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 clean, cobbled lanes worn down by generations of mill workers trudging in clogs, a rock that looks like the cervical vertibrae of an extinct monster, a graveyard under snow.
Ugly, derelict factories become beautiful photographs. Some of her landscapes are composed as if they had first been painted. You can almost feel the sharpness of her focus on the Yorkshire grit. Written after he had seen the photographs, Hughes’s poems counteract the power of the camera, which Susan Sontag has said “makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” Hughes marshals forces of metaphor, myth, and prophecy to reconquer his populous northern territory, and hand it back to nature.
He left home to go south to Cambridge, and later settled in Devon, where Moortown is located. His Elmet poems are not a guide, or a history, or an autobiography. They try to recapture places that the photographs have caught in a real moment of the past, and turn those places into myths. Seeing that the Calder valley must have been made by a glacier, he transforms the valley into an ice-eating predator, and the glacier into a victim devoured.
Death-struggle of the glacier
Enlarged the long gullet of Calder
Down which its corpse vanished.
Geology becomes a sacrificial feast, and the poem ritually consumes the past in which everything has been consumed. It violates nostalgia and the picturesque.
Farms came, stony masticators
Of generations that ate each other
To nothing inside them.
The sunk mill-towns were ceme- teries
All with whom they swelled.
After the feast of ages, the tourists come “to pick among crumbling, loose molars / And empty sockets.” They are masticated by the poem.
Hughes animates his earth and petrifies his people. Nature, in the Elmet poems, is “the Mourning Mother / Who eats her children.” She is worshiped for doing so. Reverently he gives “pious offspring” to “The Big Animal of Rock,” who says prayers and sings to the devouring goddess. But when Nonconformists pray to Christ in “Mount Zion,” he sees “a mesmerised commissariat”:
Women bleak as Sunday rose- gardens
Or crumpling to puff-pastry, and cobwebbed with deaths.
Men in their prison-yard, at atten- tion,
Exercising their cowed, shaven souls.
Words denoting blackness or darkness are used in Elmet more often than words denoting the colors. But the dark is cheered up by some baleful or mordant humor. A cricket had “rigged up its music / In a crack of Mount Zion wall.” Elders prized it out of “the religious stonework / With screwdrivers and chisels.” When Hughes acted the part of a reptile at school,
Somebody else acted Peter Pan.
I swallowed an alarm clock
And over the school playground’s macadam
Crawled from prehistory towards him
Tick Tock Tick Tock the crocodile.
The tone of condemnation in which the dead are put down in their “happy hell” is not un-Calvinistic in its harsh ness. “Their lives went into the enclosures / Like manure,” he says of some anonymous builders of walls. I would like to have heard more about how they lived, and less about how their deaths enriched the earth that their industry violated: the kind of thing Hardy did so well in The Abbey Mason, imagining a man history had forgotten. Hughes is more of the prophet, like Lawrence: either blessing the elect—those noble savages, animals, reptiles, fish, birds—or blistering the demned: most of the human race.
I like best in Remains of Elmet some brilliant evocations of moods and moments in the past, when Hughes relives an event like a game of football or cricket, or listens to cock-crows at dawn: the words miming the action, echoing its sounds, recapturing lost time. What he recaptures in “Football at Slack” is the sheer captivity of the game: players caricatured as “rubbery men bounced” around by their conformity to rules, like puppets. They seem all the more imprisoned, because their ground, “a bareback of hill,” is endowed by that metaphor with the freedom of an unsaddled horse. Cricketers in “Sunstruck,” who had their “brains sewn into the ball’s hide,” were “pinned to the crease, / Chained to the green and white pavilion.”
Nature has the last word. Her wild places, her summits, receive a blessing denied to the people who desecrated her valleys with mills and chapels. Now the puritan god has died, and the older Celtic deity is recovering her rites of the sun and the moon. She will soon devour the tourists.
Heather is listening
Past hikers, gunshots, picnickers
For the star-drift
Of the returning ice.
The death of Emily Brontë—one of the elect?—has become “a baby-cry on the moor.” The message of the Elmet poems, which comes through dark clouds of metaphor, is that the world must be resacralized. We might be happy, they suggest, if we could regain the joyful vision of our primitive hunting ancestors, through poetry.
Cave Birds delivers its message in riddling metaphors that upstage the Sphinx. Perhaps we are being told to change our lives, by giving up the false pride of our male technological mastery, and to become true to the most powerful feminine nature of our inner selves. Our guide to the cave might be Jung.
The title page calls it “An Alchemical Cave Drama.” The poems are accompanied by Leonard Baskin’s drawings of subliminal birds evolved by horrific mutations out of fantasy into black humor. You might want to hang these drawings in a corner of your cellar bricked up behind a wall without a door. Their anthropomorphic features, including genitals, suggest they might be symbols of sexual hunger, satiation, exhaustion, guilt, and regeneration. The cave they inhabit could be the womb, and the birds could be monstrous male sexual fantasies or fears, which perch, preen, probe, collapse, etc., as in some dreams.
Alchemical drama of Hughes’s kind is an inversion of Sophoclean. It mystifies more than it makes clear. There is a nameless protagonist. Everything happens in the cavernous dark of his inner self. He could be everyman, and may be living anywhere at any time, for he is unidentifiable. He may be innocent. Ted Hughes has said cryptically—but not in this book—that “the hero’s cockerel innocence, it turns out, becomes his guilt.” Could he be a puritan suppressing his true Dionysian selfhood under a false Calvinistic pride?
He begins with the soul of a cockerel, and ends with the soul of a hawk. Has he achieved more than an enhanced potency? In between, he is summoned, interrogated, accused, judged, sentenced, and executed by a grotesque sequence of Cave Birds. As part of his punishment in hell, he is turned into a flayed crow. To complicate the plot, while in hell he meets, recovers, and restores to life by reassembling like a machine, his lost bride, by whom he is himself reassembled like a machine. This machine becomes a new, unified person.
We never find out what crime he has committed. Imagine the play of Oedipus without incest being mentioned, with no palace, no reference to time, and a hero talking about himself in proliferating metaphors. All in a few lines of Cave Birds we have “a globe of blot,” “a drop of unbeing,” a shawl of annihilation,” “yoke of afterlife,” “self of some spore,” “white of death blackness.” No matter how good these are, they seem overproduced. Consider how the verb “to be” is crushed by its burden of metaphors in this impressively arcane list:
And the lord of immortality is a carcass of opals,
A wine-skin of riddance, a goat of oaths,
A slaking of thistles.
The little preposition “of” looks like a lot of burned-out fuses on the cosmic circuit switchboard of that sentence. I would have liked more earth-wires and fewer shocks.
The alchemy consists of turning everything into something that may be its opposite: the false self into the true, life into death, death into life. The alchemical poet is looking for the elixir, the power of life over death in words. It is a quest of the will to transcend old limits of convention, style, reason, morality, civilization: and break into some new, natural, anarchic universe. In his search for revolutionary freedom and power, his poetry becomes destructive of reason and tyrannical in its imagery. It intends to go through all the transmutations from stardust to human consciousness and back to stardust, making us rejoice in the painful, comic, meaningless effort of dirt to become God.
The alchemical poem I like best is called “The Knight.” Baskin’s drawing of a dead crow is one answer to its riddle. The poem mythologizes a rotted carcass, turning it into a knight of the Grail who has achieved his quest. He lays down his arms, armor, and life as a sacrifice to the goddess of nature. On a higher level, Hughes does with the carrion what Rilke said Baudelaire should have done with “Une Charogne.” He sees “in this terrible thing, seeming to be only repulsive, that existence which is valid among all that exists.” This is how it ends:
His submission is flawless.
Blueflies lift off his beauty.
Beetles and ants officiate
Pestering him with instructions.
His patience grows only more vast.
His eyes darken bolder in their vigil
As the chapel crumbles.
His spine survives its religion,
The texts moulder—
The quaint courtly language
Of wingbones and talons,
Nothing remains of the warrior but his weapons
And his gaze.
Blades, shafts, unstrung bows—and the skull’s beauty
Wrapped in the rags of his banner.
He is himself his banner and its rags.
While hour by hour the sun
Strengthens its revelation.
Under the North Star is more endearing and whimsical than Cave Birds, while still giving us the shivers. There is bright color in the Baskin drawings of creatures that look both real and fabulous. The poems read aloud well after dinner; witty, weird, and nonsensical as Lear. Some are easy. Others seem to be written for rather awful buck-toothed children who understand everything above their heads, such as this subtlety:
When day wakes
Sun will not find
What night hardly noticed.
Moortown is a polymorphous and farraginous collection of poems, three times as long as the usual volume, and twice as good. Planting our feet in the poached mud of Devonshire, it begins with flocks of pastoral animals, born in a dismally real place they can only escape from by dying. Taking us through the mythical section of “Prometheus on His Crag,” and many clearer lyrics, narratives, and mantras, it ends with flights of apocalyptic birds, singing gnomic psalms, while the sole of Adam’s foot is “pressed to world-rock.”
The poems are located on a farm purchased by the author. He was helped in his work of foddering cattle, baling hay, shearing sheep, starting a frozen tractor on a winter’s morning, delivering calves and lambs, by his late father-in-law. The poems are all about this work. The opening downpour of reality saturates everything: and although it’s depressing, we know where we stand.
Most of the poems are interior monologues in the present tense, as if they were jotted down in the heat or cold of action, engaging us in what the farmer-poet himself sees and feels quite vulnerably while doing his work. They have a notebook’s unpolished immediacy, a diarist’s disdain of revision. This is good narrative verse with no pretentiousness about the verse, no distancing of the poet from the thing he is doing as well as describing. There are few glances into the mirrors of metaphor and myth, and only the alchemy of turning things into words.
The wind on this farm is “sneapy,” a dialect word with Shakespearean links, meaner than “nipping.” There is no solace for the creatures born with agony into agony. “Nothing protects them.” “Nowhere they can go / Is less uncomfortable.” In a welfare state, the poem does not need to house the reader in the reassuring architecture of verse forms. These poems evict us from indoor comfort, and unconsolingly make us look outside.
The fox corpses lie beaten to their bare bones,
Skin beaten off, brains and bowels beaten out.
There is no pain-killer in the poem about dehorning cattle.
The needle between the horn and the eye, so deep
Your gut squirms for the eyeball twisting
In its pink-white fastenings of tissue.
It tears through our self-protectiveness to resensitize our feelings. Style, in the Moortown poems, is a knife or a saw for operating without anaesthesia on a living subject to save its life. The farm is not a weekend retreat, but the daily battlefield where everything struggles to stay alive. Here a newly born lamb and its mother are seen lying “face to face like two mortally wounded duellists.”
Always when an animal, especially a wild one, appears on a page, the transcendence, which Hughes toils to achieve with alchemical metaphor, seems to occur spontaneously. Instead of capturing a living creature and imprisoning it behind the bars of words, he releases us through the captive words into the wild life of the creature. Look what he does with that captive word “expostulates” by connecting it to a crow, making us hear the raucous voice and the clatter it makes in twigs and branches:
A crow in the fir
Is inspecting his nesting site, and he expostulates
At the indecent din.
By comparing the natural sound of hounds giving tongue to the industrial sound of “rusty, reluctant / Rolling stock being shunted,” he creates a better relationship between industry and nature by discovering their likeness. A relationship between a living man and a dead animal is wonderfully captured and liberated in “Coming down through Somerset,” a poem about a dead badger he found on the road and brought home. Around the little corpse, which he cannot decide what to do with, his problems gather. We can hear snatches of several voices in the monologue: diarist, husband, farmer, shaman, mythologist, symbolist, and storyteller. The conflicting desires for things to change and to stay forever the same are wonderfully fixed in the final image of driving a nail into a yew post. This is how it ends:
He stays on into the dawn—how quiet
The dark bear claws, the long frost- tipped guard hairs!
Get rid of that badger today.
And already the flies.
More passionate, bringing their friends. I don’t want
To bury and waste him. Or skin him (it is too late).
Or hack off his head and boil it
To liberate his masterpiece skull. I want him
To stay as he is. Sooty gloss- throated,
With his perfect face. Paws so tired,
Power-body relegated. I want him
To stop time. His strength staying, bulky,
Blocking time. His rankness, his bristling wildness,
His thrillingly painted face.
A badger on my moment of life.
Not years ago, like the others, but now.
Watching his stillness, like an iron nail
Driven, flush to the head,
Into a yew-post. Something
Has to stay.
The hero of Moortown is the man who helped Ted Hughes to farm. The “monument” erected to his “memory” is a group of six poems, in which, until the last stanza of the sixth poem, he and the land are seen in moments of intense, energetic action. Not mottoes for tomb-stones, but transcripts of a life. No marmoreal, exclusive sentiments, but things that concern a farmer—futile, messy, painful, or whatever—are brought together: the fuss about boundaries, wire, and stakes: the art of bidding at auctions: the sounds heard on the farm the day he died:
Thrushes spluttering. Pigeons gingerly
Rubbing their voices together, in stinging cold.
Crows creaking, and clumsily
The farmer is portrayed generously through the things he handled and loved. The last poem focuses poignantly on his hands. “You used them with as little regard / As old iron tools.” After five stanzas in which the hands are described suffering terrible pain to master all the jobs on the farm, the last verse sees them entirely changed by death:
Your hands lie folded, estranged from all they have done
And as they have never been, and startling—
So slender, so taper, so white,
Your mother’s hands suddenly in your hands—
In a final strangeness of elegance.
June 10, 1982
Ekbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe (Black Sparrow Press, 1980). An accurate, sympathetic account of his poetics and myths up to Gaudete, with useful appendixes, two interviews with Hughes, and selections from his criticism. ↩