Balancing a precarious banner

A Review of Keith Sagar's Ted Hughes and Nature

by Roger Elkin, 2011
Publ. 25. April 2011 on; © Roger Elkin

Keith Sagar: Ted Hughes and Nature: 'Terror and Exultation', ISBN: 978-1844-26-7682, £9.50 (plus £1.95 P&P, from 28 Beverley Drive, Clitheroe, BB7 1HY)

Readers of critical assessments of the poetry of Ted Hughes will be more than familiar with the name of Keith Sagar and have high expectations of his authority, scholarship and sensitive critical analyses. They will not be disappointed by this new full-length study. Sagar has over forty years exposure to the world and poetry of Ted Hughes, landmarked by his pioneering study Ted Hughes, (Longman for the British Council, 1972); developed in The Art of Ted Hughes (Cambridge University Press, 1975; extended Second Edition, 1978); and complemented by The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes (Liverpool University Press, 2000; Second Edition 2006). He is also Editor of The Achievement of Ted Hughes, (Manchester UP, 1983) and The Challenge of Ted Hughes, (Macmillan, 1994); and co-author with Stephen Tabor of Ted Hughes: A Bibliography, 1946-1980, (Mansell, 1983; Second Edition, Ted Hughes: A Bibliography, 1946-1995, 1998.)

This is an important book. It is also a huge book – despite having only 276 pages of large typeface and font. Sagar's ostensible purpose is a wide-ranging rehabilitation and reassessment of Ted Hughes's relationship with Nature, via an exploration and assessment of the major poetry collections between Crow (1970) and Birthday Letters (1998). It is prompted by his belief that

Hughes's finest and most important work, for which all the earlier books were preparation, is to be found in the three collections published between 1979 and 1983, Moortown, Remains of Elmet and River. Surprisingly, these collections have received far less attention than Hughes's earlier and later works. [p. xiii]

However, this claim masks a more important investigation – an investigation which partially and more pointedly extends ideas that featured in his well-received 1975 study, The Art of Ted Hughes, pp. 4-5. Outlining Hughes's thematic concerns as part of a single developing process of a twentieth-century western shamanistic-poet seeking to restore the balance and harmony between mankind and Nature, himself and experience, and his inner and outer consciousness via the medium of his poems, Sagar claimed

From the beginning Hughes is searching for a way of reconciling human vision with the energies, powers, presences of the non-human cosmos. At first, his main concern is to identify these energies and describe them, not only in human terms, but in their own, that is Nature's terms. And the discrepancy between these two descriptions gives the most powerful of his early poems, for example the hawk and jaguar poems, their characteristic tension. Hughes is also concerned to discover whether negotiations are possible between man and Nature, that is between man and his Creator, and, if so, why they have so completely collapsed in our time and what the consequences of this collapse have been and may yet be. The destructiveness of Nature is so clearly seen and deeply felt that it seems in many of the poems in Wodwo and Crow that negotiation is impossible, but in some there are hopes and intimations and in most a determination to go on trying. After the descent into destruction he goes forward a step, and a step, and a step. And, slowly, something begins to come clear. The faces of things are transformed and inner meanings revealed. The imagination begins to yield its secrets, and with this renewed vision, neither negotiation nor, indeed, reconciliation seems quite beyond the scope of man.

I quote this at length partly to demonstrate just how prescient Sagar's 1975 commentary is; and simultaneously how apposite it is to the volumes that followed Crow, as Moortown, Remains of Elmet and River were yet to be published. Furthermore, although the particulars of Hughes's "descent into destruction" have become more widely known and commented on by critics, Sagar is sparing in his discussion: his primary concern is the poetry; biographical detail is used as a context to explain the poetry and its origins and purposes. Thus, in this present book, Hughes relationship with Sylvia Plath is referred to only 10 times:

  • p. 7 as recipient of a Ted Hughes letter on Blake and Christianity;
  • p. 46 as recipient of a Ted Hughes letter about Schopenhauer;
  • p. 61 as commentator on Ted Hughes' play, "The House of Taurus";
  • p. 73 as receiver of Ted Hughes's ideas about poetic thinking;
  • pp. 78-79 in connection with changes in Ted Hughes's poetic style immediately prior to and post her death;
  • p. 82, footnote as source for checking the accuracy of the dating of Ted Hughes's "Mayday on Holderness";
  • p. 92 in relation to the events surrounding the contrast between the "life-bringing" event of the birth of Frieda in 1960, and its overshadowing by her mother's death in 1963;
  • p. 220 as Plath's objecting to Ted Hughes's shooting of a garden pheasant (April 1962) and her subsequent anger on finding that he had set rabbit snares;
  • p. 251 their marriage as one of the sources for stress between them, by removing the opportunity of fishing: "Marriage to Sylvia Plath in 1956 committed Hughes completely to the literary life" when he could "be fishing off a rock / In Western Australia" ["Ouija"].

As can be seen, while perhaps the minutiae of biography, these are hardly devastating issues, and have only tangential bearing to the poetry. However, the one remaining reference to Plath is more germane to the current study. Writing of the rationale behind the Crow sequence, Sagar claims,

Hughes had come to realize that his portrait of nature … was, in fact a portrait of his own nightmare, his own psychic disturbance, projected onto the face of nature. The idea was that Crow would recapitulate all Hughes's own mistakes, which, he now realized, were not purely subjective, but a manifestation of the perverse relationship of Western man to the female for thousands of years. He hoped to cope imaginatively with the death of Sylvia Plath by putting himself (as representative of his gender and culture) in the dock, finding himself guilty of crimes against the female (wife, mother, anima, nature herself), and correcting himself by undergoing an ego-death and rebirth. If he could thus heal himself, something of the healing power of the poetic process might pass to the reader. [pp. 100-101]

Elements of this are reiterated in three references to Assia and Shura Gutman/Wevill in which the relationship between personal events, the poetry, and Hughes's revised view of Nature are extended:

  1. "The Crow project was in full flow, about to move into the phase of enlightenment, reconciliation and rebirth, when a second tragedy, the deaths of his partner Assia and their daughter Shura in March 1969, threw Hughes back into the pit … the Crow project was aborted." [p. 109];
  2. "The years following the deaths of Assia and Shura produced very little poetry." [p. 119]; and
  3. While Hughes was writing in March 1969 the Introduction to A Choice of Shakespeare's Verse, "Since the Crow story no longer offered Hughes a vehicle for his latest vision of nature, the whole thrust of it was diverted into the essay (with the extreme personal urgency of the question: who was responsible for the deaths of Assia and Shura?)" [p. 121].

It is these events – thankfully under-played – which provide the grounding for the book's thesis, and which occupy Sagar's discussion over several chapters of what he sees as "the transitional works": Prometheus on his Crag, Gaudete (1977) and Cave Birds (1978). In many ways these sequences and the one from which they have their provenance and much of their philosophic, psychological and spiritual explorations, Crow, are not primarily concerned with the physical natural world: like Crow their protagonists are mythical vehicles rather than animal / actual / natural or even human entities. So readers might be forgiven for querying why so much of the present study is occupied with an exploration of these transitional texts. Nevertheless, Sagar's discussion of the Crow sequence is essential reading, pulling as it does on the Emory archive to add a series of questions many of which are making their first public airing and which were intended to point the poems' argument integral to the epic folk-tale prose narrative of Crow. It was this narrative that Hughes "at the end of his life" authorized Sagar to publish.1

While Sagar successfully explores the Cave Birds "human scenario" sequence and its delineation of the relationship between the scapegoat male protagonist, initially represented as a Socratic cockerel, and the female within Nature, anima, mother, bride, he misses the opportunity to make a direct link with the personal issue of Hughes's "descent into destruction". The closing Recklings poem, "Bawdry Embraced", written as early as February 1956,2 and included in the original typescript of The Hawk in the Rain (1957) but subsequently removed3, concludes with the Tailfever narrative in ballad form which reports the climax of an urgent sexual passion in which the practitioners, Sweety Undercut and Tailfever, symbolically Plath and Hughes, are elevated to almost mythical proportions:

They caught each other by the body
And fell in a heap:
A cockerel there struck up a tread
Like a cabman's whip.

And so they knit, knotted and wrought
Braiding their ends in;
So fed their radiance to themselves
They could not be seen.

And thereupon – a miracle!
Each became a lens
So focussing creation's heat
The other burst in flames …

Died face to face, with bellies full,
In the solar waste.

Of importance is that detailed particulars of the ballad – the "diamond" in the eye of Bawdry's "needle nakedness" – foreshadow elements of the later Cave Birds sequence. According to Keith Sagar,

In her commentary on "The Risen", Ann Skea describes the completion of the alchemical process as recreating the falcon as "the diamond body". But the phrase "diamond body" does not appear in the poem, or, indeed, in Cave Birds. It occurs in the second poem of Adam and the Sacred Nine. [p. 195]

Jung states that in the alchemical process, the male and female elements, "Mercury" and "Sulphur", the sponsum and sponsa, were often described as "cock and hen" which the alchemist combined in "mystic marriage".4 In "Bawdry Embraced", prior to their union, Tailfever is described as a "cockerel" who "treads" the hen of Sweety Undercut; while in Cave Birds the main protagonist is a humanist Socratic cockerel who, though possessing little knowledge of self or the world, announces himself, "lord of the middens". Certainly, while the first part of the Tailfever narrative might bristle with moments of terror, it concludes in splendid exultation.

Similarly, Sagar limits discussion of Hughes's use in the Gaudete Epilogue of the vacana prayer-poems he composed after his 1973-74 reading A. K. Ramanujan's Speaking of Siva to only 2 out of the 45; and yet his description of them as "the perfect form for holding the precarious balance of 'terror and exultation' which was Hughes's response to the goddess in the mid-seventies" would suggest they were central to the current argument. To some extent this is balanced by lengthier coverage of several other prayer-poems featuring in Orts, including some from the Emory archive otherwise unpublished, in "Chapter 9: Earth-numb", which also contains a penetrating and sensitive analysis of the importance of the uncollected "A Solstice".


The foundations for the book's discussion are laid in three well-argued chapters which deal primarily with "non-poetical" matters and which put Hughes's Nature poetry into a wider historical, philosophical and personal context. In "Chapter 1, Civilization versus Nature", Sagar draws on aspects of his searching Literature and the Crime Against Nature (Chaucer Press, 2005) and refers to writers as diverse as Hesiod, Sophocles, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, and thence to Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, to plot man's artistic/poetic responses to "wild inhuman nature out there beyond the city walls, and human nature." He presents Hughes's early stance towards Nature with "all the elements as hostile to life" as the antithesis to that of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Tennyson, Hopkins and Eliot. Surprisingly relevant is the similarity between several early Hughes poems – "Relic", "Hawk Roosting" and "Thrushes" all from Lupercal (1960) – and Keats's 1818 "Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds":

I saw
Too far into the sea, where every maw
The greater on the less feeds evermore. –
But I saw too distinct into the core
Of an eternal fierce destruction…
The Shark at savage prey, – the Hawk at pounce, -
The gentle Robin, like a Pard or Ounce,
Ravening a worm.

In "Chapter 2, Influences", Sagar treads more familiar ground in a wide-ranging discussion of, among other things, Hughes's awareness of Jungian archetypes and the collective unconscious; Graves's White Goddess versus Apollonian rationalism; the quest for Blake's Fourfold Vision and "the recovery … of the holiness of everything that lives"; D. H. Lawrence's "insistence on the sacredness of Nature" and use of "easy, colloquial free-verse"; and the poetic ideas and example of Theodore Roethke. Sagar intuits that such influences were essential as a means of living with his "descent into destruction".

"Chapter 5" offers Sagar's masterly analysis of the work of the most important philosophical agency in Hughes's thinking: Shakespeare. In an economic overview of Hughes various approaches – A Choice of Shakespeare's Verse (1971, Second Edition 1991), Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992) and its first draft The Silence of Cordelia, [there are seven full typescripts] Sagar elucidates the major thread of what Hughes calls Shakespeare's "tragic equation" and which Sagar identifies as matching Hughes's other recent preoccupations:

The murder of the Goddess is the murder of the source of Life: the destruction of mankind. (And of all Nature, and of Earth.)

The rest of the chapter is concerned with linking this understanding to two other prose articles: the first forming part of the argument in the first of Hughes's two "Myth and Education" essays (March 1970) in which he concludes that "what poetry is continually trying to do" is "to realign our extreme, exclusive attitude with our natural environmental and our natural biological supply of life." This essay in turn is extended by Sagar's survey of Hughes's 1970 review of Max Nicholson's The Environmental Revolution, a study which strengthened Hughes's concept of the poet as shaman whose role is to communicate "both the nightmare and the vision of undesecrated life."

Significantly, all three works consolidated and extended Hughes's adoption and adaptation of his reading of ideas Robert Graves expressed in The White Goddess, a copy of which Hughes was given by his former English master in 1951 when he went up to Cambridge. In fact, Hughes's poetry in its celebration of animal and natural agencies, along with these three prose works in which he attacks the anaesthetisation of contemporary sensibility resulting from the abandonment of imagination, Nature and the Dionysian urge for creative pleasure in preference for Puritan rationality, scientific objectivity and the satisfaction of materialistic appetite, complement Graves's prefatory remarks in The White Goddess relating to the function of poetry:

The function of poetry is the religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites. This was once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience of the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy and science and industry, and brought ruin on himself and his family … the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured … serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill … The moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth, and woman reckoned an "auxiliary State personnel" … Money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.5

The significance of the above quotation to Sagar's current survey lies in the fact that both the book's back-cover blurb and sections of the text put emphasis on a movement in Hughes's poetry from terror/dread to exultation/admiration. The back-cover blurb announces Sagar's approach in the following terms:

He traces Hughes's painful journey from terror in the face of nature in his first three collections, through the transitional works from Crow to Cave Birds, to the transformation in Moortown and Remains of Elmet, culminating in the exultation of River.

The terminology of these statements is echoed in Sagar's concluding comments which have specific reference to a Gaudete "Epilogue" poem:

Hughes's poetic vision was not ultimately tragic. From mere dread he moved to admiration for division itself, the perfect balance of black and white on a badger's face. [p. 275]

What is of interest in both the book's sub-title and this reference to the Hughes poem is the similarity to Graves's phraseology,

The function of poetry is the religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites.6 [emphasis added]

Is the alteration of the second vowel from "a" to "u" [Graves's exAltation and Hughes/Sagar's exUltation] the accident of transposition, I wonder?

Vowels apart, while I have no overall disagreement with the drift and much of the supporting detail of Sagar's survey, I am a little disorientated by what I think is a misconception or misunderstanding. The similarity in meaning between "dread" and "horror" and "terror" is paralleled by the similarity in "admiration", "exaltation" and "exultation". However, where the problem lies is that Sagar sees the equation of terror / exultation as opposites; and the poetry as a movement from the former position to the latter. What makes this difficult to understand is Sagar's affirmation that "Hughes's divinity is the Great Goddess, and she is Nature, incarnate life on earth" [p. 55]; "the even-handed goddess of creation and destruction" [p. 42]; and "nature herself, who is the source of all love, inspiration and creation, but simultaneously of suffering and mortality" [p. 41]. This "even-handed" equation is also witnessed in both Graves's concept and Hughes's acceptance and application of it in his poetry in the resolution that lies in Graves's use of the defining "mixed" and Hughes's concept of "balance" (incidentally, this "balance" has moved from being "precarious" in Hughes's poem to "perfect" in Sagar's commentary). In my reading of Hughes's poetry, terror and exultation are not opposing forces and/or states but an expression of simultaneous co-existence, both viable and present at the same time. Indeed, in many poems their instance is practically synonymous: the terror is the exultation, and vice versa. I believe that what Sagar sees as Hughes's movement towards "admiration for division" had been there from early on in his poetry. And this seems to me to be demonstrably clear in the Nature poems of his first three volumes.

To support his thesis, Sagar in his "Preface" contrasts Hughes's 1970 praise of Max Nicholson's "tremendous imaginative grasp of the true life of the earth, the inner spiritual unity of nature" with the fact that "only ten years earlier Hughes had described nature as 'brainless & the whole of evil'. " [p. xiii] If this is the yardstick against which the transformational journey from terror to exultation is to be measured, care is needed. The contrasting earlier quotation from "ten years earlier" comes from a Summer 1959 letter Hughes wrote to his sister, Olwyn, concerned with the significance of the Lupercal title-poem:

An entire vision of life seems to have grown up for me around the notion of God as the devourer – as the mouth & gut which is brainless & the whole of evil, & from which we can only get certain concessions … When I look through them, almost all the poems I have in this batch are about nothing else but this. God, the Creator … [is] simply absolute power – the irrefutable authority of the need to devour to live: so God in the individual is his own power & assertion, but as He appears in every other living thing is evil – for this individual. [Letters, 148]

This (unquoted fuller) reference to the Creator God sees him as masculine, and it is perhaps this that encourages Sagar to write, "The masterful rhetoric, the 'masculine persuasive force', remained Hughes's typical mode in Lupercal" [p. 79]. However, in an unquoted letter of six months later in December 1959 in which Hughes is writing to Daniel Huws about the forthcoming publication of Lupercal, the masculine Creator in the poems seems to have a changed persona:

I was noting the other day which ones had reference to Graves's White Goddess, and out of 41 pieces there are only about 6 that are not direct representation of her or her victims. [Letters, 153]

Of course, like readers and critics, poets are allowed to shift focus, make contradictory statements, and even cover their tracks. But what is interesting is the suggestion that Hughes had only become aware of the connective links between the Lupercal poems after he had agreed the book's contents. This implies that at this stage of his poetic quest the young poet Hughes was not writing to a specific agenda or a thematic schema. And this is one of the distinguishing features between the earlier and later stance: from Crow onwards most of Hughes's output is conceived in terms of cycles or sequences. In his "Preface", Sagar argues that Hughes "carefully planned" the structures of these later collections, but adds a cautionary rider:

There was, however, a price to pay for these imposed structures. For the sake of them Hughes can be draconian, distorting the original meaning of the poems to make them fit the postconceived pattern. [p. xv]

And this can cause problems for not only author, but also the critic – and the reviewer – approaching the writing with a specific thesis in mind!

In "Chapter 3, "Terror: The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal, Wodwo", possibly because he covered them more fully in The Art of Ted Hughes (1975; 1978), Sagar allots these three early volumes only 22 pages. Making a distinction between the ways in which Hughes presents the early animal subject-manner, he asserts, "Hughes' hawks, pike, thrushes, sharks were all machines … mechanical … programmed" as opposed to the more celebratory nature of animals in the later volumes. This seems an over-simplification: for example, Hughes's footnote to "Salmon-Taking Times", River (Three Books) p. 185, where he comments,

Each fish is programmed to return to the river, to the tributary, and even to the very pool, perhaps the very gravel patch, of its birth … While the eggs or milt … begin to grow and ripen, cannibalizing the body-fat and muscle of the parent.

has been conveniently overlooked. Furthermore, though necessarily selective given the scope of the book, the discussion centres on poems about primarily predatory animals, rather than embracing the entire gamut of Nature to include flora, the seasons and landscape. It is possible, in the early poems, that the White Goddess (in her dual role of agency for the life-supporting and death-enforcing energies) is the force behind not only the terrifying predatory creatures (hawk, thrushes, pike, shark, otter, jaguar) but also the persistent vegetable growth in poems in the early volumes (see "Snowdrop", "Thistles" and the bean-flower of "The Green Wolf", variants of which are entitled "Dark Woman"; and "Mid-May", the time of the year most sacred to the Goddess.7 ) None of these poems is discussed in full.

Central to the chapter's discussion, and to Ted Hughes's poetry generally, is Sagar's exploration of "The Thought-Fox" which covers almost 5 pages. Much of this is an extension of earlier comments in The Art of Ted Hughes with an included elaboration about "the witching time of night", the projection of "demons and horrors onto the creatures of the night, such as bat and owl", and the "fox … victimized and persecuted". The poem's 24 lines have no reference to any of this, nor to the fox "seeking what cover it can find, lame from some trap it has barely survived" [p. 76]. Nor do I see "terror" in the poem; but evidence of growing exaltation/exultation in the emerging metaphor, its gradual forming "across clearings" into clear lines and stanzas, and the triumph of the arrival of the fox/poem, "printed" both in the imagination, and on the paper. Thus the poem exists as an extended metaphor for the particular Hughesian poetic approach he advocates for younger writers in Poetry in the Making where he intuits that the poem arrived as a means of overcoming writer's block:

I was sitting up late one snowy night in dreary lodgings in London. I had written nothing for a year or so but that night got the idea I might write something and I wrote in a few minutes the following poem: the first "animal" poem I ever wrote.8

The inverted commas (the first time in the chapter that Hughes applies them to the word animal) are significant; and the fact that drafts of the poem exist9 would suggest that Hughes's comments need to be taken with an element of circumspection. Simultaneously, it could be argued that as early as 1956 Hughes is concerned with the restoration of dishonoured Nature, whose presence as the White Goddess in the shape of vegetative life-forces, "the sacred grove", exists in the metaphor of the imaginative mind as a dark forest from which both the poetic process "coming about its own business" and the actual end-product, the poem, imagined as a fox, arrive. The "printed poem" is physical evidence of the workings of the poetic Muse nurturing the creative processes in the human unconsciousness. The poet becomes so possessed by the act of creativity that he is both author and subject – "It enters the dark hole of the head". Importantly, the head does not have a subjective possessive pronoun: this serves to emphasise the almost independent activity of the process of poetic creativity. As servant to the Muse, the poet's head is her lair. This is in direct opposition to the popular cultural acceptance of inspiration as being external to the artist, and arriving like a bolt out of the blue with a flash of lightning. Thus the early line "Through the window I see no star" is balanced by the last stanza's "The window is starless still"; for Hughes the poem / creative process / metaphor / idea / fox exist instead internally within the unconscious: "Something more near / Though deeper within darkness / Is entering the loneliness". And when they finally arrive the apprehension of "the experience of mixed exaltation and horror" is so intense that its animal, primal nature is hammered out in two lines of mainly monosyllabic, alliterative, unpunctuated and stressed words that simultaneously emphasise the feral qualities of the imagined creature as subject of the White Goddess / Mother Nature. Hughes's practice here of the use of stress rather than a regular metrical pattern along with the movement away from Latinised and polysyllabic diction – "imagine", "loneliness", "brilliantly", "concentratedly", "business" – to concrete language – "sudden sharp hot stink of fox" – rooted in the reality of the physical world seems to be a demonstration of Graves's assertion that

Attempts to supplant the Muse by worshipping Apollo have always failed – Apollo being a patron of the intellect, not of intuitive truth; of metre not of rhythm, of novelty, not of timelessness.10

The thought-fox "coming about its own business" is also a confirmation of Graves's assertion that

True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words … into a living entity – a poem that goes about on its own … affecting readers with its stored magic.11 [emphasis added]

Similar qualities may be seen in several other poems from these early volumes, where Hughes's observational skills present that "terror and exaltation" in a balancing equation. If there is any dread/horror/terror in the early animal poems it is not in the descriptions of the animal subject matter, but their symbolic use in comparison with mankind. Thus "The Jaguar" "hurrying enraged" as he "spins from the bars", "in prison darkness" "on a short fierce fuse" is favourably contrasted with the crowd that "stands, stares, mesmerized / As a child at a dream". The first version of the poem compared them to "life-prisoners" who "through bars stare out", thus linking them directly with those zoo-creatures who have capitulated to or exploited their caging. They, like the other animals, are "fatigued with indolence", "yawn and adore", "shriek" or "strut like cheap tarts"; the jaguar/poet/visionary is in antithesis: "the horizons roll" "under the long thrust of his heel". The description of the jaguar's stride as "wildernesses of freedom" has an elegance that like the thought-fox's emerging shape is both urgent and delicate.

Discussing "Pike", Sagar focuses on the "image of two large pike, both dead, 'One jammed past its gills down the other's gullet'… [as] an image of mindless instinct" [p. 83]. Yes, the horror and terror are there, but also there is in the poem an occasionally-simultaneous admiring exaltation in their presence and movement which is emphasised by the use of precise diction and visual imagery: "perfect … green tigering their gold … They dance on the surface … stunned by their own grandeur … silhouette / Of submarine delicacy and horror". Sagar, seeing pike as "the typical terrifying energies of predatory nature" [p. 249], overlooks Hughes's quest to capture verbally this "precarious balance", and simultaneously ignores his stated reverence for the pike:

I wanted a creature magically solid …, sacred to me (pike obsessed great stretches of my adolescence and were central to my recurrent dream life until salmon replaced them), an angel in my heaven of heavens, and yet, coming to life, to real actual ordinary life… Also, I wanted to evoke into it, without losing solidity and rootedness, colour – five-dimensional being. [Letters, 631]

In a further (unquoted) letter, Hughes links the pike, via the archangel Michael, directly with the White Goddess:

In the first drafts of my poem Pike … the Pike is Michael, the Archangel nearest to God … I had him (my pike Michael) hanging – almost but not quite motionless, in the great glory (the blinding dazzle) that radiates from the throne. He is the personal chaperon of the Shekinah – the female aspect of God, and wherever he appears, she is there. [Letters, 606]

Similarly, where Sagar sees "Hawk Roosting" as "horrifying … a robot programmed by an insane god", (the terror captured in such lines as the "one path of flight" "direct through the bones of the living") there is also an element of exaltation in the hawk's celebration of its own perfection, skill, artistry. Hughes's comment in the poem presents mankind as more horrific than his hawk. The poem's tonal cadences and almost manic monosyllables indicate that this portrayal is self-delusory, and that the hawk's commentary has a relevance to "civilized" mankind's "sophistry" and "manners" which normalize and sanction similar behaviour. Moreover, the fact that, like the thought-fox, the hawk is a product if the imagination and is dependent on the sacred grove" – "I sit in the top of the wood", "feet locked upon the rough bark" in "the convenience of the high trees" – connects it with the life-assertive agency of vegetative aspects of the White Goddess as Mother Nature, and simultaneously with the presence in the subconscious of the Muse on which the poem "preys" for its life. Interestingly, Hughes makes this link directly when, echoing the comments of the above quotation from the Graves's preface, he writes about the composition of the poem: "I wrote it to a text: 'The truth kills everybody'". [Letters, 244]

Again in "View of a Pig" (not discussed by Sagar, other than by the title "Pig", p. 82) there is the balance between the detailed description – delicate and life-enhancing – "pink white eyelashes", "its last dignity", "its life, din, stronghold Of earthly pleasure", "Distinctions and admirations such as this" – and also the horrific – "Their bite is worse than a horse's – / They chop a half-moon clean out", but the real horror lies in what humankind has done to it, reduced to "Just so much / A poundage of lard and pork", "too deadly factual", "how could it be moved? / And the trouble of cutting it up!" That balance is conveyed in the final lines in the contrast between the narrator's fascinated long-held stare, and the mechanistic manner in which the pig was to be disposed of. Here the antithesis between the use of "I" and the detached impersonal third person pronouns (both singular and plural), reinforced by the repetitive "scald it", underpin the poem's sympathies:

I stared at it a long time. They were going to scald it,
Scald it and scour it like a doorstep.

In "An Otter" (again not discussed) the description once more both celebrates the creature – "Four-legged yet water-gifted", "re-enters water by melting", "galloping along land it no-longer belongs to" – and delineates its "horrific" characteristics: the ability to "outfish fish", to "lick / The fishbone bare". But it is the action of mankind that receives Hughes criticism, as conveyed in the brutal "yanked" and the factually cold monosyllables – horror indeed:

Yanked above hounds, reverts to nothing at all,
To this long pelt over the back of a chair.

The dualism of this balancing terror-exultation equation is seen in the Wodwo poem "Skylarks", a poem which Sagar describes in his 1975 study as "the most assured and accomplished of the larger poems in Wodwo … one of the great poems of the language" but which he chooses to set aside in the current survey:

O song, incomprehensively both ways –
Joy! Help! Joy! Help!
                O lark ["Skylarks III"]

and which he doesn't make comparison with when discussing "The Skylark Came", in Adam and the Sacred Nine. But, skylarks, like "Bullfrog" (Lupercal), the uncollected "Snails" (1959) and gnats (Wodwo) to mention but a few other creatures are not usually regarded as predatory. But is the wodwo? While Sagar's claim that

there is nothing mechanical or programmed about the wodwo. Its life is a matter of acute sensory awareness allied to free choice [p. 90]

is an apposite description of the poem's overall concerns, he overlooks the fact that the wodwo as "wood-demon, or a humanoid animal or a primitive half-man" in "questioning everything" also questions what could be seen, at a literal level of meaning, not only the purpose of its eating, but also its food source:

         Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own?

Might not the Latinate diction – in itself an indicator of the application of Apollonian logic, and suggestive of repeated behaviour patterns, a sort of modulated violence that does not in fact dilute the terror / horror of what actually is taking place – suggest some element of conditioned programming? And given Hughes's quest to resolve "the problems he had… wrestled with in relation to nature and the female" [p. xiv], the Wodwo "animal" poems – "The Howling of Wolves" and "Song of a Rat" – written in the immediate aftermath of Plath's death would seem to hold a central position, and thus demand a lengthier discussion. And am I alone in not seeing the (primarily) ruminants of Moortown Elegies as Nature's beasts? Certainly they're in no way predatory.


The issue of the movement from terror to exultation is the subject determinator of the final chapter which focuses on River. Sagar's argument is persuasive. Noting that the first words of the first poem of the first volume, The Hawk In The Rain (1957), are "I drown", he records that by River "water has become the sacred, healing element… and thus the lifeblood of poetry." [p. 254] He charts this progress via the ego-death experience caught in "Earth Numb" from Moortown (1979):

A piling voltage hums, jamming me stiff –
Something terrified and terrifying
Gleam-surges to and fro through me
From the river to the sky, from the sky to the river
Uprooting dark bedrock, shatters it in air,
Cartwheels across me, slices thudding through me
As if I were the current.

Sagar emphasises how the poems increasingly use a diction drawn from "the language of atonement" and imagery that has a liturgical reference. However, as with the earlier Nature poems this enjoys a precarious balance with the world of the realistically-drawn horrific. It is significant that of the 47 poems in River (Three Books) Sagar mentions 17, and only discusses 7 at any length. Of importance given Hughes's concern with the environment and the restoration of Nature is the omission of "1984 on 'The Tarka Trail'" with its horrific catalogue of mankind's catastrophic destruction of the river and its inmates:

The tale of the dying river
Does not end where you stand with the visitors
At a sickbed, feeling the usual
othing more than helplessness.
You cannot leave this hospital because
Peter, the good corn farmer, with his three plus
Tons of quality grain to the acre (behind him
The Min. of Ag. and Fish.'s hard guarantee
Which is the hired assurance of hired science)
Heaps the poisons into you too.

A further absent poem is "Stealing Trout on a May Morning", which originally appeared in Recklings.12 Like "Earth Numb" the poem explores a fishing moment that transgresses the actual and physical to take on symbolic meaning: the instant of catching the fish and coming face to face with it becomes self-revelatory, a glimmer into the darkness of the inner world, an exposure of the anxieties and fears hidden in the unconscious, and an awareness of life-and-death forces at work. It shares affinity with that moment in "Pike" when Hughes is made aware of

       The dream
Darkness beneath night's darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.

In "Stealing Trout on a May Morning" there are moments of elation where Nature is depicted with sensitive detail that would not be out of place in the first part of Gaudete:

Every leaf is plump and well-married,
Every grain of soil of known lineage, well-connected.
And the gardens are like brides fallen asleep
Before their weddings have properly begun;
The orchards are the hushed maids, fresh from convent …
The tarmac of the road
Is velvet with sleep, the hills are out cold.
A new earth still in its wrapper
Of gauze and cellophane,
he frost from its storage still on its edges.

It is the description of the river where Hughes refers to the terror within Nature's forces – "At first, I can hardly look at it." He insists on the river's animal nature and gives it human characteristics – it is "Alive and malevolent", has "skirts", "braids" and "gestures"; is "washing its soul"; while the current pulling against his foothold in the shallows is "a drowned woman loving each ankle". Eventually, possessed by the river's tumultuous flowing, he becomes surrounded by the voices and memories of archaic conflicts, dreams and fears, completely overpowered, and swept almost out of his own consciousness into the annihilation of the waters:

This headlong army of a river is a rout
Of tumbrils and gun-carriages, rags and metal,
All the funeral woe-drag from some overnight disaster …
Trailing past me with all its frights, its eyes
With what they have seen and still see,
They drag the flag off my head, a dark insistence
Tearing the splints from my mind's edge.

The single pathway to safety is to be dragged out of the river – by a fish. As in "Earth Numb" Hughes has been captured by his own imaginative creative process and its relationship with the collective unconscious. The pace of the poem relaxes: the inspired angler-poet subjected to Nature's power is replaced by respectability, appearances and order. As opposed to the catalogue of events expressed in one long tortuous, syntactically and grammatically challenging sentence, the diction becomes formal, then overly-decorated; the pace almost tired:

Now I am a man in a painting …
Painted about 1905
Where the river steams and the frost relaxes
From the pear-blossoms. The brassy wood-pigeons
Bubble their colourful voices, and the sun
Rises upon a world well-tried and old.

In his discussion of "October Salmon" Sagar interprets the salmon's slow death as "needed, as food for scavengers, and to provide essential nutrients for the rainforest, on which depend the rains which will make it possible for the next generation of salmon to reach their upstream spawning grounds" [p. 268]. While much of this might be implicit within parts of River as a whole, this particular poem does not touch on these aspects, but concentrates on the demise of the diseased salmon which "hangs there, patched with leper cloths", "His face a ghoul-mask… and his whole body / A fungoid anemone of canker"; "His living body becomes death's puppet"; "That is what the splendour of the sea has come down to". Hughes balances this against the salmon's former

        surge-ride of energy …
In that earliest sea-freedom, the savage amazement of life,
The salt mouthful of actual existence
With strength like light

and the recognition that "This chamber of horrors is also home". There is no discussion of the concluding lines where the horrors in the interface between the natural and man-made worlds are so exactly captured in a side reference to the dog-hunting element of "An Otter" in tandem with the matter-of-fact cataloguing of human detritus that becomes horrific in its casual inevitability:

Yet this was always with him. This was inscribed in his egg …
He was probably hatched in this very pool.
And this was the only mother he ever had, this uneasy channel of minnows
Under the mill-wall, with bicycle wheels, car tyres, bottles
And sunk sheets of corrugated iron.
People walking their dogs trail their evening shadows across him.
If boys see him they will try to kill him.

But there are other scions of Nature within the river's purlieu: among them Sagar overlooks the terror / exultation so exactly caught in the wide-ranging imagery and precise visual description within the damselfly

Hover-poised, in her snake-skin leotards,
Her violet-dark elegance.

Eyelash-delicate, a Dracula beauty,
In her acetylene jewels …

Stepping so magnetically to her doom! ("Performance") [p. 168];

and the exquisitely depicted "The Kingfisher" [p. 166],

Escaped from the jeweller's opium
X-rays the river's toppling
Tangle of glooms.

Now he's vanished – into vibrations.
A sudden electric wire, jarred rigid,
Snaps – with a blue flare;

while "A Cormorant" [p. 150] partially echoes aspects of "An Otter", but is more utilitarian in its emphasis

Eyes me, beak uptilted,
Body snake-low – sea-serpentish …

Disappears from bird,
Dissolving himself

Into fish, so dissolving fish naturally
Into himself. Re-emerges, gorged,

Himself as he was, and escapes me;

and in the precisely observed, "The Moorhen" [p. 147], the terror is only partially offset by the nicely humorous tone engineered by perhaps rather forced rhymes

A watchful clockwork
Jerks her head ahead, to inspect ahead
At each deep tread
Of her giant ooze-treading clawspread …

And the blood-orange badge or bleb
On her helmet neb
Lets the transgressing water-skeeter know
The arresting face, the stabbing body-blow
Is official.


Given Sagar's identification that Hughes's quest is a resolution of "the problems he had hitherto wrestled with in relation to nature and he female" [p. xiv], it might have been appropriate to have explored poems from Hughes's entire output which deal specifically with Hughes's representation of and attitude to the female: such poems, to name but a few, as the early uncollected "The Woman With Such High Heels She Looked Dangerous", "Scene Without An Act", "The Drowned Woman"; or from The Hawk in the Rain, "Parlour-Piece", "Secretary", "Soliloquy", "Incompatibilities", "Fallgrief's Girl-Friends", "The Hag", and from Lupercal, "Cleopatra To the Asp". Had this been undertaken, then the changing stance to the female in the wake of the suffering of Prometheus on his Crag, and the transformation of pain into art, would have been clearer to see.

Of particular relevance to Sagar's current study is "On The Slope", the Recklings opening poem, which re-surfaced as Part II of "Root, Stem, Leaf" in the Selected Poems, 1957-1981, and subsequently appeared in the 1993 edition of Remains of Elmet, (Three Books), which Sagar identifies as being

entirely about the crime against nature, which here takes the form of the enslavement of a people conscripted into the mills, the chapels, the trenches, conscripted also into the human attempt to conscript in turn the mothers, the sustaining elements of earth, air, fire and water, to degraded, spiritless purposes. [p. 240]

Textual detail suggests that the poem refers to Hughes's mother, Edith Farrar Hughes, who in later years suffered the pain of an advancing arthritic condition – the poem's "stone agony growing in her joints" – which would increasingly make her movement slow, laborious and agonized. 13 Several features of "Root, Stem, Leaf" suggest that Hughes's grouping of the three poems to form a thematic unit is connected with his adaptation of the White Goddess.14 The poem's tripartite nature mirrors the tripartite manifestation of the Goddess as a Moon-goddess Muse. Graves writes variously of her as

Threefold Goddess … mother, bride and layer-out;15

The White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright and lust;16

A personification of primitive woman – woman the creatress and destructess. As the New Moon or Spring she was girl; as the Full Moon or Summer she was a woman; as the Old Moon or Winter she was hag.17

In "Root, Stem, Leaf" the three women stand symbolically as representations of the White Goddess. The old woman of part II approaching the winter of her life is representative of Hecate, "the death goddess"18 and the mother of "incantatory magic"19. As the woman is identifiable with Hughes's mother, there is the suggestion that this poem in presenting her stoic endurance is honouring the life-in-death and death-in-life agencies of the White Goddess's power. Her identification with flowers –

Foxglove and harebell neither protest nor hope
On the steep slope where she climbs.
Out of nothing she grew here simply
Also suffering to be merely flowerlike –
But with the stone agony growing in her joints

suggests the recuperative and regenerative forces of Nature, and as such places her ideally in the Remains of Elmet section of Three Books (1993), and Elmet (1994).20 Interestingly, like "On The Slope", of the eight poems from Wolfwatching (1989) that Hughes repositioned in Elmet, only two – "Leaf-Mould" and "Source" – have a mention, and that as part of a foot-note.


Of course, almost anything can be argued by a careful and programmed choice of quotation, and example. And herein lies some of my reservations concerning the book's contents. A study of Ted Hughes and Nature it might be argued should have included other collections that have largely been overlooked by critics and in which Hughes confronts Nature, such as the 32 limited edition Recklings poems which Sagar side-lines in a single (misappropriated) page reference that groups them as sharing the "psychic condition" and "the horror of the incarnate world" which "produced most of the poems in Lupercal, and Wodwo." [p. 85] Where this is an oversight is that, as discussed above, three of these Recklings poems – "On The Slope", "Bawdry Embraced" and "Stealing Trout on a May Morning" – have important places within Sagar's current argument. In his 1972 study, Ted Hughes, (Longman, for the British Council, 1972), Sagar wrote of the Recklings poems, "Almost all are very different from anything we have had before, stripped-down skeletal poems, with little hectoring or rhetoric and few animals" (p. 21). That they are apparently so different from previous Hughes poems would make them the subject of extended consideration; as would the fact that while only one poem has an animal as part of its title – "Stealing Trout on a May Morning" – the poems are inhabited by a veritable zoo: goat, toad, camel, shark, eagle, mastodon, warthog, maggot, adder, chrysalis, flies, starlings, earthworm, nightingale, hen, eel, ants, mouse, spider, fleas, bulls, leopards, serpents, fish, lambs, baboon, cat, squid, tree-creeper, blood-lice, swift, sheep, mantis, bear, leaf-insect, armadillo, dog, monkey, sows, ostrich and fox. Furthermore, several poems have titles drawn from the world of Nature: "Water", "Beech Tree", "Heatwave", "Thaw", "Plum Blossom", "Trees" and "The Lake".

Other poems dealing with Nature and needing fuller exploration are the vacana-like poems – ("Hughes wrote over a hundred and fifty of them" [p. 212]) – some of which feature in the moving Gaudete "Epilogue" (1977) and others in Orts (1978); the richly-varied Flowers and Insects (1986), and the witty, eye-opening splendours of A Primer of Birds (1981); the wonders of the "poetry for children" in Season Songs (1976), Under the North Star (1981), and What is the Truth? (1984); not to mention the challenging and moving Nature poems from Wolfwatching (1989); and even those few poems from Birthday Letters (1998) which set the Plath-Hughes relationship against a backcloth of natural activity and landscape. Of course, this would mean a much bigger book; perhaps even a different book.


But don't let my pedantic nit-pickings and reservations put you off.

Keith Sagar's Ted Hughes and Nature: 'Terror and Exultation' is an important book: a challenging, thought-provoking study which goes a great distance way beyond "recent … critical commentary on this essential theme … [which] has remained fairly superficial". It needs to be read; and at £9.50 is a snip! Time and time again, Sagar's sensitive and empathetic readings have done what good critical writing demands: brought new insights into the poetry, and opened fresh ways of looking at the work of one of the major poetic minds of western literature. Though this is a demanding process, such is Sagar's knowledge nurtured over forty years of close study, that difficult concepts, both intellectually and emotionally, are communicated in accessible, readable terms. There is no attempt to obfuscate, to bamboozle the reader with academy, but a commitment to clarify, make connections, open doors to understanding by encouraging an informed revisiting of the poetry. Sagar is no slavish applicator of other folks' critical standpoints, and the book is studded with discussions of particular readings by Hughesian scholars of the standing of Neil Roberts, Terry Gifford and Leonard Scigaj; Sagar even challenges Hughes himself, most notably on his "dishonest" essay, "Poetry and Violence" [p.85]. Elsewhere, to support his readings of the poems, Sagar calls on a wide range of Hughes material not generally available; indeed, it is to be hoped that when this new book is reprinted – as surely such an important study will be – then it will include "Appendices" featuring the text of Hughes-Sagar correspondence not included in Letters, as well as the full text of the many (photocopied) uncollected poems and their variants to which Sagar refers – see e. g. pp. 90, 103-104, 160, 198-9, 212, 248. It should come as no surprise, that after careful reading of this rich and fascinating study, each revisiting of the poems gives rise to expressions such as "Why haven't I seen that before?/ What perception and insight / How amazing the connections / How good". Like so many of the poems, the awareness and understanding displayed are simultaneously life-enhancing, and humbling.

It is perhaps appropriate that the poetry should have the last word by considering the poem from which Keith Sagar takes the book's subtitle, 'Terror and Exultation', which appears in "The grass-blade is not without" from the "Epilogue" of Gaudete, (pp. 189-90). Given the thrust of Sagar's exploration of Hughes's at-onement with Nature, the dating of this poem is important. It was initially published in Bananas (6:30), Autumn/Winter 1976; and collected in Gaudete, May 1977, whereas the three books which Sagar identifies as "the apex of Hughes's achievement" were yet to be published: Moortown and Remains of Elmet in 1979, and River in 1983.

The significance of "The grass-blade is not without" is more than a matter of date, primarily because there is probably nowhere else in Hughes's work in which his faith and commitment to the restoration of desecrated Nature are so movingly expressed and simultaneously dignified in simplicity than in this vacana-like poem.

The first three stanzas chart the unseen, unrecognized, unacknowledged loyalty of grass, honour the “terror and exultation” of the blackbird, and celebrate the badger’s commitment to suffering and death on behalf of Nature,

The grass-blade is not without
The loyalty that never was beheld.

And the blackbird
Sleeking from common anything and worm-dirt
Balances a precarious banner
Gold on black, terror and exultation.

The grim badger with armorial mask
Biting spade-steel, teeth and jaw-strake shattered,
Draws that final shuddering battle cry
Out of its backbone.

These searching observations and moving expressions are confirmed by the poem's concluding lines which read almost like a musical coda, prayer-like in their hushed repetitions, their honed-down expression and liturgical structure:

Me too,
Let me be one of your warriors.

Let your home
Be my home. Your people
My people.

It is a command, rather than a plea; and, as such, a much more positive statement of belief, unity of purpose and resolve than either the roosting hawk’s self-deluding “I’m going to keep things like this”, or the wodwo’s puzzled, almost hesitant, “very queer but I’ll go on looking”. This much more affirmative poetic manifesto is also a prophetic announcement of the direction taken by Hughes’s subsequent poetry. As such the poem is a recognition that the confusion, doubts, hesitancies, personal suffering and loss recorded in so much of Hughes’s earlier writing may well have been spiritually and stylistically cathartic.


1  See "The Story of Crow" in Sagar’s The Laughter of Foxes (2000).

2  See Sylvia Plath, Letters Home, (Faber & Faber, 1976), letters for June 18, 1956, p. 259; and for September 2, 1956, p. 270.

3  See Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, (Faber & Faber, 2003) for full text, pp. 13-15; and p. 1241 for an account of its omission. Apart from its final six verses under the title of "Song from Bawdry Embraced" in New Selected Poems, 1957-1994, the poem remained uncollected in trade editions until the Collected Poems.

4  Carl Gustav Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy (Pantheon Books, New York, 1963), p. 167.

5  Robert Graves, The White Goddess, A Historic Grammar of Poetic Myth, amended and enlarged edition (Faber and Faber, 1961), p. 14.

6  Ibid.

7  See Jenny Stratford, The Arts Council Collection of Modern Literary Manuscripts 1963-1972, A Catalogue, (Turret Books, 1974), p. 62.

8  Ted Hughes, Poetry in the Making, (Faber & Faber, 1967), p. 19.

9  See "Great poets of the 20th century: Ted Hughes", (The Guardian, 2008), p. 20, which carries a facsimile manuscript containing several drafts of parts of "The Thought-Fox".

10 Robert Graves, Oxford Addresses on Poetry, (Cassell, 1961), p. 60.

11 The White Goddess, p. 490.

12 For a fuller discussion of the poem see Roger Elkin, "Breaking Ground: the Uncollected Recklings Poems", in ed. Joanny Moulin, Lire Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems, (Editions du Temps, 1999), pp. 114-116.

13 See Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath, Method and Madness, (Seabury Pres, New York, 1976), p.253.

14 The other poems are also taken from Recklings: Part I, "A Match"; Part III, "To Be A Girl’s Diary".

15 The White Goddess, p.24.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid, p. 386.

18 Ibid, p. 200.

19 Ibid, p. 386.

20 For a fuller discussion of the poem see Roger Elkin, "Neglected Auguries in Recklings", in ed. Keith Sagar, The Challenge of Ted Hughes, (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), pp. 19-21, where it is suggested that "'On The Slope' would not be out of place in Remains of Elmet”.

Related Resources
Download this Article as PDF
About the Author
ArrayRoger Elkin

Roger Elkin contributed the essays "Hidden Influences in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes" and "Ted Hughes and 'A Separate Little Self'" to this site.

His contribution "Breaking Ground: The Uncollected Recklings Poems" was published in Lire Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems 1957-1994 and his "Neglected Auguries in Recklings" was published in The Challenge of Ted Hughes.

Related Publication
ArrayKeith Sagar: The Laughter of Foxes

Keith Sagar: Ted Hughes and Nature: 'Terror and Exultation'. Fastprint Publishing, 2010 [more].