1 Hughes and his landscape. (1980)


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1 Hughes and his landscape. (1980)
A list of the best twenty living British poets would include a

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.

(The Rock)

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,

Exercising their cowed, shaven souls.

Lips stretching saliva, eyes fixed like the eyes

Of cockerels hung by the legs

As the bottomless cry

Beats itself numb again against Wesley's foundation stone.

('Mount Zion')
The purpose of the chapel seemed to be simply to eradicate the joy of

life, even if that meant eradicating life itself. Once the place was

thrown into a state of battle-fury by a cricket singing from a crack in

the wall:

Long after I'd been smothered in bed

I heard them

Riving at the religious stonework

with screwdrivers and chisels.

Now the cracks are widening and the only singing heard in many of the

chapels is the singing of crickets.

What the boys preferred to do with their Sundays was to dig, Sunday

after Sunday, with iron levers, even while the bells summoned them

elsewhere, for the Ancient Briton supposed, according to local

folk-lore, to lie under a half-ton rock:

We needed that waft from the cave

The dawn dew-chilling of emergence,

The hunting grounds untouched all around us.

(‘The Ancient Briton Lay Under His Rock')

That rock could not be shifted, nor what it hid, the buried life of

England, the repressed needs of the human psyche, eradicated.

In the short story ‘Sunday’, the boy has to endure a stifling, scrubbed

Sunday morning, the church-going slopes spotless and harmless,

forbidden grass in the Memorial Gardens, even the pavements

untouchably proper,. The men wear 'tight blue pin-stripe suits' and

the boy his detestable blue blazer. Sitting in chapel, the situation of

greatest constraint he knows, he lets his imagination be taken over by

the image of a wolf which 'urged itself with all its strength through a

land empty of everything but trees and snow’. This wolf, the ghost of

the last wolf killed in Britain, appears again and again in Hughes:

These feet, deprived,

Disdaining all that are caged, or storied, or pictured,

Through and throughout the true world search

For their vanished head, for the world

Vanished with the head, the teeth, the quick eyes -.


The wolf is that in the boy which refuses to be constrained, tamed,

disciplined, like those Vikings {'the snow's stupefied anvils'} who

spent themselves in ‘beforehand revenge / For the gruelling relapse and

prolongueur of their blood / Into the iron arteries of Calvin' ('The

Warriors of the North').

The boy lives for the afternoon, when his father has promised to take

him to Top Wharf Pub to see for the first time Billy Red kill rats in his

teeth like a terrier. The Cretans sacrificed a living bull to Dionysos by

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:

A seed

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

redundant energy'.

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

peered over, he found himself face-to-face with a fox, about nine inches

away. They looked into each other's eyes, and it seemed that his own

being was for a moment which was also an eternity, supplanted by that

of the fox. Then the fox was gone. But it remained in his unconscious

as a symbol of unquenchable life whether in the natural world or in the

human psyche.

In his second year at Cambridge Hughes went through a sort of crisis

which caused a complete block in his ability to write essays. One night

very late, very tired, he went to bed, leaving the essay he had been

struggling with on his desk. Then he dreamed that he was still sitting

at the desk when the door opened and a creature came in with the head

and body of a fox, but erect, man-sized, and with human hands. He had

escaped from a fire; there was a strong smell of burning hair and the

skin was charred, cracked and bleeding, especially the hands. He came

across the room, put his hand on the essay, and said 'Stop this. You are

destroying us.' His hand left a blood-print on the page. Hughes

connected the fox's command with his own doubts about the effect of

the Cambridge brand of critical analysis on the creative spirit (he had

written no more poems since leaving school), and decided to change

from English to Archaeology and Anthropology.

The life which we have already killed off and got under, which now

marauds destructively in the underworld of the unconscious is the

wolf. The life now making its last stand in remote fastness is adder and

otter. The life we keep trying to kill, but which somehow survives, is

stoat (see ‘Strawberry Hill') and fox. The landscape itself is a huge

animal which seems to let itself be tamed. The network of walls is

‘harness on the long moors'. But now those Pennine hills are breaking

loose again, slowly shaking the mills, chapels and houses to pieces as

in a great sieve.

The ‘great adventure’, was the attempt to bring the hills and moors

with their resources of grass, water and stone, into the human

economy. For a time it seemed to have succeeded. The hills were

plotted and parcelled with mile after mile of stone walls raised with

lifetimes of patient labour, and 'spines that wore into a bowed /

Enslavement' ('Walls'). Hill-stone seemed to be content

To be cut, to be carted

And fixed in its new place.

It let itself be conscripted

Into mills. And it stayed in position

Defending this slavery against all.

('Hill-Stone Was Content')

Men got to the summit and
for some giddy moments

A television

Blinked from the wolf's lookout.

('When Men Got to the Summit')

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.
First, Mills

and steep wet cobbles

Then cenotaphs.

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

Muffled away

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.

('First, Mills')
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.

('Hardcastle Crags')

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

mourning for:
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

early poems:

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.

('Crow Hill'}
Yet even this seems rhetorical against the transparent purity of his

latest testimony:

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.

('Long Screams')

And this is why Hughes cannot regret that the moors are breaking

loose again from the harness of men:

The Trance of Light
The upturned face of this land

The mad singing in the hills

The prophetic mouth of the rain
That fell asleep
Under migraine o{ headscarves and clatter

Of clog-irons and looms

And gutter-water and clog-irons

And clog-irons and biblical texts

Stretches awake, out of Revelations

And returns to itself .

Chapels, chimneys, vanish in the brightening
And the hills walk out on the hills

The rain talks to its gods

The light, opening younger, fresher wings

Holds this land up again like an offering

Heavy with the dream of a people.
After his marvellous evocation of the spirit of the moors, Hughes

ended that early essay 'The Rock' with these words: 'From there the

return home was a descent into the pit, and after each visit I must have

returned less and less of myself to the valley. This was where the

division of body and soul, for me, began’. It was a great advantage to

Hugher to have been born not in a town, where he might have allowed

himself to be shut up in the little box of the exclusively human:

The country, to townies,

Is hardly more than nice,

A window-box, Pretty

When the afternoon's empty;

When a visitor waits,

The window shuts.

(Kingsley Amis, 'Here Is Where')
nor in the country, where he might have become just another 'nature'

poet, but on the very frontier where the two were engaged in a 'fight to

the death’. He suffered in childhood the crisis of our civilisation in a

very pure form. The experience forced him into a fiercely dualistic

attitude to life which released the amazing energies of his first three

collections, The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal and Wodwo. The subsequent

books have been a gradual healing of that split. From that deep early

dualism Hughes has moved painfully but surely towards 'a proper

knowledge of the sacred wholeness of Nature, and a proper alignment

of our behaviour within her laws’.

Most great writers want to save the world. Fiction and drama are

partly modes of discourse and tend to get pulled towards other, non-imaginative forms of discourse such as politics, ethics or religion.

The poet must recognize that he is not in the business of initiating a

revolution or peddling propaganda or of merely ruminating in verse

about political, ethical or religious matters. His business is to effect

subtle changes, poem by poem, by book, in the consciousness of

his most responsive readers, towards a more whole and balanced sense

of themselves and of their dependence on and obligation towards all

that is not themselves. To do this, he need not be in possession of The

Truth. What we require from him is not answers but metaphors -

sparks which fly from the imagination of the poet to fire the

imagination of the reader.

The great poet will have to do rather more than this. He will have to save himself, cure himself, in the role of Everyman. That is, to take

himself to pieces and reconstitute himself in accordance with the

inescapable facts. This process has to be lived through, not just

imagined. But the imagining, the poetry, is part of the process, not just

a record of it. The right metaphors are simply those which work, which

actually do carry out the operation, or the required stage of it.

It is not only the chimneys and chapels of the Calder Valley which

must collapse before there can be any new building. The image of stone

returning to the earth is one of many images in Hughes for the

restoration to Nature of its own, the healing and rededication of the

holy elements before man can approach them again with clean hands,

with respect and humility, and for purposes, one hopes, rather more

natural, sane and worthily human than the enslavement of body and

spirit which has characterized Protestantism and capitalism in Eng-

© Keith Sagar, 1980, 1983, 2012. This essay may be quoted within the terms of fair use, and only with due acknowledgement to this website.

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.


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