Remains of Elmet

“…at the dead end of a wrong direction” (ROE.103)

Lumb Bank Mills

Between the first and the last poems of Remains of Elmet, Hughes traces the history of a society’s war with Nature and the sad misdirection of its energies.

In broad outline, this history is simply told. First, in a euphoric state of co–operation, the “great adventure” of farming the land began: Nature’s powers were pressed into service and “The stone rigging” of the ‘Hill Walls’ (R0E.30) sheeted the hills into place to work for men. The freedom and euphoria, however, were not to last. Fired with energy by their “Brave dreams” (ROE.14), men “conscripted” (ROE.37) and “Tamed”, ‘Wild Rock’ (ROE.40) to create mills where “bodies … came and went / Stayed in position, fixed like stones” and “became four–cornered, stony” (ROE.37). So began the loss of paradise, innocence and imagination, a process which was completed by the smothering “blackness” of the religion which rose on “Wesley’s foundation stone”, “blocking the moon” (ROE.82).

As the society’s spirit died, “arthritic stasis” (ROE.92) and disintegration set in. The few remaining farmers, resembling their “Rotten and shattered gear”, know that it is only a matter of time before Nature resumes her property: they wait (as Hughes’ ambiguously puts it) “for a goat to come up” (ROE.107) as if waiting for Pan. Eventually, all that remains of this society are the “lost jawbones of men / And lost fingerbones of women / … Darkening back to heather”(ROE.117). Light and wind and earth and rock are freed of human constraints and like a “soft animal of peace” from the “pre–dawn” of the world, the land “lies openly sunning / … Healing and sweetening”(ROE.114).

Hughes’ poetic history does not finish here, however, and what follows is more complex. In the aftermath of this society’s death comes resurrection. Firstly, the Logos, “The Word That Space Breathes”, moves through a world filled with exaltation and promise (ROE.117). Then, as a new dawn breaks over “the valley cauldron”, heralded by ‘Cock–Crows’ (ROE.121), Hughes’ dead rise from their graves to become “living feathers”, “a family of dark swans”, birds sacred to the Goddess and to Apollo, symbols of rebirth and healing unity. Reborn, these spirits “go beating low through storm–silver / Toward the Atlantic” (ROE.122) – flying in the Goddess’s silvery light towards the West, the direction associated in Greek and Celtic mythology with Paradise, and the direction also taken by the gigantic angel of Hughes’ dreams.

In Remains of Elmet, Hughes projects the history of Elmet beyond his own time. The old Calder Valley society was, as Hughes saw it, “virtually dead, and the population of the valleys and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, [was] changing rapidly” (ROE.Intro.). There had been no holocaust and no great natural resurgence, only slow disintegration and decay. The terrifying warning of Hughes’ angel/vision had been only partially fulfilled. So, Hughes harnessed the energies to provide a poetic/shamanic resolution to the prophecy and a reconciliation of Mankind with Nature. The spiritual reunion which he described is the natural conclusion to his theme of the elemental and alchemical ‘Mothers’, and it entails the ultimate release of light and soul from imprisonment in matter, and the return to the natural harmony and peace from which the journey began.

The journey itself, as Hughes’ poetic account of it shows, has been long and tortuous, and the imagery of division and war appears constantly in the Elmet poems. Often this is linked to the long and turbulent history of England, providing a time scale for the sequence which spans the known existence of people in this region. Such a use of historical perspective is a technique Hughes had employed before to convey the persistence of the natural world and the relative insignificance and brevity of Man’s existence in it (as in ‘October Dawn’ (THCP.37), for example). In Remains of Elmet, however, the historical perspective is used more extensively and with greater effect, so that the “guerrilla patience” (ROE.37) of Nature is seen constantly to undermine human endeavours, making Nature the inevitable victor in the struggle for control. Yet, the war is not only between Man and Nature, but also between the people themselves, and between the unreconciled parts of the human personality: the Dionysian and Apollonian energies, the spiritual and the physical needs.

All these conflicts have existed in Elmet since the time of the earliest inhabitants. The “Ancient Briton”, “The Mighty Hunter”, whose energy survives in the tribal memory of the Calder Valley people, like “A whorl in our ignorance” (ROE.84), built hill–forts in this area; and to facilitate worship, defence, contact and trade, people created a network of moorland tracks which later became the stone–paved ‘causeys’ featured in several of Fay Godwin’s photographs 1. Our ancestors also erected the standing stones such as the Bridestones (ROE.65), which remain as impressive evidence of the human struggle to deal with the inexplicable aspects of this world and with instinctive and spiritual needs.

Warfare played an inordinately large part in the lives of the Elmet people, and for centuries this deep, boggy, ditch in the moorlands was a hideout for rebels, robbers and dissenters. The British Celtic people who lived here were the Brigantes, whose fierce, unruly character gave meaning to the modem English word ‘brigand’, and from their time on “Long screams / Dark voices / Swift weapons” (ROE.26) were familiar to the people of this region. Here, were England’s

Badlands where outcast and outlaw
Fortified the hill–knowle’s long outlook

In the history, legends and myths of the Calder Valley, fighting and death figure large, and continually, it seems,

Wounded champions lurch out of sunset
To gurgle their last gleams into pot holes

This “Unending bleeding” (ROE.26), and these “lost rivers of men” (ROE.23), contribute to the desolation which imbues the present scene in Remains of Elmet. “Everywhere”, as in ‘Long Screams’ (ROE.26), there are “dead things for monuments of the dead”, like the distant church spire, symbol of a dead religion, glimpsed through the barbed wire in Fay Godwin’s photograph (ROE.27), a composition strongly reminiscent of wartime pictures of waterlogged trenches in Flanders.

In poetry and picture we glimpse the “rummaging of light at the end of the world”, and in this phrase, with characteristic economy and ambivalence, Hughes conveys the enormity and horror of a scene where light both rummages and is rummaged. Characteristically, too, Hughes’ final image in ‘Long Screams’ links a common local phenomenon with a metaphysical theme, and the curlew, whose plaintive, almost human, cry is heard in the North of England as an omen of death2, becomes a messenger between Earth and “the source of it all”, and a symbol of the desolate anguish of the land – the “mother” who created it. (ROE.26).

Evoking memories from his own past in a Radio 3 broadcast, Hughes recalled that “the depression and psychic horror of the first World War crawled around inside everybody like a pestilential secret and there were evil dreams of the war to come3. And he connected the decay of the Elmet society and its loss of spirit with this war–sickness, seeing “the throb of mills and the crying of lambs

Like shouting in Flanders
Muffled away
In white curls
And memorial knuckles

Human warfare, however, is a symptom, not a cause of the failure and disintegration of this society: and the divisions between people reflect a deeper division within them that stems from the alienation between their inner and outer worlds. The slavery of war, the daily slavery to the “sewing machine and shuttle”, the slavish allegiance to religious dogma, all make Hughes’ reference to “a generation of slaves” (ROE.13) particularly apt: all, too, grow from the ambitious pride which dominates the people’s lives and separates them from their natural roots.

In ’Hardcastle Crags‘ (ROE.13), Hughes develops the images of slavery and war to show the deep disharmony which exists between Mankind and Nature. The “silent valley” of the god, once a “hide–out of elation”, has become an echoing graveyard. Nature, here, like the red squirrel, is at “a branch–end of survival”, and the Taoist quotation with which the poem opens, coming from a system of belief founded on the harmonious balancing of natural energies, emphasises the disorder which prevail4. In Taoism, too, the god of the valley is Nature, “the mother of the myriad creatures5, the female principle through which Heaven and Earth are joined:

The spirit of the valley never dies.
This is called the mysterious female.
The gateway of the mysterious female
Is called the root of heaven and earth

In Elmet, however, disharmony with Nature has been such that the Calder Valley, as Hughes presents it in ‘First Mills’, is like a deserted battlefield on which a brave society has bled to death. It is a sodden, deserted “trench”, covered by a grey dome which the light scarcely penetrates:

A sky like an empty helmet
With a hole in it

Yet, in the final lines of the poem there is a hope of renewal. Using the extended metaphor of a human life–cycle – the cycle of growth and development, aging, death, and disintegration – Hughes contrasts the brevity of our own existence with the endurance of the Earth, and the death of the Elmet society becomes a small event in the “childhood of the earth”. After the brief period of mourning, the “two minutes silence”, life will continue. Once again, this is a death which presages rebirth: it is a return to the Earth, “the only future” (ROE.14), from which a new beginning may be made. Nature will eventually heal the divisions and the disorder that people have created, and, despite the pervasive imagery of war in Remains of Elmet, Hughes’ poems convey, also, the endurance and the regenerative power of Nature’s energies.

Paradoxically, the energies expended in human warfare are the very energies which might ensure human survival, and the results of war have not always been completely bad. The Viking invaders, who terrorised the Elmet area in the ninth and tenth centuries, eventually stayed on as settlers, and Hughes speaks of the mythology and religion of these Norsemen as being part of “our wealth”, part of “our instinct and ancestral memory7. Their influence is still reflected in West Yorkshire place–names and in the “gutturals of dialects” (‘Thistles’ (THCP.147)), and Hughes approves of the addition their Nordic strengths made to the genetic pool when

The longships got this far. Then
Anchored in nose and chin

It is these strengths which Hughes admired in Billy Holt, a well known, unconventional and fiercely independent personality from the Calder Valley8. The wry, gentle humour with which Hughes pokes fun at his taciturn, suspicious, strong–willed fellow Yorkshiremen in the poem ‘For Billy Holt’ (ROE.90), beautifully demonstrates his affection for both him and them.

The Viking influence, however, was only one factor involved in shaping the idiosyncratic character of the local people. Because, in Hughes’ scheme of things, everything is part of an organic whole, he sees the geology and climate of this area as also playing a fundamental role:

The weight of impressive nature has imprinted the people so deeply that they are characteristic – a geological and meteorological phenomena. This helps to explain their obsession with wrapping up well, hot food, keeping warm, cloth and clothing9.

This comment prefaced Hughes’ reading of ‘Wild Rock’ (ROE.40), a poem in which the people and their ideas and industry grow from the harsh environment and weather, and the wild, beautiful energies of nature are seen to be tamed and formalised, as in a Cranach painting. After the reading, Hughes went on to say

Elmet signifies not just a vaguely featured Nonconformist Celtic locale, but a naturally evolved organism. This showed up commonly in a bedrock, laconic perversity of character.

Such perversity of character has been these people’s weakness as well as their strength, for their determination, courage and independence have become pig–headed, stubborn narrowness. Imagination and spirit, of the kind which produced characters like Billy Holt and which once inspired these people and united them with a common purpose, have gone. Now,

the Calder Valley’s eruption into modern history when it earned such titles as ‘Cradle of the Chartist Movement’, ‘Cradle of the Industrial Revolution’, ‘Cradle of the splitting of the atom’ is … over. Geology and climate are reclaiming the primeval gorge.

So, with nothing to direct their energies, the children – “children / Of rock and water and a draughty absence / Of everything else” (ROE.38) turn to destruction, smashing and burning and toppling what remains of their parents’ achievements, before trailing away homeward aimlessly “Like the earliest / Homeless Norsemen”(ROE.38).

The destructive loss of spirit which these children personify is shown throughout Remains of Elmet as resulting from humanity’s continual struggle with its inner and outer worlds. It is a struggle which extends beyond Elmet, for Hughes sees us all as children of Nature who have become victims of our self–made materialistic world, and who turn to aimless destruction as our society crumbles. With the immature egotism of children we have struggled towards material goals, expending, like the people of Elmet, “huge labour”(ROE.14) on the task of bending Nature to our will, only to enslave ourselves in an industrial world which, ultimately, will destroy both itself and us. The title poem of the Elmet sequence describes this self–destruction in an extended metaphor of eating and digestion, and the Calder Valley is seen as a “long gullet” down which the corpse of Elmet vanished. It is a vivid picture of Nature which, like the Celtic goddess, Cerridwen, becomes “the Mourning Mother / Who eats her children” (ROE.44). But the fate of this society, and ours, is self–wrought:

Farms came, stony masticators
Of generations that ate each other
To nothing inside them.

The sunk mill–towns were cemeteries
Digesting utterly
All with whom they swelled

Finally, when the eating is done, all that is left to mark a society’s passing are “crumbling, loose molars / And empty sockets” – small defacements of Nature’s beauty.

So, despite “pioneer hopes” and dreams, the Elmet society reached “the dead end of a wrong direction” (ROE.103). Yet, it was not only the physical struggle with Nature which cramped the spirit, but also an internal struggle of the soul against the strictures of a religious dogma which progressively alienated the people from their spiritual roots. In respect of this religion, too, the struggle was largely self–imposed, since the strict codes of the Nonconformist churches were the choice of the people. Two poems, in particular, show the unhappy consequences of this choice – ‘Bridestones’ and ‘Mount Zion’.

In ‘Bridestones’ (ROE.64), Hughes creates an atmosphere in which closeness to Nature is felt as an integral part of Man’s spiritual and religious experience. There are two groups of Bridestones on the Yorkshire moors, both of which are associated with Stone–Age burial practices and with legends of ritual human sacrifice. In Hughes’ poem, the stones are the sacred place, the “Holy of Holies”, where the Earth itself is sacrificed in a ritual marriage, her “heart–stuff laid bare” to the “black exclamation mark of rock” which nails her down.

The short lines and frequent caesuras of the first two stanzas of the poem set the scene with a brevity which, along with Hughes’ careful choice of words and images, conveys an atmosphere of awe and tension in which “you do nothing casual’. In this setting, the use of the pronoun, ‘you’, makes humanity an integral part of the “congregation” of natural elements, and the permanent effect which this involvement has on us is emphasised by the repetitions of ‘you’ in the last three stanzas of the poem. Having once experienced the numinous through the mystical beauty and terrifying power of Nature, we can never completely ignore it: it is there in the elemental, physical and cosmic beauty which surrounds us, as if wreathing our shoulders; it is there in the life–governing power of the sun which controls our light and darkness, touching us with the shadow of these stones, just as their presence touches us with shadowy memories of our early ancestors; and it is there in the moonlight which we associate with magic, superstition, and the subconscious, allowing it to penetrate our skulls and rule our imagination just as it rules the Earth’s waters.

In the final lines of ‘Bridestones’, Hughes suggests the symbolism which these stones have for him, representing evidence of an early closeness with Nature that we have lost. Starkly silhouetted by moonlight on the crest of the moors, where they seem to marry sky and earth together, the Bridestones are like a spiritual “perch” (the word exactly indicates the precarious nature of the footing) from which Mankind has since fallen. Through the metaphor of ritual sacrifice in the poem, Hughes hints, also, at the undercurrent of pain and suffering which has accompanied the development of the religious impulse; yet he describes not a human sacrifice, but a sacrifice of Earth, as if it were here that the first false step was taken. “From now on” the sun touches humanity as if fingering our guilt, and “the moon stares into your skull” as if threatening madness.

Strict Nonconformist religions suited the character of the West Yorkshire people, but in choosing them they imprisoned themselves in a system which ultimately denied them the spiritual satisfaction they so badly needed. The “bottomless cry”, the deep instinct which drew them towards religion in a search for some lost, primitive fulfilment, was like a memory from childhood – like the call of the Ancient Briton of “nursery school history” whose image perturbed their repressed imaginations. The new beginning and the primitive closeness to Nature which “The Mighty Hunter” symbolises in this poem –

that waft from the cave
The dawn dew–chilling of emergence,
The hunting grounds untouched all around us

is the need which originally drew these people towards the church. But, although they still yearned for its satisfaction, still “dug for it” as if for archaeological remains, the instruments with which they chose to dig – the “Iron levers” of Wesley’s religion – were the wrong ones. “Labouring” within the confines of a system which distorted their view of the world and denied them imaginative freedom, they could only move further from their goal and “as we dug it waddled and squirmed deeper”.

The terrible irony of this situation is summed up in the title of ‘Mount Zion’ (ROE.82), for this was the Christian symbol (and in particular the symbol adopted by the Nonconformist churches) for the Kingdom of Heaven, signifying the attainment of spiritual union with God. But, as in Blake’s Jerusalem, humanity builds religions which are limiting and destructive to the spirit, and

Mount Zion is become a cruel rock & no more dew
Nor rain; no more the spring of the rock appears; but cold
Hard & obdurate are the furrows of the mountain of wine & oil:
The mountain of blessing is itself a curse & an astonishment.
(Jer. 79:4–7).

Physically and spiritually, Hughes shows his people as having misdirected their energies. His society, like Blake’s “Sleeping Humanity of Albion“(Jer.5:30), has fallen into the state of Ulro – the world of pure matter, error and illusion, “the nether region of the Imagination”(Mil.23:6). In ‘The Trance of Light’ (ROE.20), using lines which link the natural elements with images of spiritual ecstasy, Hughes writes of the people and the land

That fell asleep

Under the migraine of headscarves and clatter
Of clog–irons and looms
And gutter–water and clog–irons
And clog–irons and biblical texts

The almost total lack of punctuation in this poem conveys the inexorable progression of this fall. Hughes, like Blake, uses War, Industry and Religion to symbolise the forces of oppression. He draws his images from the daily life of the Calder Valley, just as Blake’s were drawn from the life he knew in England. Trampled by the clog–irons of the slogging mill workers, who were kept in bondage by the “wage–mirage sparkle of mills“ (ROE.70), oppressed by daily labour, and “cowed” by the “hard, foursquare scriptures” (ROE.56), light and spirit soon lay all but eclipsed. And, as the grip of industry and religion hardened, even the smallest sign of spirit was, like the cricket that “rigged up its music / In a crack of Mount Zion wall” (ROE.82), relentlessly opposed.

In the Ulro–like world of matter, error and illusion, which is the materialistic, every–day world depicted in Remains of Elmet, Hughes, like Blake, shows the creative imagination of the people being literally petrified in the walls and chimneys, mills and churches, which they build with self–destructive zeal. These are the physical expression of the immersion of light in matter; symbols of the imprisonment of imagination by materialism, and of the waste of creative energy. Building them,

Spines … wore into a bowed
Enslavement, the small freedom of raising
Endless memorials to the labour

Buried in them.

So, the imaginative faculty, the “crystal from space” through which the divine and mystical energies were received10, “Blackened and fell to pieces“ (ROE.118). The divine message, which, like the “song” of a great bird, once drew these people to its source, could no longer be received. ‘Mount Zion’ with its “terrified”, “mesmerised commissariat”, replaced the spiritual warmth of the early church; and the religious impulse, like the once great bird, died. Now, there are only crumbling ruins like those of ‘Heptonstall Old Church’ (ROE.119), and (as in ‘Crown Point Pensioners’ (ROE.89)) the “yarning”, the “indiginous memories”, and the “mesmerising music” of the old people singing of “a lost kingdom”, to remind us of a former glory.

Sadly, even the few “giddy moments” of glory which people did achieved through their industry Hughes shows, in ‘When Men Got To The Summit’ (ROE.56), to be fleeting and flawed. Having reached the pinnacle of their dreams, victory for these men was brief. Neither their spirit, their religion, not the fruits of their industry were proof against Nature’s “gentle” but persistent undermining of their position,

Nevertheless, for some giddy moments
A television
Blinked from the wolf’s lookout.

As well as being brief, this victory was hollow. In the imagery and rhythm of the final stanza of the poem, Hughes neatly and ironically qualifies the importance of the climactic moments. The phrase, “a television”, is given almost exclamatory emphasis by the line divisions which isolate it; and, as a symbol representing society’s ultimate achievement, it stands in stark contrast to the “giddy” emotions and the suggested domination of raw energy which is conveyed by Man’s capture of the “wolf’s lookout”. Hughes’ view of television as a destructive, emotionless, and energy–sapping product of the “Scientific Spirit”, is to be found in an earlier, at that time uncollected, poem, ‘TV On’ (THCP.192–4). There, he describes it as an “incinerating mouth”, a “drumming crematorium” which transforms everything, even his own dreams, into

a cinder substitute
An ashen simulacrum, a fossil of char,
Which was once the only world

This is our ‘simulacrum’, our substitute for the real world – a scientific wonder which largely replaces imagination and creativity. If what we see on television represents “the dream of our society”, then, Hughes told Egbert Faas in 1971, “we haven’t created a society but a hell11. Television is also a literal and metaphorical example, like photography, of the immersion of light in matter. So, in Remains of Elmet, the television which blinked, physically and temporally, from the wolf‘s lookout, is a powerful symbol of the misdirection of human energies, and an indication of the terribly flawed character of our achievements on our chosen path of materialism and science.

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

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