Selected Poems 1957-1967
The Iron Giant: A Story in Five Nights
In June, 1954, the undergraduate editors of a Cambridge University magazine called Granta received a poem from someone signing himself Daniel Hearing. I vividly remember running my eye down the typescript and thinking that “The Little Boys and the Seasons” was a very beautiful and enjoyable poem. I was eager to see it in print. And I print it again now, after twenty years, because I still think it is a beautiful and enjoyable poem, and because Ted Hughes, whose pseudonym Daniel Hearing was and who was a student of the University at the time, has mistakenly refrained from printing it again himself.
One came out of the wood. “What a bit of a girl,”
The small boys cried, “To make my elder brother daft,
Tossing her petticoats under the bushes. O we know,
We know all about you: there’s a story.
Well we don’t want your tinny birds with their noise,
And we don’t want your soppy flowers with their smells,
And you can just take all that make-up off our garden,
And stop giving the animals ideas with your eyes.”
And she cried a cloud and all the children ran in.
One came out of the garden. A great woman.
And the small boys muttered: “This one’s not much either,
She keeps my dad out till too late at night.
You can’t get through the bushes for her great bosom,
The pond’s untidy with her under- clothes,
And her sweaty arms round you wherever you go.
The way she wears the sun is just gypsy.
And look how she leaves grown- ups lying about.”
And they all sat down to stare her out with eyes
Hot as fever from hostility.
One came over the hill, bullying the wind,
Dragging the trees out of each other’s arms, swearing
At first so that the children could hardly believe it. No one
Believed the children when they clapped he had come,
And was lying in the market-place and panting.
The weathercock would have crowed, but was in his hand,
The yellow-haired harvest fallen asleep in his arms,
The sun was in his haversack with hares,
Pheasants and singing birds all silent. Whereon
Parents pointed warningly to ba- rometers.
But the small boys said: “Wait till his friend gets here.”
Who came out of the sea, over- turning the horses,
The hard captain, uniform over the hedges,
Drilling the air till it was thread- bare, stamping
Up and down the fields with the nails in his boots
Till the cobbles of the fields were iron as nails.
Birds stood so stiff to attention it was death.
The sun was broken up for sabres. O he was a rough one.
And the little boys cried: “Hurrah for the jolly Roger.”
And ran out, merry as apples, to shoot each other
On landscapes of his icelocked battleships.
This was the first, or among the first, of his published poems, and I also remember being told by a don, when we brought out some of his early verse in an anthology, that this would never do. They don’t think that in Britain any more. The other day, at my daughter’s primary school, they were performing one of his poems on the stage, along with Lewis Carroll. He is part of the heritage, and constantly anthologized.
“The Little Boys” is a poem of a pastoral kind, and this idyll tells one something about the influences that were at work on him when he started. It used to be said—by Edwin Muir, for example—that Ted Hughes belonged to no school or climate. That is practically never true of anyone, and it would never do if it was, but it is easy to see why it was said. “The Little Boys,” despite the presence of identifiable influences, shows a considerable self-assurance. The writer had made up his mind to write in this way, and it was his own way. There are moments, however, when it also looks a bit like Dylan Thomas’s way: the “icelocked battleships” speak of the interest in Thomas’s diction and touch which was widespread then, and those merry apples were certainly picked on Fern Hill.
Together with what might appear to be the poem’s childish innocence and with its touches of archaism (“whereon”), the Thomas influence may have seemed to Hughes to smack of his apprenticeship, and to have induced him to abandon “The Little Boys.” But its childishness is a matter, not of precocity or incapacity, but of a fresh eye and of a relished subject matter, with which it plays a game both novel and traditional. The verse is free and conversational, in comparison with Thomas’s highly metrical and highly incantatory, Eighteen Poems. Yet the pace seems unerringly right. The last of its seasons, incidentally, is especially intriguing: with his jumbled armory of sabres and battleships, this wintry captain is a kind of British Empire pirate and martinet, and is reminiscent of John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave, in a play of a later time. He is also reminiscent of Blake’s Winter, a “direful monster,” in his sequence of poems about the seasons, which may have been another of the influences here.
Hughes has published four books of verse: The Hawk in the Rain (1957), Lupercal (1960), Wodwo (1967)—the present selection is drawn from these three—and, then, in 1970, Crow. He has also written for children and for the stage. He soon became known for his attention to birds and beasts (Lawrence was thought to be the obvious comparison) and to violence. Wild words—but very deliberate words, words which were increasingly placed at the service of a rhetoric of the subject—were found for wild life. He had gone to the Zoo, as well as to the woods, and had created his own zoo or bestiary. Several of the poems in question, it is safe to say, have been taken to heart by virtually everyone who reads poetry—such as “Pike,” “The Horses,” “Hawk Roosting,” “Esther’s Tomcat.”
Such was the energy of his initial attack, the sense of flow or flight imparted by his debut, that people wondered, as I seem to recall, what he was going to do next. Could he go on? How long would it last? People often make these not altogether ingenuous or benevolent inquiries. They expect a great deal of poets, where they expect anything at all. They expect consistency: the poet must go on being as good as he was at first—and there is always a fair amount of “at first” about poets. He must also change, develop, make progress toward what used to be described—particularly twenty years ago and in Cambridge—as maturity. He must try to be mature, and “major.” The infirmity of the assumptions which underlie such expectations is widely appreciated, but the assumptions are sometimes shared by the poets themselves, and they undoubtedly add to the terrors of endeavoring to develop, or alternatively, to maintain a lasting afflatus or chronic tumescence. The second of these things can’t be done, and there are signs in the middle Hughes of the strain of trying to do it. Some things do not last, though they may return.
Hughes was born in 1930 at Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire, and got to know the moors and the diluvian wet weathers celebrated in his verse. He has lived for a long time in the depths of the West Country, and is dedicated to country life—to its drops of dew and blades of grass and battered walls, to its animals and witches. In London, his poems were brought before the tribunals of the various competing schools of verse, and were quarreled over by people for whom a dewdrop was about as antique as a sabre—the sort of people, some of them, who were ready to claim that an avantgarde had been born in Liverpool at the time when the Beatles began to open their beaks and sing. The romanticism of the Forties, with Thomas as its best bet, had been assaulted by the Movement, which in turn was assaulted by a generation of pop poets who performed their stuff in public, in an ambiance of guitars and jazz.
Larkin was the Movement’s best bet, but the criteria of common sense and intelligibility advanced by its members were also seen to be satisfied in the work of certain older figures—none of them exactly fountains or flyers—who simply went on producing good poems throughout the ructions: men like Graves, Betjeman, Roy Fuller. Hughes was taken up by opponents of the Movement partly as a defensible alternative to its dryness and snottiness: here was an irresistible romantic. And it is true that the Movement poets did not resist Hughes at first. But some of them now do, and those who, broadly speaking, constitute their successors have expressed strong doubts about his later work—Ian Hamilton for one. Crow is the crux. It is deplored as heatedly as it is admired. His attitude to his “black” subjects is condemned as vampiric, Gothic, horror-comical. At the same time, he is said to be a neo-Georgian.
One reason why his later work has been deplored on certain sides is that it is held to have been governed, more and more, by considerations of performance and delivery. Many of these poems are inventories, speeches, tablets of stone, commandments—though they are not the kind of commandments that his readers would know how to obey. They are incremental as well as elemental. They are oratory and liturgy. Thomas’s Eighteen Poems, whose themes are not all that remote from those of Crow, did well in delivery too: but they do better on the page, and are more memorable if only because more melodic, than some of Crow, and appear to represent a different case, incantations though they are. Difficult though some of the Crow poems are, they have proved acceptable to a generation that wants its poets to climb onto the stage.
This child’s guide to the literary acrimonies of London (which have not mattered much to those poets who don’t live there, and who are often better poets than the quarrelers) is offered as a partial explanation of the violence with which the violence of Hughes—allegedly, the mindlessness and blood and thunder—has on occasion been rejected. He is said to be pretentious. He is trying to be like Blake. His ideas are crude.
I would agree that stretches of Lupercal and Wodwo seem to reveal a state of exhaustion. They are a trough, as are parts of Crow. The increments don’t always add up; the oratory can be very confused. I don’t think it is possible to detect many ideas in his poems myself, but what there is here of the kind of thing that poetry critics call ideas can be unpersuasive and perplexing. There are later poems, present in this selection, which look willed and incoherent when set beside “The Little Boys.” He is wrong to prefer them.
Nevertheless, there has been a failure to discriminate within his later work on the part of those who dislike it. Certain of the Crows are marvelous: “Crow’s Account of the Battle,” “Crow’s Theology.” In “A Childish Prank,” grown-ups are “lying about” again, as in “The Little Boys”: “Man’s and woman’s bodies lay without souls.” This time, though, there is theology, and even for those who don’t like theology, a more engrossing point is made. Gothic though it is, “Crow’s Account of St. George” is another very good poem: it is of the order of, and is no less richly deliverable than, the Border ballad “Edward.”
Early and late, his poems have been engaged in the depiction of instinctual life, and of the death-dealing behavior of fighters and predators, and this has been done in a context which includes a hostility to human participation in such behavior, which includes a desire for peace. His Crow is involved in this drama in an ambiguous way, being both predator and victim. This crow is not a crow as his early jaguar was a jaguar. His exploits are deeply anthropomorphic. He is a very sardonic bird.
This is a writer who delights in war and who delights in peace. It is daft to pretend that he is only describing violence, knowing his enemy. He is as thrilled by it as his litter of young foxes are by their own stench. “You live by what you thrill to,” Lawrence said, and this is what he thrills to. Whether he lives by his feeling for peace is uncertain. There are lively poems in which he is harsh about human wars—sometimes old British imperial wars—and about the cat-o’-nine-tails, in which he studies a predatory Mafeking colonel, tenderly thinking him an anachronism. But they have a conventionality about them—the wild man turns into a bien-pensant—which is absent from the poems about killer birds and beasts. These have almost all the best lines.
The admirer of Hughes who feels himself to be in a predicament on this score might be inclined to consult the children’s writings, in the hope that the paradox in question may be found there in a more intelligible form—in primary colors, so to speak. A children’s story of his, The Iron Giant, bears a rather strange relation to his poetry, in that one or two of the themes and incidents of the poetry are revived as endearing fiction. There are little, faint counterparts of some of his most thunderous effects; and cartoon versions of some of his worst monsters for adults: “Terribly black, terribly scaly, terribly knobbly, terribly horned, terribly hairy, terribly clawed, terribly fanged, with vast, indescribably terrible eyes, each one as big as Switzerland. There it sat, covering the whole of Australia, its tail trailing away over Tasmania into the sea, its foreclaws on the headlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria.” This passage reminds one, too, of the scene in Wodwo where Clapham is broken by the belt-buckle of a colossal sprawling soldier.
The Iron Giant is a clanking old-world robot who dismays a countryside by chewing up tractors and barbed wire. He is tackled by a brave boy. His violence is met by the violence of the local farmers. Eventually his powers are pitted against an Antipodean menace of even greater proportions: the terribly black dragon already mentioned, an intruder from outer space. The Iron Giant is now “the champion of the earth.” This recalls, if it doesn’t prefigure, Crow’s confrontation with stone, “champion of the globe.” Robot and dragon compete by submitting to an ordeal by fire. The dragon, badly charred, loses, and flies off into orbit round the earth, crooning the Music of the Spheres. This has a soothing effect on the people of the world. After all these aggressions, an unearthly and unlikely armistice. The nations unite. The people of the world “stopped making weapons. The countries began to think how they could live pleasantly alongside each other, rather than how to get rid of each other. All they wanted to do was to have peace to enjoy this strange, wild, blissful music from the giant singer in space.”
There is some even more surprising common ground between the book and the poetry. At the beginning of the book, the boy is fishing, and the scene is like a version of the scene in “Pike,” where the poet, fishing, feels threatened by the life in the pond. “It was growing too dark to fish,” the boy decides. “Past nightfall I dared not cast,” the poet writes. There are owls in both cases, and a hush. Both the boy and the poet sense that they are being watched, and they are both afraid. Then the boy sees the terrible Iron Giant clambering over the horizon. I conclude that Ted Hughes was so interested in fear, and in the adolescent memory which may be recaptured in these scenes, that he had no compunction about repeating his finest evocation of the frightening in terms of a standard episode from a children’s book.
The pond in the poem is legendary, and “as deep as England.” It may be imagined that in that pond swim other predators besides the pike, such as his Mafeking colonel: that the wars which made Britain great are somewhere there among its deadly submarine life. Hughes, as I say, prefers the thrush’s “automatic purpose,” or the tigress’s “swift motions,” to the behavior of the desk warriors of the Western world, or of its simple soldiers. But maturity is reckoned to be incompatible with favoring atrocities of any kind, whether they are those of a fish or a general, whether they lead to a sparrow’s fall or to the annexation of Southern Africa. He can’t, in fact, be said to favor atrocities. But he can be said to be fascinated by fear and fang, and this has been enough for criticism to imply, in its sanguinary way, that his fascination with such subjects is that of Count Dracula.