Exploring the Poems of Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes is indubitably one of the English language’s great poets of the 21st Century. He’s also a Pembroke poet. I’ve been working on his poems for the last eight years, and there are a number of key aspects to Hughes’s life and work, and I think the relationship between the life and the work is part of his fascination. He is by any account one of the great poets of nature, he’s often characterised as a great mythic poet of violent nature, where nature is animal, but it’s also human. He is very well known in fact notorious, as being the husband of Sylvia Plath, the American poet. He is reckoned to have had one of the most scandalous private lives since Byron. Now the work that I’ve been doing but that Kate and Molly, research students at Pembroke, have been doing on Ted Hughes, addresses aspects of his career that slightly complicate this picture and reveal really new important facets of his life and work and their inter-relation. So the seed of the dissertation that I’m doing now was reading Ted Hughes’s books Crow, and the Cave Birds, which are two of his mytho-poetic books from the 1970s, and seeing that some of the poems in these books very precisely recapitulate imagistic progressions from tales from the Welsh Mabinogion, which is a collection of early medieval Welsh tales that were recorded in the 14th Century. It’s some of the earliest imaginative British prose literature. And when I saw these progressions that echoe these tales so closely, and so precisely, I became very curious about what he was doing and why he was doing this. And no one had seen this before, no one had seen these correspondences, and so I went down to his archive at Emery University, and I looked at a lot of his books and his manuscripts, and found that in his copy of Robert Graves’ ‘The White Goddess’, he had underlined and marked these stories that I thought he was retelling in Crow and Cave Birds. So it became clear that this was something intentional, this was – he was drawing on stories that he knew very intimately and very well from his reading. And – so that is really what inspired me to come here to Pembroke College and do this dissertation about Ted Hughes. And my dissertation is, much more broadly, about the influence of early Irish and early Welsh literature and mythology on the poetry of Ted Hughes. And being here for this year and doing this research, I’ve discovered that this is a really, really deep and rich influence in his work, and it’s a career-spanning influence, we see it at every stage of his career, and we see it in both his poetry and his criticism and prose. And I think one thing, one insight that these influences can give us is that the violence in Hughes’s poetry, the natural violence that we see in some of his poems does come from observing the animal world closely and seeing this violence that is inherent in nature, but it also comes from these stories, from these early Celtic stories. And in these stories we see animals consuming each other, we see humans consuming each other, and this consumption often leads to some kind of new wisdom, some kind of rebirth, some kind of new lease on life. So I think that, when we see these Celtic influences we start to see that, that violence thought it may be very disturbing on the surface, in Hughes’s poetry, also is a kind of gateway into some kind of rebirth. And I think that gives us a new way of reading some of Hughes’s nature poems. I’m also interested in looking below the surface of Ted Hughes’s poetry, and trying to squeeze out different meanings. And I’ve just completed a Part 2 dissertation on Ted Hughes’s Gaudete. It follows the story of a man trying to discover his poetic voice and it’s quite a convoluted plot but, in a few words, this – a reverend figure is stolen away by the spirits and replaced by a changeling, and the narrative follows this changeling’s last day on earth before his powers are cancelled and he’s returned to the spirit world. And in that time he takes religion into his own hands and creates what he thinks is a love society, but it’s actually a very distorted and warped religion. And in the process he beds the women of the parish and, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering that critics first termed Gaudete when it was published in 1977 as a misogynistic fantasy, dehumanising women, they scorned Hughes’s lust and loathing for women. But I have seen different meanings in Gaudete, fully intended by Hughes. I’ve explored the mythical coding behind Gaudete, so I’ve looked at Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and the Orphic myth of death and rebirth, which I identified in Gaudete with references to Euripides, Alceste, and also, yeah, the Orphic myth. And from study Ted Hughes, and Ted Hughes’s Gaudete, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ted Hughes uses mythical coding and stories in folklore to come to terms with a poetic self contingent on the female, and to in fact grapple with his awareness of patriarchal error and masculine guilt. The first savage review of Gaudete was published in 1977. Ted Hughes’s response to this was to go fishing. And he went down to the River Torridge, full of what he called ‘bad thoughts from London’. He tried to fish, couldn’t. Anyone else would’ve given up but Hughes went downstream and he went to stump pool, and stretched himself on a granite ledge just beyond which, in the current, he knew salmon were holding in the flow, under the surface. And as he lay there the sun came out, and came to him through the ash tree leaves above him. He heard voices, like a mob at the lip of the weir as it entered the pool, and he dozed. And experienced what he called delicious self-immersion in river presence. I’ve come to conclude that Ted Hughes found himself in the natural world and the shape-shifting and transformations that he found absolutely central to human psychology, and to natural process. He found all of this never more vividly than in water and in the company of the fish he loved, sought to capture, and catch.

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