Title:          The Poetry of Ted Hughes: A reader’s guide to essential criticism
Editor:         Sandie Byrne
Publisher:      Palgrave Macmillan (August  2014)
ISBN:           978 1 137 31092 7 
Price:          £15.99  (paperback)    178 pages
Reviewed by Ann Skea

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em;
And so proceed ad infinitum. 
                           from ‘On Poetry, a Rhapsody’ by Jonathan Swift.

This is a critical review of a critical review of critical reviews of Ted Hughes’ poetry. There is not a single verse of Hughes’ poetry in this book and, admirable as Sandie Byrne’s efforts to review critical responses to it may be, one has to ask what purpose this book will serve. Those who read and love Hughes’  poetry will continue to do so. Those who study it out of interest or for academic purposes, will turn first to work which is easily available, or, if they are researching a thesis, they will turn to Sagar and Tabor’s comprehensive Bibliography, read what they deem necessary, and make up their own minds about the critics and the poetry.

Byrne organises her overview into six chapters: ‘Early Work’, ‘Nature Poetry’, ‘The Sequences’, ‘Hughes and Plath’, ‘Later Work’ and a ‘Conclusion’. In each, the work of a few critics is outlined. Keith Sagar, Neil Roberts and Terry Gifford appear frequently, as they should, since each has spent many years studying Hughes’ work, writing critically about it and teaching it. Seamus Heaney, too,  is frequently cited, but  Byrne relies mostly on the address Heaney gave at the memorial service for Hughes in Westminster Abbey and on a paper which he gave at the University of California, Berkley in 1976. Heaney was a good friend of Hughes, who encouraged him when he was a young, aspiring poet. So, although his discussion of Hughes’ poetry is very perceptive, it is not, perhaps, objective criticism.

In a book of this small size, where the titles of Hughes’ books are reduced to an italicised initial to save space, the selection of critical work to be discussed is necessarily partial in both senses of the word. Byrne offers a good precis of the work of some critics in some areas, but many significant critical essays remain unmentioned and some notable contributions to Hughes studies are omitted entirely. Stuart Hirschberg’s Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes (Wolfhound, 1981) appears in Byrne’s ‘Selected Bibliography’ but is not mentioned in the text. Edward Hadley’s The Elegies of Ted Hughes (Palgrave, 2010)  and the excellent selection of essays presented in Ted Hughes and the Classics (Rees (ed.), Oxford University Press, 2009)  are completely absent. Discussion of Hughes’ own translations of foreign language poetry is limited to his adaptations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but Daniel Weissbort’s critical presentations in Ted Hughes: Selected Translations, are not included.

It is surprising, too, to see the complex and imaginative arguments in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess summarised in a page–and–a–half in order to introduce the views of just two critics on its influence in Hughes’ work. Graves’ book was certainly of great and formative importance to Hughes but so, too, was the work of Yeats, Jung, Blake, Shakespeare and the Ancient Greek poets and philosophers. Jung’s influence is dealt with briefly, Yeats is mentioned in passing, the others (apart from Ovid) not at all. In other words, this is by no means the “comprehensive Guide” to “the key critical responses to the full range of Hughes’s poetry” that the blurb on the back of the book claims it to be. To be fair, Byrne notes in her introduction that there will inevitably be “overlaps, exceptions and anomalies” in criticism of Hughes’ work, and her stated aim is to present “representative samples”, to trace themes, and to “answer the question of why we should remember Hughes”.

In case it is thought that my negative view of this book stems from the fact that my name is spelt incorrectly in the ‘Contents’ and that the only link given to my Ted Hughes Webpage (which is archived by the British Library) is to just one paper presented there,  I must point out that others have fared far worse. As well as the omissions already mentioned,  Class Kazzer’s valuable and much used Earth Moon website  is listed but with no mention of his name at all, and his old, now defunct, Leipzig University web address is also included. Another address on the ‘Websites’ list is that of Diane Middlebrook’s web pages, which have not been updated since her death in 2007 and which, in any case, only contain promotions for Her Husband.

My main objection to this book, however, has nothing to do with the quality of Byrne’s research, writing or editing, but is with the fact that it is so far removed from the creative and imaginative source, that Hughes, himself, would undoubtedly have consigned Byrne, along with the “professional criticism” exponents she discusses, to the “ninth circle of life” (clearly akin to Dante’s ninth circle but less mythical), as he was wont to do with all such “cultural police” (cf. Reid, Letters of Ted Hughes, p. 617).

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