Poetry by Ted Hughes
Season Songs (London: Faber and Faber, 1975)
Nicholas Bland considers Hughes's seasonal poetic journal.
Initially, Ted Hughes aimed Season Songs at children. But according to Hughes, the poems ‘grew up’, as he wrote them . The syntax in Season Songs doesn’t exclude children from enjoying and understanding much of the verse. But some of the collection’s major themes transcend childhood experience. The poems are ordered according to season. Speaking broadly, Spring is characterized by awkward regeneration, Summer by Spring’s rich and heavy issue, Autumn by decay, and Winter by silence and winnowed existence. As Hughes intended, these qualities are all pitched ‘within hearing of children’. But at moments the writing is almost exclusively adult. In ‘Spring Nature Notes’ the air ‘struggling in soft excitements / Like a woman hurrying into her silks’ is not necessarily sexual, yet the simile requires a faculty of adult association. Also, Hughes’s cultural allusions and references shouldn’t alienate a younger audience, but children are unlikely to comprehend terms like ‘Goidelic’ or ‘chitin’. Hughes illustrates the seasons in a way that allegorizes anthropomorphic life. In touching on subjects such as the inevitable progress towards death, or a newborn calf’s ‘hopeful religion’ , the book emerges from boundaries that Hughes’s original creative purpose set for it.
Even so, the legacy of Hughes’s desire that the collection should appeal to children remains evident. ‘The River in March’ is painted in language often primitive and fairy-tale. The river ‘is her Mighty Majesty the sea / Travelling among the villages incognito.’ This technique of humanizing natural features occurs throughout the poem. They assume a totemic character: the eponymous river becomes ‘A deep choir’ and ‘The brassy sun gives / her a headache’. Here the sun is an oppressor. The dynamic of oppressed/oppressor, hero/villain fits the poem within the mould of children’s literature. As does a binary refrain at the start of each stanza, which rotates between, ‘Now the river is rich’ and ‘Now the river is poor’. This binary refrain gives the poem a gentle but clear rhythm. It emphasizes the collection’s identification as song.
The penultimate poem in the Summer sequence is ‘The Harvest Moon’. The symbol of the harvest moon marks the transition from summer to autumn. The poem has a clearer form than its predecessors in the collection. It is divided into five near even-sized stanzas (5-3-4-4-3). The ‘flame-red moon’ extinguishes one season and ignites the next. It orchestrates the scene as it develops. The harvest moon is figured as a goddess, whose arrival brings ‘A kneeling vigil’ from the elms and oaks. Music is pictured by the speaker and performed by the elements:
The harvest moon has come,
Booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon,
And earth replies all night, like a deep drum.
This is a natural symphony of elements. The poem’s simple rhyme scheme heightens the harmonious confluence and interdependence of nature’s constituents.
Elsewhere the verse is more challenging for the reader. The first poem of the Autumn sequence, ‘Leaves’, has a clearly-defined structure. Each four-line stanza opens with a question about the shed leaves. The two middle lines of each stanza rhyme, whilst the final words of the first and last lines within each stanza are the same. This makes the funeral process ceremonial and liturgical. Religious reference is explicit. As we move from questions about how the leaves died, to how their death should be recognized, the figures of nature assume formal religious roles. The swallow volunteers to make a shroud, the river will act as gravedigger, the wind as chief-mourner, and so on. The Crow opts to serve as parson: ‘it is well known / I study the bible right down to the bone.’ Here, the Crow hints at sacrilege. The Bible is fodder. The mourners arranged in ‘Leaves’ are primal gods. The fallen leaves symbolize the passage of season; the rites mark a moving onwards.
The link between seasonal and human qualities is achieved in several ways. Hughes’s technique when describing nature is to personify it vividly and comprehensively. He embodies it in human characters. ‘March Morning Unlike Others’ could serve as a summary of the qualities found in the entire Spring sequence. The poem is typical of the energetic shifts of focus that are found throughout Hughes’s work. It begins with a panorama of spring images: brief lines manipulated by the speaker’s perception:
Blue haze. Bees hanging in air at the hive-mouth.
Crawling in prone stupor of sun
On the hive-lip. Snowdrops. Two buzzards,
However, the backdrop to this animation is an ‘invalid, dropsied, bruised’ earth. Spring life has come round again, before the earth has recovered from the barrenness of winter. Like a hospital patient, ‘She lies back, wounds undressed to the sun’. Feminizing earth is not a mere trope here. The proximity between woman and earth is more forceful than the concept of Mother Earth. Hughes figures the earth in womanly form, shocked by life that surrounds her, yet at the same time revived and energized by it.
All the moments recorded in the collection are like the March morning, recurrent but unlike the everyday. They are depictions of the extraordinary. From these moments, we learn the mechanics of life. The collection does not describe all things traditionally bright and beautiful, but Hughes’s attentiveness finds subject matter in the seemingly desperate.
‘A Cranefly in September’ depicts a cranefly that has lived beyond its natural life and now blunders ‘From collision to collision.’ The speaker touches upon the cranefly’s near-death in a way that is both tragic and comic: ‘Sometimes she rests in the grass forest / Like a fairytale hero’. He figures himself as a giant. The scale projected brings the speaker nearer to his subject. They share a world outside of human existence. However, as is true for Season Songs in its entirety, the overriding life force is time and season. Time spares no thing - but time’s vitality is the source of beauty for the entire collection.
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. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 2003. All references to Hughes’s poetry are from this edition.
2. Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 127.