Godmother of the Salmon

John Bayley

  • ‘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:

This is the night mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order ...

The service helps to keep capitalism going, but more importantly it feeds the poet’s fancy: at a time of waiting for the end, with the slump (now called recession) seemingly endless, the pylons ‘trailing dead high-tension wires’, the Germans re-arming – at least the GPO kept going, its ability to deliver the mail mysteriously linked to the poet’s continuing ability to produce the right words in the right way.

Betjeman had no problem either. It came so naturally to him that an unknown contributor to a New Statesman competition was inspired to at least one immortal line by the thought of the Poet Laureate celebrating a coronation procession: ‘Gosh, the flags at C&A!’ It is true that Auden in his maturity, had he been Laureate, would have been almost too apt and expert to do what went with the job: his turbulent youth was paradoxically far better suited to rise radically to such a situation. The best Laureate-type poems are not necessarily written by the man with the job, but by the poet who can rise in his own way to an official occasion. Marvell might never have ‘spoken out’ in the inimitable way he did if Cromwell had not happened to come back sword in hand from Ireland, and it seemed a good idea to knock off a little ‘Horatian Ode’ to welcome the Lord Protector home. Larkin had his own wholly characteristic way of dealing with a royal occasion.

In times when nothing stood
but worsened, or grew strange,
there was one constant good:
        she did not change.

Coming first upon that in the Collected Poems, I took it to be a moving little tribute to a mistress, wife, mother: someone who held the central position in someone’s life – the poet’s? In a sense that was not wrong. The notes state that the verse was commissioned by the Trustees of Queen Square Garden for the Silver Jubilee in 1977. It was also reproduced by the National Hospital in Queen Square for its 1978 Christmas card. For Larkin, perhaps the Queen was the fixed point in a spinning world: everything going to the dogs but the great lady still smiling there with the corgis. It tells us a lot about Larkin, but it tells us even more about everyone’s need for a Great Goddess in some form or other. Quiet as the verse is it would be hard to imagine a more powerful advertisement for a royal person’s irreplaceability at a royal occasion. ‘But for the last effect/Still keep the sword erect.’ Or, whatever happens keep the monarchy going. Like Marvell’s, Larkin’s verse has many meanings and can be read differingly. This wretched country will never do better, never mend its ways, while that Personage is gracious upon stamps and coinage? Thank God she is! Take your choice. Larkin’s own is hardly in doubt. Neither, probably, was Marvell’s. Good poems, though, face all ways. And it could still be your best girl referred to, or the Virgin Mary.

Ted Hughes wrote a poem for the same place on the same occasion, incised in stone, in the square with Larkin’s. The poem does not feature in this handsome slim collection, at least I don’t think it does, for Hughes was not the Laureate at the time, and these are his Laureate verses. But as it happens, the little commencement epigraph in the book would go perfectly with Larkin’s – perhaps it is the one cut in the stone there? I must get to Queen Square some time and find out.

A soul is a wheel.
A Nation’s a Soul
With a Crown at the hub
To keep it whole.

This puts all the cards on the table. Larkin and Marvell would look dubious, for it is an echt Cavalier verse, with no room for disloyalties, and it goes with the note to ‘The Dream of the Lion’, one of ‘Two Poems for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’, in which the Laureate mentions ‘my boyhood fanatic patriotism’. So everything is as it should be. What a happy coincidence, in its way, that a poet as good as Hughes should believe, and deeply and passionately, all the things that the job would like him to say! Never mind about Larkin and Marvell and their cunning ways: they were not Poets Laureate.

Who was? Well, the first is usually said to be Ben Jonson, followed by D’Avenant and Dryden, who was given the title officially. Then came Shadwell, Tate, Rowe, Eusden (who celebrated the Duke of Newcastle from whom he received the office and ‘sleeps among the dull of ancient days’ in Pope’s Dunciad), Cibber, Whitehead, Warton, Pye, Southey, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Austin, Bridges, Masefield, Day-Lewis, Betjeman ... In 1921 E.K. Broadus wrote a book, The Laureateship. After the First War there must have been a need in the public mind for some good official stuff, like Spring-Rice’s ‘I vow to thee, my country’, set to a tune from Holst’s Planets, to paper over the yawning fissures left by Sassoon and Owen and Graves. But from the Laureate none was forthcoming. Robert Bridges was too aggressively uncommitted, and perhaps too honest a poet, to do the right thing. (When he went to the Palace in 1913 to receive the office he snapped at Lord Stamfordham, who was in attendance, ‘I don’t want any of your Stars and Garters,’ and received the suave reply: ‘His Majesty will not trouble you, Mr Bridges.’) Alfred Austin had just passed away in that ill-omened year, having composed an ode celebrating the Jameson Raid and the well-known lines on the death of Edward VII.

Along the electric wires the message came,
He is no better, he is much the same.

That at least is funny – indeed positively good in its way – and preferable to the era of Ghastly Good Taste in public verses that was to follow. Even Day-Lewis was not wholly exempt from it when he received the laurels. His predecessor John Masefield had his merits, but writing good verse for occasions was not one of them. Indeed there is an interesting resemblance between the ghastly good taste of the modern tombstone – in chaste Cotswold or slate with a brief restrained inscription – and the kind of shy and therefore shy-making verse which has replaced the flamboyant public ode, the funereal effusion or robust epithalamion. Alfred Austin, who had been given the job by Lord Salisbury because after Tennyson’s death no one could think of any other poet to suggest for it (Swinburne was definitely out), at least had the courage of his own vulgarity.

In public verses before the Romantic era it did not occur to poets or to their audiences to make a distinction between the vulgar and the refined. Romantic intimacies changed all that and elevated the personal to the highest place. Hughes, like Auden, has never in that sense been a personal poet. As with Auden’s GPO poem an ‘assignment’ can inspire him to his own style of frenzied exuberance, an exuberance instantly mythologised, as it were, and communicated to the sympathetic reader. When Prince Henry was christened, what poet but Hughes would have been inspired to dash off a ‘Rain-Charm’, celebrating a downpour that ended a drought, and set the salmon free to leap up over West Country weirs? The splendid poem chants a liberation of rivers – the Torridge, the Tamar, the Okement ‘nudging her detergent bottles’, the Dart and the Tavy, ‘the smoke of life/Lowering its ringlets into the Taw’ – with as much gusto as Spenser or Drayton could have brought to it. As unforgettably, the poem sketches a girl caught in ‘Rain that didn’t so much fall as collapse’, ‘in high heels, her handbag above her head’.

We saw surf cuffed over her and the car jounced.
Grates, gutters, clawed in the backwash.
She kept going. Flak and shrapnel

Of thundercracks hit the walls and roofs. Still a swimmer
She bobbed off, into sea-smoke
Where headlights groped.

That’s the way to deal with a royal christening: the blest water on the infant prince’s brow metamorphosed into a devout drenching. In rather the same spirit, Father Hopkins wrote an epithalamion for a friend’s wedding which goes off into a vividly lyrical picture of boys bathing in a stream, and returns to remind us that water is ‘spousal love’. And to record the breaking of the great drought of 1984 made ‘a fitting splash’ for the Duke of Cornwall’s second son. In another note – the social equivalent of Hopkins’s little sermon – the poet reminds us that since she is Patron of the Salmon and Trout Association ‘the Queen Mother is also godmother of the salmon itself.’

In fact, nothing goes better with the mystique of royalty than Hughes’s own athletic cosmology of boars, bees, angels and divine goddesses, the Red Dragon of Britain and the White Dragon of Anglo-Saxon Wessex both bowing before the Norman Red Lion. When there was a plan to erect a 25-foot bronze unicorn fountain in Parliament Square, a project postponed for want of money, the Poet Laureate ‘thought of filling the gap, provisionally, with a unicorn in verse’, and the result duly appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 6 February this year. The slightly comical but wholly satisfactory incongruity in the poems is the way Hughes’s exultant, even manic tones and the zany solipsism of his mythologies mingles fearlessly with what is both contemporary and royal, stuffy and philistine. It is as if Blake were exulting in the family life of George III, or Goya’s genius revelling in paint with the gross King Ferdinand. Lion and Unicorn, Ape and Hyena, cavort with Falstaff and the corgis on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Accession of Her Majesty:

Britain, Falstaff in disguise,
Laughs with the Queen and keeps her wise.

The corgis are the Lion’s imps,

But he will wake
Only for War.

All this is very unlike Laureate poetry in an age when poets like everyone else lived naturally in public. There was nothing incongruous about Carew or Ben Jonson celebrating the majesty and wisdom of royalty in terms which they knew as well as everybody else were extravagant to the point of grotesque. That was the proper way for the thing to be done. But now there is no proper way, and Hughes’s single-handed invention of one has more than a touch of the heroic about it. In a Birthday Masque for the Queen’s 60th birthday, ‘Thirty Birds’, borrowed from the Islamic Sufi poet’s ‘Conference of the Birds’, ‘looking for God, find the Crown’:

Tawny Owl who fills the aisles
With a question, and the White Owl
Who waits at the altar
Turn dark eyes –
             Twenty-two candles.

The number mounts in a chant; with the Peregrine ‘who dangles of Hartland/His tilting geometry’; the Gull ‘who wing-waltzes her shadow/Over the green hollows’; the Wagtail ‘tiddly with sipping/The quick winks of quick water’; Peewit always ‘out of control (can’t stop/But manages a wild wave in the fly-past)’; and

Beery Grouse who grittily
Tells the Curlew
To stop whingeing and drooping –
              Forty-four candles.

And so the Birds lift their wings, until at last Raven of the Tower is reached, and the 60th candle. That was worth waiting for, wasn’t it? Chaucer would certainly have thought so.

For the Marriage of His Royal Highness Prince Andrew and Miss Sarah Ferguson all the birds of Roxburghshire danced on the lawns as the helicopter snatched up the young couple

While royal ghosts in silence
    Bend at the register
And gaze into the letters
    That you have written there.

The cheers come like thunder ‘And set my meaning humming in/Your honeymooning ears’: for Hughes, quite rightly, is not going to let them off at least the old poetic convention that the royalty to whom the numbers are respectfully addressed are well able to appreciate the skill of the bard, and sagely to con his allegoric significances. The device of course works here by emphasising just how little wish or ability they in fact have to do so. They might even not have appreciated the dulcet repetition of the refrain, ‘Gold as the Honey Bee’ and ‘Soft as the Thistle’s Crown’.

No matter. If any poetry could make them grasp the quality of the compliment they are being paid it would be that of Hughes. In 1813 Leigh Hunt wrote in the Examiner, in the days when the egregious Pye was Laureate, that the office should rightly be abolished, because it had come to pass either that it degraded the poet, or that the poet himself degraded the office. But as often with Hunt’s radical pronouncements the grapes were a little sour. He would have leapt at the chance of becoming Laureate himself, when Southey got it at the end of that year, and as an old man he would dearly have loved to succeed Wordsworth in 1850. It was not to be. But I think even Hunt would have relented his strictures if he had read Hughes, and admitted that the Laureateship could not have been in better hands.