Towards the end of this collection, Ted Hughes reads passages from an occasional diary which he kept while farming in Devon. He'd intended to mould his experiences into poems, but saw that their raw immediacy had its own value. So there he is, out on a winter's night with an overgrown, asphyxiated lamb resolutely refusing to be born. No detail is spared: you listen with breathless, fascinated revulsion, and with a new respect for the exhausting travails of the shepherd – and indeed of the sheep.
This power of his wrestling words is given a mighty new dimension by the poet's own, spoken voice. When young, his intonation has something of an early Queen's Speech, the vowels slightly clipped, the tone almost respectful. But stay on to the end, and be overawed by the vigour and strength of his language, by his mighty, questioning, sinewy genius.
As he says himself, not all the entries are disastrous. In the poems, as in the diary, there are ecstatic, magnificent moments: a little girl gasping at the full moon; dawn high on the Yorkshire hills; a happy new-born calf batting its long, glamorous lashes.
There are stories here, too, and conversations in which Hughes discusses the Laureateship, and his appreciation of royalty. Kings, he says, are essential, invented out of the dreams of ordinary people. You may not agree but you cannot listen without developing a new respect for Hughes himself, the king of Laureates.