Ted Hughes: 1930-1998: A poet pinned and wriggling

William Scammell
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:27

The day of his death was a dark cold day. Auden's great elegy for Yeats might have been written with last Wednesday and Thursday in mind, when the shattering news of Ted Hughes's death broke. Black storm clouds covered the entire country. Torrential rain and hail beat down, gales blasted autumn trees, the rivers he loved were in spate everywhere, drowning fields and villages, as if in grief.

It was like the storm scene in Lear, or some portentous lightning jag in a Greek tragedy. Such fanciful notions are not much in favour nowadays. We prefer superstitions that come in white coats waving equations and speaking in a hollow voice about selfish genes or black holes. But if we'd absorbed Ted's best poems into some part or our being, as a great many people have, the idea of nature sharing in our grief at the death of its greatest celebrant since Hopkins, Wordsworth or Keats, is not so fanciful after all. Thanks to him we have been "startled by (our) own existence" into some awareness of those awesome powers we share the universe with. Who's to say that on occasion they don't speak to us and for us, better than we can speak for ourselves?

The last present he made me was a copy of his new version of Racine's Phedre, fondly inscribed with a riddling epigraph and containing all sorts of scribbled crossings-out and second thoughts inside. He was re-writing and revising to the last, trying to get every word and rhythm to earn its keep.

The pocket-sized Essential Shakespeare he sent years ago - his choice and arrangements of the master's all-purpose voice - was inscribed "where this book can't go - it's/Good for nowt but goats", and the accompanying letter advised that even when you were naked it could be tucked into the pouch between stomach and hip. The last letter I have, back in the summer, was a generous response to a recent book of my own and to a piece I'd written on Sylvia Plath in Poetry Review. In it he sketched his mixed feelings about publishing Birthday Letters, "no longer much caring what it might mean for anybody else... One effect has been to remove from me all sense of my SP embroilment. Though I daresay inside other people's heads one effect has been to intensify their sense of that. So maybe I've changed my environment so much I'll have to find another - changed my environment as a writer, I mean."

In the context of his tragically early death that last sentence of his takes on an unbearably poignant resonance. Typically, he passed over his own physical condition in an aside - "I got ill", as though he'd just had the "flu" - and continued our dialogue about what went into Plath's late poems.

I wasn't a close friend of Ted's, nor one of long standing. We met briefly at readings or poetry-prize givings, but it wasn't until I wrote a critical study of the Second World War poet Keith Douglas (whom he had championed, and written about better than anybody else) that I entered into real correspondence with him. This deepened when I edited a collection of his scattered, brilliant prose essays and reviews, which he decided to call Winter Pollen. (He teased me about that, saying that one day he'd tell me what it meant.) This lead to more letters and phone calls and a day's talking, eating, drinking and walking down in Devon, chewing the fat literally and metaphorically. He'd been struck by how large TS Eliot's hands were, and likened his authority to that of an ocean liner bearing down on you. He anatomised the local rivers, and the battle to clean them up. We reviewed countless writers, happy to agree that Shame was Rushdie's best book.

"Is it true that Hughes lives over there in England like a prince?" a foreign writer once asked Charles Tomlinson. His hospitality is certainly princely, replied Charles, and so it was. Ted was as courteous as he was kind, treating you as though you had all the potentialities he had so spectacularly harnessed and harvested within himself. As for that title, I shall never know now whether there really is a plant that pollinates in winter. The metaphor is clear enough though. Critical prose is a crabbed affair, only to be thought of when the sap dries and the brain hunches over its own embers. The real stuff of life is poetry.

This kindness to friends and strangers was repeated with dozens of teachers and schoolchildren, all those who worked to set up the Arvon Foundation or encouragements for young writers, with librarians and booksellers, editors of little magazines, anyone who cared about what ought to be cared about. This help was always extended privately, quietly, without thought of personal or professional reward. He moved between schoolkids, the Queen Mum, and his own daemon, with exquisite tact, ignoring the siren calls of celebrity and the intellectual cocktail circuit. I doubt if he ever went near the Groucho club, or entertained the possibility that television's so-called arts programmes could mediate the word without mangling body and spirit into a hideous counterfeit of "personality".

This exemplary way of living and writing had my wholehearted admiration, and that of several generations of poets, even those who couldn't stop themselves sniping at the Laureateship or the Plath imbroglio. From the late fifties he and Larkin divided English poetry between them, rather as Browning and Tennyson had done a century before. Larkin was cuddly and curmudgeonly in his very English take on love and loss - especially loss. Hughes's poetry went back further and deeper, to Gawain and the border ballads, which chimed with his northern burr, as well as forward to the modernists and the spare, unrelenting verse that crossed from Eastern Europe.

Seamus Heaney summed up this side of him beautifully: "Hughes's voice is in rebellion against a certain kind of demeaned, mannerly voice... against English middle-class culture, and I think Hughes's great cry and call and bawl is that English language and English poetry is longer and deeper and rougher than that. It's a form of calling out for more, that life is more. And of course he gets back from that middle-class school the enmity he implicitly offers. Ted may be accused of violence... but there is tenderness and reverence and seriousness at the centre of the thing. I'm a different kind of animal but I will always be grateful for the release that reading his work gave me. I think he has understanding of people and creativity."

Another kind of enmity, indeed, a full-scale witch-hunt, was launched by those feminist avengers who saw him as the evil angel in Sylvia Plath's life and death. So many myths have grown up round their short but intense relationship that it is almost impossible to chop down the hydra-headed lies. Just a few weeks ago a journalist in this paper was writing about the "intense literary rivalry" between the two, as though it was an established fact, whereas it is a complete invention. Plath delighted in and aided Hughes's rise to prominence. Hughes in turn helped and encouraged her to realise her talents until their separation. Angela Carter told me once that after a reading in Bristol when they were relaxing in the pub, Hughes said casually "Of course my wife is a better poet than I am". This was in about 1960, when no one had heard of her, and long before the posthumous elevation to fame.

What toll was exacted on his inner life, and on his long and happy second marriage, by the self-appointed harpies, and his thirty-five year silence on the subject, we can never guess. I am reminded of Yeats's lines about "Hearts with one purpose alone" that have been "Enchanted to a stone/To trouble the living stream" ("Easter 1916"). I don't mean that Hughes was a martyr, though in one sense he was, nor that his own heart petrified. I mean that the event of Plath's suicide became a stone squatting on his life, frozen and spotlit, standing there forever in the stream of his days, whether he liked it or not. "And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, /when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,/Then how should I begin/To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?/And how should I presume?" Asks Prufrock, feelingly. For Ted these were not merely theoretical questions and canonical insights, they were felt on the pulses, day and night.

One smart critic remarked that the real commentary on his first marriage was not Birthday Letters but Tales From Ovid ("Mediterranean bed-time stories", as Ted called them). No doubt others will see parallels and portents in Phedre. What matters more than all the gossip and academic logrolling are the first three books (The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal, Wodwo), the wonderful stuff in Moortown, the classic children's stories, the insights into Shakespeare and others, the heroic attempt to get at the stuff of life with his bare hands.

Early in his career he wrote "The poet's only hope is to be infinitely sensitive to what his gift is, and this in itself seems to be another gift that few poets possess". Ted possessed it as only a handful have this century. He was "as deep as England", as attentive as the "Owls hushing the floating woods" on the surface of the black waters he fished - descendants of Wordsworth's mimic hootings over the lake in The Prelude.

His Devon landscapes are as primordial as his early Yorkshire ones. In a sense he took his own world with him, wherever he went. At the same time his description of "rational thinking" is "to stand respectfully, hat in hand, before... Creation, exceedingly alert for a new word". I can hardly believe that there will be no more new words from that inimitable and uncompromising voice.

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