Prose by Ted Hughes

A Dancer to God: Tributes to T.S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1992)

Gillian Groszewski discusses Hughes's tribute to T.S. Eliot

A Dancer to God is a book which collects tributes to T. S. Eliot given by Ted Hughes throughout the 1980s. The book is important for what it tells us about Hughes’ reverence for Eliot, Hughes’ approach to reading Eliot’s poetry and his approach to poetry more generally. The word ‘reverence’ seems here to be an appropriate one to use considering that, throughout his tributes, Hughes constructs Eliot as an important spiritual ‘seer’ with the ability to articulate anxieties associated with an acknowledgement of the ‘desacralized landscape’ of the modern era [1]. According to Hughes, ‘Eliot found [that desacralized landscape], explored it, revealed it, gave it a name and a human voice. And almost immediately, everybody recognised it as their own’ [2]. 

In his first tribute, ‘The Truly Great’, Hughes uses his exposition on Eliot’s international approach and appeal to put forward a tentative definition of what Jahan Ramazani has recently termed ‘transnational poetics’ [3]. Hughes defines the modern era as a ‘new, unprecedented, psychic simultaneity of all cultures’ constituted by a ‘sudden, inner confederation of all peoples’ [4]. Distinguishing between the ‘great’ poet and the ‘truly great’ poet – between W. B. Yeats and Eliot – Hughes sets his description of Yeats as a poet of ‘national culture’ against that of Eliot as a poet who speaks in ‘all tongues’ [5].

If Eliot is a poet versed in ‘all tongues’ then it is unsurprising that, within the tributes that follow, Hughes appears in one of his favourite roles – that of the translator. In ‘The Song of Songs in the Valley of Bones’, he takes to the stage to give the audience at The Palace Theatre in London brief guidelines to what he calls an ‘immensely learned, profound, comprehensive, allusive masterpiece’ – The Waste Land [6]. Within this piece, Hughes translates Eliot’s epigraph – the cry of the Sybil of Cumae– along with the Sanskrit words ‘Datta’ (Give), ‘Dayadhvam’ (Sympathize) and ‘Damyata’ (Control) and, indeed, Hughes provides a ‘translation’ of the entire poem by ‘highlighting prominent structural features [of the poem] that might be useful to a listener’ [7]. This theme of ‘translating’ Eliot is also taken up by Hughes at the end of ‘A Dancer to God’ in which he claims to

"have suspended scholarly disbelief, and adopted the attitude of an interpretative, performing musician. As he reads the score, the musician finds the living spirit of the music, the inmost vital being of a stranger, reproduced spontaneously, inside himself. And so he describes his performance in the style of programme notes, as an exploratory X-ray of processes within the dark embryo" [8].

Indeed, throughout the piece, Hughes plays with the word ‘translation’ defining it variously as a movement from one place to another, one era to another, one language to all languages. He writes: ‘[w]e live in the translation, where what had been religious and centred on God is psychological and centred on the idea of the self – albeit a self that remains a measureless if not infinite question mark’ [9]. In describing us as living ‘in the translation’, Hughes underlines the importance of poets such as Eliot and Hughes himself who, through their poetry and translations, can help us to better interpret our changing and polyphonic world.  

It is in the title piece of the collection, ‘A Dancer to God’, that Hughes uses his discussion of Eliot to set forth his ideas on the process of creating poetry. Within the piece, Hughes describes his version of an important critical idea – that of the ‘poetic Self – that other voice which in the earliest times came to the poet as a god, took possession of him, delivered the poem, then left him’ [10].  In the case of Eliot, Hughes argues that Eliot’s poetic or ‘real’ Self first made itself known in ‘The Death of Saint Narcissus’ (c.1914-15), a poem which impacted heavily on The Waste Land.  Hughes suggests that we should ‘accept [‘The Death of Saint Narcissus’] – for all its germinal, raw tenderness – as the first portrait, perhaps the only full-face portrait, of Eliot’s genius’ [11]. Following on from his interest in how this early poem can provide an embryonic template for Eliot’s later, greater poems, Hughes extends his interpretation of the emergence of the poetic Self to other poets throughout his wider criticism. In his notes to ‘A Dancer to God’, Hughes has already begun applying his theory to the case of Shakespeare, claiming thatShakespeare had a similar spiritual encounter to that of Eliot when he ‘summoned for the first time a purely poetic theme – and found himself dealing with the death of Adonis’ [12]. It is in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being that Hughes comprehensively treats the emergence of Shakespeare’s poetic Self in Venus and Adonis and demonstrates the impact of this Self on Shakespeare’s late plays. Similarly, but perhaps more controversially, in 1988 Hughes traced the emergence of the ‘real’ or poetic Self in the poetry of Sylvia Plath to the poem ‘Sheep in Fog’ (1962-63). Hughes claimed that it was in this poem that the notorious voice that came to be associated with her final collection, Ariel, first made itself heard [13].

A Dancer to God is one of Hughes’ most important books. In these three moments of reflection on Eliot, Hughes tells us much about himself, about Eliot and about what it means to read, write and listen to poetry. In his introductory Harvard lecture of 1932, Eliot claimed that

"Criticism […] never does find out what poetry is, in the sense of arriving at an adequate definition; but I do not know of what use such a definition would be if it were found. Nor can criticism ever arrive at a final appraisal of poetry. But there are these two theoretical limits of criticism: at one of which we attempt to answer the question ‘what is poetry?’ and at the other ‘is this a good poem?’ […] The critic who remains worth reading has asked, if he has only imperfectly answered, both questions" [14]

In A Dancer to God, Hughes eloquently asks and answers both of these questions with reference to The Waste Land. Reading these tributes, one finds oneself in the presence of the best kind of poetic criticism which considers the enduring qualities of Eliot's poetry and which will itself endure. 


Gillian Groszewski received her Phd. from Trinity College, Dublin, in 2012. She is currently recasting her Phd. thesis for publication as a book entitled Ted Hughes and America with Palgrave Macmillan UK (2015). She teaches English at Chigwell School.  


[1] Ted Hughes. A Dancer to God: Tributes to T. S. Eliot. London: Faber and Faber, 1992. 21.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jahan Ramazani. Transnational Poetics.

[4] Hughes. A Dancer to God. 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 13.

[7] Ibid. 52.

[8] Ibid. 45.

[9] Ibid. 26.

[10] Ibid. 20.

[11] Ibid. 33.

[12] Ibid. 52-3.

[13] Ted Hughes. Winter Pollen. William Scammell (ed). London: Faber and Faber, 1994. 191-211.

[14] T. S. Eliot. The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1964. 16.