Ted Hughes

The Hawk in the Rain

“More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.”

In 1956, Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930 – October 28, 1998), a Yorkshire poet unknown in his native country, entered a collection of poems typed by his wife, Sylvia Plath, to Harper & Brothers’ First Publication Award in New York City.

The competition, which Hughes won, was judged by poet greats W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Marianne Moore. As a result of this competition Hughes was scooped up and published by the extremely successful British publishing firm Faber & Faber.

T. S. Eliot’s handwritten response “I’m inclined to think we ought to take this man now” when asked to review a collection of Ted Hughes’ poems in 1957. Hughes was published by Faber & Faber shortly after to wide acclaim.

“I wonder if you’d like to look at this?” F&F publisher Charles Monteith wrote to his colleague T. S. Eliot in 1957, to which Eliot replied: ‘I’m inclined to think we out to take this man now. Let’s discuss him. TSE’.

The Hawk in the Rain was Ted Hughes’ first collection published in his homeland, dedicated to his wife Sylvia Plath, hurled onto the world like boulders launched by angry gods.1

It received immediate critical acclaim for its imaginative force and innovations in language and rhythm. The 26-year-old Hughes was hailed as a new and original voice.

In this collection (and subsequent ones like Crow: From Life and Songs of the Crow written after Plath’s suicide) he dives into the predatory animals of his birth and dreams.

I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle clay
With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk

Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges,

Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,
And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs
The diamond point of will that polestars
The sea drowner’s endurance: and I,

[…]

Coming the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside down,
Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him,
The horizon traps him; the round angelic eye
Smashed, mix his heart’s blood with the mire of the land.

From “The Hawk in the Rain”

Indeed, Hughes’ lines and words form a sort of Anglo-Saxon yelp. Words like dreg-boozed, demon, clay, hedges, shires, and mire abound, clasping the man and landscape in one, an inner landscape projected outwardly.

Photograph of Ted Hughes for "Hawk in the Rain" in the Examined Life Library.
Ted Hughes 1970. Photograph by Fay Godwin.

The Jaguar

The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut
Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.
Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion

Lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil
Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or
Stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw.
It might be painted on a nursery wall.

But who runs like the rest past these arrives
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,
As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged
Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes

On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom –
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear –
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him

More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.

Metaphors jumble our senses to expand our perception of the world and expand the unsayable. Hughes’ use of animals like a hawk and jaguar to express his inner being speaks to us of power, constraint, anger and an unbridled energy of spirit caged in by some amoral or agnostic force greater than our own.

In a cage of wire-ribs,
The size of a man’s head, the macaw bristles in a staring
Combustion, suffers the stoking devils of his eyes.
In the old lady’s parlour, where an aspidistra succumbs
To the musk of faded velvet, he hangs as in clear flames.

[…]

From “Macaw and Little Miss”

It is difficult to talk about Hughes’s work without mentioning his mentor, T. S. Eliot, and how similar and yet different their styles are.2 Eliot’s earliest work predates Hughes’ by half a century and like Hughes, broke through the prevailing poetry with new and original verse.

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of the leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are
departed.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

From T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Read full poem here.

Like Hughes, Eliot’s most common imagery—and from which this giant of a poem draws its true strength—is nature. Nature empty of human presence or comfort. Nature existing in the most unimaginable form, knowable but vile.

And yet “Poetry is the abandonment of emotion” wrote Eliot and it is perhaps to that end that Hughes writes in his poem “Famous Poet”: “First scrutinize those eyes/For the spark, the effulgence: nothing. Nothing there/ But the haggard stony exhaustion of a near-/ Finished variety artist.”

Stare at the monster: remark
How difficult it is to define just what
Amounts to monstrosity in that
Very ordinary appearance. Neither thin nor fat,
Hair between light and dark,
And the general air
Of an apprentice – say, an apprentice house-
Painter amid an assembly of famous
Architects: the demeanour is of mouse,
Yet is he monster.

First scrutinize those eyes
For the spark, the effulgence: nothing. Nothing there
But the haggard stony exhaustion of a near-
Finished variety artist. He slumps in his chair
Like a badly hurt man, half life-size.

Is it his dreg-boozed inner demon
Still tankarding from tissue and follicle
The vital fire, the spirit electrical
That puts the gloss on a normal hearty male?
Or is it women?. …

From “Famous Poet”

Hughes’ feelings of the poet and indeed poetry are quite different from Eliot. “Aglow with feeling” wrote modernist poet Marianne Moore about Hughes’ poetry, herself a poet of sparkling original imagination.

In this collection and all that follow, Hughes delivers a thundering pressure that moves the reader through terrain familiar and unknown, replete with emotion. Even birth has its violence.

When, on the bearing mother, death’s
Door opened its furious inch,
Instant of struggling and blood,
The commonplace became so strange
There was not looking at table or chair:
Miracle struck out the brain
Of order and ordinary: bare
Onto the heart the earth dropped then
With whirling quarters, the axle cracked,
Through that mirade-breached bed
All the dead could have got back;
With shriek and heave and spout of blood

From “Childbirth”

Yorkshire. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In 2011 Westminster Abbey constructed a memorial to Hughes in Poets’ Corner (a section of the church where Britain’s literary icons are buried or memorialized) at the foot of the memorial to T. S. Eliot. I like to think the two giants are fighting, drinking, writing in turn.3 Aglow with feeling.

Read Hughes’ first collection alongside his Romantic poet predecessors like John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge who equally imbibed the awesomeness of nature but processed it differently in their verse. I think of Hughes when I read Robert MacFarlane’s search for nature outside society, outside our values and beyond our comprehension. I find that wildness in Hughes’ verse.