disproportionate number of Welsh, Scottish and Irish poets. The usual
explanation for this would be the different and higher role of the poet
in the Celtic cultures, the bardic tradition and so on. I should like here
to suggest another possible reason, the deeper influence of landscape
upon Celtic poets. The Celtic writer is more likely to live in a
landscape, as opposed to a town, and that landscape is likely to be more
dramatic, insistent and wild than most English landscapes which are
gentler and more amenable to human purposes and perspectives.
I do not mean that the landscape is available to the Celtic poet
simply as subject matter (though it is no coincidence that, for example,
two of R. S. Thomas' best poems should be 'Welsh Landscape' and 'The
Welsh Hill Country'), but that it can provide him also with a fund of
vital images, and with a paradigm for his understanding of life itself
and his own inner being.
I want to go even further than this. Poetry is religious or it is nothing.
Its claim to be taken seriously – more seriously than any other form of art or language – is its ability to keep open and operative the connections between
the depths of the human psyche and the hidden sources of everything in the
non-human world. The poet is a medium for transmitting an occult charge
from the non-human world into the psyche and thence into consciousness.
The Celtic poet knows this in his blood. Most English poets have drifted into
a rational humanism and arrogantly expect us to value their measured musings.
Their verse is altogether lacking in what Lorca called duende, the spirit of life itself in its constant war with death, the spirit of the earth with its 'dark sounds':
These 'dark sounds' are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art. . . . The duende is a power and not a behaviour, it is a struggle and not a concept. . . . It is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action . . . The appearance of the duende always presupposes a radical change of all forms based on old structures. It gives a sensation of freshness wholly unknown, having the quality of a newly created rose, of miracle, and produces in the end an almost religious enthusiasm . . . The duende does not appear if it sees no possibility of death. . . The duende likes a straight fight with the creator on the edge of the well . . . The duende wounds, and in the healing of this wound which never closes is the prodigious, the original in the work of man. The magical quality of a poem consists in its being always possessed by the duende, so that whoever beholds it is baptized with dark water. Because with duende it is easier to love and to understand,
and also one is certain to be loved and understood; and this struggle for
expression and for the communication of expression reaches at times, in
poetry, the character of a fight to the death.
(Lorca, 'Theory and Function oI the Duende')
One of the primary manifestations of duende is in the spirit of place.
Much of what we call civilisation has been characterised by efforts to
kill or mutilate that. The surest way to kill it within the psyche is to
learn to ignore it, or to sentimentalise or prettify it. It is emphatically
not the loving mother of post-Wordsworthian English Nature poetry.
The Celtic writer takes for granted that the landscape shaped him,
and probably assumes that this is not so true of his English
counterpart, since the landscape of England is relatively bland. If, like
Philip Larkin, you were born in Coventry, that might be true:
'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.' But there are parts of
England with every bit as much character as anywhere over the borders
- for example, that stretch of the Pennine moors and valleys between
Lancashire and Yorkshire which has Haworth at its northern edge and
the Calder Valley running through the middle of it, from Todmorden
to Halifax. It was once part of the ancient kingdom of Elmet, 'the last
British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles' according to Ted Hughes,
who was born there, and who celebrates its Celtic and more recent past
in Remains of Elmet:
For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a
notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees. Then in the early l800s it became the cradle for the Industrial Revolution in textiles, and the upper Calder became the hardest-worked river in England.
Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. within the last fifteen years the end has come. They are now virtually dead, and the population of the valleys and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly.
The poet is engaged in finding metaphors for his own nature, his
only touchstone for human nature. His earliest metaphors are drawn
from his immediate childhood world, his inheritance. These
metaphors in turn give him a way of looking at the further and future
world and a way of thinking about himself when he becomes
self-conscious. Thus they shape his nature and bring it closer to the
permanent realities. In a radio interview in 1961, Hughes said that the
move to Mexborough when he was eight ‘really sealed off my first
seven years so that now my first seven years seems almost half my life.
I've remembered almost everything because it was sealed off in that
particular way and became a sort of brain - another subsidiary brain for
me'. The geography of his childhood world became his map of heaven
and hell; the distinctive interplay of the elements in that place gave
him his sense of the creating and destroying powers of the world, the
local animals became his theriomorphic archetypes. This landscape
was imprinted on his soul, and, in a sense, all his poems are about it.
When the poems are overtly, literally, about it, the magical change
from description to metaphor to myth is enacted before our eyes, as in
Remains of Elmet.
From these poems, and from many earlier texts, we can trace the
evolution of the most penetrating, authentic and all-embracing poetic
vision of our time.
Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd in 1930 in an end terrace house
backing on to the canal. Beyond the canal was the main trunk road
connecting the Yorkshire woollen towns and the Lancashire cotton
towns, with its constant rumble of heavy lorries. Beyond that the
railway. Then, rising almost sheer from the valley and seeming to fill
half the sky, Scout Rock:
This was the memento mundi over my birth: my spiritual midwife at the time and my-godfather ever since - or one of my godfathers. From my first day, it watched. If it couldn't see me direct, a towering gloom over my pram, it watched me through a species of periscope: that is, by infiltrating the very light of my room with its particular shadow.
It seemed to seal off everything to the South. Since to the North the
land rose almost as steeply from immediately in front of the house up
to the high bleak moors, 'the narrow valley, with its flooring of cricket
pitch, meadows, bowling greens, streets, railways and mills, seemed
damp, dark and dissatisfied, and felt like a trap.
The other spiritual midwives were scarcely more benign. In 'My
Fairy Godmother' Hughes imagines himself at birth surrounded by the
Wicked Powers. One of them says: 'The earth for him will have such
magnet strength / It will drag all things from his hold, and his own
body at length'. Another said: 'A misty rock is all this boy shall be / He
shall meet nothing but ships in distress and the wild, empty sea'.
Another: 'He shall be a ghost, and haunt the places of earth, / And all
the stars shall mark his death as little as his birth'. His Fairy
Godmother redeems his life by providing him with a ladder out of the
trap, a magic ever-changing ladder which stands for life's perpetual
capacity for transforming and renewing itself.
Crag Jack, one of Hughes' alter egos (in fact his grandfather), is
more specific about the identity of those Wicked Powers:
The churches, lord, all the dark churches
Stooped over my cradle once:
I came clear, but my god's down
Under the weight of all that stone.
('Crag Jack's Apostasy')
Mount Zion chapel literally stooped over his cradle:
Above the kitchen window, that uplifted mass
Was a deadfall -
Darkening the sun of every day
Right to the eleventh hour.
Later he was dragged there every Sunday in an atmosphere of terror:
The convicting holy eyes, the convulsed Moses mouthings.
Men in their prison-yard, at attention,
tearing it with their teeth. Billy Red degrades this archaic religious act,
communion with the god by eating the god, to a Sunday afternoon
secular entertainment for a bored denatured public for a free pint. But
the boy is not yet denatured. The thought of that savagery, that
unthinkable closeness of the human and the animal, reduces every-
thing else in his consciousness to unreality. The story is autobiographical.
There really was a Billy Red.
Animals were of tremendous importance to Hughes from the
beginning, living representatives of another world, ‘the true world’,
'the world under the world’. Even the canal
Bred wild leopards - among bleached depth fungus.
Loach. Torpid, ginger-bearded, secretive
Prehistory of the canal's masonry,
With little cupid mouths.
Five inches huge!
('The Canal's Drowning Black')
They were easily netted, and, after a night in a two-pound jam-jar
On a windowsill
Blackened with acid rain fall-out
From Manchester/s rotten lung
were lobbed back, stiff, 'into their Paradise and mine’. Once, under the
main road canal bridge, there was even a leaping trout:
Of the wild god now flowering for me
Such a tigerish, dark, breathing lily
Between the tyres, under the tortured axles.
('The Long Tunnel Ceiling')
'The wild gentle god of everywhereness' was obviously responsible for
these free lords, and for the demons like the weasels smoked out of a
bank 'Furious with ill-contained lightning', demons ‘crackling with
Yet the only relationship which seemed possible between town boys
and the surrounding wildlife was to catch and kill. Hughes had an older
His one interest in life was creeping about on the hillsides with a rifle. He took me along as a retriever and I had to scramble into all kinds of place, collecting magpies and owls and rabbits and weasels and rats and curlews that he shot. He could not shoot enough for me. (‘Capturing Animals’)
Later Hughes tried to keep wild animals as pets:
An animal I never succeeded. in keeping alive is the fox. I was always
frustrated: twice by a farmer, who killed cubs I had caught before I could get to them, and once by a poultry keeper who freed my cub while his dog waited. ('Capturing Animals,)
The lesson was being driven home that animals were, by nature,
victims. It was the natural order of things that any creature outside the
ordered world of men should be killed. And if a human being chose to
step outside that ordered world, he became fair game. The lesson was
reinforced by a story his brother told him ‘of the tramp sleeping up
there in the bracken, who stirred at an unlucky moment and was shot
dead for a fox by an alert farmer and sent rolling down the slope’.
After the move to Mexborough when he was eight, Hughes was one
day crawling silently up the side of a hollow scooped out by the Dearne
to see what might be in the next hollow. As he reached the top and
But now all that remains of the great enterprise is a hulk, 'every rib
shattered'. The spent walls are nothing but a 'harvest of long
cemeteries’. The stones of the mills are returning to the earth.
It is, of course, sad to see a thriving community in decay; and
most of Hughes' childhood in that valley was happy. But he feels little
nostalgia. It was a 'happy hell'. The lives of the farm workers 'went
into the enclosures / Like manure' ('Walls'). The lives of the factory
hands were sacrificed to the looms. But what really broke the spirit of
the community was the first world war.
and steep wet cobbles
First, football pitches, crown greens
Then the bottomless wound of the railway station
That bled this valley to death.
All the young men of the valley were recruited into the Lancashire
Fusiliers and shipped to the Dardanelles. Seventeen, including Hughes,
father, came back.1 His father, saved by his pocket-book, would talk
endlessly to the boy about his 'four-year mastication by gunfire and
While I, small and four,
Lay on the carpet as his luckless double,
His memory's buried, immovable anchor,
Among jawbones and blown-off boots, tree-stumps, shell-cases and
Under rain that goes on drumming its rods and thickening
Its kingdom, which the sun has abandoned, and where nobody
Can ever again move from shelter. (‘Out’)
These images superimposed in perfect register upon those impressed
on him by the surrounding landscape:
The throb of the mills and the crying of lambs
Like shouting in Flanders
In white curls
And memorial knuckles
Under hikers' heels.
('The Sheep Went On Being Dead')
The whole valley was like a trench -
Over this trench
A sky like an empty helmet
With a hole in it.
And now - two minutes silence
In the childhood of earth.
Even the beauty spots seemed haunted by the ghosts of the young men
who went there on Sunday jaunts before the war:
And the beech-tree solemnities
Muffle much cordite.
And the air-stir releases
The love-murmurs of a generation of slaves
Whose bones melted in Asia Minor.
In a radio interview Hughes said that the First World War was more
part of his imagination than the second because 'It was right there from
the beginning, so it was going on in us for eight years before the Second
World War came along . . . The First World War was our sort of
fairy-story world - certainly was mine'.
So it seemed to the young Hughes that there was a mourning quality
in the spirit of the place, the duende. And the role of men in that place
was to provide the deaths and disasters and wastage for it to be in
Everything in West Yorkshire is slightly unpleasant. Nothing ever quite
escapes into happiness. The people are not detached enough from the stone, as if they were only half-born from the earth, and the graves are too near the surface. A disaster seems to hang around in the air there for a long time. I can never escape the impression that the whole region is in mouming for the first world war. ('The Rock')
To confront the duende in its purity, it was necessary to go up onto the
moors. There you could listen to the 'dark sounds' of the spirit of the
moors: 'The peculiar sad desolate spirit that cries in telegraph wires on
moor roads, in the dry and so similar voices of grouse and sheep, and
the moist voices of curlews.' You could almost see the spirit because of
the strange eerie quality of the light (a quality wonderfully captured in
Fay Godwin's photographs) ‘at once both gloomily purplish and
incredibly clear, unnaturally clear, as if objects there had less
protection than elsewhere, were more exposed to the radioactive
dangers of space, more startled by their own existence.'
What distinguishes the moors from the valley is the fact that, in
spite of the mourning, the accumulated deaths, 'the mood of moorland
is exultant. Many of the finest poems in Remains of Elmet celebrate
the exhilaration which is the recognition that out of these uncom-
promising materials, this graveyard, this vacancy of scruffy hills and
stagnant pools and bone-chilling winds, the place is continually
renewing life and making miracles. This was expressed finely in many
Buttoned from the blowing mist
Walk the ridges of ruined stone.
What humbles these hills has raised
The arrogance of blood and bone,
And thrown the hawk upon the wind,
And lit the fox in the dripping ground.
Yet even this seems rhetorical against the transparent purity of his
And now this whole scene, like a mother,
Lifts a cry
Right to the source of it all.
A solitary cry.
She has made a curlew.
And this is why Hughes cannot regret that the moors are breaking
1 The number seventeen was given to me by Olwyn Hughes. According to Hughes himself it was three, but from the battalion, not the whole regiment, from which the researches of Colin Fraser have since revealed there were in fact about a hundred survivors. . See Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar, British Library, 2012, pp. 236-7.