Famous for his animal poetry, Ted Hughes (1930-1998) earned the reputation of being the first English poet of the “will to live.” His choice of animals as the themes of his poems is, of course, not without the reverse side of his choice. The reverse side is as much of a disenchantment with the world of mankind as there is an enchantment with the world of animal kind. He was highly influenced by the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, the only one, he says, he “ever really read.” The philosopher in question believed, “the whole and every individual bears the stamp of a forced condition.”
Ted Hughes can be appropriately said to be the poet of that condition, and in that role, he is rather a hangman than a priest. Hughes once revealed, “My interest in animals began when I began. My memory goes back pretty clearly to my third year, and by then I had so many of the toy lead animals you could buy in shops that they went right round our flat-topped fireplace fender, nose to tail….” Later, he had live experience with them in the fields, feeling them crawling under the lining of his coat.
In his poetry, animals are presented, not as playthings, but as lords of life and death. They assume the status of mythical gods. They are presented superior to men, with their lack of self-consciousness, and sickness of the mind. They are found free from inhibitions, hesitations, fears; and full of courage and concentration. With their focused life, with all the innocence of man’s corruptions, they emerge, like Adam and Eve in Paradise, in a state before the Fall. His very first volume of poems, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), illustrated all these ideas, and made him famous as a poet. Note, how man is placed below the animal in the hierarchy Hughes builds up in his poems:
I drown in the drumming ploughland. I drag up Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth, From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye…
His other volumes of poems include Wodwo (1967), Crow (1970), Crow Wakes (1971), Eat Crow (1972), Cave Birds (1975), Season Songs (1976), Moortowm (1979), Wolf-watching (1989), Shakespeare and the Goddess of Being (1992) – a prose work, Tales from Ovid (1997), and Birthday Letters (1998). The last, published just a short while before his death, is a sequence of poems about his bitter-sweet relations with his wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. Although composed much earlier, he chose to make them public near his own end.
Although he had been included in the Movement authologies along with Larkin, Tom Gunn (b. 1929) sharply departed from the group and took his individual course. He had resolved rather early in his career to seek out the heroic in the experience of nihilism. He writes about various forms of driving power which characterize our cities, as also about self-destructive violence. No doubt, he views human existence as full of pain and suffering, lovelessness and meaninglessness, but he still finds solace in the tenderness of man’s essentially animal nature. His very first volume of poems, Fighting Terms (1954), startled the readers. One notices in these poems his love and admiration for a certain masculinity, a type of manly energy, which is rather aggressive. His situations measure up to the existentialist or Sartrean dimensions. His other volumes of poetry include The Sense of Movement (1957), My Sad Captains (1961), Touch (1967), Moly (1971), Jack Straw’s Castle (1976), The Passages of Joy (1982) and The Man With Night Sweats (1992). Those more sympathetic to him have compared him, because of his logical and economical style, studded with startling imagery, with John Donne. But there are others less sympathetic who find him often committed to a kind of nihilistic glamour for which, it is alleged, he is not able to convincingly apologise. The most unsympathetic of the better known critics is Vyor Winters who observes that “as a rule, he has a dead ear, and the fact makes much of his work either mechanical or lax in its movement.” Both Ted Hughes and Tom Gunn, by glorifying animals or animal-energy in man, with sardonic humour spared for mankind, reflect the Postmodernist inglorious conception of human nature.
An Irish by birth, and acutely conscious of his country’s long history of hostility towards England, Seamus Heaney (1939-2000) counted himself among the “colonials.” But he was fully conscious of his divided inheritance: “I speak and write in English,” he writes in an article (dated 1972), “but do no altogether share the preoccupations and perspectives of an Englishman…and the English tradition is not ultimately home. I live off another hump as well.” That other “hump,” we know, is no other but Ireland, or more precisely the rural Ulster, which, like the Wessex of Thomas Hardy, occupies a central place in his poetry. Heaney’s poetic volumes include Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1975), Field Work (1979), Preoccupations (1980), Station Island (I984), The Haw Lantern (1987), Seeing Things (1991), Sweeney’s Flight (1992) and The Spirit Level (1996). Heaney has been known as a peasant as well as a patriotic poet of Ireland. He depicts both farm activities as well as the colonial imperial effects on his countrymen. In a poem called “At a Potato Digging,” for instance, he writes:
Flint-white, purple, they lie scattered
like inflated pebbles. Native
to the black hutch of clay
where the halved seed hot and clothed
these knobbled and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.
Similarly, in “North,” he depicts, with a backward glance, the buried sorrows and treasures of the Irish people as well as of their language, concluding with an advice:
in the word-board, burrow
in the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
As the bleb of the icicle,
Trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.
Thus, poetry of the post-War, post-modern, or contemporary period, born out of the aftermath of the war devastation caused to cities and psychies alike, remained rather tame, compared to the highbrow modernist poetry. It deliberately chose to remain level, everyday, matter of fact, narrow, and, like the poetry of Hardy and Frost, solid and specific, serious and cynical. It contented itself with the micro rather than macro narratives, minute rather than meta concerns, national rather than international scenes, simple rather than difficult style, direct rather than indirect address.