Godmother of the Salmon
- ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’ and other Laureate Poems by Ted Hughes
Faber, 64 pp, £12.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 571 16605 9
The worst of being dubbed Laureate today would not be the task of composing poems for royal and public occasions, but trying to make them sound like oneself, or even more so. Auden had no problem. When the GPO commissioned him to write some verses about the Royal Mail he was away at once, synergistically melding the public requirement into his own private fantasy, so that each took off from the other:
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 14 No. 16 · 20 August 1992
John Bayley (LRB, 9 July) tries to support his case for the ‘wholly satisfactory incongruity’ of Ted Hughes’s Laureate verses by saying: ‘It is as if Blake were exulting in the life of George III.’ Insofar as he referred to moneyed, would-be authoritative national leaders, and the ways in which they assumed, exerted and held onto power (hereditary nepotism, sanctimoniously corrupt churchmanship, industrial profiteering, exploitation and suppression of the poor and unprivileged, divide-and-rule empire-building, colonial slavery, warfare), Blake’s was the labour of a hard-headed radical to knock them off their pedestals of clay: ‘Princes appear to me to be fools. Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools: they seem to be something else besides human life.’
Hughes has been trying to perch the Queen Mother, the Queen, their descendants and their spouses, onto pedestals in cloud-cuckooland ‘as a manifestation of the Great Goddess’, and to relate their family lives to wish-fulfilment dreams of his own such as the allegedly ‘Shakespearian vision of democratic justice identical with Divine justice’ (surely undreamed in their philosophies). This gilds them with superhuman attributes a lot less observable than the inhuman or un-humane ones ascribed to their ilk by Blake.
Varying degrees of unhumanity are endemic to much regal and political activity, because this tends (across contemporary Britain, at least) to defer to the authoritarian-hierarchical panoply of nation-state power as its sine qua non. All this is called into question by much of Hughes’s non-Laureate poetry, and nowhere that I know of more explicitly than in a recent example, ‘Lobby from under the Carpet’, composed for the Times’s Polling Day issue (9 April). These verses expose toxic chemicals as the direct source of a 50 per cent decline in human reproductive power over the last twenty-five years, with succinctly telling image and cadence:
I dreamed a waste-disposal man
Hires each sperm as a tanker
To lug his poisons off somewhere
While he winks at the Banker.
Hughes adds the specific charge that in Thatcher’s third term
Britain became the pit
Of Europe’s and the whole world’s waste
For us to scavenge it
It is in this outspoken, unofficial mood that Hughes’s poetry becomes comparable with the ‘unfettered’ exhortations of Blake the practical revolutionary and globally democratic prophet.