Seamus Perry

  • Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar edited by Keith Sagar
    British Library, 340 pp, £25.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 7123 5862 0
  • Ted and I: A Brother’s Memoir by Gerald Hughes
    Robson, 240 pp, £16.99, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 84954 389 7

Among the many delights to be found in Roger Lonsdale’s New Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse is a squib by Thomas Holcroft, provoked by some disparaging remarks Voltaire made about Shakespeare. In fact, Voltaire was perfectly ready to concede that Shakespeare was possessed of real genius, though of a rough and ready kind, but in denying that he had ‘so much as a Spark of good Taste, or knew one Rule of the Drama’, and other such remarks, he scandalised what Gibbon once described as the ‘idolatry for the Gigantic Genius of Shakespeare which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman’. In the deft little fantasy that Holcroft produced in response, the hateful Frenchman is pictured attempting to assassinate Shakespeare, who is innocently asleep in a dell. The elves and fairies playing about him flee in horror as, having pilfered as many of Shakespeare’s gems as he can find, Voltaire suddenly turns nasty: seizing a knife, he ‘stabbed and stabbed, to make the theft secure’. Not that this does him any good:

Ungrateful man! But vain thy black design,
Th’attempt, and not the deed, thy hand defiled;
Preserved by his own charms and spells divine,
Safely the gentle Shakespeare slept and smiled.

Shakespeare remains untouchable, serenely away with the fairies, an outcome rigged from the start: the whole encounter has taken place in what is securely Shakespearean territory – an enchanted sylvan space where Voltaire was always going to be an off-comer and, like Satan padding about paradise, doomed to lose in the end.

Holcroft’s poem gathers up a whole culture of English feelings about Shakespeare and about the antagonistic values that Voltaire is chosen to represent. Voltaire was rationalist, atheistical, French: ‘Scarcely any one has a larger share of my aversion,’ Coleridge spluttered. Not that you needed to be a Romantic to entertain such patriotic feelings. Dr Johnson felt obliged to take on Voltaire in the preface to his edition of Shakespeare’s works, contrasting the ‘garden accurately formed and diligently planted’ with the rich Shakespearean ‘forest’, in which ‘oaks extend their branches, and pines tower into the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses; filling the eye with awful pomps, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity.’ The sudden profusion of Johnson’s language tells its own story there, momentarily emulating a Shakespearean abundance: disorderly, even a bit of a shambles, in need of some pruning, but nevertheless closer to what matters than things more ‘diligently’ done. Shakespeare might not be regular but he offered you more mysterious, perhaps dangerous kinds of pleasure, encountered, as Pope had wonderingly observed forty years earlier, through ‘dark, odd, and uncouth passages’.

The anti-Shakespearean values that Voltaire came to symbolise are, roughly speaking, those of the Enlightenment, to which the English imagination has never been very hospitable. ‘Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,/Mock on, mock on: ’tis all in vain!’ Blake cries with all his effortless superiority. I find it slightly weird to see each year how warmly and spontaneously students endorse Blake’s attack on the spiritual blight of materialism and rationalism and experimental science, even as a MacBook Air purrs away beneath their fingertips; but it would be unfair to scold them for picking up what is so pervasive a cast of the literary mind. The more sophisticated will cite Adorno as an analyst of the embarrassments of Enlightenment, but I’m sure his appeal to English readers largely comes from a perceived coincidence, no doubt mostly illusory, between his views and those of a more homespun tradition of misgiving and disgruntlement. Its most compelling proponents form a continuous line with Blake and several other Romantics at the far end, going through some aspects of Arnold and Ruskin, to Pater, Yeats and Lawrence, Graves, elements of Eliot and Woolf, and down to Leavis, Dylan Thomas and then, coming towards the nearer end of the line, the dark, odd and uncouth figure of Ted Hughes.

In the superb doorstop of his Collected Poems, Hughes comes across as a more diverse poet than I remembered, and in many ways a more sympathetic and engaging presence. But it’s true that a good many of his poems revolve with nagging preoccupation about a master theme, the destructive or corrupting power of bad modern kinds of consciousness; and the backdrop to almost everything he wrote was a kind of Blakean horror story in which the native energies of life found themselves under attack from the barren counter-energies of rationalism. His poetry self-consciously opposes what he once called, sounding just like Lawrence, ‘this rotten English civilisation’. In his most revealing interviews, conducted by the critic Ekbert Faas in the 1970s, he spoke with an angry prophetic vehemence about ‘the oppressive deadness of civilisation, the spiritless materialism of it, the stupidity of it’ – the ‘it’ in question being ‘our rationalist, humanist style of outlook’, or what he elsewhere called ‘our civilised liberal confusion’. He was boisterously aware of the odd company that rejecting rationalist humanism pushed him towards: ‘the underground heretical life, leagued with everything occult, spiritualistic, devilish, over-emotional, bestial, mystical, feminine, crazy, revolutionary and poetic’. He said he devoted thousands of hours to astrology. He once cast Philip Larkin’s horoscope, probably an underappreciated service.

All of which implies cultural history painted with the broadest of brushes: the villain of the piece is the Renaissance, that catastrophe of individualism, which gave birth at once to the hubris of the scientific mind and the desiccated spirituality of reformed Christianity, both of which involve getting our relationship with nature wrong. ‘The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man,’ Hughes wrote in a rollicking review of Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution in 1970: ‘Our Civilisation is an evolutionary error.’ It’s a sorry story of decline, but the temper of Hughes’s poems is rarely elegiac: nature puts up a good fight. It’s not surprising to learn that Hughes especially admired the paintings of Francis Bacon, with their spattered bodies twisting about and screaming defiantly despite their homely prisons. As one of Hughes’s poems has it, ‘Life is Trying to be Life’; but then, as the poem continues, ‘Death also is trying to be life.’ Who will triumph? That is ‘the present quiet civil war in England’ which Hughes mentions at one point to Faas, a pervasive and unfinished conflict of which he regarded the First World War, oddly, as merely a local episode – rather as Blake saw the French Revolution as a chapter in a bigger history of the imagination.

It isn’t just modern history that got co-opted: like many of his companions in the English counter-Enlightenment, Hughes needed to find a central place in his alternative mythology for Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare in Holcroft’s story, though on an immensely larger scale and with a general air of catastrophe, Hughes’s Shakespeare encounters what is antagonistic to his deepest genius and survives to tell the tale. Coming at the hinge point of European history, Shakespeare internalises the crisis: his mind is where the old sacred powers of nature and the new enlightened forces of sterility and destruction collide, and the complete cycle of his works articulates what Hughes calls ‘the prevailing psychic conflict of his times in England’– which is to say our times too, the battle between life and the Reformation, ‘together with its accompanying materialist and democratising outlook and rational philosophy’.

Hughes began to set out this cranky version of Shakespeare in his introduction to a selection of the verse in 1971, and returned to treat it at great length in a book of reckless charm entitled Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being in 1992.[*] The argument evidently became something of an obsession, and it detected a kindred obsession in Shakespeare, a deeply counterintuitive approach to a writer whom most have praised for the diversity of his mind. Hughes found the ‘equation on which all his work is based’ in the two early narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, the first of which shows a boy primly resisting the advances of the great goddess of nature, and the second where that course of action will land you: suppressing nature perverts you into the self-torturing violence of Tarquin, who, driven by corrupted energies that he cannot comprehend, rapes the puritanical Lucrece. Those are the basic elements which the plays then compulsively shuffle and reshuffle, a series of reiterated allegories of the whole encompassing disaster of being us and living with ‘the split personality of modern man’.

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[*] The book was reviewed, appreciatively, by Tom Paulin in the LRB of 9 April 1992.

[†] It is an appendix to his book The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes (2000).