Caught in full flight
By Ted Hughes. Volume 1:
The Iron Wolf Illustrated by Chris Ridell #163;3.99. 0 571 17622 4. Volume 2:
What is the Truth? Illustrated by Lisa Flather #163;3.99. 0 571 17624. Volume 3:
A March Calf, #163;5.99. - 0 571 17626 7 Volume 4:
The Thought-Fox, #163;5.99.- 0 571 176283 Faber.
Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories. By Ted Hughes Faber #163;12.99. - 0 571 lG050 6.
Birds never open their beaks that wide", commented a friend, looking over my shoulder at one of Lisa Flather's striking illustrations for a new edition of What is the Truth?
"They do in poems by Ted Hughes," was my reply, and although I immediately regretted its glibness, it was at that instant a defensive irony occasioned by a particular stretch of shriek, scream and gargle in A March Calf, the longest, most remorseless of these volumes that make up the Collected Animal Poems and from which I had just turned back for relief.
I am not at all sure whether it is a good idea to extract, rearrange and package one aspect of the work of 40 years, offering it as a kind of graded introduction to Hughes as Animal Poet. Certainly it makes for a handsome item, and the two collections for children - the second being simply the reissue in a different format of an already available volume - are entirely welcome. The problem arises with volumes three and four which, designed by Hughes himself, leap about from book to book and period to period, matching this animal to that in a crowded menagerie. What, in sequences such as the seasonal "notebook" witness of Moortown or the often rhapsodic celebration of River, achieves a remarkable momentum which triumphs over the exclamatory excess of the weaker poems can become monotony when the original design is no longer there. A March Calf and The Thought-Fox contain many marvellous and justly celebrated poems, but it is impossible not to come away with the impression that for all its careful reconstruction the ark is just too crowded and in danger of sinking beneath the weight of a clamorous overload.
What cannot be obscured by this miscalculation, however, is the passion and sheer wonder of Hughes's vision of the natural world. "Stroke the cat" he instructs in a poem from The Iron Wolf and "into your hands Will flow the powers of the beasts who ignore These ways of ours". It is these powers that his work celebrates, and it is certainly the case that a child who attends to such a deceptively simple statement will, in time, be ready for what Hughes's publishers refer to as the "increasing complexity" of the adult poems, for the Black-Back Gull "Bending against wind with the mask-stiff Solemnity of a mouth God is trying to speak through", and for all that occurs "At the junction of beauty and danger" where (as it were, a grown-up cat ) "the tiger's scroll becomes legible". That junction is Hughes's territory. It is also at one and the same time primeval and close to home.
As Tom Paulin writes in his excellent essay on Hughes, "Laureate of the Free Market?", "Nature poetry is always a form of disguised social comment", concluding that "Pure will, the free powers without ethics, this is the imaginative charge of Hughes's verse. His poems embody what Nietzsche terms a 'physical style of thinking'". The great classroom popularity of "Hawk Roosting", for example, has, I suspect, much to do with the way in which it lends itself to an analysis which identifies the hawk with a dictator talking tough, but there's a real danger in leaving it at that.
What must at the same time be considered is Hughes's implied endorsement of the observation made by an old otter hunter in Henry Williamson's The Labouring Life that "Wild birds and animals are pure and heavenly, and incapable of meanness", and it is significant that he places the poem "That Morning" (from River) at the end of the last of these four volumes: "So we found the end of our journey. So we stood, alive in the river of light Among the creatures of light, creatures of light". For all his celebrated violence, Hughes's ultimate vision is of the peaceable kingdom, and this is balanced against a view of human nature in which instinct is harnessed to ideology and purity perverted by meanness.
It is easier to recognise this when the frame of "animal poems" is removed and the poetry is looked at as a whole - which is another of my reservations about this enterprise and its attempt to "provide the definitive statement on one of the most celebrated aspects of Ted Hughes's work" - but as a tour de force of vivid writing, full of energy, observation and the occasional stretch of self-parodying overkill, the Collected Animal Poems is still worth considering even if you already have the volumes from which - except for a few uncollected poems - all the work is taken.
Six of the nine pieces in Difficulties of a Bridegroom first appeared as complementary to the poems in Hughes's 1967 collection Wodwo. The volume is oddly offered as Collected Short Stories, one of the items being the powerful radio play "The Wound" with its echoes of Pincher Martin and of MacNeice's The Dark Tower reverberating in the chamber of Hughes's unconscious along with other influences to which he refers in the book's short but interesting introduction. Of the remaining five Wodwo pieces "Snow", "Sunday", "The Harvesting", "The Suitor" and, most famously, "The Rain Horse" each in its different way explores the nature of individual identity, in the making or under threat, with the flashing immediacy that is Hughes's hallmark. As Grooby, the protagonist victim of "The Harvesting" experiences it: "This is how it happens . . . all your life it's been this fraction of a second away, a hair's breadth from you, and here it is, here it is".
The other pieces are an anecdotal ghost story "The Deadfall", an extraordinary improvisation in Hughes's richest mode of phantasmagoric primitivism "The Head" and, published for the first time, "O'Kelly's Angel". This apprentice work, written in the year Hughes left Cambridge when, as he explains, "the troubles in Northern Ireland were dormant" remained unworked on because overtaken by history. It tells of the sectarian and commercial appropriation of a captured angel in a vein similar to that of Hughes's early radio plays for children The Coming of the Kings and The Tiger's Bones. A fable for adults, its earnestly playful non-conformism suggests that Hughes owed something in those formative years to the imaginative worlds of T F Powys and Stanley Spencer, parochial visionaries and inheritors of William Blake, whose cosmic theme is firmly rooted in local earth.