

Shakespeare's persistence has to be admired … within an impenetrable crucible of magic prohibitions, he married Lucrece (Miranda) to Adonis (Ferdinand). But what a wooden wedding! What proper little Puritan puppets! (my italics)

The verse of balanced, harmonious courtesy which Ferdinand speaks to Miranda is an expression of a painfully achieved gratitude for human existence and for love: Prospero is the saddened and purged figure who is able to know and imagine so much, yet cherish faith in the continuity of life. Yet Hughes must unmask this!

And what a ghastly expression on Prospero's cynical face …

In this surely Hughes shows both his inability to read Shakespeare and his essential contempt for Shakespeare's poetic achievements? Hughes speaks as if Prospero is made to bury his book so that Shakespeare can cheat (the book contains the evidence of the tragedies): but the evidence of the tragedies and what was achieved through them in terms of insight and hope, is there in The Tempest, to anyone who can read.

Hughes sees the religious struggle as having its roots in the sexual dilemma—as a war over 'the dark and vicious place', a struggle over the fallen body and a final loss of the creative soul. The 'dark and vicious place' is a fantasy of woman's genital, and the 'sulphurous pit': it may be the fallen body, but it is not the 'final loss of the creative soul'. Shakespeare is aware of the human potentialities for evil (and opens himself in this to tremendous unconscious pressures). He admits the destructive potentialities in the woman who creates us (and so might destroy us). While this can be terrible, the harvest of the exploration are not only profound insights, but also great achievements of resolution. The presentation of Perdita, Miranda and Marina is not naive, but a simplicity of positive cherishing, 'costing not less than everything': a belief in a possible future.

Ted Hughes, characteristically, sees it in terms of chaos and nihilism:

When the physical presence of love has been degraded to lust, and forbidden lust has combined with every other forbidden thing to become a murderous devil, life itself has become a horror, the maiden has become a whore and a witch, and miraculous source of creation has become the empty hole through into Nothing.

The application of existentialist ideas needs to be more carefully applied than this: the fact that Hughes is writing without careful thought becomes apparent in the way in which, throughout this essay, he simply does not at times even write coherent sentences.

The essay ends with many portentous references which mean little or nothing: we would much rather have had some sensitive comment on the verse, and on Shakespeare's imagination. What is one to make of 'the ancient shamanistic dream', the 'biological polarity of the life of the body and archaic nervous system and the life of the reflective cortex'? Of 'atavistic memories' and how 'knowing how deep a not particularly gifted schizophrenic can dive for material, one would not readily set limits to Shakespeare's secret flights' (for Hughes's permission granted here to Shakespeare we must surely be grateful?)

Shakespeare, in the end, only gets about six out of ten. Hughes would have liked it better

if the Shakespeare who wrote at top poetic pressure, and at length … had ranged over a greater variety of subjects and moods. If the Shakespeare, for instance, who wrote the great speech 'Be absolute for death' had gone on giving us similarly ripe, leisurely digressions, ranging over the abundance he had shown himself master of in Troilus and Cressida. But Hamlet was already being written. The great theme had surfaced: the pressure was on: digressions were over. (my italics)

But what theme? Hughes has not made it explicit, and has by no means convinced us—as by showing it in quotations, attending to the substance of the verse—that he has any fresh insight to offer into the springs of Shakespeare's art. Shakespeare was not working out the Adonis/Venus Tarquin/Lucrece theme all his life: his dealings with gender, love, sex, murder and meaning are infinitely complex and varied. It is insulting to demand 'a greater variety of subjects and moods' from a poet of such breathtaking range, while trying to nail him down to a single coarse theme.

It is surely deeply disturbing to find a writer respected for his contributions to education and poetry, and now Poet Laureate, attempting thus to cut Shakespeare down, to fit his own limited and bleak philosophy of being—to something like the shrunken lump of pitiful pulsating insignificance to which Hughes reduces life in his repugnant, cynical and nihilistic Crow.

Rand Brandes (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Ted Hughes In and Out of Time: Remains of Elmet and Moortown Elegies," in World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the "Jubilation of Poets," edited by Leonard M. Trawick, Kent State University, 1990, pp. 37-43.

[In the following essay, Brandes asserts that Hughes's poetry remains out of time and history.]

In 1957, at the outset of his career, Ted Hughes asserted that his poems exist because "they are the only way I can unburden myself of that excess which, for their part, bulls in June bellow away." Hughes's bulls represent his early attempt to claim an imaginative territory outside the ironic understatement and domestic preoccupations of the mainstream of British poetry represented by the Movement in the late 1950s. Although one must take the young Hughes's excessive bulls with a tolerant grin, one must also see the bovine analogy as his attempt not only to distance himself from the affairs of everyday human existence, but also to place his poetry outside the limiting constructs of history. In what approaches self-parody if not blatant mockery, Hughes envisions the poet and his poetry existing in the immediate physical world of the bulls' realm, unencumbered by human time and oblivious to the demands of social or political relevancy. The bulls live according to the rhythms of biological time; their bellowing is an uncontrollable part of the larger creative process. In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche argues that the beasts in the field are content because they live "unhistorically" and are not plagued by the "'historical sense,' that injures and finally destroys the living thing, be it a man or a people or a system of culture" or, Hughes would add, the creative vision. Thus, like the bulls that bellow because they live unhistorically, Hughes instinctively writes from an unhistorical perspective.

Hughes in a later and more sober statement (London Magazine, February 1962) clarifies his position on the relationship between historical events and the creative impulse, which he calls the "gift." He argues that it is the poet's responsibility to follow his "gift" and not to look "for his satisfaction among more popular and public causes" or to "mix his poetry up with significant matters or to throw his verse into the popular excitement of the time." Hughes justifies the orientation of his creative impulse by arguing that it is innately apolitical and unhistorical.

Throughout his poetry Hughes uses a number of strategies to get outside of time by disengaging his poems from historical and temporal contexts. His dominant strategy is myth; he would agree with the early Roland Barthes that myth "evaporates history" and is "depoliticized speech." The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal, Wodwo, Crow, Gaudete, and Cave Birds all draw upon Hughes's preoccupation with mythic structures. Only recently have critics such as Terry Eagleton begun to challenge the validity of Hughes's mythic approach because of its apparent lack of the historical sense and the absence of a readily recognizable interest in contemporary issues. These critics see in the bellowing bulls a thinly disguised bovine Zeus or Horus singing of a golden world. They distrust the bull in Hughes's canon and want it sacrificed in the name of a sociopolitical/historical awareness, arguing that Hughes's mythopoeics exist in a bubble of irrelevancy outside of the complexities of recorded time. Perhaps in response to this criticism, Hughes has more recently attempted to write from a historical perspective instead of his standard mythic approach. In Remains of Elmet (1979) Hughes locks an entire volume in a specific landscape and in a specific historical problem: the Calder valley in Yorkshire and its decline since the fall of the Celts. Another alternative approach appeared a year earlier in the Rainbow Press first edition of Moortown Elegies (1978). This volume focuses on immediate action and the unhistorical moment; its style resembles what D. H. Lawrence calls the Poetry of the Present, "the poetry of the incarnate Now." While Remains of Elmet fails because of its indiscriminate use of history, Moortown Elegies succeeds because of its resistance to history.

Remains of Elmet and Moortown Elegies were written simultaneously from 1975 to 1978. Individual poems from both volumes were published concurrently in various magazines and journals—in fact, they were occasionally mixed in one submission. Hughes must have felt the almost schizophrenic nature of the dual writing.

In Remains of Elmet, Hughes was bound not only to Fay Goodwin's black and white photographs, but also to particular landscapes and a specific historical program: the heroic vitality of the valley's original settlers and industrialists and the destruction of that heroic (and capitalistic) breed. The imagistic style that dominates the book is bare-boned and terse. In sharp contrast, Moortown Elegies, though written about Hughes's farm, is not tied to a particular farm; we never know exactly where it is, nor does it matter. Hughes never discusses the history of the farm; its origins and previous owners are not part of his vision. The farm is action in the present tense. The verse is full, fleshy, and vibrant. The "verse farming diary" structure (as Hughes identifies it in the Foreword to New Selected Poems) allows him to cover the entire page with long-lined, brimming verse. Though the Moortown poems are elegies, their direction is forward into life. Conversely the orientation of Remains of Elmet is backward into death. Hughes's nostalgic search for a primeval paradise buries his verse in an isolated time capsule, in historical time but out of life.

Hughes has an innate inclination toward nostalgia; the focus of Remains of Elmet exacerbates this disabling historical perspective. The book fails from Hughes's inability to manage satisfactorily the complexities of history. For example, in poems such as "Lumb Chimneys" and "Mill Ruins," Hughes appears to lament the loss of the commercial and spiritual vitality that appeared at the inception of the industrial revolution, and to gloss over the hardships and brutalities of this era. He assumes what Nietzsche calls the "antiquarian" historical mode: "the mad collector raking over all the dust heaps of the past … [with] a mere insatiable curiosity for everything old." Hughes appears at his weakest when he forces his vision into the historical domain of chronological events and contemporary problems. Perhaps we may see a reaction to the nostalgic and limited historical perspective of Remains of Elmet in the unhistorical orientation of Moortown Elegies, where, ironically, Hughes returns to the realm of the bull and escapes from what Nietzsche calls the "Malady of History."

In Remains of Elmet the landscape of the once beautiful, now ruined Calder Valley is "heavy with the dream of a people"; "Everywhere dead things for monuments / Of the dead," litter the terrain. In the degenerative process from a powerful beauty to an impotent deformity, the land was the first to suffer. The valley and hills are often described as "wounded," "bleeding," "emptied and seared black." Hughes gazes at the "broken spine of a fallen land." Hughes looks back to the antediluvian world by metaphorically describing the land in terms of "Kings" and "Queens," but he makes few references to the atrocities and injustices enacted by this aristocratic class. One of the most nostalgic phrases, near the end of the volume, sums up his vision of the land: "How young the world was! The hills full of savage promise." This is Hughes's Merry England, a land of eternal youth without suffering and hopelessness, the land of the glorified savage.

In contrast to this idealized world, the title poem "Remains of Elmet" argues that now all we have is an empty skull:

     Now, coil behind coil,
     A wind-parched ache,
     An absence, famished and staring,
     Admits tourists
     To pick among crumbling, loose molars
     And empty sockets.

At times, Hughes reacts to the past like a modern tourist himself. In "The Ancient Briton Lay Under His Rock," Hughes claims that the Briton, whom he calls "the Mighty Hunter," was happy "no longer existing" and being part of "nursery school history." But exacting readers will not accept "nursery school history"; they want Hughes to approach history critically instead of romanticizing the cruelty of the Mighty Hunter's world.

In addition to the dead heroes of Arthurian England, Hughes finds what he considers to be the living relatives of the ancient bards, the old pensioners of the valley. "Crown Point Pensioners" looks nostalgically back in time and history more than any other poem in the volume. The pensioners are the last of a dying race that knew the power and splendor of the Calder Valley and the victories and conquests of its explorers. In the opening line, the "old faces" of the men are equated with "old roots"; thus men and landscape immediately merge into one historical dimension. Hughes also establishes a correlation between the memories and function of these last survivors of a heroic age and the images and function of the poem: the reminiscing old men are "attuned to each other, like strings of a harp"; they are "singers of a lost kingdom." The allusion to the "kings" and the harmonious interaction between the pensioners and their experiences places them in an idealized "lost kingdom" of "wild melody," the heroic age of Merry England. Hughes, like the pensioners, is a singer of a "lost kingdom." History becomes one-dimensional and glamorized, a process that ultimately limits the potential sociopolitical power of the poetry.

The weatherbeaten, tortured, industrialized landscape of Remains of Elmet stands in clear opposition to the soft, rural—one might say pastoral—terrain of Moortown Elegies, which is not part of the world of history nor part of the world of myth, but part of the immediate world of action and experience. Hughes stresses the immediacy of the Moortown realm of experience by often (atypically) writing in first person. The world of Moortown Elegies runs on natural and biological rhythms and not on commercial human time. That is, not only are there few, if any, allusions to a historical frame of reference in the narrative elements of the poems, but also Hughes rarely mentions exact measurable units of time—seconds, minutes, hours, times of day (four o'clock), days of the month, or months of the year. The references to time are unspecific. Typically, the events of the poem happen in "midafternoon," "dark," "before dawn," "yesterday," or "two days ago." Such general references free the poet from conventional time and the implications of recorded history, yet they arc prominent enough to keep the narrative action from slipping into mythological timelessness.

For the first time in his career Hughes makes a significant attempt to create a time frame in which the action described in the poem corresponds to the actual writing of the poem. Thus, the poem's central orientation is toward the "new" life that appears in the poem's diction in the repetition of "now" and "suddenly" and "as I write." In the Moortown Elegies everything is in Heraclitean flux—birth, playing, suffering, death. Organic processes are the units of measure in this world. Even though Hughes is immensely preoccupied with the nonhuman, unhistorical life of the land and the sheep and cows, he also explores the place of human action in relation to this realm. In "Coming Down Through Somerset," a poem that describes the death and decay of a badger and the narrator's reaction to this experience, Hughes considers the lessons the nonhuman world can teach the human world about time:

                        I want him
     To stay as he is. Sooty gloss-throated,
     With his perfect face….
                        I want him
     To stop time. His strength staying, bulky,
     Blocking time….
     A badger on my moment of life.
     Not years ago, like the others, but now.
     I stand
     Watching his stillness, like an iron nail
     Driven, flush to the head,
     Into a yew post. Something
     Has to stay.

The badger becomes an emblem of immortality. Outside of time, the badger paradoxically (not ironically) is time itself. The temporal focus of the narrator's desire is "now," this brief moment. The attitude is not a longing for the past; it is a longing for the present where "something has to stay." Hughes reverses the traditional value placed on immortality and argues that the unhistorical present is the means and the end of the creative process.

Hughes's commitment to both a private and a public unhistorical view appears in the volume's closing poems, the actual elegies to Jack Orchard, Hughes's working partner on the farm. He does not mythologize or sentimentalize Orchard's life, but succinctly describes the rough, hardworking, and stubborn farmer in "A Monument": "burrowing, gasping struggle / In the kneedeep mud of the copse ditch … Under December downpour, mid-afternoon / Dark as twilight, using your life up." The farmer is described in a moment of pure action, selfless and oblivious to time. This sense that action or work exists in direct opposition to permanency and time in history appears in "Now You Have to Push." The word now embodies the at-this-very-momentness of Hughes's vision in Moortown Elegies. He asserts that Now, at the existential moment between life and death, Orchard must push his entire life "into a gathering blaze" since "Now you have to stay / Right on, into total darkness." The tone is confident. Orchard, a man of present-tense action, remains in the moment, harmoniously joined to the rhythms of the nonhuman world; he does not enter the annals of the past. The "Elegies" do not lament the death of Orchard; they attempt to keep him alive in the Now.

"Hands," the final poem of Moortown Elegies, is Hughes's ultimate testimony to his faith in the power of the present, in action and work, to move Orchard outside the clogs of time and historical process and to align him with the cyclical motions of Nature. Orchard's hands are described as "strange—huge" and as "nerveless [as] crocodile leather," yet "monkey delicate." Orchard's hands serve as a synecdoche for his entire life: powerful and sensitive. In the poem's final stanza, the reader imagines Hughes looking into Orchard's massive, weathered hands:

     Your hands lie folded, estranged from all they have done
     And as they have never been, and startling—
     So slender, so taper, so white,
     Your mother's hands suddenly in your hands—
     In a final strangeness of elegance.

"Suddenly" the moment becomes revelation. The poem and volume conclude, not nostalgically or sentimentally but committed to the present, to the final strangeness of existence as experienced in this world—a world evolving at its own pace, oblivious to the demarcations of commercial time and recorded history.

Moortown Elegies represents a significant advancement in Hughes's vision. One wonders whether Hughes could have committed himself so fully to the immediacy of existential experience if he had not felt the heavy constraints of history in Remains of Elmet. Those critics who want a more historically aware and politically vocal Hughes will probably not get their wish. They will have to go to Geoffrey Hill or Seamus Heaney for that. Hughes's first volume after Moortown Elegies, River, though significantly more dependent on myth than Moortown Elegies, reveals that he is still not willing to confront what he has called "the excitement of the time." The most recent volume and his first as poet laureate, Flowers and Insects, occasionally combines the mythical beauty of River with the unhistorical narrative immediacy of Moortown Elegies; but overall the volume lacks the mythic intensity of earlier works.

Undoubtedly, Hughes's isolationist attitude—his refusal to enter the world of historical human affairs—and his nostalgic approach to history are significant limitations of his vision. But he is shrewd. He knows that his voice is most distinct and his vision most clear when he is "out of time."

Peter Firchow (review date Spring 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Rain-Charm for the Duchy and Other Laureate Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 385-6.

[In the following review, Firchow gives reserved praise for the poems in Hughes's Rain-Charm for the Duchy and Other Laureate Poems.]

Since succeeding to the office of Poet Laureate in 1984, Ted Hughes has regularly published poems on a variety of appropriate princely and royal occasions. Whereas versified attacks on the royal family, even scurrilous ones, would nowadays probably raise few critical eyebrows if perpetrated by a major contemporary poet, this kind of hyperconventional poetic activity strikes one as more than a little odd. On the face of it, as Hughes himself must be aware (along with, perhaps, at least a few members of the royal family), there is something quite absurd about the whole enterprise, more or less like imagining a royalist poet from St. Louis or a socialist novelist elevated to the peerage.

Part of the reason, no doubt, for this sense of incongruity is that at least since the early nineteenth century, writing poetry on royal or even bourgeois demand has seemed to violate the conception of poetry itself, so that even an establishment laureate like Tennyson would have been viewed as compromising his artistry by stooping to praise the House of Hanover—especially, perhaps, the House of Hanover. For the Stuarts (especially for someone like Bonnie Prince Charlie) it is possible to imagine writing genuinely felt poetry, but it is very difficult in the case of a family whose most celebrated pronouncement on a literary subject is George Ill's greeting to Gibbon on the publication of a new volume, "What, Mr. Gibbon, another damned book?" What's more, to judge by the coverage given the extracurricular activities of George III's present-day descendants in the popular press, it doesn't look like their interest in intellectual or artistic matters has increased appreciably in the intervening years. So it should not be surprising, therefore, that Hughes's conscious choice of writing numerous and sometimes lengthy poems in their behalf has struck many readers as perverse and even left a few of his critics speechless.

But then, from the very beginning of his career Ted Hughes has not been known for doing either the expected or the reasonable thing. When most of the other poets of his generation were writing the deliberately dry, laconic—even prosaic—social verse of the Movement, Hughes opted for a blatantly poetic persona, intensely natural subject matter, and a language lush with metaphor. He succeeded so well by going against the fashionable grain that today he is generally agreed to be the greatest living English poet. So too with these so-called laureate poems. Though definitely not the "major works" which the jacket blurb proclaims them to be, they are on the whole not work that Hughes needs to feel ashamed of, and this despite the fact they are certainly very different from the sort of work on which his reputation is based. To be sure, one senses in the title poem (also the first poem chronologically in the series) that initially Hughes himself may not have been quite so confident of his royalist bearings, for aside from the extravagant subtitle, "A Blessed, Devout Drench for the Christening of His Royal Highness Prince Henry," there is no reference whatever to anything royal in the poem itself. If he did have any doubts, however, he evidently soon overcame them, for the next two poems allegorize first the Queen Mother and then the Queen herself, and the following poem, "The Song of the Honey-Bee," written on the occasion of the marriage of Andrew and Fergie, specifically addresses the two principal personages and the actual locale of their wedding. Much of this poetry is playful and witty, as it should be to suit the multitudinously "joyous" royal occasions—the weddings, anniversaries, christenings, and birthdays—which these poems celebrate. Even so, however, sometimes the cheery conceits are dragged down by a heavy patriotic symbology, consisting chiefly of a curious menagerie of birds, lions, unicorns, corgis, and salmon that flies, swims, and winds its way through these pages.

"Only in Albion a magic hand, / A Unicorn's horn or Queen Mab's wand. / Or Prospero's word, holds all spellbound," we are instructed in the last and most recent of the poems, the one marking the fortieth anniversary of Elizabeth's accession to the throne. In this connection one pauses to reflect how the Trades Union Congress or the Ulster Catholics might gloss the word spellbound. Not that such considerations seem to worry Hughes, for whatever else these poems may be, they are unquestionably the productions of an unself-conscious patriot who honours King and Queen as "Mother and Father of fifty million" and who sees the institution of the monarchy as the "Crown at the hub" which keeps the nation's soul "whole." It is fitting, therefore, that angels should bring various sorts of gifts to the Queen on her sixtieth birthday and that there also should be other supernatural manifestations that God continues to be disposed to save the Queen together with members of her immediate family.

The last time in English literary history when patriotic emotion was taken this seriously by poets who were/are taken seriously was the Great War. Fittingly, therefore, many of these poems refer back in one way or another to that war, a momentous event which still shapes our lives, as it does and did those of Hughes and his father, who was one of a handful from his regiment to survive the trenches. It is personal touches like these that save these otherwise cleverly conventional poems from remaining mere bureaucratic exercises in versification. The same is true of the dozen or so pages of notes at the end of the book, which provide the reader with detailed explications of the poems, especially of their complex symbology. Not only do these notes provide us with interesting glimpses into Hughes's poetic workshop; they also reveal how very important it is for Hughes that we should be aware that these poems were crafted by the hand of a master.

Peter Levi (review date March 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Riddled With Craziness," in Spectator, Vol. 272, No. 8675, March, 1994, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Levi discusses the craziness in Hughes's collection of essays, Winter Pollen.]

There are nearly all the essential pieces of an autobiography of this most surprising and entertaining of poets scattered among the 30 years of essays in this book. But I suspect a psychoanalyst has got at him, because there is also some curious psychological raving, including a piece of lunatic presumption psychoanalysing the poetry and history of T. S. Eliot, based partly on his 'religious vision of St Sebastian'. This is what it must have been like talking to Ezra Pound in the madhouse, but Ezra's mind was as sane then as it ever got, and Ted Hughes' centenary piece for Eliot is a deviation. Other pieces (not all) are simply brilliant. No one has ever written better about Dylan Thomas or Sylvia Plath or the metre of Sir Gawain or about Coleridge; he is sound about Wyatt, and if he is wrong about Pushkin his essay is still worth thinking about. No other poet in English on either side of the Atlantic has produced a more solid body of criticism in our generation, but it is sometimes riddled with craziness like woodworm.

Sometimes, or rather usually, that is very enjoyable. He is one of 'those old-fashioned fouled-up guys' with minds open to astrology and dowsing and Plato's myths and Shamanism and Sufism. It is all right that he seems to take Yeats's crazy side seriously, that he genuinely thinks the Norse gods are 'the better part of our patrimony still locked up', and even that he wonders whether Jehovah was a highly irascible poltergeist summoned into being by the antics of Moses and Aaron. That is all good clean fun, and within the permissible deviations of poets. He has never really got over Robert Graves's Sufi craze and he still treats Laura Riding, in a piece not dated, extremely gingerly. He admires the kind of poet who 'thinks in a marrow-bone,' as Yeats put it; indeed at times he whirls the marrow-bone around his head and batters his opponents with it.

He is still in resentful opposition to the upper crust, colonialist, suppressive and militarist aspect of our society, our language and our deplorable accent. It is a fad and does no harm; he trained as a schoolmaster and he would make a good one. On all matters to do with modern poetry he is on the side of the angels, though it is sad that in this book he leaves David Jones out of account, and I am sure that much he attributes to Hopkins or even Hardy is to be found in that sweet old clergyman William Barnes, whose only two disciples they were. This view is not original, it was first enunciated by old Grigson in Lilliput in the early 1940s. The case of David Jones modifies Hughes's otherwise faultless argument that the inadequacy of the language of Georgian poetry was shown up only by the crisis of the 1914 war. He is good on Owen, all the same, though not as good as Larkin was.

His boyhood was near Haworth on the Yorkshire moors. His elder brother became a gamekeeper, and his whole early life centred on wild creatures. As a school-boy, he read the Bible from cover to cover. It is tempting to turn his life into a poem of one's own, it is so perfect a beginning for a poet. He discusses his tendency in verse to worship animal violence, which was already being criticised in the Fifties; he is lucid and persuasive about it, but I was not persuaded. In his genesis poem, the hero, predictably, is the serpent. And what about that story about the man who used to bite the heads off rats in a cellar? His dream of the fox and his poem the 'Thought Fox' are thrillingly told, but I find it hard to believe the rat man is a fiction. I can match him with an 18th-century mouse-swallower in Cornwall. Yet at the same time of life he conceived a passionate admiration for that deadly boring poem of Yeats, 'The Wanderings of Oisin'. Only a true poet can fall for anything so perverse.

He shows many enthusiasms that mark him as a poet born around 1930, most of which I share. Eliot is godlike to him, he is thrilled by Walter de la Mare on the tree struck by lightning (to be found not only on a tape but in Tea with Walter de la Mare, a book by his doctor), he is haunted by Lorca's essay on the duende, and flabbergasted by the effect of a genuine epic singer on his audience. He liked Bowra's 'Primitive Song', and was interested by Philip O'Connor on vagrancy. He was one of the earliest British supporters of that wonderful poet Vasko Popa, though long ago he reported a sinister side to the reaction Popa told him that he was getting to his wolf poems from young Serbs. His longer pieces, of which I greatly admired the one on rhythm and metre in Sir Gawain and Coleridge, seem to be more recent, but the best bits of all may occur in quite short pieces like the ones about Dylan Thomas and about Sylvia Plath, the Thomas written long ago, the Plath in 1982.

All her poems are in a sense by-products. Her real creation was that inner gestation and eventual birth of a new, self-conquering self, to which her journal bears witness, and which proved itself so overwhelmingly in the Ariel poems of 1962. If this is the most important task a human being can undertake (and it must surely be one of the most difficult), then this is the importance of her poems, that they provide such an intimate, accurate embodiment of the whole process from beginning to end—or almost to the end.

This little paragraph is thoroughly and lucidly arrived at in the pages before it and in a special study of the evolution of her poem, 'Sheep in Fog'. But it is doubly interesting because the opening it offers into a poet's psychology has been all hut an obsession of Ted Hughes for what is by now most of his working life. Everything he writes about his first wife and her suicide seems to me admirable, just because of his sober and sensible tone, and his calm length.

This volume has been edited by William Scammell, and since my memory has evaporated I could not tell what he had left out: may be too many of the shorter articles? The longer ones with more dependence on Jung or of his two-self theory of poets were less rewarding. The worst things about the huge and handsome book, if you do not mind a jacket illustration of devils from the Topkapi Museum, is the fact it has been so stiffly glued you cannot leave it open on a table, and you have to hold it firmly in order to read it. The Turkish (or maybe Chinese or central Asian) devils on this cover seem to be a precise example of what William Scammell in his brief introduction says Seamus Heaney calls the chronic English tendency to 'make disturbance cosy in a variety of codes and conventions,' since the colours are as charming as a ballet. It is almost as if criticism and poetry were some extension of innocent children's games. Ted Hughes is more serious and less theatrical than that.

Michele Roberts (review date 14 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 348, April 14, 1995, pp. 45-6.

[In the following review, Roberts discusses the suffering and death in Hughes's poetry from New Selected Poems, 1957–1994.]

Woody Allen once said that nature was one big restaurant. Push that one step further—one big morgue, one big abattoir—and we approach Hughes-land, a country loud with the shrieks of beasts caught in sprung traps. Of men too, of course, since Hughes has never been shy of projecting the suffering endemic in the human condition, as he sees it, onto those souls that go clad in fur, feather and leaves.

This new volume of selected poems, a larger version of the compilation he produced 15 years ago, offers a broad sweep through a lifetime's dedication to poetry and reveals, as it gathers momentum, a huntsman's loving preoccupation with the quest and quarry: death. Inevitable death, violent death; of animals, of people. All roads and all pores lead to death in this astonishing collection.

Hughes offers an idiosyncratic spin on the old eternal verity. His poems aren't elegies; the energy behind them makes itself felt as forcefully as hammer blows. Occasionally, life and survival are celebrated, as in the lovely "The Thought-Fox", where inspiration arrives not as predator but simply as unexpected guest: "Brilliantly, concentratedly, / Coming about its own business / Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox / It enters the dark hole of the head."

The poem's echo of Hopkins—"I imagine this midnight moment's forest"—is matched by the tone of praise. Other early poems make you think of all the clever young men there ever were, all striking their poses of cynicism and world-weariness and exasperation with girls. Hughes can do a Gravesian idealisation: "O lady, when the tipped cup of the moon blessed you / You became soft fire with a cloud's grace"; as he can to its disgusted opposite: "From what dog's dish or crocodile's rotten / Larder she had come / He questioned none; 'It is enough / That she is and I am.'"

Whereas, now, male poets may refer ironically and wittily to how laddishness cloaks tender-heartedness and love of newborn babes, manly poets of the 1950s can sound lordly and lonely as Samson: "Whenever I get under my gravestone / … I shall thank God thrice heartily / To be lying beside women who grimace / Under the commitments of their flesh, / And not out of spite or vanity."

This callowness about women gives way, in the maturer work, to a fascination with nature in general, moving from the abstract "leaf" "star" "tree" of the earlier poems to the gendered, all-embracing metaphor of the later ones. The self-conscious pastiches of medieval song disappear, replaced by vigorous vernacular rhythms: "Pigs must have hot blood, they feel like ovens. / Their bite is worse than a horse's / They chop a half-moon clean out. / They eat cinders, dead cats."

This is the Hughes who took the poetry world by the throat with Crow. Reading those poems again, 20 years on, I was struck by how often the Everyman stance is a mask for masculine anxiety: "There was a person / could not get rid of his mother / As if he were her top-most twig. / So he pounded and hacked at her / With numbers and equations and laws / Which he invented and called truth. / He investigated, incriminated / And penalized her, like Tolstoy, / Forbidding, screaming and condemning, / Going for her with a knife,… With all her babes in her arms, in ghostly weeping, / She died. / His head fell off like a leaf."

This reads as a kind of bravery to me now: to set out so clearly masculine rage at separation from the mother, masculine terror at dependence and engulfment. You can see how it might be a relief to turn to otters, to pikes, to rats, after these horrors: "And crow retched again, before God could stop him. / And woman's vulva dropped over man's neck and tightened. / The two struggled together on the grass. / … Crow flew guiltily off."

Not that the much-praised nature poems invoke Gala. Thanates is their presiding spirit. Even the skylark (Shelley, eat your heart out) flies with "wings almost torn off backwards—far up / Like sacrifices set floating / The cruel earth's offerings" and goes through agony for "The plummeting dead drop / With long cutting screams buckling like razors." These poems work as meditations on knowledge, yoking together precisely observed visual details and mystical attributes, setting the imagination to work where simple perception stops.

So, for example, the famous and much-anthologised "Pike" begins with the clarity, so it seems, of a snapshot: "Pike, three inches long, perfect / Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold. / Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin. / They dance on the surface among the flies." By the end, we dive down into: "stilled legendary depth"; and it's here, under the surface of language and ordinary consciousness, that the poem-pond yields up one of Hughes' favourite sub-texts: Nature as dangerous Other, alien and death-inducing.

Sometimes the Hughes signature is scrawled in too slapdash a fashion: "Low Water", for example, opens with one of his favourite conceits of rivers as feminine: "This evening / The river is a beautiful idle woman. / The day's August burnout has distilled / A heady sundowner. / She lies back, bored and tipsy". All too soon, however, we slide away from image into declaration close to Hughestan cliché: "Her half-dreams lift out of her, light-minded / Love-pact suicides, copulation and death."

That's too easy, given that two-thirds of the poems in the collection have copulation and death as their theme. When Hughes invokes Eros, as he sometimes does, he introduces, by contrast, a note of light heartedness, and even joy.

Peter Firchow (review date Spring 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 407-8.

[In the following review, Firchow discusses Hughes's choice of selection in his New Selected Poems.]

It is beginning to look as if Ted Hughes wants to make a habit of selecting his poems. His first such selection, simply and appropriately called Selected Poetry, appeared as long ago as 1968 and gathered up poems from the first decade or so of his individually published volumes. The second, New Selected Poems claimed merely to move the process up by a few years to 1981 but proleptically contained several poems from River, a volume which did not appear until 1983. Now his third and latest selection reprints just about all the poems contained in the first two collections as well as continuing to add poems from subsequent individual volumes. Here for the first time, however. Hughes also includes poems which have either not been published before or have not been garnered as yet into individual volumes. For both of these groups he establishes a new, decade-by-decade category labeled "Uncollected"; and, possibly in order to mitigate the habituality of his by now habitual act of selection, he also once in a while changes the order in which previously chosen poems formerly appeared, or even assigns some to the "Uncollected" realm despite their prior appearance elsewhere, as in the case of "You Hated Spain." Toward the end of his latest selection he also deviates in a few places from his hitherto habitual procedure of reprinting poems according to their dates of first publication.

All this is not to suggest that Hughes may not have valid reasons for selecting and rearranging his poems as he did and does, though some readers (myself included) would have been grateful for a few words of prefatory explanation. In this respect, the older new selection actually remains preferable to the newer new one, since the former was introduced by a brief yet helpful explanatory foreword, which the latter has chosen to omit. Now the reader coming for the first time to Hughes's New Selected Poems will no longer be informed that the protagonist of Crow is a "creature whose transformations tend from the primal and elemental to the human"; or that Cave Birds originally was accompanied by drawings by Leonard Baskin whose interdependence with the verse was "quite close"; or, among other things, that "Gaudete is a long story in verse which outlines the murder of a changeling." This, despite the fact that the newer selection has just as many poems from Gaudete as the new one, and about twice as many from both Crow and Cave Birds. Of course, the regrettable omission of such and other important prefatory information may simply be attributable to Hughes's (and/or his publishers') taking the view that he is essentially a traditionalist poet who does not require much explaining; or, more probably, that he is by now such a well-known or even "great" poet that it would be presumptuous to ask him to explain himself; or, most probably—and most sadly, if true—that no reader would ever be likely to turn to this kind of a selection anyway unless first introduced to it by some informed and informing critical guide. But, whatever the case and whatever the reason, so far as this latest New Selection is concerned, the hypothetical "new" reader is unapologetically left to fend for herself.

If she is only a little bit academic and curious, however, or even if she is only a little hip and persistent, she will be rewarded with a set of mostly quite new and compelling poems on the subject of the controversial interdependence between Ted Hughes and his sometime spouse, Sylvia Plath. Not that Plath is ever mentioned by name or that any of these poems is necessarily designed to please. On the contrary, they at times seem deliberately designed to offend, as when he writes in "The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother" that "a kind / Of hyena came aching upwind. / They dug her out. Now they batten / On the cornucopia of her body. Even / Bite the face off her gravestone, / Gulp down the grave ornaments, / Swallow the very soil." It is clear that even when he is at his calmest and most meditative, as he is in these poems, Hughes (or his persona) stays tough. No mercy therefore for such readers of Plath who seem to him as much in love with Plath's death as Plath was herself.

With the exception of "You Hated Spain" and, in a more muted vein, the even earlier "Stations," Hughes had never before permitted so intimate a poetic glimpse into this much-excavated and -speculated-about patch of his life, so it was certainly right for him to include the former poem in this otherwise new series of "Sylvia" poems. Constituting the bulk of the final "Uncollected" segment of the book (some sixteen poems ranging from half a page to more than three pages), they are by themselves worth the price of the entire collection. Intensely personal and often ironic in tone, as well as oblique and symbolic in technique, they are sometimes even framed as responses to specific situations in Plath's poetry. If they resemble anything at all in Hughes's other work, it is the poems about his father and World War I. For the rest, they differ radically from the by now habitual poetic subject matter and approach with which Hughes is identified: namely, all that violent, grimly sexed power-poetry about insects, birds, fishes; wild, domesticated, and imaginary animals; flowers, plants, trees, and landscapes, most of it viewed in process—dying, giving birth, copulating, hunting, killing, rotting away—and habitually accompanied by varying doses of Darwin, Frazer, myth, archetypes, and viscous excretions. Gripping as the best of that poetry was and remains, it has by now too often become a habit, both for Hughes himself and for his readers. It is therefore good to observe him devising here not only new ways of selecting his poems but also new ways of writing them.

Peter Levi (review date 10 May 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Transforming Ourselves into Beasts," in Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8806, May 10, 1997, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review, Levi lauds Hughes's translations of Ovid's poetry.]

It must be 100 years since Maurice Baring remembered in print how an Eton master, enquiring what class he was waiting for, commented 'Oh, that hog Ovid!' But Ovid, as the young Baring remarked later, is not a hog. All the same, it has taken a century or more to make him one of the most appetising to us of all Roman writers. How has the trick been achieved, if not by following him backwards from his influence on Shakespeare and on his translations from Marlowe onwards? Yet his poetry, modestly sharpened in sex and violence, admittedly, by the Poet Laureate, reads like something from the folklore movement, that might have been admired by Yeats and William Morris. Indeed, it seems a pity that these selections have missed their ideal illustrations which might have been by Arthur Rackham. I have always liked the Metamorphoses, and these translations are perfect for the 1990s.

You cannot have everything, of course. References to the Caesars and to amber created for Roman women inject a note of bathos, and the whole idea of a continuous history of transformations down to the apotheosis of Aeneas, and the catastasis of Julius Caesar as a comet, has to be swept under the carpet. I was personally grieved by the loss of Cerambus, who was turned into a stag-beetle for offending the nymphs by refusing to observe the set times for moving flocks down from the mountains. Why a stag-beetle I cannot imagine, but difficulties of scale make many transfigurations all the more terrifying. Ascalaphus turning into an owl is measured and terrifying, yet Narcissus is far more convincing as a flower than he was as a boy. I fear from this last case and that of Salmacis and the composition of the first Hermaphrodite, that Ted Hughes cannot summon up the homosexual lechery which is available to the best Ovidian poets.

Nor are his gods perfectly convincing, but then neither are Ovid's, and he is excellent with Ceres as a witch, and the oak that dooms Erisychthon. Ovid did, after all, have a strain of vulgarity that one might call hoggish, and Ted Hughes does not like to follow that. He is not addicted to Ovid's rhetoric, which had become second nature to the ancient world, though the Laureate retains more appetite for paradoxes than most poets of his age. His treatment of Pyramus and Thisbe, a story Shakespeare mocks, and of Venus and Adonis, which Shakespeare treated with an astonishing freshness, is evenly brilliant and makes one think again twice.

There is a certain grandiosity, a long-windedness about Ovid that can curl around every subject like an octopus and never tire between heaven and earth, which is beyond the range of any selection or adaptation. The verse has a laureate solidity, and now and again pleasantly recalls the iambic pentameter, so that it would be hard to parody. Has anything much been lost by abandoning old-fashioned English metres and old-fashioned linguistic restraint and severity? Not as much as you might darkly expect. Ovid, as he is treated here, is fresh and shocking in the precision of his cruelty, the sensuous pushing of his lechery, which was remarkable even in his Roman heyday. One can see through the translation that he took a lot from Virgil, but only like a dog tugging pieces from a carcass: Virgil as a living animal is too great a poet for his comprehension, yet it may be from just such lesser poets as Ovid, with his more obvious insights, that we should seek to learn, because we have become, in a way, barbarians.

We need some notes, which we do not get, about the Corinthian Bacchiae and Eymanthis, let alone 'Harmonia', if we are not to have recourse to long, full commentaries. The introduction is one of those admirably written short essays for which the Laureate is famous, but it could be lengthened with no harm done. Some of the geography in the translation comes out extremely queerly, let alone the names of persons, which are queer enough in Ovid: Pandion, King of Athens, for example, who was only the personification of the Pandia, the feast of Zeus. 'King Pandion he is dead, and all his minions lapped in lead': that is all the old-fashioned reader of poetry ever called to mind about him. There are many more exciting phrases in Ted Hughes, but none more oddly memorable.

Roger McGough (review date 28 September 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember, in Observer, September 28, 1997, p. 17.

[In the following review, McGough complains that Hughes's By Heart lacks a contemporary feel.]

The only poetry that mattered to me when I was at school was the stuff that we recited in class, and if heroism and self-sacrifice were involved then so much the better. I charged with the Light Brigade and helped bury Sir John Moore at Corunna: our voices were the thumping hooves, the doleful beat of the drum.

My interest in poetry stemmed not from the English Literature department but from Elocution and Drama. There seemed to me to be two kinds of poetry—the poetry of Shush and the poetry of Share. The first was reverential and lived in libraries where a diet of dust and silence ensured long, somnambulant lives. Teachers of English Literature were at ease with annotated poems about which much had been written. The poems raised questions, and woe betide you if you didn't provide the right answers. It was poetry of the intellect, and what we learnt by heart was not the verse, but key critical phrases. Having to read a passage aloud in class was like walking across a minefield. 'What does the poet mean by that?' 'Who was Lycidas?' 'Spell onomatopoeia.'

And then, once a week, poetry let its hair down. As there was no Channel 4 in those days and therefore no jobs to be had on Brookside, many aspiring working-class parents considered a thick Scouse accent a barrier to getting on in life. I was sent therefore to elocution lessens where the speaking aloud of verse was regarded as the best way to exorcise the excesses and bad habits I had grown up with. A posh accent was never the aim, but rather to speak clearly and with feeling. Through nervousness, I spoke in staccato bursts and ranallmywordstogether (I still do, though with practice, have learnt to control it when speaking in public).

The elocution and drama lessons were noisy and fun. 'Tarantell', 'Cargoes', 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'—we chorused the words and learnt them by heart while doing so. Reading aloud—the poetry of Share.

Not surprisingly, most of the poems I know by heart are my own. Not because I have written them cut, but because I have recited them so often that the memory and the music have become fused. The difficulty I have when trying to learn a new poem is that two distinct parts of the brain initially work against each other. One part saying 'Hey this sounds good … dumpity, dinkety …' and the other part saying 'Shush … I'm trying to make sense of this!' Reading aloud, however, seems to bring the two sides together.

Ted Hughes might not agree. In his introduction to By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember, he offers the reader 'a mental gymnasium', in which the memory can be exercised and trained. The technique used by professional memorisers, such as connecting visual images, I find difficult, because too often the visuals my brain comes up with are outrageous and out of keeping with the text.

I am sure he is right when he says that 'learning by rote' created an aversion to learning and to poetry in many, many people. But not to me. The alphabet, the times-tables, French verbs, prayers, poems, all learnt by rote, a process I found sociable and enjoyable. I could recite the Latin responses during mass years before I could understand the English.

As Hughes says, the pattern of a poem is often hidden and not so much 'heard' as 'sensed through hearing', and so, when memorising verse, what is important is listening for the words rather than looking at them.

Reading poems in unison helps this process, and I wish more schools would reintroduce the practice. Choral verse-speaking may have a quaint ring about it, but it can be fun, and the result is that many poems remain fixed in the memory.

But which poems? 'Tintern Abbey'? 'Kubla Khan'? A choice of 13 by Shakespeare? Apart from R. S. Thomas and a matey nod in the direction of Seamus Heaney, all the poems in By Heart are Poetry Please favourites and widely anthologised. Nothing wrong with that, but I would have preferred a more contemporary feel. I would rather commit to memory a Jenny Joseph than a Thomas Wyatt, a Charles Causley than a William Empson.

It must be pointed out as well that if anyone owns a copy of Schoolbag (son of Rattlebag), edited by Hughes and Heaney, then they will have read the 'Memorising Poems' essay that introduces this book, with the added bonus of a vigorous and wide-ranging collection of verse vying to be memorised.

Ted Hughes is our greatest ambassador for poetry and its trusty PR man, and so if I find many of the poems in By Heart more Shush than Share, it may be because I am suddenly entrenched in English Literature periods long ago. The choking dust, the hasty orisons, as on command, I take the safety catch off my Palgraves Golden Treasury, clamber over the top and charge blindly across the annotated minefield that stretches back through history.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Ted Hughes World Literature Analysis


Hughes, Ted (Vol. 14)