Ted Hughes, second from left, with Louis MacNeice, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender
Ted Hughes’ poetry is a body of work profoundly interested in language as a subject. If this sounds like something of a redundant statement – very few poets can be said to lack interest in their basic medium – what I mean to suggest is that Hughes’ work is as concerned with language as subject as it is with language as form or medium. A key passage from Poetry in the Making should help to illustrate this point. In this instance, Hughes is discussing the ways in which a writer might use language to bring to life an everyday image, such as “that crow flying across, beneath the aeroplane.” “[H]ow are we to say what we see in the crow’s flight?” Hughes enquires. “It is not enough to say the crow flies purposefully, or heavily, or rowingly, or whatever. There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow’s flight. All we can do is use a word as an indicator, or a whole bunch of words as a general directive.”
Language, for Hughes, is very often incommensurate to the task of representing reality: even a relatively simple fragment of reality as a crow flying beneath an almost empty sky. Words, argues Hughes in the same piece, “tend to shut out the simplest things we wish to say.” Hughes’ method after, say, Lupercal, might be seen as an attempt to try to find an appropriate language with which to represent nature, remaking the language afresh with each line, like Adam in the Garden, improvising variations on phrases and conceits in order to get at the subject as closely as possible, rather than worrying overmuch about the finish of the poem. But what happens to language when confronted with the facts of historical trauma and atrocity? Quite a number of poems in Hughes’ earlier volumes – most notably in The Hawk in the Rain – deal with the matter of the First World War, and the question of language seems to me to be central here, too. For Hughes, the First World War was the defining trauma of 20th century British life, much more so than the Second. In a review of First World War poems in the Listener in 1965, Hughes called the war Britain’s “number one national ghost. It’s still everywhere, molesting everybody”, whilst in a letter to Nick Gammage dated March 15, 1991, he reiterates the same point, stating that “the whole country was traumatised” by the war, and that as a child the war had dominated adult conversations, and his own consciousness to a startling extent.
Hughes’ own approach to the war is entirely continuous with the discourse of language outlined above. In particular, Hughes’ critical writing suggests that the failure that he sees in much Georgian poetry of the conflict might be a failure of language itself. In the same Listener review previously cited, Hughes notes that:
“apart from Owen and Sassoon, the poets lost that war. Perhaps Georgian language wouldn’t look nearly so bad if it hadn’t been put to such a test. It was the worst equipment they could have had – the language of the very state of mind that belied and concealed the possibility of the nightmare that now had to be expressed.”
Tellingly, the only poets – other than Owen and Sassoon – that Hughes sees as surviving aesthetically are Ivor Gurney and Osbert Sitwell, both of which “used a plain unpoetic language, which makes an impressive lesson in preservation among the other tainted fruit.” A binary system is being erected here ,with the “plain unpoetic” diction of Sitwell and Gurney operating as foil to the allegedly high-falutin’ rhetoric of the Georgians. The first succeeds, the second fails, because in the latter case, the language is incommensurate to the task at hand. Where Own and Sassoon fit is unclear, as neither fell foul of the excesses of Georgian poetry, yet neither could be said to write in a “plain unpoetic” style. (This is particularly true of Owen, I feel.)
This same opposition can also be seen in an encounter Hughes recounts his discussion of Orghast, a play written in an invented language which he devised with Peter Brook and Geoffrey Reeves in 1971. Researching a poem about Gallipoli, Hughes “had an enlightening encounter talking to two of the survivors – one eloquent, one taciturn ...” The eloquent veteran, whilst full of anecdotes, ultimately communicates least to Hughes (“dramatic skill concealed everything”), whilst his monosyllabic comrade “released a world of shocking force and vividness” through his very inarticulateness.
Bearing this in mind, I’ll turn now to an analysis of one of the ‘war’ poems in The Hawk in the Rain, and consider the ways in which it enacts the critical framework that Hughes erects in his prose writing on the subject of the war. ‘Griefs for Dead Soldiers’ is tripartite in structure, and revolves around three acts of memorialisation of the war dead. In the poem’s first section, a public memorial is erected; in the second, a war widow receives a telegram informing her of her husband’s death; in the third, soldiers in the field are observed burying their dead comrade. The language employed in each section suggests a kind of hierarchy of experience and suffering. In the first section, public memory – at the furthest remove from the atrocities of combat – is conceived of in highly wrought purple language. Heavy, Greco-Latinate abstractions – ‘mightiest’, ‘universal’, ‘monstrousness’, ‘cataclysm’ – combine to create a mock-Shakespearean rhetoric that, I would argue, seeks to satirise the way in which war is memorialised in public. The language Hughes deploys is the linguistic equivalent of the grandiloquent blood-and-thunder of most war memorials, the very same rhetoric that Mya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial sought to overturn:
“Make these dead magnificent, their souls
Scrolled and supporting the sky, and the national sorrow,
Over the crowds that know of no other wound,
Permanent stupendous victory.”
The section dealing with the war widow’s grief is less rhetorically overblown, deliberately so: there is a mundanity to Hughes’ portrait of her, which is all the more effective for being offset by the dramatic linguistic violence of the preceding section:
“To a world
Lonely as her skull and little as her heart
The doors and windows open like great gates to hell.
Still she will carry cups from table to sink.”
Yet it is the final section of the poem where the ‘truest’ grief resides. Where sections one and two re-enact violence and motion in linguistic terms, here the aftermath of violence is portrayed in the calmest, most motionless language possible. The language is reduced, for the most part, to monosyllables – inarticulate articulacy, once more – and where words which overstep those Anglo-Saxon bounds occur, they are of a far more colloquial quality than the abstractions occurring earlier in the poem. Hughes’ language here is by no means ‘unpoetic’ – it is unclear precisely what might be meant by that term, anyway – but it is plain, and as such, according to Hughes’ own critical terms, the closest language can come to an expression of genuine grief; whilst the dirt being shovelled upon the war dead by men who are “[w]eighing their grief by the ounce” becomes, in the poem, the one true honourable monument to the conflict.
Ted Hughes, Collected Poems (London: Faber, 2003)
---, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, edited by William Scammell (London: Faber, 1994)
---, The Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid (London: Faber, 2007)