Torn Richness – the Poetry of Ted Hughes 3: Seeing animals as individuals

The poems of Moortown Diary are mostly rapid, improvisatory notes written down at the end of each day’s work on the small farm Hughes was running in Devon with the father of his second wife. In fact Hughes claimed to have deliberately short-circuited the shaping processes of poetry and intellect by writing his notes before going to bed, while the memories were still fresh and unsorted. This gives them great observational closeness. Even more important, though, is a change in his relation to the animals he writes about. He now has a working farmer’s personal relation to them, an awareness of how their complicated and changing emotions reflect their lives not as generic cows and sheep but as individuals. They can seem devastatingly human, simply because he’s got so close to them. In “Sheep I” Hughes writes about a lamb that died on the day of its birth. His description is totally absorbed in the immediate situation, the lamb’s wretched appearance and feeble struggling, its psychology and mental state and its mother’s baffled anguish, simply trying to register these lives outside his own life as accurately as he can.

Most of “Sheep II” has a similar closeness of observation but it starts with an astonishing simile. After ewes have been shorn, apparently, lambs no longer recognize their mothers. Hughes compares the sheep’s cries of despair with the screaming of the wounded after a battle. I think if you’d never read any other poem by Hughes you would know he was a genius by the imaginative power of the way he brings these two scenarios together.

In the last lines, “Slowly their hurt dies, cry by cry / As they fit themselves to what has happened”, the implied lesson about the necessity of accepting the world as it is may remind us of “Crow Tyrannosaurus” and many of Hughes’s other poems. The difference is the compassionate understanding of how difficult this adjustment is, how much pain precedes it and how slowly that pain fades.


Leave a Reply