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
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk