Lenses from Somewhere: A Memory of Ted Hughes


    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 1997, 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
    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 recognised 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

    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, outward- directed, 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.


    Note: This is a revised form of an after-dinner talk given, at the invitation of Mark Hinchliffe, poet and friend of Ted Hughes, in Hebden Bridge on August 17 2016 to commemorate Ted Hughes’s birthday. Mark’s help with the references in this tribute has been invaluable. I would also like to thank Carol Hughes for her comments on and corrections to an early draft.

    Marina Warner is a writer of fiction and cultural history. Her books include Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (l976), Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (l982). In l994 she gave the BBC Reith Lectures on the theme of Six Myths of Our Time. She has explored the fabulist tradition in From the Beast to the Blonde (l994), Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights (2011), and Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairytale. Her third novel, The Lost Father, was short-listed for the Booker prize in l988; it was followed by Indigo and, in 2000, by The Leto Bundle. A third collection of short stories, Fly Away Home, was published in 2015. She is now working on Inventory of a Life Mislaid, inspired by her childhood in Cairo. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, and Holberg Prize in the Arts and Humanities in 2015.