Prose by Ted Hughes
Difficulties of a Bridegroom (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)
David Troupes examines Hughes's collection of prose and its significance within his oeuvre
Published in 1995, just three years before Ted Hughes’s death, Difficulties of a Bridegroom gathers together eight prose stories and a radio play written across a span of nearly 40 years. Hughes provides a few pages of introduction which trace the origins of the various pieces and the chronology of their composition, though curiously this makes no mention of the fact that six of them formed the central section to his 1967 book Wodwo, where they are sandwiched between two groupings of poetry; he tells us instead that these pieces are from a projected sequence of stories drawn from boyhood memories which never saw completion – and so we have another example among many of Hughes’s willingness to adapt work to suit contexts and sequences not originally intended.
In his introduction Hughes sketches a brief structure for the present volume, with ‘The Deadfall’ placed as ‘overture’. ‘The Head’ becomes the closing chapter, an example of the successful spiritual and alchemical journey of which the intervening pieces present stations along the way. Like many of Hughes’s retrospectively imposed structures, this satisfies more on the macro level than the micro, though it does reveal (as ever) the reaching and idiosyncratic architecture of his imagination.
‘The Deadfall’ is clearly written for a young audience, with simplified syntax and muted diction. The story gains our trust by its gentleness and honesty, and prepares us for the more harrowing depths to be visited in the rest of the collection. It is essentially a ghost story, telling us of a camping and hunting trip a seven year-old Hughes made with his older brother to the wooded valley of Crimsworth Dean. The language Hughes deploys is simple but wonderfully effective:
‘Camping is mainly about camp-fires, food cooked on camp-fires, and going to sleep in a tent. And getting up in the wet dawn. We planned to get up at dawn, maybe before dawn, when the rabbits would be dopey, bobbing about in the long dewy grass. Our precious, beautiful thing, my brother’s gleaming American rifle, lay in the tent, on a blanket.’ 
At the heart of the story is an encounter with a fox-spirit, and in this way ‘The Deadfall’ resonates with many of his animal poems, not least ‘The Thought-Fox’. We can also read this as an interesting counterpoint to ‘The Head’, the last story in this collection, and place it alongside his brother poems, such as ‘Two’, ‘The Ancient Briton Lay Under His Rock’ and ‘A Solstice’, as Ann Skea has pointed out. 
The next story in the collection is ‘O’Kelly’s Angel’, the earliest and, for this reader at least, the only one which really disappoints. In the introduction Hughes tells us that it was written as ‘a joke of sorts’, the point of which ‘was to put a Protestant-Presbyterian-Ulsterman at the head of a Catholic Fundamentalist army’.  The self-privileging sarcasm of this story does not become Hughes, and feels miles off yet from the mature, complicated irony of the Crow poems.
From here we head into the six pieces – five stories and a radio play – first published as section two of Wodwo. These are wonderful stories, written in a language at once finely-crafted and terrifically blunt:
‘As he fell the warning flashed through his head that he must at all costs keep his suit out of the leaf-mould, but a more urgent instinct was already rolling him violently side-ways. He spun around, sat up and looked back, ready to scramble off in a flash to one side. He was panting from the sudden excitement and effort. The horse had disappeared. The wood was empty except for the drumming, slant grey rain, dancing the bracken and glittering from the branches.’ 
The stories fit easily enough into Hughes’s perpetual schematic of humanity’s exile from nature and true self-possession. We must be careful, though, not to read Hughes exclusively through his own lens, and whatever the alchemical implications of these tales en masse, they are individually brilliant evocations of myriad energies: unliving matter, living animals and the deep wells of resource within our own souls. They are also well-made and exciting to read, full of physical and psychological drama. Plots are simple, almost monolithic: a man returns after 12 years to wander farmland he used to know and feels himself menaced by a horse (‘The Rain Horse’); a man waits, gun in hand, for a hare to bolt from a shrinking refuge of wheat (‘The Harvesting’). Yes, the stories have truths they mean to convey, and Hughes clearly intends them as dispatches from an inner journey; but he doesn’t make a show of it, and even read in total isolation from his other work, the Wodwo pieces are well worth our time.
Of particular note is the radio play ‘The Wound’, inspired by a vivid dream and situated in a grotesque gothic afterlife. Ripley is a soldier in the Second World War, shot in the head and journeying to the underworld with his fallen comrades. With only dialogue and short descriptions of sounds Hughes hacks out an eerie, claustrophobic space from the blackness and silence. Even unperformed, the play holds together on paper, and it is interesting to watch Hughes work within a form so different from poetry.
The final story is ‘The Head’, a nightmarish tale of two brothers hunting in a wilderness. Their expedition coincides with a great gathering of animals who have come to be counted by their Lord, and the brothers take advantage of this abundance to indulge in outrageous slaughter – though one begins to regret it. The story reads like ‘The Deadfall’ emptied of every iota of innocence, warmth and nostalgia. In the introduction Hughes tells us that the story is ‘a metaphor for the successful final event’  of the title Difficulties of a Bridegroom, a title submerged into many middle-period Hughes books such as Crow and Gaudete. Metaphor for a successful alchemical marriage it may be, but that is no guarantee of a successful story, and readers’ opinions will vary as to how convincingly Hughes integrates his narrative with his alchemical intentions.
That is not, however, a criticism which holds true of this collection as a whole. These are vital, fascinating stories which give us a richer appreciation of the breadth of Hughes’s talents, and the patience with which he worked at his obsessions.
David Troupes is a poet and independent scholar originally from Massachusetts though currently living in West Yorkshire, where he works in social housing. His first full book of poems, Parsimony, was published by Two Ravens Press in 2009, and a second collection is in preparation. Other creative work includes publications from Knucker Press, and collaborations with illustrator/printmaker Laurie Hastings and composer Joel Rust.
1. Ted Hughes. Difficulties of a Bridegroom. London: Faber and Faber, 1995. 7.
2. Ann Skea, Review of ‘Difficulties of a Bridegroom’. http://ann.skea.com.
3. Hughes, Difficulties, vii
4. Hughes, Difficulties, 72
5. Hughes, Difficulties, ix