Ted Hughes Hughes, Ted (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hughes, Ted 1930–

Hughes is an English poet, playwright, editor, and author of books for children. He is a nature poet in the sense that his poems express, in their descriptions of wildlife and landscape, the brutal savagery of nature. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 9, Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

A. E. Dyson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Hawk In The Rain] is, to my mind, the most distinguished volume of verse by a poet of Mr. Hughes's generation to have appeared, and it notably escapes the various poetic labels that the last ten years have thrown up….

The major theme in the poems is power; and power thought of not morally, or in time, but absolutely—in a present which is often violent and self-destructive, but isolated from motive or consequence, and so unmodified by the irony which time confers. For Ted Hughes power and violence go together: his own dark gods are makers of the tiger, not the lamb. He is fascinated by violence of all kinds, in love and in hatred, in the jungle and the arena, in battle, murder and sudden death. Violence, for him, is the occasion not for reflection, but for being; it is a guarantee of energy, of life, and most so, paradoxically, when it knows itself in moments of captivity, pain or death. (p. 220)

[In] Ted Hughes's poems, there is a constant striving towards moments of significance; moments of greatness which will last, as symbols if not as facts; ideal events more enduring than their agents, whose death, indeed, is their own occasion to be. Love, like death is valued for its power of providing such moments. First, there is the violence of encounter, restless, compulsive, pitiless

There is no better way to know us
Than as two wolves, come separately to a wood.
Now neither's able to sleep …

but after, the lovers break through to a moment of glory; they duck and peep,

And there rides by
The great lord from hunting …

Ted Hughes values such moments for their intensity; but he has to isolate them from past and future, cause and effect, reflection and evaluation before he can savour them to the full. Hence the absence of compassion, anger, humility, nostalgia, disgust and the other attitudes belonging to the perspectives of time. His intelligence is often wholly absorbed in the battle to embody moments of power in words: it is the purity of intoxication, not the complexities of hangover, that engage him. (p. 221)

Instead of the opposites coming together, and generating the complexities which modify them in sober reflection, they are resolutely segregated, and so kept pure and strong. In this way, the poems recreate the intensity,...

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Derwent May

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[When The Hawk in the Rain was published] it was evident that there was a gifted new poet on the scene who was prepared to make strong, confident assertions about the importance of strong—even confused or blind—feeling. And not only assertions; for the poems were often simply like assaults, designed to provoke the reader into vigorous—and in this poet's view, it seemed, perfectly healthy—responses of scarcely rational dismay or anger. Lupercal was the title of Hughes's second book, but what it suggests about the character of that volume could equally well be applied to The Hawk in the Rain: Lupercalia was a Roman festival at which the priests struck women to make them fertile. (p. 134)

Many of the assaults and arguments in The Hawk in the Rain are marked by [an] aggressive exaggeration that it is difficult after the first impact to take seriously, though one respects often in the same poems the justice—as it were, the sound theatrical imagination—with which the effects are managed: the impression the book made on its first appearance is wholly understandable. (p. 136)

Some poems in The Hawk in the Rain engage … specifically in assertion and argument concerning the desirability of a certain kind of emotional and moral life. Two that seem to be presented as a pair, one following the other, are 'Egg-Head' and 'The Man Seeking Experience Enquires His Way of a Drop of Water'. They are about two contrasting kinds of self-assertion, that may remind us respectively of the way of life of the dove-breeder before and after the hawk struck. 'Egg-Head' represents, with explicit scorn, a man who establishes his individual existence in the world (his 'I am') by resisting all those experiences that might upset his settled and complacent ways…. The second poem is about a man who is supposed to be learning a lesson from a water-droplet—a lesson that the man in the previous poem would obviously not listen to. To this man the water-drop seems to show how it is possible to go through extremes of experience and take full cognition of that experience—at the same time, casting benefits about one—and survive with unimpaired capacity to go on doing the same thing. (pp. 138-39)

It is neither possible nor relevant to treat the 'arguments' in these poems as forms of sustained rational disquisition. There is neither evidence nor ratiocination offered here; nor, what is more, is there really any appeal by demonstration to our feelings. The first of the two poems is just a brilliant—and, taken in this way, also rather funny—display of abuse and verbal bullying from a wholly unargued viewpoint; the second might be described as a sort of awed comedy about fascinating but tantalisingly obscure ideas that the poet does not get down to scrutinising at all seriously in the end. At most we are left with hints at possibilities that we may be inspired to follow up.

More of Ted Hughes's work is marked by an extravagant but sardonic humour than has, I think, been stressed before (though, as we have seen, it sometimes shows lurches into portentousness that suggests he has not always been quite sure where the humour begins and ends). (p. 140)

Any poem in some degree establishes simultaneously for the reader the presence of a speaker, and the independent presence of a situation external to the speaker to which he is responding. What characterizes Hughes's most remarkable poetry to date is the large part played in that 'external situation' by objects from nature—mountains, plants, birds—and the intricacy and force of the speaker's response to them. It is in these poems, rather than those more concerned with shock and assertion, that he most successfully conveys his sense of the importance of strong feelings and desires: important in some cases as being rewarding, in others simply as being present in human existence and necessary to recognize and cope with, and perhaps most often, in a tangled way, for both these reasons together.

The art of establishing those simultaneous presences is, all the same, only very intermittently present in Hughes's first two volumes. A good example is the title-poem of [The Hawk in the Rain]. What such a poem calls for is a voice that in speaking of the objects it is concerned with conveys the speaker's reaction to them implicitly. The meaning-associations of the words, and their delivery under the thrust of the...

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Mary Kinzie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No patently sexual or scatological motifs are present in Ted Hughes's book, Moon-Whales, but the poems here suffer … from trying to be cutely hard-headed…. Hughes is often trying to write metrical, rhymed verse. The eeriness of the poems is that they are not even decent doggerel…. The scheme is sometimes to translate earthly lessons to another sphere and thereby make them more interesting and palatable as lessons. In Moon-Freaks, we find that when moon-people want to read, they look into a friend's face, "And thereupon / Each holds the other open and reads on." Moony-Art succinctly advises, "If you can't draw perfect / Better not draw. What you draw you get." But by and large Hughes is content to indulge in fantasy without much thought for the point of the analogy. The dracula vine is a moon-pet that transforms trash into fruit:

          So this is a useful pet
          And loyal if well-treat.
          But if you treat it badly
          It will wander off sadly
          Till somebody with more garbage than you
          Gives its flowers something to do.

One would prefer the more innocent, mild, and accomplished poetry of Milne, the marvelous ghostliness of Lear, and certainly the ballad wit of a Plomer or a Betjeman to the messy versification and sluggish monsters here. (pp. 34-5)

Mary Kinzie, "How Could Fools Get Tired!" in Poetry (© 1978 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. 132, No. 1, April, 1978, pp. 31-52.∗

John Mole

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moon-Bells and Other Poems [published in the United States as Moon-Whales and Other Poems] is, in a very real sense, a young person's guide to Ted Hughes. It does not aspire to the density and subtle orchestration of his recent Season Songs, but neither is it … a parcel of left-overs. At the festive level, closest to the nursery, there are several examples of Hughes's verbal juggling and wizardry of scansion … and the comic-strip invention, which is there as an element in much of his most complex work, has a field-day in some of the moon-fantasies which give the book its title and are deployed at intervals throughout it, providing a delightfully airy and bizarre linkage between the more substantial pieces….

Only Ted Hughes could have given us that Beano WHOP placed just there, or the delightful/groan-making rhyme of electronic and chronic. It is a productive complicity between the poet and his young readers. They meet on a common ground, at odds with all the grammars, and set out from there together. With Hughes's fantasies there is a sense of shared, illicit invention….

However, the real strength of this collection lies in the handful of poems which arise from direct, natural observation. Their force gathers, detail by detail, with a kind of note-taking intensity. Like the Roe Deer, in the poem of that title, things (for Hughes) appear to have "happened into my dimension / The moment I was arriving just there."…

John Mole, "The Real Thing," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3966, April 7, 1978, p. 384.∗

Christopher Reid

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After [his] youthful, somewhat amateur-carpenter exercises in stanza-form, [Hughes] has abandoned this in his later work for a narrative mode that is largely his own invention—characterised by a disdain for rhyme, lines of ad hoc length, a jerky movement from incident to incident, etc.

At times Hughes seems to be going for a primeval effect, as though his verses were really translations of fragments lucky to survive from some remote and rather butch culture. So, in Cave Birds, his latest sequence, we get:

Big terror descends.

A drumming glare, a flickering face of flames


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Craig Raine

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ted Hughes is the least academic of poets, totally unfazed by the unpoetical nature of the age. In Gaudete, whatever its structural obscurities, his confident, unselfconscious talent simply assimilated awkward items like the W. I. and Jaguar cars—rather as if Hughes was some X-ray visionary who could see the myth throbbing under the bonnet. The common criticism of Hughes is that he is a kind of linguistic Quilp, forcing huge beakers of boiling language down the throats of his readers and wolfing down words with their shells on….

Occasionally in Cave Birds the rhetoric seems excessive but it is nevertheless a very successful book…. Much simpler than Gaudete, it is an 'alchemical drama' devoted to the single subject of death: death as an irrelevance that suddenly and sickeningly becomes relevant; death as something to be dreaded in a variety of ways; death as cosmic salvation.

As a subject, it is equal to Ted Hughes's strenuous verbal gifts. One could spend a good deal of time simply quoting: 'Mountains lazed in their smoky camp'; 'Calves' heads all dew-bristled with blood on counters'; 'a seed in its armour'. The achievement, though, isn't in the fine touches; it is in the way Hughes has taken something impossibly abstract (as death and dying must be) and made it convincingly concrete: 'And you flare, fluttering, black-out like a firework.'… Cave Birds has faults, idiosyncratic shorthand like 'a filament of incandescence', but it is a stupendous work, far better than Crow, from which it grew. (p. 20)

Craig Raine, "Promises, Premises," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 97, No. 2494, January 5, 1979, pp. 19-20.∗

Martin Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The importance and validity of place to the English poet has long been of prime importance….

For Ted Hughes, not surprisingly, it is the West Riding of Yorkshire, more especially the area around the Calder valley at Hebden Bridge, and to the north of it. In Celtic times, this area was the domain of Elmet, the last of the native tribal lands to fall to the Angles. It subsequently became uninhabited moors and was, 200 years ago, invaded again, this time by industrial progress….

Ted Hughes was born and raised in the area and it has been a binding source for all of his poetic talent and power. The violence in his work, so harsh yet so acceptable and understood, stems from his...

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Peter Porter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

All Ted Hughes's books since 'Lupercal' in 1960 have been mixtures of poems and some other element—drawings, photographs, prose, dramatic exchanges, folklore….

It is important to stress that [in Remains of Elmet] the pictures came first and that Hughes wrote the poems to them, since the connection of verse and scene is by no means close in many cases….

Hughes's poems are annotations of the scene and, though they have some sense of the deep past, with references to the Brontës and the mills of the Industrial Revolution, they do not attempt to refashion the reality of distant Elmet through a modern sensibility….

In general the poems suffer from two...

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