Torn Richness: The Poetry of Ted Hughes 4 – In Season Songs, wonder and joy are part of the whole

The world of natural forces as Hughes presents it in his first two books tends to be grim and oppressive. He admires the energy and vitality that resist death but presents them in terms of violent self-assertion or stubborn endurance. There’s not much softness. He even describes a snowdrop as

Brutal as the stars of this month,
Her pale head heavy as metal.

In life, though, Hughes is described as having been easy-going, tender and affectionate. Softer tones come into his poetry in Wodwo, his third book. Much of his later work is remarkable for its magical, loving touch in evoking fragile, vulnerable things and its ability to convey the wonder and joy of life. I’m particularly fond of a book called Season Songs, written partly with children in mind. It begins with a poem about a March calf. Here there’s a buoyant, whole-hearted celebration of energy and wonder, self-delight and harmony between the calf and its world:

Soon he’ll plunge out, to scatter his seething joy,
To be present at the grass,
To be free on the surface of such a wideness,
To find himself himself. To stand. To moo.

“Spring Nature Notes” opens with a line of calm beauty – “The sun lies mild and still on the yard stones” – and goes on to describe the eagerly burgeoning life of spring in rhythms whose airy lightness is unimaginable in Lupercal or The Hawk in the Rain:

      the whole air struggling in soft excitements
Like a woman hurrying into her silks.
Birds everywhere zipping and unzipping
Changing their minds in soft excitements,
Warming their wings and trying their voices

Power has a new sweetness in this world, whether it be the power of light –

Over the whole land
Spring thunders down in brilliant silence –

or the strength of trees carrying the weight of their new leaves in the conclusion to “April Birthday”.

Such impressions suffuse the whole volume. Crucially, though, there’s nothing soft focus about it. It also records pain, mishap and death. “Sheep I” and “Sheep II” are both reprinted from Moortown Diaries. The march of the seasons pitilessly overwhelms many small lives. “A Cranefly in September” describes a dying cranefly with beautifully tender particularity. At the end,

The sky’s northward September procession, the vast soft armistice,
Like an Empire on the move,
Abandons her, tinily embattled
With her cumbering limbs and cumbered brain.

One of my favourite Season Songs is “The Seven Sorrows” describing the deaths and losses autumn brings. But even when the bite of winter is most keenly felt, the seeds of life are waiting to burst forth with the return of spring, as in “The Warm and the Cold”.

So joy in later Hughes is not bought by sentimentality. His theme is still the necessity of accepting the order of being as a whole, seeing and accepting the interdependence of creation and destruction, life and death, joy and loss, but now with emphasis falling on gratitude for and joy in what is given. This seems to me a wiser, more balanced response to life than the one we have in his first two books and I want to close with “October Salmon”, a poem that expresses such a vision with particular power.


Leave a Reply