Friday, January 05, 2018

John Clare / Charles Baudelaire

William Hilton: John Clare (1820)

It's not really that I'm trying to be particularly original or provocative in comparing these two poets (perish the thought). They belong to completely different phases of the Romantic era, for a start: John Clare, the peasant poet, born in poverty in 1793 - a contemporary of Keats and Byron; Charles Baudelaire, the original poète maudit, born in the stifling heart of the bourgeoisie in 1821, and dead of alcoholism and self-abuse at the age of 46.

Étienne Carjat: Charles Baudelaire (1863)

Clare was (and remains) the patron saint of pastoral poets everywhere: a soul so pure he seemed to have come from another sphere, the pre-enclosure, peasant world of organic village life, free of the affectations of civilisation.

Baudelaire, by contrast, is the poet of drugs, sex, industrialism, city life, and the principal inspiration for the figure of the flâneur, the idle (but preternaturally observant) dandy - what the Russian critics called 'the superfluous man.' He was impecunious, self-destructive, vindictive, and relentlessly critical: of himself more than anything.

And yet, and yet. They didn't do anything quite as convenient as die in the same year, but they weren't far from it. John Clare died at 70 in 1864, Baudelaire three years later, in 1867. But then Clare spent the last 25 years of his life locked up in an asylum (from which he briefly escaped in 1841). Baudelaire, by contrast, suffered a massive stroke in 1866 and spent the last two years of his life in a succession of hospital wards.

In other words, neither of them could last in the world much beyond their mid-forties. The difference is, of course, that Clare experienced an extraordinary burst of creativity in his madhouse years - some poems written under his own name, others under that of Lord Byron, whom (some of the time) he believed himself to be.

So far so unconvincing. I agree that I haven't made a strong case, as yet, for considering them together. It's just that the other day I was reading The Wood is Sweet, a little selection of John Clare's poems made for children, and ran across one of his most famous poems, 'The Skylark':

Thomas Bewick: The Skylark (1797)

The Skylark (1835)

The rolls and harrows lie at rest beside
The battered road; and spreading far and wide
Above the russet clods, the corn is seen
Sprouting its spiry points of tender green,
Where squats the hare, to terrors wide awake,
Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break.
Opening their golden caskets to the sun,
The buttercups make schoolboys eager run,
To see who shall be first to pluck the prize —
Up from their hurry, see, the skylark flies,
And o'er her half-formed nest, with happy wings
Winnows the air, till in the cloud she sings,
Then hangs a dust-spot in the sunny skies,
And drops, and drops, till in her nest she lies,
Which they unheeded passed — not dreaming then
That birds which flew so high would drop agen
To nests upon the ground, which anything
May come at to destroy. Had they the wing
Like such a bird, themselves would be too proud,
And build on nothing but a passing cloud!
As free from danger as the heavens are free
From pain and toil, there would they build and be,
And sail about the world to scenes unheard
Of and unseen — Oh, were they but a bird!
So think they, while they listen to its song,
And smile and fancy and so pass along;
While its low nest, moist with the dews of morn,
Lies safely, with the leveret, in the corn.

This is a fairly typical Clare poem. He tends to write in standard metres - in this case heroic couplets, at other times ballad measure. His rhythms and versification tend to the traditional and unadventurous also: no sudden breaks in the iambic line, no startling rhymes (unlike his hero, Lord Byron).

So why do we love him so much? It's the detail of the lines, the sudden flashes of careful insight and genuine knowledge that one glimpses from time to time in his choice of phrases or adjectives that gives his verse its peculiar distinction.

On the one hand, it sounds a bit like a setpiece description by another of his models, James Thomson's The Seasons (1730), but the moment one goes below the surface, strange moments of vision start to appear:
Where squats the hare, to terrors wide awake,
Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break.
Clare, the 'whopstraw man,' a labourer whose job it was to harrow the harvested corn, is yet intensely aware of that 'squatting' hare - nor is it the beauty of the creature he chooses to emphasise, but its terror.

The schoolboys running to catch buttercups seem pretty conventional figures, too, until we realise that Clare is using them to construct the intense metaphor which governs the last half of his poem:
Had they the wing
Like such a bird, themselves would be too proud,
And build on nothing but a passing cloud!
They imagine themselves like the skylark, but see it solely in terms of the clouds its flight encompasses. They cannot imagine the truth that it, too, is ruled by fear and the constant threat of destruction of what it holds dearest: its nest.
So think they, while they listen to its song,
And smile and fancy and so pass along;
While its low nest, moist with the dews of morn,
Lies safely, with the leveret, in the corn.
Well, clearly the obvious comparison here is with Shelley's "Ode to a Skylark", whose first five or so lines virtually everyone who's ever read a poem in English can quote by heart:

P. B. Shelley: To a Skylark (1820)

The "schoolboy" comparison seems fairly apt, also. Shelley was 29 when he died, 27 when he published 'Ode to a Skylark.' Clare, in his mid-forties and at the heart of his powers, must have felt that he knew a good many things about birds which the younger poet had never had the chance - or possibly the desire - to learn. Even his strongest defenders would have to admit to a certain tendency towards abstraction in Shelley's verse. Clare's may be far less accomplished technically, but the precise and concrete was - in the end - all that interested him.

Let's take another tack on this poem of his, then. Here's Baudelaire's "The Albatross": :

Catherine Réault-Crosnier: L'Albatros

L'Albatros (1861)

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d'eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!
L'un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L'autre mime, en boitant, l'infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher

If you click on this link, you can find a selection of English verse translations of this immortal poem by the likes of Roy Campbell, George Dillon, and various others. Rather than add to them, I thought it might be best to provide a simple prose crib. There's a reason why many regard Baudelaire as the greatest European poet since Dante, and it isn't because he dyed his hair green and contracted syphilis: it's the sheer beauty and ease of his writing. Many of the translations on the site are very skillful, but they're still not Baudelaire.

The Albatross (1861)

Often, to amuse themselves, the crewmen
catch albatrosses, vast sea birds
who follow, indolent travelling companions,
the ship as it glides across the bitter gulfs.

Hardly have they dumped them on the deck,
than these kings of the blue, clumsy and ashamed,
let their great white wings trail pitifully
beside them like oars.

This winged traveller, how weak and foolish he is!
He, lately so beautiful, how comic and ugly!
One teases his beak with the stub of a pipe,
another mimes, limping, this invalid who once flew!

The Poet resembles this prince of the clouds
who haunts the storm and laughs at archers;
exiled on earth in the midst of catcries,
His giants' wings impede him from walking.

Just as one can hear, faintly, at the back of Clare's poem, an echo of Percy Shelley's, similarly, here, one senses the presence of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Baudelaire was pretty well-read in English literature, a pioneering translator of Poe and De Quincey (among others), and he could hardly have been ignorant of the most famous albatross in poetic history:

'God save thee, ancient Mariner,
from the fiends that plague thee thus! —
Why look'st thou so?' - With my crossbow
I shot the albatross.

That comment about how Baudelaire's ideal poet resembles the bird "qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer" [who haunts the tempest and laughs at the archer] is surely a reference to the crossbow-wielding mariner himself. But where exactly is Clare in this equation?

I guess it's in the reversal of expectations which dominates each poem. In Clare's case, the marauding schoolboys imagine that the skylark must nest in the clouds, since that's what they would do. Actually, though, it hides its nest as low down as it can, below eye level, in the corn with the rabbit and the other creeping creatures.

In Baudelaire's, the albatross is mocked because of its inability to master such simple, everyday arts as walking without stumbling across a deck. In fact it is because of its other great gifts, its giants' wings, that it cannot fit easily into a crowd, but the desire to simplify, to drag everything down to the level of the lowest common denominator is what leaves it so cruelly exposed.

Baudelaire's albatross was born to fly, and lacks the gifts for anything else. Clare's skylark is similarly gifted, but uses its flight to distract its enemies from what it most longs to protect. Both poets write out of an aching sense of loss and unbelonging. In Baudelaire's case this is expressed in loud outrage, in Clare's by the desire to hide and to escape.

If you want to understand John Clare, the first thing is to stop thinking of him as some simple, instinctive personality, lacking the art of his more self-conscious and educated contemporaries. His academy was every bit as rigorous as theirs, and his poetry - vast and uneven a bulk as there is of it - repays the same pains.

Similarly, reading Baudelaire for the cheap thrills of his iconoclasm and diablerie is mostly a waste of time. Those things are there, but it's the penetrating intensity of his intelligence and insight that gives his work its enduring power.

In both cases, paradoxically, it's sometimes best to approach these poets through their own prose. John Clare's "Journey out of Essex" - his heartbreaking account of his 1841 escape from the asylum to find his lost love, Mary Joyce (already dead for three years) - is fascinating enough. But his autobiographical and other prose notes on his life and the countryside he grew up in also have an indescribable charm of their own.

Baudelaire's prose is more multifaceted and complex, but his analyses of the paintings in successive salons show the concentrated critical intelligence which enabled him to revolutionise French - and, eventually, world - poetry. He was never really the idle druggie of legend, but rather a disciplined mind modelled on, but eventually surpassing, his hero, Edgar Allan Poe.

Both are poets not so much to read, as to reread. As soon as you've reached the end of each poem or journal entry, it's time to turn back to the beginning and start again. Only then does the peculiar light of their insight begin to communicate. These are not bodies of work one could ever exhaust.

I conclude, as usual, with a brief list of the books by each I've managed to accumulate in the last thirty-odd years of reading both:

Iain Sinclair: Edge of the Orison (2005)

John Clare

  1. Geoffrey Grigson, ed. Poems of John Clare’s Madness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.

  2. J. W. & Anne Tibble, ed. John Clare: The Prose. 1951. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

  3. Eric Robinson & Geoffrey Summerfield, ed. John Clare: The Shepherd’s Calendar. Wood Engravings by David Gentleman. 1964. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

  4. Eric Robinson & Geoffrey Summerfield, ed. John Clare: The Later Poems. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1964.

  5. J. W. & Anne Tibble, ed. John Clare: Selected Poems. Ed. J. W. & Anne Tibble. Everyman’s Library, 563. London: J. M. Dent, 1965.

  6. David Powell, ed. John Clare: The Wood is Sweet. Introduction by Edmund Blunden. Illustrated by John O'Connor. Poems for Young Readers. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1966.

  7. Eric Robinson & Richard Fitter, ed. John Clare’s Birds. Illustrated by Robert Gillmor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

  8. Eric Robinson & David Powell, ed. John Clare: The Oxford Authors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

  9. Eric Robinson, ed. John Clare: The Parish, A Satire. Notes by David Powell. 1985. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

  10. Geoffrey Summerfield, ed. John Clare: Selected Poems. 1990. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2000.

  11. Robinson, Eric, & David Powell, ed. John Clare By Himself. Wood Engravings by Jon Lawrence. 1996. Fyfield Books. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002.

  12. J. W. & Anne Tibble, ed. John Clare: The Letters. 1951. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

  13. Mark Storey, ed. John Clare: Selected Letters. 1985. Oxford Letters & Memoirs. 1988. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

  14. J. W. & Anne Tibble. John Clare: A Life. 1932. Rev. Anne Tibble. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1972.

  15. Edward Storey. A Right to Song: The Life of John Clare. London: Methuen, 1982.

Édouard Manet: Jeanne Duval (1862)

Charles Pierre Baudelaire

  1. Y.-G. Le Dantec, ed. Baudelaire: Oeuvres. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1. 1934. Paris: Gallimard, 1944.

  2. P. Schneider, ed. Baudelaire: L’Oeuvre. Les Portiques, 16. Paris: Le Club Français du Livre, 1955.

  3. Antoine Adam, ed. Baudelaire: Les fleurs du mal: Les Épaves / Bribes / Poèmes divers / Amoenitates Beligicae. Édition illustrée. 1961. Classiques Garnier. Paris: Éditions Garnier Frères, 1970.

  4. Yves Florenne, ed. Baudelaire: Les fleurs du mal: Édition établie selon un ordre nouveau. 1857. Préface de Marie-Jeanne Durry. Le Livre de Poche, 677. Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1972.

  5. Melvin Zimmerman, ed. Baudelaire: Petits Poèmes en Prose. 1869. French Classics. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968.

  6. George Dillon & Edna St. Vincent Millay, trans. Baudelaire. Les Fleurs du Mal: Translated and Presented on Pages Facing the Original French Text as Flowers of Evil. With an Introduction and an Unusual Bibliographical Note by Miss Millay. 1936. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1962.

  7. Louise Varèse, trans. Baudelaire: Paris Spleen. 1869. A New Directions PaperBook, NDP294. 1947. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1970.

  8. Francis Scarfe, trans. Baudelaire: Selected Poems. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

  9. Clark, Carol, & Robert Sykes, ed. Baudelaire in English. Penguin Classics: Poets in Translation. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997.

  10. P. E. Charvet, trans. Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists. 1972. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

  11. Edgar Allan Poe. Histoires Extraordinaires. Trans. Charles Baudelaire. Préface de Julio Cortázár. Collection Folio, 310. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1973.

  12. Enid Starkie. Baudelaire. 1957. Pelican Biographies. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  13. Claude Pichois. Baudelaire. Additional Research by Jean Ziegler. 1987. Trans. Graham Robb. 1989. London: Vintage, 1991.

Charles Baudelaire: "Spleen: I am like the king of a rainy country ..." (1861)

John Clare: "Lines: I Am" (1848)

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The English Opium-Eater

Thomas De Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)

Cors de chasse

Notre histoire est noble et tragique
Comme le masque d'un tyran
Nul drame hasardeux ou magique
Aucun détail indifférent
Ne rend notre amour pathétique

Et Thomas de Quincey buvant
L'opium poison doux et chaste
A sa pauvre Anne allait rêvant
Passons passons puisque tout passe
Je me retournerai souvent

Les souvenirs sont cors de chasse
Dont meurt le bruit parmi le vent

- Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools (1913)

Jean Cocteau: Guillaume Apollinaire (1917)

Hunting Horns

Our story's noble and tragic
like the deathmask of a tyrant
no drama sparked by chance or magic
no insignificant detail
can render love like this unreal

and Thomas de Quincey drinking
the sweet chaste poison of opium
dreamt all along of his poor Anne
pass on pass on everything passes
but I'll return here often

memories are hunting horns
whose sound dies softly in the wind

- trans. JR

Jean Cocteau: Opium (1930)

It's easy to forget that Thomas De Quincey is as significant a figure for French readers as he is for English ones. In fact, like Edgar Allan Poe, one could argue that they admire him more than we do: his peculiar distinction perhaps appeals more to a European audience than an Anglo-Saxon one.

Be that as it may, De Quincey (rightly or wrongly) is famous for one thing, and one thing only: his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, originally published anonymously in the London Magazine in September-October 1821, and then in book form (still anonymously) the following year.

I still remember the excitement in my house when my eldest brother finally bought a copy of the Confessions. It was a tiny World's Classics edition, and my other brother and myself were queued up to read it as soon as he finished it. It didn't take long. He said that the whole thing was totally boring, and mainly consisted of a long slanging match in which he denounced Coleridge as a mere dabbler and amateur in opium-consumption beside himself, with long computations of their respective consumption per day. There wasn't a single opium dream to be found in it, he concluded.

I had to acknowledge that he had a point when I did finally get my hands on the book. There was an awful lot of build-up before one got anywhere near the subject of opium, some of it autobiographical background, but most of it arguments with various critics, conducted with maximum pedantry and minimal good humour.

The whole thing, I concluded, was a swizz. Until I got my hands on a Penguin reprint of the first, 1822 edition, that is. Then I began to see what people had been talking about. Then, too, the strange and wistful figure of the young prostitute Ann (Apollinaire, possibly for personal reasons, misremembers it as Anne with an 'e') began to come into sharper focus.

"Ann of Oxford Street"
[idealised portrait]

De Quincey was always in debt. He wrote as rapidly as he could, for a variety of publications, essays and squibs which could be sold for just enough to stave off his creditors and keep his family alive for another day. (And then there was his opium habit to support, too).

The original two-part serial version of the Confessions had many deficiencies and lacunae (or so it seemed to him), few of which he was able to correct when it appeared in book form. He cherished the idea of a 'corrected' edition, where he would be able finally to do more than sketch the effect of opium on him, and on his half-erotic, half-idealised reveries.

That time finally came in the 1850s, when he was labouring away on a revised version of his essays and other works to date. It finally appeared, as Selections Grave and Gay from Writings Published and Unpublished by Thomas De Quincey (14 vols - Edinburgh: James Hogg, 1853-60).

This collection was initially prompted by an American edition - De Quincey's Writings (22 vols - Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1851-59) - which reprinted the original periodical versions of each of the pieces. De Quincey, after initially contracting to supply them with revised copy, failed (not atypically) to reply to any subsequent letters, thus forcing the enterprising Yankees to rely on the resources to hand.

Unfortunately De Quincey in his sixties, beaten down by fate, poverty, and protracted drug-addiction was not really the man he'd been in his vigorous thirties. The additions he made to The English Opium-Eater - some of them quite valuable and interesting in their own right - had the unfortunate cumulative effect of completely masking the dramatic impact of the first version.

In many ways the American edition remains the better of the two, therefore.

This leaves readers with the insoluble paradox of which version to read. The 1821-22 text is definitely superior in terms of design, conciseness, and poetic effect. It's very seldom reprinted, however.

The 1856 text begins very badly, with De Quincey at his most argumentative and twaddly, but then goes on to sharpen and expand on many parts of the fascinating tale of his sojourn in London as a teenage runaway from school, the period in which he met the beautiful young fifteen-year-old prostitute Ann, whom he loved in the most childlike and innocent way possible - one reason why his book appealed so much to the Victorians, with their child fixation (and to love-sick poets, such as Apollinaire - and myself - ever since).

Ann! For many years after he reached manhood, De Quincey paced the streets trying to find her, but no trace of her was ever discovered. The romantic dream of her innocent beauty in the midst of the degradation of turn-of-the-century London remains the most powerful image in his book, transmuted though it is into various strange forms in the dreams recorded in the fascinating section "The Pleasures of Opium."

The standard edition of De Quincey's Collected Writings, edited by David Masson in 1889-90, is forced to rely on the author's corrected texts for all the pieces originally included in Selections Grave and Gay (despite the undoubted superiority of some of the earlier texts).

David Masson, ed. Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey (1889-90)

For the most part this doesn't matter too much. For the Confessions, though, it does. Probably the best solution to date is that found by Malcolm Elwin in his 1956 MacDonald Illustrated Classics centennial edition, entitled Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in Both the Revised and the Original Texts, with its Sequels "Suspiria de Profundis" and "The English Mail-Coach". If you're fortunate enough to chance upon a copy of this, you're home and hosed (so to speak).

Malcolm Elwin, ed. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1956)

Failing that, the Penguin Classics edition of the Confessions is probably the best. You do need both texts: that's the conundrum. But be sure to read the first version first. Otherwise you risk being turned off altogether by the querulous garrulity of an elderly invalid rather than the rapturous, demon-haunted landscapes of a romantic poet in prose.

In either case, you will soon be making the acquaintance of the doomed, tragic Ann, a romantic heroine on a par with Wordsworth's Lucy, Coleridge's Christabel, or Emily Brontë's Cathy Earnshaw. In this case, however, she may well have been real.

James Archer: Thomas De Quincey (1855)

Thomas De Quincey

  1. De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings: New and Enlarged Edition. Ed. David Masson. 14 vols. 1889-90. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1896-1897:
    1. Autobiography from 1785 to 1803
    2. Autobiography and Literary Reminiscences
    3. London Reminiscences and Confessions of an Opium-Eater
    4. Biographies and Biographic Sketches (1)
    5. Biographies and Biographic Sketches (2)
    6. Historical Essays and Researches (1)
    7. Historical Essays and Researches (2)
    8. Speculative and Theological Essays
    9. Political Economy and Politics
    10. Literary Theory and Criticism (1)
    11. Literary Theory and Criticism (2)
    12. Tales and Romances
    13. Tales and Prose Phantasies
    14. Miscellanea and Index

  2. De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings. Ed. David Masson. 14 vols. Vol. I: Autobiography from 1785 to 1803. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1889.

  3. Eaton, Horace A., ed. A Diary of Thomas De Quincey, 1803: Here Reproduced in Replica as well as in Print from the Original Manuscript in the Possession of the Reverend C. H. Steel. London: Noel Douglas, [1927].

  4. Van Doren Stern, Philip, ed. Selected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. London: The Nonesuch Press / New York: Random House, n.d. [1939].

  5. De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Together with Selections from the Autobiography. Ed. Edward Sackville-West. London: The Cresset Press, 1950.

  6. De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in Both the Revised and the Original Texts, with its Sequels "Suspiria de Profundis" and "The English Mail-Coach". Ed. Malcolm Elwin. MacDonald Illustrated Classics. London: MacDonald & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1956.

  7. De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. 1821. Ed. Alethea Hayter. 1971. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

  8. De Quincey, Thomas. Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets. 1834-40. Ed. David Wright. 1970. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

"The Pains of Opium"
Giovanni Piranesi: Carceri [Prisons] XIV (1761)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Teddy Boy

Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

The first time I met Bill Manhire was at a poetry festival in Tauranga in 1998. He was standing there discussing the poetry of Ted Hughes with fellow featured poet Brian Turner. The two of them seemed, if anything, quite respectful of Hughes's oeuvre.

With bumptious self-confidence, I thrust myself into the centre of their conversation and remarked how seond-rate I thought most of Hughes's poetry was.

"Well, perhaps," replied Manhire, politely. "But Tales from Ovid was good."

"Yeah, I'd hoped that would be an exception, but even that seemed pretty bad to me," I riposted.

After that Manhire didn't seem to want to talk to me any more. I wonder why? It remains a bit of a mystery to me to this day, twenty years on.

Tony Lopez: False Memory (1996)

It wasn't the first time that Ted Hughes had got me into trouble. When I first went abroad to study, I recall a conversation in a pub where I ventured the opinion - to the young visiting poet Tony Lopez, who was spending a few semesters teaching at Edinburgh University - that people had seemed to rate Ted Hughes' work quite highly before he was appointed as Poet Laureate, but that the job was definitely the kiss of death for poets.

Lopez denounced this view with fierce indignation. No-one serious had ever rated Ted Hughes, according to him, and the comparison I'd dared to venture with Seamus Heaney was simply ridiculous, and showed how little I knew about the matter.

Lopez could be quite a gentle, nurturing person - but he also had this fiery, vituperative side. After a while we took to referring to these two aspects of his personality as 'Jekyll Lopez' and 'Hyde Lopez.' Certainly I was a little taken back by the vehemence with which he cut me down to size. Clearly it mattered deeply to him that Ted Hughes remain where he belonged: in the dogbox (or should I say the crow's-nest?).

That exchange with Lopez must have been in the late 1980s sometime. The conversation with Manhire was in March 1998 (I known because I just looked up the dates of that poetry Festival online). I'm not sure if news of Hughes's last book Birthday Letters had yet reached New Zealand, but it may well have formed the topic of Manhire and Turner's discussion, given it came out in January 1998 (according to Ann Skea's very useful Ted Hughes timeline).

Hughes died on October 28th 1998, shortly after being awarded the OM, but also shortly before Birthday Letters won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the South Bank Award for Literature, and the Whitbread Prize for Poetry and the Book of the Year prize.

Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters (1998)

It's hard to convey now, twenty years later, just how bizarre the appearance of Birthday Letters seemed at the time. Talk about a twice-told tale! Sylvia Plath had died in 1963, some 35 years before. Her work was legendary: taught in virtually every tertiary institution - not to mention high school - in the English-speaking world. There had already been a whole slew of biographies and "responses" to her life and sufferings.

This is just a selection of the ones I happen to own copies of myself:

Sylvia Plath: Self-portrait (1951)

  1. Steiner, Nancy Hunter. A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath. Afterword by George Stade. 1973. London: Faber, 1976.

  2. Kyle, Barry. Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait, Conceived and Adapted From Her Writing. 1976. London: Faber, 1982.

  3. Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. With Additional Material by Lucas Myers, Dido Merwin, and Richard Murphy. 1989. New Preface. London: Penguin, 1998.

  4. Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. 1993. Picador. London: Pan Macmillan General Books, 1994.

While still at Edinburgh, I'd gone to a most interesting talk by Sylvia's biographer (and near-contemporary) Anne Stevenson where she discussed the difficulties of working with the Hughes estate (and, in particular, with his redoubtable sister Olwyn) on her Plath biography. She said that Olwyn would have to be regarded as virtually the co-author of the book, so extensive was her involvement with each chapter of it.

Ted, she said, by contrast, remained aloof from the whole business and seemed to regard it as all water under the bridge.

There seemed a certain dignity in this attitude, this Olympian refusal to comment, and while it did seem a little odd that - by a strange accident of history - Hughes had ended up in complete charge of Sylvia Plath's literary estate, and had thus edited all of her posthumous books, from Ariel (1965) onwards, including the Collected Poems (1981) and (most controversially) a selection from her Journals (1982) - there didn't seem to be anything much there to indicate any systematic desire to falsify her legacy.

But now, in the last year of his life, he'd come back punching, determined to comment on virtually every aspect of their life together, particularly those parts recorded in the searing personal poems written towards the end of her life. Talk about wanting to have the last word!

And the poems were so strange! He claimed to have been writing them continuously over the previous thirty years, but they read as if they'd been poured out in one amorphous mass, taking their cue from the taut, coiled-spring artefacts Plath had bequeathed to the world.

Take their respective poems entitled "The Rabbit Catcher," for instance:

Sylvia Plath:
The Rabbit Catcher

It was a place of force —
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil.

I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.

There was only one place to get to.
Simmering, perfumed,
The paths narrowed into the hollow.
And the snares almost effaced themselves —
Zeros, shutting on nothing,

Set close, like birth pangs.
The absence of shrieks
Made a hole in the hot day, a vacancy.
The glassy light was a clear wall,
The thickets quiet.

I felt a still busyness, an intent.
I felt hands round a tea mug, dull, blunt,
Ringing the white china.
How they awaited him, those little deaths!
They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.

And we, too, had a relationship —
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring
Sliding shut on some quick thing,
The constriction killing me also.

Given it's already available online here, I've taken advantage of this fact to quote the poem in full. I wouldn't normally do this, but it's so tightly constructed that it's hard to make sense of otherwise.

Plath brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of an oncoming fugue or other psychological event ("a hole in the hot day, a vacancy / The glassy light was a clear wall") but otherwise concentrates almost entirely on her own reactions to this "place of force."

The imagery of the snares ("Zeros, shutting on nothing, // Set close, like birth pangs") contrasts them tellingly against the "little deaths" that excite the man who set them "like sweethearts".

And, of course, at the end of the poem, the snare she's been carefully constructing throughout springs shut and catches her own man, with his "mind like a ring / Sliding shut on some quick thing, / The constriction killing me also."

Is it a fair, a balanced poem? Not really, no. Should it be? According to whose criteria? Clearly it's struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of readers since it first appeared in the early sixties. It may not be as anthemic as "Lady Lazarus" or "Daddy", but it's perhaps all the more effective for that in portraying a woman's experience of a constrictive relationship.

So what of Ted's poem? (Which I've once again been able to quote in full, thanks to its previous appearance on the crushed fingers blog: apologies to any copyright holders I may have inadvertently offended by reprinting it here: I promise to remove it immediately if there are any complaints):

Ted Hughes:
The Rabbit Catcher

It was May. How had it started? What
Had bared our edges? What quirky twist
Of the moon’s blade had set us, so early in the day,
Bleeding each other? What had I done? I had
Somehow misunderstood. Inaccessible
In your dybbuk fury, babies
Hurled into the car, you drove. We surely
Had been intending a day’s outing,
Somewhere on the coast, an exploration —
So you started driving.

What I remember
Is thinking: She’ll do something crazy. And I ripped
The door open and jumped in beside you.
So we drove West. West. Cornish lanes
I remember, a simmering truce
As you stared, with iron in your face,
Into some remote thunderscape
Of some unworldly war. I simply
Trod accompaniment, carried babies,
Waited for you to come back to nature.
We tried to find the coast. You
Raged against our English private greed
Of fencing off all coastal approaches,
Hiding the sea from roads, from all inland.
You despised England’s grubby edges when you got there.
The day belonged to the furies. I searched the map
To penetrate the farms and private kingdoms.
Finally a gateway. It was a fresh day,
Full May. Somewhere I’d brought food.
We crossed a field and came to the open
Blue push of sea-wind. A gorse cliff,
Brambly, oak-packed combes. We found
An eyrie hollow, just under the cliff-top.
It seemed perfect to me. Feeding babies,
Your Germanic scowl, edged like a helmet,
Would not translate itself. I sat baffled.
I was a fly outside on the window-pane
Of my own domestic drama. You refused to lie there
Being indolent, you hated it.
That flat, draughty plate was not an ocean.
You had to be away and you went. And I
Trailed after like a dog, along the cliff-top field-edge,
Over a wind-matted oak-wood —
And I found a snare.
Copper-wire gleam, brown cord, human contrivance,
Sitting new-set. Without a word
You tore it up and threw it into the trees.

I was aghast. Faithful
To my country gods — I saw
The sanctity of a trapline desecrated.
You saw blunt fingers, blood in the cuticles,
Clamped around a blue mug. I saw
Country poverty raising a penny,
Filling a Sunday stewpot. You saw baby-eyed
Strangled innocents, I saw sacred
Ancient custom. You saw snare after snare
And went ahead, riving them from their roots
And flinging them down the wood. I saw you
Ripping up precarious, precious saplings
Of my heritage, hard-won concessions
From the hangings and transportations
To live off the land. You cried: ‘Murderers!’
You were weeping with a rage
That cared nothing for rabbits. You were locked
Into some chamber gasping for oxygen
Where I could not find you, or really hear you,
Let alone understand you.

In those snares
You’d caught something.
Had you caught something in me,
Nocturnal and unknown to me? Or was it
Your doomed self, your tortured, crying,
Suffocating self? Whichever,
Those terrible, hypersensitive
Fingers of your verse closed round it and
Felt it alive. The poems, like smoking entrails,
Came soft into your hands.

Well, first of all, you'll notice its length. It's immense! Sylvia gets all her effects in 30 taut lines. Ted, by contrast, takes 77 to refute - or should I say, more politely, supplement? - her version of events.

it's written in a loose, conversational style - with Hughes' usual plethora of adjectives and analogies as as substitute for thought. Essentially, it's a 'she-said, he-said' rewriting of the narrative of this particular picnic.

And, guess what? It was all her fault. She was the one who was in a "dybbuk fury" over something he doesn't even remember doing ("What had I done? I had / Somehow misunderstood"). He, by contrast, was the essence of cool reasonableness: "I simply / Trod accompaniment, carried babies, / Waited for you to come back to nature."

What's more, she shows a distinct lack of respect for the beauty of the English countryside: "You despised England’s grubby edges" - all in all, "The day belonged to the furies." In fact, if it hadn't been for him, they wouldn't even have got to the coast: "I searched the map / To penetrate the farms and private kingdoms ... Somewhere I’d brought food ... We found / An eyrie hollow, just under the cliff-top. / It seemed perfect to me."

I'm a guy myself. Self-justification comes naturally to me. I guess that's why I notice all the techniques of defensiveness in the passage above. I bought the food; I read the map; I found the perfect picnic spot - so what's your problem, bee-atch?

Actually, maybe it's a cultural thing: "Your Germanic scowl, edged like a helmet, / Would not translate itself. I sat baffled." Oh, right, it's because you're such a Nazi that we weren't getting on that day. I suppose Hughes was entitled to feel a little peeved at that famous passage in Plath's poem "Daddy" which appears to equate him with:
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
But, hey, listen up: you're the one who's a big fascist, not me. Ripping up the snares, which Plath describes as such an act of liberation, is in reality an offence against his "country gods" and the "sanctity" of "Ancient custom":
I saw you
Ripping up precarious, precious saplings
Of my heritage, hard-won concessions
From the hangings and transportations
To live off the land. You cried: ‘Murderers!’
You were weeping with a rage
That cared nothing for rabbits. You were locked
Into some chamber gasping for oxygen
It's a bit hard to tell at this stage, but do those last two lines equate her with someone in a gas chamber? Plath herself got into trouble with her propensity to draw parallels between herself and the victims of the Holocaust:
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
Is Hughes meaning to confirm the equation here, or undermine it? In any case, one thing's for sure, her rage "cared nothing for rabbits'. They were just bit-parts in her own one-woman show, shaped by the "terrible, hypersensitive / Fingers of [her] verse".

So, to sum up: Sylvia in a temper was not a pretty sight, and there seemed every risk that she might even harm the children ("What I remember / Is thinking: She’ll do something crazy"). She was quite inaccessible to reason while in this "dybbuk fury", and drove like a maniac while Ted was kept busy minding babies, buying food, reading maps, and steering them towards ideal picnic spots. She simply didn't understand about traplines and snares, seeing them (wrongly) in terms of "baby-eyed / Strangled innocents" instead of as providing pennies for the "Sunday stewpot". In short, she was wrong and he was right, and it's about time the record was set straight on the matter.

It's hard to explain precisely how I feel about this approach to past woes. On the one hand, Birthday Letters is a fascinating book to read, in a kind of tell-all, spill-the-beans way, and the loose, anecdotal nature of the verse certainly doesn't detract from its page-turning qualities.

On the other hand, while I'm no stranger to relationship discord and the passionate desire to justify oneself, there seems something intensely ungentlemanly about setting the record straight in this bald, completely one-sided way, so many years later, when the only other substantive witness has been dead for thirty-odd years. It's one thing to plead one's own cause: it's quite another to publish a whole book on the subject, a book which might as well have been entitled "Why I was Right All Along and She was Quite Wrong". The timing of the whole thing seems odd, too.

I respected the dignity of his silence: his refusal to talk about anything substantive except the canon of his wife's work. It was difficult not to. But it's a little harder to respect the impulse that gave rise to Birthday Letters, though, however much you may admire it as poetry (I don't, really).

I can't help recalling the passage in Elizabeth Bishop's great letter to Robert Lowell, protesting the use, in his book The Dolphin (1973), of edited excerpts from his wife's letters, sent to him while he was in the process of leaving her for another woman:
One can use one's life as material - one does, anyway - but these letters, aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission - IF you hadn't changed them ... etc. But art just isn't worth that much. I keep remembering Hopkins's marvelous letter to Bridges about the idea of a "gentleman" being the highest thing ever conceived - higher than a "Christian," even, certainly than a poet. It is not being "gentle" to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way — it's cruel.
- Elizabeth Bishop. One Art: Letters. Selected and edited by Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994): 562.

So is that all there is to Ted Hughes? The ogre of legend, the wife-killer - Assia Wevill, the woman he left Sylvia for, also killed herself (and her daughter), unfortunately. What is it Lady Bracknell says in The Importance of Being Earnest? "To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." That applies even more to Significant Others, one would have thought.

And yet, and yet ... his poetry has never precisely appealed to me, but there's so much of it - he was so prolific, and the sheer ambition and heft of his Collected Poems surely deserves some closer attention.

I can't say he's been terribly fortunate in his biographers (so far, at least). I've read both the fairly anodyne one by Elaine Feinstein which came out within a couple of years of his death, and the far fuller and really quite terrifying "Unauthorised" one by Jonathan Bate, which appeared in 2015: in fact it's glaring at me from the shelves right now.

What I have enjoyed reading, I must admit, is the volume of his letters, edited by Christopher Reid, which appeared in 2007. He comes across as a very human character, finally, in these. Opinionated, certainly, but one begins to understand the charisma of his personality.

There are some other very worthwhile Ted Hughes books out in the world now: the Collected Poems for Children has an almost Walter de la Mare like charm (as do his four small volumes of Collected Animal Poems). His Selected Translations show a really formidable talent for making foreign-language poetry sing in English - and a far greater engagement with verse translation than I think anyone would have suspected.

So, all in all, I feel like a bit of a fool for my easy dismissals of Ted Hughes back in the day, back when I was young and brash and opinionated and ready to rely on snap judgements rather than giving each writer the benefit of the doubt (at least initially). In fact, if it weren't that I read so many precisely similar dismissals - generally on even dafter grounds - in Hughes's own letters, I'd feel quite ashamed of myself.

Teddy Boy, yes: it seems to fit somehow. Those Teds sure dress up fine, but there's a basic violence in their hearts. I still think that it's right to retain one's suspicions of outright Ted Hughes fans, but there's no doubt that he remains a force to be reckoned with - and many of his poems, especially the animal and childhood pieces, are just excellent of their kind. It makes a big difference hearing him read them out loud himself, too: his Yorkshire accent picks out the details of the words in ways a plummy Home Counties voice never could.

Here's a list of my Hughes-iana to date:

Poetry Foundation

Edward James Hughes


  1. The Hawk in the Rain. 1957. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1972.

  2. Lupercal. 1960. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1973.

  3. Wodwo. 1967. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1977.

  4. Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. 1972. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1981.

  5. Moon-Whales. 1976. Illustrated by Chris Riddell. 1988. London: Faber, 1991.

  6. Gaudete. 1977. London: Faber, n.d.

  7. Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama. Drawings by Leonard Baskin. London: Faber, 1978.

  8. Moortown. Drawings by Leonard Baskin. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1979.

  9. Selected Poems 1957-1981. London: Faber, 1982.

  10. New Selected Poems 1957-1994. London: Faber, 1995.

  11. Collected Animal Poems. 4 vols. London: Faber, 1996.
    • Volume 1 – The Iron Wolf, illustrated by Chris Riddell
    • Volume 2 – What is the Truth? illustrated by Lisa Flather
    • Volume 3 – A March Calf, illustrated by Lisa Flather
    • Volume 4 – The Thought-Fox, illustrated by Lisa Flather

  12. Birthday Letters. 1998. London: Faber, 1999.

  13. Collected Poems. Ed. Paul Keegan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

  14. Ted Hughes Reading His Poetry. 1977. Set of 2 CDs. London: HarperCollins, 2005.

  15. Collected Poems for Children. Illustrated by Raymond Briggs. 2005. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

  16. Translation:

  17. Seneca’s Oedipus: An Adaptation. 1969. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1975.

  18. Selected Translations. Ed. Daniel Weissbort. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

  19. Fiction:

  20. How the Whale Became and Other Stories. Illustrated by George Adamson. 1963. A Young Puffin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

  21. The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights. Illustrated by George Adamson. 1968. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1975.

  22. Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories. 1995. London: Faber, 1996.

  23. The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales. London: Faber, 2003.

  24. Non-fiction:

  25. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. 1992. London: Faber, 1993.

  26. Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose. Ed. William Scammell. 1994. London: Faber, 1995.

  27. Letters:

  28. Letters of Ted Hughes. Ed. Christopher Reid. London: Faber, 2007.

  29. Secondary:

  30. Wagner, Erica. Ariel’s Gift: A Commentary on Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes. 2000. London: Faber, 2001.

  31. Feinstein, Elaine. Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001.

  32. Koren, Yehuda, & Eilat Negev. A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill. London: Robson Books, 2006.

  33. Bate, Jonathan. Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life. Fourth Estate. Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.

And, just to put things in perspective, here are the books I have by Sylvia Plath:

A Poem for Every Day

Sylvia Plath


  1. The Colossus: Poems. 1960. London: Faber, 1977.

  2. The Bell Jar. 1963. London: Faber, 1974.

  3. Ariel. 1965. London: Faber, 1974.

  4. Ariel: The Restored Edition. A Facsimile of Plath's Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement. 1965. Foreword by Frieda Hughes. 2004. London: Faber, 2007.

  5. Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1981.

  6. Fiction:

  7. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose. Ed. Ted Hughes. 1977. London: Faber, 1979.

  8. Collected Children’s Stories. 1976 & 1996. Illustrated by David Roberts. Faber Children’s Classics. London: Faber, 2001.

  9. Letters & Journals:

  10. Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-63. Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath. 1975. A Bantam Book. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1977.

  11. Kukil, Karen V., ed. The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962: Transcribed from the Original Manuscripts at Smith College. 2000. London: Faber, 2001.