A Knot of Obsessions
Edited by Paul Keegan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $50 (cloth)
Hughes was a remarkably prolific writer who produced numerous
collections of poetry, translations, dramatic adaptations, criticism,
children's books, and radio plays by the time of his death in
1998. Yet Hughes, who was born in Yorkshire, risks forever being
known for his biography rather than his poetry, particularly in
the United States, where his wife, Sylvia Plath, was born. Hughes's
personal history may always influence his reputation, but the
recently published, excellent edition of his collected poems-1,200
pages of the real thing-should go some distance toward redressing
Collected Poems demonstrates in the aggregate Hughes's enormous output, the sureness of his voice, and the imaginative range of his mythic vision, which remained relatively intact throughout his career. The central preoccupations of Hughes's poetry were as distinct and consistent as his ambitions were large. In an early review, he commented that the tragedy of Western man is that of "mind exiled from nature, of man's failure to perceive the relationship of nature to the inmost psychology of man." Collected Poems shows in the broadest sense how Hughes's poetry unwaveringly attempts to move, with some detours and setbacks, through what he referred to as the mediating or transforming qualities of the imagination, toward reintegration of our inner lives with the external world-toward wholeness, or the recovery of the sacred in nature.
Commenting on Shakespeare's astonishing
industry, Hughes wrote that "he was almost invariably hammering
at the same thing-a particular knot of obsessions." With the publication
of Wodwo (l967), Hughes began to explore his own knot
of obsessions in collections that developed along two distinct,
although interacting lines-the nature, animal, and place-specific
poems of Remains of Elmet (1979), Moortown Diary
(1979), and River (1983), and the more overtly ambitious
sequences that use mythology, folklore, Eastern philosophies,
Jungian psychology, and alchemy as structuring elements, such
as Wodwo, Crow (1970), Prometheus on His
Crag (1973), Gaudete (1977), and Cave Birds
(1978). Searching for a "way in," for an idiom that could approximate
the complex levels of experience inherent in the various stages
of his quest, Hughes experimented, not always successfully, with
language and style. Thus, the often unwieldy, consciously (or
perhaps self-consciously) simplified, ranting and occasionally
hokey language of Crow, the concentrated stripped-down
poetry of Prometheus on his Crag, the overloaded, slightly
ugly "language of enactment" of Gaudete, and the strained
syntactical constructions of some of the later poems keep company
with the compelling generosity of the Moortown Diary
poems, which comment simply on the cycles of life and death, the
quiet meditations on the West Yorkshire area of his childhood
in Remains of Elmet, and the elegant lyrics of River,
perhaps Hughes's finest, most acutely observed nature poems.
Hughes's England was neither W.H. Auden's nor Philip Larkin's but the West Yorkshire of his childhood, a primordial land of moors, outcrop rock, and stifling valley-a region that always seemed to be "in mourning for the First World War." His inner landscape was charted early, his voice was confident, and his metaphors imaginative; in such early poems as "Wind" and "October Dawn," Hughes persuasively evokes the power of elemental energies in a strong, uncompromising idiom that won the admiration of such senior poets as Auden, Marianne Moore, and Stephen Spender, who together awarded the manuscript of Hughes's first book, The Hawk in Rain, the U.S. Poetry Center's First Publication Prize in 1957.
For some readers, early Hughes will always be the best Hughes. Not polite, self-effacing, or ironic, Hughes moved center-stage in The Hawk in the Rain with poems celebrating the totemic beauty and unspoiled singularity of animals such as the Jaguar, which "hurr[ies] enraged / Through the prison darkness after the drills of his eyes / On a short fierce fuse," and the title poem's hawk, whose "wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet / Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air." The well-known "The Thought Fox," which had its origins in a dream Hughes had at Cambridge, builds through delicate progressions of thought, awareness, and visceral responses as the fox's approach (remembered from childhood pursuits of animals) becomes a metaphor for the elusive movements of the poetic process:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
With Lupercal (1960), Hughes shed the occasional self-conscious virtuosity of The Hawk in the Rain, dropped the more obvious influences, such as Hopkins, and worked toward a greater economy of style. Still, what seems most remarkable about the Lupercal poems is Hughes's insight into the independent life of things, what Rilke calls "inseeing," and the strong narrative energy that propels such poems as "Thrushes," "An Otter," and "View of a Pig." The powerful "Hawk Roosting," sustained by the declarations of the frighteningly controlled hawk, suggests Hughes's fairly uncompromising view of the violence inherent in nature: "The sun is behind me. / Nothing has changed since I began. / My eye has permitted no change. / I am going to keep things like this." And in "Pike," perhaps the finest poem in the collection, Hughes implies the relationship of the self to nature, of the imagination as a transforming force, in a concentrated, almost visionary moment:
Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast
But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,
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.
Hughes never actually left the territory of the early poems, and at their best they anticipate the strength of conception, narrative sense, and gift for metaphor that characterize his more fully realized later poems. If nature is portrayed as indifferent to or separate from human concerns in the early collections, the universe of fourth collection, Wodwo, is the one in which all things are organically interrelated, where "everything is inheriting everything." Wodwo represents a search for meaning (Hughes described the volume, published four years after Plath's suicide, as a "descent into destruction"), and Hughes shifts and expands his poetic techniques to include more loosely structured, pared-down, experimental lyrics and exploratory sequences. The title of the collection is taken from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the wodwo is described as a troll or satyr of the forest. The wodwo's direct question, "What am I?," and his commitment to "go on looking"-whether in a personal or general context-led directly to Hughes's next volume, Crow, and became a subtext of the poetry from this point on.
* * *
A window into the nature of the demonic, an apocalyptic scenario with comic-strip overtones, a striking technical step forward, a repudiation of language, an unrelieved bleak view of human nature, a deepening moral concern . . . these are some of the strong, contradictory, often perverse criticisms that attended the publication of Crow. If the wodwo softly questioned his nature, then the character Crow blasted onto the landscape, a larger-than-life, quasi-human, quasi-autonomous figure fashioned for an unpredictable journey through a destroyed civilization, devoid of humanistic values: "Everything God does not want is mine." Crow's journey, basically the apprenticeship stage of the shamanic pattern, becomes a discovering, testing, learning process. The wodwo and Crow can be viewed as part of physical, animal nature, but they are also animistic; put more simply, Hughes seems to be saying that the wodwo and Crow are becoming human by becoming spirits conscious of themselves in an often violent, destructive world. While Crow is perhaps one of Hughes's more imaginative enterprises in conception, the sequence is disjointed, without direction, and the initial intensity falls off sharply as the sequence progresses. From the beginning, a major problem for many has been the lack of narrative context for Crow, which Hughes provided in public readings but chose to omit from the published work. Although Collected Poems includes all the published Crow poems, the sequence itself was never completed, and narrative issues remain unresolved. More to the point, Hughes's production of Crow poems came to a halt in l969 after Assia Wevill (the woman for whom Hughes left Plath) committed suicide, taking their daughter with her.
Throughout Crow, and continuing into Hughes's later sequences, the need for understanding the relationship of the self to the physical universe, for shedding ego, precedes any sense of union or connection with nature. The strength of Crow lies finally in the gradual inward progression of thought and feeling suggested in poems such as "That Moment," when "the trees closed forever / And the streets closed forever," and "Crow on the Beach," in which a vulnerable Crow begins to sense the pain of being human, yet cannot fully comprehend his anguish: "His utmost gaping of brain in his tiny skull / Was just enough to wonder, about the sea, / What could be hurting so much?" and the darkly poignant "Littleblood":
O littleblood, hiding from the mountains in the mountains
Wounded by stars and leaking shadow
Eating the medical earth.
O littleblood, little boneless little skinless
Ploughing with a linnet's carcase
Reaping the wind and threshing the stones.
O littleblood, drumming in a cow's skull
Dancing with a gnat's feet
With an elephant's nose with a crocodile's tail.
Grown so wise grown so terrible
Sucking death's mouldy tits.
Sit on my finger, sing in my ear, O littleblood.
Whether Crow is a major, original, and successfully realized sequence will probably always be a matter for debate, but criticism of Hughes's poetry has never been very uniform. He has been praised for the strength and command of his early and late nature poetry, for his ability to animate a landscape free of any romanticized sentimentality, and for the scope of his mythic enterprise. And he was criticized early for a perceived endorsement of violence, for a seeming detachment, and for an inability to empathize with human beings. Moreover, ardent followers of Plath's poetry accused Hughes of mishandling her estate, condemning him, and by extension, his poetry; in fact, until the publication of Birthday Letters (1998), knowledge of Hughes's poetry was relatively scant in the United States.
Admirers of Hughes's early and late nature poetry claim that beginning with Crow and the more abstruse sequences such as Prometheus on His Crag, Gaudete, and Cave Birds, Hughes abused his gift for language-lost his way. Varied in conception and style, these collections are nevertheless important steps for Hughes in his pursuit of reintegration. The experiences of the persona of Cave Birds, for example, bear a marked relationship to some of the stages of Crow's journey, or more directly, perhaps, to the Reverend Lumb's shamanic excursions in Gaudete. And all of these sequences contain some excellent, underrated poems, such as a few of the poems in the epilogue section of Gaudete, or the concluding poem of Prometheus, which describes that character's transfiguration or rebirth:
The mountain is flowering
A gleaming man.
And the cloudy bird
Tearing the shell
Midwifes the upfalling crib of flames.
And Prometheus eases free.
He sways to his stature.
And balances. And treads
On the dusty peacock film where the world floats.
Cave Birds, which parallels an alchemical process and centers on the protagonist's psychological journey toward transformation, is one of Hughes's most closely structured sequences. It includes some of his finest poems, such as "The Risen" and "Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days," in which lovers attain wholeness through generosity-unselfish acts of love-and "bring each other to perfection."
The positive critical response to Moortown Diary, a collection of lyrics drawing on Hughes's experiences of farming in Devon, suggested the return of the prodigal son. Poems such as "Rain" and "March Morning Unlike Others" convey a sense of belonging that underscores much of Hughes's best nature poetry. And while Remains of Elmet, Hughes's meditations on the Calder Valley area of his native West Yorkshire, may at first read like a catalogue of division and loss-desolate mill towns, empty farms, and people cut off from nature-the recurrent images of light ultimately imply possibilities of revitalization. With River, Hughes comes full circle, from the questions of the disenfranchised wodwo to brief mystic moments of enlightenment, visions of the sacred in all living things. Hughes returns to initial personal resources in River, his lifelong passion for fishing. But as he commented in his last interview (with Tom Pero in the American fishing magazine Wild Steelhead & Salmon), fishing represented much more than sport for him: "You're not only going fishing, you're going on some sort of reconnection with the valuable things in yourself. . . . That feeling of something absolutely sacred and unspoiled is a big part of that. . . . You want to be reconnected with that . . . to make it part of yourself, to repossess it." Following a year in the life of a river (viewed by Hughes as the soul, or source of ultimate life), River builds through an accumulation of rich, luxuriant images of light, spirit, and energy, Hughes's precise observations, and a sheer sense of wonder at the rhythmic cycles of life and death. The sequence is also an extended ritual of regeneration, a mystical journey from the birth of the salmon eggs in "That Morning Before Christmas," to brief moments of vision in the splendid "That Morning," as the salmon "kept on coming / Lifting us toward some dazzle of blessing," and
Two gold bears came down and swam like men
Beside us. And dived like children.
And stood in deep water as on a throne
Eating pierced salmon off their talons.
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.
Following the publication of River, Hughes was appointed poet laureate by Queen Elizabeth II in l984 and somewhat surprisingly turned out to be a royalist whose personal mythology, as Seamus Heaney has noted, encompassed notions of the crown as "an image of the tribe's unity and spiritual resource." He also published children's books; Wolfwatching (1989), a return to the landscape of the early books; revisions of a few collections; Rain Charm for the Duchy (1992), his generally dreary laureate poems; and a substantial body of impressive criticism, including the acclaimed Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992). And while Hughes may have achieved resolution of his poetic quest in River, there was always unfinished business simmering in the background: his need to understand, to come to terms with, and to write about his relationship with Sylvia Plath. Hughes had written poems to Plath sporadically over a twenty-five year period, but unable to endure "being blocked" any longer, he returned with concentrated intensity in the mid-l990s to write a large block of the now legendary Birthday Letters poems. With a newly found sense of "inner liberation," he produced his translations, the wonderful Tales from Ovid (1997), Phèdre (1998), The Oresteia (1999) (which Hughes considered one of his best works), and his final work, Alcestis (1999).
But none of these accomplishments would draw the attention Birthday Letters did. Indeed, few books of poetry have ever attracted as much attention from critics, readers, and gossips as did Birthday Letters, Hughes's powerful and intimate 88-poem sequence in which he chronicles his relationship with Plath. Here, Hughes gives us the whole story, or at least his version of it, from the first meeting and the wedding ("in your pink wool knitted dress / And your eye pupils-great cut jewels . . . / Shaken in a dice-cup and held up to me") to the period after Plath's suicide, poignantly suggested in "Robbing Myself," "Hands," and "Life After Death," and even beyond, with Plath's eyes resurfacing as the "wet jewels" of their son's eyes, and her "long balletic monkey-elegant fingers," remembered by "your daughter's fingers / in everything they do." In other poems, such as "Black Coat," Hughes explores his somewhat debatable conviction that the marriage was predetermined, fated to some extent by Plath's fragile psychology in general and her obsession with her father's death in particular. Overall, Hughes speaks to Plath both as husband to wife and as poet to poet, responding directly to some of her poems in "The Rabbit Catcher" and "The Earthenware Head."
Hughes had an inherent aversion to so-called confessional writing, and what is striking in Birthday Letters through his use of the first person is his vulnerability as he attempts to understand their relationship and come to terms with her death. In a lengthy letter to his friend Keith Sagar, a literary critic, written a few months before his death (and now in the collection of the British Library), Hughes speaks of his "moral reluctance" to appropriate autobiographical experience of this sort as material for his art; he was convinced that if the experience was to be addressed on some creative level that it should develop "through symbol, inadvertently." Critics may have condemned Hughes's long silence on the matter of the relationship, and Hughes himself always believed that he should have spoken out publicly sooner. But seriously ill, and with time running out, Hughes published his "unguarded" Birthday Letters. The poetry of Birthday Letters does not approximate the formal achievements of Hughes's best poems, but then, his objectives were also different. In these poems of love, of remembrance, Hughes said that he simply wanted to unburden himself, to communicate with Plath in simple, "unselfconscious" language. Still, it's difficult to escape the feeling that Hughes is being open only up to a point. The poems are written in free verse, and while some appear artless, even slack, and others are awkwardly overloaded with astrological references, many poems, such as "You Hated Spain," are in fact quite controlled from the outset.
The inclusion for the first time in a trade edition of the complete texts of the poems addressed to Assia Wevill (Capriccio, 1990) and those of Howls & Whispers (1998), which Hughes thought of as the "strays" of Birthday Letters, allows readers to consider the interplay between the public and the private, the relationship of these two sequences to each other, and of both to Birthday Letters. Within this context, it is possible to view Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers as fragments of one long sequence, or separate though interrelated sequences that speak to each other across separate frames. The eleven poems of Howls & Whispers are darker in mood, for the most part, than Birthday Letters. Hughes's relationship with Plath is foreshadowed in the stark opening poem, "Paris l954," which builds from a recollected moment of youthful innocence, "so new to this unlived life, so ready for anything," to an unimagined future, intimated in the unheard "scream that approaches him," that "resembles a white mask with spread fingers / That will grab and drub and wring his heart." There are also subtle shifts in the narrative voice in a few of the poems such as the provocative "The Offers" and the "The City, " with its memorable opening lines:
Your poems are a dark city centre.
Your novels, your stories, your journals, are suburbs
Of this big city.
The hotels are lit like office blocks all night
With scholars, priests, pilgrims. It's at night
Sometimes I drive through. I just find
Myself driving through, going slow, simply
Roaming in my own darkness, pondering
What you did.
The title of Capriccio is somewhat ambiguous,
implying at first a rather joyful piece for instruments, but in
the sequence it actually suggests unmotivated acts, acts without
purpose in any mythical or religious sense, and a degree of horror.
The sequence is structured on a relatively loose narrative framework,
an interplay of myth (predominantly the myth of Lilith), history,
biography, and some autobiographical elements. Capriccio
reflects Hughes's obvious sympathy and affection for Assia, and
in poems such as "The Other" and "The Error" he attempts to come
to terms with her apparent obsession with and unresolved feelings
about the death of Sylvia Plath, and perhaps her own subsequent
death: "you fed those flames / Six full calendar years- / Every
tarred and brimstone / Day torn carefully off, / One at a time
. . ." Hughes had a tendency to conclude sequences with poems
that were essentially positive, and in the brief concluding poem,
"Chlorophyl," the interweaving of imagery of the descent of the
departed mother with the sycamore, the Egyptian tree of life,
Hughes suggests regeneration. Yet this appears to be little more
than an implied hope for rebirth, which has not been fully realized
in the poetry. Of greater significance, perhaps, is the structuring
myth of Lilith, which explains the placement and thematic link
to "Fairy Tale" and "Dreamers" in Birthday Letters, the
poem in which Hughes tells Plath that they were all helpless,
"as the Fable she carried / Requisitioned you and me and her,
/ Puppets for its performance." And with the placement of "Capriccios,"
as the opening poem of Capriccio, and the same poem,
with a few variances, as the closing poem of Howls & Whispers
(here, called "Superstitions"), Hughes deliberately created a
circular link or pattern among the three sequences.
Thus Birthday Letters operates in a separate,
though closely related region of Hughes's poetry, doubling back
to his central concerns, nourishing and providing energy for his
later works. The open questions, of course, are the specific ways
in which Hughes's poetic enterprise was influenced by the unresolved
issues of his marriage to Plath and her subsequent death. What
Collected Poems does show is Hughes's impressive development
in a career that spanned over forty years, overcame its setbacks,
and gave us some of the more imaginative, forceful, and deeply
felt poetry of the postwar period. Faced with the enormous amount
of manuscripts in various collections-primarily the 5,000 pounds
of Hughes papers purchased by Emory University in l997-Paul Keegan,
the editor, chose to include only poems published previously,
awaiting a future Complete Poems for the rest. The editorial
decisions have been judicious, yet purists might question some
choices. Gaudete, an ambitious recondite work by any
standard, originally consisted of a main narrative, a sequence
of epilogue poems, and a prose epilogue. The narratives have been
omitted from Collected Poems, and the poems, although
impressive, seem oddly rootless. A small quibble perhaps. And
what Collected Poems makes clear is that from the outset
Hughes had confidence and nerve and with admirable consistency
hammered at his own particular knot of obsessions. <
Carol Bere has
published articles and reviews in The Washington Post,
The Literary Review, Critical Essays on Ted Hughes,
Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, and elsewhere. She
lives in New Jersey.
Originally published in the February/March 2004 issue of Boston Review.