Say what you like about The Oak Tree, Ted Hughes's much-abused 95th birthday tribute to the Queen Mother, but at least he tries. His predecessors in the shockingly-remunerated role of Poet Laureate refused to take it seriously: John Betjeman, when called on to celebrate royal nuptials or births, settled for a handful of lyrics about pigeons flying up in dusty colonnades. Hughes, however, the homme serieux of English poetry, cannot be satisfied with such professional indolence. Give him a subject as stuffed with mythic potential as the concepts of kingship and national identity and he embraces it with awesome, if inappropriate, energy.
In the years since he accepted the laureateship, Hughes's detractors have enjoyed much sport over the supposed inappropriateness of having the author of Crow writing in celebration of royal babies. Private Eye have a running joke, in which the occasion of Prince William's first visit to the dentist occasions a poem about a slug being eviscerated by an owl. But Hughes has surprised many of his readers by his willingness to deal seriously with royalty as a quasi-religious institution (in, for instance, his poem to Prince Charles, Rain-Charm for the Duchy). This time, however, he has played straight into the hands of the sneerers.
The Oak Tree, with its hesitant lines and limping quatrains, its on-off rhyme scheme and bathetic descents into modernity make it seem close to doggerel. Yet its central image - of the Queen Mother as a tree sprung from heaven, whose gradually acquired roots nourish the land on which it stands and spreads through the soul of its people - is a direct, even naive, rehearsal of an ancient theme of tree-worship. J. G. Fraser's The Golden Bough devotes a whole chapter to the subject. Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory worries the theme to exhaustion.
It's quite a departure for Hughes - a realist when it comes to the unpoetic depredations of nature - to come up with anything as positive as his conclusion, in which he sees future generations being sustained, like leaves, from the Queen Mum's solid roots, (even though she may be, you know, underground). Knowing this will no doubt please Her Majesty as she enters, with tree- like serenity, her 96th year.
Whether she will enjoy having her face compared to "the rings of age in the heartwood" is another matter.
The Oak Tree
Your tap-root, deep in starry heaven,
Brought your life to you.
Your eyes opened and Creation
Looked calmly through.
Deep into Scotland's battlefields
Your second root sank.
Richer than all the tartans
Was the blend you drank.
Through the British trenches
Your third root struck.
Your leaves bronzed on the lost mystery
That it brought back.
Then under the throne of England
Your fourth root went down.
Your leaves and acorns glittered as
The jewels of the crown.
Your fifth root wrapped so tight around
This island's bedrock.
When pyromanic Swastikas
Sent Europe up in smoke
Our stone raft rode the open sea
In the hold of an oak.
Survivors who knew what it meant
To be fumes in a shell-hole
Or scattered like shrapnel, were eager
To let your sixth root steal
Through all their veins, your leaves their faces
You their one oak bole.
The survivors and their children -
Dazed in the after-shock -
No longer knew the oak from the island
Or themselves from the oak.
Their century became a tree
Of fifty million lives,
And the tree-spirit you, your smile
The glance among the leaves.
Now the roar of saws in the boughs
Is the song of our island race.
The crown of oak-leaves amplifies
A global market-place.
Yet under it all, each year your oak
Deepens its deep roots,
Renewing itself from the hidden core
With bare, pure leaf-shoots.
The rings of age in the heartwood
As the years in your face
Carry the strength of the oak tree
And the strength's grace.
Your oak's years are not fallen.
Each year, like a relief,
This tree lifts our only future
Leaf - after leaf.Reuse content