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

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
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.

    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears