Ted Hughes in the ‘LRB’

Mark Ford

Ted Hughes makes a quarter-face appearance on the cover of the ‘London Review’, 8 January 1987. According to the caption inside, ‘Philip Larkin extends a wary welcome to the future poet laureate, Ted Hughes, during a visit paid by Hughes to the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull over which Larkin presided.’

Ted Hughes was among the earliest contributors to the London Review of Books; his poem ‘Night Arrival of Sea-Trout’ appeared in the very first issue of 25 October 1979. Hughes and the paper’s founding editor, Karl Miller, had known each other while undergraduates at Cambridge. A number of Hughes’s poems had been published by Miller in the student magazine Granta in the early 1950s, and more would be accepted in the course of Miller’s subsequent literary editorships at the Spectator, the New Statesman and the Listener. On occasion Hughes would turn to Miller for help with work in progress: John Lanchester remembers Hughes ringing up the LRB (this would have been in the late 1980s) to discuss a poem he was wrestling with that had somehow gone wrong. He was hoping Miller might be able to put his finger on the point where it went awry.

Through the 1980s, 23 of Hughes’s poems appeared in the paper, at the rate of two or three a year. The last, ‘Take what you want but pay for it’, was in the issue of 29 September 1988. Some, such as ‘Remembering Teheran’ (19 August 1982) or ‘On the Reservations’ (2 June 1988), run to three or four pages in his Collected Poems.

Among the first that he submitted was ‘The Earthenware Head’ (21 February 1980), which wasn’t published in a Hughes collection until Birthday Letters of 1998. It describes an incident from his life with Sylvia Plath in Cambridge. An American student had produced a life-sized earthenware model of Plath’s head, ‘the lips half-pursed, raw-edged/With crusty tooling’. Neither poet liked it, but rather than just throw it out they decided to deposit it, in a ‘perverse rite’ (I’m quoting from the Birthday Letters version; in the LRB it’s ‘perverse ritual’), in a willow tree overlooking the river Cam as it winds towards Grantchester, making, as the poem puts it, ‘a mythic shrine for your double’.

Plath found herself increasingly troubled by the thought of this model of her head abandoned to the elements, and they set out to retrieve it; but it had either vanished, or they failed to locate the original tree. ‘Surely the river got it,’ Hughes reflects, many years after the event, ‘Surely/The river is its chapel.’ The poem then melds Plath’s anxiety about the abandoned clay model of her head with her poetic figurations of her dead father:

Your deathless head, fired in a furnace,
Face to face at last, kisses the Father
Mudded at the bottom of the Cam

(In the LRB: ‘Surely/Your head, made in a furnace, kisses God’). It is one of the most arresting poems in Birthday Letters, dramatising aspects of the intimate mythology that Plath and Hughes co-created and shared, and their daring but dangerous interest in superstitions and the occult. Its conclusion plays off a beneficent fantasy of punt-loads of tourists briefly saluting the drowned head as they make their way towards Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester, ‘flitting towards their honey/And the stopped clock’, against Plath’s unnerved and unnerving verdict on her double in clay: ‘Evil./That was what you called the head. Evil.’

Even Hughes’s greatest admirers will admit that he is in an uneven poet; my own favourite period is the mid to late-1970s, which John Bayley considers in his review of Moortown (21 February 1980). Bayley calls Gaudete ‘one of the most remarkable achievements of modern poetry’, and presents a brilliant account of the distinctive nature of Hughes’s talent.

Many of the best of Hughes’s poems in the LRB are concerned with rivers. After the farming experiment that resulted in Moortown (later expanded and retitled Moortown Diary) he embarked on a series of poems that drew on his most abiding passion, fishing. (I get the sense that he was a better angler than he was a farmer). Hughes is one of the great poetic celebrants of British rivers – as well as among the fiercest denouncers of all those who pollute, defile and mismanage them. ‘Low Water’ (2 October 1980), which personifies a river as ‘a beautiful idle woman’, vividly suggests why Hughes would prove, the following decade, such an effective translator of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

‘An October Salmon’ (16 April 1981) lavishes rich and unpredictable metaphors on an aged salmon returning to die to the pool in which it was probably hatched. The salmon is brilliantly spot-lit, like an epic hero on the threshold of his death throes: ‘In the October light/He hangs there, patched with leper cloths.’ The pool is home to ‘bicycle wheels, car-tyres, bottles/And sunk sheets of corrugated iron’, and yet Hughes’s heroic, exhausted fish, once ‘king of infinite liberty’ but now ‘a dinosaur of senility’, maintains his ‘epic poise’. Even surrounded by such detritus, he is ‘loyal to his doom’.

Hughes – like his dominant influence, D.H. Lawrence – is also nearly always good on flowers. It is interesting to compare ‘Daffodils’ (1 March 1984, collected in Flowers and Insects) with a poem such as Lawrence’s ‘Bavarian Gentians’ or ‘Andraitx – Pomegranate Flowers’. Both Hughes and Lawrence make use of a mixture of long, packed, winding lines and short abrupt ones, and evoke the secret lives of flowers in the most dramatic and personal terms. ‘I became intimate,’ Hughes writes of his ‘cauldron of daffodils’,

With the soft shrieks
Of their jostled stems – the wet shocks, shaken
Of the girlish dance-frocks –
Fresh-opened Dragonflies, wet and flimsy –

It’s also fascinating to read forward and contrast it with Hughes’s later reworking of this poem into the one, also called ‘Daffodils’, published in Birthday Letters. The LRB ‘Daffodils’ evokes a freeborn spirit who was ‘still a nomad’, for whom ‘the earth was booty’, who was convinced he’d ‘live forever’ and who picks and sells the daffodils alone. In the second version Hughes and Plath pick them together, and the poem turns dark and elegiac. They lose a pair of scissors given them as a wedding present, which they’d been using to snip the ‘meaty butts’ of the flowers. As with the earthenware head in the Cam, Hughes imagines the afterlife of these totemic scissors, buried somewhere beneath the lawn of their garden at Court Green, ‘blades wide open,/April by April/Sinking deeper/Through the sod – an anchor, a cross of rust.’

Mark Ford and Seamus Perry discuss Ted Hughes’s ‘Gaudete’ in the latest episode of their LRB Close Readings podcast series ‘The Long and Short.