Ted Hughes (1930–1998) was a prolific writer, but in his last ten years he published a torrent of work—Tales from Ovid; translations of Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Wedekind’s Spring Awakening; Rain-Charm for the Duchy, which contains the verse he wrote as poet laureate; his immense critical book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being; his selected short stories; his occasional prose; thematic editions of his earlier poetry; a large anthology, The School Bag, compiled with Seamus Heaney; a selection from Coleridge; and much else besides. The book which drew by far the most attention, though, was Birthday Letters, Hughes’s poems to and about Sylvia Plath and their life together.
That life was a matter on which, despite numerous provocations, he had been almost silent since Plath’s suicide in 1963. In the intervening years he weathered storms of criticism, abuse, and accusation which would have finished off a less resilient (or less well loved) man much sooner. But Hughes’s death was accompanied by the British press’s intense scrutiny of Birthday Letters and by a tide of critical praise which certainly had as much to do with the fact that the dying Hughes had revealed his feelings at last as with the quality of the work itself. For on the whole, these “last poems” (written over a quarter of a century) were not among his best. They did not, for example, bear comparison with Thomas Hardy’s poems about his first wife (1912–1913), or with Douglas Dunn’s Elegies (1985), also written in memory of his first wife. They were interesting, moving, at times alarming—but only in brief passages did Hughes attain the concentrated authority of his best work. This is a pity, but it’s not surprising, given the emotional complexity of the subject matter. Nor is it surprising that the artistic limitations of Birthday Letters—their rhythmic inertia and the repeated sense that diary material had not been fully transformed into poetry—were widely ignored. Biography, as tends to be the case nowadays, had sidelined art.
For readers wanting to come fresh to Hughes’s poems, Selected Poems, 1957– 1994, first published in Britain in 1995 and now in the US, is a valuable corrective to the inevitable emphasis on Last Things.1 It takes us back to the beginning of his work, before the accumulation of myths and suppositions about his behavior, before the taking of sides. It shows us why Hughes’s early poems created such excitement, and goes on to reveal the risks to which he subjected his poetic gift in his pursuit of a mythology which could encompass both the vast processes of external nature and inner human torment.
“The Scream,” from 1975’s Cave Birds, is not one of Hughes’s better poems, but it can usefully be read as a recantation of what Hughes in mid-career had come to view as his early poetic arrogance, and as a summary of the way his work had altered between his first poems and those of the 1970s. Formerly, he wrote in “The Scream,”
…the inane weights of iron
That come suddenly crashing into people, out of nowhere,
Only made me feel brave and creaturely.
When I saw little rabbits with their heads crushed on roads
I knew I rode the wheel of the galaxy.
By this reading the young poet had felt himself to be a privileged observer. His status as witness and recorder provided a form of insurance against the impact of the violent indifference of the world he admired. He was there to applaud the performance of the natural world rather than engage in the rather less glamorous activity of wondering what the performance meant. Indeed, he could see himself as a part of that negligent, imperious, awesome energy displayed by the works of nature. What by the 1970s he came to see as a youthful ignorance of the personal impact of events also produced the naive early version of Hughes’s “unified field” view of life.
Hughes never abandoned this view, but it underwent major transformation as, for example, he increasingly gave ground to the reality of human suffering while still seeking to find a home for humanity on what he called “the elemental power-circuit of the universe.” The mature version entails a sense of humility and privilege, and the acceptance of a reality larger than pleasure or pain. In “That Morning,” from River (1983), the act of fishing, which in Hughes’s work is often a near-sacramental means of shedding the claims of the daily self, leads to a visionary affirmation. The salmon, he writes,
…came on, came on, and kept on coming
As if we flew slowly, their formations
Lifting us toward some dazzle of blessing
One wrong thought might darken. As if the fallen
World and salmon were over. As if these
Were the imperishable fish
That had let the world pass away….
So we found the end of our journey.
So we stood, alive in the river of light
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.
The difference between the two quoted passages is not only one of mood. Method is also at stake. “The Scream” reads like the work of a man who had almost come to the end of being a poet at all: the writing seems willfully crude, especially in its rhythm. By contrast, “That Morning,” whose calm buoyancy owes something to Hughes’s friend Seamus Heaney, affirms the discovery of an object worthy of a poet’s devotion. Whether or not Hughes had it in mind, Selected Poems points clearly to the division in his sensibility between art and the temptation to destroy the gift that enabled him to make art.
Perhaps the personal and creative crises Hughes experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, when both Plath and Hughes’s lover Assia Wevill killed themselves, led him to a harsh judgment on his early work, so that the privileged role of fascinated neutrality which he innocently occupied in those poems from the 1950s may later have seemed to him to exact a Faustian price: the cost of talent might prove to be happiness. It is in the nature of poetry to seek causes and connections between events which may not be literally related, and as Elaine Feinstein’s sympathetic biography, Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet,2 shows, it was in Hughes’s nature to read occult messages in his own experience.
In fact, “The Scream” misrepresents the early poems. The best of them are so utterly absorbed by their subject matter as to have no room for glib sub-Nietzschean self-display. They have their roots in particular northern English landscapes in Hughes’s native West Yorkshire, where he spent much of his boyhood observing and catching animals. The self in these poems from his first two collections, The Hawk in the Rain (1957) and Lupercal (1960)—“The Thought-Fox,” “The Horses,” “Wind,” “Pike,” “The Bull Moses,” “An Otter”—is simply lucky to be there and able to take in what happens and to pass it on, like a relay baton fizzing with energy, to the reader. In “The Thought-Fox” it is the arrival of the fox in the poet’s head, not the head itself, that counts. Hughes later recalled a dream he had had during his student days in Cambridge, while he was struggling to complete a critical essay as part of his English degree. In the dream, a wolf-sized fox placed a bleeding paw on his desk and said, “Stop this—you are destroying us.” He took it as a sign of his poetic vocation. The poem, written two years later, comes as close as language allows to the creation of a real fox. There is
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
In “Pike,” the poem delivers its readers to the edge of the pool “as deep as England” in order to share the mingled excitement and terror as convincingly as if we’d reached a hand into its dark water ourselves:
Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.
Lawrence has sometimes been mentioned as an influence on Hughes, but Lawrence’s verse rarely musters the dramatic power of these lines, still less the formal certainty with which Hughes counterpoints line breaks and the forward movement of the language to suggest both his own intent concentration and the nightmarishly hypnotic ascent of the fish through the floor of his mind. The setting and the events of the poem are so peremptory and strange as to acquire the richness of legend. Here the personality of the poet counts for nothing: far from being self-consciously bardic and hieratic, he is the servant of fact and sensation.
The achievement, of course, is partly one of rhetoric, the effect like a warplane stripped of everything but fuel and ammunition in order to reach a remote target and deliver its bombload. The early Hughes tries to live up to his description of the poems of Keith Douglas (1920–1944), written in his introduction to a selection published in 1964. Douglas, who was a tank commander in the campaign against Rommel in the North African desert, produced, said Hughes,
a language for the whole mind, at its most wakeful, and in all situations. A utility general-purpose style, as, for instance, Shakespeare’s was, that combines a colloquial prose readiness with poetic breadth, a ritual intensity and music of an exceedingly high order….
At the same time, “There is nothing studied about this new language. Its air of improvisation is a vital part of its purity.”
Everything in Hughes’s admiring catalog of Douglas’s strengths indicates that the poet is to engage with the details of the world, rather than retire into generalizations about it. And yet much of the time Hughes was so concerned with work conceived on an epic scale and in a mythic mode that he neglected his own advice. The key term is, of course, “Shakespeare,” the omnicompetent poet, the world’s own equal. As with his contemporary Thom Gunn, there is a strong “Jacobethan” shading in Hughes’s early work, but it’s significant that in Hughes’s imagination Shakespeare is to be read not only forward as the discoverer of modern language, but backward too, into the alliterative tradition, toward the wood demons and animist forests of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Hughes’s imagination was rooted in landscape. Much of his best work arises from the sense of place. There are two major landscapes in Hughes’s work. First come the bare, wind-blasted northern moortops and sudden industrial valleys of his native West Yorkshire, the old, barely governable Kingdom of Elmet, where the Vikings holed up in the Pennine hills. The second is his adopted homeland, the secretive, heavily wooded, more completely rural county of Devon in the remote southwest of England, source of innumerable salmon and trout streams in the treacherous, boggy wilderness of Dartmoor.
His imagination switches easily between the two. These are places simultaneously exposed and intimate, weatherbeaten and beglamoured. The grim, marginal “pelting farms” of John of Gaunt’s lament for England in Richard II stuck in Hughes’s mind from early on. And the tramp, for instance, sleeping under a hedge in “November” (from Lupercal) seems a durable cousin to Lear and Mad Tom, as well as a descendant of Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer:
I thought what strong trust
Slept in him—as the trickling furrows slept,
And the thorn-roots in their grip on darkness;
And the buried stones, taking the weight of winter;
The hill where the hare crouched with clenched teeth.
Rain plastered the land till it was shining
Like hammered lead….
The tramp seems as much a native of the place as the wintering animals, not in a sentimental sense, but in that of hard fact. Fact itself also drives “An Otter,” the great poem of praise also from Lupercal, where the otter
…can take stolen hold
On a bitch otter in a field full
Of nervous horses, but linger nowhere.
Yanked above hounds, reverts to nothing at all,
To this long pelt over the back of a chair.
There and not there, quick with furious energy, then utterly dead as if never alive—at these moments the otter embodies a sense of the irreducibility of life.
Yet even in Lupercal there are signs of the rhetorical inflation that was to damage the work of Hughes’s middle period. In the transitional Wodwo (1967), the balance is clearly shifting. The highly wrought early work gives way to something intended to be more conversational and natural, attempting that “air of improvisation” he admired in Keith Douglas. The sensuous immediacy which the early poems worked so skillfully and generously to achieve remains readily available to the poet but is more casually regarded, as if the individual poem is a staging post on the way to some all-inclusive revelation. A certain restlessness is reflected within some of the poems themselves, where the animals seem desperate to be transformed, though the resulting fulfillment of their nature would entail their deaths. In “Second Glance at a Jaguar” the creature’s head is
like the worn down stump of another whole jaguar,
His body is the just the engine shoving it forward.
Later the animal is
wearing himself to heavy ovals,
Muttering some mantra, some drum-song of murder
To keep his rage brightening, making his skin
Intolerable, spurred by the rosettes, the Cain-brands,
Wearing the spots off from the inside….
Hughes’s own impatient description works because of the quality of his eye and despite the mannered repetition of “some” (see too the astonishing “Gnat-Psalm,” also from Wodwo), but the temptation to cheapen and short-circuit the imagination by pretending that the imaginative process has been completed rather than merely gestured at proves at times for Hughes too hard to resist. It is notable how many poems end with single-line stanzas—punch lines, in effect, whose tone inclines to the grimly oratorical-mythic: “They are God’s only toys”; “Into his own kingdom”; “His price is everything”; “Let England close. Let the green sea-anemone close”; “Into the iron arteries of Calvin”; “Rolls my staring skull away slowly into outer space.” Over the distance of a book, the mannerism becomes both obtrusive and obstructive: the poet has become a kind of demonic tent-show barker, promising terrible wonders every half an hour. By the time of the cartoon mythology of Crow (1970), Hughes’s senses of proportion and humor have deserted him. The result is a melodramatic farrago through whose smoking, blood-boltered wreckage matters of genuine seriousness—a struggle with personal tragedy, a crisis in how to continue as an artist—can occasionally be glimpsed and overheard. The admirer of Hughes’s early work will search in vain for its strengths of observation, and for its music:
Who owns these scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.
Who owns these questionable brains? Death.
One might ask, who cares? It is around this time that people began to make fun of Hughes’s work. Anthony Thwaite’s “To a Manichee” summed up a widespread skepticism:
In a dozen different ways
All of them the same
You tell us life is terrible
Till another book hits the shelves
With a noise like thunder
With a sound like applause
With a high cry of approbation
And life goes on just the same
The whisper of terrible despair
Comforting the comfortable.
Thwaite’s parody nails the musclebound sub-epigrammatic costume-movie rhetoric with damning accuracy: bad Big Ted poems of the period can sound like Prometheus played by Sylvester Stallone.
How did this linguistic and imaginative disaster come about? Elaine Feinstein’s biography quotes a letter Hughes wrote in 1970 to his friend and fellow poet Peter Redgrove following the deaths of both Hughes’s lover Assia Wevill and his mother. He felt, he wrote, as if life had swallowed him whole, “until what gets shat out in the clear air and sunlight and universal peace is no longer qualified to speak of what has passed.” Some might think that poetry would scarcely be an issue under the circumstances, but poetry is involuntary. Where was a language adequate to the experience?
An important influence on Hughes’s work in the 1960s was his involvement in the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, edited by his friend Daniel Weissbort. Hughes became an advocate of the work of a number of poets from what were then Iron Curtain countries, including the Hungarian János Pilinszky (whom Hughes himself translated), the Serbian Vasko Popa, the Czech Miroslav Holub, and the Pole Zbigniew Herbert. The experience of many British poetry readers was strongly colored by the series of Penguin Modern European Poets, for which Hughes served as an advisory editor. Many of the poets printed there had experience of both war and tyranny, and of the need to make poems which were both truthful to their experience and secretive enough to evade the state’s censors. There was an understandable temptation to see parallels between the work of internal poetic émigrés in the East, for example Popa’s minimalist mythology of “heads, tongues, spirits, hands, flames,…apples and moons” (as Hughes puts it in his introduction) and the psychic torments of the apparently freer citizens of the West. Here is Popa’s “Midnight Sun” from his 1968 collection Secondary Hea- ven, translated by Anne Pennington:
From a huge black egg
A sun was hatched to us
It shone on our ribs
It opened heaven wide
In our wretched breasts
It didn’t set at all
But it didn’t rise either
It turned everything in us gold
It turned nothing green
Around us around that gold
It changed into a tombstone
On our living heart
This may (I don’t know) be powerful and persuasive in the original Serbo-Croat, but in English it seems to me to have been cut out with a template rather than written.
The poet-reader excited by such writing runs the risk of producing a kind of emotional-imaginative shorthand where the authenticity of the original is replaced by grimly self-important gesture on the part of the admiring emulator. This, it seems, is what happened to Hughes. The result was a kind of poetic sausage machine, a fertility device whose imaginative limitations tended only to enhance its productive efficiency. There seems to be no end of poems like Hughes’s “Conjuring in Heaven” (from Crow):
So finally there was nothing.
It was put inside nothing.
Nothing was added to it
And to prove it didn’t exist
Squashed flat as nothing with nothing….
A little of this goes a long way, and on rereading, the law of diminishing returns comes swiftly into action. Hughes had in effect replaced a world with a bag of tricks.
Hughes wrote more than a dozen books for children (the most famous is The Iron Giant, 1968), which may have been the saving of him poetically. There would be no point in offering children a diet of bare bones and gristle. Season Songs (1976) shows that Hughes was still able to write poems animated by things observed for their own sake, like “Apple Dumps”:
After blushing and confetti, the breeze-blown bridesmaids, the shadowed snapshots
Of the trees in bloom
Come the gruelling knuckles, and the cracked housemaid’s hands,
The workworn morning plainness of apples.
Hughes is absorbing the lesson he himself offered in one of his best books, Poetry in the Making (1967), a groundbreaking set of practical essays on writing poetry, derived from a series of radio broadcasts for schools. Look and look again, he says there, until the object—the tree, the stone, the dead pig—begins to cross over into language. Without this earthing, any metaphysical ambition will be merely so much noise: physician, heal thyself.
The process was neither easy nor clean-cut. The epic poem Gaudete (1977) has its admirers. A vast disorderly house of a book which began life as a film script, it tells of the fate of a priest, the Reverend Lumb, a sexual magnet for the village women. Lumb (the word means chimney) is sacrificed and (perhaps) undergoes metamorphosis. Clearly the book has much to do with Hughes’s interest in shamanism (and, surely, not a little to do with his own complicated relationships with women). It provides rich material for scholars. But it’s like the architectural folly of a nineteenth-century magnate, a building interesting in its eccentric way but not somewhere you could actually consider living. In Remains of Elmet (1979) and after, the work gradually becomes less concerned with sheer scale and settles back to its natural habitat—landscape, water, weather, birds, beasts, and flowers—things which precede the symbol-making imagination, things which also survive it.
Given a life marked more than once by tragedy, Hughes could have been forgiven for finding something farcical about the invitation to become poet laureate. Following the death of John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, who had more or less stopped writing, had declined the post. Given the skeptical and prurient media attention which these days follows, accepting the royal appointment to the laureateship is the equivalent of putting a gun to your head and squeezing the trigger. Hughes could have avoided it. But he seems to have chosen to regard it as an honor, one which he would try to live up to on behalf of poetry. He served as laureate from 1984 until his death.
Needless to say, Hughes’s first (and best) laureate poem, “Rain-Charm for the Duchy,” was viewed with condescending bafflement. Dedicated to the recently born Prince Harry, it celebrates fertility in the breaking of a long drought in the west country (the Duchy of Cornwall, part of the estate of the child’s father, Prince Charles). It consists of a grateful, exuberant naming of the region’s streams. By dealing in analogy Hughes was probably expecting too much of the public, or at any rate the press. But Hughes was not warned off. It turned out that he was a royalist not merely by appointment but by inclination—a rural English conservative of the poacher-turned-gamekeeper school. (The poacher crops up in “The Rabbit Catcher” from Birthday Letters, where Hughes is horrified at Plath’s destruction of snares set in a wood, a desecration of his “country gods,” and Hughes’s powerful environmental concerns were of a correspondingly unsentimental kind.)
His royalism involved a particular devotion to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, whose life spanned the two world wars and who was in popular and tabloid press mythology “the Mother of the Nation” (a disappointed Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding). The fabulous conjuring trick of monarchical self-validation appears to have given Hughes another escape route from history into myth: “The crown,” Hughes wrote, “does not belong to historical time and the tabloid scrimmage of ideologies, but to natural time.” How very convenient, how sentimental, and, in a certain limited sense, how English.
In addition, he shared with the Queen Mother a love of fishing, and it is when Hughes comes to the water’s edge, away from obligation and thin consoling rationalizations of the English status quo, away from the indignity of fame and public functions, that the true glory—the passionate humility—of his later work is apparent. Here, for example, is “October Salmon,” with a fish come home from the sea to die, badged with age, “patched with leper-cloths”:
This chamber of horrors is also home.
He was probably hatched in this very pool.
And this was the only mother he ever had, this uneasy channel of minnows
Under the mill-wall, with bicycle wheels, car tyres, bottles
And sunk sheets of corrugated iron.
People walking their dogs trail their evening shadows across him.
If boys see him they will try to kill him.
All this, too, is stitched into the torn richness,
The epic poise
That holds him so steady in his wounds, so loyal to his doom, so patient
In the machinery of heaven.
Perhaps there are two versions of a poet. The first is as comprehensive as the poet can make it, including obsessions, distractions, and dead ends. There are plenty of these in Hughes, as there may be in the nineteenth-century poets whose almost implausible productivity he matches. The second is Hughes as he will continue to be read for the enormous pleasure of it. Even pruned back, this version is staggeringly rich, offering an abundance that the senses can hardly absorb. So convincing is his visionary recreation of the natural world—its animals, its elements, its minute and its massive scale—that it is sometimes hard to remember that we stand to lose the world in question.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan, in November.↩