“In ‘Lobby From Under the Carpet’, (THCP 837) what is the meaning of “Ticks the tittering tock”? What is the meaning of “And he goes off half-cock”? And who are “Professor Skakkebaek” and “The Premier”?”

This poem was published in The Times on 9 April 1992. In November 1990, John Major had won leadership of the British Conservative Party from Margaret Thatcher and had become Prime Minister (or ‘Premier’). Hughes wrote this poem to expresses his strongly felt view that it was vitally important that Members of Parliament, and the Premier in particular, heed the results of scientific research which showed, as he says in the poem, that “the cost of the World / Chemical Industry taken as a whole over the last / two decades / is / a 40% drop / in the sperm count of all Western Males”.

He refers to a book about human reproduction, The Poisoned Womb, by John Elkington, which was published in 1986. And to later results of research by a Danish expert on testicular histology and testicular dysgenesis (sterility), Professor Neils Skakkebaek, which showed that the sperm count had fallen to 50%.

Science shows that a toxic environment and a fall in sperm count clearly affects human fertility. Hughes suggests, with bitter irony, that the attitude of some people may be that this is a good thing, because in time this will solve the “population problem”. So, the clock’s ‘tick-tock’ may sound to some like barely concealed, gleeful laughter (“Titters”).

The wife whose own fertility is compromised by environmental poisons “feels lacking”, and her husband’s sperm-count has been diminished by “not 40 but 50 %”. The term “half-cock” refers to the misfiring of a gun if the trigger is only half drawn back (or cocked), and it suggests the husband’s diminished fertility, but ‘cock’ is also a slang term for ‘penis’, so the husband’s virility is also brought into question.

* * * * * * * *

‘Anniversary’ (THCP 854). Notes.

I first heard Ted read ‘Anniversary’ at the National Theatre in 1993. It was not published until 1995. He introduced the poem by telling us about his mother’s sister, Miriam, who had died when they were quite young (Miriam was 19, Ted’s mother 17). Miriam would appear to his mother two days before any death in the family and his mother gradually recognized this as an omen. At each appearance she had changed a little, becoming taller and more angelic each time, clothed in feathers of flame which his mother said she had touched and which “felt like the taste of honey”. Clearly, there is regeneration of a sort in this story, plus prophecy and a belief in some sort of spirit life after death.

‘Anniversary’, is as much about Ted as it is about his mother, and it is very like the Birthday Letters, Howls & Whispers and Capriccio poems in the way in which he evokes his mother and her sister Miriam. His mother’s image is strongly evoked throughout. “I do this for her” balances everything in the poem which she did for him, even though it was his brother she constantly looked for and wept for. In a letter to Juttaq and Wolfgang Kaussen (LTH. 19 Nov. 1997), Ted explains a little more about the background to the poem and ends: “I sat down beside her on the garden seat… and we just wept together”.

I am strongly reminded of poems in Remains of Elmet (1979), a sequence which Ted said was written for his mother (it is dedicated to her and the very first poem, ‘six years into her posthumous life… ’ (THCP 455) is about her), whereas Elmet (1994) had quite a different purpose. ‘Heptonstall Cemetery’ (THCP 492) in Remains of Elmet joins Edith with others of her family as “living feathers” amongst the family of dark swans. Swan’s, too, are spirits, symbols of the Goddess and of fertility, death and rebirth. The poem immediately after that poem in Remains of Elmet is ‘The Angel’ (THCP 492) - again with imagery of swans and angels and flames and suggestions of prophetic omens.

It is interesting that in ‘Anniversary’ Ted chose to mention the May Thirteenth date of Edith’s death: so here is another link with the Goddess and with death and rebirth: hence, the Sunday morning (the seventh day, the day of completion and rest after the Creation), the larks linking heaven and earth, and the cosmic creation and destruction. My comments on the 13th as it appears in ‘Superstitions’ (THCP 1183) and ‘Capriccios’ (THCP 783) are on my Howls & Whispers and Capriccio pages. The mention of that date makes a definite link between ‘Anniversary’ and the poems in those sequences.

‘Anniversary’ is full of Ted’s love, and sorrow (but no blame) that for his mother he so often seemed to be only “the shadow cast” by his brother. Sorrow that he could not heal the wound of his brother’s absence for her. Acknowledgement, too, of the worry and pain he had caused her whilst she was alive. Although worry is shown to be her choice – the thing she “likes to wear best” – the mention of the “mass marriages” to which she was not invited shows that he recognized the hurt this caused her. But I don’t think there is guilt there, just an acknowledgement of her hurt. That final acknowledgement that she is using his love and his poetry to “fine tune” her own continuing love for his brother, is acutely painful, yet Ted says: “I do this for her”. How few people have enough love in them to do that?

Look at ‘Leaf Mould’ (THCP 768), too: it explains the line in ‘Anniversary’ “her life, which was mine”.

© Ann Skea 2008. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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