Ted Hughes

Image after image. Image after image. As the vulture
Circled.
(Prometheus on his crag, Poem 20, by Ted Hughes)

This overview of Ted Hughes’s career is by way of preparing for a review of Ted Hughes’s volume of translation, Tales from Ovid, in the next blog post.

Ted Hughes (1930 to 1998) was one of Britain’s best poet-war poets. Born in 1930 in Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire, Hughes was a countryman through and through, brought up as a boy ranging over the rainswept moors and farms of his home region, coming across the bones of dead sheep or birds, ranging over a landscapes of ferns and thistles, bracken and broom, and harsh northern birds – crows, hawks – flinging themselves into the wind over his head.

Early career

Hughes went to Cambridge to study English but found its traditionalism stifling and switched to Anthropology and Archaeology, developing an interest in shamen and the supernatural which would last his career. He had the usual scattering of odd jobs until his first volume, The Hawk in The Rain, published in 1957, won prizes and his literary career was launched. There followed an infrequent but extraordinary series of volumes:

1957 The Hawk in the Rain
1960 Lupercal
1967 Wodwo
1970 Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow
1975 Cave Birds
1977 Gaudete
1979 Remains of Elmet
1979 Moortown
1983 River
1986 Flowers and Insects
1989 Wolfwatching
1997 Tales from Ovid
1998 Birthday Letters

The early books are full of poems about otters, hawks, ferns, thistles, thrushes, pike, the kind of animals he grew up observing, fishing or hunting, all described with a feral brutality and supernatural ability to inhabit their lives, all glinting eyes and tearing talons:

As Wikipedia says, ‘The West Riding dialect of Hughes’s childhood remained a staple of his poetry, his lexicon lending a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical.’

Intermixed are other subjects, the Great War (Bayonet charge, Wilfred Owen’s photographs), animals in the zoo, like the Jaguar. The early poems in their concern for standard stanzas and his occasional bathetic lapses of subject matter, sometimes remind you that he wasn’t born fully formed but emerged from the very traditional 1950s, from John Osborne’s 1950s of angry young writers raging against the dead hand of the older generation. The early poems, trailing traces of traditionalism, often indicate the effort required to break free of black and white, provincial Englishness and find his voice.

Hence a poem describing a DH Lawrence-style argument between a miner and his wife or the poem taking the mickey out of a retired colonel or satirising a Famous Poet – these satires or kitchen sink dramas seem a bit, well, obvious and trite, placed next to the more mind-bending visionary poems. Somehow unworthy of his extraordinary gift.

The Great War

His obsession with the First World War apparently derived from the fact his father fought in it. Hence:

  • the three-part poem, Out, about his father’s wounds and ominous silence
  • or the sweaty terror of a bayonet charge
  • the last thoughts of a man shot through the head
  • the five anti-war poems in the sequence Scapegoats and Rabies
  • the dense Larkinesque poem about the photograph of a group of six young men from Hughes’s village who were all killed during the war
  • the inclusion in Crow of a battle scene, Crow’s account of the battle
  • reference to the Battle of the Somme in ‘Crow improvises’

But nevertheless the subject feels a little, well, obvious, compared to the visionary poems. And the anti-war sarcasm of Scapegoats and rabies feels, despite the fancy phrasing, straight out of Siegfried Sassoon. Old.

When he writes that war is sweat and terror it is what thousands of others have written; but nobody else had realised that November is ‘the month of the drowned dog’, that the attent, sleek thrushes on the lawn are terrifying in their single-minded obsession with bouncing and stabbing and dragging some writhing thing out of the wet earth; or that thistles are a fistful of splintered weapons thrusting out of the grave of a rotting Viking. This was, and remains, news from another dimension.

Books for children

In another mode it’s surprising, given his reputation for searing descriptions of the harshness of nature, how very sensitive some of the poems are, first dew on fresh cobwebs:

A reminder that alongside his harsh and symbolical works for adults, Hughes wrote no fewer than 16 books for children, some of them very successful, for example the tale of the Iron Man. But the delicacy of those two poems and a handful like them, when it appears is marvellous but is comparatively rare.

Extraordinary intensity of vision

The weakness of Hughes’s adult style was that he started off at such full throttle, with maximum brutality, animals killing each other, young men blown to smithereens in the Great War, God invoked as a helpless witness of the universal bloodshed, that is was hard to know where to go next. Right from the start the human mind (well, Hughes’s mind) is under relentless attack, assaulted by the bestial savagery of the natural world.

Dead and unborn are in God comfortable.
What a length of gut is growing and breathing –
This mute eater, biting through the mind’s
Nursery floor, with eel and hyena and vulture,
With creepy-crawly and the root,
With the sea-worm, entering its birthright.

In small doses, an individual Hughes poem is like an icepick to the imagination. Over any length, the relentless extremity becomes pretty wearing and, worse, begins to lose its impact. There is a staggering visionary power to his imagery and phrasing, again and again, which feel like they’ve been ripped out of the windswept landscape of the North:

The farms are oozing craters in
Sheer sides under the sodden moors…

Or see deeper into reality, expressing levels of perception most of us didn’t know existed:

The pig lay on a barrow dead.
It weighed, they said, as much as three men.
Its eyes closed, pink white eyelashes.
Its trotters stuck straight out.

Such weight and thick pink bulk
Set in death seemed not just dead.
It was less than lifeless, further off.
It was like a sack of wheat.

‘It was less than lifeless’, what a dynamite idea, what an insight. There are hundreds of moments like this in Hughes’s oeuvre, which take you beyond the horizon of your thinking, yanking together worlds of perception, brilliant.

His earliest poems in the 1950s followed traditional poetic forms, employed regular stanzas and rhymes and all, although always pushing at them with half rhymes and embedded rhymes and assonance. By 1967’s Wodwo he was using a lot more free verse, the individual line getting the space and impact its utterance deserved rather than following the same metre as all the other lines in the poem, some only one word long if that was what was required, others becoming very long indeed, all of them unfolding a science fiction, otherworldly intensity of vision:

I listened in emptiness on the moor ridge.
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.

Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted

Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,

And the big planets hanging—

‘Horizon’ is a favourite word in the early poems, the narrator’s spirit flying off over the edge of normal perception, spinning into the prophetic otherworld inhabited by his killer animals.

… He meant to stand naked
Awake in the pitch dark where the animal runs,
Where the insects couple as they murder each other,
Where the fish outwait the water.

I agree. As a Darwinian materialist I see a vast universe of complete indifference, on one tiny planet of which life forms have evolved through a never-ending cycle of relentless competition and mass murder. And we humans are unavoidably part of the choiceless animal kingdom – as portrayed over and over again in Hughes’s oeuvre, for example in Crow Tyrannosaurus, where Crow disgustedly sees all other life forms condemned to eat screaming victims, then finds himself unable to avoid doing the same.

Myth making

But, having established this territory of panic-stricken intensity, where was there to go next? Hughes’s answer was to double down on the anthropological aspect of his work, increasingly turning the animals he described with such staggering vividness in the early poems into heavyweight symbols in a symbolical mindscape:

The bear is digging
In his sleep.
Through the wall of the universe
With a man’s femur.

The bear is a well
Too deep to glitter
When your shout
Is being digested.

The bear is a river
Where people bending to drink
See their dead selves.

The bear sleeps
In a kingdom of walls.
In a web of rivers.

He is the ferryman
To dead land.

The trouble with this kind of writing, innovative, mind-opening, astonishing as it first appeared in the 1960s, is that it can quickly come to seem too easy, too glib. Replace ‘bear’ with any other big mammal you can think of, tiger, bison, rhino, whatever. I admit it does make a bit of difference, but not enough. And Hughes wrote scores of poems like it, outlandish, fluent, increasingly pretentious but, worst of all, with whole stanzas or passages which were interchangeable. Identikit. Rentamyth.

Somewhere Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems rarely present an argument but leap from one dazzling image to the next, and you can see it in action in ‘The Bear’. Each of those little sections isn’t a stanza in the traditional sense of a unit with a predictable number of lines, with a predictable metre and system of rhyme – they’re more like items on a list, each little unit a miniature parable clustered round one of Alvarez’s dazzling images, each one lasting exactly as long as it takes to express that image.

Too much pretentious abstraction

You can trace this runaway fluency in Hughes’s increasingly casual use of the word ‘God’. To begin with it has some vestige of Christian meaning and therefore feels transgressively powerful when mentioned in the early, pagan beast poems. However, the term soon becomes something more like an anthropological abstraction, as much a part of the merciless world as the howling wind and biting rain, equally as driven and powerless. And then, as Hughes became more prolific and apocalyptic and symbolical, the word ‘God’ is thrown around with increasing abandon, losing some of its poetic charge with each iteration.

When Hughes ended his poem about the terrifying crabs which emerge clattering from the sea at night by calling them ‘God’s only toys’, it is not as powerful as it ought to be because of so many other animals or experiences which have, by now, been associated with this ‘God’. Ultimately, the word becomes somewhat cartoony.

When I was a young man bursting with hormones, ‘A childish prank’ struck me as a profound insight into the bittersweet world of sex. Now it strikes me as on a level with a roadrunner cartoon. Too often in the mythological poems everything is everywhere all the time – terms like the universe, infinity, God, Death become increasingly empty counters. His mythological character Crow:

peered out through the portholes at Creation
And saw the stars millions of miles away
And saw the future and the universe

And:

The body lay on the gravel
Of the abandoned world
Among abandoned utilities
Exposed to infinity forever

And:

Crow looked at the world, mountainously heaped.
He looked at the heavens, littering away
Beyond every limit

And:

There was this terrific battle.
The noise was as much
As the limits of possible noise could take

And:

So the survivors stayed.
And the earth and the sky stayed.
Everything took the blame.
Not a leaf flinched, nobody smiled.

And:

Crow roasted the earth to a clinker, he charged into space –
Where is the Black Beast?
The silences of space decamped, space flitted in every direction.

And:

He sees everything in the Universe
Is a track of numbers racing towards an answer.

And:

People were running with bandages
But the world was a draughty gap
The whole creation
Was just a broken gutter pipe.

And:

Without a goodbye
Faces and eyes evaporate.
Brains evaporate.
Hands arms legs feet head and neck
Chest and belly vanish
With all the rubbish of the earth.
And the flame fills all space.

The same kind of extremity and exorbitance, the same kind of phraseology about ‘the universe’ and ‘space’ and ‘Death’ in every poem. Gets a bit boring.

The same could go for the word ‘crucifixion’. When it first appeared in one of the 1950s poems it had a shocking impact appropriate to an era when the Church of England was still a power in the land. It crops up more and more regularly as Hughes moved into the 60s. And by the time of Crow (1970) it had become just one more of his pseudo-mythological reference points, appearing on pages 35, 36, 63, 68, 77, 82 of the book. It had become routine. ‘God’, ‘crucifixion’, ‘space’, ‘Death’, ‘infinity’ – all became steadily overused.

Having invented a searingly intense new way of seeing the world, perhaps it was inevitable that Hughes would go on to flog them to death and, in doing so, turn his dazzling insights into a new set of stereotypes and clichés.

(The way Hughes burst on the scene with a radically violent and personal vision, tinged with unhinged psychosis, in the late 1950s, flowered in the 60s, decayed in the 70s and then became a prolix echo of himself from the 1980s onwards, is strongly reminiscent of the identical career arc of the visionary novelist, J.G. Ballard, born in the same year, 1930.)

Crow

1970’s Crow saw Hughes give full throttle to his anthropological interests. It consists of 89 pages of poems devoted to the figure of ‘Crow’ seen as a nature god, a shamanistic figure who caws and pecks his way through a series of bleakly powerful fables and parables. A disenchanted, non-human observer of the disasters of Creation. The creation of a new mythic character, and the abstract flinty style of the cosmic parables, is an extraordinary achievement,

But from a technical point of view, even if, as a poet, you reject conventional forms and stanzas, you still have to find some way organise your lines on a page and it turns out one of the most basic ways to do that is with repetition, the basic forms of incantations, spells and liturgies. Look at the obsessive use of repeated phrases in these poems from Crow:

Even simpler than variations on the question and answer format, the easiest way to create a poem is simply to line up a sequence of images and just put ‘And’ at the start of each of them:

When the owl sailed clear of tomorrow’s conscience
And the sparrow preened himself of yesterday’s promise
And the heron laboured clear of the Bessemer upglare
And the bluetit zipped clear of lace panties
And the woodpecker drummed clear of the rotovator and the rose-farm
And the peewit tumbled clear of the laundromat

This isn’t ‘about’ anything: it feels like a dazzle of images. It may be aiming for the fake sonority of an Old Testament genealogy, but it is just a glorified list with smart variations. And once you get started with this kind of thing, it proves difficult to stop. The ‘and’ thing becomes addictive, leading to a fluency which starts off impressive but ends up becoming steadily more meaningless:

While the bullfinch plumped in the apple bud
And the goldfinch bulbed in the sun
And the wryneck crooked in the moon
And the dipper peered from the dewball

Wodwo

1967’s Wodwo had expanded the notion of a collection of verse by including a set of short stories and a play wedged between two suites of poems i.e. as soon as he could, Hughes was interested in experimenting with other forms. Crow is a collection of invented folk tales or parables. 1975’s Cave Birds continued this interest in playing with forms, Hughes himself describing it as ‘an alchemical drama’.

Gaudete

1977’s Gaudete took this a step further, creating a innovative hybrid form of narrative, a sort of novella told entirely in highly charged poetic prose, or in lines of verse so free they range from one-word lines to lines which contain entire paragraphs.

Gaudete is a deeply weird book. The plot, such as it is, concerns an Anglican clergyman named Lumb (with his ‘long-jowled monkish visage,’ p.87) who is abducted by spirits and replaced by an identical copy of himself. This changeling is driven like a machine to tup every woman in their little village, maybe in a bid to conceive the next Messiah (at least that is the explanation given by Evans the blacksmith’s girlfriend on page 113).

The 200-page text describes the last day of fake Lumb’s existence in the village as he drives from manor, to farmhouse, to open field, in order to service women who are all mindlessly infatuated with him, gagging for abandoned sex.

In the second half their various husbands and boyfriends all tumble to the fact that their women are being tupped by this relentless shagger (helped by 18-year-old poacher Joe Garten who take incriminating photos of couples in the act or, at the very least, of Lumb’s distinctive blue Austen van outside everyone’s houses while the husbands are away).

The cuckolded men meet to drum up Dutch courage in the local pub and decide to confront Lumb at that evening’s women’s meeting in the church, which is in fact some kind of black magic coven wherein the women strip naked, take magic mushrooms, wrap themselves in dead animals skins and lose themselves in primitive drum music, before performing The Ritual.

It’s like The Archers remade by the director of Emmanuelle, except in a tone of relentless hysteria – part 70s soft porn, part Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The key words are ‘scream’ and ‘skull’, ‘dead’ and terror’. Blood and guts spill across every page:

But already hands grip his head,
And the clamp of tightness, which has not shifted,
Is a calf-clamp on his body.
He can hear her whole body bellowing.
His own body is being twisted and he hears her scream out.

He feels bones give. He feels himself slide.
He fights in hot liquid.
He imagines he has been torn in two at the waist and this is his own blood everywhere.

The retired naval commander Estridge’s daughter, Janet, hangs herself when his other daughter, Jennifer, tells her that she, too, is in love with Lumb and is carrying his child. Dr Westlake, tipsy after a pub lunch, confronts Lumb in his wife’s bedroom and tries to shoot him with a shotgun. The young architect, Dunworth, discovers Lumb in flagrante with his wife and, after failing to shoot either of them with his handgun, puts it into his own mouth but also fails to pull the trigger, and is left a broken shell of a man as Lumb drives off and his wife ignores him. Young poacher Joe Garten spies Lumb tupping Betty the barmaid from the local pub (the Bridge Inn) among the bluebells, and gets home to find his mum adjusting the rabbit cages which she has upset during her just-completed coition with Lumb – at which point he sets out to gather as much incriminating evidence against the vicar as he can. Maud gets fucked, Felicity gets fucked, Mrs Holroyd too, in a delirious merry-go-round of rural rumpy-pumpy.

It sounds ridiculous and it ought to be, but the whole thing is told in fast-moving 1-, 2- or 3- page sections of extraordinary, hallucinatorily intense prose poetry.

It is a very long poem on acid (in fact, in the climactic black magic scene in the crypt of the church, the women are dosed with magic mushrooms, p.140). But no drugs are needed for most of the characters to be continually in the grip of wildly extreme emotions, and the poetic prose to be off-the-scale in over-vivid intensity.

Commander Estridge’s arrival at the Bridge Inn could have been described in a matter-of-fact, realistic style, whereas Hughes gives us a charged, symbolical description of how triggers psychological impact on the other men already gathered and grumbling.

His arrival
Is like permission: it flings open all limits.
His ferocity, concentrated in that bulbous hawk’s eye,
Delegates, as in a battle,
A legitimate madness to each member. (p.143)

Although the characters go about often recognisable activities – poaching, shopping in town, sunbathing, idling away the afternoon looking through a telescope – and there is more than enough precisely observed detail to fill a novel, yet the inflamed prose poetry conveys a continual sense of unreality and weirdness.

All over her body the nerves of her skin smoulder.
The cream suit is an agony.
A lump of boiling electricity swells under her chest.
Wild cravings twist through her
To plunge to the floor
As if into a winter sea
And scour her whole body’s length with writhings. (p.38)

As a student I read it in one all-night sitting, too terrified to get out of bed to go for a pee or put it down. I distinctly remember the moment when Lumb is driving his blue Austen van round the curve of a hillside when out of nowhere two hairy arms reach over his shoulders, grab the wheel and wrench it to the side, sending his van tumbling down the hillside and hurling Lumb into another of the terrifying Samuel Beckett-type nightmares which punctuate the main narrative. (He has a vision of all the women he’s tupping buried up to their necks in mud and screaming in terror as some underground monster approaches to tear and shred their trapped bodies. The muddiness of this mud world reminded me very powerfully of Samuel Beckett’s 1964 text, ‘How It Is’, depicting a man out of his mind crawling through a world of mud).

Now, rereading it 30 years later, I noticed two things:

1. That in such a long book, effectively a novel in poetic prose, there isn’t a scrap of dialogue. Odd. Eeerily so. Some of the characters, especially towards the end as the husbands band together, are described as talking, but we never hear any actual dialogue. I think this was a deliberate choice because nothing anyone could say could match the delirious intensity of the narrative voice.

2. Second thing: it is a very great relief to be out of Hughes’s head. Ok, so all the character experience life in a very Hughesian way, drowning in extreme emotions, are shaken with terror, clutching their skulls and silently screaming etc. But actually a) there is a range of human characters unprecedented in his oeuvre, and b) there is more effort than in any other Hughes work to differentiate between the characters, in terms of names, professions, activities, descriptions of their homes, their attitudes and experiences.

[Mrs Davies having sex p.93, Mrs Walsall having sex p.96.]

Sylvia?

After the main narrative is over, if you have any mental energy left, Gaudete presents 20 pages of short fragmented poems, supposedly from the notebook of the real Reverend Lumb, supposedly addressed to some kind of female deity, but which are obviously fragments which have no place in the main story.

Only one of them made any impression on me, but really stood out. I wondered if it was a veiled memory of Sylvia Plath. Here it is in its entirety:

Once I said lightly
Even if the worst happens
We can’t fall off the earth.

And again I said
No matter what fire cooks us
We shall be still in the pan forever.

And words twice as stupid.
Truly hell heard me.

She fell into the earth
And I was devoured.

Moortown

Like a lot of creative people who took things to the limit and beyond in the 1960s and on into the long hangover of the 1970s, it feels like Hughes eventually exhausted the vein of his own weirdness, burst the bubble of mythographic pretentiousness, and reverted to a more sober, factual style. Up to a point, anyway.

Thus 1979’s Moortown contains a sequence of 34 poems describing his work on a sheep farm in Devon. They have his characteristic brutal honesty about the blundering cruelty of nature – the poem about the bloody process of dehorning cows is particularly stomach turning, in fact it is such a traumatic procedure that he had already spent a couple of pages of Gaudete describing it in unnecessary detail – but are nonetheless a reversion back to the more naturalistic subject matter of his early period (albeit with cosmic burps). It opens with a brilliantly vivid description of rain in the countryside.

Mist-rain off-world. Hills wallowing
In and out of a grey or silvery dissolution. A farm gleaming,
Then all dull in the near drumming. At field-corners
Brown water backing and brimming in grass.
Toads hop across rain-hammered roads.

The recurring descriptions of the bloody process of cows or sheep giving birth and the many calves or lambs which are born dead or get stuck halfway and strangled so their heads have to be sawn off etc are grimly, sadistically naturalistic, and often deliberately repellent. With the result that my favourite poem is the one about a tractor frozen in the deep winter.

The tractor stands frozen – an agony
To think of. All night
Snow packed its open entrails.

I love that when they finally get the frozen tractor to start, it abruptly bursts:

with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting Where Where?

‘Where Where?’ Even Hughes’s most ‘adult’ poems often come perilously close to his children’s poems in their wide-eyedness.

Reading ‘Moortown’ made me realise Hughes is not such a Darwinian materialist as I had thought. In fact he’s more like a Platonist. His poetry believes there are huge primeval forces, universal abstract forces, continually at work in the world and that individual entities – foxes, hawks, cows, ewes, humans – are pathetic tatters which get caught up in the maelstrom of these forces, treated like puppets, tortured, thrown away once they’re used up.

Animals, and especially people, are only really interesting for Hughes insofar as they embody or trigger these eternal forces – in humans the embodiment coming via the primal experiences of sex, death, rage, despair and so on.

And the landscape only appears to be made up of trees and fields and hedges because beneath it all Hughes’s imagination sees archetypal science fiction forces, ‘the earth’s furnace’, the snow is ‘star dust’, ‘space’ is continually entering the woods or pressing onto the grass, the sun is eating the moon, the moon drinks the sea, the wood disappears over the edge of the world, and so on.

In this vein Hughes uses the term ‘radioactive’ twice in the sequence, not because there is any radioactivity anywhere but as a 1970s symbol for the enduring, invisible, science fiction forces which underpin the mess of living and dying things.

Orf

The poem ‘Orf’ maybe demonstrates the four levels of Hughes’s cosmology. Level one is naturalistic descriptions of nature, in this case a sickening description of the illness and sores which plague a lamb and refuse to get better (which I won’t trouble you with). So Hughes shoots the lamb in the head, at which point we get level 2, a kind of detached and carefully alienated vision of what follows, observation of nature as by a robot, by someone completely outside the normal frame of human and humane reference. He shoots the lamb and then:

He lay down.
His machinery adjusted itself
And his blood escaped, without any loyalty.

This is a brilliant mentation of the act of dying, only a little undermined by the fact that this trope, of comparing a living thing to a machine, is a very common Hughes tactic; it occurs throughout Hughes’s oeuvre. Just a few pages later, here’s a newborn calf learning to suckle at the udder:

He got going finally, all his new
Machinery learning suddenly.

Anyway, back to ‘Orf’, Hughes then moves the narrative to level 3, to the shaman-pagan plane, as he imagines the dead lamb’s soul standing up in front of him and asking permission to be dismissed.

But the lamb-life in my care
Left him where he lay, and stood up in front of me
Asking to be banished.

OK. I get this as a transformation of the lamb into a mythological figure. Because I’ve read the visionary weirdnesses of Crow and Gaudete this doesn’t surprise me as much as it might someone new to Hughes.

And so, finally, to level 4: ‘Orf’ is useful because it is a little more explicit than most of the poems about where all this is taking place i.e inside Hughes’s deeply fevered imagination. It happens:

Inside my head
In the radioactive space
From which the meteorite had removed his body.

Thousands of lyric poets talk about their feelings, go on at great length about their feelings, about their lady love or a Grecian Urn or Tintern Abbey or whatever. Not many poets describe their own minds as ‘a radioactive space’ which has been hit by a meteorite. I find this brain damage aspect of Hughes’s verse is often overlooked. Critics analyse the obvious subject matter but overlook the obvious fact that the poet frequently refers to himself as deranged.

Hughes’s science fiction vibe

Also: surfing the internet for essays and reviews and notes on Hughes, I’ve come across plenty of critics who point to his interest in black magic, the Kabbala and whatnot. This is a relatively easy subject to discuss because a) Hughes himself frequently mentioned it, b) it’s at the centre of Gaudete and other works, and c) magic it has its own texts for critics to plunder and quote and juxtapose with similar passages by Hughes. Essays on a plate. By contrast, I haven’t seen anyone pointing out the persistent theme of science fiction imagery in his poetry. Sure, the sun and the moon might be interpreted as basic symbols found in primitive writing around the world or pagan religions etc. But not radiation or meteorites.

Prometheus on his crag

Next to the vivid descriptions of the farm poems, the ‘mythological’ sequences ‘Prometheus on his crag’ (21 poems) and ‘Adam and the sacred nine’ (12 poems) seem like a throwback to the Crow period but without the cocky swagger of Crow; they come over as forced and pretentious.

‘Prometheus’ is all babies being dragged out of wombs, exploded heavens, screaming entrails, insane laughter, the sea retching bile and so on – so hyperbolical and inordinate it’s quite an effort to take seriously or care. (And includes a few more references which support my science fiction thesis: Hughes mentions ‘one nuclear syllable’ (17) and ‘atomic law’ (20), and the buzzword ‘space’ has a little splurge in poem 19:

So speech starts hopefully to hold
Pieces of the wordy earth together
But pops to space-silence and space-cold

Emptied by words
Scattered and gone.
And the mouth shuts
Savagely on a mouthful

Of space-fright which makes the ears ring.)

The sequence titled ‘Orts’ contains 22 poems, none of which meant very much to me, which I skimmed because they all sound the same.

Adam and the Sacred Nine

But for me the utter nadir of meaninglessness, the point at which Hughes’s endlessly repeated schtick of screaming universes reached absolute rock bottom, was in poem 8 of ‘Adam and the Sacred Nine’.

The nine in question turn out, rather disappointingly, to be common or garden English birds.

There’s a poem about the wren which I thought was rubbish; I have a jenny wren nesting in my garden that I love to watch flitting about among the ivy and and bushes, and Hughes’s cosmic bullshit completely failed to capture the look and feel and activity of an actual wren, at all.

But the rock bottom of his cosmic style arrives in the poem about the owl. Here it is in its entirety:

And Owl

Floats. A masked soul listening for death.
Death listening for a soul.
Small mouths and their recriminations are suspended.
Only the centre moves.

Constellations stand in awe. And the trees very still, the fields very still
As the Owl becalms deeper
To stillness.
Two eyes, fixed in the heart of heaven.

Nothing is neglected, in the Owl’s stare.
The womb opens and the cry comes
And the shadow of the creature
Circumscribes its fate. And the Owl

Screams, again ripping the bandages off
Because of the shape of its throat, as if it were a torture
Because of the shape of its face, as if it were a prison
Because of the shape of its talons, as if they were inescapable

Heaven screams. Earth screams. Heaven eats. Earth is eaten.

And earth eats and heaven is eaten.

For me, by this stage, Hughes had destroyed his own gift. He had turned his style into a cupboard of clichés – the same ludicrously hyperbolic cosmic vision, the same handful of key words (universe, scream, torture, death, birth, heaven, earth, blah blah blah) repeated with minor variations, everything turned into everything else which is probably having its womb ripped open or its skull staved in, blood weltering, with lots of screaming all round. The one good line:

Nothing is neglected in the Owl’s stare

tells you how crisp and precise his writing had once but it’s in fact a repetition of lines and attitude first and best expressed in ‘Hawk roosting’ from 1960:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

Some of the same brilliant intensity is here, obviously, but a) it’s a repetition of something he did better 30 years earlier and then b) it collapses into the ludicrous morass of overblown tripe of the poem’s final lines.

Depression and confessional poetry

There’s a case to be made that Hughes’s entire oeuvre amounts to the author struggling with depression and worse, with recurrent feelings of howling despair, or whatever the technical term is for a continual, hallucinatory over-intensity of perception and feeling directed in an unremittingly negative, death-obsessed direction.

The 1960s saw an increasing number of artists in all media letting it all hang out. The phrase ‘confessional poetry’ was coined in 1959 and applied to a number of American poets (notably Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton) and to Hughes’s ill-fated wife, Sylvia Plath (who committed suicide in 1963).

You could argue that his most memorable poems are the ones which maintain a precarious balance – containing his violent feelings and endless visions of pain, screaming skulls, flames crashing through space etc within a framework of detailed real-world observation. Certainly that’s why I love the early poems about the pike, otter, thistles, pig, bull, hawk, thrushes and so on – the dominant element is the wonderfully observed real-world imagery, behind which the shamanistic, universal anthropological vibe provides the fuel, supercharging the details, making them luminescent.

In the increasingly anthropological poems of the 1960s Hughes doesn’t exactly bare his soul – he rarely if ever speaks in his own character, rarely if ever about his own emotions per se. But he uses his animals to convey very strong emotions indeed, murder, rape, sexual disgust, despair. I thought Crow was the peak of this process, a great primal scream of a book, for example:

  • in ‘Crow’s account of St George’, which is a horrifying bad acid trip nightmare description of a man hacking his wife and children to pieces
  • ‘Criminal ballad’, where the man looks at his children playing in the garden and can’t hear them for machine guns and screaming
  • A bedtime story about a man who can never manage to do or be complete

But in retrospect a lot of the Crow poems still maintain a kind of balance, a sort of restraint and so command respect, because the mad intensity is contained within the form of parables or fables or lessons.

Similarly, hundreds and hundreds of lines in Gaudete although they contain a relentless bombardiment of hysterical extremity are, nonetheless, contained and controlled by the requirement of telling a narrative, the need to describe actual real-world incidents and to depict the large cast of actual human characters. This serves to rein in Hughes’s derangement and limit and focus his hysteria.

By contrast, the other sequences contained in Moortown (beside the title series which is avowedly naturalistic in intent) abandon any restraint, like a fat man taking off his belt, and the result is the great splurge of cosmic diarrhoea which characterise ‘Prometheus on his crag’ and ‘Adam and the sacred nine’.

I thought these poems were so drainingly absurd, such repetitive drivel, that I gave up buying new Ted Hughes books after Moortown. I thought his appointment as poet laureate in 1984 was a bizarre decision and read his laureate poems with dismay, as he struggled to reconcile his mythological blah with the modern world of tiaras and royal receptions.

Hughes seemed to be sinking into irrelevance until the sudden publication, right at the end of his life, of Tales from Ovid (1997) and Birthday Letters (1998), which changed everyone’s perception of what had come before.


Poetry reviews

Classical poetry

Dark Age poetry

Medieval poetry

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Victorian poetry

Kipling

1930s poetry

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Mr Standfast by John Buchan (1919)

I always felt that I was a better bandit than a detective

Thiis is the third and longest of the five Richard Hannay novels, set against the backdrop of the Great War as it entered its fourth and crucial year. Its length is its terrible weakness as, instead of depth or subtlety, Buchan just piles on incident after incident until the plot becomes completely untenable and almost incomprehensible. As just a sample, Hannay:

  • goes undercover in a garden village of pacifists
  • goes undercover in working class Glasgow, gets involved in speeches and fistfights
  • goes undercover across Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Skye
  • is involved in spying and fighting in secret coves on Skye
  • adopts the identity of a travelling salesman of religious books
  • is chased by police around Edinburgh, jumps a train south, escapes from that into a troop train
  • flies south in a commandeered airplane and crashes
  • takes command of a film shoot re-enacting a scene from the War as he makes his escape through the set
  • returns to command of his brigade in France
  • breaks into a mysterious french chateau and discovers germ warfare
  • is trapped in the dungeon of a Swiss castle, escapes
  • disguises himself as a Swiss peasant
  • climbs an inaccessible Alpine pass
  • is involved in a life-or-death race to capture Germany’s leading spy
  • takes command of his brigade against the Germans’ 1918 Spring offensive

Buchan’s war work

At the outbreak of war Buchan – at that point editor of The Spectator and popular novelist, well-known for his pro-Empire views – had gone to work for the British War Propaganda Bureau. He worked for a bit as French correspondent for The Times. Early in 1915 he was commissioned to write an official history of the War in monthly instalments to be produced by the publishers he was a partner in, Thomas Nelson & Son, hence named Nelson’s History of the War. This started in February 1915 and was eventually published in 24 volumes. Buchan was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps and given access to the official documents to write the work.

Around this time he was also commissioned to write speeches and communiqués for Douglas Haig, Head of the British Army. In 1916 the War Propaganda Bureau was subsumed into the Foreign Office at which point Buchan can be said to have officially joined the FO’s Intelligence Department. As a result of his achievements in all these tasks, in February 1917 when the government established a Department of Information, Buchan was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and put in charge of it – Buchan called it ‘the toughest job I ever took on’.

Propaganda

Given Buchan’s role at the heart of the Allied Propaganda effort you might expect the Hannay novels to be unmitigated propaganda, but they’re not. In this novel as in Greenmantle, he goes out of his way to be fair to his opponents, to respect their intelligence and to discriminate between good Germans and bad Germans.

In fact Buchan makes the first hundred pages of this novel a kind of tour of the opposition camp: he is told, on a rather flimsy pretext, to pretend to be a South African sceptical of the war and ingratiate himself with pacifists and conscientious objectors and all the domestic opponents of the war. The stated aim is that some fiendish mastermind is feeding information to the enemy via a network of spies and Hannay is tasked with establishing himself as an opponent of the war in order to sniff our the traitors. But it gives Buchan the opportunity to do systematic pen portraits of Bloomsbury pacifists and COs and very interesting it is. Apart from its other value, as insight into the period, it contains an acid portrait of a whiny novelist generally taken to be DH Lawrence.

DH Lawrence

Aronson, the novelist, proved on acquaintance the worst kind of blighter. He considered himself a genius whom it was the duty of the country to support, and he sponged on his wretched relatives and anyone who would lend him money. He was always babbling about his sins, and pretty squalid they were. I should like to have flung him among a few good old-fashioned full-blooded sinners of my acquaintance; they would have scared him considerably. He told me that he sought ‘reality’ and ‘life’ and ‘truth’, but it was hard to see how he could know much about them, for he spent half the day in bed smoking cheap cigarettes, and the rest sunning himself in the admiration of half-witted girls. The creature was tuberculous in mind and body, and the only novel of his I read, pretty well turned my stomach. Mr Aronson’s strong point was jokes about the war. If he heard of any acquaintance who had joined up or was even doing war work his merriment knew no bounds. My fingers used to itch to box the little wretch’s ears. (Chapter 2)

England, my England

I read the book as I was walking the North Downs Way in Kent, and I was struck by Hannay’s descriptions of rural England; repeatedly the hero goes for walks or comes to places in the Cotswolds so beautiful that he is enraptured. I enjoyed these descriptions so much that I read the first 50 or 60 pages several times:

The small Ford car… carried me away from the suburbs of the county town into a land of rolling hills and green water-meadows. It was a gorgeous afternoon and the blossom of early June was on every tree…

… Isham stood high up in a fold of the hills away from the main valley, and the road I was taking brought me over the ridge and back to the stream-side. I climbed through great beechwoods, which seemed in the twilight like some green place far below the sea, and then over a short stretch of hill pasture to the rim of the vale. All about me were little fields enclosed with walls of grey stone and full of dim sheep. Below were dusky woods around what I took to be Fosse Manor, for the great Roman Fosse Way, straight as an arrow, passed over the hills to the south and skirted its grounds. I could see the stream slipping among its water-meadows and could hear the plash of the weir. A tiny village settled in a crook of the hill, and its church-tower sounded seven with a curiously sweet chime. Otherwise there was no noise but the twitter of small birds and the night wind in the tops of the beeches.

In that moment I had a kind of revelation. I had a vision of what I had been fighting for, what we all were fighting for. It was peace, deep and holy and ancient, peace older than the oldest wars, peace which would endure when all our swords were hammered into ploughshares. It was more; for in that hour England first took hold of me. Before my country had been South Africa, and when I thought of home it had been the wide sun-steeped spaces of the veld or some scented glen of the Berg. But now I realized that I had a new home. I understood what a precious thing this little England was, how old and kindly and comforting, how wholly worth striving for. The freedom of an acre of her soil was cheaply bought by the blood of the best of us. I knew what it meant to be a poet, though for the life of me I could not have made a line of verse. For in that hour I had a prospect as if from a hilltop which made all the present troubles of the road seem of no account. I saw not only victory after war, but a new and happier world after victory, when I should inherit something of this English peace and wrap myself in it till the end of my days…

… Outside the house beyond a flagged terrace the lawn fell away, white in the moonshine, to the edge of the stream, which here had expanded into a miniature lake. By the water’s edge was a little formal garden with grey stone parapets which now gleamed like dusky marble. Great wafts of scent rose from it, for the lilacs were scarcely over and the may was in full blossom. Out from the shade of it came suddenly a voice like a nightingale.

It was singing the old song ‘Cherry Ripe’, a common enough thing which I had chiefly known from barrel-organs. But heard in the scented moonlight it seemed to hold all the lingering magic of an elder England and of this hallowed countryside…

…For the rest I used to spend my mornings reading in the garden, and I discovered for the first time what a pleasure was to be got from old books. They recalled and amplified that vision I had seen from the Cotswold ridge, the revelation of the priceless heritage which is England. I imbibed a mighty quantity of history, but especially I liked the writers, like Walton, who got at the very heart of the English countryside…

In the afternoons I took my exercise in long tramps along the good dusty English roads. The country fell away from Biggleswick into a plain of wood and pasture-land, with low hills on the horizon. The Place was sown with villages, each with its green and pond and ancient church. Most, too, had inns, and there I had many a draught of cool nutty ale, for the inn at Biggleswick was a reformed place which sold nothing but washy cider. Often, tramping home in the dusk, I was so much in love with the land that I could have sung with the pure joy of it…

Sweet and kind

There’s a sweetness and kindness to Buchan’s spirit, he is good at countryside and good at quick pen portraits of the strangers he meets.

Presently the road fell to a gleaming sea-loch which lay like the blue blade of a sword among the purple of the hills. At the head there was a tiny clachan, nestled among birches and rowans, where a tawny burn wound to the sea. When I entered the place it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and peace lay on it like a garment. In the wide, sunny street there was no sign of life, and no sound except of hens clucking and of bees busy among the roses. There was a little grey box of a kirk, and close to the bridge a thatched cottage which bore the sign of a post and telegraph office…. I entered the little shop, and passed from bright sunshine to a twilight smelling of paraffin and black-striped peppermint balls. An old woman with a mutch sat in an arm-chair behind the counter. She looked up at me over her spectacles and smiled, and I took to her on the instant. She had the kind of old wise face that God loves. (Chapter 5)

 For complicated reasons Hannay has gone undercover to try and figure out how secrets are being smuggled to the Germans and this brings him to the Highlands and, eventually, to the Isle of Skye. But not before his enemies get the police to put out an alert for him and he is hunted across the Highland countryside rather as in The Thirty-Nine Steps. He is picked up by well-meaning local gentry with whom he suddenly returns to his full military bearing and in this mode meets the son, who has been invalided out of the war.

The boy looked at me pleasantly. ‘I’m very glad to meet you, sir. You’ll excuse me not getting up, but I’ve got a game leg.’ He was the copy of his father in features, but dark and sallow where the other was blond. He had just the same narrow head, and stubborn mouth, and honest, quick-tempered eyes. It is the type that makes dashing regimental officers, and earns V.C.s, and gets done in wholesale. I was never that kind. I belonged to the school of the cunning cowards. (Chapter 5)

The last battle

The book is in two parts, which adds to the sense of bittiness, of numerous hair-raising escapades strung together on very slender threads and coming pell-mell. Once again there’s a volta or switch of emphasis, when the German spy ring which had been the focus of the first 200 pages, which had seemed so dangerous and all-encompassing – is suddenly swept up with no problems, including its dastardly ringleader, who had metamorphosed into all the Bad Men who started this beastly war.

All the previous shenanigans are completely overshadowed by the last 30 pages or so of the book which are a genuinely riveting account of the German Spring offensive, Germany’s last throw of the dice which almost penetrated the thin Allied lines and opened the way to Paris. I can’t discover how accurate Buchan’s account is of Hannay’s fictional division holding the line outside Amiens, but the stress and anxiety and the detail of reinforcements and the terrible casualties and the high stakes make for a genuinely gripping climax to an otherwise chaotic and exhausting novel.


Related links

The Richard Hannay novels

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence (1913)

Sons and Lovers was published in May 1913, making this its centenary year. It has become an antique. Experts can poke and prod it and speculate about its value. I wonder if anyone reads it for pleasure, as I just have. It is a wonderful, wonderful book. The pleasure comes in various forms and at different levels:

Subject matter There is not much plot. It is a coming-of-age novel, describing the childhood and young manhood of Paul Morel, the sensitive youngest of five children of Walter Morel, a rough coal miner in the Bestwood area north of Nottingham (a barely disguised description of the real townlet of Eastwood) and his more educated wife, Gertrude Morel. The first half of the book is everybody’s favourite, a wonderful evocation of childhood and adolescence in an innocent rural setting albeit in the shadow of the arguing parents; the second half is a little more familiar,describing how young man Paul’s unusual closeness to his mother hampers his (very naive) love affairs with two local women, his childhood sweetheart Miriam and an older married woman, Clara.

What makes it wonderful is the blunt poetic style which conveys the impassioned, heightened, intense perceptions of the author.

Attitude I think the key to Lawrence’s attitude and writing is he is fearless. In all sorts of ways he thought the English of his day were afraid – daunted by convention, good manners, politeness etc in life and in artistic forms (music, painting, literature). Shyness and embarrassment are the English watchwords to this day. But despite his frailty and illness Lawrence decided at an early age not to be afraid – to write what he felt and what he saw regardless of conventions, regardless of ‘good style’, of ‘solid construction’.

Abruptness and unpolishedness And so his short stories and this novel are made of vivid scenes describing people’s feelings and emotions with striking intensity; scenes which just start, with no polished introductions and just as abruptly end. From one point of view the text could almost be seen as a sequence of prose poems, moments of heightened intensity and perception:

When they got back to the house, Mr. Leivers and Edgar, the eldest son, were in the kitchen. Edgar was about eighteen. Then Geoffrey and Maurice, big lads of twelve and thirteen, were in from school. Mr. Leivers was a good-looking man in the prime of life, with a golden-brown moustache, and blue eyes screwed up against the weather. The boys were condescending, but Paul scarcely observed it. They went round for eggs, scrambling into all sorts of places. As they were feeding the fowls Miriam came out. The boys took no notice of her. One hen, with her yellow chickens, was in a coop. Maurice took his hand full of corn and let the hen peck from it.
“Durst you do it?” he asked of Paul.
“Let’s see,” said Paul.
He had a small hand, warm, and rather capable-looking. Miriam watched. He held the corn to the hen. The bird eyed it with her hard, bright eye, and suddenly made a peck into his hand. He started, and laughed. “Rap, rap, rap!” went the bird’s beak in his palm. He laughed again, and the other boys joined. (Chapter 6)

It’s a distinctive combination of plain vocabulary deployed in abrupt, stabbing sentences to convey a wonderful sense of heightened awareness of even the most banal, domestic moments.

Simple vocabulary DH achieves his affects, often very poetic in impact, with very simple vocabulary. He doesn’t have, for example, James Joyce’s phenomenal feel for language or deploy Henry James tortuous long sentences or Conrad’s verbose and opalescent lexicon. The impact doesn’t derive from the careful choice of sensual or stylised or onomatopoeic words. It derives from the driving forcefulness of the sensibility behind the words.

One evening in midsummer Miriam called at the house, warm from climbing. Paul was alone in the kitchen; his mother could be heard moving about upstairs.
“Come and look at the sweet-peas,” he said to the girl.
They went into the garden. The sky behind the townlet and the church was orange-red; the flower-garden was flooded with a strange warm light that lifted every leaf into significance. Paul passed along a fine row of sweet-peas, gathering a blossom here and there, all cream and pale blue. Miriam followed, breathing the fragrance. To her, flowers appealed with such strength she felt she must make them part of herself. When she bent and breathed a flower, it was as if she and the flower were loving each other. Paul hated her for it. There seemed a sort of exposure about the action, something too intimate. (Chapter 7)

It is a banal action – come and look at the flowers – but the nature description is breathtakingly confident – “The sky behind the townlet and the church was orange-red; the flower-garden was flooded with a strange warm light that lifted every leaf into significance.” – and it leads immediately, with no polite bridging passage or preparation, into statements of tremendous emotional intensity.

    Through the open door, stealthily, came the scent of madonna lilies, almost as if it were prowling abroad. Suddenly he got up and went out of doors.
The beauty of the night made him want to shout. A half-moon, dusky gold, was sinking behind the black sycamore at the end of the garden, making the sky dull purple with its glow. Nearer, a dim white fence of lilies went across the garden, and the air all round seemed to stir with scent, as if it were alive. He went across the bed of pinks, whose keen perfume came sharply across the rocking, heavy scent of the lilies, and stood alongside the white barrier of flowers. They flagged all loose, as if they were panting. The scent made him drunk. He went down to the field to watch the moon sink under. (Chapter 11)

Emotional intensity It is this fervour and earnestness which mark Lawrence out. Arguably in the first half of the book this intensity arises out of innocent and childish situations, and colours the predominantly rural settings, especially Paul’s frequent trips up to Willey Farm to see the Leivers family and slowly get closer to the youngest daughter, Miriam. Ie it is balanced with, and arises out of, natural description. Once Paul is a young man with a job in a stocking factory in Nottingham, the setting tends to be more urban and  lacks the rural context. I think it’s for this reason that most readers find the second half drier; there is more of the emotional intensity and it feels more unremitting:

    “You don’t want to love—your eternal and abnormal craving is to be loved. You aren’t positive, you’re negative. You absorb, absorb, as if you must fill yourself up with love, because you’ve got a shortage somewhere.”
She was stunned by his cruelty, and did not hear. He had not the faintest notion of what he was saying. It was as if his fretted, tortured soul, run hot by thwarted passion, jetted off these sayings like sparks from electricity. She did not grasp anything he said. She only sat crouched beneath his cruelty and his hatred of her. She never realised in a flash. Over everything she brooded and brooded. (Chapter 9)

Although he has a marvellous facility for writing wonderful natural descriptions at will, for Lawrence Nature is always embedded in human relations; or the Nature descriptions are never in their own right or a passive background; they are always intimately involved with the humans in the foreground, humans who are generally troubled. Miriam and Paul are arguing:

    “Let us sit here a minute,” said Miriam.
He sat down against his will, resting his back against the hard wall of hay. They faced the amphitheatre of round hills that glowed with sunset, tiny white farms standing out, the meadows golden, the woods dark and yet luminous, tree-tops folded over tree-tops, distinct in the distance. The evening had cleared, and the east was tender with a magenta flush under which the land lay still and rich.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she pleaded.
But he only scowled. He would rather have had it ugly just then. (Chapter 9)

Sex The second half of the book is pressed forward by young man Paul’s growing urge to have sex and sex he duly proceeds to have, first with Miriam then with Clara. In both places there is build up and then abruptly the afterglow. Presumably the scenes themselves were cut by Lawrence’s mentor and patron in the London literary world, Edward Garnett, who cut 10% of the text before it was published. Would be interesting to read the full, unexpurgated text…

Working class I read that subsequent English working class writers are in Lawrence’s debt, though this is a big subject: Did he affect genuine proletarian authors like Robert Tressell, Walter Greenwood, James Hanley and Lewis Grassic Gibbon – did he influence the kitchen sink dramatists of the 1950s and 60s – Osborne and Wesker and Delaney – did he influence the novelists of working class life –  of Stan Barstow, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe? Certainly the first half of the book is a sustained description of life in a mining family and that family obviously remains Paul’s homeland but a) it is never really a proletarian household since Gertrude Morel always has higher aspirations for her children and b) they go on to fulfil them: none of the Morel children remain in the working class ie work with their hands: the eldest son, William, goes on to make a very good living in an office in London.

Nostalgia This is a good text to teach because it is overflowing with definable and teachable “issues”: working class life, the growth of an artist, gender and feminism, the creation of personality etc etc. Beneath it all I think, for the reader in 2013, the most powerful aspect of the novel is one of nostalgia. The whole world of this book is lost forever. The cameraderie of men engaged in hard physical labour has gone; the closeness of town and country has gone; the untouched beauty of Nature has gone, ruined by cars and motorways – nobody would think of walking 12 miles from Nottingham city centre to an outlying village, and that the walk would be pleasant and scenic! – In a culture saturated by cars and screens and consumerist fantasies, the care and attention which all of Lawrence’s characters pay to the natural world, to flowers and birds, and to each others’ transient evanescent feelings and perceptions, is long long gone, as distant as ancient Rome.

And I think it’s for its wonderful depiction of a lost pre-lapsarian world that Sons and lovers remains so popular and so well-loved.

Eastwood now A DH Lawrence website by a local gives a useful sense of what the locale of Lawrence’s early years and the settings of ‘Sons and Lovers’ look like now and it looks pretty horrible, Not because of poverty or rundown but because it has been cleansed and destroyed by traffic, roads, roadsigns, kerbs and double yellow lines and street lights, all the clutter of 20th century life which Lawrence hated because it destroyed the sensuous experiences of sight and touch and smell.

Where there was a valley across which the Morel children could stare across at the Derbyshire hills by day, or over a deep bowl of darkness at night, now runs the busy A610, permanently illuminating the countryside for miles around with the dead orange glow which has destroyed so much of England; and in the other direction, off to the east runs the M1 raping the landscape. As he wrote in his 1928 essay, ‘Nottingham and the Mining Country’:

“The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely: the man-made England is so vile.”

Nothing in the English attitude has changed since 1928. But the condition of the condition of the landscape has got a lot lot worse. Where are the wild flowers? And what are we doing to the birds?

Full text of ‘Sons and Lovers’ on the University of Adelaide website

John Bayley review of the unexpurgated Sons and Lovers

David Herbert Lawrence about the time of Sons and Lovers

David Herbert Lawrence about the time of Sons and Lovers

The Prussian Officer and other stories by DH Lawrence (1914)

Someone asked me about DH Lawrence and I said he was a writer in limbo, in no man’s land between his time and ours: his vivid depiction of the animal life of humans scandalised the Georgians and drove him into exile – yet in the era of 50 Shades of Grey, his sex writings seem old-fashioned and puritan; in our cynical ‘whatevz’ days he seems embarrassingly earnest: so he finds himself neither flesh nor fowl. Explains why it’s hard to get so many of his books now. But I’d completely forgotten how rivetingly intense his writing is…

The Prussian Officer and other stories was published in 1914. 12 stories in all. Lawrence had already published three novels, The White Peacock (1911), The Trespasser (1912), Sons & Lovers (1913). Why the Prussian Officer? In 1912 Lawrence had eloped with Frieda, the wife of his German tutor at University College, Nottingham, travelling to her home town of Metz on the German/French border. This becomes the setting for the first two stories in the collection.

A wind was running, so that occasionally the poplars whitened as if a flame flew up them. The sky was broken and blue among moving clouds. Patches of sunshine lay on the level fields, and shadows on the rye and the vineyards. In the distance, very blue, the cathedral bristled against the sky, and the houses of the city of Metz clustered vaguely below, like a hill. (The Thorn in the Flesh)

Must have been a confusing book to address on its publication because:

a) all the other stories take place in the coalmining Nottinghamshire of his novels and background and are, up to a point, reassuringly English and rural. The two opening stories are exceptions not only in their setting of Germany, but by both being about German soldiers, and exceptionally harsh and unforgiving in tone. Why?

b) The book was published in November 1914. Britain had been at war with Germany since August and was still in the first flood of fierce anti-German propaganda. Were Lawrence’s two brutal German soldiers stories caught up in that? What did his first readers make of an English author writing sympathetically about German soldiers? Did these stories contribute to the later persecution Lawrence suffered in the War?

Worldview – Events of a sort do take place in the stories but their real point is repeatedly to convey Lawrence’s troubled, angular, deeply introspective view of human nature. In the first few stories the male characters are overcome with anxiety, dread, self doubt, humiliation. Nothing could be further from the English traditions of stiff-upper-lippery, of upper class Oxbridge irony, Oscar Wilde’s fin-de-siecle witticisms – or the broad tradition of jovial good humour from Dickens to Three Men In A Boat.

His turn came. He knew intuitively that nobody knew his condition. The officer just saw him as a mechanical thing. He tried to keep it up, to carry it through on the face of things. His inside gripped tight, as yet under control, he took the ladder and went along under the wall. He placed his ladder with quick success, and wild, quivering hope possessed him. Then blindly he began to climb. But the ladder was not very firm, and at every hitch a great, sick, melting feeling took hold of him. He clung on fast. If only he could keep that grip on himself, he would get through. He knew this, in agony. What he could not understand was the blind gush of white-hot fear, that came with great force whenever the ladder swerved, and which almost melted his belly and all his joints, and left him powerless. If once it melted all his joints and his belly, he was done. He clung desperately to himself. He knew the fear, he knew what it did when it came, he knew he had only to keep a firm hold. He knew all this. Yet, when the ladder swerved, and his foot missed, there was the great blast of fear blowing on his heart and bowels, and he was melting weaker and weaker, in a horror of fear and lack of control, melting to fall.

There is almost no humour in Lawrence. Just different shades of blistering intensity.

Style – psychological And so a lot of the prose is dedicated to conveying the abrupt, intense emotions of the characters. There is no mannerliness, no English deprecation separating the characters from the overwhelming power of their feelings and perceptions. Each moment they are shaken by new revelations and insights and perceptions.

Within his own flesh burned and smouldered the restless shame. He could not gather himself together. There was a gap in his soul. The shame within him seemed to displace his strength and his manhood. He sat down on his chair. The shame, the roused feeling of exposure acted on his brain, made him heavy, unutterably heavy.

Couldn’t be further from the social games of etiquette and good manners in Georgian England, the humour of HG Wells’ social novels (Tono-Bungay, 1909, Ann Veronica, 1909, The History of Mr Polly, 1910) or EM Foster (A Room with a View, 1908, Howards End, 1910) or Galsworthy. Instead his characters are raw helpless animals, trammeled by successions of violent feelings.

The moment she entered the room where the man sat alone, waiting intensely, the thrill passed through her, she died in terror, and after the death, a great flame gushed up, obliterating her.

Style – prose Lawrence’s characters are more like the stricken solitaries of Conrad’s fictions, Almayer or Willems. But Lawrence’s prose is completely different from Conrad’s. Whereas Conrad writes like a Frenchman with long lugubrious sentences festooning the page like tropical creepers, Lawrence’s sentences are often short, blunt, flamingly intense. Where Conrad is opulent and repetitive, lulling you with multiple clauses, piled high with drowsy fin-de-siecle sonorities, Lawrence’s prose is more harsh, abrupt, stabby:

It was difficult for her to endure his presence, for he would interfere with her. She could not recover her life. She rose stiffly and went down. She could neither eat nor talk during the meal. She sat absent, torn, without any being of her own. He tried to go on as if nothing were the matter. But at last he became silent with fury. As soon as it was possible, she went upstairs again, and locked the bedroom door. She must be alone. He went with his pipe into the garden. All his suppressed anger against her who held herself superior to him filled and blackened his heart. Though he had not know it, yet he had never really won her, she had never loved him. She had taken him on sufference. This had foiled him. He was only a labouring electrician in the mine, she was superior to him. He had always given way to her. But all the while, the injury and ignominy had been working in his soul because she did not hold him seriously. And now all his rage came up against her. (The Shadow in the Rose Garden)

She he, she he, bang bang, the sentences like angry lines scored into a canvas, not seeking to convey an external scene but to express discordant inner emotions. When Lawrence is painting a scene it becomes even more obvious that the comparison shouldn’t be with other English prose writers so much as with the angular, abrupt transitions of contemporary European painters, Cezanne in France or Die Brucke expressionists in Germany. Bright and vivid and abrupt.

She went across the lawn towards the garden, through an arch of crimson ramblers, a gate of colour. There beyond lay the soft blue sea with the bay, misty with morning, and the farthest headland of black rock jutting dimly out between blue and blue of the sky and water. Her face began to shine, transfigured with pain and joy. At her feet the garden fell steeply, all a confusion of flowers, and away below was the darkness of tree-tops covering the beck. (The Shadow in the Rose Garden)

There was silence. The common, with its sere, blonde-headed thistles, its heaps of silent bramble, its brown-husked gorse in the glare of sunshine, seemed visionary. Across the brook began the immense pattern of agriculture, white chequering of barley stubble, brown squares of wheat, khaki patches of pasture, red stripes of fallow, with the woodland and the tiny village dark like ornaments, leading away to the distance, right to the hills, where the check-pattern grew smaller and smaller, till, in the blackish haze of heat, far off, only the tiny white squares of barley stubble showed distinct. (Second Best)

Expressionism The more I read the more the vividness of the word descriptions and the abrupt intensity of the emotions reminds me of European expressionism in art and music: for example, Schoenberg’s strident Erwartung (1909), ‘…a single second of maximum spiritual excitement…’, or Mahler’s songs combining excesses of joy with hysterias of death; in art the French movement of Les Fauves (1904-08) and especially the German Expressionist movements, Die Brucke (1905-13) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911-14):

Die Brücke is sometimes compared to the Fauves. Both movements shared interests in primitivist art. Both shared an interest in the expressing of extreme emotion through high-keyed color that was very often non-naturalistic. Both movements employed a drawing technique that was crude, and both groups shared an antipathy to complete abstraction. The Die Brücke artists’ [portrayed] emotionally agitated paintings of city streets and sexually charged events…’ (Wikipedia article)

Sounds like Lawrence’s prose, no?

  • Fascinated by the primitive human beneath all the superficial trappings of ‘society’, ‘civilisation’.
  • Depiction of extreme emotion.
  • High-keyed colour ie phraseology, that is often non-naturalistic
  • Deliberately crude technique ie Lawrence’s rejection of smooth cadences in favour of short, clipped, abrupt, often repetitive. Instead of spending time finding the melliflous Latinate word he was happy to put down the blunter Anglo-Saxon word and then repeat it, and repeat it again, scoring it into the canvas, so to speak.
  • Antipathy to complete abstraction – Lawrence never went as far as Joyce or Woolf in depicting pure internal monologue and psychological states. There is always an external reference point; no matter how extreme the emotions they are always anchored in real situations with other people.
  • ‘Agitated and sexually charged’. Yes, Lawrence.
Die Brucke poster by Otto Muller

Die Brucke poster by Otto Muller

The Prussian Officer A sadistic and sexually repressed German officer goads his valet beyond endurance until he murders him in a dark forest, before wandering deranged and himself dying of exposure
The Thorn in the Flesh A German soldier overcome by fear at an exercise to climb a siege ladder, accidentally knocks his sergeant off the wall, goes into hiding with his girlfriend in a farmhouse hoping to escape to France but soldiers come to arrest him.
Daughters of the Vicar A long story in which we are introduced to the two daughters of the down-at-heel vicar of Aldecross, Miss Mary and Miss Louisa: Miss Mary out of financial necessity marries a dwarfish vicar but Louisa rebels and marries a fine handsome miner.
A Fragment of Stained Glass An odd short one in which the narrator visits a friend who’s an antiquary who’s written a fragment purporting to describe a man and woman in medieval England who flee their homes and stumble into an isolated monastery.
The Shades of Spring Syson returns to the countryside of his birth stumbling into the new gamekeeper who, it turns out, is now dating his old sweetheart Hilda Millership; after the male confrontation he talks to Hilda who tells him she was married ie had sex, the same day he was.
Second Best Two sisters out in the country, Anne and Francis, discussing boys: Anne lets slip that Jimmy who Frances has admired for years, is engaged to a servant girl; walking back to the village they encounter Tom the farm worker and Francis reflects she’ll have to settle for him, second best.
The Shadow in the Rose Garden A married couple holiday in the west country. He discovers that she has slipped out to meet an old lover. But the lover has gone mad.
Goose Fair A bourgeois young woman, Lois, awaits her man, Jack a collier, but there is tension, a rumour the hands will set fire to the factory and, indeed the factory is fired, and jack comes home late with other louts. but they have been drunkenly tormenting a goose girl at the fair.
The White Stocking A married couple, he realises she has been receiving gifts from her old employer at the factory, Sam Adams, who once danced with her all night at a ball where he husband sat impotent with rage. She goads him in his jealousy to hit her in the face.
A Sick Collier A short sliver of prose, a woman marries beneath her, a decent miner. One day he is brought home having ruptured himself, moaning with pain and goes out of his mind with pain threatening to kill her.
The Christening A scrawny vicar is called to perform a christening of an illegitimate baby in the cramped house of an ill old miner whose daughter shamed them all. In the middle her brother, a miner, returns and undermines the ceremony.
Odour of Chrysanthemums A miner’s wife waits at home for her husband to return from work, complaining to her children and to neighbours; then news comes that he has died in a freak accident in the mine and she and his mother have to strip, wash and dress the corpse in a room smelling of the chrysanthemums she picked earlier that day.

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