Protestant Guilt

Tom Paulin

  • Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 517 pp, £18.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 571 16604 0

There is a particular type of literary criticism – these days very rare – that aims to exist intensely as bravura performance, dramatic spectacle. It would be pointless to object that the performing critic is merely a rhetorician engaged in digging and falling into a subjective pit of empty images, further descriptions, meaningless or questionable value-judgments. If we admire the critic’s imagination then we are bound to attend to the performance – a performance that lives only, of at least most intensely, in a first reading. Go back over the text and much of it seems to have melted into a series of repetitive rhetorical gestures that are all dead letter, not living spirit.

This is Hazlitt’s point in a little-noticed passage in an essay called ‘Whether genius is conscious of its powers’, where he argues that ‘the stimulus of writing is like the stimulus of intoxication’: ‘While we are engaged in any work, we are thinking of the subject, and cannot stop to admire ourselves; and when it is done, we look at it with comparative indifference. I will venture to say, that no one but a pedant ever read his own works regularly through. They are not his – they are become mere words, waste-paper, and have none of the glow, the creative enthusiasm, the vehemence, and natural spirit with which he wrote them.’ Though it lacks Hazlitt’s momentum and flexibility, Ted Hughes’s prose has a similarly vehement enthusiasm, a pulsing directness that makes him testify to ‘the simple immediacy and as it were natural inevitability’ with which his idea of Shakespeare’s Tragic Equation grew in his mind, ‘and which is no small part of what I would like to communicate to my reader’. Rooted in Yorkshire Nonconformism, Hughes’s prose is every bit as urgent as his poetry – it crackles like his thistles under a frosty blue-black pressure.

In this type of criticism, the reading process becomes more than analogous to the act of writing: reading fuses with writing because it empathises in a dramatic manner with the critic’s struggle to express ideas, a struggle that resembles an actor’s total expressiveness in relation to an audience. Such writing is conspicuous for its puritan theatricality – the term is not self-contradictory – for it carries always the preacher’s sense of speaking to and through a deeply attentive audience. Both critic and preacher demand complete attentive assent, an act of faith. Once that assent is given, the performance can begin, but it can continue only if the audience’s attention is held. Like Emily Dickinson, Hughes aims to push writing beyond writing, towards free expressive performance, but unlike Dickinson he doesn’t – at least in this study – know how to employ formal brevity as the ground of unconditioned Being. Like his admired Cromwell, he sees the formal and the free way as opposites, not synergies.

Yet despite the length of the performance, this is mythic criticism issuing from a marvellously intuitive historical sense, and no matter how fixed, reductive, tedious and obsessive the applied template of the myth eventually becomes, it is the relentless hurrying drive of its communication – its ‘pure, naked expressiveness’ – that counts above all. What matters is less the figure in the carpet than Hughes’s figuring out a pattern he discerns in many but by no means all of the plays. It’s therefore essential that we attend a show which features the poet laureate on the national bard, partly because Hughes has a sense of his country’s history that goes much deeper than that of any other living English writer. His huge study of Shakespeare, more than ten years in the making, is an unprecedented act of critical witness that spills out of an energy – a tragic energy – which has all but disappeared from current professional critical practice.

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