Early Poetry: “The Hawk in the Rain”
Hughes’s poetic career began with the publication in 1957 of “The Hawk in the Rain”, a volume of poems which also contained a poem, The Hawk in the Rain, the title of which was then used by Hughes as the title of the whole volume.
This first volume of poems contained some very striking poetry of which the title poem itself is one example. Two other conspicuous examples of Hughes’s poetic talent in this volume were the poems, Wind and The Thought-Fox. In the title poem the speaker is a man walking laboriously when it is raining heavily. This man looks at a hawk in the distant sky; and he watches the bird which symbolizes violence; and then we are made to feel that the hawk may one day view the earth from a victim’s standpoint and feel “the ponderous shires crash on him.” This poems shows, more effectively than any other in this volume, Hughes’s obsession with one particular aspect of Nature, namely the power of animals to kill. This aspect of Nature certainly has a symbolic application to man also. The poem Wind presents a literal reality through the distortion of a metaphor. This poem acquires a symbolic meaning through the very precision and intensity of its literal presentation. The opening stanza gives us the clue to the symbolic meaning by its use of the metaphor:
This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming
The house is here described in terms of a ship on the sea when strong winds are blowing. The Thought-Fox is a poem in which an abstract idea receives a concrete shape. Here a thought has been personified as a fox: and that is why the poem has been given the title of “The Thought-Fox”. A certain thought enters the speaker’s mind with the same suddenness with which a fox may pounce upon a victim. The thought then comes to life on the blank page on which the speaker’s fingers were moving. In other words, the thought finds expression in the form of a poem, and the “blank” page becomes a “printed” page. Thus actually the poem describes the process by which it has itself come into existence. In both The Thought-Fox and Wind, Hughes has employed vivid metaphors to convey the idea which is the theme of the particular poem; and the metaphors are highly original. We have never before visualized a thought entering a poet’s mind like a fox attacking its victim; and we have never before visualized a house as a ship sailing on a wildly treacherous sea. Actually, each of the three poems considered above is highly original, though not easy to understand from the average reader’s point of view. Each poem shows also the energy which Hughes thought was an essential sign of life in the animals as well as in the poetic imagination.
Hughes’s second volume of poems was entitled “Lupercal”, and was published in 1960. In this volume the last poem has the title of Lupercalia; and this title, in a slightly modified form, was then used by Hughes as the title for the whole volume. The most outstanding poems in this volume are notable for their depiction of certain animals which are known for their violent and savage nature. As a critic says, no poet of the past has quite managed to internalize the murderousness of Nature through such brilliantly objective means, and with such economy, as Hughes has done in poems like Esther’s Tomcat, Hawk Roosting, To Paint a Waterlily, View of a Pig, An Otter, Thrushes, and Pike. In these poems Hughes shows his ability to present an image or a thought in the context of violent action. In all these poems we find a strong narrative and dramatic quality which is in no way undermined by any unnecessary description or any authorial comment devoid of energy. In Esther’s Tomcat, we are given a most graphic picture of a tomcat attacking a knight on horseback, and throwing him down from his horse. The Knight dies of his bleeding wounds. In Hawk Roosting, the hawk says: “I kill where I please because it is all mine.” Although the pig in the poem called View of a Pig is dead, yet the poem has a ferocious quality about it because of the way in which a living pig is depicted in one of the stanzas:
Pigs must have hot blood, they feel like ovens.
Their bite is worse than a horse’s—
They chop a half-moon clean out.
They eat cinders, dead cats.
As the same critic tells us, lines like these could not have appeared before World War II because such lines seem to bear the stamp of the Blitz, the Hydrogen Bomb, and the slaughter of the Jews in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Hughes’s view of Nature is not Wordsworthian; it resembles the Nazi mentality. Hughes finds even the thrushes on a lawn to be a terrifying spectacle. He describes the destructive nature of these birds and their voracious appetite which knows no mercy. A thrush would pounce upon an insect in the grass to satisfy its hunger, and it would so without any hesitation or meditation. And yet the poem Thrushes also has a contemplative quality. An Otter and Pike also deal with animals who impress Hughes by their fierceness and savagery. Both the otter and the pike-fish can be caught and killed by human beings; and yet Hughes in these two poems has attributed almost supernatural ferocity to them. An otter is neither fish nor beast, but he carries “the legend of himself wherever he goes, and he seeks “some world lost when he first dived.” The pike-fish have been depicted by Hughes as “killers from the egg,” and as having a malicious grin. According to the critic, already referred to, Pike is “Hughes’s supreme construct, a series of descriptions, anecdotes, impressions, building up the single theme.” The poem entitled November draws our attention not to the animal kingdom, but to the world of human beings; and the picture of the human world here is a disgraceful one. The poem presents to our eyes a tramp observed sleeping in the rain in a ditch. To any observer, this tramp would seem to be dead, though actually he is only asleep. The poet admires the tramp who is sleeping as if nothing can hurt him. The tramp lies with his face covered by his beard, in the “drilling rain” and the “welding cold”. But the poet’s admiration for the tramp’s endurance does not diminish the disgrace to which the tramp is being subjected by his circumstances. The last poem in this volume is Lupercalia which is very difficult to interpret or to understand. It contains a series of powerful images of man and beast, then a brief picture of something beyond beastly grossness in the images of dancing fauns, and next a prayer for some kind of transformation.
The term “Wodwo” is used to mean some sort of satyr or a spirit of the forests. Wodwo may therefore be regarded as a mythical creature, part-man, part-animal, and partly all kinds of elemental little things. Hughes wrote a poem with the title “Wodwo”; and then he used this term as the title for the whole volume of poems which included the poem Wodwo. This volume appeared in 1967, and was Hughes’s third important publication. A critic describes this volume of poems as a powerful, yet disquieting, almost forbidding, book, and as Hughes’s first venture into surrealism. This volume of poems reveals an agitated, tormented psyche locked in a dark night of the soul. Much of the imagery in this volume is that of fear, turmoil, blood, and death, and some of it is that of emptiness and silence. The volume contains a large number of poems; and most of them show Hughes’s early confidence in man’s cultural advancement, and then man’s historical enterprise weakening. The protagonists in these poems seem to disdain their cultural roots, and to have developed an obsession with man’s destructiveness. For instance, in the poem A Vegetarian the speaker summarizes the stages of Western man’s journey from seduction to pregnancy, birth, wounding, and death in the sheep’s jaw movement of time in such a way that he seems to be openly fearful of the entire process. Poems such as Thistles, Ghost Crabs, Second Glance at a Jaguar, and Scapegoat and Rabies present expressionistic portraits of weapons, recurring feuds, and destructiveness in the blood of the species, a cyclic recurrence of the jaguar’s “drum-song of murder” in man and beast alike. Later in the volume, Hughes argues in the poem Wings that even the advancements of twentieth-century philosophy, literature, and science show contemporary man’s complete alienation from any form of ancestral wisdom, because each man is now hopelessly, isolated in his own existential agony in a universe the teleology of which man cannot understand but whose scientific advancements have blasted him to star-vapour. The volume closes with its title poem which is a meditative piece about a wood sprite whose cardinal beliefs include a confidence in the limited but satisfying powers of his own perceiving consciousness as the generator and as the “exact centre” of experience. Quietly the Wodwo will “go on looking”, taking nothing for granted, and establishing his own co-ordinates between himself and Nature. The process of cultural deprivation in this volume is not a mere rejection of tradition, or a simple call for personal freedom. The poems of this volume collectively tell us of Hughes’s personal disenchantment also. This disenchantment has been experienced by him in his private life and has been analyzed through plausible social psychology. The poem Out is central to the whole volume because it contains a personal experience of man’s destructiveness. In this poem Hughes meditates upon his father, one of only seventeen survivors of an entirely British battalion which fought in one of the battles of World War I. This poem gives us a new insight into the mass warfare of the twentieth century. Here Hughes argues that the stark anonymity of amassed millions, insulated from the enemy by machines, militates against even the ability of the psyche to place such slaughter within a larger humanistic retributive scheme. In short, Hughes’s disillusionment with Western culture finds expression in unrelieved torment, communicated to us through adequate objective correlatives, in the poems of “Wodwo”.
“Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow”
The volume called Crow, like the volume called “Wodwo”, occupies a very important place in Hughes’s poetry. This volume also contains a large number of poems; and here also we can discover a link between the various poems not only because the protagonist throughout the volume is the same (namely Crow) but also because there is a kind of development in the theme. Hughes has, in the poems of this volume, exposed the falsehood of many of man’s traditional beliefs. Hughes here scoffs at, and ridicules, those orthodox beliefs which have held a sway upon the minds of humanity for centuries. An American critic has given us an excellent summary of the poems in this volume. In these poems, says this critic, the protagonist (who is a bird) shares the stage with the Biblical Creator, the Serpent, and Adam and Eve; and he encounters such famous mythological personages as Proteus, Ulysses, Hercules, and Beowulf. Furthermore, the protagonist poses as Oedipus or parodies Oedipus’s fortunes (in the poem Song for a Phallus). The whole sequence expresses Hughes’s view that modern life is in a state of chaps. In these poems Western myths figure side by side with the Tibetan or Buddhist ones; and these myths, Biblical as well as classical, appear for the most part as the very roots of that chaos. These poems invert the orthodox Christian doctrines. According to the Christian view, in the beginning was the “Word”; but here in these poems we read: “In the beginning was scream” (in the poem Lineage). Then the Serpent, who is, in the Old Testament of the Bible, the originator of sin and death, appears here as a phallic symbol of life (in the poem A Childish Prank).
Gaudete is a kind of play with a prologue and an epilogue. Hughes himself provided a short summary of the content of this play. An Anglican clergyman, Reverend Nicholas Lumb, is abducted by spirits into the other world. The spirits create a duplicate of him to take his place in this world and to carry on his work. This changeling interprets the role of a clergyman in his own way. The narrative recounts the final day of events which lead to a cancellation by the powers of both worlds. The original clergyman reappears in this world, but changed from what he used to be.
The volume of poems entitled “Cave Birds” appeared in 1975. Several poems in this volume are among Hughes’s creative achievements. These poems include The Executioner, The Knight; Bride and Groom; and The Risen. According to two eminent critics, Hughes permits himself a much greater richness and sensuousness of language in these poems than he had done in the volume called “Crow”; and yet the poems here are more disciplined than many in the earlier sequence. The basis of “Cave Birds” is a metaphysical discovery, namely the discovery of the universal in one’s own self. The sequence of poems in “Cave Birds” opens with a striking composition which depicts a kind of psychic trauma in which the hero’s complacent view of the world and his place in it is shattered by the visitations of various terrifying bird-beings who confront him with convincing evidence of his material nature and his mortality. His ego is symbolized by a cockerel; and he is taken on a journey into himself, the first stage of which is a process of death and rebirth. In fact rebirth and sexual union dominate certain poems in the whole sequence. Sexual union is a metaphor for wholeness of being and oneness with the world. Poems which are particularly noteworthy in this volume, in addition to those already named, are: The Jungle; The Guide; A Riddle; and Walking Bare.
“Remains of Elmet”
This volume contains poems which celebrate the particular region to which Ted Hughes belonged and in which he was born. That region is known as Yorkshire. The poems in the volume called “Remains of Elmet” celebrate the landscape of that region, the flora and fauna of that region, and the rural life there. Many of the finest poems in this volume express the poet’s feeling of exhilaration on recalling those familiar scenes in the midst of which he had been reared. The poem Long Streams is typical in this connection; and the following lines are a good specimen of Hughes’s love of his native region:
And now this whole scene, like a mother,
Lifts a cry
Right to the source of it all.
A solitary cry.
These poems depict Nature and rural life with a rare minuteness and accuracy.
The volume entitled “Moortown” contains a sequence of poems describing author’s experiences some of the poems closed with the death of his partner and father-in-law, Jack Orchard. These poems may be regarded as elegies not only because of that death but also because some of them are about the deaths of animals. The first poem in this collection is Rain. It begins thus:
Rain. Floods. Frost. And after frost, rain.
Dull roof-drumming. Wrath rain pushing across
Like light across heaved water, sleet in it.
The rain “goes on and on, and gets colder”; and the poem imitates this continuance by more and more observations of rain-affected things. Employing small and subtle alterations in the language, the poet achieves here a freshness of vision. For instance, calves stand, not in shiny mud, but “in a shine of mud.” Language has here, as elsewhere in Hughes’s poetry, been subjected to small alterations to make it more accurate and vivid in describing the observed reality. The poems in this volume show all Hughes’s customary skills in the use of language. Many of the memorable poems in this volume deal with the birth, death-at-birth, or the infancy of lambs and calves.
This volume of poems is again a collection of poems which describe rural scenary. This volume again shows Hughes’s love of Nature and his capacity for graphic description.