Introduction

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Hughes, Ted 1930–

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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

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[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, the absolute quality of each state—union and disunion, romanticism and cynicism—treating experience not as parable or text but as sacrament. Articulation itself becomes a mode of participation, at least for the moment when feeling is being grasped.

All of this, of course, is exactly similar to Donne. And as in Donne, one finds explosiveness of utterance; imagery which is developed intellectually, but assimilated at every point to the central emotional experience; vividness and even grotesqueness of phrase and metaphor; metre which twists and turns in its wrestling with meaning

         Love you I do not say I do or might either.
         I come to you enforcedly …

and a general sense of being at the white-hot moment of experience: directly involved, so that the experience of the words is inseparable from the insight with which they grapple, and is, indeed, the high point of awareness itself. (p. 222)

[Hughes celebrates] the frozen moments of greatness—the photograph, the cenotaph, the martyr burning, the hawk riding the storm, the jaguar free in his cage, the lover at the moment of consummation. To remember these things can give meaning to birth and life, and incite to vigour and endurance. To some degree it can put magic back in life, and also meaning; but no human can stay on such heights for long.

What, then, can be a provisional judgment on these poems?… There is a temptation (for a radical, at any rate), to make easily adverse judgment upon them—as, for example, that the pre-occupation with violent death is adolescent, or sadistic; or that there is something sinister about a creative intelligence which can devote itself to the recreation and celebration of violence rather than to critical reflections upon it. Such objections may have some point, but they are less relevant in considering poetry than they would be (say) in drama or the novel. For one thing, Ted Hughes's control of words and metre in his best poems is profoundly mature already: the style is clearly the expression of a serious and adult intelligence, and a guarantee of validity in itself. Then again, poetry need not always evaluate experience. Sometimes its main function is to extend awareness, creating new areas which the reader can assimilate into his own total morality later, as he will. Ted Hughes, more than any recent poet I can think of, has the skill to do this. (pp. 225-26)

His own obvious values are not unimportant—the quest for resilience and endurance, the response to birth as miracle, the sense that being able to ask 'Why?' may still be more important than hearing answers. But beyond these, he offers us the feel of power, as something inescapably to do with life, however we may feel its deadly qualities too. The God of the tiger must be known today, whether we choose to worship or not. Also, refusal to worship might, we are reminded, be itself another kind of death….

Summing-up will have to be personal. Though for my own part I dislike violence, and even more the acceptance of it as a norm, I find in these poems something powerful and compelling. The tone is strong and honest, individual and unmistakeable. Ted Hughes's voice is the most distinctive we have heard in poetry since Dylan Thomas and this, in itself, marks him out—especially since he is swimming against the prevailing currents of detachment, irony, urbanity and Neo-Augustan influences generally. Our present literary scene is full of very good poets, who offer varied and deep pleasures: Poetry is flourishing these days as seldom before. But Ted Hughes is more than very good. I don't doubt that, hydrogen bombs and his own ethos of violence permitting, he will be one of the select few to be read a hundred years from now. (p. 226)

A. E. Dyson, "Ted Hughes," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, Autumn, 1959, pp. 219-26.

Derwent May

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[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 conventional rhythm and the supporting or contrary pull of the stresses normal to speech tax: these must offer as a composed whole a sense of the scene and its responsive occupant.

The poem 'The Hawk in the Rain' is the work of a poet prodigal with effects that are in this particular case over-employed: an undercommitted armoury, as it were. (pp. 140-41)

It would obviously be quite wrong to suggest that the hawk in ['The Hawk in the Rain'], and the stones, animals, other birds and so on in other poems by Hughes, are simply there as vehicles for reflecting human situations in which they ultimately have no place. This poem would not have been possible without the existence of hawks …: the human sensations and emotions that the poem is about could only have been evoked by observation of the bird itself, and indeed to some extent by sympathetic feeling for it. Yet the poem, opening up as it does a shareable experience of a man living intensely through a certain situation, manages to establish a set of human possibilities for the feelings and the will, and of dangers and failures, that it might be possible to apply more largely, by making our own analogies, in our lives. Other poems in The Hawk in the Rain that recreate a response to natural phenomena—envy, in some cases, at unmatchable simplicity or ease, or in other cases fascination and fear at the fierce spectacle—are 'The Jaguar', 'The Horses', 'September', 'A Modest Proposal' and, perhaps best of all, 'Wind', where the constant flicker of humour at his own exaggeration lends, this time, a greater air of authority to the speaker's description of the wind's violence. (p. 144)

To my mind, [Lupercal] does not show any great advance in the poet's powers of development or in his themes. There are forcefully-phrased pieces of thin argument or specious exhortation, dazzling curses and outbursts of hero-worship, but only a few poems in what I think is his most satisfying vein. The more aggressive poems assert points of view already familiar from The Hawk in the Rain. 'Strawberry Hill' is a zestful scarer: a symbolic 'stoat with the sun in its belly' who 'danced on the lawns' of Horace Walpole's Gothic castle but also 'bit through grammar and corset' was nailed to a door—

        But its red unmanageable life
        Has licked the stylist out of their skulls,
        Has sucked that age like an egg and gone off …

Any number of vague threats are shaken at us in those two lines—all the forces of life and death at once, it seems. However, this poem, with its challenge to the playful macabre of Walpole's, does not lack its own lightness of touch—no stoat has licked the stylist out of Hughes's skull here…. (pp. 144-45)

[The best poems in Wodwo are] the poems of direct—though complex and imaginative—response to nature. And some of these in Wodwo are magnificent. Poems like 'Skylarks', 'Thistles', 'Still Life', 'Fern', or 'Sugar Loaf' wholly fulfil the promise of the earlier books. These poems, together with a number of marked successes in other modes, easily make Wodwo Hughes's best book yet. (p. 152)

Wodwo also contains some excellent poems [such as 'Public Bart'], in Hughes's fierce, critical style, offering as little argument as usual but powerful in the intensity of their scorn. (p. 158)

[His sequence of poems called, provisionally, 'Crow Lore' represents Hughes's] most successful attempts so far at finding a 'mythical' situation and characters to dramatize both his sense—apparently growing—of the cruelty and arbitrariness of life, and some form of acceptable human riposte to it. What is especially interesting is that it is a bird, once again, that has provided him with the necessary inspiration…. Crow seems to represent, at the same time, various forces in the universe and various human attitudes; but he is always a bird, and in fact always easy to visualize immediately as none other than a crow. He is destructive and has a small, callous sense of humour; but he is heroically stubborn and indeed apparently indestructible. God, who in these poems is well-intentioned but not very bright, is usually worsted by him. (p. 160)

Many of Hughes's themes and arts come together in these poems. It is as though in his earlier work birds, animals and plants gave him a sense of certain possibilities of instinctual life or of simple moral life with a certain similarity to the life of natural phenomena; while human life mainly offered a spectacle of failure that he could only hold up to contempt. In the Crow poems he has found a way of drawing these intuitions into a unity. We follow the acts of Crow with the same closeness, and the same sense of ambivalent human possibilities being delineated, as we do with the earlier non-mythological birds (though the possibilities are rather different now). But these acts take place now in a different sort of setting, still always vividly physical but reflecting—through its scenery and characters—a wider range of human emotions and decisions, and impersonal forces, that enter powerfully into our lives. The fable-form both gives scope for a multiplicity of mirrorings of human experience, and fixes them in a single dramatic narrative of a kind that does not allow us to say—as we so often feel obliged to say of Hughes's more direct poems about human life—that he is over-simplifying. And all his powers of mimicry are splendidly and relevantly on display.

Looking back at his work as a whole, so far, it is as a mime that it is perhaps most useful to consider Ted Hughes. Though he is a traditional poet of the written word, and the normal action of the meanings of words is essential to his effects on us, he has an exceptional gift for making words act out the processes they are describing…. At any rate, the kind of instinctual, physically responsive life that Hughes has a particularly strong feeling for is displayed in action in the best of his work rather than simply argued for. He argues for it, too: but as I have tried to show, though he does this with wit and aplomb, he never really makes a case until he goes back to the poems in which he 'imitates' and embodies it. (pp. 162-63)

Derwent May, "Ted Hughes," in The Survival of Poetry: A Contemporary Survey, edited by Martin Dodsworth (© 1970 by Derwent May; reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.), Faber and Faber, 1970, pp. 133-63.

Mary Kinzie

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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

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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

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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
 
         Something separates into a signal,
         Plaintive, a filament of incandescence,
 
         As it were a hair …

This is more mannered than anything we find in Crow. I once attended a reading of Hughes's where he gave us a number of songs from that work and accompanied each with a narrative preamble—the story that lay behind the poems in their published form—so inventive and so strong that one wanted it to continue long after the verse had taken over. I do not believe that Cave Birds hides any equivalent story, and the absence of even such a dubious hero as Crow is significant. The Cave Birds themselves are … a variable lot—some, entirely ornithological; others, very nearly human. But, mercurial as they may be, their persistent presence does suggest that, if not a drama, then at least a ritual is being enacted in these abrupt, declamatory verses, and it is our business to find out what this ritual is about.

The answer, as it becomes clear, is death…. Death is always there, the poet hints, as the ultimate answer, to be arrived at, or evaded only for a time, by means of sophistry, metaphor, myth—all the apparatus of a mind unwilling to let a bare fact go unclothed. Every physical and metaphysical aspect is looked into and Hughes's performance has a suitably strenuous, virtuoso quality…. Through [his] relentless enquiry, in poem after poem, Hughes builds up a mythology of death and survival, in which birds and humans and bird-humans, whether alive or dead, are seen in heroic contrast to their own annihilation. But the question remains: is such myth-making worthwhile? Well, there is a partial answer in the book's subtitle, 'An Alchemical Cave Drama'—by which I understand Hughes to mean that the endeavour to extract a golden mythology from the dross of death is comparable, in one way at least, to the age-old ambition of the alchemists: the deed may be impossible, but there is courage in attempting it.

However, granted all this, the book still has serious faults. To begin with, I do not see how one can write with telling irony about death, when there is so little of observed life in one's writing…. Hughes's poems tend to turn themselves into rigmaroles and chants—tremendous periphrastic lists. One lights with such pleasure on any appearance of the real, human element (e.g. in 'Something was happening') that the birdiness of the rest of the book begins to look more and more of an evasion. A pity. (pp. 106-07)

Christopher Reid, "Flapping and Other Motions," in The New Review (© TNR Publications, Ltd., London), Vol. 5, No. 2, Autumn, 1978, pp. 106-08.

Craig Raine

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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

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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 landscape—whether he be writing the Crow poems, Gaudete, or verse directly related to the moorland parishes. The harshness of his work is abundant in the physical aspect of Elmet as it is now.

Remains of Elmet is about the place but that is only the surface matter. The poems reach far below that to produce a book of stunning value, an intensely private yet paradoxically public statement of a man for his roots, not merely historical and romantically, poetically imagined, but real….

The poems are of a power and strength that even Hughes has not yet really reached in his career until now. They seek to delve and explore in a way he has not attempted with such love and knowledge before: they rely upon truths and observed realities for their immediate impacts, but are enigmatic and hold much deeper truths in what they are saying….

The poems are a coming face to face. Their diction, which is easily understood yet vast in implication, tells of the real things Hughes knew, which move in his soul and are all accessible to any reader.

Hughes is not seeking to expand the photographs. That is too easy; besides, that is the eye's job. What he is doing is drawing personal, intellectual parallels to each picture, thus widening the range of the reader's awareness by introducing additional emotions.

It is in the handling of facts, though, that the book succeeds. It is a highly charged emotional journey into a poet's (and a nation's for the relevance to the "lost kingdom" ideal is not limited merely to a small tribal homeland) background, totally without sentimentality and with complete conviction and objective acceptance….

The book as a whole is a modern attempt at a similar task as Wordsworth sought to present in The Prelude, the understanding of where the individual has come from and what that background has made of him. It is an attempt that works magnificently. It is safe to say that this book stands as one of the most outstanding volumes of verse this century. And it is a crowning achievement to this incredible man's poetic skills. What will come next? We wait in terrible fascination and not a little longing.

Martin Booth, "A Poet's Journey to His Roots," in Tribune (reprinted by permission of Tribune, London), Vol. 43, No. 25, June 22, 1979, p. 11.

Peter Porter

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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 faults—a muscle-bound galvanism expressing itself in packed and tensile phrases listed down the page, often with no verb at all, and an excessive use of the pathetic fallacy, which goes beyond observing what men have made of Elmet, and turns the land into a malicious godhead. Very little is allowed to stand in its own right: it must brood, symbolise and portend….

The reader is so consistently battered by language that he has to turn to the heavily inert photographs to look for some clue to Hughes's intentions. It seems to me that Hughes takes the land by the scruff and shakes it—he wants it to be more significant, more death-dazzled than it is. In the process, the real pain of the industrialised centuries and the true beauty of their detritus is concealed by a grimacing expressionism.

In the middle of all this, there are some finely presented poems, chiefly honouring the daily life of the working towns, mills and farms…. [And] occasionally there is a poem which has that illuminating sense of mystery which has always been Hughes's greatest gift, but which is too often replaced today by an arrogant arbitrariness. 'Churn Milk Joan' and 'The Sheep Went On Being Dead' are two such, and in 'Rhododendrons' he proves my list of complaints momentarily irrelevant by writing a poem which offends as much as any in the book and yet stands vindicated by the authority of its imagination.

           Cenotaphs and the moor-silence!
           Rhododendrons and rain!
           It is all one. It is over.
           Evergloom of official titivation—
           Uniform at the reservoir, and the chapel,
           And the graveyard park,
           Ugly as a brass-band in India.

Peter Porter, "Landscape with Poems," in The London Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9803, July 15, 1979, p. 37.

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