Poetry by Ted Hughes
Flowers and Insects (London: Faber and Faber, 1986)
Nicholas Bland examines Hughes's overlooked poems of the natural world.
The poems in Ted Hughes’s Flowers & Insects are assiduous investigations into animal, insect and plant life. Hughes is concerned with embodying the character of his subject in word. The speaker is dynamic. In some poems, he is a ‘voyeur’ , defining the subject in the manner of a poetically inspired zoologist. In this guise, he is consumed by exterior observation. In other poems, the speaker is sketched perceptibly. In ‘Where I Sit Writing My Letter’, the act of writing aligns the speaker closely with Hughes. Here, occasional intervention of first person commentary offers a peripheral outline of the speaker. There is another distinct method of poetic narration found in Flowers & Insects. This involves the speaker communicating directly with the subject. Through this form of direct address, the reader is partly assimilated into the subject’s world.
In analyzing the natural world so intimately and coherently, the landscape of these poems is only slightly altered from conventional human existence. In Flowers & Insects, Hughes is not focusing on traditionally totemic figures, like the river, or the hawk. Instead, he writes the characters more closely, as individuals. Suitably therefore, courtship and procreation are major themes in the collection. At times, this is celebratory and musical, as in ‘Two Tortoiseshell Butterflies’, but it can also be darker.
In the poem ‘Eclipse’ (collected in the first publication of Flowers & Insects), the strong individual characterization of two spiders relates the scene to human experience. ‘Eclipse’ familiarizes the unfamiliar. By depicting events that occur ‘in the lower left-hand corner of the window’ , the speaker evokes a liminal world. The scene is domestic, but its backdrop opens to something limitless. The speaker, a self-defined ‘voyeur’, views the spiders through a magnifying glass. In this way, the landscape is enlarged into an apocalyptic vision. The magnifying glass passes over ‘a midden of carcases’ , and ‘…heads, / Bodices, corsets, leg-shells, a crumble of shards’ . What is described here is enlarged, but it is not distorted in any other way. This description of insect corpses is not incorrect; rather it is abnormal. The magnifying glass in fact familiarizes the strangeness of the spiders’ sexual intercourse. It clarifies our perception of it. The poem is abnormal for its uninterrupted attentiveness – its faculty of concentration. The speaker is drawn to the spiders partly in order to spectate on, ‘the famous murder’  of the male after sex. By foregrounding images of death and sexual violence, the poem is suggesting that the importance of these qualities is more central to life than normal perception acknowledges. The actual depiction of intercourse is darkly primal, and sourced from the wild. The female spider’s sexual intuition derives from ‘the millions of years / Perfecting this art’ . The act is ‘Difficult to understand, difficult / To properly observe’ . It is dramatized and figured as a spectacle. In ‘Eclipse’, we identify a technique that Hughes employs regularly in Flowers & Insects. It is this process of poetic enlargement, by which the poet is able to explore the everyday in profound detail, and as a consequence with revelatory effect.
‘Sunstruck Foxglove’ evokes a different kind of intimacy to the one we find in ‘Eclipse’. Again, Hughes anthropomorphises the subject: here, a flower of ambiguous genus, and the foxglove of the title. The former is apostrophized by the speaker, and by implication, masculinized. Several pieces of evidence identify it as a flower: its mother’s, ‘silky body a soft oven / For loaves of pollen.’ ; its being woken by contact with a butterfly; and its opening motion of bending towards the feminized foxglove, which indicates possession of a stalk. Equally, it is distanced from the object of its affection, the foxglove, in important ways. It wonders if the foxgloves can talk (implying biological distinction from it); and its mother’s single oven distinguishes its genus from the many flowered-foxglove. What is clear is that the foxglove is located apart from the masculinized flower. She is a ‘gypsy girl’  (i.e. not part of cluster of foxgloves), situated in a hedge. The tone of the speaker is teasing. He ribs the young male flower for his affection towards the foxglove. The male flower’s infatuation is portrayed as adolescent. In contrast, the foxglove of the title is characterized as young, sexually mature; but vitally, infected with what allegorizes as sexually transmitted disease. The headiness of nubility has literally undone her – ‘Her loose dress falls open’ , and her malady is recognized explicitly – ‘Midsummer ditch-sickness!’ . The infection is fatal: her eyes (flowers) are closing. Contrast her ‘lolling armful’  with the boy flower’s mother’s ‘soft oven / For loaves of pollen.’ The second image is an idealized image of fertility. Its insertion in the final stanza evokes the notion of the boy flower’s filial attachment to his mother, and its sexual thread. The relationship between speaker and boy flower is so close that the speaker inhabits the latter. In this sense, the poet undergoes a mental metamorphosis in order to render the flower’s thoughts.
Finally, the collection also shows examples of an unobtrusive, admiring persona. We come across him, for instance, in ‘Tern’, where the seabird of the title is figured as a supreme predator. The poem recalls the kind of interior animal vision that Hughes produces in The Hawk in the Rain and Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. ‘Tern’ figures animal life in abstract language: for example, the bird’s feed: ‘momentarily, his lit scrap is a shriek’, . This language associates with the bird’s vision of exteriors. Homage aligns speaker and subject. The speaker is nowhere more prominent than in ‘Where I Sit Writing My Letter’. In the context of the collection it serves a form of self-revelation. It is fitting therefore, that this self-identification is obscured and problematic. The starlings leave the speaker, ‘fevered, and addled’. . The peculiarity of this effect speaks of the author’s extraordinary sensitivity to the surrounding wildlife.
Nicholas Bland is a Senior Research Executive at GfK. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin where his other subjects of research were Evelyn Waugh and twentieth century North American literature..
1. Ted Hughes. New Selected Poems: 1957-1994. London: Faber & Faber, 1995. All quotations are from this edition.