Ted Hughes as a Modern Poet
Ted Hughes, as a man and also as a modern poet, often fails to conform to the conventions stipulated in the society. The poetry of Hughes is objective and subjective at once. He is not a confessional poet like Sylvia Plath. Thomas West observes, …one is struck by the near absence of direct Literary influence or biographical influence.’ The eternal conflict that we perceive between the poet’s self and his lesser self, accounts for the contradiction of the existence of the personal and impersonal together. So the poems can be read at two levels, the personal and the impersonal level. This phenomenon is closely associated with a cliff in Calder valley. Hughes has stated in The Listener of 19 September, 1963:
“I have heard that valley is notable for its suicides, which I can believe, and I could also believe that rock is partly to blame for them… A slightly disastrous, crumbly, grey light, sunless and yet too clear, like a still from the documentary film of an accident –. All because of that rock and its evil eye.
It had an evil eye. I have no doubt. For one thing you cannot, look at a precipice without thinking instantly what it would be like to fall down it, Mountaineers are simply men who need to counter attack that thought… Every thought I tried to send beyond the confines of the valley had to step over that high definite hurdle.”
This passage is clear presentation of the conflict that the poet adumbrates in his verse. The thought of suicide and a desire for a counter-attack on the thought appear together. As West observes- “What is striking about this passage is not just the attribution of a brooding eye with special powers to the landscape, but the way in which the sinister, charmed summit is felt to demand a human response.”
Poe had a similar experience but he dismisses it as a violent but unreal thought. William Wordsworth, the Romantic poet, narrating his experience of stealing a boat in his Prelude, saw the folds of cliffs rising up before him and thought that Nature was chiding him for his little theft. But neither Poe nor Wordsworth attributes an evil eye to nature as Hughes does. For instance The Hawk in the Rain written around 1956 treat this conflict. It is an uneasy meeting between the force in the hawk’s ‘still eye’ and the ordinary human eye which feels frightened of it.
Ted Hughes has specific notions about poetry and its functions. He does not approve of the sentimental approach to poetry. He considers it artificial. Poetry deals with the inner world, the world of imagination. Such poetry can appeal to emotions and even touch the subconscious pent up energy. His works cover a wide range of topics like magic, mythology, religions, language and the power of music.
Ted Hughes avers that formerly religion served the purpose of taming the forces struggling inside man. Every poet is a myth-maker in his own way. He gives a new name to the world by using familiar expressions in a different way or by coining new ones. Such making of myths has also a therapeutic effect. Science has questioned religion and thereby dehumanised these forces. Myth solves this problem by taming this devil and giving it the form of stories or poems. It provides a psychic release. In his Myth I (p.58) Hughes points out:
And this devil of suppressed life stops making trouble the moment he is acknowledged, the moment he is welcomed into conscious life and given some shape where he can play out his energy in an active part of the personality. The best way to welcome him and to release him, it is reckoned, is within the framework of a fantasy. Once the fantasy has made connection with the demon and given him a role, the person feels cured.
For instance, in “The Hawk in the Rain” there is a second narrator who explains the hawk’s eye and the drowning man. This implied narrator tries to bring together Nature’s inexpressible power and the weakness of the common slogging man.
Ted Hughes uses animals, fish and birds as aesthetic shapes and sources of life to combat the sterility of his times. Animals are poetic masks and powerful poetic symbols for Hughes, to reach the world of the spirit. He says:
“There are all sorts of ways of capturing animals and birds and fish. I spent most of my time, up to the age of fifteen or so, trying out many of these ways and when my enthusiasm began to wane, as it did gradually, I started to write poetry…”
[‘Capturing Animals‘, Listener, 72 (Oct. 29, 1964), 677].
He flies with the spirits to the world of imagination to experience and provide psychic relief. Hughes had depth of feeling and sympathy for his subject and this understanding helped him in arousing strong response in his readers. For instance in February’ he describes the birth of the lamb thus:
“He should have
Felt his way, tip-toe, his toes
Tucked up under his nose
For a safe landing”
For Hughes, the wildness of the wolf is part of the uncivilized nature extant in man. These energies are suppressed by the society until they are released as stories or pictures. If they are not released they will keep on coming to the surface from time to time. The hawk’s mental strength in “The Hawk in the Rain” stands for the man who struggles persistently to establish his point in this mutable world. The jaguars and macaws reflect the fierce-natured man while the fox represents man’s cunning, the cut-throat competitive tendency in the human psyche.
Violence is an essential aspect of the poetry of Ted Hughes. It is an assertion of identity, a pure expression of the poet. The British have always been a warlike and belligerent nation and Hughes seems to reflect this quality, especially imperialism, in his poetry.
“Hawk-Roosting” treats a kind of violence that has on justification in the poem, it is a privilege. The bird proudly avers that it needed the entire power of Creation to produce its foot feathers. So,
“Now I hold Creation in my foot” [I.12]
The hawk considers himself the master of the universe:
“I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads–
The alloment of death” [II.14-17]
Again, the stare of the pike, in the poem of that title, is most disturbing. The pikes live on each other as some men grab victory forcibly from those who have worked for it. The predatory quality described in the different animals, birds and fish give the impression that they have no other alternative than to resort to violence. This is also true of men who use violence and reach their goal by hook or by crook.
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