It's clear enough that Ted Hughes was personally haunted by the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. Her death, and the fact that so many blamed him for it, rode his life, a fact about which he was publicly reticent for many decades, but which he ultimately recorded in Birthday Letters (1999). That collection returns over and again to imagery of wild animals and wraiths and primal forces, and its later poems style Hughes as Plath-ridden from beyond the grave. He records being struck down by her suicide and waking up
upside down in your spirit-houseThis is just what one would expect, of course. And as Jacqueline Rose's sensitively-pitched study, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1982) argues, Hughes wasn't the only one. In a sense the entire body of Hughes work is haunted, stylistically, thematically, tonally, by that one self-destructive and alter-destructive act of 1963; and the same spectre drifts through most critical discussion of both his and Plath's work. I say so by way of concession, because this blog-post is no exception. I want to suggest a few tentative readings of poems in Moortown (1979; a collection reissued in 1989 under the title Moortown Diary). These poems make no specific reference to Plath, or to anybody or anything outside the detailed day-to-day specifics of a farming life. But I am going to argue that they are haunted by a named wraith, nonetheless
Moving limbs that were not my limbs,
And telling, in a voice not my voice,
A story of which I knew nothing. ['The God'; Hughes Collected Poems, 1165]
These poems record Hughes' experience as a working farmer in the early 1970s, when he and his then-new wife Carol worked a farm near Winkleigh, Devon. 'Moortown' is the name of the farm. The poems were often drafted the same day as the events they record: ‘this sort of thing had to be set down soon after the event,’ Hughes wrote, in a note he added for the 1989 reissue. ‘If I missed the moment – which meant letting a night’s sleep intervene before I took up a pen – I could always see quite clearly what had been lost. By the next day, the processes of “memory”, the poetic process, had already started.’ The poems are written in a strenuous, vividly descriptive, powerful idiom, raw and direct, with a relentless and indeed wearying repeated emphasis on the sheer physical hardship of working a farm. Here's 'Tractor', one of my favourites:
The tractor stands frozen—an agonyThis is characteristic of the collection as a whole: vividly and forcefully written, capturing a sense of the immense inertia and stubbornness of the natural world the farmer is attempting to work, and of the sheer persistence with which the farmer has to attack his/her job. It's also characteristic in the sense that it posits a single figure, the lone man, in a hostile, even hellish environment. We get no sense, reading Moortown, that Hughes had a wife, or other farm workers, helping out. It's just him. And it's him in a world constantly on the brink of collapsing into apocalypse. And that's the key, I think:—what Hughes's poems are most fully about is endurance as such. They are elaborately direct expressions of what Able Seaman Joe Plaice had tattooed onto his knuckles in Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World:
To think of. All night
Snow packed its open entrails. Now a head-pincering gale,
A spill of molten ice, smoking snow,
Pours into its steel.
At white heat of numbness it stands
In the aimed hosing of ground-level fieriness.
It defied flesh and won't start.
Hands are like wounds already
Inside armour gloves, and feet are unbelievable
As if the toe-nails were all just torn off.
I stare at it in hatred. Beyond it
The copse hisses—capitulates miserably
In the fleeing, failing light. Starlings,
A dirtier sleetier snow, blow smokily, unendingly, over
Towards plantations Eastward.
All the time the tractor is sinking
Through the degrees, deepening
Into its hell of ice.
The starting lever
Cracks its action, like a snapping knuckle.
The battery is alive—but like a lamb
Trying to nudge its solid-frozen mother—
While the seat claims my buttock-bones, bites
With the space-cold of earth, which it has joined
In one solid lump.
I squirt commercial sure-fire
Down the black throat—it just coughs.
It ridicules me—a trap of iron stupidity
I've stepped into. I drive the battery
As if I were hammering and hammering
The frozen arrangement to pieces with a hammer
And it jabbers laughing pain-crying mockingly
Into happy life.
Shuddering itself full of heat, seeming to enlarge slowly
Like a demon demonstrating
A more-than-usually-complete materialization—
Suddenly it jerks from its solidarity
With the concrete, and lurches towards a stanchion
Bursting with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting Where Where?
Worse iron is waiting. Power-lift kneels
Levers awake imprisoned deadweight,
Shackle-pins bedded in cast-iron cow-shit.
The blind and vibrating condemned obedience
Of iron to the cruelty of iron,
Wheels screeched out of their night-locks—
Among the tormented
Tonnage and burning of iron
Weeping in the wind of chloroform
And the tractor, streaming with sweat,
Raging and trembling and rejoicing. [16 February 1975]
This, I suppose, is the existential 'content' of a lot of Hughes's poetry: the valences of endurance, to which strength, will, myth and sheer vitality are all subordinate. Hughes had a lot to endure, as an individual. The landscapes and events of Moortown are recorded from the actual Devonian environment in which he lived and worked; but they are also a kind of punishing existential frame to the solitary enduring Dasein of a representative human. That statement can't help but look pretentious, put like that, I know. The thing is: what is my pretentiousness an attempt to conceal? Holding fast was not, it turned out, something of which Plath was capable. I don't say so to judge her. Far from it.
The opening poem in the Moortown collection, 'Rain', goes on and on, with an extraordinary, monotonous inventiveness, describing a seemingly-endless world-ending rainfall, 'roof-drumming', 'hammering', the whole world brimming with water. In the central section of this long poem the cows
look out sideways from under their brows which areIt's a heavily alliterative poem, more so than is usual for Hughes: 'brown water backing and brimming'; 'sinks at every sliding stride'; 'cows come close for company'; 'beaten to their bare bones ... brains and bowels beaten to blueprint bones' and the like. We might take this as onomatopoeia, reproducing the hammering and hissing of the rain; or as a gesture back towards a more primal Anglo Saxon idiom. Indeed, I wonder if the overall shape of the poem doesn't hark back further even than that: to Noah's flood, with Hughes keeping a clutch of animals (barely) alive in his ark-farm whilst outside the world succumbs to the remorseless inundation. That might explain why a poem that starts with descriptions of the landscape, and of the cows and calves enduring the rain, ends with the passage of birds overhead, like Noah's dove. That might even be a hopeful sign, signifying that the end of the world can be lived-through, that endurance may pay off. That's the moral of Noah's story too, of course. When catastrophe strikes, as when the woman you love but have betrayed kills herself, or when your next partner, the mother of your child, later kills herself and the baby, what do you do? Grieve, of course; deal with guilt in whatever way you can, I suppose; but most of all: endure. The world freezes as cold as Dante's central hell and you go on. The flood comes, and you struggle through.
Their only shelter. The sunk scrubby wood
Is a pulverised wreck, rain riddles its holes
To the drowned roots. A pheasant looking black
In his waterproofs, bends at his job in the stubble.
The mid-afternoon dusk soaks into
The soaked thickets. Nothing protects them.
The fox corpses lie beaten to their bare bones,
Skin beaten off, brains and bowels beaten out.
Nothing but their blueprint bones last in the rain,
Sodden soft. Round their hay racks, calves
Stand in a shine of mud. The gateways
Are deep obstacles of mud. The calves look up, through plastered forelocks,
Without moving. Nowhere they can go
Is less uncomfortable. The brimming world
And the pouring sky are the only places
For them to be. Fieldfares squeal over, sodden
Toward the sodden wood. A raven,
Cursing monotonously, goes over fast
And vanishes in rain-mist.
But I want to make a different point, and it will involve me in a kind of nominal manoeuvre that may strike you as dubious. Bear with me. The landscape of the Moortown farm is fields (pasture for cows and sheep) interspersed with copses and bordered by a larger stretch of woodland. Woods and fields: it's hardly remarkable. Thousands of UK farms must occupy something similar, landscape-wise. How do the woods figure in the poems? The first distinct image of 'Rain' is
Wraith-rain pulsing across purple-bare woodsIt's a wonderful image: ghostly and luminous and solidly autumnal-wintry ('purple-bare' is very stark, almost bodily so). Then later in the poem, from the passage already quoted:
Like light across heaved water.
The sunk scrubby woodDead, then, this woodland: as if shot by a machine gun, an almost First World War Western-Front sort of image. Dead in the sense of killed; or dead in the sense of deadly; or perhaps (which would be more disturbing) the latter because of the former.
Is a pulverised wreck, rain riddles its holes
To the drowned roots.
So, here we come to the portion of my argument I was earlier veiling in the decent embarrassment of pretentiousness. It has to do with names. Names are important for Hughes, whose imagination was of the sort that saw mythic significance in everything, and liked to 'read' animals, landscapes, names and so on. In his lengthy introduction to A Choice of Coleridge's Verse (1996) there's a lot of this. One example to stand-in for many: Mount Abora, mentioned towards the end of 'Kubla Khan' is not a real mountain. So what is it?
In Abora he unites A + B (= Alphabet) + ora, imperative of the Latin "orare", which means primarily "to pronounce a sacred formula" or simply "to pray". The whole heiroglyph, or cryptophone 'Mount Abora' would be automatically deciphered as a rich pun by, say, Coleridge's close friend Charles Lamb, who, according to Coleridge (Notebook) "addeth to the Orphic epithetical polynomy of the Natura Naturata the title of the Diva Diapanta Punifica or the Divine All-puntress, and deemeth the Natura Naturata one great complex Pun, or Pun of Puns."We can, Hughes insists, therefore 'read off' Mount Abora as 'Mount Alphabeta Oracular Mouth', or 'O Mountain of Alphabet pray for us!'
As if to say 'O Mountain of the Word, pray for us!' Just as we do now. So Mount Abora becomes the sacred mountain of the divinity within utterance itself. [Hughes, A Choice of Coleridge's Verse, 31]Obvious now he's pointed it out, no? But I don't mean to be flippant. Names mattered intensely to Hughes, throughout his career. As does Plath, of course. It was Plath who gave Hughes his name as a poet, in a peculiarly literal sense. Yorkshire and Cambridge's 'Edward Hughes' became 'Ted Hughes' because of her.
Sylvia had typed up and sent off my manuscript to a Ninety-second Street Y first poetry book competition—judged by Marianne Moore, Stephen Spender, and Auden. First prize was publication by Harper Brothers. When it won, Sylvia sent Faber the typescript and a letter with that information in which, in American style, she referred to me as Ted. They replied that Faber did not publish first books by American authors. When she told them I was British they took it. That’s how I came to be Ted rather than something else. [from Drue Heinz's Paris Review interview, 'Ted Hughes, The Art of Poetry No. 71']What does 'Sylvia Plath' mean? In one sense that's a very large question indeed, of course; and even 'What did Sylvia Plath mean to Hughes' could provoke a book-length study that only scratched the surface. But I mean the question in its more specific sense, as the following answer demonstrates: Sylvia means woodland. Plath (from the Pomeranian German of her father's family roots, Plath/Platt) means 'flat', not in the apartment block sense, but in the sense of 'low lying land', 'flat ground'. So 'Sylvia Plath' means: woodland, fields. In one sense the topography of Moortown is precisely the literalisation of Plath herself. She is the apocalyptic context through which Hughes, the poet-farmer, husband-husbandman, must struggle, and which he must survive.
I'm aware that this may come over as merely pat, a facile attempt to 'decode' the poems. I'd hope I'm not trying to do that. Plath, clearly, was a real person, and Moortown was (is) a real farm. But Plath was also one of the century's most celebrated suicides, and 'Sylvia Plath' is a heiroglyph or cryptophone for the natural world itself, as horizon for the ever-haunted Hughes's living and working and writing and imagining. Look again at that first distinct image of the first poem in Moortown: 'Wraith-rain pulsing across purple-bare woods/Like light across heaved water'. Whose wraith?
Or take a poem like 'Feeding out—wintering cattle at twilight'. I'm going to quote the whole of this, because it's not as long as some of the Moortown poems, and it exemplifies the topic of Hughes, solitary, braving apocalyptically hostile elements (in this case, a wind so mighty it has got inside the landscape itself and threatens to blow away trees, buildings, everything), of enduring:
The wind is inside the hill.This great wind is also a kind of flood, inundating a world made water, coming down like a tsunami from 'the whole sea of air', making Hughes himself 'flounder'. And it is simultaneously potentially destructive and vital, animating the cows, inspiring 'their fierce, joyful breathings'. But what I want to concentrate on is the description of the wind-shaken forest at the beginning of the poem:
The wood is a struggle—like a wood
Struggling through a wood. A panic
Only just holds off—every gust
Breaches the sky-walls and it seems, this time,
The whole sea of air will pour through,
The thunder will take deep hold, roots
Will have to come out, every loose thing
Will have to lift and go. And the cows, dark lumps of dusk
Stand waiting, like nails in a tin roof.
For the crucial moment, taking the strain
In their stirring stillness. As if their hooves
Held their field in place, held the hill
To its trembling shape. Night-thickness
Purples in the turmoil, making
Everything more alarming. Unidentifiable, tiny
Birds go past like elf-bolts.
Battling the hay-bales from me, the cows
Jostle and crush, like hulls blown from their moorings
And piling at the jetty. The wind
Has got inside their wintry buffalo skins,
Their wild woolly bulk-heads, their fierce, joyful breathings
And the reckless strength of their necks.
What do they care, their hooves
Are knee-deep in porridge of earth—
The hay blows luminous tatters from their chewings,
A fiery loss, frittering downwind,
Snatched away over the near edge
Where the world becomes water
Thundering like a flood-river at night.
They grunt happily, half-dissolved
On their steep, hurtling brink, as I flounder back
The wood is a struggle—like a woodIt's a superb description: trees and bushes set in motion by the wind, like people trying to struggle through a dense wood, except that the people are the wood they are trying to struggle through. As an image its involuted knottiness, its essence of energetic blockage, is neatly rendered in the tangling repetition of its form: wood, struggle, wood, struggling, wood. But what else might it be, in addition to being an account of a wood in high wind? Possibly: a description of Sylvia-woodland.
Struggling through a wood.
Here's an illustration by Blake of two arborially rendered forms, Dante and his guide Vergil, struggling through what looks like a wood in motion, one that grows in infernal regions. Blake, like Shakespeare and Coleridge, was a key influence on Hughes.
Dante makes a useful intertext for Hughes' Moortown, I think, because the topographies and landscapes of the worlds of the Inferno are both actual and metaphorical expressions. The Wood of the Suicides, in Canto 13, is a nightmarish Sylva, its self-murderers transformed into trees that shriek with pain and bleed profusely when their branches are snapped (and Dante's imagination adds-in harpies whose job is to keep breaking their branches). Unique in the whole Inferno, these suicides are the only souls who will not resurrect into human bodies at the time of the Final Judgement, so unspeakable was their sin against those very bodies.
Dante's seventh circle contains one wood made up of many suicides. My sense of the topography of Hughes's Moortown is that it is surrounded by several sylvae. Several sylvae, but one suicide, I think.