In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Facts and MakingsJohn Bayley

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
by Ted Hughes.
Faber, 176 pp., £5.25, October 1980, 0 571 11453 9
Show More
Selected Poems 1955-1975 
by Thom Gunn.
Faber, 131 pp., £4.50, October 1980, 0 571 11512 8
Show More
Collected Poems 1942-1977 
by W.S. Graham.
Faber, 268 pp., £8.50, November 1980, 0 571 11416 4
Show More
Show More

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.

The world of Hughes’s poetry presents us with a particularly dramatic example of the division in Romantic sensibility and in the developments of Romantic poetry that goes back beyond the 19th century. On the one hand, an overwhelming sense of things: on the other, the impossibility of things. Keats’s imagination seizes on the world and gives it in his imagination the absoluteness of truth, a truth into which the always unappeasable spirit of query and abstraction cannot enter. One romantic world is the creation of absolute fact, so far as language and poetry can make it, which may be the world of enchanted castles and maidens as well as that of minnows and billiard-balls, of lime-trees and water-snakes and an evening sky, ‘with its peculiar tint of yellow green’. But the other world is not a world at all: it is the ‘description of a place rather than the place itself’. For a post-romantic poet like Wallace Stevens, that is the place where poetry has to live. The poet has here all the blank misgivings of a creature ‘moving about in worlds not realised’: indeed, this fact becomes the poetry’s subject and raison d’être.

Wallace Stevens accused T.S. Eliot of being ‘a man too exactly himself’, and it is equally a fear and a fascination in the tradition of Romantic poetry to write a poem which is too exactly itself. Many of Hughes’s poems are, and no doubt deliberately so, an explosion of exactness in the midst of contingency, from which the echoes die abruptly away. An image and embodiment here is the farmyard tractor, on a morning of snow and super-cold.

The tractor stands frozen – an agony
To think of …

The starting lever
Cracks its action, like a snapping knuckle.
The battery is alive – but like a lamb
Trying to nudge its solid-frozen mother.

At last:

It jabbers laughing pain-crying mockingly
Into happy life …
And stands
Shuddering itself full of heat, seeming to enlarge slowly
Like a demon demonstrating
A more than usually complete materialisation
Suddenly it jerks from its solidarity
With the concrete, and lurches towards a stanchion
Bursting with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting ‘Where Where?’

Weeping in the wind of chloroform

And the tractor, streaming with sweat,
Raging and trembling and rejoicing.

The poems in Moortown also celebrate the achievements of people – stringers of wire or bashers-in of fence posts, shearers, dehorners, huge purplish hands which are tender accoucheurs of animals. And the animals themselves: sheep that ‘fade humbly’ in the evening snow; a cow in labour –

She reached for us with a wild, flinging look
And flopped flat again;

a bull who is not very powerfully masculine and attractive, but a bull just the same, and totally individualised, with his own kind of ‘gristly pinkish head, like a shaved bloodhound’ and his own way of approaching a cow:

He sniffs the length of her spine, arching slightly
And shitting a tumble-thud shit as he does so.

These poems are indeed ‘exactly themselves’, and with an ease that has none the less something uneasy about it. When Keats said he wanted to write poems that ‘cannot be laughed at at all’, he was probably thinking not so much of laughter per se as of the vulnerability of being exactly oneself which is its potential target – of being the man who, as Chesterton put it, ‘is laughed at by rustics because they have never seen him before’. Here the boot is on the other foot: it is we who have never seen these things before in poetry, and they are a new sort of wonder, exposed to us. It is an exposure that reveals the author too much, and the way his imagination works, the imagination that produced the extraordinary fantasy of Gaudete. Gaudete has come to impress itself on me as one of the most remarkable achievements of modern poetry, an achievement in which fantasy – the very odd tale or legend that preoccupied the author – is made as real as life on the farm.

But Hughes wants to be the other kind of romantic too, the seer and sage, not just naming things but naming them hermeneutically. Crow was a bird that never flew in a farmyard, and now we have ‘Prometheus on His Crag’, an all too similar cycle of 21 poems, in which Hughes’s great powers of turning the visual into the verbal disappear into a welter of ‘powerful’ imagery. Hughes seems determined to escape from the limitations of what might seem to him his own too accurate gaze, but in the concluding cycle called ‘Earth-Numb’ he is back on form, looking at a young German on the quay at Torquay who speaks

a few words
That sounded like English so lordly
It was incomprehensible.

In ‘Old age gets up’ he gives us just that; in ‘Buzz in the Window’ a prolonged, hypnotically compelling glimpse of a spider-and-fly encounter; in ‘Knock at the Door’, a meths-drinker comes to call.

Such a poem has a sort of hidden despair in it, which is not connected with its subject, but with the way its subject has to be presented in this kind of poetry. Bang-click, the product is there. Blake would have distrusted the penetrating single vision of Hughes, as much as his power over the vegetable universe. Wordsworth’s beggars in their various ways admonish us from another world, and though we may not consciously believe in such a world, or its admonishments, Wordsworth’s poems make us do so for their own purposes and in their own ways: they suspend our disbelief in that otherness. In Hughes, there is nothing to do but to see, and then to turn away. It is not surprising that he wants so much to construct a metaphysical world, but it is not one which most readers can believe in, word-wise, or take much interest in: better to turn back to the all too recognisable world of the M5 Restaurant, which has yet never been seen so horribly or so exactly before, with its ‘symbolic food eaten by symbolic faces’, its ‘symbolic eating movements’.

Thom Gunn, too, has a poem about a meths-drinking hobo, which is moving, and as finished in its own way as the poem by Hughes. The finished quality in Gunn’s case is that of its being more obviously a poem, an effective object in print – not a reaction that occurs to one à propos of Hughes. Thom Gunn’s accomplishment seems in a sense to go against his attitudes, more particularly that indicated at the start of the poem called ‘Autobiography’ in Jack Straw’s Castle:

The sniff of the real, that’s
what I’d want to get…

And he sets out courageously to get it in poems of supple and traditional elaboration, often conventionally rhymed. Get it he does too, insofar as such a thing exists. ‘Autobiography’ is an admirable poem, and so are many others in Jack Straw’s Castle, Gunn’s most recent collection. Gunn seems to be on the whole an underrated poet, partly because he has a style of impact and resource different from that of Hughes, with whom he was often compared, and partly because both had the air of inhabiting a sort of Black Leather Gauntlet Country whose stylised popularity soon became passé. Reality is not guaranteed by invoking violence. But in fact Gunn can be seen in this selection to have possessed the developmental powers of a coherent and determined poet. From Fighting Terms and The Sense of Movement to the later collections, in particular Touch and Jack Straw’s Castle, a purposeful line, and a surprisingly independent one, can now be seen to have been followed. ‘Misanthropos’ is a remarkable poem and one that repays rereading. ‘No speech from the scaffold’ is a little masterpiece. Gunn’s weakness is that words and rhymes never seem quite unaware of themselves and of the direction they are required to take, but this in itself can have its own kind of effectiveness: Gunn is in his way quite as original a poet as Hughes. It is worth comparing ‘Yoko’, in Jack Straw’s Castle, an excellent poem about a dog, a black labrador, with Hughes’s poems about creatures, on the farm and off it.

Poetry is such a big, disparate thing: so satisfactory that it should be. W.S. Graham’s poems are wholly different in every way from those of Hughes and Gunn, but they are no less authentically poems. Graham is a ‘maker’ in the good old-fashioned sense, and also in a specifically Scottish sense: Dunbar and Henryson would have understood exactly what he was trying to do and approved it. Poetry for Hughes, and in some degree for Gunn as well, must contain a kind of boost, a cerebral alcohol. Their image of it and of themselves – and it is an image which can strike us as tiresomely voulu – is of a danger area in which they have elected to live, a no-man’s-land of the naive and reflective in which the poet leads a tense and wary existence, alert for the sudden ambush that floods his consciousness with adrenalin: indeed, Hughes has more than once expressed a longing for the kind of poetry which he feels can only be produced in and for an extreme situation – for instance, when machine-gun bullets are flying round one’s head. But this is frightening oneself in a somewhat artificial and specious sense. The real danger lies elsewhere: Hölderlin called poetry the most innocent of pastimes, but for him it was also the most dangerous of necessities, and for the great Romantic poets the two were never far apart.

Whether false or true, however, such dangers do not concern a maker like Graham. He apprenticed himself early on to the craft of poetry, becoming at the same time an engineer by profession, and he has continued to explore the work of words systematically and with a rewarded persistence. Dylan Thomas was an obvious influence on the early poems in this collected volume, but as a new technique the craftsman could make use of, not as a manner to be involuntarily enclosed by. Like his cultural predecessors, and in the same spirit, Graham has tried out all the traditional forms and modes: the love poem, the meditation, the poem of friendship, the argument and the anecdote. For him, poetry seems an essential part of social and civilised intercourse, to be practised and discussed among friends, and he does this in a manner more in the regional tradition than in that of coteries and saloon bars. But he is not a regional poet, any more than Thomas was, and he has something of Thomas’s attitude to the language of the ‘craft and sullen art’:

I am not making a fool of myself
For you. What I am making is
A place for language in my life

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. What are communication’s

Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us? It matters only in
So far as we want to be telling

Each other alive about each other
Alive. I want to be able to speak
And sing and make my soul occur

In front of the best and be respected
For that and even be understood
By the ones I like who are dead.

This comes from the 1977 collection, Implements in their Places. In the title poem (a revealing title), Graham uses the kinds of deadpan verbal accuracy which had become fashionable, but with his own individual touch. A poet on his way to a party

                     wondered who would be there
Worthy of being his true self to.

A girl there

          babys her eyes and sends her gaze
Widening to wander through
The sipping archipelagoes
Of frantic islands.

Graham’s eclectic techniques and sense of continuity in a national tradition help him to sound timeless when he wants to. His little anecdotes like ‘The Murdered Drinker’ are masterly, invoking as they do the narrative spirit of Scott and Stevenson as well as Hardy (and Hardy learnt much from Scott):

To set the scene. The night
Wind is rushing the moon
Across the winter road.
A mile away a farm
Blinks its oily eye.

There may be a certain self-indulgence, at the end of so brief a poem, in the repetition of that first stanza, with its magical epithet for the light at the farm. But it is the kind a good craftsman can get away with, especially as the repetition and the ritual, almost Scaldic invocation – ‘To set the scene’ – is used in the other two anecdotes of this kind, both of which are equally memorable. Graham is certainly a master maker, one of a kind which poetry always needs and many generations do not get.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.