Poetry by Ted Hughes

Recklings (London: Turret Books, 1966)

Roger Elkin considers the ‘fugitive poems’ contained in the oft-overlooked Recklings

Recklings, Ted Hughes’s third volume of poetry, was published in a limited edition of 150 copies in 1966 and was the only outstanding complete volume of Hughes’s poetry for adults not to have been collected in his lifetime. [1] While several poems appeared in subsequent volumes (including eight in New Selected Poems 1957-1994) the full body of thirty-two poems was not available to wide readership untilCollected Poems (2003).   

The lack of critical response to this volume may be attributed to the apparent devalued status Hughes afforded the poems: ‘recklings’ are the weakest of a litter, runts, those least able to survive. Consequently, the poems are seen as ‘fumblings’, ‘throwouts and failed experiments’, ‘fugitive pieces’, ‘scrappy leftovers from stylistic experiments’, ‘minor poems’,  ‘rejects’ and ‘off-cuts’. [2] To some extent these dismissive assessments are borne out by the way Hughes comments on the contents of the collection in conjunction with those in Wodwo, though consideration must be given to Hughes’s gnomic humour, a measure of self-effacement and self-protection. Writing to Daniel Huws in March 1967, he proposes:

"Here is RECKLINGS; pig’s litter, and a preposterous pretentiorisation of better days. RECKLINGS is what I threw out of the nest the better to fatten / my great cuckoo, WODWO, which will take wing in May, Wodwo being a false singular for Wodwos, which is an apocopated plural for Wodwoses, which is middle English for Orang Outan"

and to Janos Csokits, 21 April 1967,

"‘Recklings’, the thin grey book, is a collection of bits & pieces which didn’t seem to me to fit into WODWO – not good enough or simply irrelevant."[3]

Nice word ‘irrelevant’.

Critics also see them as ‘private poems’ (Sagar, p.21), written in ‘a private style’ (Walder, p.23) and concerned with the exposition of a ‘personal sadness’ (Alan Bold) [4]. This may be because Recklings was the first collection to be published in the aftermath of Sylvia Plath’s death. Certainly many of the poems are opaque and cryptic, exploring demanding poetic/philosophic arguments through freely-associative imagery, compressed textual density and epigrammatic structures. Their intensity is the product of sudden shifts in voice conveyed primarily in a colloquial tone – questioning, hesitant, quiet – and largely couched in the vernacular. Take for example these following extracts:

Captured by dumb orders of herbage,

Much buried root-eaten blood

Is exhaled in part as night-fog. (Fishing At Dawn)


If I stop my heart and hold my breath


The needle will thread itself.

Daring the no-man quiet of my non-being


A mouse buds at the washboarding. A nose

Of ginger spider weaves its hairs towards me.  (Memory)


What appears to have gone unrecognised is that Recklings is a hybrid collection which draws its poems from Hughes’s entire output between 1956-1966. Standing at the stylistic and thematic turning-point in Hughes’s poetic development as expressed in his first three commercially-published volumes The Hawk In The Rain (1957),Lupercal (1960) and Wodwo (1967), it occupies an important position in his poetry for adults. This is especially the case as the majority of its contents prefigure elements both stylistically and thematically that feature within the later collections.

‘Bawdry Embraced’, written as early as February 1956, celebrates his early relationship with Sylvia Plath in almost mythical if not legendary terms, casting a retrospective look stylistically at The Hawk In The Rain and Lupercal, while simultaneously anticipating elements to be explored more fully in the later Cave Birds (1978) sequence.[5] ‘On the Slope’, ‘A Match’ and ‘To Be A Girl’s Diary’, collectively published in the 1967 American edition of Wodwo as ‘Root, Stem, Leaf’, honour the stoicism of Hughes’s mother while simultaneously embracing Plath’s awareness of human frailty set against the forces of time and landscape, and her apprehension of the creative-destructive agencies of nature. ‘On the Slope’ was to appear later in the Elmet section in Three Books (1993). ‘Tutorial’, ‘Keats’, ‘Last Lines’, ‘Don Giovanni’, ‘Public Bar T.V.’, and ‘Heatwave’ record Hughes’s response to other folk – legendary or literary, famous or unknown, academic or ordinary – and simultaneously develop Hughes’s presentation of people as witnessed in The Hawk In The Rain and Wodwo, but conditioned by Plath’s stylistic and thematic concerns.

‘Unknown Soldier’, ‘Flanders’, ‘Toll’, and ‘A Colonial’ complement the thematic changes in Hughes’s poemsabout war written throughout his life up to and including Wolfwatching (1989) as part of the process of cleansing his consciousness of the nightmare of his father’s memories of the First World War. ‘Water’, ‘The Lake’ and ‘Stealing Trout on a May Morning’ explore levels of consciousness and/or metaphors for poetic creativity via the application of Jungian symbolism. Stealing Trout has an important position in River (1983). ‘The Toughest’, ‘Memory’, and ‘Guinness’ examine his private consciousness as prefatory to his exploration of the integration of man with Nature. ‘Fishing At Dawn’, ‘Dully Gumption’s Addendum’, ‘Poltergeist’, and ‘Humanities’ form part of Hughes’s thesis on the sterile academicism of contemporary culture in contrast with the vitality of pre-Puritan, particularly Celtic, mental innocence.[6] ‘Logos’, ‘Thaw’, ‘Small Events’ and ‘Fallen Eve’ in their theological questioning and their examination of the anaesthetisation of contemporary sensibility and their presentation of God as the unwitting son of the feminine creator, Mother Nature initiate the framework for the theological reversals ofCrow (1970). ‘Logos’ had an important position in Wodwo. ‘Trees’, ‘Beech Tree’, ‘Plum Blossom’ in their epigrammatic structure and opaque tree-symbolism honouring the presence of a feminine deity anticipate several aspects of the end-poems in Gaudete (1977).

Collectively, the poems see Hughes moving away from imitation of a Jonsonian Metaphysical style to an embracing of metaphysical issues and the increasing employment of symbolic and mythic motifs to intensify the poetic texture. Furthermore, they reveal his indebtedness to the ideas and practice of writers such as Robert Graves, J. G. Frazer, Theodore Roethke, and especially Sylvia Plath. In fact, Plath’s voice and influence are apparent in many of the poems, a feature gradually being recognized as critics begin to explore elements of intertextuality in the writings of Hughes and Plath.[7]

Roger Elkin is ex-Curriculum Director, ex-Editor of Prospice literary quarterly, ex-Editor of Envoi poetry magazine, and a prize-winning poet. His postgraduate research, Keele University 1982, was on Recklings. Articles centring on this volume include ‘Neglected Auguries in Recklings’ (The Challenge of Ted Hughes); ‘Breaking Ground: The Uncollected Recklings Poems,( Lire Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems 1957-1994) and on the Earth-Moon website ‘Hidden Influences in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’, ‘Ted Hughes and ‘A Separate Little Self’’, and ‘Balancing a precarious banner: review of Keith Sagar, Ted Hughes and Nature: 'Terror and Exultation'


[1] Ted Hughes, Recklings (Turret Books, 1966). Actually published January 1967, in a numbered and signed edition of 150 copies.

[2] Derwent May, ‘Ted Hughes’ in Martin Dodsworth (ed.), The Survival of Poetry(Faber and Faber, 1970), 150.;   Keith Sagar, Ted Hughes, (Longman, 1972), 21;  Dennis Walder, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath (Open University Press, 1976); Ekbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe (Black Sparrow Press, 1980), 83;  Leonard Scigaj, The Poetry of Ted Hughes, Form and Imagination (University of Iowa Press, 1986), 86; Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (Palgrave, 2006), 52; John Greening, The Poetry of Ted Hughes (Greenwich Exchange Books, 2007), 8.

[3]Letters of Ted Hughes, (Faber & Faber, 2007), 267-8; 272.

[4] Alan Bold, Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes (Oliver & Boyd, 1976), 99

[5] See Roger Elkin,’Neglected Auguries in Recklings’, in Keith Sagar (ed.), The Challenge of Ted Hughes, (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

[6] See Roger Elkin, ‘Ted Hughes and 'A Separate Little Self'‘, on www.earth-moon.org./crit-elkin

[7] See Heather Clark, The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Oxford, 2011)