IT WAS MATTHEW ARNOLD, writing of
Keats, who invented the phrase "natural magic," to describe the pleasure poetry gives us simply by a vivid recapturing of sensation, apart from any moral or intellectual vision it contains. The early work of Ted Hughes, whose New Selected Poems has recently been published, is perhaps the preeminent poetry of natural magic in our time. One remembers the snowdrop's "pale head heavy as metal"; the pike's scales, "green tigering the gold"; the otter, with "an eel's/Oil of water body," that "keeps fat in the limpid integument/Reflections live on"; the November rain under which "The fields were jumping and smoking . . . riddled with the glassy verticals." Nowhere does the freshness of this writing show more than in the abstract, Latinate words chosen largely for texture and sound: the blend of liquidity and toughness in "integument"; the geometry of "verticals," so much more annihilating than any concrete noun could be. Hughes rescues the incisiveness of Hopkins from the overblown grandeur of Dylan Thomas; he is also the major stylistic influence on his wife, Sylvia Plath, though she still outshines him as a personal, introspective poet.
Natural magic is still there in Hughes' recent work, though more sporadically. Like a number of poets on our side of the Atlantic, Hughes has gotten looser in weave as he has gotten older; a cult of spontaneity leads him to let in easy words--"splendor," "infinite," "savage," "sweet"--which his early poems would have avoided. But the sheer energy of observation and empathy remains. In "An October Salmon," Hughes tries to enter the mind of the fish that has returned to its upstream pool, and has nothing to do but wait for death. Its tattered flesh, once a "sea-going Aurora Borealis of . . . April power," is now "(Death's) clownish regimentals, her badges and decorations." The imagery of clothing suggests an overriding metaphor: the salmon, in its selfless obedience to instinct, is brutally "stitched" or "richly embroidered" into the continuum of nature. The poem ends superbly: And this was the only mother he ever had, this uneasy channel of minnows Under the mill-wall, with bicycle wheels, car ties, bottles And sunk sheets of corrugated iron. People walking their dogs trail their evening shadows across him. If boys see him they will try to kill him. All this, too, is stitched into the torn richness, The epic poise That holds him so steady in his wounds, so loyal to his doom, so patient In the machinery of heaven.
One feels that these are the themes that have always drawn forth Hughes' most powerful writing about nature: what it is like to live meshed with one's environment, without forethought or afterthought; what it is like not to care that one kills; what it is like not to care that one dies.
Does Hughes' poetry have a moral vision? Or is it simply, amorally envious of the unconsciousness of nature? Thinking about this, my mind goes back to an early poem about the debate in Parliament over the abolition of the cat- o'-nine-tails: "To discontinue it were as much As ship not powder and cannonballs But brandy and women." (Laughter.) Hearing which A witty profound Irishman calls For a "cat" into the House, and sits to watch The gentry fingering its stained tails. Whereupon . . . quietly, unopposed, The motion was passed.
The optimistic reading of this would be that we are cruel through habit and ignorance; the pessimistic reading, that we are ignorant in order to indulge our cruelty, but that shame saves us from ourselves. Taken either way, the passage is the work of a serious moral thinker, though one deeply interested in violence and sadism.
This level of intelligence is hard to find in the nihilistic cult of mere survival, the schoolboy blasphemies, of Crow. Indeed, rereading Hughes' theological poems, one is mainly struck by their obsessively painful sexual imagery--especially the image of the female devouring the male. Poems explicitly about sexual combat, on the other hand, retain considerable moral intelligence-- probing the hidden aggression in romantic communion ("Lovesong"), the aggression of grief and guilt ("The Contender," "Prospero and Sycorax"). Pondering these things, one cannot help remembering that Hughes has had to lead a tragic erotic life in public, and not (like Lowell or Berryman) by his own choice, or in the role of hero. The few sections Hughes has preserved here from the notorious Gaudete tell the story of a man who, paralyzed by his relation to a dead woman ("what I did only shifted the dust about"), now slowly begins to return to life. From a human point of view, that is very much the spectacle which the second half of New Selected Poems presents: under the grim mask of the illusionless survivor, occasional glimpses of the moral man struggling to go on. Or, as Gaudete puts it, If I wait, I am a castle Built with blocks of pain. If I set out A kayak stitched with pain.