Hughes dogged by accusations of doggerel

Poet Laureate and the Queen Mother Does birthday verse mark a bathetic descent for a grand old man of poetry?
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The Independent Online
JOHN WALSH

Literary Editor

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.

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