An ecocritic reads Ted Hughes

Green Letters Book Review 2009*

[*I have mislaid the exact details of publication (month and issue number).]

 

Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes

(London: Routledge, 2009)

 

Laurence Coupe

 

 

Reading this book, it occurs to me that Ted Hughes represents for ecocritics in the UK what Gary Snyder does for ecocritics in the US. There is the career-length concern with the pollution of the environment. There is the instinct that Judaeo-Christian doctrine has fostered the estrangement of western humanity from nature. There is the consistent resort to myth as a source of structures and symbols that might shape our need to re-establish our cultural and natural roots. Finally, there is the fascination with shamanism as the repressed wisdom of the earth.

Snyder has never lacked advocates; nor have they had to apologise about his uncompromising insistence that our responsibility to the natural world is the most important poetic theme. With Hughes, however, British critics wasted far too much time deciding whether he was a ‘voyeur of violence’ and whether his atavistic language was an affront to British decorum. Fortunately, we have been catching up with him rapidly in more recent years, and for this we have to thank, among others, Keith Sagar and Terry Gifford. For ASLE members Gifford must be the preferred choice of critic: his appreciation of Hughes is rooted in ecocritical principles and practice.

In two earlier works, Green Voices and Pastoral, Gifford outlined what must be the most useful way of situating Hughes: that is, as working through and beyond an ‘anti-pastoral’ to a ‘post-pastoral’ mode. If ‘anti-pastoral’ exposed the sentimentalisation of the countryside which characterises the pastoral, ‘post-pastoral’ represents the forging of a new, more complex exploration of the culture-nature boundary and of humanity’s responsibilities to the earth.

In this new volume in the ‘Routledge Guides to Literature’, Gifford avoids using his earlier terminology, but the ideas behind it are implicit throughout. The book falls into four main parts.

First we have ‘Life and contexts’, which not only provides the main facts, but also addresses the unavoidable question of how much the life is implicated in the art. This is the best short overview of Hughes’s career that I’ve read.

Secondly, there is the long central section entitled ‘Works’, which takes us through the poetry volume by volume, along with the stories, plays and critical writings. I found the account of the last of these particularly revealing: it reminds us how crucial is Hughes’s Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, to which the ‘Notes’ in his Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse serves as preface and summary. The central myth which Hughes derived from his reading of Shakespeare, centred on the story of Venus and Adonis, is echoed in much of the poetry, where it serves as a framework for his preoccupation with the relationship between female and male, and between nature and culture.

Usefully, the third part of the book, ‘Criticism’, follows up the insights of the second part by including chapters on ‘Myth’ and on ‘Ecology’. The book then concludes with a useful chronology, which forms its fourth section.

Returning to the comparison with which I began, my estimate is that Gifford’s study of Hughes deserves to rank, both in its scope and in the quality of its commentary, with Patrick D. Murphy’s celebrated introduction to the work of Gary Snyder, A Place for Wayfaring (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000). Gifford’s volume will, I am sure, come to be recognised as the best starting point for anyone planning serious study of Hughes: the man, the work and the cause.

I use the word ‘cause’ advisedly. For if, having recognised how far the poetry  relies on myth, we fail to understand how far the myth implies an active reverence for nature, we are hardly doing Hughes justice. Gifford not only serves his subject well in this respect but also demonstrates what ecocriticism is all about.

TERRY GIFFORD, TED HUGHES

(London: Routledge, 2009)

 

 

Laurence Coupe

 

 

Reading this book, it occurs to me that Ted Hughes represents for ecocritics in the UK what Gary Snyder does for ecocritics in the US. There is the career-length concern with the pollution of the environment. There is the instinct that Judaeo-Christian doctrine has fostered the estrangement of western humanity from nature. There is the consistent resort to myth as a source of structures and symbols that might shape our need to re-establish our cultural and natural roots. Finally, there is the fascination with shamanism as the repressed wisdom of the earth.

Snyder has never lacked advocates; nor have they had to apologise about his uncompromising insistence that our responsibility to the natural world is the most important poetic theme. With Hughes, however, British critics wasted far too much time deciding whether he was a ‘voyeur of violence’ and whether his atavistic language was an affront to British decorum. Fortunately, we have been catching up with him rapidly in more recent years, and for this we have to thank, among others, Keith Sagar and Terry Gifford. For ASLE members Gifford must be the preferred choice of critic: his appreciation of Hughes is rooted in ecocritical principles and practice.

In two earlier works, Green Voices and Pastoral, Gifford outlined what must be the most useful way of situating Hughes: that is, as working through and beyond an ‘anti-pastoral’ to a ‘post-pastoral’ mode. If ‘anti-pastoral’ exposed the sentimentalisation of the countryside which characterises the pastoral, ‘post-pastoral’ represents the forging of a new, more complex exploration of the culture-nature boundary and of humanity’s responsibilities to the earth.

In this new volume in the ‘Routledge Guides to Literature’, Gifford avoids using his earlier terminology, but the ideas behind it are implicit throughout. The book falls into four main parts.

First we have ‘Life and contexts’, which not only provides the main facts, but also addresses the unavoidable question of how much the life is implicated in the art. This is the best short overview of Hughes’s career that I’ve read.

Secondly, there is the long central section entitled ‘Works’, which takes us through the poetry volume by volume, along with the stories, plays and critical writings. I found the account of the last of these particularly revealing: it reminds us how crucial is Hughes’s Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, to which the ‘Notes’ in his Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse serves as preface and summary. The central myth which Hughes derived from his reading of Shakespeare, centred on the story of Venus and Adonis, is echoed in much of the poetry, where it serves as a framework for his preoccupation with the relationship between female and male, and between nature and culture.

Usefully, the third part of the book, ‘Criticism’, follows up the insights of the second part by including chapters on ‘Myth’ and on ‘Ecology’. The book then concludes with a useful chronology, which forms its fourth section.

Returning to the comparison with which I began, my estimate is that Gifford’s study of Hughes deserves to rank, both in its scope and in the quality of its commentary, with Patrick D. Murphy’s celebrated introduction to the work of Gary Snyder, A Place for Wayfaring (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000). Gifford’s volume will, I am sure, come to be recognised as the best starting point for anyone planning serious study of Hughes: the man, the work and the cause.

I use the word ‘cause’ advisedly. For if, having recognised how far the poetry  relies on myth, we fail to understand how far the myth implies an active reverence for nature, we are hardly doing Hughes justice. Gifford not only serves his subject well in this respect but also demonstrates what ecocriticism is all about.

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