Poetry by Ted Hughes

Gaudete (London: Faber and Faber, 1977)

Carrie Smith (Lecturer, Cardiff University) outlines one of Hughes's most fascinating works, only recently receiving the critical attention it deserves. 

Gaudete is a complexly structured collection in which each section layers over the other. It begins with a quote from the work of Heraclitus and from Parzival concerning the underworld, ideas of conflict and of unintentionally causing harm to oneself. Following this is the ‘Argument’ which provides the plot of the narrative section and then a ‘Prologue’ before the title page for Gaudete appears. This structure creates the multi-textual layering that characterises the collection, which is made up of both prose and poems.

The ‘Argument’ explains that an Anglican clergyman has been abducted by spirits who place a duplicate minister in his place who “interprets the role of minister in his own way” [1]. The narrative recounts the final day of this scenario and the closing section of lyrics titled ‘Epilogue’ are the poems of the original clergyman. The changeling’s version of Christianity takes many of its tenants literally: the Christian doctrine of love is taken as physical love and used in an attempt to conceive the next Messiah. Despite the similarity of the plot to that of a comedic farce (the pseudo preacher Lumb’s coven of women are the members of the local WI) and its use of caricatured English villagers, the collection maintains a strong tone of foreboding and the outbreaks of violence are rupture points for high emotions and malice lying just below the surface.

Hughes engages in the collection, perhaps more than anywhere else, with the politics of the gaze particularly through the use of binoculars, cameras, telescopes etc. The technology of looking is frequently employed literally and in metaphors which create movement in the collection between the microscopic and the panoramic, perhaps a product of its origin as a film script. Critics who have analysed this theme describe the collection as “a series of brightly light cinematic exposures” [2]  employing “the photomontage technique […] zoom lens close-ups and sudden changes of focus”[3] and Paul Bentley notes that the “complete absence of dialogue lends it something of the quality of a silent movie”[4].

The collection tackles Hughes’s concern that Christianity has taught human beings that the earth is here for our consumption and argues that women only just escaped the same fate. In Gaudete there is a cyclical narrative that occurs in the hallucinatory sequences of Lumb finding a badly hurt woman whom he is unable to save.  It occurs first in the ‘Prologue’:

He declares there is nothing he can do

For this beautiful woman who seems to be alive and dead.

He is not a doctor. He can only pray. [5]

These images of maligned and injured women are countered by the ‘Epilogue’ section which is comprised of short lyrics dedicated to nature and the goddess. Hughes explains that one source for these lyrics are South Indian vacanasdevotional lyrics in free verse translated by A. K. Ramanujan (1973). He writes to Faas that he first read Ramanujan’s translations after suffering from a chronically sore throat for about a year; suspecting that he might have cancer he “began to write these vacanas as little prayers”[6]. These poems have received close critical attention and are the only part of Gaudete which can be found in Hughes’s Collected Poems. The language used is lean and starkly beautiful often addressing the theme of transformation through nature in violent and graceful modes.


[1] Hughes, Ted. Gaudete. London: Faber, 1977. 9

[2] Faas, Ekbert. The Unaccommodated Universe. Black Sparrow Press:  Santa Barbara, 1980.  130

[3] Faas, Ekbert. The Unaccommodated Universe. 132

[4] Bently, Paul. Ted Hughes: Language, Illusion and Beyond. London: Longman, 1998. 59

[5] Hughes, Ted. Gaudete. 15

[6] Faas, Ekbert. The Unaccommodated Universe. 138