When Cecil Day Lewis was appointed Poet Laureate in 1968, he got – within days of the good news – a letter from his bank manager. ‘The whole Midland,’ it said, ‘rejoices with you.’ And this, it might be felt, comes close to summing up what’s wrong with being Poet Laureate. Since banks began, poets have received many letters from bank managers but few have been at all like Cecil’s. To send the Midland into raptures of this kind, a fellow would surely need to have done something rather seriously unpoetic.
Day Lewis, though, was thrilled to have so thrilled his money-minders. And he was thrilled, too, by the antiquated perks that went with his new job: the ‘butt of sack’ and all the rest of it. At the same time, he knew that his butt would have to be worked for. His first poem as Laureate, called ‘Now and Then’, appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail and was promoted as part of that paper’s ‘I’m Backing Britain’ campaign. Of ‘Now and Then’, Bernard Levin rather tastelessly observed, years later, that it ‘made many regret their impulsive rejoicing at the death of his predecessor’. Even Day Lewis’s admiring editor and close friend, Ian Parsons, when he was putting together a Collected Poems, shrank from reprinting the poet’s Laureate offerings. He called these works ‘banal when they were not embarrassingly disingenuous’.
And this, over the centuries, has been the way of things with Laureates. So far, there have been about twenty of them, and – although there is still pleasure to be had from quiz questions like ‘what do Henry Pye and Laurence Eusden have in common?’ – the whole thing is now generally agreed to be a joke. Or is it? Sometimes I am not so sure. The other day, for instance, I was contacted by a highly serious poet friend who was, he said, thinking of starting up some kind of campaign to head off PL challenges from light versifiers and streetwise demi-minstrels. He seemed to think that the choice of Laureate would send out important signals to do with the prestige of the contemporary poet, and of poetry in general. Maybe he was joking. I think not, though. When I replied that, for all I cared, they could give the thing to Snoop Doggy Dogg, or even to Snoop’s dogg, should he possess one, my friend was not wholly amused.
It seems significant, too, that none of the poets touted in the papers as possibles to fill the current vacancy has said that he or she won’t take the post, should it be offered. Evidently the Laureateship is still thought of by some poets as a plum. One recalls, with condescension, the anguish of Tennyson in 1843 when he was passed over for the job. He needed the money, it was said – the publicity, the extra sales. But he also had a dark hunger for the prize itself. Nowadays the money benefits are unlikely to add up to much, and the prestige is pretty much in tatters. The dark hunger, though, seems to persist. But why, oh why? Maybe poets want to be Laureates because they secretly fear that they’ve already made the most of whatever gifts they started out with. Since nobody expects a PL to be any good, why not accept the job and let it take the blame for your next book?
Cecil Day Lewis’s predecessor as Laureate was John Masefield, who held the post for nearly forty years without seeming to know, or greatly care, what was required of him. Masefield was in place for so long that, by the time he died, most people had forgotten that we had a Poet Laureate. Every so often, he used to remind us by sending off some resolutely dreadful verses to the Times. He was always careful, though, to enclose a stamped, addressed envelope, just in case. Some of his submissions, the story went, were sent back by return of post, with a rejection slip.
Day Lewis, it was predicted at the time of his appointment, would be much more on the ball. After all, had he not been limbering up for this honour for some years, with his clubs and his committees and his suave, actorly ‘recitals’ of gems from our poetic heritage? At my school in the Fifties, a regular item on the assembly song-sheet was a turgidly patriotic hymn with words, I was confused to note, by C. Day Lewis: a poet who, according to my English teacher, was actually the rear end of MacSpaunday, and the only one of ‘that lot’ who’d been an authentically red Red. By 1968, Day Lewis was a cleaned-up act, entirely tame, and more than qualified to seize those laurels. Indeed, it would have been a callous decision, I recall thinking at the time, not to have chosen him.
The appointment of Ted Hughes in 1984 was rather different. For one thing, he took over from cuddly John Betjeman, a poet who – with all his charm – was not too strong on Laureate-style gravitas. With Betjeman, we felt and hoped, there was always the possibility of mischief. Also, Hughes was known to be the Sovereign’s second choice, a useful consideration to be kept in mind should things go wrong. Philip Larkin had already given the honour a (possibly reluctant) thumbs-down: he was very ill. If there were question marks about Ted Hughes, they would have been to do with his reputation as a rebarbative cave-dwelling type, and as a connoisseur of bestial unpleasantness. All in all, it was hard to imagine him getting worked up about a fleet of corgis. And there was perhaps discussion also of his long-ago marriage to an unstable American (although by 1984, Hughes had weathered the worst attacks on him by feminist Plathologists). On the plus side: Hughes did write books for children and one of his best-known poems was about a fox, so – who could tell? – he might turn out to be another Masefield.
For my part, I was mildly surprised at first that Hughes had accepted the position. Although I knew him to be some what more literary-worldly than he liked to seem, the drift of his self-presentation had always been to stand craggily aloof from metropolitan book-circuses. Also his most recent Moortown poems had impressively traversed the dead-end he seemed to have run into with the blood-drenched Crow. He appeared to have found a new line for his work, part narrative, part diary-entry, and to have discovered, too, a more coherent speaking voice, a human voice. ( Looking back, we can easily surmise that several of the poems in Birthday Letters were composed around this time: Hughes had just finished editing Plath’s journals, in which she gave her version of certain key episodes in their courtship and marriage.)
It soon became clear, though, why Hughes wanted to be Poet Laureate. As he perceived them, the Royals were not the Royals as rendered by Spitting Image and the Sun; not for him your Fergies and your Di’s. In his sub-Shakespearean scheme of things, ancient notions of kingship were still coursing in the nation’s veins, or should be. Disregarding tabloid debunkery, he would make it his business to assimilate a conceptualised Monarch into his personal blueprint for tribal renovation. In short, he would poeticise the Windsors.
It was easy enough to smile at such an enterprise but it was also hard not to be touched by Hughes’s perception of what a true Laureate might be: a kind of patriotic bard magician whose task was to reconnect the English to their primal selves. Why shouldn’t the Royals – even unto the Fergies and the Di’s – be similarly reconnected? By the sheer force of his impassioned deference, a genuine Laureate might restore the land’s rulers to – well, to the land. And by the land Hughes did not mean Sandringham and Balmoral, although we understand that he liked visiting such places. He had in mind certain remote areas of South Devon and North Yorkshire, where the land is always freezing and rainswept and where the sun, should it appear, is ‘like a torn-out eye’.
In Hughes’s worldview, so far as we can piece it together from his prose, Nature is always credited with deep health-giving powers: it’s good for the instincts, good for the imagination and good for our animal self-knowledge, should we want that too. In his most effective verses, though, Nature is mostly seen as hostile. It may be good for us but it wants nothing from us in return, beyond our trembling capitulation. Caught in Nature’s war-zones, even the most elemental humans – even the poet Hughes himself – come across as wimpishly inept, riddled with feebleness and hesitation. And this, the poet seems to think, is how it should be, how it really is. One of the instincts we have lost over the centuries is our fear of the barbaric, a fear that used to shade into the reverential. Regenerate the fear and you will regenerate the reverence. Ted Hughes poems, it often seemed, were intended to re-frighten us.
And so they did, and do, from time to time – especially the early ones, in which Hughes flaunted his descriptive powers as if to betoken some rare truce that he had managed to negotiate with the forces of unreason. His descriptions were actually inscriptions. No pig you’d ever seen looked quite as scary as a Ted Hughes pig. And this applied also to his sheep and cows. Rereading Moortown – his best book, I would say, since Lupercal – I was drawn to wonder how (in farmer’s terms) Hughes rated as a farmer. Silly question, I suppose, but hard to shake off once you’ve thought of it. And what did he get up to when he wasn’t contending with the elements? There has been talk about black magic, or some such. Do we believe it? Do we care? Or, to get back to those Royals, did Hughes really go on fishing trips with the Queen Mother? And if so, what did they catch: a tiddler or a pike?
There is a great deal about Hughes that we don’t know. His obituaries, though gushingly fulsome on the verse and on his shamanish ‘persona’, were actually quite thin on factual background. On the whole, they repeated what little Hughes had himself vouchsafed and then added a few scrawny anecdotes. He was of course a fierce opponent of biography. I remember a review he wrote of a biography of Dylan Thomas: who else, I wondered, could write about Thomas and scarcely mention drink and money? You had to admire it in a way but it was also pretty annoying: who do these incantators think they are?
But then Hughes did have his special reasons for despising the dogs and hyenas, as he called them, of Life-writing. Curiosity about Hughes has been inseparable from curiosity about his marriage to Sylvia Plath. He knew this and at times, it must have hurt. Did he find it at all depressing that his most successful book of verse turned out to be the one in which he finally ‘spoke out’ about his love affair with Plath? There are some fine things in Birthday Letters, but few can deny that the chief impact of the book was biographical – and not biographical re Hughes.
Altogether, though, one rather shudders at the prospect of a Ted Hughes Life. When Philip Larkin died, there was a period of seeming desolation but it was soon followed by an enthusiastic surge of reappraisal when it turned out, from the Life and the Letters, that this most delicately sorrowing of poets had in his drab daily life been a near-champion of coarseness. Can Hughes avoid some similar comeuppance? It seems unlikely. Indeed, with him perhaps the demystification will be extra-gleeful. Larkin, after all, never pretended to be touched with any purifying flame. Nor, to be fair, did Hughes pretend to be a ‘god of granite who could shatter stones with plain words’, which is what the Independent called him a couple of days after he died.