Poetry by Ted Hughes

Moortown (London: Faber and Faber, 1979)/Moortown Diary (London: Faber and Faber, 1989)

David Sergeant (Plymouth University) examines Hughes's celebrated sequence of rural verse.

Note: In the account that follows I refer to the poems as Moortown Diary, the title they were given for Faber’s 1989 edition, which also had dates of composition added to some of the poems, and a Preface and Notes by Hughes.  However, the poems were originally published in 1978 as Moortown Elegies; and in 1979, along with several other poetic sequences, as Moortown.  I touch on these differences below.

Once, when visiting Australia, I was sat in a kitchen that was busy with the bustle and chatter of friends: some cooking, some helping to cook, others just looking on.  For some reason – perhaps it was in my bag and I’d forgotten to put it away before I came into the kitchen – I happened to have a copy of Moortown Diary with me; and, after a while, I thought to open it and hand it across to an Australian farmer I’d just met, who was sat on the opposite side of the table from me.  He took the book with a slightly puzzled politeness, read the open page, then slid it back to me saying: ‘yes: seems about right.’  Then, ten or so minutes later, after the conversation and cooking had moved on, had risen to new peaks of hilarity and steam and high spirits, he leant back across to me, not having spoken a word since, and said: ‘what was that book called again?’

The authoritative rightness possessed by the poems in Moortown Diary forms a large part of their appeal.  We get the sense that they were written by a man who knew what he spoke about, who saw what he set down.  To the reader with no knowledge of the farmer’s world, details such as the ‘little hooves / Of hardly-used yellow-soled black’ (‘Happy calf) or ‘the pure clear calf-note / Pure as woodwind’ (‘Birth of Rainbow’) are so unexpectedly specific that we feel they must be right [1].  And to those who have experienced them, the sensation is like coming across something you almost knew, or almost saw, roused out into full daylight for the first time, so you catch it whole and clear.  The volume is pinned to the ‘music of what happens’ [2]: Seamus Heaney’s phrase, but possibly picked up, whether consciously or not, from Moortown Diary, and its bleating sheep who ‘fit themselves to what has happened’ (‘Sheep, II’).  In the notes Hughes added to the poems when they were republished in 1989 he stressed the importance of a fidelity-making immediacy to their composition: ‘This sort of thing had to be set down soon after the event.  If I missed the moment – which meant letting a night’s sleep intervene before I took up a pen – I could always see quite clearly what had been lost.  By the next day, the processes of “memory”, the poetic process, had already started.’  I think that part of what Hughes meant by ‘the poetic process’ was the way these poems refuse to develop their contents into symbols of any kind.  A sheep is a sheep; what happens to a sick calf is what happened, and nothing more.  A ‘new pattern’, as Hughes put it, is not allowed to take ‘control.’ 

And yet the poems in Moortown Diary do not lack art.  Just as the farmer racks his body to meet the demands placed upon him, so the poet calls on every trick and resource in his trade to do justice to the experience which led him to sit down, in front of a blank page, sometimes after a day’s exhausting labour, and pick up his pen.  For all that they refuse the neatness of the refined poetical product, the poems in Moortown Diary rejoice in a superabundance of poetic invention.  For all that they try and forestall the shaping consciousness, they achieve, as a body, what only the greatest artists achieve: a complete, convincing, original world-view.  We know about trees and woods and the wind and animals but we don’t know about them as Hughes does.  It is as if the familiar components of a radio-set have been rewired so as to conjure up a completely new station. 

And while Hughes’s notes to the volume stress its casualness, its exclusion of ‘the poetic process’, the poems not only mark a continuation of themes seen in earlier volumes – nature and man’s relationship with it, most obviously – but provide a tour de force outing for his capacious talent.  Hughes is known as an alliterative poet but the label hardly does justice to the dense utility of sound in Moortown Diary.  Hughes knew his Shakespeare by heart, and the off-the-cuff, expository mode of the Moortown poems is as close as he came to rechanneling Shakespearean blank verse. Alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhythm, internal and half-rhyme, all temper and bind lines which are of a reasonably regular length, for the most part, and feature densely compressed, multidirectional imagery.  To take one example of the latter: the wood which is ‘Thick-fingered density’ in ‘Bringing in new couples’.  The image captures the shape of the wood, made up of thick shapes like fingers; it also performs a kind of synaesthesia of self, as the numb-cold working fingers of the farmer become transferred onto the trees he is seeing.  There is even the faint touch of the verb form of ‘fingered’, unhyphenated with ‘thick’, particularly when it combines with the next phrase, ‘a worked wall of whiteness’: so that we see the wood fingered and worked over by the snowy wind.  All this in three words.  Finally, enjambment is used with a masterly sense of timing to prise out the drama and meaning in simple scenes and sentences: see, for instance, how it choreographs the calves’ nervousness and exhilarated awkwardness in ‘Turning out’.

One particularly striking formal feature of the poems is how they risk clumsiness through the use of repetition.  A word might be repeated within a couple of lines of its first use, if not before, as in ‘Birth of Rainbow’: mud (twice in line 7); ridges and ridge (ll. 5, 8); wind (ll. 3, 10); rainbow (ll. 9, 11); licking and licked (ll. 10, 12, 15); black (ll. 8, 12, 15); morning (ll. 1, 14); wet (ll. 13, 15); and so on.  First, and most obviously, this imparts a sense of immediacy and spontaneity, of the poet held rapt before what he is trying to describe, with no time to tidy or revise – as indeed he was.  The repetitions also mimic the constancy within change in what is being described, and thus become a kind of realtime indicator for their happening.  Mud, ridge, wind, and so on are repeated because they remain present in the scene; but each mention of them is in a slightly different context or combination, as the manifestation of that constant element changes from moment to moment.  This is all quite straightforward.  But the simple device of repetition also becomes, in Hughes’s hands, a carrying agent for a more fundamental aspect of the volume’s aesthetic: the advance in understanding that can come from sustained, contemplative engagement with a thing.  Thus, in ‘Birth of Rainbow’, the newborn calf is first described as ‘gawky black’ and ‘collapsed wet-fresh from the womb’; then, a couple of lines later, as ‘black, wet as a collie from a river.’  We follow Hughes’s intelligence as it refines, live before us, its perception of the calf: ‘black’ and ‘wet’ both work, so get retained and re-employed in a new attempt (cf. T. S. Eliot: ‘And so each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate’ [3]).  Incidentally, this comparison of one animal with another, seemingly very different animal is one of Hughes’s most effective devices: so, a calf might be ‘black as a mole and as velvety’ (‘Happy Calf’), or a teat ‘The size of a labrador’s muzzle’ (‘Teaching a dumb calf’), or a lamb ‘a rumpy-humped, skinned-looking rabbit’ (‘Couples under cover’).  The comparisons force us to thoroughly scan our knowledge of the original animal so as to canvass how far this unlikely comparison can be maintained, and we thus realise it in our imagination with unusual force and completeness. 

Other prominent features of the poems include the application of industrial imagery to nature, and the preponderance of suffering.  Both of these things, seemingly separate, are actually facets of the same Hughesian world view, as can be demonstrated by approaching them via another feature: the way he will figure living creatures as being only remotely attached to their bodies.  So, cows will ‘look out sideways from under their brows’ and ‘calves/ Wait deep beneath their spines’ (‘Rain’); or, in ‘Turning out’, have ‘high tails riding / The wonderful new rockinghorse’ while their mothers ‘hurried / Their udders and their stateliness / Towards the new pasture.’  In ‘Roe-deer’ the deer ‘upright […] rode their legs / Away.’  This is magnificently vivid but it also stems from Hughes’s conception of the mind, the self, as occupying a body only distantly and troublesomely attached to it. 

Much of the volume spring from this model of consciousness.  It means that when the body goes wrong it has to be endured by the separate thinking self: the weak calf Struggle ‘lay /Mastering just breathing’; ‘his eyes just lay suffering the monstrous weight of his head’ (‘Struggle’).  A sick calf is shot and ‘his machinery adjusted itself / And his blood escaped, without loyalty’ (‘Orf’); a lamb can become a ‘rabbit / Whose hunger no longer works’ (‘Couples under cover’).  Even when the machinery is working perfectly it remains at a slightly ominous distance from the hosted consciousness: the happy calf ‘Lies, testing each breath /For its peculiar flavour of being alive’; he is ‘patient / With all the busyness inside him’ (‘Happy calf’); another calf can be ‘testing the note / It finds in its mouth’ (‘Ravens’).  Because the body is different from the mind, the mind has to learn how to operate it, as one would a machine, or a skill: so a mother with a new calf can be ‘finding his smells, learning his particularity’ (‘Birth of Rainbow’); a dumb calf, taught how to suckle, has ‘all his new / Machinery learning suddenly’ (‘Teaching a dumb calf’).  Sickness and death can be figured as a failure to learn: a sick calf’s ‘licked face // Is still bravely calf-like, and does not / Comprehend the non-participation / Of her back-legs’ (little red twin).  Because the machine is powerful the conscious self is, in part, a product of it: hence the power and stupidity of instinct, which can keep a ewe crying for a lamb whose entrails have been torn out (‘Last night’), or return her ‘defenceless to the bleat she’s attuned to (‘Bringing in new couples’).  It can make two rams come ‘straight on / Noses stretching forward as if they were being pulled / By nose-rings’ (‘Last night’) – and lest we think of this as a purely animal trait these lines recall Hughes’s description, in Crow (1970), of Adam waking in the garden of Eden to find himself being ‘dragged across’ to newly created Eve (‘A Childish Prank’).  Similarly, the farmers in ‘The formal auctioneer’ ‘watch and hide inside themselves’, just as the cattle waited deep beneath their spines.  The natural world beyond these creatures is also compared to machinery, to factories and engines and scrapyards.  Of course, this is partly because Hughes knew it as a working environment, but it is also because he knew it as his ‘Poor birds’ know it: as a pitiless, automated host for the suffering consciousness, as ‘the featherless, ravenous / Machinery of heaven.’  Hughes’s philosophy means that the tractor’s status as an unnatural intruder from the industrial age is conveyed by its being, not too much a machine, but too completely and uncomplicatedly alive, ‘Raging and trembling and rejoicing’ (‘Tractor’)  In contrast, even a perfectly happy calf exists ‘in the mild illness / Of being quite content’, and is accompanied by a – for good reason – constantly anxious mother (‘Happy calf’).

This figuration of consciousness as riding, inhabiting, and suffering the machinery of physical nature is also key to the volume’s structure.  As the animal mind is to the body, so the poet-farmer is to the world he describes: everywhere embedded and everywhere apart.  This is captured in Hughes’s account of how the poems were composed, recollecting the moment after it was gone, yet still somehow connected to that moment, as if it remained ongoing.  It is also seen in the curiously deadpan way in which the ‘I’ in the poems is described: it might think and act but it almost never feels.  The emotion is not absent, but displaced into the recreated world which surrounds that ‘I’.  While I started by noting the documentary charm of the poems, they are also a manipulable medium for working thought: the Moortown world can be flexed around and recombined like elements in an unsolved formula.  While the recreation of this world is achieved primarily through sound, stress, and narrative rather than simile or metaphor, those more customary poetic agents, Hughes will frequently key the line-to-line progression of the narratives to a source idea, which will evolve through different guises and accumulate further meanings as the poem goes on.  To take one example, in ‘Feeding out-wintering cattle’ the key idea is of drifting or being blown away, tensioned against the contrary idea of being anchored.  ‘The wood is a struggle’ about to be lifted off by the wind, but the cows are ‘like nails in a tin roof’ pinning the visible world in place.  For the poet-recorder the alarm of the struggle increases as the poem goes on, but the cows only become more joyful in their strong withstanding of it.  The central idea gains a dramatic unity and eloquence, which in this case is suggestive of the wider contest between stoic, purposed life and ‘fiery loss.’ 

Moortown Diary was originally Moortown Elegies, a title which shifts the volume’s emphasis to the handful of poems about Jack Orchard, Hughes’s father-in-law, to whom the sequence is dedicated.  Although few in number, these are the poems in which we see most clearly how the human world connects to that of nature and animal, and how Hughes’s life as farmer connects to his life as poet.  Orchard becomes, in many ways, an avatar of Hughes’s verse.  In ‘Hands’ the combining of Orchard’s huge iron power with a delicacy ‘suave as warm oil inside the wombs of ewes’ both embodies and mirrors how Hughes will go to work with plain, functional, referential narratives that can suddenly flex into images possessed of great touch and dexterity.  Similarly, in ‘A monument’, a poem which has flailed through adjectives, stress, and alliteration, through Jack Orchard ‘Skullraked with thorns, sodden, tireless, / Hauling bedded feet free, floundering away’, suddenly gives way to him ‘hammering the staple / Into the soaked stake-oak, a careful tattoo / Precise to the tenth of an inch.’  It is a precision, a channelled force, which Hughes displays too, in those moments when the tumbledown recollection of ‘the moment’ suddenly transmutes into an epiphanic consummation of all that has come before: that hits the nail right on the head.

So ‘casual journal notes’, yes, but also so much more than that.  When I showed my Australian farmer stranger-friend the poem from Moortown Diary I thought, at first, condescendingly, that he was responding to the description of things he knew, the recognition of things he hadn’t expected to find in poetry.  And perhaps that was part of it.  But when he had taken the book back from me, and was flicking through its pages, I asked him for the first time what he thought.  He considered for a moment, still flicking through the pages, before replying: ‘there’s some real beautiful stuff in here.’


David Sergeant is Lecturer in English (post 1850) at Plymouth University. His research interests extend across prose and poetry and several periods, he is the author of Kipling's Art of Fiction (Oxford: OUP, 2013) and his first collection of poetry, Talk Like Galileo, was published by Shearsman Books in 2010.  


[1] All quotations from Hughes’s poetry and notes are from the Collected Poems, ed. Paul KeeganLondon: Faber and Faber, 2003.

[2] Seamus Heaney, Field Work. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.

[3] T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’ (1942) from Four Quartets (1944) in The Complete Poems & Plays. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.