A fox creeps into the brake, coped in the darkest of night, its eyes burning cinders. A brittle vigilance in its movement. The rale of its breathing, ‘..a sudden sharp hot stink of fox.’ It was just such a visionary glimpse that afforded Ted Hughes an early emblem of poetic inspiration: the poem as quarry, as a dweller of liminal places easily frighted by the acquisitive probings of the human mind, as something that can be snared only with patience and the apt knowledge of folkways. ‘The Thought-Fox’ as Introit, as process-poem, as living netsuke. Not quite correct to describe Hughes as a nature poet tout court: rather, the natural world in his poetry as a metonymy for radical otherness, a complex of energies ever-shifting and elusive, to which the human economy is a matter of pure contingency. An entry-point to a bailiwick of myth, of ancient topographies that pulse beneath the skin of the poems. Hughes has noted that it was a bid to reject the heresy of Audenesque abstraction that lent edge to poems such as ‘View of a Pig’, the pared-down directness of line and lexis contributing to the unbroken circuit between the observing mind and the thing observed: ‘Too deadly factual’ - unwilling even to impart a grim dignity to the dead creature, it is simply, inarguably itself. But if resisting a poet’s instinct to conscript subject-matter as metaphor or symbol was to be one of the governing principles of Movement verse, here Hughes grants that the corpse is reborn into poetry, conjured by the precise placement of language into a new, transformed life. He instances ‘View of a Pig’, ‘The Bull Moses,’ and ‘Hawk Roosting’ as a metamorphic triad key to his later work - a groping-toward the alchemical re-vision: “So I had found a language - only by locating it in its lifeless (or comatose, anaesthetised) obedience. Nevertheless, it is a language, in this operational spell, that will spring - like the pig - totally to a new kind of life.” An aesthetic organicism, conferring a vital bio-energy to words on the page; the development of a poetry as a form of meiosis; and the growth of a poet’s mind is of a piece with the frond-like unfurling of language itself.
So possessed by this imagery was Hughes’s creative imagination that he could speak of it in sacramental terms, quite freely and quite without embarrassment. Of ‘The Thought-Fox’ he said, “The words have made a body for it and given it somewhere to walk.” And the red thread of this idea recurs in Hughes’s discussions of his poetry: that shadowy apprehensions - spirit-glyphs, as yet disembodied - often at the very rim of awareness are transubstantiated into language by a controlled violence. He views a poem in its creaturely aspect. It is an articulated being of its own, a soft machine of musculature, blood and breath. (Hughes was fond of comparing the business of composing a poem to fishing.) Composing a poem is setting lures, springes to catch woodcocks. Hughes later finessed the creation of those early animal poems into mythic terms; but this was Hughes the systematizer at work, not the raw instinctualist. It was a stroke contra the anaemic cosmopolitanism of his contemporaries, perhaps. The gentility principle, of A Alvarez’s formulation.
The Uncrowned of the Rainworld
While, to all appearances naturalistic, Hughes’s is nonetheless a poetry of crisis, an orchestrated psychic response to surviving in the ‘after-glow of collapsed religion’, after a primal violation that could perhaps provisionally be given precise historical coordinates, yet which, in the Hughesian cosmogony, arrived as a fated holocaust. T.S. Eliot wrote school-masterishly of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’, but Hughes worked this abstract theory into a full-blooded ontology, a master-drama in which we are all caught up, and the resolution of which can only be effected by the poet, the Suffering Servant attending to all the bleak impulses that beset us in the crisis-moment. Hughes’s reading of Eliot divined the elder poet as one early granted a glimpse of the ‘desacralized world’, who falteringly approached the means of remedy. (In Eliot’s case his gradual acceptance of Anglo-Catholic redemption theology.) Hughes engages with Shakespeare at a similar pitch - but on a grander scale. He saw the suppression of Goddess-worship during the ascendancy of the European Reformation as the critical conflict: a benign, bloodwarm mariolatry, and, beneath this deeper still, the feminine principle, das ewig weibliche, put down by the Puritan denial of the life-force, a catastrophic rout to which Shakespeare bore witness. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being is epic in scope, obsessive in its setting-forth of the ‘Mythic Equation’, Hughes in a kind of sacred vehemence kicking against the pricks of the academy. Read it as a prose-poem - in terms of its monomaniac energy it bears comparison to Lawrence’s book on Hardy, and says as much of Hughes’s preoccupations as Study of Thomas Hardy of Lawrence’s, each detonating the plush pieties of academic discourse, and each gesturing toward a critical philosophy that sprang from their inmost selves. “[This] fable of his, this very private assembly of [Shakespeare’s] deepest obsessions, reflected perfectly the prevailing psychic conflict of his times in England, the conflict which exploded, eventually, into the Civil War.”
Hughes returns compulsively to the blasted heath of this spiritual cataclysm, a pocked and muddied landscape lit by balefires. His work is an expeditionary venture, each poem, each collection a sortie into this; attempts to find a language and a style adequate to it. His readings in anthropology offered one image-system. Ritual dismemberment of the tribal hero, the better to be reconstituted in a new life. The Crow poems essay a kind of proto-myth. As in a Jan Svankmajer animation, orts and gobbets of pulverised meat - trope and syllable, the buckled truss of syntax - stir and twitch on the butcher’s block, self-aware and seeking their like. They present as urgings toward wholeness after unimaginable personal trauma, a hectic improvisatore voiced as its own Nachtmusik: Crow a ragged, goggle-eyed avatar, apparently deathless, with a demented gaiety that baffles God and who, by a happenstance mysterious even to himself, is thrown into the toho-bohu of Creation. The Crow suite is composed of riddles and hymns, an anti-liturgical charivari that at once lies blackened on the page and skitters and capers in flickering stop-motion. Fragmentary and disjunct, it stands as Hughes’s uttermost bid to set bounds on personal tragedy, to cauterise the wound.
It arose from a faith that pain could be countered and given intelligible shape by the exercise of the poetic will. Hughes was writing when the American ‘confessional’ poets were coming to the fore: the example of Robert Lowell and John Berryman, and, more complicatedly, Sylvia Plath was one that set a premium on the poet’s unregulated candour. Lowell could write of his manias with the assurance that the reader would understand that such writing was sanctioned by artistic necessity. (Although his friend Elizabeth Bishop took issue with his adaptation of private correspondence into lyric verse.) Naked intimacy was taken to be the guarantee of authenticity. The egotistical sublime dwindled, under the hands of the luminaries of this generation of American poets (perhaps at the prompting to an Emersonian self-reliance), to a species of autobiographical asset-stripping. Their every experience, no matter how private or embarrassing, was funnelled into their poetry. (The extraordinary reticence of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in stark contrast - she knew the acutest pain, but it only by glimpses appears in her work - by indirection she finds direction out.) Hughes’s early work fixes its gaze on the phenomenal world; but is collaterally an account of the forging of a style. Words with material density and a rhetorical flexing to match the elemental hurly-burly of the subject matter. The personal ‘I’ appears rarely. Much of it feels like a chastening of language, physically breaking it in: an assertion of mastery. The line is hard and consonantal, deep-chested mouthings, as if Hughes has sought to return to the linguistic heart’s-root of futhorc, reclaiming its energies. In Hughes’s mythic economy Shakespeare’s Ariel imprisoned in the cleft oak was a charged symbol of the unrealised poetic self. As the ‘confessional’ poets with a manic garrulity evacuated their private cruelties and flaws and errancies onto the page, for Hughes - who distinguished the mythic from the realist poet quite sharply - manumission for the self was punishing work, the outcome of which would be always undecided until - triumphantly - it came. Not the merest self-expression: but a bloody parturition, effected through the use of the most conductive language.
The projected Crow sequence stalled. Hughes entered a fallow period, engaging in by-work and collaborations, consolidating his interest in the carnivalesque of myth and the occult. Taking on the curatorship of Sylvia Plath’s poetry and journals made a great claim on his energy at this time. Casting an eye over the work assembled in Hughes’s Collected Poems, you unmistakably see the gradual thinning of form, with the clotted heft of the stanzas of his early work loosening, deliquescing into something sparer. The Hopkinsian boar-bristle and toughened pelt of the poems in Lupercal and Wodwo has given place to a stringier, almost pictographic miniaturism. The verse is phrasal, yet undiscursive. The words themselves darkly intimate worlds of implication beyond their spare sketchings. Hughes’s lyric voice utters itself simply, ascetically in this new mode. Yet there are contending forces at work. Over against this denuded sparsity is the rough music of the style of Gaudete: an unclassifiable narrative poem, its linguistic brilliance giving colour and gnarled zest to a Totentanz of decayed Anglicanism and orgiastic sex. And yet the epilogue to this work is a series of opaque gemlike lyrics: koans scratched on a pane of glass. Jonathan Bate argues in his recent biography of Hughes that the trajectory of his poetry is towards personal statement, achingly circumspect but urgent - an unending negotiation between the impulse towards privacy and the need for self-description. Hughes arrived at the fittest medium for this only with the publication of Birthday Letters, Bate goes on to suggest. Hughes would release poems over time without drawing attention to their significance, like sky lanterns punctually set aloft. (A number of pieces from Birthday Letters and Capriccios found their way into the New Selected Poems of 1997; no one noticed.) The poems of Remains of Elmet span the divide, to some degree, between the symbolic and the personal. A cold pastoral evoking the lost history of a community, they are veined with glims of personal history, as in ‘Heptonstall Cemetery’: “And Thomas and Walter and Edith/Are living feathers//Esther and Sylvia/Living feathers//Where all the horizons lift wings/A family of dark swans//And go beating low through storm-silver/Toward the Atlantic.” Extinct religion, the malignancy of northern weather, irruptions of the cosmic into the quotidian. Remains of Elmet assonates an Ordnance Survey of local myth, the traces-in-outline of millenarian apocalypticism and a kind of flat-capped family romance. Bate is probably correct in asserting that Hughes could only touch on the most painful things glancingly, with a stealthy obliquity that might be lost on any but a reader aware of the facts of biography. Details that sit within a poem unobtrusively, like tramp signs, meaningful only to initiates. (Hughes understood the mystical potency of this.) ‘Football at Slack’ depicts the players as vehicles of a rain-slicked Duende, in a state of blissful defiance against the lowering oppression of the skies. And it’s evidence of human endurance that Hughes most powerfully seizes on. “Gradually,” he writes of the Calder Valley in the prose note appended to a later edition, “it dawned on you that you were living among the survivors, in the remains.”
Hughes’s literary criticism was divinatory, cousin-german to the obscurest forms of priestcraft: the critic as Talmudist. Most exceptionally in his study of Shakespeare’s mythic orchestrations; but also in briefer pieces. ‘The Snake in the Oak’ applies much the same exegetic tools to Coleridge, specifically his three great visionary poems, ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’. Hughes takes it that a poet’s life and work can yield riches of meaning with a coherence that becomes apparent only by interpretative scrutiny of a peculiarly intense kind. This is the critic not simply has explicator or collator, offering glosses on the texts. One might conclude that it necessitated the activation of a particular kit of mental implements, and with it, a language sufficiently robust to bear it. And Hughes’s prose itself bears all the marks of an unyielding obsessiveness; as though he weren’t simply setting forth an argument, patiently and with courteous care, but effecting a physical extraction. There is a kind of dead-fall gracelessness to the prose, as though the matter in hand were too serious for the distractions of elegance. (T.S. Eliot’s critical writing has the chrome exactitude of academic philosophy, determinedly unsensuous, the precisianism of a Josiah Royce.) Hughes’s language urges on us its artisanal solidity, as though to be loose, impressionistic, airborne would be to undercut the hoped-for grandeur of his themes - but it is hospitable too to strange detours, to an intellectual promiscuity that threatens to scuttle it.
‘The Snake in the Oak’ is a 100-page treatise first published in the prose collection Winter Pollen, emerging from Hughes’s oft-stated conviction that a poet’s work springs from a single impulse, that it is itself reducible to a diagrammatic form or a Tinguely-esque theoretical contraption, with movable parts, something whose essential features can be lain bare. This Hughes undertook in extenso in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, but rehearsed also in his studies of Plath, Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Coleridge. Poetry conceived in this light stands as the expression of a psychic struggle, the core agony of which often begins in the poet’s early life in a devastating annunciation of the Calling. Usually at the prompting of some crisis of self-division, with the poetic vocation as a lengthy triage in which the materials for healing are assembled and tested. Hughes - in a knight’s move of odd brilliance - connects Coleridge’s rediscovery of prosodic laws put to rout by historical disruption (what he described as a ‘new principle’, but which in fact was the ‘native mode of verse rhythm’ eclipsed for 150 years) to the performance of his own (Coleridge’s) private psychomachia. Time and again one pauses over the crankishness of Hughes’s arguments. Near the end of his life, Hughes wrote a letter to the critic John Carey, sent with a Magic Eye picture cut from a magazine: in such ‘riddle pictures’, he explained, “..there is only one hidden image in each, no alternatives, none to be unearthed by ingenuity - simply that complete, single, implanted thing..” And so with the MRI ideogram of his critical studies of Shakespeare and Coleridge, the mind must make a sharp focal adjustment to ‘see’ the ghosted outline of the unifying theme. Academics gibbed at the unscholarly, speculative, almost aggressively odd tack adopted by Hughes - as well they might. Stick to the historical record, and there is little that would substantiate Hughes’s claim that Shakespeare had any acquaintance with, say, Elizabethan Occult Neo-Platonism. Close reading of a Shakespearean text can truffle evidence of any lunatic theory, the verbal humus is so rich. By a similar token, it’s perfectly possible to find hints and guesses of some species of inner strife in the work and life of Coleridge. The Notebooks are an invita Minerva to off-centre psycho-social interpretations of his work. Coleridge Agonistes, for sure. Richard Holmes’s two-volume biography amply, soberly tells the tale of Coleridge’s vacillations and flights, the radical lack of will and domestic derelictions. Hughes makes much of throwaway entries in the Notebooks; yet they’re given a distinctively Hughesian burnish. The last-ditch recuperation of the buried self. Poetry as shriving. As shamanic rite. Coleridge, too, is riven by the Wound, by the deepest irreconcilables - and Hughes has a diviner’s sense of this in a poet. Coleridge’s ‘Unleavened Self’ - the prima materia from which his gift comes - and his ‘Christian Self’ - dedicating his life and work to the glory of God: and the pendent drama that ensues. (Hughes’s interest in and translation of Greek tragic drama may have fed into his later characterisation of his star poets’ inner conflict, as something accessible to critical inquiry, as mappable.)
It’s quite possible to set down this essay, once read, and feel you’re no closer to Coleridge - the heart’s heat of his poetry - than before you started. Hughes ‘often writes with heavy feet,’ as Michael Hofmann has it, in his otherwise laudatory review of the Collected Poems: “The antithesis of speed. Weight. Method. Force. Brute or main. Instruction. Like someone writing a computer program.” This strikes me as a just appraisal of Hughes’s prose, too. A style that contrives to be at once inflamed with monomania’s hunger for exactitude and unaccountably flat-footed. The charmless refusal to charm of the professional pamphleteer. Financial exigencies traditionally force the poet into the commission of prose-work, and Hughes often expressed his dislike for the medium - indeed, remarking that his labours on the Shakespeare work hastened his death. The sheer plod of prose composition, the self-denying ordinance that refuses those intuitive leaps that so enliven poetry, the pregnant ellipses and elisions that, in prose, have to be patiently worked-through, lest the weak sides of an argument be exposed. (One might adduce Auden’s useful explicatory opposition, in The Sea and the Mirror, between the Prospero the weary dominie and Ariel the sky-hued fetch.) Hughes allows himself, briefly, as by a kind of inattention, the odd fling of festal colour - as, when he writes of the presence of Norse mythology in ‘Kubla Khan’ as “..an echo-chamber of harmonies, a scoring for contrabasso, or a shifting gloomy fluorescence in a tapestry that was already rich enough..” - but the writing is principally pli selon pli of prose argument, logical connections steadily broken down, without salt or savour.
Jonathan Bates’s biography of Ted Hughes brings to the fore an aspect of the poet’s career that mightn’t otherwise have been given due emphasis. Over time, Hughes seems to have been beset by a squandermania that saw him engaged in projects that never bore fruit, that fell still-born from the press or were felt, ultimately, to be marred by professional compromise. Hughes undoubtedly felt himself to have strayed far from the essential purpose of his art. ‘The Snake in the Oak’ places under consideration the catastrophe of Coleridge’s deviation from his ‘Unleavened Self’, the path whereby the young visionary poet and radical dwindled to ‘a logomanic moralist withering every other leaf and sprout within reach.’ The heft of the Collected Poems hardly suggests an expense of spirit to no end. But many of his imaginative forays were end-stopped unsatisfactorily. Bates’s thesis was that, only when Hughes finally acceded to the elegiac mode, gave himself over fully to it, rather than turning endlessly to the trumpery of the ‘myth-kitty’, did his true voice find its natural pitch. As within Coleridge the Christian apologist strove for primacy with the ‘whole man’ - the Unitarian stump-orator thundering his bloodless kerygmatics with the Great God Pan incarnate - so too within Hughes did the poet of mythic violence contend with the still small voice of personal witness.