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

[Of the various biographies listed below, I particularly recommend my old Edinburgh classmate Rob Morrison's The English Opium-Eater (2010). It is, to my mind, the most thorough, well-documented, and well-informed to date.]


  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.

  9. Secondary:

  10. Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. 1996. Pocket Books. London: Simon & Schuster Ltd., 1997.

  11. Lindop, Grevel. The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. 1981. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London: Orion Publishing Group, 1993.

  12. Morrison, Robert. The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey. New York: Pegasus Books, 2010.

  13. Wilson, Frances. Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

"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.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Why Siegfried Sassoon?

George Charles Beresford: Siegfried Sassoon (1915)

A visitor to the house once asked me why there was so much war poetry in the bookcases in the living room: more specifically, why there were so many books by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas, and nothing by Wilfred Owen, who is generally regarded as the pick of the bunch? I had to admit she had me there. Why wasn't there any Wilfred Owen? I've since repaired that omission, but it's interesting to me (at least) that it occurred in the first place.

I wouldn't say that I was exceptionally keen on war poetry. Certainly I've read all the usual suspects, and have a number of books on the subject, but it's not really one of my absolute areas of fanatical interest. I do love Edward Thomas, though (as my previous post on the subject should testify). And my fascination with the strange reaches of Robert Graves's imagination remains unabated. Why so much by Siegfried Sassoon, though?

Lady Ottoline Morrell: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves (1920)

Just about everything to do with the First World War is - quite naturally - very much in the news at present. I've supplied my own tentative bibliography of the subject here. I find some of Sassoon's war poetry as powerful as any ever written: "Base Details," for instance - but also 'Everyone Sang', which is just one of those perfect poems which come out of nowhere sometimes. Not out of nowhere, really, when one comes to think about it: out of four years of suffering and pain and loss of innocence and meaningless machine-age slaughter.

I'm not sure that he's really received his due as an autobiographer, though. Everyone knows Memoirs of an Infantry Office (1930), and most people are aware that it's part of a trilogy, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (his imaginary alterego). But how many readers go on to his second, more directly autobiographical trilogy, The Old Century (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942) and Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920 (1945)? And yet it's every bit as charmingly and precisely written, and perhaps even more evocative of the vanished world before the bombardment (in Osbert Sitwell's phrase).

Siegfried Sassoon: War Poems (1983)

Six prose memoirs is quite a substantial legacy. And when you add in the posthumous publications: Rupert Hart-Davis's beautifully crafted collections of War Poems (1983), together with three volumes of diaries (1981-85), not to mention Paul Fussell's elegant illustrated edition of the Sherston Memoirs, Sassoon's Long Journey (1983), he begins to look even more substantial.

Paul Fussell, ed.: Sassoon's Long Journey (1983)

Like Graves, he did have the advantage of having survived: not through any want of trying to get killed on the part of either of them, mind you. For all the editing and re-editing, Wilfred Owen's legacy remains fragmentary and thwarted because there is (comparatively) so little of the harsh, late war poetry we all admire, and so much of the flowery, fulsome pre-war poet. The fact that almost all Owen's surviving letters are addressed to his mother doesn't help, either - and nor does the fact that most of the biographical information we have about him comes through the filter of his rather jealous brother, Harold (himself a most accomplished memoirist).

Wilfred Owen: Poems (1920)

But what is it, finally, that explains my rather compulsive collecting of Sassoon's books? They are very beautifully produced and designed, of course: fine Faber layouts on pre-Second-World-War paper, for the most part. To some extent it's because of the sidelights it throws on Graves, who remains my main man in the field, I must confess (despite the comparative weakness of his own war poetry: his heart was never really in it like Sassoon and Owen).

Robert Graves: War Poems (2016)

I suppose, to some extent, it's because his work shows just how much can be accomplished with limited talents if you similarly limit your objectives. Graves was a far more unruly genius than Sassoon, but did he ever write anything as moving and perfect as the Sherston memoirs? I suspect not. Owen proved himself a far more gifted poet in the few months of mature work he was able to complete, but it was Sassoon who liberated him from his Georgian shackles, encouraged his work, and put up with his adolescent hero worship.

What's more, if you actually sit down and read a collection such as Counter-Attack (1918) from cover to cover, I think you might find it hard to sustain your belief in that label of "minor poet" which now hangs around him. It's a pretty powerful book, with poem after poem on its pages destined for immortality. How many other poets of any era can say the same?

Glyn Warren Philpot: Siegfried Sassoon (1917)

Siegfried Sassoon: Memoirs (1928-45)

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon

  1. Sassoon, Siegfried. Collected Poems. London: Faber, 1947.

  2. Sassoon, Siegfried. Collected Poems 1908-1956. 1961. London: Faber, 1984.

  3. Sassoon, Siegfried. The War Poems. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1983.

  4. Sassoon, Siegfried. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man. 1928. The Faber Library, 1. London: Faber, 1932.

  5. Sassoon, Siegfried. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. 1930. The Faber Library, 2. London: Faber, 1932.

  6. Sassoon, Siegfried. Sherston’s Progress. 1936. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1948.

  7. Sassoon, Siegfried. The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston: Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man / Memoirs of an Infantry Officer / Sherston’s Progress. 1928, 1930, 1936, 1937. London: Faber, 1945.

  8. Fussell, Paul, ed. Sassoon's Long Journey: An Illustrated Selection from Siegfried Sassoon's The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. 1928, 1930, 1936, 1937. A Giniger Book Published in association with Faber & Faber. London: Faber / New York: K. S. Giniger Co. Inc., 1983.

  9. Sassoon, Siegfried. The Old Century, and Seven More Years. London: Faber, 1938.

  10. Sassoon, Siegfried. The Weald of Youth. London: Faber, 1942.

  11. Sassoon, Siegfried. Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920. London: Faber, 1945.

  12. Sassoon, Siegfried. Meredith. 1948. A Grey Arrow. London: Arrow Books Ltd., 1959.

  13. Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1915-1918. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Book Club Associates, 1983.

  14. Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1920-1922. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1981.

  15. Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1923-1925. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1985.

  16. Sassoon, Siegfried. Letters to Max Beerbohm: with a few answers. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1986.

  17. Wilson, Jean Moorcroft. Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet. A Biography 1886-1918. 1998. New York: Routledge, 1999.

  18. Wilson, Jean Moorcroft. Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches. A Biography 1918-1967. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd., 2003.

Siegfried Sassoon: Diaries (1981-85)

Monday, December 04, 2017

Pictures from the Paper Table Booklaunch (3/12/17)

Bronwyn and I would like to thank everyone who came to the Paper Table novella launch yesterday, and were generous enough to buy so many books! We'd also like to thank our two brilliant speakers, Stu Bagby and Tracey Slaughter; our visionary designer Lisa Baudry; Leicester's cousins Dave and Viv Kyle, who were there to represent the Kyle family; our two helpers Niamh and Hatty Fitzgerald, and all the rest of you who were able to spend your Sunday afternoon with us.

We really appreciate it.

If you have any questions about either the books or the imprint, please visit our Paper Table website.

Brand design: Lisa Baudry