Poetry by Ted Hughes

The Hawk in the Rain (London: Faber and Faber, 1957)

Heather Clark (Professor of Literature at Marlboro College and Adjunct Instructor of Irish Studies at NYU's Glucksman Ireland House) discusses Hughes's first collection of poetry.

More than fifty years after its publication, The Hawk in the Rain remains one of Ted Hughes’s most important, and most accomplished, collections. Many of Hughes’s best-known poems, such as ‘The Hawk in the Rain,’ ‘The Jaguar,’ ‘The Thought-Fox,’ and ‘Wind’—now staples of British poetry anthologies—first appeared here. These were the poems that established Hughes’s reputation as a poet of elemental sensibilities whose stressed, alliterative cadences conjured a primeval world of strength and struggle.

The collection, which won the 1957 92 St. Y/Harper’s poetry contest and was subsequently published by Faber and Faber—the most prestigious poetry publisher in Britain—was a watershed not only in Hughes’s career, but in British poetry. When the Poetry Book Society chose The Hawk in the Rain as one of its top choices for 1957, Hughes rightly noted that it would “challenge everything being written in England.” [1] During the postwar years, British poetry had been dominated by the Movement, whose work, as Lucas Myers described it, was “an expression of logic rather than myth, ‘classical,’ and esteemed principally as an instrument of stability.” [2] Hughes wrote poetry that challenged what he called the Movement’s “cosy” verse, [3] for he felt strongly that through art, man could reinvigorate his primal instincts. He was looking back not only to the Romantics, who espoused the idea of the poet as prophet, but to moderns like Robert Graves, D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, and Sigmund Freud, who believed that the “magic” properties of art served buried “impulses.” [5] He shared Graves’s belief that modern poetry had been sundered from its ancient, mystical, druidic roots, and that as a consequence, it had lost its revelatory power.

Hughes sought to re-establish the connection between poetry and revelation in The Hawk in the Rain. Through his use of stressed syllables and frequent alliteration, which recalled the rhythms Anglo-Saxon verse, Hughes returns readers to an England that is dark, inhospitable, home to warring factions, legendary. The strong, assertive language of “The Hawk in the Rain,” the first poem in the collection, sets the tone for rest of the book, and indeed for much of Hughes’s later work:


            I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up

            Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,

            From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle

            With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk


             Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye. [6]


While one hears echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, D. H. Lawrence, and Robert Graves, the language is distinctly Hughes, and a direct challenge to what Sylvia Plath called the “mile-distant abstractions” [7] of his contemporaries.

While The Hawk in the Rain is often cited as the collection that brought Hughes fame as a “nature poet,” that label is misleading. Although nature is a central preoccupation, themes of violence, competition, war, and struggle dominate the book. In ‘The Hawk in the Rain,’ for example, the hawk becomes an emblem of humanity in its futile attempt to master the elements, while nature is a malevolent force bent on extinguishing life. Escape is impossible; the hawk, like the speaker, will eventually “mix his heart’s blood with the mire of the land.” [8] The hawk is a reminder of nature’s indifference to ideals. Likewise ‘Wind,’ one of Hughes’s strongest poems, records a family’s awe and terror as they ride out a “stampeding” storm upon the moors inside their home, watching the “Blade-light” of the wind as it cuts through the landscape. [9] Here, as in ‘The Hawk in the Rain,’ nature is a cold, powerful, amoral force. Hughes offers no Emersonian optimism about the wind’s purpose; it does not compel the onlooker to self-awareness or exhilaration, but rather thwarts any human attempt to ‘experience’ its awesome force. If the wind could be said to symbolize anything, it would be negation, annihilation; even “the stones cry out under the horizons.” [10] We are far from Wordsworth’s bucolic, restorative Lake Country where man and nature achieve mutual harmony.

The Hawk in the Rain not only introduced readers to a Schopenhaurian vision of nature characterized by “positive violence,” [11] it also marked Hughes’s debut as a war poet. As Hughes himself wrote in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin in 1957, “After thinking the poems over I have decided to say this. What excites my imagination is the war between vitality and death, and my poems may be said to celebrate the exploits of the warriors of either side”. [12] Several poems in The Hawk in the Rain speak to Hughes’s ongoing obsession with the First World War, in which his own father had fought. ‘Griefs for Dead Soldiers’ and ‘Six Young Men’ are poignant elegies for the young Yorkshiremen who died on the battlefields of Flanders, while ‘Bayonet Charge,’ ‘The Ancient Heroes and the Bomber Pilot’ and ‘Two Wise Generals’ speak to man’s violent nature. This nature is portrayed vividly in ‘Law in the Country of Cats,’ which caught Sylvia Plath’s attention when it was first published in the St Botolph’s Review. The poem mocks man’s hypocritical tendency to praise the virtues of “ ‘universal brotherhood,’ / ‘Love of humanity and each fellow-man’ .” Instead, writes Hughes,


                        There will be that moment’s horrible pause

                        As each looks into the gulf in the eye of the other,

                        Then a flash of violent incredible action,

                        Then one man letting his brains gently to the gutter,   

                        And one man bursting into the police station

                        Crying: ‘Let Justice be done. I did it, I.’ [13]


Violence is not glorified here, or in any of Hughes’s work. Rather, Hughes stages an interrogation with what he has termed the dark and divine laws of nature; he also seeks to expose, in his words, “our extraordinary readiness to exploit, oppress, torture and kill our own kind.” [14] This interrogation will continue throughout his work, most notably in LupercalCrow and the war-haunted poems of Remains of ElmetThe Hawk in the Rain is both the foundation upon which this later work rests and an influential collection in its own right. Sylvia Plath’s heady description of the book perhaps best captures the excitement with which she and Hughes embarked upon a campaign to create a new kind of modern poetry. It is, she wrote, a book “at which to stare awestruck, read in wild reverence, and built [sic] a great rock altar for in the middle of wild islands.” [15]

Heather Clark is the author of The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Oxford, 2011) and The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast (Oxford, 2006). She earned her D.Phil from Oxford in 2002, and is currently Professor of Literature at Marlboro College in Vermont and adjunct professor of Irish Studies at New York University.  


1 Ted Hughes to Edith and William Hughes, 29 June 1957, MSS 980, MARBL, Emory University.

2 Lucas Myers. Crow Steered Bergs Appeared: A Memoir of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Sewanee, Tennessee: Proctor’s Hall Press, 2001. 7.

3 Ekbert Faas. Interview with Ted Hughes in Appendix II of Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980. 201.

4 Ibid.

5 Sigmund Freud. ‘Animism.’ Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. 14. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953; 1973. 90.

6 Ted Hughes. Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003. 19.

7 Sylvia Plath to Aurelia Plath, 15 March 1957, Lilly Library, Indiana University.

8 Hughes, Collected, 19.

9 Hughes, Collected, 36.

10 Hughes, Collected, 37.

11 Ted Hughes. “Poetry and Violence.” Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose. Ed. William Scammell. New York: Picador, 1995. 255

12 Ted Hughes. “Ted Hughes Writes.” Poetry Book Society Bulletin 15 September 1957. 1.

13 Hughes, Collected, 41.

14 Tim Kendall. “Fighting Back Over the Same Ground: Ted Hughes and War.” The Yale Review 93.1 (2005): 87-102. 95.

15 Sylvia Plath to Lucas Myers, 7 March 1957, MSS 865, MARBL, Emory University.