Torn Richness: The Poetry of Ted Hughes 5 – “October Salmon”

He’s lying in poor water”. The first words of “October Salmon” create an immediate feeling of closeness to the salmon, simply by the familiar way they refer to him, plunging in as if we and the poet have been standing watching and thinking about him for some time. In the first two stanzas almost everything is small-scale, intimate and particular. There’s not only sympathy with the salmon, in the concern at his vulnerability and the poorness of the water, there’s a physical empathy too. If you read the poem aloud, the first stanza makes significant demands on the breath and vocal muscles. When you reach “Breathing in that lap of easy current” you feel how your own breathing relaxes and slows, riding smoothly over the short phrases with their long vowels and midline pause. There’s even something lingeringly voluptuous about the long-drawn assonance of “breathing” and “easy” – perhaps an echo of the salmon’s physical pleasure in this quieter water. Even as he involves us so closely in the salmon’s situation and sensations, though, Hughes is quietly sowing the seeds of large symbolic ideas that he’ll develop later in the poem. “After his two thousand miles” prepares for the way the poem opens out to take in sea, earth and surrounding heavens, relating the one small life of the salmon to the whole order of nature:

He’s lying in poor water, a yard or so depth of poor safety,
Maybe only two feet under the no-protection of an outleaning small oak,
Half under a tangle of brambles.

After his two thousand miles, he rests,
Breathing in that lap of easy current

Peaceful pleasure is followed by an immediate shock though: “Breathing in that lap of easy current / In his graveyard pool”. The whole poem almost seems structured around the contrast between inbreaths and outbreaths in the way it moves between opposing poles of expansiveness and contraction, exhilaration and exhaustion, positive impressions and negative ones.

This poem is about a single salmon coming to its end, but it’s also about life as a whole. In the second stanza, “that lap of easy current” obviously refers to this last stage of the salmon’s journey and its life. It also suggests the fold of a garment, and the lap of a mother. The mother is the pool itself – later in the poem Hughes will call it “the only mother he ever had” – but in the next few lines Hughes imagines earth herself, or the whole force and all the processes of life on earth, as a goddess. She’s powerful, ruthless, beautiful, full of marvels, and the salmon’s death is only a part of the wonder of her larger life. The sense of what he’s lost is both saddening and reconciling. He’s lost it but he did have it and it’s wonderfully imagined as a “gallery of marvels”, “sweet months, so richly embroidered into earth’s beauty dress, / Her life-robe”. What’s brought him to death is the very abundance and energy of life, wearing him out by her “tirelessness, her insatiable quest”. As the poem proceeds, images of the present degraded state of the salmon alternate with images of his glory, power and appetite in his prime, so that the very shape of the poem seems to be saying that life and death are two sides of the same coin.

It’s interesting to contrast the salmon with Crow Tyrannosaurus. Hughes describes the salmon as

“the splendour of the sea” and

the eye of ravenous joy – king of infinite liberty
In the flashing expanse, the bloom of sea-life,

On the surge-ride of energy, weightless,
Body simply the armature of energy
In that earliest sea-freedom, the savage amazement of life,
The salt mouthful of actual existence
With strength like light –

He too is a predator, but it’s a totally different vision of predation to Crow’s. “Ravenous joy” and “savage amazement” are part of the salmon’s beauty, part of the wonder and exhilaration of life. Where Crow saw himself as the prisoner of his own nature and of the order of existence, the salmon is both undivided in himself and in harmony with the wider order on whose surge he once rode. The ravenousness of his joy is not just a reflection but a part of life’s own “insatiable quest”.  The root meaning of “splendour” is shining. In his prime the salmon was the splendour of the sea, both reflection and embodiment of its bright magnificence. He doesn’t need to aspire to the light, like the crow, he is or was light, or at least like light, not only in brightness but in strength.

That is only one side of the poem, however, or one of the poles between which it swings. I don’t want to suggest that “October Salmon” as a whole preaches a simple message of acceptance of the order of nature, or that Hughes is complacently settled in such an attitude. If one pole is rapturous celebration of what the salmon was, the other is grief at what it’s become, a sense of the waste and loss built into the very nature of life. The last stanza brings a kind of balance and reconciliation. In it, positives and negatives are locked together as two different ways of seeing the same thing. On the one hand the salmon is described as a loyal soldier, making a moral and heroic choice. On the other, the richness of life is torn, its order a doom-bringing machinery to which we can only submit. The salmon may be unthinking and undivided in its acceptance of how things are. A human being inevitably responds with a consciousness that brings divided and conflicting responses. One beauty of the poem is in the strength and sensitivity with which it reflects these contradictory feelings, which are different but equally natural ways of responding to the same thing. Another, I think, is the sensitivity with which Hughes has brought together those different sides of his poetic inspiration that I’ve talked about earlier: on the one hand his imaginative responsiveness to other lives in themselves,[1] and on the other the desire to project a larger vision that uses the individual subjects of his poems as symbols of larger forces[2].

[1] I talked about this side of things discussing “The Thought-Fox” and poems from Moortown Diaries, but of course they’re commonplaces of comment on Hughes.

[2] Referred to in the second of these extracts.


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