Ma­rina Warner

Lenses from Some­where: A Me­mory of Ted Hughes

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

After I re­viewed Shake­speare and the God­dess of Com­plete Be­ing for the TLS, Ted Hughes wrote to me. He was very wounded by the re­cep­tion of the book, which had been harsh and of­ten sneer­ing. In the let­ter, he imag­ined him­self caught in the ma­lig­nant cir­cuitry of Mea­sure for Mea­sure:

I knew that our aca­demic friends would leap into the role that I through Shake­speare have given them: An­gelo’s, and that my book would ap­pear to them as the stews of Vienna (not even as preg­nant Juliet howl­ing through Is­abella – and cer­tainly not as the old Duke of dark cor­ners, fit­ting ev­ery­body, chas­tened and cor­rected, back into Eden.) (Or into its earthly ap­prox­i­ma­tion.)

Pen­ning this in sore hurt, his hand dash­ing across the page with spon­ta­neous fer­vour, en­chain­ing brack­eted clause to brack­eted clause, Ted Hughes made an image world for his thoughts, an image world of ex­cep­tional depth of knowl­edge – who else would re­call so lightly the name of Is­abella’s brother’s un­lucky love?

Christo­pher Reid didn’t in­clude the let­ter in his pub­lished selec­tion, Let­ters of Ted Hughes; Hughes was a very pro­lific cor­re­spon­dent, and Reid had tons of ma­te­rial to choose from. But it goes on in­ter­est­ingly. I’d com­mented in my re­view that the book re­vealed the poet mak­ing a reck­on­ing with his own past, and Hughes picked up on this: ‘I ap­pre­ci­ated your tact about the apolo­gia [ pro vita sua] aspect…’

He went on, again us­ing brack­ets: ‘(we have to get our lenses from some­where, which doesn’t spoil them as lenses.)’ He then be­gins a new para­graph, to ex­press an area of per­sis­tent sore­ness, one he re­turned to of­ten else­where:

I needed to make a clearer dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two vastly dif­fer­ent an­i­mals - the mythic poet (my main con­cern) and the re­al­is­tic poet (ev­ery­body else’s con­cern). As it stands, the book’s first prob­lem is – this dis­tinc­tion is never made. It seems blind­ingly clear to me, but my at­tempt to share the idea with my reader ev­i­dently fails.

First prob­lem. But thank you again.

By my stan­dards, the re­view I’d writ­ten was rather mixed, but Hughes seems to have felt that I’d tried to read the book care­fully, and, rightly, that I ad­mired his to­tal ab­sorp­tion in Shake­speare’s poems and plays: he weaves back and forth be­tween them, com­par­ing and quot­ing across them, as if the con­cor­dance lived in his head. And some of Hughes’s in­sights have been picked up very strongly in re­cent years – about Shake­speare’s am­biva­lence over Rome, stem­ming from his fam­ily’s re­pressed Catholi­cism. The ef­fect is rather like en­ter­ing the sound world of a com­poser, rather as Hughes sank him­self into Beethoven when he was young. It also brought to my mind, in an al­lu­sion that Ted Hughes might have en­joyed, the phe­nom­e­nal me­mory of Wil­lie Sin­clair, a crofter-fish­er­man of Caith­ness who was able to com­mu­ni­cate ev­ery in­let, rock, crag, sand­bank, and creek of the steep cliffs drop­ping to the shore of Whali­goe where he had worked, de­tail­ing them with such pre­ci­sion that a younger man could draw an ac­cu­rate map of the coast­line from his words alone. Sim­i­larly, Ted Hughes had walked ev­ery bit of the land­scape of Shake­speare’s oeu­vre: he had fished its wa­ters pa­tiently, in­tensely, ob­ser­vantly.

I wrote back, and rather wildly sent him a novel I had writ­ten, Indigo, which had just come out; it’s a re­work­ing of The Tem­pest, a play he

ex­plores richly, if wish­fully. On 13 Au­gust l992 Hughes replied, in a most won­der­ful let­ter about my novel, which Chris Reid didn’t re­print—to my cha­grin—and which mod­esty for­bids my quot­ing (I am aware that Hughes was a very in­dul­gent and en­cour­ag­ing reader to many of his nu­mer­ous cor­re­spon­dents). He also en­closed ‘a re­write’ of some of the ‘In­tro­duc­tion’ to the Shake­speare book, en­ti­tled, ‘A Work­ing def­i­ni­tion of Mythic’, in which he takes up the ques­tion of the split within Shake­speare be­tween his real­ist and mythic sides—the very con­flict Hughes felt he suf­fered from; he re­moves ‘the real­ist psy­chol­o­gist and im­per­son­ator’ to re­veal ‘the higher dream’ that spurs on the tragic du­al­ity be­tween the God­dess and her lover, Ado­nis and, around and be­hind Ado­nis, the poet, the writer—Shake­speare, Keats, Yeats, Plath and—Hughes him­self. He writes:

It is easy to leap to the conclusion that I am deny­ing the ex­is­tence of the up­per tem­ple com­plex of his psy­cho­log­i­cal re­al­ism, while I present him ex­clu­sively as a crea­ture of un­der­ground tun­nels and cham­bers. … [but] I am ex­plor­ing some­thing else al­to­gether, in an at­tempt to open up the crypts and cat­a­combs that have re­mained… some­what ig­nored…

He then strikes out in free as­so­ci­a­tion to dwell pas­sion­ately on Plath’s poem ‘Sheep in Fog’, re­vised just be­fore her death; a pas­torale in which Hughes scries the mythic tracks of Phaeton’s char­iot and Icarus’s fall.

A while after this ex­change of let­ters, in l997, An­drew Mo­tion and his wife Jan Dal­ley ar­ranged for us all to go to visit Ted Hughes and Carol Or­chard at North Taw­ton (An­drew used to go fly-fish­ing with Ted and was to suc­ceed him as Poet Lau­re­ate). We ar­rived around noon, I think. It was a fine sum­mer’s day and we gath­ered on the small oval, slightly slop­ing green space—the word lawn won’t do be­cause the Hughes’s coun­try gar­den had none of the gen­til­ity or lux­ury of a greensward such as kept by an Oxbridge col­lege or a Lon­don park. Ted Hughes opened a bot­tle of cham­pagne and we all stood smil­ing a bit stren­u­ously be­cause he re­ally was very im­pos­ing and I was fright­ened of him: more than al­most any­one I have met, he re­sem­bled his image and matched his renown. See­ing him

plain re­ally did make me feel awestruck.

Un­like most ac­tors and politi­cians, who are al­most al­ways far smaller and less lustrous than their image, Ted Hughes ful­filled the re­port that went be­fore him – his fea­tures, his height, his voice with its York­shire burr, all co­hered with the aura; you could not say that he was in any way lesser than the story that wrapped him and englam­oured him.

As soon as we all had some­thing to drink, he lifted his eyes to the rise of a slope beyond the gar­den, which was dark­ened at its sum­mit by a clump of trees, and said, ‘That is where the god­dess Nymet had her sa­cred grove’. I hadn’t heard of Nymet, but I recog­nised the deep me­mory of land­scape in his work, and the way that for him the years folded up against one an­other, past abut­ting on the present, the im­me­di­acy of things re­ver­ber­at­ing in deep time.

Sub­se­quently, in a de­tailed ar­ti­cle by Chris Jenk­ins (an as­sid­u­ous blog­ger on lo­cal lore and leg­ends), I dis­cov­ered the whole re­gion was ‘the most enor­mous sa­cred grove’ in Eng­land. Nymet is an old name for the river Yeo, and con­nected to the Celtic Neme­t­ona peo­ple; it ap­pears with vari­ants in many place names near North Taw­ton, in­clud­ing the fam­ily home of the Or­chards, Carol’s par­ents–Ni­chols Nymet House–where Hughes vis­ited her in the Six­ties. The slope we were look­ing at is an an­cient mon­u­ment, a motte ded­i­cated to Nymet, to whom ‘Bru­tus [the Tro­jan hero who came to Bri­tain] built a tem­ple… at Totnes.’ Jenk­ins goes on, ‘given the fact that she was a Moon god­dess, this was her spe­cial land of Al­bion (white).’ Ted Hughes had a writ­ing hut built there in the Sev­en­ties.

Over a decade be­fore this meet­ing, Ted Hughes pub­lished a praise-song and a howl of rage in which he in­vokes Nymet as a god­dess, spirit and fairy man­i­fest in the wa­ters of the river Taw:

TAW sim­ply meant wa­ter. What be­came of her Who poured these pools from her ewer?

He rails at her des­e­cra­tion by poi­sonous in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion. His fury tilts into bom­bast and the ironies into bathos (‘Now it [her womb]’s the main sewer/ of the Ex­press Dairy Cheese Fac­tory’).

He rec­og­nized the poem wasn’t a suc­cess and didn’t in­clude it in his Col­lected Poems. But the theme, the im­agery, and its im­pas­sioned cry against eco­log­i­cal dam­age, all an­tic­i­pate the poet’s fa­ble for chil­dren, The Iron Woman, pub­lished in l993. When he dreamed up the gi­ant­ess hero­ine of his mod­ern eco-myth, the Celtic god­dess was on his mind: in the course of a rare in­ter­view he gave that year, Ted Hughes showed Blake Mor­ri­son an ae­rial pho­to­graph of a vast Celtic cir­cle, larger than Stone­henge, ded­i­cated, he said, ‘prob­a­bly to … Nymet’. It’s easy to see how he much at home he felt in Nymet coun­try, where clas­si­cal myth was in­ter­twined with Celtic lore, and the White God­dess’s foot printed the sur­round­ing hills. Per­haps, had he lived he might have writ­ten a Re­mains of Nymet?

That day we met, al­most im­me­di­ately after con­jur­ing Nymet’s pres­ence, Hughes looked down at the grass and said, ‘And this is where the men of Corn­wall fought the men of Devon, the first with bare feet, the other wear­ing cleated boots…’ Did he men­tion blood? He in­di­cated the turf with his foot and it seemed to red­den and soften with the blood­shed from a long time ago.

When my son Con­rad was small, we had a copy of Un­der the North Star, and the poem he wanted to me to read again and again was ‘Amulet’, which echoes with the per­cus­sive cantrips of Crow.

When I reached the clos­ing lines:

In­side the Wolf’s eye, the North Star. In­side the North Star, the Wolf’s fang.

Con­rad said, ‘Read that again. It’s fierce.’ Ted Hughes un­der­stood fierce, with straight­for­ward fas­ci­na­tion. At the meal that day—wild sal­mon he had caught—Michael Mor­purgo and his

wife were there; they were close friends go­ing a long way back, and had worked to­gether on the chil­dren’s poetry com­pe­ti­tion, one of many in­spired ven­tures of that kind that Hughes had al­ways ini­ti­ated and sup­ported. They talked re­gret­fully about the way chil­dren’s imag­i­na­tions were filled now with some­thing more bru­tal than be­fore. But there ex­isted a clear dis­tinc­tion for Hughes be­tween na­ture’s ways and so­cial bru­tal­ity, be­tween the destiny of the crow, the rab­bit, the wolf, and the fox, and the pur­poses of the drone, the nu­clear waste dump, the AK47 and the cy­ber­world.

Ted Hughes wasn’t only the spit of his own famed image, his po­etic imag­i­na­tion coloured and shaped every­thing he com­mu­ni­cated. For some­one who was so deeply en­gaged with myths and sub­ter­ranean en­er­gies he had him­self be­come mythic. It’s ba­nal to say this, but the tragedies of Sylvia Plath’s death, and then of As­sia Wevill’s and her lit­tle girl, had thrown a mist over him like the mist the gods and god­desses bring down on their cho­sen mor­tals in Homer, some­times the red mist of death by vi­o­lence, some­times the dense cloud that ob­scures the cho­sen one from view al­to­gether, as when Aphrodite res­cues Paris from Menelaus. When you were with him, even sit­ting next to him at his hos­pitable table, you couldn’t for­get—I couldn’t for­get—those ter­ri­ble hor­rors. But in per­son, after the con­ver­sa­tion grew more re­laxed, he seemed much less fierce; he was con­sid­er­ate, out­ward­di­rected, tol­er­ant and kind, and a bit old-fash­ioned in his com­mit­ment to a van­ish­ing world. That day, the talk bat­ted back and forth about some of his favourite top­ics: the im­por­tance of writ­ing with a pen to let the imag­i­na­tion flow (‘the cru­cial el­e­ment in hand­writ­ing is that the hand is si­mul­ta­ne­ously draw­ing’); the in­tense brain ac­tiv­ity of the night, and the im­por­tance of dream­ing for writ­ing. An­drew Mo­tion added that he needed to carry his pail up­stairs in the morn­ing, brim­ming over with the gifts of the night. For a long while after, my part­ner and I would say to each other in the morn­ing, ‘Don’t dis­turb me, my pail is brim­ming’.

The at­ten­tions Ted Hughes paid me were flat­ter­ing and con­fus­ing and I con­fess that I half wanted him to act the fa­mous se­ducer with me too. But there was never a sign of this in any of his let­ters or his man­ner that day the only time I met him in per­son. So I felt I un­der­stood the puz­zle­ment

of his brother Ger­ald that the gen­tle boy he’d known was now type­cast as Blue­beard.

This not very se­cret wish of mine for some­thing be­sides in­tel­lec­tual sym­pa­thy makes me feel quite strongly that the many love af­fairs of his life —those that did not end in tragedy but left sur­vivors—should be seen as ex­pres­sions of women’s de­sires as well as his. Such a rep­u­ta­tion as his goes be­fore the man, and like Don Gio­vanni, Heath­cliff and Rhett But­ler, it mag­ne­tises many of us. This is not to white­wash or soften or ex­cuse what hap­pened and his part in it, but to ad­mit some­thing I see in my­self, and I don’t think I am al­to­gether un­usual. To her credit, Emma Ten­nant owns up to this in her mem­oirs when she de­scribes how pow­er­fully she felt mag­ne­tised by the aura of tragedy that hung about him—not a shin­ing, more of a phos­pho­rus mi­asma—that clung to him.

We ex­changed a few more notes–he sent me Tales from Ovid and in­scribed it to me:

old oaks - new acorns from one squir­rel to an­other Ted 30 June 1997

I wrote back, of course, to thank him. Then Birth­day Let­ters came out and again I wrote; I al­luded to the Vita Nuova as an­other story of a for­feited life, and he re­sponded on 31 Jan­uary 1998:

Yes, Vita Nuova – if only! One of my favourite books, - and ev­ery writer ought to con­struct their own. You can imag­ine, I pub­lished those let­ters only be­cause 35 years is long enough to let any­thing block heart & soul. And mind. Left it a bit late for the new life, but still – I’ll see what can be made of it. It (the Birth­day L book) tells the tale of what was to be her new life – her ac­ces­sion to it. Very con­scious of it we were – the Vita Nuova as a sort of pole star re­as­sur­ance that was pos­si­ble. Then - !

He told me he wasn’t well. A few months later, I sent him ‘Lul­laby for an In­som­niac Princess’, the story about a nightin­gale which I’d writ­ten partly in­spired by Ovid. He’d given me a bot­tle of Lau­re­ate’s sherry with his own de­sign for the la­bel, a draw­ing of a hoopoe, and the choice of image seemed a clue, a kind of pro­jec­tion, an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, per­haps an­other apolo­gia. His pent-up ver­sion of the myth of Philomel ap­pears in Tales from Ovid; in the lift off at the end she turns into a nightin­gale, and her at­tacker, her rapist and si­lencer, her brother-in-law Tereus, be­comes the hoopoe. Hughes recog­nised how meta­mor­pho­sis ex­presses pas­sion in ex­tremis, so highly charged that it ex­plodes out of an ex­ist­ing form to change it ut­terly. The ver­sion I’d writ­ten is a sweet small fairy tale, a wish for re­dress; but it spoke to him, and in that last let­ter he wrote to me, which is in­cluded in the Col­lected Let­ters, his beau­ti­ful ex­pres­sive hand­writ­ing chases over eight note­cards as he re­mem­bered his own quest to hear a nightin­gale, and re­gret­ted the in­creas­ing si­lence of the birds in his gar­den.

When Carol showed us around the house after lunch, I re­mem­ber the skins of an­i­mals draped on the so­fas, some of them sent from Aus­tralia by Ger­ald, the older brother who taught him the arts of the land when he was young. After Alice Oswald pub­lished her po­etic chron­i­cle-cum-or­a­to­rio, Dart, in­spired by the river where she lives, Carol Hughes gave her the pelt of an ot­ter. The gift has a per­fect fit­ting­ness, for Alice Oswald’s poetry is car­ry­ing for­ward so much of the older poet’s love of the spo­ken and re­cited word, as well as his in­tense in­volve­ment with the nat­u­ral world; mem­o­ries of epic and lyric, go­ing back thou­sands of years to the Greeks, re­ver­ber­ate in her work as in his. And both are sen­si­tive lis­ten­ers to the sounds of birds and in­sects and an­i­mals in the wild, as they lis­ten in to the turn­ing of re­birth and de­cay.

It was Ted Hughes’s deep re­cep­tiv­ity and gen­eros­ity to oth­ers - I was only one of nu­mer­ous re­cip­i­ents - that stood out for me in the lit­tle time I knew him. It is be­cause I feel that this side of him has not been given its due that I have agreed to be­come a Pa­tron of the newly cre­ated Ted Hughes So­ci­ety.

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