IN GAUDETE, the English poet Ted Hughes has made something new. I do not mean merely that the book is original, for in the modern tradition we demand originality as a matter of course - too much as a matter of course. Gaudete creates a new form within the possibilities of poetry. More innovative than Crow, thorough and unrelenting, Gaudete is Ted Hughes's best work.
Like any new form, Hughes's poem touches back on old ones. The most ancient surviving poems are stories, and Gaudete is largely narrative. Hughes tries to bring back to poetry the detail and the muscular drive of strong story-telling, provinces largely abandoned to prose for some centuries. His narrative is prosaic, as it must be, for we lack in modern poetry a heroic or narrative line. Narrative must refer to pose. Gaudete's line is loose, end-stopped where the sense pauses, and thus lacks implication that the line lives for its own sake, in some brute place where shapeliness sings its song of self-concern.
On the other hand, the diction within these lines is usually tense, intense, complex, violent. Narrative line conflicts with lyric image, and conflict makes energy.The result is new , and when you have read enough of Gaudete to learn the way it speaks, the result is enthralling:
He stands and tries to run but the thick sludge grips his feet,
And he falls again, gets up again
Staggering slowly, losing both shoes in the quag.
Shapes of men are hunting him across the yard
Among the plunging beasts
With cudgels, wth intent to kill him.
The cattle wallow and skid in the dark,
Their frightened bellowing magnifies them. From a raw, high lamp
Broad sweeping strokes of rainy light come and go, wheeling and thrusting.
He shields his head and tries to see his attackers' faces
Among the colliding masses and tossing silhouettes.
Caught in the flashing diagonals
The faces seem to be all wide-stretched mouth, like lampreys.
But in this narrative line, successful in plunging us forward through sensation and act, language is inconsistent. Slackness invades and hampers. We hear of "the tossing sea of faces"; "Flames leap"; we hear that "a horrible revelation is hurding towards him." When the poet sleeps, narrative mumbles on. At other moments, it becomes so important to advance the idea, to explain , that we enter a simplicity as prosaic as Dick and Jane:
He is tarting Christianity all over again, right from the start.
He as persuaded all the women in the parish.
Only women can belong to it.
They are all in it and he makes love to them all, all the time.
Because a saviour
is to be born in this village, and Mr. Lumb is to be the earthly father.
I must mention such failures. But I must insist that the volume survives them, that the passion of the poem's conception sweeps us over these deserts into the good forest.
The last lines quoted reveal a center of the poem's argument. I will not attempt to summarize. The plot is mythic. The Reverend Lumb (a tree's limb, the lamb of God) has wreaked sexual havoc among the women in his village. Then this English priest becomes a sacrificial animal, sacrificed to notions of violence and sexuality underneath civilization's streets of houses. D. H. Lawrence told realistic stories to embody similar ideas; Hughes with the help of folklore, and with poetry's license to fantasy, invents outrageous metamorphoses of human, plant, and animal by which to enact these ideas, and to grant them savagery and power.
"Gaudete" is Latin, telling us "rejoice," a word in this poem observed cut on a tombstone. Within the suicide, murder, and orgy of this poem, the word has its ironies - but it is also direct, a directive, advice directed at the mass of humans serving civilized doctrines of restraint and caution.
At least: the mass of English humans; this poem could only have been written by an Englishman. Of all countries in the world, England has been most successful at civilizing itself, the word used as in the injunction to "Be civilized, my dear." This command is an effective opposite to "gaudete." Everything American Anglophiles love about the English - polite policemen, decency, grace under pressure, perserverance, unflappableness; the cliches of an imperial race that practices its first imperialism upon its own emotions; a race which learned to conquer the inner "savages" before subjugating the outer ones - all of these qualities inhabit the background of Gaudete's village, and are overwhelmed. Women gather like a coven o fwitches - dressed as animals, writhing and chanting - at the Women's Institute to await impregnation by their minister. (The plot has its comedy!) Outraged husbands and fathers, types of the English countryside from poachers to retired military men, gather at the Pub before they set out as a murderous posse.
As French clarte made Surrealism a necessity for France, English gentility creates Gaudete's murderous eroticism.