Sir Jonathan Bate reading “Ted Hughes: Eco-Warrior, or Eco-Worrier?”


I think we will get started here
while our guest speaker finishes his last few bites of Sugar Charge
before he comes up here. I want to take this opportunity to thank
each and every one of you for coming this evening, and helping
us with this series of lectures we’ve been doing. Every seat is
filled–it’s fantastic! What a great group. Thank you so much.
The Provost Distinguished Lecture series is something that I thought
about doing when I stepped in as Provost two and a half years
ago–I’m not Provost anymore in case you don’t know–when I
stepped in, I thought, “We should do something like this,” because
I thought it was really really important for us to bring in
thought leaders to ASU, and I mean thought leaders who are thinking
about big things–not simply thinking about science, engineering,
and technology; I think that’s really important, but often we
get caught up in that for too long. Particularly I was interested
in setting up a series where we brought in outstanding
international figures who met at the intersection of the humanities,
social sciences, and natural and physical sciences–this interface
is what I think universities are all about. Scientists go out and
gather data, and we think that we are addressing world problems
by going out and collecting our data, and doing our experiments,
but in every single case, it really takes social scientists,
humanists to come in and put the meaning to what we do. We need to
give it the social context, we need to give it the meaning. So,
looking for people to come in and meet this challenge as Distinguished
Provost Lecturers was the challenge. And I think that tonight,
we have a special case of that. I think we have the case of someone
who’s truly working and looking at that interface that we’ve
been trying to hit with respect to this particular series. So,
right now what I will do is I will introduce Dr. Mark Lussier,
the department chair of the Department of English, and he will
come up and he will introduce our speaker for the evening. Once
again, thank you for coming. Good evening, everyone. I can’t
read this without being blind to you, which is probably not
news to a few of my students. So, first, please join me again
in thanking Rob Paige for the lecture series. He talked
about the lecture series, and he’s also put in place a
fellowship program for the humanities as well with at
least one recipient that I see before us from last year, and
part of his commitment has rendered the humanities more
visible within the university environment. I also want to thank
him for his leadership since leaving California to serve
an order as director of SOLS, the School of Life Sciences,
the dean of CLAS, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,
and as university Provost, so, please. As well, I’m grateful
for the support of those that Rob mostly put in place
in the office of the Provost. Most especially Margaret–or
as we know as Peggy–Coulombe who has always been a strong
supporter of our department and our diverse efforts and interests.
Most especially, I want to thank an individual not
with us tonight, physically, but is very much in my heart
and head–George Justice, dean of the Humanities and College
of Liberal Arts and Sciences. George worked in large and small
ways to ensure the support of the college and the
university for this event, in spite of daunting complications,
and we would not be here this evening without his
tireless advocacy of our shared disciplines and our shared
concerns, so thanks very much, George. Second, I’m deeply
grateful for our collaborators in the School of Sustainability,
and the Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability,
which we all call GIOS as a shorthand. Gary Dirks, who sits
here, directs GIOS, and has often said that, “Only the
humanities can save the planet now.” And also, the dean of
the School of Sustainability, Christopher Boone, who, when
brought into our planning discussions, committed immediately
to “make it happen–let’s just make it happen.” And as
it turns out, and I notice that many of you were at the
program this morning at 10am in the MU, where Jonathan
really conducted, but didn’t just address, but actually
orchestrated, an open forum on how can the humanities save the planet.
Now, there’s an open collaborations with the
humanities, including bringing a number of us into their
bosom, so to speak, as senior sustainability scholars. Has been
a positive force for humanities, programs, and scholars seeking
through skillful means to confront the current crisis,
to engage those wicked problems that define global
climate change, and to identify the parameters of those
conditions that shake planetary entry into the anthropocene.
That term, “anthropocene,” emerged as and at the core of
a multiyear humanities in the environment work undertaken
through a mellon grant to the Institute of Humanities Research
under the steadfast leadership of Sally Kitch, and points
to the synergy generated on this pressing issue by the IHR
and those with whom I have most worked energetically, Cora
Fox and Joni Adamson. Third, the number of people in the
Department of English who have had a hand in the making of
this evening, they made it possible and it’s just too large
a group to list here, yet I thank all. From professors
and graduate students to the large number of staff involved
in putting all the pieces in place. However, I did want to
thank a few specific people for their efforts. I thank
Kristen LaRue, who has actually been our long term public
relations director for our department, who helped coordinate
every single logistical element of the talk tonight,
and this program on top of the other fifty things she has to
have due by the end of tomorrow. As well I thank Bruce
Matsunaga, who is our director of digital technologies, and
has offered his time quite liberally, not just for this
program, but he’s also going to do an awful lot of work after
this is over in solitude orchestrating and editing the
material to make it a useable media pass for our department.
Finally, I would like to thank two people that are not
here tonight–Lorinda Liggins and Kristin Rondeau-Guardiola.
They’re members of our financial team who are responsible
for processing everything needed to facilitate such an
enterprise, and securing the support for this particular
event, and virtually all others that come out of our department.
To the mission at hand, I suppose. I’m not one for long,
dirge-like introductions, and tonight, such as the genre,
I would argue that it be most inappropriate given a
spirit that is animated the last 25 years of work commenced
and completed by tonight’s speaker, Sir Jonathan Bate.
Jonathan is Provost at Worcester College, and a professor of
English Literature at the University of Oxford. He has wide ranging
interests in Shakespeare and renaissance, romanticism, biography
and life writing, ecocriticism, contemporary poetry, theatre
history, and there was a novel that he had written
too, squeezed in at his spare time–he is extraordinarily productive.
I’ve got a long list of all the books, and just do
yourself a favour if you want to look at all of then, just
type in Jon’s name and do a Google search–you’ll have
readings for the afternoon at least. However, in my case,
as a European romanticist, I simply needed to get out of my
desk as I was writing this, and I walked to my bookshelf,
and I picked up the first three books under a rather
healthy chunk organized alphabetically under the last
name “Bate.” So I’m gonna start with, from the Introduction to
the Romantics of Shakespeare, that is, near its conclusion,
“It is fashionable to be skeptical about the idea that
art can provide reconciliation in the face of suffering and
death, but it is empirically true that Shakespeare helped
romantics to endure the coming hither and going of things.
One of the things that I found most interesting as I was
putting together is not only did that resonate with the
type of connective work that Professor Bate as doing back
then, but it actually continues to this day. And it came forward
in conversations in the last two days about his interest
in medical humanities. Second, Introduction to Romantic Ecology, Woodsworth and the Environmental
Tradition. “I propose that romantic ideology is not
a theory of imagination, and symbols symbolized my self
conscious idealistic and elitist texts, but a theory of
ecosystems and unalienated labour embodied in pragmatic and
populous texts.” This was the occasion where we met for the
first time when I was in graduate school, and he had
come to Texas A&M in 1989, and we had one of those glorious
and powerful program followed by a reluctant amount of
conversations with all of my colleagues in a party that just
went on forever. Finally, the third book in that string from
the conclusion to the Song of the Earth, which I had the
good fortune to review. “We are poets. But what are poets
in our brave new millennium? Could it be to remind the
next few generations that it is we that have the power to
determine whether the earth will sing, or be silent? If
mortals dwell in that, they save the planet. And if poetry is
the original admission of dwelling, then poetry is the place
where we save the planet.” It gives me really great pleasure
to present a truly delightful and impactful biographer,
broadcaster, critic, novelist, playwright, and primarily, I
think what Rob had in mind for these talks, a public
intellectual–Sir Jonathan. Well, first of all, thank you
all for coming out on a Tuesday evening. Huge thanks to my
dear friend, Mark Lussier, for inviting me. Thanks to the
ASU’s Provost for the honor of delivering a lecture in this
series, and thanks to everybody who’s helped make a fantastic
visit possible. I last came to Arizona State some 20 years
ago, when you were about half the size you are now. It’s not
only the scale of your work, but the extraordinary innovative
quality, disciplinary work , that is going on here
that makes it a tremendously exciting place to be, and
I’ve had a great time here. I just published a biography of
the former poet laureate of Great Britain, Ted Hughes. If you’ve read
any of the reviews of this in the newspapers in Britain,
you probably got the impression that it was about two things:
one, his relationship with Sylvia Plath, and his grief
and guilt over her death, and two, Ted Hughes’ sex life.
It is true that these were things of significance in his
life, and the book does dwell upon them. But actually, there
is much else in the book because Hughes was a writer
and thinker of extraordinary range and variety. What I want
to do this evening is pick out one strand of Hughes’ career:
his fascination with the environment, with ecology, and
with the way we think about humankind’s relationship to
our planet, our stories, and also other species. So, for
those of you who have seen the name Ted Hughes in the title
of the lecture, and have come along expecting a lot of Sylvia
Plath, I’m going to have to disappoint you; however,
I couldn’t possibly come to America and talk about Ted
Hughes and leave Sylvia Plath out all together, so I’m going
to begin with two little vignettes, little Plathian
vignettes, from the happiest time of their life, which was when
they were in America together. If you’ll remember, after
they married, after that whirlwind romance in Cambridge,
England in 1956, Sylvia got a job at her old college at
Smith, and in the summer of 1957, they came over to New England.
Ted recorded his first impressions of America in long,
journal-like letters sent to his parents back in Yorkshire,
England, and his brother and sister-in-law in Australia,
and his sister Olwyn in Paris. He found that in
comparison with dower, confined 1950s England, everything was
“large, populated, and brash. Even the robins were as big
as threshes,” he noted, “And sociability was compulsory.” Wesley, where
Sylvia Plath’s mother, Aurelia lived, did seem to him rather
suburban, so he was delighted when they went down to Cape
Cod, Aurelia Plath’s wedding present to them was a summer
in a rented cottage on Cape Cod, and I had the great
pleasure this summer in tracking that cottage down. What he
didn’t like about America was the way that things were
homogenized and packaged. “What a place America is!” He wrote to
his sister Olwyn. “Everything is in cellophane! Everything
is ten thousand miles from where it was plucked or made.
The bread is in cellophane, which is covered in such
slogans as ‘decrackenized, reenergized, multi crenulated,
bleached, double bleached, re-brown, unsanforized, guaranteed
no blast femen’–there is no such thing as bread, you
cannot buy bread.” So there was Ted Hughes in the summer of
1957 worrying about processed food, worrying about what we
now called “Food Miles,” food ten thousand miles from where it was made.
And in that sense, he was a visionary
prophetic figure, aware before our time of the environmental
problems of our time. But of course, what he loved about
America, when the following summer he and Sylvia set off
on that grand tour where they drove Warren Plath’s old car
all the way around the United States, what he loved were the
landscapes, particularly those of the west. And there’s
a wonderful moment where they arrived by the grand canyon,
where at that time Sylvia was pregnant with their
daughter Frieda, who’s become a tremendous friend of mine, a
wonderful artist and poet herself, and as they stood at
what Ted called “the grandest of all sights,” which was
of course the Grand Canyon, “America’s delphi,” he called
it, equivalent of delphi, the pursuit of power and prophecy
in Ancient Greece, there they sought a blessing on the baby
in Sylvia’s womb. “Navajo dancers standing on the rim
of the greatest gorge in the world, beat a drum, sounding an
echo,” that in a poem written thirty years later, Ted
imagined he could hear faintly in the voice of his own daughter.
The blessing on Frieda at the Grand Canyon. But the
aspect of the book that I want to focus on takes us a long way
from Sylvia Plath, and the tragedy of her death. The
question I want to ask, is was Ted Hughes an eco-worrier,
or an eco-warrior? The eco- worrier speculates and theorizes
about our environmental crisis and humankind’s alienation
from nature. The eco-warrior tries to do something about it.
Ted Hughes was a poet fascinated by the way that
literature and myth and storytelling could explore humankind’s
relationship to nature. His journey of discovery in that
regard began when he went to his high school, his grammar
school, in 1941, where, in the school library, he found a
book called Tarka the Otter by the writer Henry Williamson.
He took it out of the library, and kept it for two
years until he knew it by heart. It was the first of the
talismanic books that shaped his inner life. Williamson’s novel,
which was published in 1927, had become a bestseller. It
was written from the point of view of an otter. It was
unsentimental, and at times, it was extremely valid. And
perhaps because of it’s valid and lack of sentimentality,
English teachers found it especially good to recommend it to boys.
It’s always more difficult to find good readings
for 11, 12, 13 year old boys than for girls. The combination
of adventure, notably an extended hunting sequence,
intricately observed natural history, and the height of
literary style caught Ted Hughes’ imagination at a formative
moment in his early adolescence. What impressed him was the
ottery-ness of the book, its rigorous refusal to
anthropomorphize the otter. Years later, in a newspaper article
about the book, he said that Tarka was not one of those
little mannequins in an animal skin who think and talk like men.
He was enchanted by that book; it was as if his own life
as a boy in the fields and among the animals of the
Yorkshire above his home had been recreated in a book.
It was exceeding of his poetic vocation. Among the set piece
descriptions that grabbed him was one of the great
winter, which evoked six black stars and a great white star,
flickering at the pictures, like six perigrines and a greenland falcon.
A dark speck falling, for wish of the grand stupe
from 2,000 feet heard half a mile away, red drops on the
drift of snow. The moon, white and cold, awaiting the
swoop of a new sun. The shock of starry talons to shatter the
icicle spirit in a rain of fire. Stories written into
the night sky, and the south stood Orion, the hunter, with
Sirius, the dog star, baying green at his heels. At
midnight, hunter and hound rushing at a bright, glacial
wind, hunting the false star dwarves of burnt out suns. Here,
an embryo of the elements of Ted Hughes’ own poetry,
the violent forces of nature played out against a cosmic backdrop.
Figures of myth, creation and destruction, bird
of prey, blood on snow, moon, stars, apocalyptic darkness.
But there is danger here. Henry Williamson during the 1930s, felt,
partly because of his terrible experience in the great war, felt that England was in
decline, and a strong leader was needed. He found such a leader, Henry Williamson,
in Adolf Hitler. Williamson attended the Nuremberg Rally in 1935, and was inspired
by Hitler’s charisma. He idolized Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union
of Fascists, that would turn him into a pariah in the literary world. Ted Hughes
became friends with Henry Williamson when Hughes moved to Devon,where Williamson
lived, so he found himself in a difficult position when, on Williamson’s death, he was
asked to give a memorial address in the Church of St. Martin in the Field, a very
prominent church in London, and there, he did not shy away from Williamson’s ugly
politics. He acknowledged that Williamson’s stories of nature, red, and tooth, and
claw, came from the same impulse as his fascism. That is to say, from a worship of
natural energy, that led to a fear–a fear close to rage–of inertia, neglect, sloppiness,
wasteful exploitation, Hughes said that Henry Williamson’s keen feeling for a
biological law–the biological struggle against entropy–sprouted into a social and
political formation with all its intended dangers of abstract language. Williamson’s
worship of natural creativity meant that he rejoiced in anybody who seemed to
make positive things happen, anybody who had a practical vision for repairing society,
upgrading craftsmanship, nursing, and improving the land. This reverence for a
natural, as opposed to an artificial life, led Williamson to imagine a society based
on natural law, a society which was hierarchical and with a visionary leader.
It is a very similar trajectory to that of the right of DH Lawrence. Such ideas,” said
Ted Hughes, “Had strange bedfellows. Does that though mean that the ideas are
necessarily wrong?” Hughes himself shared Williamson’s vision of the force of natural
creativity, and the need to acknowledge the biological law. It all springs,” he said,
“out of a simple poetic insight into the propriety of the natural world, and a
passionate concern to take care of it. And in that,” he said, “Williamson was an eco-warrior
before his time, a North American Indian sage among Englishmen.” And yet,
Hughes also identified that that is a line of correspondence between the green thinking,
which cries back to the land, and the black thinking of fascism, that cries blood and
soil. But Hughes himself was too canny and grounded, too suspicious of the abstract
language of ideology to make that fatal move that Williamson made from biocentric
vision to extreme rightwing politics. Something that, perhaps,
helped Hughes to distance himself from that very
masculine, aggressive vision was another book
that he discovered. At the end of his school days,
he got a place to go up to Cambridge University,
and his teacher gave him as a parting gift,
a present for going up to university, a book
by another writer, who was much admired in the
mid 20th century–Robert Graves, another writer who
had also fought in the first world war. Robert
Graves’ book, the White Goddess, in which Graves
surveyed the myths and stories of many different
cultures–eastern and western–but especially
Celtic, and found a common pattern, a common
story, which involved the figure of a white goddess, a female earth
goddess, who he argues, in many cultures, as being displaced by a male sky god.
For Graves, the role of the poet is
to be in tune with, to get in touch, with the
white goddess, who is a version of Gaia, the earth
goddess, the goddess of grounding and of place.
Graves famously writes in that book, “The
goddess is a lovely, slender woman with a hooked
nose, a deathly pale face, lips red as
rowanberries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair.
She would suddenly transform herself into
sow, man, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent,
owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid.” The test of
a poet’s vision is the accuracy of his portrayal
of the white goddess. And again and again in
Hughes’ poetry, the animal figures of which he
writes are manifestations and metamorphosis of
this white goddess. Graves argues that all developed
cultures eventually destroy their goddess, and replace her with a
patriarchal sky god. In England, he says, this stage was reached
in the period of protestantism, and the cromwellian commonwealth,
when the medieval catholicism in which the figure of the virgin had
taken over the rights and honors of the white goddess was extirpated
in the name of protestantism. Now, that idea actually chimed
with the tenants of many of the members of the English faculty
at Cambridge University, where Ted Hughes went up to study. This
was the time when FR Leavis, under the influence of TS Eliot, was
arguing in Cambridge that that was what Eliot called a dissociation
of sensibility. In the mid 17th century, during the English civil war,
just after the age of Shakespeare, a fracture of English society where
that sense of the mythic, the old gods was once and for all destroyed.
If you think about, for example, John Milton’s Ode
on Christ Nativity, it’s very much the extermination of those
old gods and goddesses of place. So what Hughes tries to do in his
poetry is answer to an accurate, natural, historical vision, as
Williamson’s did in Tarka the Otter, but also to create reversions of the
myth of the white goddess. He’s fascinated by the way that ancient
forces and energies restricted by maternity, by civilization, would
always come out, would always seek to release their bounds. Among his
most famous early poems is his poem called the Jaguar, written when he
had a short-time job when he was a student, washing dishes at the
London Zoo, and he would look out of the kitchen, and see a jaguar
pacing in his cage. But then he imagines the jaguar imagining his freedom.
He sees the poem as a place where a jaguar, and perhaps a poet
and a reader, can be freed from the cage of maternity, and can be bound
towards the horizon. Similarly, his famous poem Hawk Roosting is a
meditation about power in nature that, in a way, perhaps alluding
to Williamson’s politics, suggests that, by looking at the power, the
danger of a hawk, we get a way of thinking about the dangerous powers
of a dictator, a tyrant, a leader. I want to read another of the poems from
his early career. This was published in Lupercal, his second volume, which I think
is his greatest book. Written at the time when he and Sylvia were working really
closely together, he finished the book when they were on the writing fellowship.
It’s a poem called Thrushes, and I think it captures very well Hughes’
fascination with the division between the kind of wholeness of a natural creature,
and the dividedness of a thinking human. Thrushes by Ted Hughes. “Terrifying are
the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, more coiled steel than living–a poised,
dark, deadly eye, those delicate legs, triggered to stirrings beyond scents–with
a start, a bounce, a stab. Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing
thing.” Thrushes on a lawn, their sharp beaks stabbing down, pulling out a worm.
“No indolent procrastinations and no yawning states, no sighs or head-scratchings.
Nothing but bounce and stab and a ravening second.” And then he asks what
is it about a thrush that makes them such effective killers. “Is it their
single-mind-sized skulls, or a trained body, or genius, or a nestful of brats gives their
days this bullet and automatic purpose? Mozart’s brain had it, and the shark’s
mouth that hungers down the blood-smell even to a leak of its own side and devouring
of itself: efficiency which strikes too streamlined for any doubt to pluck at
it or obstruction deflect.” So a shark, and the brain of Mozart have this instant
connected quality of a thrush. “With a man it is otherwise. Heroisms on
horseback, outstripping his desk-diary at a broad desk, carving at a tiny ivory
ornament for years: his act worships itself – while for him, though he bends to be
blent in the prayer, how loud and above what furious spaces of fire do the
distracting devils orgy and hosannah, under what wilderness of black silent waters
weep.” It’s a complex and difficult poem; I suggest you go and have a reread and
have as serious think about it. But what he’s talking about here, for the thinking
writer, the thinking artist, there’s always a process of self-consciousness
that detaches us from that sense of a biological impulse, which for the thrush,
the shark, and the untremored genius, Mozart’s brain, has. I think it’s a fascination
with the way in which the poet can simultaneously be the person who reconnects
us to nature and biological process whilst also constantly acknowledging that
as thinking beings, uses of reason and language, we are always at some level at
a distance from, detached from nature. Hughes explores these
ideas of connection and detachment in many different
poetic genres. One of the great joys for me
of writing his biography, reading the hundred
or so books that he wrote, and the tens of
thousands of pages of manuscripts that he left in
the two great manuscript collections of his works, Emory University in
Atlanta and the British Library in London, is the way in which he
uses different medians, different forms of narrative
and storytelling, to explore some of these
great themes. For instance, he writes
extensively for the theatre. He also translates poetry
and drama cause his translation of 15 of
his stories and of his metamorphosis, his Tales
from Ovid was one of his great works from his late career.
But he also explored these
ideas in the genre of children’s literature.
In 1969, which is a very traumatic time in his life,
it was the time that his second lover, Assia
Wevill, killed herself, and it did kill their
daughter, during that time, he published a children’s
book–he published a number of children’s book before, but this
was the one that really seemed to catch the imagination of many people.
It’s called the Iron Man, although
in America, I think, because the title the
Iron Man was associated with a particular Marvel
comic figure, it was called the Iron Giant over here.
And indeed, over time, it proved to be
Ted Hughes’ bestselling and best loved work, establishing him as one
of the world’s leading children’s authors, as well as one of its
most admired poets. The story begins with a giant
figure teetering on the edge of a cliff, and
then tumbling into a mighty fall onto the beach below.
At the time he was doing this, he had
just finished working with the great theater
director, Peter Brook, on an extraordinary
production of Seneca’s Oedipus, and Brook then
proposed that Ted Hughes should write him the
screenplay for the movie version of King Lear, which
had [unintelligible] Shakespeare Company, in fact, the collaboration didn’t
work out; the Peter Brook King Lear film did eventually appear, but
not with a Ted Hughes script. I think, Hughes
was thinking about Lear, and the idea of a
mighty figure falling from a cliff to a beach
is, of course, one of the climactic moments
in King Lear. Well, the broken man of iron
is then reassembled by seagulls. They begin by
picking up his eyeball, which may be another nod
to King Lear. It is a version of something
that Hughes had discovered in a book that was of
enormous importance for him, which was Mircea
Eliade’s book Shamanism. Shamanism, which
explores the idea again in many different shamanic
traditions of a ritual dismemberment of the
body, and the renewal of the organs. The Iron
Man then starts eating tractors, diggers, and
any other farm machinery that is made of iron, not to mention chewing
up barbed wire fences, his equivalent of spaghetti. The figure
who saves the farmers, the guardians of the land, from this
terrifying creature is this boy called Hogarth. We first see
Hogarth fishing–he’s very much like the young Ted
Hughes, who all his life as a very good
fisherman, or perhaps he’s a little bit like the
young Williamson, he blows mimic hootings to owls.
What then happens is that the boy, Hogarth,
sets a trap for a fox, and captures the
Iron Man instead. When the giant reemerges from
the pit in which he’s been caught, Hogarth
leads him away from the farm and to a scrap metal yard.
At that point, a giant space-bat-angel-dragon
lands on the earth. There’s something of
an influence here of HG Wells’ great novel
The War of the Worlds, which Hughes read and
enjoyed as a schoolboy. What then happens is
that humankind uses all its assembled military
might to try to destroy this monster from the stars,
but to no avail. We’re in 1968, 69 here, the
time where spaceflight is all the rage. But
then, the Iron Man saves the day, when, out of
gratitude to the boy Hogarth, who led him away
from the rioting farmers, he fights on earth’s behalf.
He tames the space bat-angel into
singing the music of the spheres, instead of
waging cosmic war, with the result that human
beings become peaceful, stop making weapons, and
live in global harmony. Well, what on earth is
this story about? On one level, given that it’s
published on the eve of the Prague Spring,
it’s a dream of the end of the Cold War. it’s
an imagined realization of the idealistic goals
of the campaign for nuclear disarmament. I
mentioned Sylvia Plath being pregnant with
Frieda Hughes; after she gave birth to Frieda
in London in 1960, the first time Sylvia Plath
took Frieda Hughes out, it was on a campaign for
nuclear disarmament march. At a deeper level,
the story of the young man gives vivid and
compressed form to many of Ted Hughes’ key themes.
When asked about its meaning, he said that
his essential idea was to dramatize the three
centers of power. The boy Hogarth embodies the
child’s nature, the child’s sense of himself,
that romantic idea of the powerful innocence of the child.
The Iron Man, Hughes says, is the
giant robot of technology, terrifying and destructive,
uncontrollable and inhumane, unless it is approached without
fear, but with patience and good sense, a balanced sense of what our
relationship with technology should be. As for the
space-bat-angel-dragon, it is the infinitely mysterious lifepower
that emerges from atoms, the biological psychic mystery of organic being. That latter
force is also terrifying and destructive, uncontrollable and
inhuman; unless approached without fear, needs to be
approached with firmness, courage, open-mindedness,
cunning, and kindness. The story, Hughes says,
is a ritual by which the child and these two
monstrous entities are brought into a
single-inclusive integrated pattern of behaviour and
awareness in a shared life that is happy and peaceful.
Humankind, technology, biological
forces held together in harmony: that’s the
vision that he offers. 1968, he’s working on this, it’s published
in 1969, in a sense, at this point, Hughes is still an eco-worrier; he is thinking
about questions of humankind and nature, thinking about how we relate to the planet,
how we relate to animals, but he is not engaged in practical action.
But, just before Easter 1970, as he was
preparing his great epic poem Crow for publication, he was asked
to write a book review on the book called the Environmental Revolution. This
intervention heralded a highly important new direction in his work.
The book was written by a man called Max Nicholson,
who was formerly the director of the British government
agency, the Nature Conservancy, the British equivalent of the
Environmental Protection Agency, and it was a history
of the conservation movement. In his review, Hughes dated the
modern awareness of impending ecological catastrophe to the
publication in 1961 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
That indictment of the effect of the pesticide, DDT, and
Hughes writes here, with great authority, of vanishing songbirds, the erosion of
topsoil, the pollution of rivers, and the threat to biodiversity represented by the
monoculture of the conifer plantations of the forestry commission. But in typical Hughesian
vein, he places these scientific facts in the context of a much bigger picture: a story
about Western man’s increasing alienation of nature. Christianity,
he argues, especially in its protestant
version, sees the earth as a “heap of raw materials given by God to
man for his exclusive use and profit. It has no time for creepy-crawlies and little
respect for women.” This is Hughes. “The slightly apotheosized misogyny of reformed
Christianity is proportionate to the fanatic rejection of nature, and the result has been
to exile man from mother nature, from both inner and outer nature.” So, here, Hughes
is pulling together several threads. The idea derived from his study in anthropology,
that human society has evolved from matriarchy to patriarchy, the narrative here
developed out of Graves’ white goddess, in which the [unintelligible], female earth
goddess is displaced by quarrelsome, male sky gods, and his reading of Shakespeare, Milton,
and Graves of the reformation and its suppression of the cult of the Virgin Mary.
He finds hope at this point in the stirring of ecological consciousness,
the emerging green movement, since it
represents something, writing in 1970, that
was “unthinkable only ten years ago, except
as a poetic dream–the reemergence of nature as the great goddess
of mankind, and the mother of all life.” And, obviously, there is a vein of thinking
here that we will tie into, some of the thinking around the whole earth catalogue
and the phenomena of Gaia in the 1970s. Well, having published that
review, along with some ecologically minded friends,
Ted Hughes launched a magazine called Your Environment, which
was intended to alert the public to questions of conservation.
For example, the question of the disposal of
nuclear waste: by gathering all the scientific evidence,
and making it accessible to a wide public, though with
more rigour and detail than there was room for in the
Sunday newspapers and in the debates on radio and television.
So this is the moment that Hughes begins to turn
from eco-worrier into eco-warrior. And for the
rest of his life, he poured over research papers, clipped
out news stories, wrote to politicians, and became
involved in local environmental campaigns. His ecological
mission was of a peace with his poetic vision. In that essay on
the environmental revolution, he wrote of the mental
disintegration and spiritual emptiness that characterized
the soul state of our civilization, and that in a way
is a similar impulse to that of the Crow poems. He also
wrote of how the true artist, who he describes as a mediumistic
figure, like a medium, able to converse with the
dead, the true artist has the capacity to see a vision of
the real Eden, to release the spirit of Pan, and to restore
humankind to nature. While the mice in the field are
listening to the universe, and moving in the body of
nature, where every living cell is sacred to every other,
and all are interdependent, he rhapsodizes, the developer,
the property developer that is, is peering at the
field through a visor, and behind him stands
the whole army of mad men’s ideas, and shareholders–impatience
to cash in the world. “Poet and conservationists,”
he believed, “must unite and rise up against the
spirit of the developer.” He then put his money where his
mouth is, and in the course of the 1970s, he became a farmer.
He and his second wife, Carol, kept a farm in Devon,
and he tried to farm, as we would say, organically. They
struggled financially, but as a farmer poet, his poetry of
this period has a groundedness and unsentimentally–a real
sense of getting the hands dirty and bloody, which means
he does not idealize nature, in the way that so many poets
through the centuries have. If one thinks about the traditions of the
pastoral poetry, the idealization of the life of the farm, Hughes’
is no soft pastoral, it’s a hard pastoral. He wrote a
collection of poems in a diary-form of his time farming
at Moortown, which is what the collection is called, and there’s
a remarkable of them called February the 17th, an unforgettably
vivid account of the aborted birth of lamb, in which
the only way that he is able to save a sheep is by hacking
off the head of the lamb. As I mentioned earlier,
Hughes was also an obsessive fisherman, and it was his
interest in fishing that led him to work in the late 1970s
and early 1980s on one of his finest poetic
collections, which was simply called River, a series of poems
about river. But questions of river pollution become
central in that collection. It was a volume that was
published with photographs by another keen angler, and
the origin of the volume has an interesting history,
which I talk about in the biography. Because his publisher
had said that publishing colored photographs in a
book is very expensive, and so they need a sponsor for it.
Originally, they went out to see if the petrol
chemical giant, Shell, would be willing to sponsor
it, as part of their corporate, social
responsibility–Shell did publish a number of book about the environment.
That didn’t work out, but then they discovered
that British Gas, the nationalized gas utility
company, was in the process of laying gas pipelines across
much of Britain, cause this was the time that North Sea
oil had been discovered. And so, Ted Hughes found
himself in conversations with the public relations
department of British Gas, who ended up sponsoring the
book, and paying for the photographs on condition
that a number of photographs be added which revealed the
ecological responsibility of British Gas’s laying of the pipes.
So among the captions of the photographs, we get this,
“The Scottish D has been called the river flowing
out of paradise. A British Gas pipeline crosses the D
unseen and unheard.” And then again, against another
caption by a picture and a poem. “A salmon, undisturbed
by the large gas pipelines in the riverbed moves at
the pool of the river dawn. British Gas with close
consultation of the river authorities has crossed
many rivers in bringing the pipeline southwards.” So
he is perhaps a little compromised there in the
manner in which the book was published; however, the volume
River did also gain the support of the Countryside
Commission, the nongovernment organization that dealt
with conversation. So Ted felt that his conservation
credentials were honored. In a letter written just after
the book’s publication, he noted that 20 years
earlier, the tall and Torridge rivers on which he fished,
and about which many of the poems are written, had
produced a third of all the salmon that was caught in
west country of England. But by his calculation, the catch
on the Torridge in the last year was a mere 43 fish,
when it used to be well over a thousand. The river,
he said, “Had become a farm sewer.” He had actually
been writing those river poems in conjunction with a
campaign he was involved in against the new sewage
works in the nearby town of Bitterfeld, and local anglers
took the lead in forming the Torridge action group,
and they planned legal action against the southwest
water authority, and Ted Hughes was actually their
lead spokesman at the public inquiry objecting to the
sewage plantation works. He marshalled an array of
evidence, and produced charts showing the decline and
captures to reports from local doctors about the effect of
the sewage work on local residence. An example of
Hughes engaging in a local campaign. And so it was that
once he became Poet Laureate in 1984 after the death of
John Benjamin, he suddenly had a public platform–a
poet had a voice in national discourse, and an ability
to make things happen. I want to close with a segment
of my book where I describe some of the things that he did
in which he was, as I put it, the Poet Laureate as eco-warrior.
So I’m gonna read for five minutes now, and then there
will be time for questions. On the fourth of June, 1987, just
over a week before the general election in which Margaret Thatcher
coasted to her third successive term as prime minister, Ted
Hughes published what he called an ecological dialogue in the
Times newspaper. It was headed, “First Things First,” and it was
subtitled, “An election duet performed in the womb by fetal
twins.” It blamed man’s headlong obsession with economic growth, and
more particularly, the policies of Western governments, and the
regulations of European economic community for a mountain of wasted
butter, for contaminated tapwater, leukemia brought on by pesticides
sprayed on grain fields, and even the phenomenon of cot death.
The price of increasing the gross national product, he argued,
was leafless trees, rivers without fish, and human beings
suffering from pre-senile dementia. The poem begins in loose iambic
pentameter, and ends in brisk, rhyming trimeter, but it contains
in the middle the two longest, and perhaps least poetic lines of
verse that Hughes ever wrote, but they are interestingly polemical.
This is like Walt Whitman on overdrive, these two lines that I’m
about to read: “And if the cost of annual expansion of the world
chemical industry taken as a whole over the last two decades
is a 40 percent drop in the sperm count of all human males, nor can
God alone help the ozone layer or the ovum, then let what can’t be
sold to your brother and sister be released on the third world,
and let it return by air and sea to drip down the back of your own
throat at night.” He explained to a fellow poet that pollution
was the great theme of the age. He had noticed, judging children’s
poetry competitions, which he often did, it was something that
even 6 and 7 year olds were worried about. The poem, he explained,
was inspired by his reading of a book called the Poisoned Womb:
Human Reproduction in a Polluted World, by a biologist called John
Elkington, who was something of a preacher of eco-apocalypse.
He speculated that toxins were causing a massive reduction in
human fertility. Hughes was particularly troubled by the
evidence of fish changing gender as a result of pollution. He did
not have any faith in Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to address
the question; for one thing, her husband, Dennis, was involved in
the waste disposal trade, and for another, she was the sort of woman
upon whom nothing could put the frighteners–she resembled an
army commander who believed he could afford a casualty rate of 25 percent.
Her intransigence was ironic, since she had an Oxford
degree in chemistry, but perhaps, he said, it was not surprising. As
prime minister, she would listen only to professional consultants
with vested interest. Besides, when she had been a practicing chemist
before becoming a politician, her job had merely been to
research the maximum number of bubbles that can be pumped into
ice cream before it disillusions the customers, a fact about Mrs.
Thatcher I didn’t know before discovering it from Ted Hughes.
Ted at this time was worried by bubbles of another kind. One of his
fishing friends had lived in a house on the river X had observed a
white foam boiling up on the weir where he fished; there was a sewage
works a little way upstream. He would eventually bring another
civil case against the water authority, and Ted offered his
usual support, for a headline in the local newspaper read, “Top
Poet in Water Fight.” Inspired by Ted, his fishing friend and his
lawyer dramatically invoked the rights enshrined in the magna carta.
The judge, perhaps getting into the poetic spirit of things,
compared the relevant stretch of river to the face of a beautiful
woman scarred by disease, a metaphor that Ted would like, and
against expectation, the fisherman won their case. Ted Hughes told the
press that this was a historic victory because it had reactivated
the power of the common law in this terrific issue of water
quality and rivers. And then, I think, very nobly, instead of
seeking damages, his fishing friend asked the water authority
to contribute to the research of the institute of freshwater ecology
into the polluting effects of detergents into the X, and that
established a connection between Ted Hughes and the ecotoxicologist,
John Sumpter, who was working on that phenomenon how endocrine
disruptors were causing male fish to change gender. Well, that
ecological dialogue during the 1987 election campaign, and the
court case against the south west water, are just two of the many
instances in which Hughes used his public profile as Poet
Laureate to address environmental concerns. Whether it was ammonia
in the river Torridge, a proposal to establish a Tarka the Otter
trail that risked disrupting the fragile ecosystem of the riverbank,
an amusement park beside a river in his native Yorkshire, or
an international campaign to save the black rhinoceros, he was
always ready to pen a protest. He always made a clear that his
concern for the natural world was also concern for the humankind.
He did so most forcefully in an interview on the occasion of the
publication of his most overt ecological children’s fable, the
Iron Woman, a sequel to the Iron Man. There, he said that most people
tend to defend or rationalize the pollution of water. The
general assumption was that environmentalists were merely defending
fish, insects, or flowers. How often is this said about
environmentalists in the states today? I was sitting next to a businessman
on my flight from Texas into Arizona, who said to me, “We can’t
do anything in this country because we have a lame, dark
president who even believes in the rights of centipedes,” and I kind
of wanted to say to him that Ted Hughes would have had some interesting
thing to say about the rights of centipedes. Hughes’ point here
is that to dismiss environmentalism as merely protecting fish, insects,
or flowers misses the point that, as he puts it, “The
effects on otters and so on are indicators of what is happening
to us.The issue is not so much to look after the birds and bees, as
to ferry human beings through the next century.” The danger, he
writes, “is multiplied through each generation. We don’t really
know what bomb has already been planted in the human system.” So
with the cold war at an end, the old image of the fear of nuclear
annihilation was translated into the fear of global ecocide–such
was the life of the Poet Laureate as eco-warrior. He always enjoyed
describing his environmental discoveries and interventions
in lengthy letters to his son, Nicholas, his beloved son, who
studied Biology at Oxford, and went to become an extremely distinguished
professor of Freshwater Ecology at the University of
Fairbanks in Alaska. Ted Hughes was also very good at providing long
distance paternal advice to his son Nich. When Nich broke up with
his longterm girlfriend, Ted comforted him with a story of his
own life, “oscillating,” as he put it, “between fierce relationships
that become tunnel traps and sudden escapes into wide freedom,
when the whole world seems to be just there in the taking. It’s a
letter of extraordinary beauty, wisdom, and tenderness which you
can find in the selected letters of Ted Hughes, which tells of
the inner child within us, going back to the figure of the
child in the Iron Man, and the paradox as Hughes puts it, “That the
only time that most people feel alive is when they’re suffering.
When something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armor, and a
naked child is flung out into the world. There is a key there to the
source of the cathartic power of poetry. That’s why the things
that are worse to undergo are best to remember,” Hughes writes.
And then he concludes, and I think this is the moment where his
ecological consciousness merges with his human compassion. “This,”
he says, “Is how we measure our real respect to people. By
the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they
can carry, and tolerate, and enjoy.” And it seems to me that the
greatness of Hughes as a thinker and as a poet is precisely in
the degree of feeling, both for humans but also for the planet, the
voltage of life that he carries in his work. He then says, in a
typically self-deprecating way, “End of sermon. As Buddhist says,
‘Live like a mighty river.”

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Reader Comments

  1. Paul Higgins

    Thank you. This lecture makes even clearer some of the lines of development Bate traces in his remarkable and compelling book 'Ted Hughes The Unauthorised Life'. Brilliant!

  2. Cheeseatingjunglista

    "Reconciliation in the Face.." you said it Brother -followed by a stream psuedo erudite trash of the kind that has undermined popular belief in all scholarly endeavours – I would advise adherence to JB Shaws dictum about clarity in language, the convoluted, polysyllabic latinate gibberish you all spout is only designed make you look clever and keep at bay the great unwashed who will never reach your great heights of understanding so they need to know it!! Hurragh, let them figure this stuff out.. Its pitiful really that grown men should stand on stage and show they can talk for an hour, with lots of really big words that serve only to boost their inflated egos, whilst simultaneously mangling and obscuring all sense or meaning

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