First published in The Challenge of Ted Hughes , (Ed.) Sagar, St.Martin’s Press, London, 1994
Throughout his creative life, Ted Hughes has used his poetry to tap the universal energies and to channel their healing powers towards the sterility and the divisions which he sees in our world. All his major sequences of poetry work towards this end, and Remains of Elmet represents an important step in Hughes’ ability to achieve wholeness and harmony through the imaginative, healing processes of his art.
In his pursuit of these regenerative energies, Hughes appears to have adopted the role of poet/priest/shaman, and it is a role which carries responsibilities that Hughes takes very seriously. He is aware of the creative/destructive powers of the energies he courts, and he has a superstitious belief that by fixing these powerful energies in a poem he can affect both writer and reader “in a final way” 2 . Consequently, Hughes has experimented with many methods of summoning and containing these energies and, whilst he is skilled at using the rhythms and the rituals of poetry for this purpose, in his longer sequences he most frequently turns to “the old method” of religious and mythological ritual in order to obtain the imaginative healing he intends.
Crow , Gaudete and Cave Birds show the progressively greater skill with which Hughes uses a framework of ritual and myth to weave together complex themes into a single dramatic and imaginative work. Remains of Elmet is, in every way, built on these skills. Unlike the earlier sequences, the focus of Remains of Elmet is on the real world, peopled by real people, not a world of imaginative fantasy through which symbolic figures journey. The world of Elmet existed and exists, and Hughes’ poems recreate it vividly in such a way that we may perceive the human errors which have desecrated it and the enduring, everpresent forces of Nature which survive.
The sequence shows, too, a new ability to weave myth, ritual, music and drama so closely into the fabric of each poem, and into the cycle as a whole, that they are almost inseparable from it. The reader is aware of the beauty and the unity of the poetry and of its emotional impact, whilst the deeper thematic aspects of the sequence work on the subconscious mind and may never be consciously formulated. In addition to this, the beautiful integration of the poetry with Fay Godwin’s dramatic and evocative photographs, and the great personal significance which this area and its people clearly have for Hughes, seem to provide all the reason we need to explain this work’s creation. So successful has Hughes been in using the imagination to integrate the physical and spiritual energies in this book, that his critics have to a large extent misjudged his underlying purpose and, therefore, undervalued the importance of this sequence in the opus of Hughes’ work.
Clearly, I am suggesting that there is more to Remains of Elmet than Hughes’ record of tribal memories and his cogent and masterful demonstration of Nature’s supremacy over humankind. And to demonstrate this, it is necessary to move beyond the bleak and rugged physical world that Hughes depicts and to attend to some of the metaphysical aspects of the sequence.
In examining any of Hughes’ books of poetry or any of his sequences of poems, it is of value to pay particular attention to the first and last poems of that book or sequence. Characteristically, these poems delineate the imaginative boundaries within which Hughes manipulates the energies of the whole work and, because of this, they are a useful indication of the themes and the overall purpose of the poems they encompass.
To take just two examples: Lupercal , which we are told contains mostly poems written as “invocations to writing" 3 , begins and ends with poems which symbolically and ritually evoke the creative energies; and in Crow , the first and last poems express Hughes’ belief in the necessity and promise of the black energies he embodies in his trickster bird whilst, at the same time, they demonstrate the care with which he summons and contains these energies.In Remains of Elmet , the first and last poems of the sequence suggest two major, closely linked themes on which the other poems have been built: the theme of ‘The Mothers’, which has strong regenerative aspects; and the theme of the imprisonment of divine light, or soul, in matter and its eventual, apocalyptic release. In these poems, too, we can discern strands of the mythical/religious beliefs which form part of the complex structural fabric of this work.
The opening poem, ‘Where the Mothers’, immediately establishes a mood of pagan, elemental energy. Using rhythms and sounds which capture the wildness of nature as it is commonly experienced on the pictured moors, Hughes evokes the disembodied souls which, like the wind and the rain, howl through heaven and
Pour down onto earth
Looking for bodies
Of birds, animals, people.
In the galloping “Mothers”, there are echoes of the Nordic Valkyries. But this is the old British Kingdom of Elmet where the Celtic ‘Mothers’ – three goddesses of fertility – held sway and where ancient standing stones, like the Bridestones, still testify to the worship of Brig (Brigid), the mother goddess of the Brigantian people.
These ‘Mothers’ were the earliest Celtic-British personification of the powers of the Great Mother Goddess, Nature, whose cycles of life and death pervade this sequence. 4 Their evocation in this opening poem defines the geographical and historical context from which the Calder Valley civilisation grew. It was these primitive energies and this bleak environment that shaped the people and gave them their toughness and endurance. It was these energies that spawned and fed the Industrial Revolution. And it was the physical and spiritual misdirection of these energies which Hughes believes brought this society to “the dead end of a wrong direction”(‘Top Withens’).
Important as these ancient goddesses are, there are other ‘Mothers’ present in the wild natural elements of this opening poem. These are the alchemical ‘Mothers’ – Air, Water and Fire – from which Hermiticists believe all things are created 5 . Hughes, who (as I have shown in Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest 6 ) carefully structured his Cave Birds sequence on an alchemical transmutation, again uses the Hermetic/Neoplatonic myth of the imprisonment of Divine Light (or Soul) in matter, and its eventual release, to shape this work. The poems and photographs in Remains of Elmet demonstrate the “rummaging of light/ At the end of the world.”(‘Long Screams’) (Hughes’ use of the verb, here, is deliberately ambiguous, as light both rummages and is rummaged). And, as he tells us clearly in one poem:
It is all
Happening to the sun
The fallen sun
Is in the hands of the water
(‘It Is All’).
In many of Fay Godwin’s photographs, and particularly in the photographs which accompany and immediately follow this poem, we can see for ourselves the “cold fire” of the trapped sun shining from clog-worn stones(‘It Is All’) and from the “busy dark atoms” (‘High Sea-Light’) of the moorland causeys, and gleaming through the darkness of the waters.
The Hermetic/Neoplatonic myth tells how, from the time of original Chaos, Divine Light (Soul) has been attracted by the Subtle Spirit, Nature, down into the dark Abyss, from whence it is released only by dissolution or death 7 . In the words of the Greek Neoplatonist, Porphyry, it is the “urge for pleasure” –the urge to “follow and obey their worst parts, which draws souls down into the “witches brew of generation” 8 , and this, perhaps, is the reason for the “silent evil joy” which accompanies the embodiment of souls in Hughes’ first poem. There, amidst the chaos of the elements, on the ancient moors of Elmet where, in a later poem, Hughes describes the “witch-brew boiling in the sky vat”(‘Moors’), the drama of generation begins.
This, too, is the starting point for the Great Work to which alchemists devote their lives. Using the alchemical ‘Mothers’, Air, Fire and Water, they undertake the careful dissolution and cleansing of the base matter of generation in order to release the Soul. Just so, in this sequence, Hughes and Godwin use the interaction of light and matter, both physically in the words and photographs, and metaphorically in the effects which these accomplish, to release the imaginative energies and bring illumination, feeling and insight. The “Grasses Of Light”, the “stones of darkness”, the “Water of light and darkness” with which both artists work in this book, are not simply “words in any phrase”(‘These Grasses of Light’), as Hughes puts it, or the interplay of light and shadow fixed in a photographic image, they are the mother elements from which our world is formed and on which our survival and the eventual metamorphosis of our souls depend. And they are the elements which, in this book, will accomplish the regeneration of the land and free the souls of its people.
The theme of the ‘Mothers’ which is established in this first poem, is reinforced by Hughes’ dedication of this book to his own mother, Edith Farrar, and by the prefatory poem in which his mother lives on briefly for him through her brother. The dreams, aspirations, achievements and failures of the Calder Valley people which make up this book are their memories, precious “Archaeology of the mouth” which Hughes tries to record before the “frayed, fraying hair-fineness” of the thread linking his spirit to theirs is finally broken.
It is through this personal aspect of the ‘Mothers’ that the first and last poems of the Elmet sequence are linked. And it is the influence of Hughes’ mother which appears to have been germinal in the regenerative purpose which underlies Hughes’ work. To explain this, let us turn now to the final poem of the Elmet sequence.
‘The Angel’ describes a recurrent dream which, according to Faas, Hughes has “dreamt about once a week during childhood and adolescence" 9 and at regular intervals ever since. The first poetic version of this dream appeared as ‘Ballad From a Fairy Tale’ in Wodwo (W.166). There, as in the Elmet version, Hughes describes a disastrous fiery event, – something like “a moon disintegrating”(‘Ballad From a Fairy Tale’, line 4) on “Black Halifax”(‘The Angel’, line 3) – and from the resulting phosphorescent crater there emerges a huge and beautiful swan/angel which lights the moors as it passes low across them “towards the West”(‘Ballad… ‘, line 31). At first, Hughes thinks this angel brings a blessing, but his mother’s words, when she interprets this “immense omen”(‘The Angel’, line 24) for him, turn the “beauty suddenly to terror”(‘The Angel’ line 17).
In neither poem are we told Hughes’ mother’s words, but the detail which links Hughes’ vision with events in his life, and which gives her words “doubled”(‘Ballad… ‘, line 59) significance, is his second sighting of the angel’s strange and puzzling halo. This “enigmatic”, fringed “square of satin”(‘The Angel’, line 21) which ripples in the wind of the angel’s flight, when seen again is a piece of funerary furniture 10 . So, this angel of beauty and light is also an omen of disaster and death, and the fact that both Sylvia Plath and Edith Farrar are buried on the moors where Hughes stood in his dream, seems to suggest that the angelic omen has been fulfilled. Yet, despite the very personal nature of this poem, with its reference to Hughes’ family and to events in his own life which left him in “darkness” (just as the angel left him in his dream), Hughes’ retelling of his dream at the end of Remains of Elmet links it closely with the fall of the whole Calder Valley society and gives it much greater prophetic significance.
Several things about the poem itself suggest the broader symbolic function which Hughes intends for the angel in the Elmet sequence. Firstly, there is the ambiguity of the poem’s closing lines and the echoes which they contain of the last poem in Hughes’ earlier sequence, Adam and the Sacred Nine 11 . And secondly, there are the resemblances which exist between Hughes’ angel and the Apocalyptic messengers described in the Kabbalah, the Koran, and, in particular, in the biblical books of Ezekial and Revelation 12 , all of which portend both destruction and spiritual salvation.
At first reading, what Hughes says in the final stanza of ‘The Angel’ seems quite clear:
When next I stood where I stood in my dream
Those words of my mother,
Joined with earth and engraved in rock,
Were under my feet.
Metaphorically, “those words” of his mother which turned a blessing to terror are, indeed, now joined with the earth beneath his feet. But, although there are significant words engraved in rock at the place where Hughes mother is buried, on her headstone there are only names and dates. On Sylvia’s headstone nearby, however, there are words which assert, through the symbolism of the lotus, the endurance of the creative energies and the promise of regeneration and spiritual rebirth 13 :
EVEN AMIDST FIERCE FLAMES
THE GOLDEN LOTUS CAN BE PLANTED
Whether or not these are the words to which Hughes refers in ‘The Angel’, their essence is central to many of the Elmet poems. And, given the multiple meanings that the word ‘mother’ has in the opening poems and the parallels which exist between this sequence and Adam and the Sacred Nine , we can interpret the closing stanza of Remains of Elmet as presenting a similar message of enlightenment and hope.
Adam and the Sacred Nine , like the Elmet sequence, deals with the embodiment of elemental energy in human form, the proud dreams and aspirations of humankind, and the lessons and enlightenment which are possible through Nature. In the opening poem of both sequences, pure energy, in the form of a song, searches the “cradle-grave” of earth for suitable embodiment. In both sequences (although more obviously in Adam and the Sacred Nine ), the birds have a symbolic function, acting as the natural agents of enlightenment and regeneration as they move between heaven and earth, between the physical and the non-physical. And in both sequences, the closing poems show two human representatives, Adam and Hughes, linked with their mothers through the soles of their feet – a traditional symbolic route of enlightenment.
The enlightenment which Hughes grants to our progenitor, Adam, is exactly that which the poems in Remains of Elmet seek to bring to us – the knowledge that mankind is not only made of the elements of earth, we are also made for earth. Like Adam we cannot “tread emptiness” – we depend on the earth for our survival, it feeds us and gladdens us. It is through the earth that the energies of the Source flow to us, and only by co-operating with Nature rather than seeking to dominate her, can we achieve our true potential.
Remains of Elmet , as a history of the Calder Valley people, demonstrates the fate of a society which fails to learn this lesson. And Hughes’ angel, in this context, is a symbol through which he invokes the elemental forces of the universe to redress the natural balance which has been disturbed. The huge, illuminating beauty of the angel, the awe and terror which she inspires, her association with the moon and snow, and her eventual disappearance “under the moor”, all suggest that she is the Mother Goddess, Nature, and, as such, she has the power both to destroy and to create.
As mentioned earlier, there are resemblances between Hughes’ angel and the Apocalyptic messengers of several major religious texts. They, too, appear amidst fiery disturbances to bring a warning to the human race. They, too, serve an omnipotent power which threatens death and destruction for human misdeeds. And they, too, offer the hope of blessing and spiritual rebirth. Through such links as these, Hughes channels the invoked energies of his angelic symbol towards creative rather than destructive ends. At the same time, he indicates the spiritual aspect of the regeneration he seeks to effect in Remains of Elmet .
Hughes makes a similar, biblical, allusion in ‘The Trance of Light’ where he envisages the renewal of the Earth as it “stretches awake, out of Revelations”. And he suggests the spiritual aspect of his work in such images as that of the “soul’s caddis” which, in ‘These Grasses of Light’, clings to the threadbare elements of creation awaiting its own release. The biblical references in Remains of Elmet , however are few, and Hughes’ angel represents a much older, pre-biblical Goddess. So, he turns most often (and more appropriately) to the pre-biblical Hermetic/Neoplatonic myths that I have already discussed and, taking these abstract stories of the original creation and the eternal struggle between darkness and light, he anchors them firmly in the reality of the prevailing weather conditions on the West Yorkshire moors. In this way, he uses our own experience of the ever-present powers of Nature to alert us to the continuing presence of his Goddess in our world. At the same time, he obliges us to give credence to the picture of the natural cleansing and renewal of the Earth which he presents in Remains of Elmet .
But what of spiritual regeneration? How does Hughes handle this?
From the very beginning, the spiritual element in Remains of Elmet has been linked imaginatively with music. It was there in the faint lark-song which accompanied the embodiment of souls in living creatures; in the “mad singing in the hills”(‘The Trance of Light’) which became submerged by the slavery of War, Industry and Religion; and in the fragile memories which reverberate in the yarning of the old people:
Attuned to each other, like the strings of a harp
They are making mesmerising music,
Each one bowed at his dried bony profile, as at a harp.
Singers of a lost kingdom.
Wild melody, wilful improvisations.
(‘Crown Point Pensioners’)
As the spirit of the people succumbs to the self-imposed rigidity of their lives and they become “four-cornered, stony”(‘Hill-Stone Was Content’) in their work and “cowed”(‘Mount Zion’), instead of inspired, by their chosen religion, the music is heard, still, in the song of a cricket(‘Mount Zion’), the “wobbling water-call”(‘Curlews in April’) of curlew, and in the magical drumming of snipe(’spring-Dusk’). Above all, it is there in the poetic music which Hughes makes as he draws for us this realistic, and paradigmatic, picture of human strengths and human weaknesses.
Still, as the elements work to free the Earth from “the human shape”(‘Top Withens’) which has been imposed on it, the music of the Earth, itself, can be heard in the poems. Away from the darkness of the valleys, where wild rock has been “conscripted”(‘Hill-Stone Was Content’) by Mankind and has forgotten its “wild roots” and its “earth Song”, the “big animal of rock”(‘The Big Animal of Rock’) crouches singing in its “homeland” on the moors. This is the “cantor”, the preceptor who leads the spiritual singing at Nature’s “Festival of Unending” death and rebirth and, like a soft continuous undertone, its music accompanies the elemental choir in perpetual worship. Under the heather and bog-cotton, the harebells and willowherb, the dark rock-animal – part of the first created matter – endures until Hughes’ poetic cleansing rituals are almost complete. Then, ‘In April’, it emerges with the reawakening Earth to stretch itself, cat-like, under the strengthening sun and to lead the Messianic singing in ‘The Word That Space Breathes’.
This poem follows a series of bleak, wintery poems and photographs in which the light and the life of Earth sink towards their nadir. In it, Hughes draws on the great choral tradition of the North of England, where Handel’s Messiah is a well known and much loved part of the Easter celebrations, to create an oratorio of his own in which, in the “chapel of clouds”, the music of the people, the land and the skies gloriously heralds the Natural resurrection which is to come.
Again adapting biblical stories to suit his own purposes, Hughes gives the Valley of Dry Bones, which Ezekial saw in his vision 14 , a contemporary presence in the Calder Valley. The biblical “Word of the Lord”, which promised salvation to the people of Israel, becomes one with the winds which breathe new life into the scattered bones of the people. And, as in the Book of Revelation, the Word of this disembodied voice is accompanied by a “huge Music”: “as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings saying Alleluia:… “ (Revelation, 19:6-7).
In Hughes’ poem, as in Fay Godwin’s photograph opposite it, the walls which the people so painstakingly built, the enclosures into which their lives and cares went “like manure”(‘Walls’), guide the spiritual wind-song upwards, leading it “from every step of the slopes” to the crest where clouds and walls meet. As if in a musical crescendo, the “huge music/ Of sightlines” is gathered into a dramatic focus which joins Heaven and Earth, and this climax is echoed in the finals stanza of the poem, like an Alleluia! for “The Messiah/ Of opened rock”.
So it seems that the illuminating spiritual song, like that of the great bird which once before, long ago, “drew men out of rock” and “put a light in the valley”(‘Heptonstall Old Church’), will return to the Earth. And, after the long and careful cleansing ritual which Hughes has undertaken in the Elmet sequence thus far, he is finally ready to create the Apocalyptic “golden holocaust” which is presaged in ‘Football At Slack’ and by means of which the trapped light will be freed from the valley, the souls released, and “a new heaven and a new earth” 15 created.
In ‘Cock-Crows’, Hughes again combines present reality with myth. The scene which he describes from his hilltop vantage point is one which is quite familiar to him and, were it not for the thematic concerns of Remains of Elmet (which I have already discussed) and the careful positioning of this poem in the sequence, one might be content to accept it as a highly imaginative picture of the sort of sunrise which occurs almost daily in the Calder Valley. Careful attention to the diverse connotations and allusions that the imagery in this poem contains, however, soon makes it clear that there is a deeper level of meaning, and that this poem is of central importance to Hughes’ regenerative work.
The title of the poem joins “Cock” with “Crows”, linking the symbolic bird of dawn with those of darkness and of death to create a unity from which there can be a new beginning. In the connection between darkness and light, birth and death, which is thus achieved, there exists a consubstantiality of opposites which allows for change and renewal. At the same time, the crowing cock which the hyphenated words in the title invite us to see and hear is, traditionally, the herald of the risen Sun-god and the harbinger of resurrection. Here, in the title of Hughes’ poem, the imperative bird-call signals a “tidal dawn” which splits “heaven from earth” and brings the first “taste” of gold light to the encompassing darkness, as if portending a new world as well as a new day.
Hughes’ imagery of mountain-tops, sunrise, gold and splendour, again has precedents in the visions of the new Jerusalem which both Ezekial and John of the Book of Revelation were granted 17 . But the strongest and most telling echoes in this poem are those of Blake’s prophetic writings. Hughes’ opening lines, “I stood on a dark summit, among dark summits -/Tidal dawn splitting heaven from earth”, in tone and content, recall the beginning of Blake’s poem in his address ‘To the Christians’ on Plate 77 of Jerusalem 16 :
I stood among my valleys of the south
And saw a flame of fire, even as a wheel
Of fire surrounding all the heavens:…
Blake’s lines precede the final chapter of Jerusalem which describes the awakening of Albion. And (making another suggestive link between Hughes’ poem and Blake’s prophetic book) Blake’s etching at the top of Plate 78 shows the cockerel-headed figure of Hand (the composite Spectre of the Sons of Albion) watching a brown-rayed sun which David Erdman identifies as “the setting material sun – a signal for the rise of a more bright sun” 18 .Although Hughes’ imagery in the rest of his poem is quite different to Blake’s the parallels are clearly present. His “bubbling valley cauldron” suggests Blake’s “Furnaces of Los”. And the cockcrows, the “sickle shouts” which he kindles from it, “soaring harder, brighter, higher,” and “bursting to light/Brightening the undercloud”, are like the “arrows of flaming gold”( Jerusalem , 95:13) which flew into the heavens from Albion’s “horned Bow Fourfold” until the “dim Chaos brighten’d beneath, above, around:”( Jerusalem , 98:14). Above all, it is the rhythm and diction at the central climax of Hughes’ poem which echoes those of Blake in exultant and glorious power, and which invite us to believe that “… the Night of Death is past and the Eternal Day / Appears upon our Hills”.( Jerusalem , 97:3-4).
Whilst these comparisons between ‘Cock-Crows’ and Blake’s Jerusalem are worth making for the light which they throw on Hughes’ purpose in this poem, and in Remains of Elmet as a whole, they should not be allowed to overshadow the complex interweaving of themes which Hughes has achieved here in his own unique way. For the light that Hughes creates in the dark valleys of Elmet is an effusion of the “magical soft mixture” that bubbles in the Earth Goddesses’ cauldron; and the whole process, with its bubbling mixture, its molten and metallic glistenings, its pervasive mists, and its bursts of light and sound, is one in which the alchemical ‘Mothers’ – Fire, Water and Air – are intimately involved. The crowing of Hughes’ cockerels in this West Yorkshire valley is the realisation of the voice of the Phoenix which, in Adam and the Sacred Nine “… flies flaming and dripping flame / Slowly across the dusty sky” until
The alter of its death and rebirth
Where it descends
Where it offers itself up
And the naked the newborn
Laughs in the blaze.
By the end of ‘Cock-Crows’, the fiery purification of the Earth has been completed and we are left with a cooling crucible, lifeless and dark, in which the only remaining signs of towns are smoking holes in the earth. Hughes’ golden holocaust is over. And now, as the sun climbs into the “wet sack” of Earth’s atmosphere, Heaven and Earth are reunited and the “day’s-work” of re-creation can begin.
With his visionary renewal of the Earth completed, it still remains for Hughes to free the souls which have been trapped in the world of generation. This he does in ‘Heptonstall Cemetery’. In rhythms which convey a mood of powerful, exultant energy, this poem shows the whole Earth in motion. The wind “slams across the tops”, the rain “cuts upwards”, and amidst this chaos of air and water the moors become one “giant beating wing” in which the risen souls are “living feathers”. Finally, in a glow of “storm-silver”, like the great radiant haze of sunlight in Fay Godwin’s accompanying photograph, the reborn souls of the human race, like a family of dark swans, lift from every horizon and fly Westward towards the Atlantic – the direction in which Hughes’ angel disappeared.
So, taking all that remains of the old Celtic-British kingdom of Elmet, in the physical reality of the West Yorkshire moors with their changing skies and their fickle weather, Hughes has poetically transformed the death of the Calder Valley society into a spiritual rebirth. At the same time, he and Fay Godwin have brought some transforming imaginative energies into our lives which may allow us to attain our own enlightenment and spiritual release. Such enlightenment is not easily achieved. And, as Hughes constantly shows us in his work, it will only come when we learn to open our senses to the world around us and to attend to the lessons of our own great mother – Nature.
The Patriarch Subodhi then recited:
To spare and tend the vital powers, this and nothing else
Is sum and total of all magic, secret and profane.
All is comprised in these three, Spirit, Breath and Soul;
Guard them closely, screen them well; let there be no leak.
Store them within the frame.
That is all that can be learnt, and all that can be taught.
I would have you mark the tortoise and the snake locked in tight embrace.
Locked in tight embrace, the cital powers are strong;
Even in the midst of fierce flames the Golden Lotus may be planted,
The Five Elements compounded and transposed, and put to new use.
When that is done, be which you please, Buddha or Immortal.