The American publication of Ted Hughes’s thirteenth poetry volume, Wolfwatching, demonstrates the undiminished vitality of his verse. These twenty-five new poems contain many of his recognizable themes and motifs: his fascination with the primitive, mythic, and atavistic; his violent imagery; his sense of the undiminished savagery of nature; his shamanistic fascination with the world of animals; and his sense of the abiding mystery and horror of the natural world. There is perhaps more balance in this volume, however, between the human and natural worlds, even if Hughes maintains an almost misanthropic distance from his native Yorkshire culture. As the title poem implies, the focus of this volume seems to be at the intersection of the human and nature, with man and beast meeting face to face.
In this sense, Wolfwatching is a volume of poems about boundaries or margins, confrontations, and mutual incomprehension. Along with the expected bird and animal poems, there is a powerful set of war poems, harking back to the World War I experiences of Hughes’s father, who was one of only seventeen survivors of a regiment that fought in the Battle of Gallipoli. These are poems about the silences of the survivors, about the deep psychic wounds of the war veterans and the incomprehension of their families and children. In his portrayal of broken war veterans, Hughes seems to echo the work of the Georgian poets.
There is also a large group of Yorkshire poems that evoke the bleak industrial landscape of the north of England, where Hughes spent his childhood. These poems recount the dire plight of the region’s coal miners and textile workers and criticize the stifling mediocrity of British working-class life. Hughes is especially critical of the prim, puritanical, Protestant spirit of the region and its sterile Sabbath observances, with their denial of life and vitality. Finally, there are Hughes’s religious poems, cryptic, sardonic, almost gnostic in their projection of the dualism of good and evil. These poems evade easy analysis. They reflect a powerful, unfettered, vital sensibility, one that will not accept easy assurances or superficial explanations. Even in his alliterative style, Hughes rejects the soothing iambic meter for an irregular trochaic rhythm that stresses the selective meaning of accented words. These poems are not easy reading, but they do reflect the powerful and original poetic voice of England’s poet laureate.
Hughes’s title poem, “Wolfwatching,” might as easily have been entitled “People-watching,” since the point of view is that of the aged wolf, confined in a London zoo, doomed to stare out of his confinement at the smells and sounds outside his cage. Yet in his restless, alert behavior, precisely evoked by Hughes, who once worked as a zookeeper, we sense the unsuppressed power of the primitive. Who is watching whom, we wonder? We sense in the wolf’s boredom and confinement the frustrations of the tamed, domesticated world that no longer permits wolves to run free. Hughes’s wolf is a troubling, atavistic presence, a messenger from the subconscious, from the world of myth and psychic freedom. Removed from his natural environment to become a bedraggled curiosity in the zoo, the old wolf reminds us somehow of the last wolf killed in the British Isles—in Scotland—early in the eighteenth century. All that is left of his wildness are his “Asiatic eyes, the gunsights/ Aligned effortless in the beam of his power.” The caged wolf serves as a mute indictment of our servile culture: His cage is ours; his confinement ours; his boredom ours; his yearnings ours.
The plight of the caged wolf resembles that of Hughes’s father in “Dust as We Are,” as he sits silent and unresponsive in his home, brooding on his memories of war. In “For the Duration,” the poet berates his father for refusing to share the stories of his World War I heroism with his son, who had to re-create his father’s war experiences from the tales of other soldiers. The speaker asks why his father’s memories were worse than anyone else’s. His silence and the shouts from his nightmares were worse than any tale of war’s horrors.
Hughes’s animal poems seem so remarkable because of the poet’s ability to get inside the creature and evoke its essence from within, using graphic, multitextured metaphors. Thus, in “A Sparrow Hawk,” Hughes speaks of the bird’s “mulling gaze over haphazard earth” as “the sun’s cooled carbon wing/ Whets the eye-beam.” Focusing on the bird’s unblinking gaze, the speaker refers to “those eyes in their helmet/ Still wired direct/ To the nuclear core.” Raptors and predators clearly appeal to Hughes, as they did to the American poet Robinson Jeffers, to whom he is often compared. For both poets, these hunters represent something vital and untameable in nature. Yet Hughes can as easily evoke the essence of a dove’s burst of...
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