Among the mysteries of the strange animals that appear in A Ted Hughes Bestiary—a compilation edited by poet Alice Oswald of his writing about animals real and invented—is how often these creatures strike me as anything but strange. Taking one of his great plunges into the waterways—those “legendary” depths “deep as England”—he encounters an otter with a “round head like a tomcat,” or a pike with its “sag belly and the grin it was born with,” or a trout “Lifting its head in a shawl of water,” or a swaggering mackerel making “the rich summer seas//A million times richer//With the gift of his millions.” Mammals, too, shift from wildness to restraint—a stag is “weeping and looking for home,” and a wolf comes running at the “Tuning of a viola,” and a jaguar is “Muttering some mantra, some drum-song.” Same goes for birds, whether it's the hawk with its “round angelic eye” or the owl “enquiring…/splaying its pinions/Into my face, taking me for a post.” Each creature is as parlor-esque as they are mercurial.

I am thinking particularly of Hughes’s savagely transmogrified Crow poems, a sequence of gnarled, apocalyptic parables, one of the treasures of this book if not all of twentieth-century English poetry. Here, Hughes mixes linguistic sophistication with raw, almost orgiastic barking:

Who owns those scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.
Who owns these questionable brains? Death.
All this messy blood? Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.
This wicked little tongue? Death.
This occasional wakefulness? Death.

But from this obscene hemorrhaging ("who is stronger than Death?/Me, evidently") Crow retreats to an atmospheric domiciliary. From there, he renders his verdict on the industrial, moorland violence of his own true nature:

When Crow was white he decided the sun was too white.
He decided it glared much too whitely.
He decided to attack it and defeat it.

He got his strength flush and in full glitter.
He clawed and fluffed his rage up.
He aimed his beak direct at the sun's centre.

He laughed himself to the centre of himself

And attacked.

At his battle cry trees grew suddenly old,
Shadows flattened.

But the sun brightened—
It brightened, and Crow returned charred black.

He opened his mouth but what came out was charred black.

"Up there," he managed,
"Where white is black and black is white, I won."

The Crow poems have often been read as a testimony of Hughes’s tortured psyche following the suicides of his wife Sylvia Plath’s in 1963 and later, in 1969, of his companion Assia Wevill, who also killed the couple’s daughter. This gossipy back story may be what first draws people to Hughes’s poems, and the Crow poems particularly, although Hughes also had other motives for starting the series: He began the poems after Plath’s death at the invitation of artist Leonard Baskin, whose crow engravings would eventually accompany the poems in deluxe print editions. However you come to Hughes, if you spend enough time with his prolific writing—the poetry, translations, anthologies, criticism, children’s books—the unwieldy biographical details about death, eloquent cruelty, and haunting are overtaken by his art.

Who are these animals? What are they doing? A Ted Hughes Bestiary is edited cannily by Oswald, and her decision to sequence the poems in chronological order creates new possibilities for reading Hughes’s relationship to the natural world. His animal poems have long been praised for their portrayal of nature’s acute savagery. I’ve read these poems over the past three decades, but always in collections that featured his non-animal poems alongside them. In this chronological bestiary, a less savage narrative emerges. You see a kind of throbbing, yet mannered, majesticism—a tangle of terror recollected in tranquility. Look at the cows below. Like many of Hughes’s creatures, they seem to be energized by attack and withdrawal:

the cows
Jostle and crush, like hulls blown from their moorings
And piling at the jetty. The wind
Has got inside their wintry buffalo skins,
Their wild woolly bulk-heads, their fierce, joyful breathings
And the reckless strength of their necks.
What do they care, their hooves
Are knee-deep in porridge of earth—
The hay blows luminous tatters from their chewings,
A fiery loss, frittering downwind,
Snatched away over the near edge
Where the world becomes water
Thundering like a flood-river at night.
They grunt happily, half-dissolved
On their steep, hurtling brink, as I flounder back
Towards headlights.

Here, again, you see how Hughes has a taste for brutal squalor followed by hasty retreat to the Victorian parlor. There is ambiguity about his own stance, which is inwardly smarting with mercy while also outwardly—grimly—sacramental. The results are poems that exceed intimacy, poems that feel simultaneously erotic and intellectual, animate and monumental, primeval and of the menagerie. It’s as if Hughes has invented a new kind of ode, one where the validity of an entire thought is held in the eye of his allegorical authority.

Can it be that Hughes was capable of reticence within the realm of grotesque, negligent, magic animism? Characterizing Hughes's role as England’s Poet Laureate (1984-1998), Sean O’Brien answers this question with a “yes.” Hughes’s royalism, he writes, “involved a particular devotion to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother...who was in popular and tabloid press mythology 'the Mother of the Nation' (a disappointed Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding). The fabulous conjuring trick of monarchical self-validation appears to have given Hughes another escape route from history into myth: ‘The crown,’ Hughes wrote, ‘does not belong to historical time and the tabloid scrimmage of ideologies, but to natural time.’ How very convenient, how sentimental, and, in a certain limited sense, how English.”

Is this what we come to Hughes’s bestiary for? To read a contemporary sort of weather-beaten Gawain? The poems in the first half of the book laud the obscene ruthlessness and erotic filth of the natural world, which is a rather colonial pose, you might say. Yet in the second half of the book, it is evident that the fever has broken and Hughes is reaching for proportionality. He extols perseverance; in his telling, the salmon is “already a death-patched hero…//shrunk at shoulder and flank…//simply the armature of energy…/the savage amazement of life,/The salt mouthful of actual existence/With strength like light…//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.” Absent in that language is the rage and ire of earlier poems. Absent is the animal as a mutation of involuntary life. Absent is anything as stirring as “The Hawk in the Rain” that drags up “Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth” or “The Thought-Fox” that is “Brilliantly, concentratedly,/Coming about its own business.” For this great poet of metamorphosis, the animal object becomes, in the end, a means for sensation. The wild kingdom becomes a mild kingdom.

Yes, of course, there is ferocity in these later poems. We encounter a rat “so poor he thrives on poison” and an eel with its "night-mind of water,” and a wolf with its “iron inheritance” and the scrambling of its “damaged brain”—all of them often envisioned from many panoramas simultaneously. Here, so I want to believe, is the outcome of Hughes's ritualized disordering, as when curlews lift:

Out of the maternal watery blue lines

Stripped of all but their cry
Some twists of near-inedible sinew

They slough off
The robes of bilberry blue
The cloud-stained bogland

They veer up and eddy away over
The stone horns

They trail a long, dangling, falling aim
Across water

Lancing their voices
Through the skin of this light

Except that as I read these lines, I begin to notice something else, something pretty astonishing, namely that the transfiguration is so figured, that the distortion—the story of a marred relationship with the animals, their violence and tenderness, their indifference and delirium—is so balanced. What I discover here is another side of Hughes, a capacity to become less afraid over time, a surrendering to durability and calm that constitutes, even roots, his relentless transmutations. Hughes’s animal poems are a network of knowledge he abides by, if not concedes to. He remains dutiful to the figurative relationship between humans and animals as one of appearance and magnitude. His last animal poems are filled with fantastic restraint, becoming a new groove altogether for Hughes: a switchover in perception from compromised human to mythic animal and back to merely human again. It’s a remodeling of the earlier poems. The great wildlife park of the poet’s imagination must become undisturbed. The mutilations become unambiguous, the very meaning of normal.

David Biespiel’s most recent books of poetry are Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women; he's also the author of A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry, which received the Frances Fuller Victor Award.

Advertisement