Poet saluted in his own write
Friday 14 May 1999
It was perhaps a fitting memorial that such a master of the English language 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 highly respected late Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, who loved the poem so much that he went to his grave with a copy of it.
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", friends of Hughes chose instead to read his poems.
The unenviable task of selecting the appropriate words to pay tribute to Hughes fell to the Nobel Prize winner 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" which 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 the Queen Mother and the Prince of Wales, his memory of Hughes's private funeral in Devon. He described how Hughes's two children, Frieda and Nicholas, helped to carry the coffin at knee height. "The coffin floated out of the door on a clear channel of light and air," he said, recalling how the sight had brought to mind an image from Arthurian legend of "the hero on his barge being translated into memory".
The memorial service explored, through poetry and anecdote, many of Hughes's main themes, not least his passion for nature. Dr Caroline Tisdall, a friend, said Hughes was "the voice of the countryside", someone who "looked nature in the eye, before her magic and all her cruelty".
Yesterday was the anniversary of Hughes's mother's death, a fact "as appropriate as it is sorrowful", said Heaney, introducing "Anniversary", Hughes's poem to his mother.
There was, however, no mention of his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, and the attendant suffering that followed her suicide in 1963; or of his less celebrated lover, Assia Wevill, who killed herself and their young child. There was just one reference, by Heaney, to Hughes's "personal and historic sorrows".
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