I don’t mind saying it: reading Ted Hughes frightens me. Has for years. At first it was just the idea of reading his poetry that frightened me — the poetry that had, in my disarrayed young mind, killed Sylvia Plath’s. The stuff had lethal properties. It took several years, but at last I got around to actually reading his work, in an ugly New Selected Poems. That was when I realized the truth of the matter, past the pat mythology and instinctual aversion: Ted Hughes was about the most frightening poet imaginable. His work invests every corner of existence with menace and unmanageable intensity. I remember reading a few of the early ones — “Otter,” maybe “Pike,” definitely “Hawk Roosting” — and actually having to put the book down. Poetry is not supposed to make you put the book down.
So it came as a bit of a shock to find out that Ted Hughes was, in addition to everything else, a marvelous poet for young people. The Collected Poems for Children draws from no less than eight separate collections across his immense and shambolic publishing career. The book is 249 pages long (illustrated, no less!), and could fit on the most risk-averse nursery bookshelf. There are titles like “Bess My Badger” and “The Fox is a Jolly Farmer.” How did this happen?
It’s an interesting mystery. One thing is for certain: Hughes for Kids and Hughes for Adults are very much the same poet. It’s all here. We get the same bestiaries, the same zookeeper’s menagerie of animal otherness barely kept in its cages, the same repetitious insistence (50 poems about the moon, from Moon Whales and other Moon Poems). It’s hypnotic stuff, and crosses and recrosses the line between comforting and disturbing. Presumably there’s no problem for the intended audience, who are innocent of the harsher Hughes — schoolchildren who haven’t read, say, “Crow Hill” will feel no twinge during “The Mermaid’s Purse.” But determining his intended audience is in fact very difficult. Hughes described some of this work as having been written “within the hearing of children.” It was not solely for either group. This does not mean it was written for some tweener middleground; this is not what we could grotesquely call YA Poetry. It just had a deeper ambidexterity, it could pitch both ways. Hence the gorgeous Season Songs is included in his big Collected Poems: a few dozen pieces about calf-birth and calf-death, standing knock-kneed but impressive among the other work.
Comparing a couple of poems on a single subject may illuminate the differences. “Esther’s Tomcat” is Adult Hughes, much-anthologized, from Lupercal. It describes the tom as a brutal “bundle of old rope and iron” laying inert all day, “no mouth and no eyes,” until it awakens at dusk. It becomes a figure of legend: the tomcat
Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings
Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon.
Nightly over the red round world of men,
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.
Now the poem “Cat,” from the children’s book The Cat and the Cuckoo. It begins:
You need your Cat.
When you slump down
All tired and flat
With too much town
With too many lifts
Too many doors
Too many neon-lit
The cat will help you, the poem concludes:
For into your hands
Will flow the powers
Of the beasts who ignore
This world of ours
And you’ll be refreshed
Through the Cat on your lap
With a Leopard’s yawn
And a Tiger’s nap.
Neither poem is feigned. Neither one is less or more true to Hughes’s vision. They both propose the otherness of even domesticated animals as a necessary, powerful counterforce to a totalized human environment. But the differences are also clear. First, the tone: we would say that “Cat” is somehow too prescriptive, too didactic to work for adults; we don’t quite like being talked to in this manner. Next, the rhythm and rhyme: a little too heavy, a little too rounded-off and lolloping, too sweet. It’s actually inappropriate for adults. In this case, it’s the grown-ups who need to be dealt with gingerly. They need their message delivered with great delicacy, the needed obliquity — too much all at once and they’ll bolt. “Cat,” then, no matter how successful it is in its aims, doesn’t work by our mature rubric. It doesn’t give us what we want, or maybe gives us too much.
But there are places in Hughes’s work where the difference is finer. Season Songs in particular raises fascinating, perplexing questions. It is collected in the kids’ book. The poems are pastoral, lovely, with a vitality that is specifically youthful. But they are also lyrically complex and deeply sad. There’s a description of a doomed newborn lamb:
He could not stand. It was not
That he could not thrive, he was born
With everything but the will—
That can be deformed, just like a limb.
Death was more interesting to him.
Life could not get his attention.
So he died, with the yellow birth-mucus
Still in his cardigan.
He did not survive a warm summer night.
Now his mother has started crying again.
The wind is oceanic in the elms
And the blossom is all set.
Not a nursery-rhyme, exactly. Elsewhere there are moments of rejoicing that balance this bleakness — “The grass is happy / To run like the sea, to be glossed like a mink’s fur / By the polishing wind.” Day begins “[w]hen the swallow snips the string that holds the world in.” In other words, the poems contain both joy and pain, in huge concentrations. And the joys and pains that they take on feel particularly original and close to the bone: a rehashing of our earliest awarenesses. The runty lamb will not make it; summer will come again and be beautiful; the injured swift in the yard will undergo “the inevitable balsa death.” These are the basic facts into which children must be guided. We adults, on the other hand, have processed these feelings long ago and put them safely aside. Although the experience of reading Season Songs shows that maybe it wasn’t as clean a job as we thought.
The Collected Poems for Children helps you put a finger on one of Hughes’s main traits: all through his career he was, in a sense, the most boylike of poets. (Set that superlative in his trophy case, next to “Most Frightening Poet Imaginable,” “Most Handsome,” and (according to poet-critic Michael Hofmann) “Greatest English Poet Since Shakespeare.”) Calling him boylike may sound like an insult, but it is not at all. It indicates a real feat. Maintaining some kind of childlikeness is needful work for any poet, any person: it means being unacculturated to the world’s murderous norms, undimmed by its darkness, unwithered by its onslaught, not ironicized, ironed flat, or inured — while remaining, everywhere and in all things, absolutely adult and responsible. It’s no mean task. (Become as little children, Jesus said, and if Jesus said it, it isn’t easy.) Hughes carried out this imperative to remain childlike — or rather boylike, to make it gendered for this highly gendered poet. He remained forever the small-game trapper, the hill-stalker, the game-warden’s younger brother, the tobacconists’ son wandering around the shop and reading all of the comic books (of course!). “My first six years shaped everything,” Hughes said, pointing especially to those hunts in the Pennines with older brother Gerald. Indeed he viewed his entire poetic enterprise as an outgrowth of that practice of trapping, catching, bagging. This new method would not kill or disturb the creature, but rather preserve it warm and breathing forever. Hughes gave advice to young writers (he was touchingly concerned with the practical, curricular aspects of creative writing in schools) that invoked these processes. “The main thing is to imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it…You will read back through what you have written and you will get a shock. You will have captured a spirit, a creature.”
It is hard to imagine any writer besides Hughes who could retain such intense connection to what children find fascinating and express it in such superb craft. But it was his secret to work the other way also, to invest his mature writing with the child’s vision, that vast imagination and lidless fixity. In doing so, he became a danger to our safe boundaries of poetics. It’s unsettling to watch in Hughes the gentle unbroken slope upward from the whimsy of the early children’s work to the black horrors of books like Crow — especially with volumes like Season Songs bridging any supposed lacuna. It’s all of a piece, whether he’s writing about the mouse in his brother’s pocket or a talking bird feeding on corpses. More unnerving yet is the sense that I get, after reading enough of the Collected Poems for Children, of a strange inversion. Suddenly it begins to feel like the real thing. The adult poetry takes on a stench of the put-on, the worked-up, the elliptical, the evasive. The adulterated. Meanwhile the children’s work stands hawk-eyed and unblinking. It’s an illusion, surely; in a moment the view returns to normal. Only maybe a little changed.
Long before its publication, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of the English poet Ted Hughes was being circled by crows. This is fitting, since the crow was one of Hughes’s favorite animals and most recurrent images. In his 1971 collection Crow, written after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the bird-protagonist is questioned at the gates of Hell: “…who is stronger than death?” Crow replies, “me, evidently,” and is allowed to pass. Hughes’s story is so calcified with rumour and controversy that any biographer, even one of Jonathan Bate’s caliber, was doomed to wade through a mire. The monumental book he has given us, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, is at the very least the story of a man who was stronger than death, capable of turning death into startling and important art. Whether his biographer has such strength is a critical question.
Bate certainly spent his time in the mud: almost as soon as The Unauthorized Life hit the shelves, Hughes’s widow publically defamed the book via a solicitor as “inaccurate” and “offensive,” going so far as to comment that “[t]he number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts,” and demanding a public apology for insinuating that on the way to his burial, casket in tow, Hughes’s family stopped for “a good meal.”
But the relationship between Bate and the Hughes estate, controlled almost solely by Hughes’s widow Carol, was not always so strained. As Bate reported to The Guardian last year, Carol Hughes began as an “enthusiastic” supporter of the project, providing the Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar with unprecedented access to the seemingly limitless Hughes archives, held in substantial private collections as well as at Atlanta’s Emory University and the British Library. But after four years of digging, Bate reportedly received a letter from the estate, terminating the offer of an authorized biography with “no reason” given.
Bate determined to go on with the work, and his guess about the reasoning behind the estate’s abrupt renunciation was that his project was becoming too biographical: what had started out as a “literary life” was developing into a more invasive, and potentially damaging, wholesale examination of a man as famous for his promiscuity as he was for his power with a poetic line. In his preface to the biography, perhaps anticipating the storm to come, Bate goes out of his way to keep things civil. He writes that “[t]he cardinal rule” he will apply to the project is that “…the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected.” In other words, the literature, not the life, will be his primary concern.
But even in the short distance it has already traversed by this passage, Bate’s biography has gone a long way toward proving that such a distinction is impossible to maintain. Though Ted Hughes was famously allergic to biographers (who could blame someone who spent so much time protecting his children from the vendetta-mongering paparazzi that haunted him, as the executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate?), Bate summarizes “[t]he argument of this biography” as the assertion “that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency…” “The tragedy of his career,” Bate adds, “is that it took so long for his elegiac voice to be unlocked.”
By the elegiac, Bate means the confessional. The argument here is that Hughes’s greatest poems were written when he allowed his biography to fully penetrate his art. The explicitly autobiographical collection Birthday Letters is the iconic example of this style from Hughes’s career, but as his published legacy expands, collections like Capriccio (a series of elegies to the woman for whom he left Plath) and even the much less erotic River take on clear biographical overtones in retrospect.
In his exquisite interview for The Paris Review, Hughes once answered a question about the confessional element in poetry by asserting that “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry.” By this stage in his life, looking back on a volume of output that even the most prolific competitor would find intimidating, Hughes was willing to label it all “confessional,” to guess that an element of biography is what gives all poetry its vitality. Though during the exhausting legal battle surrounding her novel The Bell Jar, Hughes tried to escape ridicule from Plath’s admirers by insisting that hers was the work of “a symbolic artist” — in the open air he felt free to observe that what a true poet always works into symbols are the passions and events of his or her own life.
Why, then, Bate’s insistence on the lifelong tension between Hughes’s “symbolic” and “confessional” sides? None of his readings of Hughes’s poems hinge on this polarity. In fact, the most energized sections of The Unauthorized Life are those that cover the two poets’ life together. In these, Bate is able to intersperse lines from Birthday Letters to illuminate biographical details. His scan of Hughes’s signature poem “The Thought Fox” similarly treats the piece exclusively for its autobiographical significance, barely quoting the poem itself, and giving extensive space to Hughes’s reflective commentary about it. As often as Bate insists that his book is about Hughes’s “work and how it came into being,” he rarely pauses for detailed analysis of that work. Few lines are dissected for their technical elements. It is the story of Hughes’s life, not the content of his poetry, that dominates the narrative.
And as Bate delves again and again into Hughes’s tangled and often abusive sexual relationships — these sections are certainly his most electrifying and detailed — an uncomfortable, though understandable, reason for his lingering insistence that Hughes was “torn between the symbolic and the confessional” presents itself: Bate felt the need to keep things civilized. With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.”
This compulsion blunts Bate’s criticism especially when he describes Hughes’s volatility towards women: the shadow of a living wife and family understandably makes him waiver. In his chapter about Hughes’s infidelity to Plath, he reflects that one of the poet’s “most tasteless lines” falls in his Birthday Letters poem about Assia Wevill, where he describes his mistress as “Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” Yet any serious reader knows that in the Hughes canon, this line is nowhere close to the most tasteless. My personal pick would be the line from his poem “Crow’s First Lesson,” where Crow, asked by God to pronounce the word “love,” instead regurgitates a “woman’s vulva” which drops “over man’s neck” and “tightens.”
In fact, almost any passage from Crow more than equals Bate’s choice for “tastelessness.” We can infer that the problem with this line was not its imagery, but how it showcased Hughes’s potential for vitriol against the women he most loved, some of whom are still living. This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth.
But there were other methods available to him — precedents already set by great biographers. Beyond their shared surname, Jonathan Bate’s work on a poet so frequently compared to John Keats invites comparison between The Unauthorized Life and another heavy-hitter: the Harvard scholar W. Jackson Bate’s 1963 biography John Keats.
A look at the two texts side by side makes for a striking contrast. W.J. Bate’s prose is muscular and unsentimental, and though he captures Keats’s personal struggles with sympathy, his scholarship of the poetry is just as excellent. His work on Keats’s vowel interplay in “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Hyperion” remains groundbreaking, and is conveyed with crisp clarity: The frequency of Keats’s complex assonance, W.J. Bate writes, “far exceeds that in any other major poet,” and is not found anywhere in English poetry except in “poets whom we should assume to have other pressing concerns in mind: Shakespeare…and Milton.” His conclusion is that genius in form and content reinforce each other; an observation that could just as easily apply to Hughes, though Jonathan Bate seldom ventures deep enough into his versification to resurface with such conclusions.
Instead, his commentary keeps a strange distance from mechanical analysis of the lines, though his syntax sometimes gives in to the temptation to mimic the staccato voice of his subject, with strained results: “The words of [Hughes’s] poems — which he obsessively refined, revised, rewrote — are complicated, freighted with meaning, sometimes darkly opaque, sometimes cut like jewels of crystal clarity.” A “jewel of clarity” sounds almost Hughesian, but only almost: converting nouns to verbs was one of the poet’s habitual gestures, but to end lines with an abstracted noun phrase like “crystal clarity” was something he got beyond early in his writing life, knowing that abstractions make weak images.
Still, to hold Bate’s Unauthorized Life of Hughes in your hand is to experience something as hefty and monumental as a good Hughes poem. Hughes’s enormous Collected Poems has been compared to “a hunk of Stonehenge” for both its magical overtones and its sheer physical weight. Bate’s book is undeniably important, just as hefty, and often movingly written. His last passages about Sylvia Plath’s undying importance to Hughes are instantly memorable; his last flourish like poetry itself: “Before him stands yesterday.”
If only every line of it were so good. But Bate was torn between his own rival muses: the personal and the symbolic strains of Hughes’s work, which he pitted against each other in the preface, turn out to be two sides of the same coin, the same monolith viewed from two angles. The intriguing rivalry he suggests between them turns out to be a false one. They were the same stone goddess that ruled all of Hughes’s work. Better to affirm, with the poet himself, that all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say.” That to write is to confess in symbols. That the poetry is the biography. To have tracked this line of thinking directly through Hughes’s work would have made for a true “literary life.” Instead, Bate has given us a life informed by literature, where the most scandalizing moments are diffused by claims that they are important to a deep analysis that never occurs. Yet if what Bate gave us is not what it could have been, it is a riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps the best literary life of Hughes will have to wait until there is no one living left to hurt. In the meantime, the page is printed.