Half-Fox

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’.

Most Shakespeareans remain utterly unpersuaded by any of this, and the letters printed by Christopher Reid in his excellent 2007 collection show that Hughes was both wounded and unsurprised by the professional response: ‘What a pity the Times didn’t give my book to somebody who wasn’t straitjacketed inside the English Tripos,’ he wrote to the arts editor. Again like Blake, his hostility to ‘Civilisation’ entailed an embattled scorn for what one might normally think of as education, and he could sound pretty shrill at times about the way schools worked to ‘lobotomise’ the natural talent of their charges, and the ‘massacre of the innocents’ that followed. (This was the crescendo to a piece introducing an anthology of prize entries in the Daily Mirror children’s poetry competition, which says something about Hughes’s capacity to ignore the normal proprieties.) He was not a sentimental person, but he probably did sentimentalise the capacity of children to write good poems. Unlike most prophets of educational ruin, however, he had at least spent some time as a teacher, at a secondary modern school, and he wrote in his letters at the time about the decline of his working-class pupils from children of 11 who were ‘quick, bright, interested, full of possibilities and promise’ to 14-year-olds who had become ‘dull, cloddish, stupid as brutes’. If anything, higher education was worse: ‘the devastation of university’, as he charmingly referred to it.

*

Hughes vividly mythologised his own narrow escape from that devastation in a short piece of autobiography entitled ‘The Burnt Fox’, in which he remembers struggling as an undergraduate at Cambridge with a tutorial essay, part of his own incarceration within the English Tripos. Abandoning the task in despair at two in the morning, young Ted goes to bed and dreams that he is visited by a strange figure, half-man and half-fox, ‘just now stepped out of a furnace’ and in terrible agony from the burns that cover its body from head to foot. This enigmatic creature moves towards the desk and places its paw on the sheets on which Hughes is forlornly attempting to concoct an essay, leaving a bloody print behind, and says: ‘Stop this – you are destroying us.’ Hughes wakes up a sadder and a wiser man, having seen the error of his ways; and, we are told, shortly thereafter he changed Triposes to Archaeology and Anthropology. A very good story, and Hughes clearly impressed people with it long before he finally committed it to print in 1994. He recounted it to his early champion Al Alvarez of the Observer shortly after they met in the early 1960s: in that version, the essay was about Dr Johnson and the fox merely shook its head disapprovingly as it glanced at Hughes’s pages, which promptly burst into flames. The next day, as Alvarez heard the story, Hughes wrote a poem about his caller, and the following night the creature returned, read the new poem, and gave the poet a genial thumbs-up. Some years later Hughes told another variation to John Carey, to which he added some Jungian grace notes, and the probably too uncanny touch that the visitor was Hughes himself with a vulpine head. In Poet and Critic, an interesting edition of Hughes’s correspondence with Keith Sagar, we have yet another version, from a letter of 1979, which is quite close to the published text but adds an inconsequential dream about a leopard on the following night. Hughes dutifully offers Sagar the probably unnecessary gloss: ‘I connected the fox’s command to my own ideas about Eng. Lit. & the effect of the Cambridge blend of pseudo-critical terminology & social rancour on creative spirit, & from that moment abandoned my efforts to adapt myself.’

It would be pointless to wonder which of these versions was the true one, or to base a deeper mistrust on Hughes’s obvious capacity to spin a compellingly dark tale about himself. What seems to me to matter is the way the anecdote sets up an opposition between the sort of sterile thing academics do and the persecuted wilder life led by the animals of the mind, while actually suggesting the vital dependence that the ‘creative spirit’ has on the bookishness that allegedly threatens it. It is a magnificent dream and it needed Dr Johnson to spark it off. Hughes revered T.S. Eliot, not the ruminative Anglican essayist of Four Quartets but the dark poet within the poet who evaded the clutch of cultural propriety and renewed contact with the ancient primitive sources of poetry – the Eliot who once said that ‘Poetry begins, I dare say, with a savage beating a drum in a jungle.’ It is good to learn from the recent engaging memoir by Hughes’s brother, Gerald, that the young boy had a tom-tom hidden in the local woods on which he would happily bash away.

Eliot was giving the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard when he made the comment about the savage and the drum, a context which must make some difference, as it must when Eliot says elsewhere in the same series: ‘I myself should like an audience which could neither read nor write.’ You would have to be very solemn to accuse Eliot of double standards here, and to think he was simply making an arch joke would be no less impertinent; but there is evidently some vital and sustaining connection, hard though it might be to define, between Eliot’s fascination with the savage and unsocialised roots of the imagination and the highly mandarin world in which he discovered and articulated that fascination. Anyhow, Hughes clearly responded warmly to Eliot’s double life of raw depths and polite letters. The disdain for formal education that he writes up so stylishly as ‘The Burnt Fox’ was heartfelt no doubt and certainly necessary for his sense of himself: the donnish figure in the early poem ‘Egg Head’ gets an especially rough handling. But at the same time, while a difficult child, Hughes was still of the academy in the most profound way. He was a brilliant educationalist: his writings about metre inspire interest in the topic among undergraduates more effectively than anything else I know; and he was always pleased to learn that his stuff had got onto the school syllabus. ‘I’m an A-level author next year,’ he writes, chuffed, at one point to Sagar. Readers who, like me, proceeded glumly towards their O-levels in the early 1980s will surely remember long afternoons talking in class about ‘Pike’ and ‘Hawk Roosting’ and ‘The Jaguar’. Hughes recognised the reality of his imaginative dependencies, even if he chose to cast them as a restriction on some notionally freer kind of imagination that might otherwise have been his: ‘I think the fact that I know my audience will be an academic audience, in a roundabout way and against my will, influences the kind of thing I write,’ he said in a BBC interview in 1963. ‘I tend to build in satisfaction for that audience. I can see it in the verse when I’ve finished it.’

His long epistolary relationship with Sagar, dedicated bibliographer and exegete, assiduous collector of manuscripts and rare editions, and long-time tutor in the extramural department of the University of Manchester, is a case in point. Hughes liked playing with analysts of his work, rather as Eliot or Beckett did. ‘Would you agree that they stand for an acceptance of suffering and evil, for your attitude towards the absurd?’ the persistent Faas asked about some personifications in the Crow poems. ‘I’m not quite sure what they signify,’ Hughes replied ingenuously, or perhaps semi-ingenuously. He teases Sagar from time to time too. ‘I’m puzzled by the reference to Cary Grant,’ Sagar writes, about a portrait from the poem ‘Sacrifice’ (‘The welts of his brow deepened, fold upon fold./Like the tragic mask./Cary Grant was his living double’): ‘He doesn’t seem to me to have a particularly furrowed brow… You weren’t thinking of Gary Cooper, were you?’ Hughes’s undeflected response: ‘Imagine Cary Grant with a wrinkled brow. There you have him.’ Sagar has just the right amount of remorselessness necessary to make a man into a bibliographer, and sometimes Hughes shows the strain: ‘Your two bibliographical inquiries, Keith, deadened me a bit.’ But generally he is ready to help out with points of interpretation and background information, conscious that he is collaborating in the production of professional commentary and egghead scholarship.

*

The two of them evidently found common cause in the feeling of kicking against the pricks of the modern Enlightenment, and in the sorry conviction that, on the whole, the pricks were getting the upper hand. ‘The country’s falling to bits,’ Hughes says in one letter. Sagar’s magnum opus, Literature and the Crime against Nature, heavily indebted to his long reading in Hughes, was apparently rejected 72 times (it was finally published by Chaucer Press in 2005). But then what would you expect? ‘Manchester is advertising for a chair in Critical Theory,’ Sagar reports to Hughes disdainfully. ‘They are all disappearing up their own arses.’ Finally, he took early retirement; or, as his website more colourfully puts it, ‘in 1995 Manchester University, which had awarded me a readership in English Literature in 1984, threw me out seven years early for teaching the Western canon.’ ‘Perhaps your academic crisis is part of the greater crisis,’ a kindly Hughes suggests. They didn’t agree about everything – Sagar disapproved of hunting, for one thing – but as you read on you begin to realise how confirming and sustaining these letters from Ted must have been.

Sagar chooses to tell us quite a lot about various kinds of professional rejection: ‘I was not even shortlisted for the Warwick chair’; ‘Craig Raine turned down the proposed book eventually’; a study of Hughes is rejected by Reid for being ‘disconcertingly ventriloqual’. ‘The very success of my repeated efforts to get inside Hughes’s works began to tell against me,’ Sagar comments, finding it ‘as insulting to Ted as to me’. This collection of correspondence was itself rejected by Faber in 2009, as Sagar doesn’t hesitate to tell us at the top of the acknowledgments page. It is certainly good to have the letters all together, but you can see why Faber took the decision it did, having already published Reid’s hefty edition which included most of the telling letters to Sagar. Still, students of Hughes will certainly find many interesting nuggets in these pages, as well as the story of a relationship that shows both men in a likeable light: Hughes emerges as a much more engaging sort of presence than is the case with some of his more vatic performances. Many of the pleasures of the collection are quirky or incidental, as when Hughes writes to sympathise with Sagar’s accidental loss of a nice trailer tent: ‘Will the insurance fix it?’ Not only did they fix it but they shelled out for ‘a much better trailer tent’, we learn from an agreeably Pooterish footnote, ‘which Melissa and I are still using’.

In his many books and articles about Hughes, Sagar is an illuminating guide to the poetry, and his judgments of value are typically astute (he doesn’t admire everything). But he tends to approach the work rather as the master himself approached Shakespeare, in pursuit of ‘the controlling myth of Hughes’s whole career’, as Literature and the Crime against Nature puts it, and I wonder if the underlying coherence of some anti-Enlightenment myth is really what makes for a good Hughes poem. Lyric verse rarely survives great doses of moralism, and it doesn’t make much difference whether the morality in question is high-minded Christian piety or exuberant pantheist wildness. Hughes’s best animal poetry – which is to say his best poetry – is much more interesting than his big line on life, partly because it is so good at overlooking the message and letting the animals do their own thing. Indeed, what moved Hughes most fundamentally about animals, I think, was their heedless self-absorption, the way they were naturally and properly wrapped up in themselves; and so it is nice to learn from Reid that the young Hughes loved James Thurber. ‘Alright, have it your way: you heard a seal bark,’ exasperated wife complains to anxious husband in the marital bed, while from behind the headboard a seal, unseen by both, looks attentively at something we shall never see. Thurber’s cartoons relish the proximity of the mutually uncomprehending worlds in which animals and people are doomed to spend their time, something which evidently lodged in Hughes’s growing imagination.

The first major poem, ‘The Thought-Fox’ (which was what Hughes told Alvarez he wrote after the burnt fox visited), offers the tentative exploratory approach of the fox as a metaphor for a poem coming into being, and the verses maintain the analogy. But as Hughes wrote in an essay about it, the creature is ‘both a fox and a spirit’ and at the same time ‘a real fox’: ‘Brilliantly, concentratedly/Coming about its own business’. The fox is not to be conscripted into being merely a figure of speech: it has its own business to pursue – thumbs up! In that, it resembles the dead fox that the boy-narrator and his brother discover in the memorable short story ‘The Deadfall’. Who owns the body, the boy wonders: ‘Wasn’t it the gamekeeper’s?’ His brother answers: ‘This fox belongs to itself.’ Such self-possession is the hallmark of Hughesian fauna. The pacing creature in ‘The Jaguar’, far from being the victim of his circumstances, as in a more normally sympathetic poem, is quite heedless of the human zoo in which it is confined – just as the magnificent bull Moses, from Lupercal (1960), ‘hadn’t heard of the world, too deep in itself to be called to’. The new calf in Season Songs (1975), clearly a Moses in the making, embarks on his life’s task to ‘find himself himself’, a state of perfect self-coincidence that would later be emulated by the trembling butterfly in Flowers and Insects (1986), a ‘sealed book, absorbed in itself’. When Hughes describes a handsome piece of roadkill (he was fascinated by roadkill) as a ‘beautiful,/Beautiful, warm, secret beast’ in Moortown Diary (1989), you sense that of those epithets it is ‘secret’ that carries the true weight of his regard – just as the roe deer he surprises in the same sequence amaze him momentarily with their ‘two or three years of secret deerhood’. What he liked about fishing, in which he found a kind of mystical transport, was the proximity to ‘a world of beauties down there, suspended in total ignorance of you’ – like the pike in his extraordinary poem about fishing, ‘perfect/Pike in all parts’, that move ‘stunned by their own grandeur’.

The trouble with a lot of nature poems is the ease with which they domesticate the wild for their own purposes. Hughes thought Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ no good, for instance, because the bird was so readily subservient to the theological programme Hopkins had devised for it: ‘the typical windhover of an Oxford don ignorant of the world actually inhabited by birds’, Hughes said. That was a bit rough on Hopkins, who was never an Oxford don and had spent more time scrutinising wildlife than most, but the bird is certainly set to do some heavy doctrinal duty in the poem (which is subtitled ‘To Christ our Lord’) and that clearly rubbed Hughes up the wrong way. By contrast, his own animal pieces are all, in their way, confrontations with something you can’t get a handle on: this elemental condition of bewilderment before one’s experience is where the best of the poems start. He told his young readers in Poetry in the Making, the superb school textbook based on his BBC radio talks: ‘In any situation, it is almost impossible to know what is really happening to us … the meaning of our experience is finally unfathomable … this is true of even the simplest experiences.’ The celebrated analogy between writing poems and capturing animals with which he begins the book is really a way of conceding defeat before you begin, because truly capturing an animal is just what you can’t do. Hughes implies as much in the marvellous poem ‘An Otter’, in which he dwells with fascinated love on the riddling slipperiness of its subject (‘neither fish nor beast is the otter’) and celebrates its biological genius at evading the pursuing hunt. Even when finally caught, which the poem ends by imagining, the otter has the last laugh since, as soon as the hounds have it, it spontaneously ‘reverts to nothing at all’. ‘There is a sense,’ Hughes told the Paris Review, ‘in which every poem that comes off is a description or a dramatisation of its own creation’; and, like ‘The Thought-Fox’, ‘An Otter’ is both about such an animal moving through a landscape and also about the attempt to write about such an animal moving through a landscape, a celebration of its inability to capture the elusive animal named in its title.

*

Of all his beasts, the crow is the one for which Hughes is probably now best known. The Crow volume confirmed a decisive change in manner, away from the formally disciplined animal verses that had distinguished his first volumes and towards a freer poetry based more on inherited and invented animal myths. In this, besides his wide and deep reading in folk tales, the significant background influence was probably Kipling, whom Hughes devoured as a child, not so much the narrative poems that he later remembered imitating but rather the Just So Stories, which re-entered his consciousness when he started writing children’s books for money. How the Whale Became and Other Stories (1963) is his most simply enchanting book, a reworking of Kipling’s mock-pedagogic spoof Lamarckism, in the course of which Hughes unexpectedly discovered what would, tweaked, become the main ingredients of the Crow series. The stories are creation myths, shaped by happenstance and an innate improvisatory drive for survival – what Hughes once called ‘the simple animal courage of accepting the odds’ – with the whole spectacle watched over by a mostly well-meaning but pretty hapless God. Faced with the disobedient thing that will one day turn into the whale, a thing ‘far too big to go into any of God’s plans’, Hughes says, ‘God stood scratching his head,’ a characteristic act of liberal confusion.

Crow was originally going to be a long epic, ‘a sort of saga that puts this Crow through all sorts of extremes’ as Hughes explained it in a letter, the outline of which the resourceful Sagar pieced together and published in paraphrase.[†] The myth was to end happily, with Crow transformed into a man and united with his rescued bride, but the book that emerged, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970), didn’t take the story that far: ‘The long beautiful saga has not come to anything,’ Hughes lamented to Peter Redgrove, and to another correspondent, he wrote: ‘So I have this depressing collection of poems about a crow.’ But the book, if an aborted mythical comedy, is paradoxically full of the vitality that should have carried it through to its happy end, and though occasionally jolting it’s hardly depressing. It rings with the noise of Crow’s genuine (amoral) mirth: ‘He laughed himself to the centre of himself.’ The poems, cartoonish botches of Genesis, are charged with what Hughes called ‘unkillable, biological optimism’, an optimism which communicates itself chiefly through style. Beckett’s prose alleviates the pessimism it imagines by a super-punctilious verbalism; Hughes’s poetry pulls off the same sort of ameliorative trick by cultivating a voice of exuberant recklessness, at once epic and portentous and slangy and colloquial:

Now whenever the snake appears she screeches
‘Here it comes again! Help! O help!’
Then Adam smashes a chair on its head,
And God says: ‘I am well pleased’

And everything goes to hell.

I once played my students a tape of Hughes reading (which he did brilliantly) ‘Apple Tragedy’, of which those are the closing lines, and at the end of the poem the class erupted momentarily into an extraordinary feral glee, before I managed to reassert the chill grasp of rationalism. Their response was unexpected but not at all inexplicable: what D.J. Enright once called Crow’s ‘disastrous vim’ expresses itself in things that feel a bit like the liberated violence you get in jokes or in Tom and Jerry, and often end, as that example does, with something very like a punchline. Hughes understood all that: ‘APPLE TRAGEDY is a joke,’ he wrote about himself in some helpful notes for one of Sagar’s books, ‘but he intended the meaning seriously.’ (That primitive folk tales about animals always tended to be a kind of ‘joke’ was something he had deduced from his studies.) Hughes was marvellously alert to this sort of double-edged comic-but-not tone, sensitised by his own practice to discern something similar in the poetry of Craig Raine, for instance, when everyone else was dutifully praising its Martian wit: ‘That double exposure of comic and seriously horrible is very real,’ he wrote admiringly to Raine.

His own version of double exposure was pulled off in what he called ‘crowtalk’, ‘as base and crude and plain and ugly a talk as I can devise’, and it is a very stirring and probably inimitable literary invention, one of the real originalities of the postwar period, its gawky vitality the idiomatic articulation of that ‘unkillable thing in nature’ which the broken fragments of Crow’s story exist to celebrate. Very far from implying some wholesome underlying narrative of spiritual integration, the run of the poems comes across as bewilderingly inconsequential, as though every poem in the sequence were returning to start from some abysmal scratch to have just one more stab. Hughes told Faas that the book began with ‘a complete abolition of everything that’s been up to this point’, but it would be quite wrong to think of the book as a thing of broken or desolate spirits: ‘Crow,’ Hughes informed Faas winningly, ‘is what manages to drag himself out of it in fairly good morale.’

‘Whether people like them or not, they are my masterpiece,’ Hughes wrote to the artist Leonard Baskin, whose fierce crow pictures had inspired the sequence in the first place, adding characteristically, ‘insofar as I can manage the likeness of a masterpiece’. I think he’s right, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t things by Hughes other than Crow that you would rather reread, just as there are things in Shelley that you would pick up before returning to Prometheus Unbound. Hughes saw that too: he writes to Sagar in one of his most revealing communications (this one is included in Reid’s edition, but only in excerpts):

I see what it is about much of my writing that repels people – again & again I seem to be starting some sort of fight for life that admits only rough & ready counters of language – a sort of makeshift language, as if I might have time later to verbalise the thing more adequately, which of course turns out to be quite impossible because – evidently – the important thing is the fight.

The feeling that the poems became increasingly notes towards the poems that they might have been is striking: his works from Crow onwards often come across like that, poems that occupy their skins only imperfectly, quite unlike the accomplished animals they sometimes still describe. Hughes, who founded the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation with Daniel Weissbrot in 1965, was an important force in the reception of European poetry, one of several acts of public service, and his own poetry increasingly took on the impress of translation, as though bringing with itself the implicit admission that it existed at one remove from some uncapturable other more real thing. The slightly washed-out sotto voce effect, as if speaking from the other side of experience, can be immensely powerful, as in the miniature masterpiece ‘When Men Got to the Summit’, which captures the fragile history of human enterprise in a few jottings. It ends this way:

The hills went on gently
Shaking their sieve.
Nevertheless, for some giddy moments
A television
Blinked from the wolf’s lookout.

That shows just how well his ‘plain, rough, almost flat way of going on’ could work, and there are lots of poems of the 1970s and 1980s nearly as good. But such a voice can only invent itself from moment to moment: it can never settle into the kind of default mode that Hughes recognised as central to Shakespeare, ‘utility general purpose style’. ‘To say it’s carelessly worked out is to show just how it surmounts all that,’ he once boasted of an early effort, but sometimes it doesn’t surmount ‘all that’ at all; and the problem then becomes the numbing effect of unleavened expression, wearing itself out with sheer insistence:

                                        And the Owl

Screams, again ripping the bandages off
Because of the shape of its throat, as if it were a torture
Because of the shape of its face, as if it were a prison
Because of the shape of its talons, as if they were inescapable

Heaven screams. Earth screams. Heaven eats. Earth is eaten.

The brilliant dangerous edge of crowtalk has been rubbed off and you are left with joyless reiteration. It’s like one of those lesser Bacon paintings in which all the terrible ingredients have been reassembled but with a disconcertingly dutiful, unpressured, even professional air. Hughes was never merely slick in that way, but he could get into a linguistic rut; and while Crow is often a scream, you can have enough of savage solemnity. ‘An important quality for poets is knowing exactly where to stop,’ Ian Hamilton said in an unimpressed review at the time, finding the Achilles’ heel of Hughes’s poetry to be the way it ‘flogs on until it is drained, replete’, and even his admirers must concede there’s something in that.

*

Hughes, whose large intelligence lay partly in his self-doubt, might not always have disagreed. It is sad to see from these and other letters how deeply he came to regard his writing life as a missed opportunity: ‘I’m aghast when I see how incredibly I’ve confined & stunted my existence, when I compare my feeling of what I could be with what I am,’ he wrote to his sister as early as 1962, a feeling that only intensified in the years after Crow. In perhaps the most remarkable letter to Sagar, written in the last year of his life, he surveys his career unsparingly, wondering out loud ‘what I might have made of Crow’. ‘Ah, God, why didn’t I stick at it?’ he wrote to Matthew Sweeney around the same time: ‘Is it too late to try again?’ Instead, he was conscious of having poured his energy into ‘lots of little things’. Many of these little things were collaborative: he wrote poems to accompany Baskin’s drawings in Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama (1978), Fay Godwin’s beautiful photographs in Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence (1979) and Peter Keen’s photographs in River (1983), a sumptuous coffee-table book published with a subvention from the Gas Board; and there were numerous other joint ventures, private press editions, prose writings – what he called ‘burning the foxes’. Hughes came to doubt his collaborations: ‘I’ve made some bad mistakes, grafting myself onto others,’ he tells Sagar, but in truth the way that these poems, like a film score, stand on something other than their own feet fits the incomplete, improvisatory, chastened tenor of Hughes’s later imagination quite beautifully. (‘When Men Got to the Summit’ is from Remains of Elmet.)

So too does his experiment in Moortown Diary, an attempt not to write ‘poems’ at all, as he explained in a preface to the 1989 reissue, but rather to produce ante-poem notes on the life he led as a farmer, cast daily in ‘rough lines’. The texts (what would you call them?) are full of that ‘primitive pre-creation atmosphere’ that he admired in the Serbian poet Vasko Popa, and they are among the best things he did, full of a watchful, unsentimental care. Best of all, perhaps, is ‘Ravens’, in which Hughes and his child companion come across a stillborn lamb in a field. ‘And did it cry?’ comes the repeated question. Hughes moves on to other animals:

                    But you have eyes now
Only for the tattered bundle of throwaway lamb.
‘Did it cry?’ you keep asking, in a three-year-old field-wide
Piercing persistence. ‘Oh yes’ I say ‘it cried.’

Robert Frost could not have handled such unimportant tragedy with greater sureness. In its way it seems to me more devastating than anything in Crow, unafraid of its feeling but not indulgent, the overwhelming sadness of the thing at once deepened and mitigated by the adult’s patience and kindliness towards the child. Its scope seems as far from a myth or a critique of Enlightenment as could be. ‘In the end,’ Hughes told one of his interviewers, ‘one’s poems are ragged dirty undated letters from remote battles and weddings and one thing and another.’

[*] 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).