Facts and Makings

John Bayley

  • Moortown by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 176 pp, £5.25, October 1980, ISBN 0 571 11453 9
  • Selected Poems 1955-1975 by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 131 pp, £4.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 571 11512 8
  • Collected Poems 1942-1977 by W.S. Graham
    Faber, 268 pp, £8.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 571 11416 4

Ted Hughes has always possessed in his poetry the gift that D.H. Lawrence had whenever he took up his pen: the gift of joining his ego to the visible world so that both not only energise each other but seem aspects of the same display. The first poem in this collection, ‘Rain’, seems to give the essence of what actually happens when rain falls and falls on a bare modern English farming countryside. It is an apparently casual performance that could only come from a poet steeped in his own great talent to the point of taking it for granted, as Wordsworth seems to take for granted the exposition of his verse paragraphs, or Browning a prolonged monologue. Hughes is remorseless in his eye for what is really happening outside in nature at such a time. The cows

          look out sideways from under their brows which are
Their only shelter. The sunk scrubby wood
Is a pulverised wreck, rain riddles its holes
To the drowned roots. A pheasant looking black
In his waterproofs, bends at his job in the stubble.

The mid-afternoon dusk soaks into
The soaked thickets. Nothing protects them.

Mostly, the statements can afford to be quite plain, and, however plain they are, the poem never loses its mesmeric wet grip, its impact of saturation. This is the more interesting since Hughes’s language has often in previous collections given the impression of a weight-lifter hurling steel girders and plastic laths around with an equally ferocious virtuosity. Now, down on the farm, it seems exactly equal to the task – as if to tractoring, milking, mucking out, performing these jobs with the wholly effective absence of enthusiasm which for a countryman often seems the nearest thing to enjoyment. But with this rain falling, animals and men could as well be on the Western Front as on a Devon farmstead.

                     The gateways
Are deep obstacles of mud. The calves look up, through plastered forelocks,
Without moving. Nowhere they can go
Is less uncomfortable. The brimming world
And the pouring sky are the only places
For them to be. Fieldfares squeal over, sodden
Toward the sodden wood. A raven,
Cursing monotonously, goes over fast
And vanishes in rain-mist. Magpies
Shake themselves hopelessly, hop in the spatter. Misery.
Surviving green of ferns and brambles is tumbled
Like an abandoned scrapyard,

Phrases like ‘hop in the spatter’ show the movement of the bird as no other words have ever done. And the rain – ‘spirit-quenching’, as Hardy calls it, in a little ‘incident poem’ not unlike Hughes in tone and technique – turns the ‘country’, as effectively as man and his own works, into mean and meagre dereliction. As art, the truth of this vision is intensely satisfying: the satisfaction coming from the fact that Hughes has not attempted to make anything out of the vision itself.

He is a divided poet in a sense which his talent makes particularly interesting, and to which it gives a larger significance. The tradition of poets in English who have written about this kind of thing – Crabbe, Clare, Edmund Blunden – is one of a sober and perennial kind, not much concerned with or altered by changes in outlook and vision, spirit and Zeitgeist. But Hughes, like Lawrence, has the kind of creative temperament which is very much concerned with these things – indeed, sensitive to them, almost obsessed by them. He needs meaning, needs apocalypse, but down on the farm they are not to be found. No matter, the power and precision of his language produce them by the sole virtue of concentration, by laying the visible world inexorably before us.

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