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.
Sunday 24 September 1995
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
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 4 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
Daredevil, Netflix, TV review: Marvel wins first fight in bid for television domination with Charlie Cox's superhero vigilante
London art exhibition features portrait of Iraqi migrant shot dead in Iraq after being refused UK asylum
Grace Dent on TV: Peter Kay's Car Share made me genuinely LOL
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds