Gaudete (1977): Notes

Ted Hughes described the Reverend Lumb’s ‘songs’ in the ‘Epilogue’ poems of Gaudete as ‘vacanas’.

In 1973, he became very interested in a book called Speaking of Siva – a book of vacanas translated from the Southern Indian Dravidian language by A.K. Ramanujan, which had just been published as a Penguin Classic. He told friends about this book and urged them to read it.

Vacanas, as described in the blurb on the back of the book, are “lyrical expressions of love for the god Siva. They mirror the urge to bypass tradition and ritual, to concentrate on the subject rather than the object of worship, and to express kinship with all living things in moving terms”. Ramanujan’s ‘Translator’s Note’ calls them “literature scorning artifice, ornament, learning, privilege”; and there are many things in his ‘Introduction’ and in ‘Appendix 1’ which suggest why the book would have appealed to Ted so much, although not for the purpose of worshipping Siva.

Ramanujan speaks of the vacanas as poetry which has to do with truth-seeking and truth-saying. They are poems of Bhakti or spontaneous personal devotion, with no classical metric form but with the rhythms and, often, the structure of the “popular three-line form of the oral tradition used widely in folk song and in folk epigram”. They are poems of love, “kin-sense and kindness for all living things”; and they express real and personal conflicts in ordinary language, using extended metaphor, simile, allegory, repetition and paradox. They reflect a process of destroying and reinventing the language of ordinary experience. Yet, their speech is simple and direct.

Perhaps even more intriguingly, for Ted, vacanas are also part of a mystical process. In ‘Appendix I: The Six-Phase System’, Ramanujan describes them as “successive stages on a ladder of ascent, a metamorphosis from egg to larva to pupa to the final freedom of winged being”. This transformation takes place in six phases, each phase developing a specific relationship between the soul and the Divine Creative Source (Mana or Sakti). Ramanujan describes these phases in detail, using examples from the vacanas of tenth to twelfth century Indian mystics, many of whose poems are included in the book.

Whether Ted’s vacanas in the ‘Epilogue’ of Gaudete are structured in this way has not been explored, but they certainly have the direct simplicity and ‘Bhakti’ of the Indian vacanas.

Gaudete is described in detail in two letters included in the Letters of Ted Hughes: Hughes to Keith Sagar, 30 May 1977; Hughes to Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts, Sept./Oct. 1979. In neither of these letters does he mention his vacanas, although he does mention them briefly in a letter to Nick Gammage (LTH 15 Dec. 1992. Point 5).

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“Critics have argued that the body, and in particular the female body, suffers in the central narrative of Gaudete.  Did Hughes want to expose the controlling power of the patriarchal society over female consciousness?”

“And what does Lumb represent?”

There are certainly a lot of instances of the controlling power of the patriarchal society in Gaudete, and the ritually recreated Reverend Lumb subverts that.

To some extent, the role of women reflects the time in which Gaudete was written. It began as a film script in 1962–4. Although Womens’ Liberation was beginning to be a strong movement at that time, everyone would have recognised the society Hughes depicted and the way women were expected to behave. Under the influence of the reborn Lumb, the women in Gaudete rebel against that expectation. 

The Reverend Lumb, in the form in which he is reborn into the village, is a figure of sexual freedom, the Love Goddess’s representative there, but when he is put into a real life situation things understandably go wrong. 

As Keith Sagar notes (The Art of Ted Hughes, Cambridge UP, 1978,  p.197), in the society Hughes describes in Gaudete, “human life seems to be largely a series of devices to keep nature at bay. What undermines the safe cosiness from within is sex”, and “the wood–demon masquerading as Lumb” is able to “exploit the explosive combination of sex and religion”.

To understand some of the symbolism, you need to read about the rites of Attis (and also the rites associated with Mithras) and the connection between bull sacrifices and rebirth, nature and the Goddess. Lumb’s experiences of the bull sacrifice and his flaying and transformation whilst tied to the oak log, are linked to ritual sacrifice as described in Robert Graves’, The White Goddess (Faber, 1977. pp.125–6), and in Keith Sagar’s detailed analysis of Gaudete (The Art of Ted Hughes, pp.191–3).

Because Gaudete was originally written as a film script, it relies heavily on visual imagery and, to some extent, caricature. I  wrote about this visual aspect in my paper for the Ted Hughes Socety Journal, Vol. 4:

There are interesting pages about the Temple of Mithras which was unearthed in the City of London in 1952 and has now been recreated on its original site. You can read about it at and if you explore the site you will find more information about bull sacrifice and the worship of Mithras

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

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