New Selected Poems
Remains of Elmet
Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama
Under the North Star
Ted Hughes is surviving. Four volumes of his poetry, and three critical studies of his work, have been published in the last three years. His New Selected Poems has recently appeared. Including all of Selected Poems 1957-1967, and a few good surprises, it draws from seven subsequent volumes, taking more from Remains of Elmet (1979), and Moortown (1980), than from Crow (1971), Gaudete (1977), and Cave Birds (1979). Demons and mythical birds rightly give way to the real creatures of his imagination, from a fox in a “midnight moment’s forest” at the beginning, to a bear eating salmon in an Alaskan “river of light” at the end. The selection contains some of the supreme poetry of the last two decades, and nothing weak or worthless.
Remains of Elmet is a book of Hughes’s poems facing black and white photographs by Fay Godwin, taken in the barren hill country of West Yorkshire, where Hughes was born on August 17, 1930. Schoolmasters then used to call it part of the backbone of England: a place, Hughes has said, where “nothing ever quite escapes into happiness,” or “the black slot of home.”
His people spoke “a very distinctive dialect”: nearer, he thinks, to Shakespeare than to the BBC. “The long ships got this far.” They used more words of Old Norse than Latin origin. The dialect sounded harsher and grittier than southern gentrified English. One of his inner voices, perhaps the deepest, descends from “A poverty / That cut rock lumps for words.”
Hughes’s father was a carpenter, a survivor of the trenches, who gave him an impression that “the whole region was in mourning for the first world war.” The family lived, until Hughes was seven, in a small brick terraced house, like that of D.H. Lawrence at Eastwood, in the narrow valley of the Calder. “The hardest-worked river in England,” it had powered the industrial revolution in textiles. Far back, the district had been the last outpost of the ancient British kingdom of Elmet. Having conquered this, the Angles turned the forest into a wilderness called “the Waste.”
Everything in that valley of his childhood seemed blackened by soot and smoke. Today, if you go there, you will see it greener and clearer. Most of the factories are closed. Overshadowing his house was a huge hairy rock, which gave him “the final sensation…of having been trapped.” Above and beyond this, he could escape into a happier world of wild animals, birds, and fish, over “a gentle female watery line, moor behind moor.” Across the moors was Haworth, with its gloomy but elegant parsonage. Closer to home was the Wesleyan chapel his people attended, whose joyless wall he describes as “a gravestone slab,”
Darkening the sun of every day
Right to the eleventh hour.
Fay Godwin must have gone out on to the hills whenever it was about to thunder and rain. She has discovered doleful moors in Turneresque whirl-winds, bones of a sheep that crows have picked …