Hughes's death in 1998 must have seemed - to a certain generation of readers – an impossibility and a perjury. The poet-elementalist, whose work was violently instinct with the life force itself, and in whom British poetry for the better part of forty years found its hetman, was simply, irrecoverably gone: “The day of his death was a dark, cold day...”
With the possible exception of Seamus Heaney, no other poet had established decisive authority as Hughes. In terms of sheer stature, he could plausibly be described as heir to T.S. Eliot – yet Eliot's public reputation evolved into that of a cultural magnate of the old kind, a discourser on matters wider in scope than literature, projecting schemes for the renewal of society itself. Eliot grew into a private asceticism coordinated with his political views; he embodies a manner and an attitude that, with the passage of years, becomes, to us, coldly estranging, if not downright problematic.
But Hughes was enormously respectful of Eliot – his centenary tribute, published as A Dancer to God and later collected in Winter Pollen, is a sinewy compte rendu of the sources of Eliot's gift, from one of poetry's Roundheads to its suavest Cavalier. As with a fair few of Hughes's prose ventures – nominally concerning themselves with a Shakespeare, a Coleridge or an Eliot – 'The Poetic Self' secretes hints of a poet's self-portrait, foreshadowing the fraught psychic parthenogenesis out of which Eliot's poetry ... one is tempted to say, slithered, in keeping with the conceptual tenor of Hughes's description. (Rewriting Eliot's corpus by his own lights.) Of the early image of St Sebastian that crops up in the juvenilia, Hughes asks “..What was it? Among other things....”
...it was proof, perhaps, that Eliot was able to contain within himself, more fully than any of his contemporaries, none of whom invented anything like it in inclusive complexity, depth and power, the spiritual tragedy of his epoch – of which this was an image, as it was in a more specific way of his own immediate psychological plight. Within this icon, that ascendant spirit of totalitarian, secular control – sceptical, scientific, steeled, flexible, rational, critical – displays its victim, the most profoundly aware and electrified plasm of the martyred psychosoma.
Eliot, by Hughes's estimate, was a poet 'of an utterly new species'. Others before him may have had vague intimations of – in E.M. Forster's phrase – the impact of the unseen on the seen: the mystical tradition in English verse reaches further back than Vaughan and Traherne, to be sure. Hughes picks up in even the earliest of the poetry traces of a vatic disposition, a mind that was fitted like no other to submerge itself in the amniotic fluid of the reptilian mind, as it were, granting Eliot access to altered states that fructified into poetry of such elegant mystery that oftentimes the critical sense is beggared. Hughes's criticism reads as much as a treatise on embryology, as anything else. He invites us to perceive in Eliot's work a form of natural supernaturalism for the age of the Treaty of Versailles, of bimetallism and of the spiritual vacancy entre deux guerres....
Hughes peels away the membrane of drawing-room civility and cosmopolitan savoir faire sheathing the great poet – T.S. Eliot the stockbroker-ish icon of literary London – seeking rather to show that, within the modern urban publisher and cultural panjandrum, a fragile tortured creature coils, bristling defensively. Eliot's wyrd is not that of the conventional Bloomsburyite; but something ancient, hunted and terrifying. He has courted, perilously, his 'true self', the avatar of Tiresias pathologically sensitive to the peculiar psychic violence broiling around and within us. In a certain respect Eliot is an unexpected object for Hughes's laudations. But some remarks of his on the work of the artist Leonard Baskin may have some bearing here. “New art awakens our resistance,” he observes:
...in so far as it proposes changes and inversions, some new order, liberates what has been repressed, lets in too early whiffs of an unwelcome future. But when this incidental novelty has been overtaken or canonized, some other unease remains... An immanence of something dreadful, almost (dare one say it) something unhuman. The balm of great art is desirable and might even be necessary, but it seems to be drawn from the depths of an elemental grisliness, a ground of echoless cosmic horror.
Hughes esteems Eliot as a 'pain-diviner' and 'pain-fathomer': that 'immanence of something dreadful' stirs constantly in its minatory way through even the satirical quatrain poems of the first books. Primitive religious vision curls vividly about the address of the poetry. As Hughes sought in his own work to unlock the sinister areté perhaps mercifully at bay in our daylight selves – the brutality and savage joy of the unhoused human subject – so he was the more disposed to divine it in the work of his great poets.
Scanning the pages of Hughes's Collected Poems, you immediately sense not the modest nudgings of a poetic sensibility toward a pleasant lyric truthfulness; but a semi-feral intellect moving ventre à terre through a dense boscage, scenting the air, ever alert to the subtlest hints signalling invisible threats in the undergrowth. The voice was almost fully achieved early on. Great baroque flourishes of slick blood-boltered verbiage. A world of raptor and prey. Myth not as adornment but as vital constituent. Festal dithyrambic energies given unchecked vent. Nature as a region of sudden violence and obscure undocumented ritual. The Hughes of The Hawk in the Rain, Wodwo and Lupercal is recognizably the same Hughes of Wolfwatching and Birthday Letters. Each book organically sets the conditions of the next – in few modern poets is there so consistently maintained a development, so traceable a physiological growth – the 'biological imprint', as Hughes has phrased it elsewhere. The verse pursues the jagged beeline of its own rhythm, incantatory and at moments unnervingly insinuating. 'Second Glance at a Jaguar', from Wodwo, dramatizes a kind of seductive nightmare of unblinking sight, scalpelling through the superficies of familiar response to an articulation of the mysterious 'unhuman' jaguarhood of the jaguar – Hughes enjoins the needful 'second glance':
Skinful of bowls he bowls them,
The hip going in and out of joint, dropping the spine
With the urgency of his hurry
Like a cat going along under thrown stones, under cover,
Glancing sideways, running
Under his spine. A terrible, stump-legged waddle
Like a thick Aztec disemboweller,
Club-swinging, trying to grind some square
Socket between his hind legs round,
Carrying his head like a brazier of spilling embers...
... A gorged look,
Gangster, club-tail lumped along behind gracelessly,
He's wearing himself a 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,
Rounding some revenge.
Forcefully Hughes alerts the reader to the dim obscenity of this creature. It shucks off the symbolic cope draped over Rilke's panther, an example of the 'concentrated excitement' he has written of, the purpose of which “..in this arena of apprehension and unforeseeable events, is to bring up some lovely solid thing, like living metal, from a world where nothing exists but those inevitable facts which raise life out of nothing and return it to nothing.” The 'selving' of the animal comes about from a long programme of the poet's discipling the senses. Hughes has talked of the 'poetry of positive violence, poetry about the working of divine law in created things', that shuns the 'stereotype, sentimental, weak, loose, media misreading of [the natural]'. Herein implied is the breaking of humanism, its belated forfeit, as, with greater urgency, we must acknowledge that we can no longer pretend to the seigneurial disdain we have, as a species, so long enjoyed. Hughes's work reminds us of our imperilled kinship with the divine law in created things. But – it bears restating – he is no mere anodyne 'eco-poet'. The goblin footfalls are ever-present.
Perhaps the oddest of all Hughes's productions is the Crow sequence. Much-controverted, it stands as an experiment in raw mythopoeia. Hughes allots it a place with Trickster literature, the skew-whiff songs of near-forgotten folkways, that “..draws its effects from the unkillable, biological optimism that supports a society or individual whose world is not yet fully created, and whose metaphysical beliefs are only just struggling out of the dream stage”; and in which “..optimism and creative joy are fundamental, and the attempts to live, and to enlarge and intensify life, however mismanaged, fill up at every point with self-sufficient meaning.” - the 'optimism of the sperm still battling zestfully along after 150 million years'. Casting an eye over these poems, you may find this description superficially unpersuasive. They require of the reader a kind of subtle inner readjustment to the symbolic melodies of what seem to be bleak tone-poems. Crow is demonically Chaplinesque, almost. A dark intensification and subversion of the Shakespearean Fool, or a blind courier from an unthought-of hell:
Crow was so much blacker
Than the moon's shadow
He had stars.
He was as much blacker
Than any negro
As a negro's eye-pupil.
Even, like the sun,
Than any blindness.
Poem as blood-blister... A fractured fairy tale, Crow lends a seething unstable form to the generative violence so prized by Hughes. Yet it takes no mean perversity to assign to it qualities of 'optimism and creative joy'... Crow himself, 'a bombcloud, lob-headed' is a dybukk and a gluttonous sprite, a tattered capering horror from a Jan Svankmajer film – yes, these poems are an account of his thrashing, convulsive attempt to live, to birth himself in the midst of a blasted world; but their ugliness and spastic eccentricity make them more fascinating than engaging. As a whole they resemble nothing so much as a shillelagh clagged with blood and hair. Hughes wanted to draft fresh mythic constellations: but Crow is a cosmogony of bitter pain, the sorrows of an abortive miscreant, for all his protestations to the contrary:
Once upon a time there was a person
Almost a person
Somehow he could not quite see
Somehow he could not quite hear
He could not quite think
Somehow his body, for instance,
So he just went and ate what he could
And did what he could
And grabbed what he could
And saw what he could
Then sat down to write his autobiography
But somehow his arms were just bits of stick
Somehow his guts were an old watch-chain
Somehow his feet were two old postcards
Somehow his head was a broken windowpane
'I give up,' he said. He gave up.
Creation had failed again.
('A Bedtime Story')
Ted Hughes is perhaps popularly regarded most of all – apart from his relationship with Sylvia Plath, and the Laureateship – as a poet lodged deep in English natural history. The Collected Poems have the weight of the anvil behind them; but they are alive, too, to seasonal change and the small unregarded things around the agrarian enterprise. A sequence like Moortown Diary exhibits Hughes blissfully attentive, sunk in the living warp of days. Here is the poet-farmer, the practical man, sensitized to the rhythms of the natural world. Hughes acquits himself as a writer of considerable tact, authorized by the gift of deep seeing to picture the land and its occupants. “We have some beautiful beasts,” he wrote to Ruth Fainlight and Alan Sillitoe in January 1974. “I'm getting quite involved in them. Impossible not to. They're giving me more than I give them. I was quite intensely enmeshed in their world when I was an infant – but I felt I was losing it. Fishing isn't enough. But now this working on the land & these animals has given it all back double. I feel to be waking up for the first time in my life... Also, it's a revelation to watch at close quarters somebody like Carol's father [Jack Orchard] (he does all the real work) – from farmers in unbroken line as far back as they can trace. He's a mobile archive of know-how & understanding – and the perfect attunement.” Hughes's admiration for the unaffected Orchard way of life enlivens the poetry of Moortown Diary to a vivid enchanted tenderness. Antaeus-like, Hughes's father-in-law draws his strength from the earth:
...Now you have to push your face
So tool-worn, so land-weathered,
This patch of ancient, familiar locale,
Your careful little moustache,
Your gangly long broad Masai figure
Which you decked so dapperly to dances,
Your hawser and lever strength
Which you used, so recklessly,
Like a tractor, guaranteed unbreakable...
('Now you have to push')
The flurry of curiosity, baffled prurience and critical excitement over the publication of Birthday Letters has since subsided, and we're perhaps better placed to consider it on its merits. The Collected Poems reproduces for the first time a thematic companion-piece, Capriccio, memorializing Hughes's lover Assia Wevill in much the same style, with much the same imagistic palette, as the Plath ensemble. Here, the psychodramas are once again nakedly set forth, riddlingly elaborated. Intimate observation and the mythic impulse entwine hectically. The buried privacies of a relationship glitter through, but are fitful and bizarrely attired. As with Birthday Letters, there's somehow the feeling of an open-handed promise of candour, of the free settling of accounts; yet one so obscured by poetic busyness the reader may set these poems down none the wiser.
You had lifted off your future and laid it lightly
Before the door of Aphrodite's temple
As the drowned leave their clothes folded.
Exchanged your face for the mask of Aphrodite
Marriage for the manic depression
Of the ovaries, for the ocean's heave and spill.
Exchanged the plain security of your life-line
For those holy years: the blood-clepsydra
Limit of Aphrodite's epiphany.
'After forty I'll end it,' you laughed
(You were serious) as you folded your future
Into your empty clothes. Which Oxfam took.
You're assaulted by a suspicion, reading these poems, of Hughes – whatever his conscious intention – seconding the personal anguish of Wevill and Plath to a compulsively overmastering poetic vision. And vision in its strongest sense. The sinisterly fatidic trumps the mildly personal, as in 'Dreamers' from Birthday Letters:
We didn't find her – she found us.
She sniffed us out. The Fate she carried
Sniffed us out.
And assembled us, inert ingredients
For its experiment. The Fable she carried
Requisitioned you and me and her,
Puppets for its performance.
Posthumous editions of a poet's work can be troublesome things, when all is said and done. (The stock of Edwin Muir will surely rise with the appearance of a radically pared-down Selected Poems from Faber.) They may ultimately only be of academic interest, however thrilling the completist might find them. Larkin's literary reputation was impaired somewhat by the first Collected Poems, which disregarded the careful selection and apposition Larkin employed in assembling his books. The temptation to pile Pelion on Ossa is a live concern for the doughtily loyal executor. And Hughes's Collected – good though it certainly is to have it – suffers from a kind of dropsy, a too-muchness: if Hughes's obsessions remained consistent throughout his life; and his style, hit upon at the very outset, with its thunderous consonantal hoof-beats and scarred ellipses, served him to the end; then, taken in the lump, experiencing this poetry can feel rather like something between a chastening and a bludgeoning. In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Hughes made a bid, in a tireless, obsessive fury, to find the last nucleus of Shakespeare's creative vision. The labour, he was to claim, so weakened him that it enabled the cancer that killed him to take hold. That he identified the poetic endeavour with the vital economy of the body is one final clue to the heft and vigour of his poetry. Poetry as a resistless agon against the brute fact of matter.