Poetry for beginners

The discovery of 'The Zeet Saga', written by a teenage Ted Hughes, has set Duncan Wu on the trail of other half-forgotten early outpourings from leading literary lights. Some showed remarkable promise, while others (yes, I am looking at you, Dr Johnson) definitely did not
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'The Zeet Saga"? By Ted Hughes, aged 15-17? Mexborough Grammar? Well, it's not Shakespeare, is it? But nor is it EJ Thribb. Admittedly, it wouldn't be hard to fault - scansion unsure, word order too often determined by rhyme - but at the same time there's something about it. For one thing, admirers of his later work will find its central conceit familiar - the encounter with a man who won't let the narrator pass until he has told his tale. Though lifted from Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mysterious stranger bringing news from another world looks forward to the best of Hughes's mature poems, many of which are reports from alternate realities and the stuff of myth (most obviously the Crow poems).

Places in Pseud's Corner are as easily won by those who extol bad poetry as by poets themselves - and it's worth remembering that Hughes chose not to publish "The Zeet Saga" - but it would be wrong to dismiss it. For all its faults, metre and rhyme are handled with a skill rare in 15-17 year olds, and it evades most of the traps into which juvenile verse falls (portentousness, bathetic self-reflexiveness, and pretentiousness) simply by being funny.

That's quite unusual. When apprentice poets fail it is usually because ambition outstrips ability. Take for instance the 14-year-old Dr Johnson's "On a Daffodil": "Hail lovely flower, first honour of the year! Hail beauteous earnest of approaching spring!" Not an unmitigated disaster, but the repeated "Hail" dooms it from the start. No one should be allowed to talk to a daffodil like that, not even in a poem.

That said, serious juvenilia occasionally hits the mark in spite of itself, though it can be difficult to say exactly why. John Dryden was still at Westminster School when at the age of 17 he wrote "Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings":

Must noble Hastings immaturely die
The honour of his ancient family?
Beauty and learning thus together meet,
To bring a winding for a wedding sheet?

It's no masterpiece, but is technically accomplished, witty, and a disgrace neither to its author nor its deceased subject. A good job too: how disastrous to have published an elegy that reduced its readers to tears of laughter. In its own day it was published alongside Marvell and Herrick - heady company for a schoolboy to be keeping.

More remarkable still, Milton was all of 15 years old (and still a pupil at St Paul's) when he translated Psalm 136 into a hymn that everyone remembers from their schooldays: "Let us with a gladsome mind Praise the Lord, for he is kind".

Perhaps inevitably, the best juvenilia tends to be by those who aren't too proud just to write good doggerel. Percy Bysshe Shelley was 10 when he drew a cat at the top of a piece of paper and wrote:

A cat in distress
Nothing more or less,
Good folks I must faithfully tell ye,
As I am a sinner
It wants for some dinner
To stuff out its own little belly.

This is full of promise - it is even, I'd hazard, good. Shelley has grasped the basics of metre and rhyme to produce a poem that not only makes sense, but manipulates the mock-heroic sufficiently well to be funny. Gray had already done it in "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat", but Shelley is daring in his use of such rhymes as "tell ye' and "belly".

Not surprisingly, pets often crop up in childhood verse. In 1786, a 16-year-old schoolboy at Hawkshead Grammar School called William Wordsworth wrote a lengthy elegy to his landlady's drowned dog with the pompous title "The Dog: An Idyllium": "Where were ye nymphs, when the remorseless deep/ Closed o'er your little favourite's hapless head?". Not as overtly amusing as Shelley, but then Wordsworth was less of a party animal even as a teenager. On the other hand, he is well aware that nymphs aren't to be found in Lake Windermere except as a literary joke. Unfortunately, this is the kind of witticism that calls for a scholarly note, and by the time you've ploughed through that, the fizzle has gone.

The number one thing you'd expect teenage boys to write about is sex, and against expectation there's a good deal of it to be found in Wordsworth's early poems. Scantily-clad females float in and out of them, their features merging with the mountains and lakes as if he were trying to sublimate his desires. In "Beauty and Moonlight" he finally gives in, bidding "some god" (the 18th-century equivalent of a taxi) to take him to his girlfriend:

Then might her bosom soft and white
Heave upon my swimming sight,
As yon two swans together ride
Upon the gently-swelling tide.

It's a far cry from "I wandered lonely as a cloud".

Keats was no less preoccupied with the opposite sex in the poems he wrote while an apothecary's apprentice in Edmonton, aged 19.

Fill for me a brimming bowl
And let me in it drown my soul;
But put therein some drug, designed
To banish woman from my mind.
For I want not the stream inspiring
That heats the sense with lewd desiring

Like Wordsworth, Keats disavows "lewd desiring" before caving in with an ill-disguised glee which was probably shared by his first readers.

'Tis vain - away I cannot chase
The melting softness of that face,
The beaminess of those bright eyes,
That breast, earth's only Paradise.

Wordsworth and Keats are unafraid of talking about breasts in poems that must have been read by schoolmasters and friends; they were evidently more acceptable as subjects in those liberated times (though Keats goes too far in describing his girlfriend's as "earth's only Paradise").

Unlike Wordsworth, Keats never stopped writing about sex, however perverse its form. In one of his greatest poems, "The Eve of St Agnes", a man breaks into his girlfriend's chamber so as to have sex with her while she sleeps. Told that it was too near the knuckle for most female readers, Keats was reported to have declared: "he does not want ladies to read his poetry, he writes for men".

Incarcerated for most of their teenage years in all-male institutions, it's a wonder that Keats and Wordsworth knew what breasts were, let alone compared them to swans. Also educated at a boys' school (Harrow), Byron was more precocious than his contemporaries; he boasted to a schoolfriend that during the summer holidays he had sex with 14 "damsels", and biographers murmur darkly of illegitimate children fathered at that time. A host of female admirers throng his early poems, both as the subjects of sophisticated come-ons, and as riffs on female infidelity.

Oh! when shall the grave hide forever my sorrow?
Oh! when shall my soul wing her flight from this clay?
The present is hell! and the coming tomorrow,
But brings with new torture the curse of today.

"The present is hell!" - there's a line for all seasons, whether you're in a traffic jam or trapped in a lift on the 69th floor of a burning building. That, along with the mention of "torture" and "the curse of today", is funny because it comes from a mood of barely suppressed hysteria, lacking the control Byron would bring to his mature work.

Byron is more persuasive when writing about his affair with the choirboy with whom he had an affair at Cambridge, John Edleston. And when Edleston died shortly after, Byron's elegies to him proved his most accomplished verse to date.

It is easy to laugh at poets when they get it wrong, as everyone does when they're learning the craft. But the early work of great poets is important for what it may reveal of an evolving vision, a way of seeing the world unique to this or that writer. "The Zeet Saga" may be one or two notches above the level of doggerel, but when published it may be seen to carry traces of the remarkable poetry that was to come. We should be grateful that it has come to light.

The writer is Professor of English Language and Literature and Fellow of St Catherine's College, Oxford