BOOK REVIEW / The poet as a young rat

COLLECTED ANIMAL POEMS by Ted Hughes, Faber (4 vols) DIFFICULTIES OF A BRIDEGROOM: Collected Short Stories by Ted Hughes, Faber pounds 12.99.

TED HUGHES is re-publishing a lot of poems. Earlier this year he gave us the New Selected Poems, which trawled his collections from 1957 and 1994, and now these Collected Animal Poems, ranging over a lifetime's writing, of necessity include some work already in print but provide a new focus and context for it. The same poem sounds different in each collection, inviting a new reading, a fresh response.

The atmosphere of these four new volumes is noticeably less gloomy and violent than that of the Selected, perhaps partly because the first two were originally written for children and foreground a delight in wordplay, a relish of sound and rhythm that comes close to nonsense rhyming, over the dark themes of much of the poetry written for adults. In What is the Truth? a rat can be perceived with affectionate enjoyment by the poacher hunting him: "Sing the riff-raff of the roof space, who dance till dawn/Sluts in silk, sharpers with sleek moustaches/Dancing the cog-roll, the belly- bounce, the trundle/... O sing/Scupper-tyke, whip-lobber/Smutty-guts, pot- goblin/Garret-whacker, rick-lark/Sump-swab, cupboard-adder/Bobby-robin, knacker-knocker/Sneak-nicker, sprinty-dinty/ Pintle-bum."

In The Thought Fox, written for adults, a rat re-appears; in "Song of a Rat", the classic Hughesian brilliance of metaphor at the beginning - "a mouthful of screeches like torn tin" - fades into the background, overshadowed by looming images out of some Jungian landscape of archetypes: "the sleep-souls of eggs/Wince under the shot of shadow/That was the Shadow of the Rat/ Crossing into power/Never to be buried/The horned Shadow of the Rat/Casting here by the door/A bloody gift for the dogs/While it supplants Hell."

The most beautiful poems in these four volumes are those that anthropomorphise the least, that allow a separation between the narrating "I" and the observed animal, and many are to be found in the energetically illustrated What is the Truth?

Rats turn up only to meet a bloody end in Difficulties of a Bridegroom, the volume that gathers Hughes's stories from Wodwo and other places. The difficulties of bridegrooms seem bound up with the passage from boyhood to manhood, and puberty rites too bloodthirsty for some of these young and sensitive narrators. "Sunday", an early story written in 1957, closes in on a rat's death, but even before the gory denouement we're made aware of how claustrophobic and deadly boring an English sabbath can be. Michael, the boy recounting the story, emerges at last from the dreary chapel service to find that even the landscape outside has become "Sunday. The valley walls, throughout the week wet, hanging, uncomfortable woods and mud-hole farms, were today neat, remote, and irreproachably pretty, postcard pretty. The blue sky, the sparklingly smokeless Sunday air, had disinfected them." The dull routine of a game of bowls followed by ginger beer at the pub with his dad is the prelude to watching for the rats coming up from the canal, a welcome distraction. Michael wants to escape: "he smelt roast beef and heard the clattering of the pub kitchen and saw through the open window fat arms working over a stove ... The potatoes were already steaming, people sitting about killing time and getting impatient and wishing that something would fall out of the blue." For the men that something is a rat, bitten to death by Billy Red the rat-catcher. Michael flees.

Hunting is a major theme in these stories. In "The Deadfall", a boy out camping with his bloodthirsty brother sees what is perhaps the ghost of a fox and saves the cub. This story is re-told, to spectacularly Grand- Guignol effect, in "The Head", a moral tale about blood-lust, complete with mountains of steaming animal corpses, blood and guts spilling, and the eventual revenge of the gods. The caricature element weakens the horror, as does the conventional idea that perhaps the evil spirit has embodied itself in the young women whom the narrator rescues from the scene of carnage.

Elsewhere, when women aren't embodying stifling domesticity, they are maenads, distant objects of desire, or ghosts. A dead sister becomes an angel, clothed in wings of soft flame. An angel provokes some of the best prose in the book, when it is captured by a bored government clerk and shown in a cage for profit. It's angels and ghosts, pointing the way to a world beyond this one, with its worried rats and worrying brides, that allow Hughes' fiction to soar towards poetry.

! Animal Poems: Vol 1: The Iron Wolf, illus Chris Riddell,pounds 3.99; Vol 2: What is the Truth? illus Lisa Flather, pounds 3.99; Vol 3: A March Calf, pounds 5.99; Vol 4: The Thought Fox, pounds 5.99. Boxed set pounds 30

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz