Hughes translated into memory

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The Independent Online
THE VOICE of Ted Hughes, the late Poet Laureate, echoed around Westminster Abbey yesterday, with the poignant, and prescient lines: "Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney sweepers, come to dust."

It was, perhaps, a fitting memorial that such a master of English should be given the final word at a service of thanksgiving for his life and work. His reading of Shakespeare's Song from Cymbeline spoke to another late Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, who loved the poem so much that he took a copy to his grave.

Yesterday's 90-minute service was, as the Dean of Westminster, the Very Rev Dr Wesley Carr, said at the outset, an unusual remembrance for an unusual man. In recognition of the fact that "to speak about a poet risks losing his genius and spirit", Hughes's friends chose instead to read his poems. The unenviable task of selecting the appropriate words to honour him fell to the Nobel prizewinner Seamus Heaney, who commented afterwards: "It has to be done and it cannot be done."

He said: "At this moment, in this Abbey, where kings and poets lie translated into legend, it is impossible not to think of Ted Hughes as one of the figures of the tapestry, one of the valiant and the destined, a permanence who would have been as much at home with Caedmon, the first English poet in the seventh-century monastery at Whitby, as he would have been with Owen and his doomed men in the trenches of the Somme."

It was, Heaney added, Hughes's "instinct for wholeness and harmony" and his "sense of the world, epic and stirring" that made him a great Poet Laureate. "In the end, he was fulfilling the role of the representative poet, answerable to the shade of Shakespeare, having to live up to the spiritual standards set by Blake, Dickinson and Hopkins."

Hughes died in October, aged 68, from cancer. Heaney shared with the 1,800 guests, including Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the Prince of Wales, his memory of the private funeral in Devon. He described how Hughes's two children, Frieda and Nicholas, helped carry the coffin at knee height. It "floated out of the door on a clear channel of light and air". The sight had brought to mind an image from Arthurian legend of "the hero on his barge being translated into memory".

Yesterday was the anniversary of Hughes's mother's death, a fact "as appropriate as it is sorrowful", said Heaney, introducing Hughes's poem to his mother, Anniversary: "My mother's face is glistening/As if she held it into the skyline wind/Looking towards me. I do this for her." Hughes's father also featured, in the reading of the poem For the Duration, about his father's silence on his wartime experiences.

There was, however, no mention of his first wife, the late American poet Sylvia Plath, and the suffering that followed her suicide in 1963; or of his less celebrated lover, Assia Wevill, who killed herself and their child. There was one reference, by Heaney, to Hughes's "personal and historic sorrows".

Perhaps this was because the service was planned by his widow, Carol Orchard, with whom he had shared 30 years of happiness. Or perhaps it was in deference to Hughes's own silence, which he broke - in print - only months before his death with the publication of The Birthday Letters.


The Very Rev Dr Wesley Carr, Dean of Westminster, introducing the service: "Ted Hughes's friends read his words and in the setting of his poetry remember him."

Lord Gowrie, former head of the Arts Council: "He was renowned and read throughout ... the world."