Remains of Elmet

“I swallowed an alarm clock” (ROE.120)

Mytholmroyd Canal

One further important aspect of Remains of Elmet has yet to be examined, and that is Hughes’ own participation in the sequence. Not only did he create the imaginative rituals of the poetry and manipulate the energies so as to effect healing and re–integration, but he specifically included himself in this process. In so doing, Hughes deliberately subjected himself to the energies and to the ritual of re–integration which he attempted. Figuratively and psychologically he returned to his formative years and re–lived the events and situations to which he was exposed, thus facilitating a healing catharsis.

In Remains of Elmet, for the first time since ‘Wodwo’ (THCP.183), Hughes also publicly and very personally examined the question ‘What am I?’. Up to this time, he had dealt with this problem in the general terms of its meaning for Mankind, and his adoption of the role of poet/shaman for our society had been mostly implicit. Only with the Cave Birds sequence did he state any kind of deliberate reforming intention, and even then it was couched in the indirect metaphorical form of the re–education of Socrates. In Remains of Elmet, however, Hughes examined, as Wodwo did, “roots / roots roots roots” (THCP.183) and, in the process of clarifying his feeling of being unique and different – his feeling that “I seem to have been given the freedom / of this place” – he made explicit his prophetic–visionary purpose. In this sequence, it is Hughes who finds his “Paradise” in the polluted Canal waters (ROE.74); Hughes for whom the leaping fish is “A seed / Of the wild god now flowering for me” (ROE.77); and Hughes whose flung stones allow the sunbeams to enter the “submarine twilight” of the valley (ROE.79). As in the visionary works of Blake, Ezekiel and John, he describes ‘The Call’ and the visions which have led him to write this prophetic, visionary sequence of poems.

Many of the concerns expressed in ‘Wodwo’ reappear in those Elmet poems which deal directly with Hughes’ own experiences, but the questing, tentative nature of the creature is gone. Now, Hughes knows his place in the world, knows his “shape”, and has found his identity. He no longer questions his compulsion to explore the natural world in his poetry; for, so to speak, “turning leaves over”, inspecting the “secret interior” of frogs, and for “picking bits of bark off this rotten stump”. He has discovered why “me and doing that have coincided very queerly” (THCP.183). The reflection of the real world which he sees when he enters the subconscious water–world of his imagination is still “very clear”, but he no longer hangs suspended “in mid–air” as did the wodwo. In the interval of years between writing ‘Wodwo’’ and the Elmet sequence, and, in particular, by working through the carefully controlled rituals of Cave Birds, Hughes had learned the art of shamanic flight.

He had learned to fly to the source in order to return with “something badly needed, a cure, an answer, some sort of divine intervention in the community’s affairs” (UU.206). He had learned, too, the skill of using poems like primitive song , which he had once described as “power–charms, tools and practical agents in the business of gaining desired ends” (WP.34).

Most importantly, he achieved something he once described as essential for poetic development, the ability to move

inwards into imagination and beyond that into spirit, using perhaps no more external material than before and maybe even less, but deepening it and making it operate in the many different inner dimensions until it opens up perhaps the religious or holy basis of the whole thing UU.204).

For Hughes, as for Wodwo, it was the attraction of water which drew him into the other–world of the imagination and the subconscious energies – the water which in Hughes’ home valley was present as the polluted Calder and the stagnant “gleam–black”, serpentine Canal.The traditional world–wide mythological and folkloric association of rivers and serpents with natural life–forces and with the spirit world, makes these polluted waters of the Calder Valley potently symbolic. But Hughes’ use of this symbolism is characteristically founded in an imaginative evocation of reality which is given visual support by Fay Godwin’s photographs on pages 72–78 that show the mirror–like surface of the water and the “upside down” (THCP.183) world of Hughes and his wodwo very clearly.

Since childhood, Hughes’ imagination had drawn him, like Alice, through the “heavy mirror”(ROE.76) of the water’s surface into another, magical world – the “Drowning Black” (ROE.74) underworld of the canal. There, Nature’s life–energies flourish as they have since life began, breeding strange monsters – loach like “wild leopards – among bleached–depth fungus” (ROE.74) – in a “Paradise” through which, it seems, Hughes began his journey from innocence to experience.

‘The Canal’s Drowning Black‘ (ROE.74) re–creates the powerful sense of other–worldness and fascination which Hughes felt as a schoolboy when he “teetered on the slime–brink” of the canal “peeping” into the depths. Through his description of the “Torpid, ginger–bearded, secretive” loach, he conveys the slow, silent, ageless homogeneity of the drowned world. He sees the tiny watching eyes of the fish, and their anemone–beards fowering “all down the sunken cliff”; and he sees how their slow, snake–like movements flow with the water. By contrast, the boy’s world is harsh, ugly and sick,

Blackened with the acid rain fall–out
From Manchester’s rotten lung

And it is overshadowed, literally and metaphorically, by the “deadfall” (ROE.82) of the Methodist church. With a Blake–like reversal of values, this Christian edifice is seen, like a figure in a Black Mass, as a “cowled, Satanic Majesty” which oversees Hughes’ disastrous, childish attempt to bring some of this underwater life into his own dying world in “a two pound jam–jar”. But the “paled new moons” of the fish, which should, symbolically, have heralded new growth and fertility in the child’s world, “failed”; and as Hughes lobs the dead fish back into the canal he throws each of them “high through the air” as if desperately attempting to hang them in his own world’s sky.

Underlying this vivid childhood scene, the suggestion of temptation in Paradise and the subsequent fall from innocence is very strong. The boy teeters on the slippery edge of the canal, fascinated by his own god–like power to make the fishy anemone–beards flower with the stamp of his foot. He is fascinated too, by the eyes which make him the centre of attention by watching his every move; and by the conflict between his knowledge and his imagination, which makes the sinuous creatures in the black depths below him seem “Five inches huge!”. Eventually, overcome by his desires, he succumbs to temptation and uses his superior power and knowledge to coax these primitive creatures into his home-made, “kitchen curtain”, net, and, so, into his world. There is, however, no sense of sin involved. The child’s actions are linked in the poem’s imagery with the naive, mischievous tricks of the Chinese Monkey–god1, and the death of the fish serves to demonstrate to him the enormous difficulty of trying to move between the two worlds. These fish, too, with their “little cupid mouths”, are emissaries of the Goddess, sent, like Cupid himself, to teach the child the power of desire, the foolishness of pride, and the need for patience and control. The final ritual of tossing the “pouting, failed, paled new moons” of the loach “one by one / Back into their Paradise and mine”, suggests Hughes’ acknowledgment of the Goddess’s power and his wry acceptance of this lesson.

Whatever Hughes learned from this childhood experience, his belief that fish and their watery world connected him directly with the realm of Nature, and with his own subconscious energies, remained very strong. And, just as the cupid–lipped loach in ‘The Canal’s Drowning Black’ aroused his desire, so the first large trout that he ever saw had special meaning for him. ‘The Long Tunnel Ceiling’ (ROE.76) describes this first encounter; and, introducing the poem in a BBC Home Service, Schools, broadcast on June 16, 1965, Hughes spoke of the Trout as “the authentic aboriginal in that polluted valley” of the Calder, and “the holiest creature out there in its free unspoiled sacred world”. Explaining these views, he said:

I was too young to capture small ones in hillside streams so trout came to have magical meaning for me which I never managed to get over.

Consequently, the trout which leapt so suddenly into his dark “cavern of air and water” under the busy canal bridge seemed god–like and sacred – “An ingot! / Holy of holies! A treasure!” – a “seed of the wild god now flowering” just for him.

Erupting from the black mirror–world of the “dark loach” into Hughes’ noisy “cavern of air and water” beneath the main road, this great trout briefly shattered the interface between Hughes’ real and imaginary worlds, just as it broke the circle made by the bridge arch and its reflection. The poem’s imagery captures the cataclysmic breaking and re–making of Hughes’ trembling tunnel; and the strange confusions which occur with reflections, so that the canal waters appear ”cradled“ in the imaged ceiling and a rising trout appears as a falling brick. It captures, too, the careless beauty of the great fish, a “free lord” of these two worlds; and the shock, amazement and awe of the boy, whose imagination is fired with visions of the trout’s moorland home and the “shake–up of heaven and the hills” which has brought this “tigerish, dark, breathing lily” to him.

Ultimately, in the poem, the trout becomes a symbol of Nature’s universal energies, which Hughes sees waiting, almost hidden, “between the tyres, under the tortured axles” of the industrial world of Elmet, to redress the disturbed natural balance; a warning of the power which the “wild god” has, to bring the structures of this world crashing down like a collapsing bridge; an intimation of the coming apocalypse which the boy thought “at last … had started”. Above all, for Hughes, the trout represents a creature which has the ability to move at will between worlds and, like a shaman’s animal guides, to take him imaginatively with it. His apprehension that this ‘holiest’ of the creatures of Nature’s unspoiled, ‘sacred’ world appeared especially for him, reinforces this and indicates, also, the source of Hughes’ belief that he had a special role to play in our society.

Because of these early experiences, fishing, like poetry, was Hughes’ lifelong passion, and he acknowledged the connection between these two activities to be very close. In that same BBC broadcast in 1965, Hughes described both poetry and fishing as the “pursuit of something hidden”. Fishing, he said, “satisfies a need and arouses a passion”, giving expression to “feelings, instincts and energies” which civilisation has “bottled up”: the “pursuit of poems” serves a similar purpose. Both activities are rituals which deal directly with the natural energies and, as such, he believed that both contain an “element of danger”. Hughes’ feelings when dealing with these energies are expressed most strongly in his poems about fish and fishing, especially in River. He evokes the tense hunting atmosphere in which “the hunter is also the hunted”(BBC 1965); and he conveys his fear of the primitive “Darkness beneath night”s darkness” (‘Pike’, THCP.84–6) in the unknown depths of water and the mind, and his sense of entering another, very different, world2.

Go fishing / Join water, wade in underbeing” (R.42) he writes in River, where his entry and return from the elemental other–world has become most accomplished but no less fraught with danger. The waters he fishes hide terrifying monsters, “Killers from the egg” (‘Pike’); he is “hunted / and haunted by apparitions from tombs” (‘Earth–Numb’ (THCP.541); and the river itself is “Alive and malevolent” (‘Stealing Trout on a May Morning’ (THCP.137)), roping his ankles like “a drowned woman” and rushing “headlong” past him like a routed army, “Mixed with planets, electrical storms and darkness” which tear “the spirits from my mind’s edge and from under”. At times, too, the river is “evil”, a “grave” where “The strange evil / Of unknown fish–minds” lies in wait for him (R.76;62). These fish which lurk beneath the “smoothing tons of dead element” are one with it, so that when one bites “the river grabs at me … stiffens alive ... the whole river hauls” and the struggle between Man and fish becomes a struggle with the elements:

Something terrified and terrifying
Gleam–surges to and fro through me
From the river to the sky, from the sky into the river
Uprooting dark bedrock, shatters it in air,
Cartwheels across me, slices thudding through me
As if I were the current –
‘Earth–Numb’ (THCP.541).

Having faced and overcome the fears and dangers of the elemental struggle, Hughes, momentarily, becomes part of the timeless elemental world. This change brings new insights and new perspectives: so, in ‘Stealing Trout on a May Morning‘, when just such a translocation occurs, the fisherman looks back on himself and his world and sees both fixed in time like a scene “in a painting”.

Always, in his encounter with the elements, the reward Hughes seeks is renewal: a shamanic, alchemical, re–creation such as occurs in ‘Go Fishing’ (R.42). There, the poem is both descriptive and directive: “Go fishing”, Hughes tells us, “Join water, wade into underbeing”. We, like Hughes, must enter the timeless water–world, be “assumed into the womb”, healed, “supplanted by mud and leaves and pebbles”, “dissolved”, “dismembered”, and made part of the cosmic flux – “everything circling and flowing and hover–still”. Thus, we may be re–born “new and nameless” into the urgent world of “time” and “people”. Again, in this process, the human form is exchanged for that of fish – is supplanted

By sudden rainbow monster–structures
That materialise in suspension gulping
And dematerialise under pressure of the eye.
’River‘ (R.42)

Initially, Hughes‘ boyhood fascination with the underwater realm, and his imaginative excursions into this elemental world, concerned only himself. Describing these experiences in Remains of Elmet, Hughes makes us aware of the boy‘s feeling that he has a special relationship with Nature. Yet, in the first of these poems – ‘The Canal’s Drowning Black’, ‘The Long Tunnel Ceiling’, and ‘Under the World’s Wild Rims‘ – there is no suggestion that he was aware of any implications in this for society in general. Only in the broader context of the poetic sequence, and from the perspective of the mature poet, do the boy’s actions and feelings have special significance and suggest that Hughes found the source of his visionary, prophetic, shamanic role in those early events. The beautiful poem, ‘Two’, is the first to openly suggest Hughes’ shamanic identity, but it does so only to describe the failure of his powers when his older brother, “the guide” and hero of his childhood, left home to join the wartime Royal Air Force. Such was the impact of this separation on Hughes that the shamanic

feather fell from his head.
The drum stopped in his hand.
The song died in his mouth.
‘Two’ (ROE.80)

‘Two’ is one of the most powerful and evocative poems in the Elmet sequence, but without information concerning the events from which it sprang its inclusion in the sequence can be puzzling. Answering my queries about it, Hughes wrote:

‘Two’ is simply about my brother and myself. He was ten years older than me and made my early life a kind of paradise …(sic) which was ended abruptly by the war. He joined the RAF, and after the war he came to Australia, where he still lives. The closing of Paradise is a big event … (Letter, 10 Nov. 1982).

Certainly, the images of the poem depict a paradise on Earth, a paradise overflowing with light, colour and beauty. But there are mythological allusions, too, which belie Hughes’ claim that the poem is ‘simply’ about himself and his brother. The world we are shown is a world held in the “cupped hand” of the Dawn–Goddess, Eos; and the two figures step into it like her twin star–god sons, Hesperus and Phosphorus, who are also Venus and Jupiter who “year in and year out / Contend for the crown / Of morning star and of evening star” (R.118).

In classical mythology, Hesperus, the Morning Star, is the Star of Life; and Phosphorus (Lucifer) is the Evening Star which leads in the Moon. Between these twin aspects of the Star–son, a perpetual war is waged for the favour of the Moon–Goddess. Discussing this myth in The White Goddess, Robert Graves cites a number of different versions, including a Celtic one in which Gwythyr, Son of Greidyawl (Son of Scorcher), and his rival Gwyn, “fight every May Day until the Judgment” for Creiddylad, daughter of Ludd Llaw Ereint (Silver Hand) (WG.387–9). So, the “scorched talons of crows”, which Hughes’ two star–beings brought when they “dropped” like birds “from the woods that hung in the sky”, may well link them with Gwythyr and Gwyn. Similarly, the image may suggest other paired and warring Celtic heroes, for the crow, like its relative the raven, is the oracular bird of many Celtic gods and goddesses, including the hag, Cerridwen, and Bran, the God of England.

The heavenly origin of Hughes’ two beings is suggested in the poem by the way “the sun poured out of their feet” and the “streams spoke oracles of abundance” at their coming. But there is ambiguity as to the ownership of the “scorched talons” and the description also fits the black, leathery, wrinkled feet of real crows, such as those which Hughes, acting “as a retriever” of the birds and animals shot by his older brother on the moors, must frequently have handled (PIM.16). So, merged with the mythological allusions, there is a realistic picture of two poachers stepping from a wooded skyline down the dewy dawn–lit hillside carrying the “swinging bodies of hares”, “stolen grouse” and snipe in their hands. Paralleling this interweaving of myth and reality in the poem, the deserted, worn, stone steps leading to and from the sky in Fay Godwin’s accompanying photograph allow us the imaginative freedom to fill them with the images prompted by the poem.

If the events of ‘Two’ describe, as Hughes said, “the closing of Paradise” for him, then his choice of ‘Mount Zion’ as the poem which immediately follows ‘Two’ in the sequence indicates something of the nature of the war which now “opened” in his life. It was a war against the all–pervasive influence of this ‘cowled, Satanic Majesty” which overshadowed the valley, threatening to destroy all imagination and joy; a war between the inner and outer worlds of Mankind, of which the World War which took his brother from him was but an extension. This is the lifelong conflict which Hughes sought to end, not only for himself but for society too, trying, through his poetry, to counteract the growing sterility.

Fortunately, Hughes’ shamanic powers did not die. As experience replaced innocence and “life grew more complicated” (PIM.16), Hughes began to channel his hunting instincts into writing poetry. At first he did not recognise that this was happening. Describing these changes in his early life in Poetry in the Making, he wrote:

It was years before I wrote what you could call an animal poem and several more years before it occurred to me that my writing poems might be partly a continuation of my earlier pursuit. Now I have no doubt (PIM.7).

As Hughes’ certainty about this strengthened, he came to see the hunting of poems not only as a way of immersing himself in Natures energies, but also as means by which more of such healing energies might be returned to the world. He was convinced, too, of the power of the imaginative arts to both destroy and heal. Throughout his working life he presented these views many times: in particular, his discussion of Crow with Egbert Faas in 1971 (UU.197–208); his two essays on ‘Myth and Education’ (WP.136–1533); and his ‘Panegyric and Ode: The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly’ (WP.84–102), express them forcefully.

In Remains of Elmet, Hughes’ beliefs, and his poetic hunting skills, were sufficiently developed to enable him to use the imaginative energies to re–create his childhood experiences, whilst, at the same time, he suggested their significance in relation to his present healing and energising purposes. So, we become aware of the mature poet’s idea that the first magical appearance of the Trout in his childhood world had the extraordinary, personal significance of a sign from the “wild god” of his future role. Similarly, the flung stones of childhood vandalism, described in ‘Under The World’s Wild Rims’ (ROE.79), become the first acts of Hughes’ continuing collaboration with Nature in the attempt to enlighten this “worn–out”, twilight world.

It is a measure of Hughes’ skill that such retrospective interpretations of his early feelings and actions did not interfere with his ability to re–create his initial spontaneity. In ‘Under the World’s Wild Rims’, for example, we share the boy’s impressions of the weird, “desecrated”, dust–filled landscape through which he walks to school. Compared to the world’s ‘wild rims’, this was a strange world, deathly and unnatural, strewn with “steel objects” that seemed “magical” and “futuristic” in their unfamiliarity, and leaking a “warm horror”, so that it both repelled and fascinated him. Instinctively the boy responded to these conflicting emotions with a campaign of stealthy and pleasurable destruction, smashing, “one by one”, the regimented, guardian rows of “glass skylights” that seemed to watch him.

That the resulting benefits to Nature were not, at the time, intended, is made plain in the text, where it is clearly the destructive power of “five hundred stones” which gave the boy his “purpose”. In the final stanza, however, the boy’s purpose and the skylights which prompted it are both linked with the results, and the whole movement of the poem culminates in the fertile image of sun on flowers. Thus, Hughes suggests his retrospective appreciation of the subconscious workings of Nature within the boy. And, by paralleling the boy’s destructive actions with those of horned vandal–warriors, an image by which he characterises the infiltrating weeds, he reiterates his adult views on the inevitable and destructive resurgence of suppressed energies.

Hughes, as a boy, responded to Nature’s promptings and became the wild god’s unwitting tool. Writing this poem as a mature poet, he deliberately took up Nature’s cause; and substituting imagination for stones, he attempted to break through the rational structures that we erect, like the “green skylights” of those Calder Valley factories, to guard our precarious state of order and darkness from any disruptive beams of energy from the Source.

Unlike the biblical closing of Paradise, the passage from innocence to experience is gradual. In Remains of Elmet, Hughes does not detail his journey to maturity, that is not his purpose; but he does include the significant factors which shaped his role of visionary prophet and shaman. So, in the poems that follow ‘Two’, we find that the terrifying, pervasive influence of chapel religion on the “Jibbing” (ROE.82) boy is tempered by the love and pride inspired in him by the old people of the valley, by the land itself, and by the example of the Brontes (Emily in particular) who had shared his love of the “dark Paradise” (ROE.96) of Nature.

The old people of ‘Crown Point Pensioners’ (ROE.89) and fiercely independent Yorkshiremen like Billy Holt, are, like Hughes’ uncle in the dedicatory poem of the series his people … his “roots” (ROE.7). In their memories … their “yarning” … as in the “archaeology of the mouth” which Hughes‘ uncle brought him, there lies “the prize of a lifetime”: a “last inheritance” which hangs on the fragility of breath as air is “hijacked in the larynx / To fly a dream” (ROE.7) and “vowels furl downwind, on air like silk” (ROE.89). Hughes is painfully aware that “any moment now” the “frayed, fraying hair–fineness” of this thread may break and their song will be gone (ROE.7).

Meanwhile, “what has escaped the demolisher” are the “indigenous memories”, the last fragments of the “dreams” of the old world. These memories are the inheritance which is “furthered” in the throats of the old people. But although they are “attuned to each other like the strings of a harp” their yarning comes from “inside their masks” as if from “puppets”. With this curious image, and by the metaphor of harping musicians singing “of a lost kingdom”, Hughes seems to convey a vision of court minstrels – those, perhaps, whom Robert Graves called “gleemen” and who unknowingly transmitted fragments of ancient bardic lore in their music (WG.17–26). Listening to the “mesmerising music” made by the old people, Hughes is stirred (as they are) by the “wild melody, wilful improvisation”, and he hears “the authentic tones / The reverberations” of ancestors who drew their energy from the land around them. Hughes’ own attunement to the ancient music is apparent in the rhythms and mood of his poetry, through which he conveys with tenderness and pride the beauty of these old people, “each one bowed at his dried bony profile, as at a harp” (ROE.89).

Matching his music to his subject, Hughes makes ‘For Billy Holt’ (ROE.90) a taciturn but humorous portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of his people – their stoic, self–sufficient endurance in their unwelcoming “graveyard… / homeland”; their “poverty that cut rock–lumps for words”; and their “far veiled gaze of quietly / Homicidal appraisal”. Fay Godwin’s photograph opposite this poem shows two elderly, amiable–looking, friends chatting over a pint of ale, and a grim–looking man seemingly appraising the photographer. Elizabeth Gaskell, writing of the people of the West Riding of Yorkshire (Elmet) in 1919, described their “strong sagacity and the dogged power of will which seem almost a birthright”. She wrote that “their accost is curt, their accent and tone of speech blunt and harsh” and that although they have “a quick perception of character and a keen sense of humour”, “dwellers among them must be prepared for certain uncomplimentary, though most likely true, observations, pithily expressed”. They have, she wrote “an air of independence rather apt to repel strangers”, and she attributes their character, as does Hughes, to their Norse ancestry 4.

‘Heptonstall’ (ROE.92) is Hughes’ lament for all these old people and their aged disintegrating world.

Through these elders, through his attunement to the raw elemental freedom of the moors, and through his affinity with those, like the Brontes, who shared his passions, Hughes first learned to listen and respond to the music within himself which connected him with his roots and with Nature. By these means, he counteracted the destructive aspects of his early environment. Unlike the puppet singers, however, Hughes became aware of his ability to hear and transmit this music; and, alerted by his visions and by watching the death throes of the Calder Valley, he came to believe in its importance to Mankind, and of the dangers of seeking to repress this valuable link with the energies of the Source.

In his work, Hughes constantly explored these beliefs and expressed them with growing conviction, seeking to enlighten others to the ‘truths’ he apprehended. In ‘Tick Tock Tick Tock’ (ROE.120), he looked back on his earlier life from the standpoint of the mature poet and saw himself as the crocodile in Peter Pan which had swallowed an alarm-clock5 – a primitive creature, embodying the natural energies and carrying the message of time and change to the nescient ‘children’ of the Calder Valley.

The ticking of the clock moves relentlessly through the poem like the crocodile, portending danger and disaster: but an “everlasting” “summer” of childhood pervades the Calder Valley, making it, like Peter Pan’s Neverland, a place where no–one ever grows up. Earlier in the Elmet sequence, Hughes has suggested the blindness of the people, the misdirection of their energies and their child–like capacity for play: now, he brings all these qualities together in the conceit of the school playground and the story of Peter Pan. There is no need to posit an actual childhood game to explain this conceit, as Scigaj does in his discussion of this poem; and there has been no such game commonly played by English children6, although the story of Peter Pan was familiar to most children of Hughes’ generation through a tradition of Christmas performances. In the light of the rest of the sequence, the macadamed playground across which Hughes crawled as the crocodile can be seen as the Calder Valley itself, in which the primitive energies have existed “from prehistory” : and the “school” is the school of life7.

Set against the relentless passage of time, Remains of Elmet has shown us, already, a world of human foolishness; an unenlightened world of ‘imbecile innocence’ (to borrow an apt phrase from Cave Birds), which “incinerates itself happily / From a hundred mill chimneys”(ROE.120). These people of Elmet, like Blake’s sleepers of Ulro, have enslaved themselves so thoroughly to the demands of war, materialism and false religion that they are unaware of any reality beyond their daily lives: and even in these they are deluded. Hughes has shown us the reality of their lives – the harsh environment, the slavery, the decay – but, to them, summer seems to follow summer in endless procession, and the land and the old people seem, as they often do to children, “unalterable”. Red Admiral Butterfly Only the wings of the butterflies (which in folklore are believed to be souls and are associated with witches, priestesses of the Goddess), beating like “pulsing wounds” around them, suggest some underlying horror.

Unlike those who “acted” Peter Pan (the word suggests the falsity of their role), Hughes, because of the different perspectives his closeness to Nature offered him, saw another reality: he saw the impending apocalypse, and sought to warn his people of it. But, because he embodied some of the energies these people had been taught to fear and suppress, he seemed dangerous and threatening. So, the image of Peter Pan’s crocodile, with its embodiment of primitive energies, the rhythmical warning it carried to those whom it approached, and its aura of danger, perfectly describes Hughes’ situation from both his own perspective and theirs. It should be noted, too, that the reaction of the Neverland inhabitants to the crocodile, is remarkably similar to that of some of Hughes’ critics and readers to the seemingly dangerous ‘violence’ of his poetry.

The interpretation of ‘Tick Tock Tick Tock’ that I have given here differs markedly from the psychological analysis offered by Scigaj, who believes the poem to be Hughes’ attempt to “redeem and transcend” his own “exploitative attitude towards the environment8. In order to support such a view, Scigaj requires of Hughes a tortuous double–blind game in which, although in the poem he plainly declares that he was the crocodile which “swallowed an alarm clock” and that “somebody else acted Peter Pan”, he was, in fact, Peter pretending to be the crocodile (by mimicking the clock’s tick) in order to confront his own darkness, personified in the story by Captain Hook. Scigaj’s analysis requires us to believe that Hughes identified with the destructive elements at work in the Calder Valley and felt some personal guilt for its fate, something which is nowhere apparent in this sequence. It also equates “the ageless realm of Neverland” with “the Sacred”. Such an identification is difficult to support from the text, where the imagery of profane time (the tick of the clock, the “pendulum’, the recurrent seasons) establishes the connection between Peter Pan, the valley and the school playground, and where we are told that it was the “everlasting play” of the people that caused the pollution and death.

Nor does Scigaj’s interpretation take account of the position of the poem in the Remains of Elmet sequence, where it is carefully placed so that the slow build–up of tension within it, culminating in a powerful symbol of primitive and predatory natural energy, prepares us for the apocalyptic climax described in ‘Cock–Crows’ (ROE.121), which immediately follows.

‘Tick Tock Tick Tock’, in the synchronic way of this poetic sequence, reiterates the events which have led to this apocalypse, but it also conveys Hughes’ interpretation of his own prophetic and shamanic role. As elsewhere in Remains of Elmet, the implications of this poem have a scope which extends beyond the confines of the Calder Valley to embrace us all, for Hughes’ warning of impending disaster is brought to us, too. He has repeatedly warned us of our errors which, like those of the people of Elmet, are of arrogance and blindness, “braggart–browed complacency” (‘Egghead’ (THCP.33)), and of refusal and suppression of the natural energies. With the inevitability with which the ticking clock of Peter Pan’s crocodile marks the approach of danger, these errors will (Hughes believed) lead us to disaster.

In Remains of Elmet Hughes’ warnings are repeated most strongly. He uses this poetic and photographic re–creation of the fate of the Calder Valley not only as an example, but also as a powerful imaginative tool with which to stimulate us to awareness. At the same time, by describing for us certain events of his childhood, he, as it were, establishes his credentials for this task. Hughes, however, was not merely a prophet of doom. In adopting the persona of the crocodile, Hughes shared the destructive and creative energies associated with this animal in mythology and folklore where, like its relatives the serpents and dragons, it is a symbol of fecundity and power. The crocodile is linked, too, with Leviathan who is “king over all the children of pride” (Job. XL1:34) and, symbolically, with foresight and knowledge. And the old belief that crocodile eggs were magically hatched from the river mud by the power of the sun associates the beast with the natural alchemical power by means of which water, earth and sun are joined in the processes of creation.

Thus, with typical care and precision, Hughes chose as a symbol of his own role a creature which represents the powers of the Goddess here on Earth. Being amphibious, it moves with shamanic ease between water and land, linking the two worlds to which we belong – the watery world from which we came in prehistoric times and which also (for Hughes) represented the unconscious energies and our present land–based, reason–dominated world. Because of such shamanic powers, Hughes‘ prophecies of disaster are not untempered with hope. In his role of poet/shaman/alchemist, he not only poetically transforms the death of the Calder Valley society into a spiritual re–birth (‘Heptonstall Cemetery’ (ROE.122)), he also brings to us some transforming imaginative energies which might allow us to attain our own enlightenment and spiritual release.

Such enlightenment, however, as shown in Cave Birds and in the final poem of Remains of Elmet, will only be achieved when we recognise and accept our participation in the world of Nature and our equality with all other living things in this respect; when we examine our roots (as Hughes did) and finally understand that for true knowledge our senses must be opened to the world around us.

In the reality of our world, in the eternal cycles of Nature where finite and infinite combine, lies the truth. And the truth is, as Hughes’ book What Is The Truth? so beautifully explains, that God, the supreme expression of the spirit, is in every living thing: that, in Blake’s words, “every thing that lives is Holy” (MHH.27:chorus). So, as he constantly did in all his work, and particularly in Remains of Elmet, Hughes brings us back to the physical world in order to show us the Universal Energies of Nature at the source of everything, and to demonstrate the impossibility of existence without them. Beneath our feet, “joined with earth and engraved in rock” (ROE.125), lie the lessons of our mother – Nature.


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

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