Remains of Elmet

“The fallen sun…” (ROE.23)

Elmet Cover

The major work which closely followed Cave Birds and Gaudete in publication was Remains of Elmet. It was the third long sequence of Hughes’ poems to be published by Faber and Faber between 1977 and 1979 and although Hughes first suggested the Elmet project to Fay Godwin in 1970 and she took some photographs of the area, it was not until 1976 that the book was seriously discussed (Letters 378–80). Only in 1977 did the first of the Elmet poems began to appear in print1. It seems likely, therefore, that the whole Elmet sequence was written within this short three year period and subsequent to Cave Birds and Gaudete.

Certainly, the fruits of Hughes’ experience in weaving together several complex themes in a single dramatic and imaginative work could be seen in the balance and unity of this new sequence. The degree to which wholeness and integration were achieved, however, was not only responsible for the favourable public reaction to these poems but also, paradoxically, led even those most aware of Hughes’ ideas and intentions to regard the sequence as little more than a remarkably fine collection of his poems. Few were consciously aware of the deeper thematic aspects which effectively demonstrated Hughes’ increasing ability to express and implement his beliefs and purposes through his work. Few, therefore, saw the importance of this sequence in the further development of his poetic endeavours.

Far from being a criticism of Remains of Elmet, however, this indicates the great skill with which Hughes was now able to use the tools at his disposal in order to make myth, ritual, music and drama such an integral part of his work that they are almost inseparable from it. No longer, in Remains of Elmet, is myth or ritual an easily recognisable framework dictating the basic pattern and momentum of the sequence (as Alchemy did in Cave Birds); it is as integral to each poem as it is to the whole cycle of the sequence. In addition, the focus of Hughes’ attention has moved from the world of imaginative fantasy to our familiar everyday world. In Remains of Elmet he delights in the actual, the world of nature, grounding his imagery in the real and the experienced and using his imagination in such a way that we are made aware of our own shortcomings and of the destructive/creative powers (the mana) of Nature which surround us. Nature, in this sequence, is no longer a dark, threatening and largely unknown power but an ever present force, the workings of which are constantly visible in our world.

Critical reaction to Remains of Elmet when it was published was muted in comparison with the excesses to which some reviewers had been prompted by Hughes’ earlier work. Some who were habitually roused to aggression by Hughes’ poetry accused him, yet again, of violence and “primal drum–thumping2, but the tone of the Elmet sequence was sufficiently different to cause even Hughes’ most determined critics to change their complaints. Instead of violence, they accused him of writing poems “neither dynamic nor absolute” but “melodramatic3; and of being “perverse and inverted to a point of indulgent nastiness” whilst, at the same time, repelling the critic by his “extreme ordinariness of language4.

In general, however, Remains of Elmet impressed its reviewers with its power to evoke the bleak, rugged and haunting beauty of the Calder Valley. Fay Godwin’s photographs were universally praised, and Hughes’ poems were variously described as “the most restrained, beautiful and unobtrusively effective poems5, “his most approachable volume” for a long time6; and “Landscape poetry7. Few reviewers regarded the sequence as much more than Hughes’ nostalgic reaction to Fay Godwin’s photographs. Only one discerned any connecting thread linking the poems, beyond their common concern with the Calder Valley. Even Gifford and Roberts characterise Remains of Elmet as “a social history [written] as a natural history”, although they did believe that in this book Hughes was “writing at the height of his powers” and they remark on the frequency with which he achieved “complete unity between the vision of the poem and its language” (G/R 239, 249).

Hughes, himself, said in a BBC Radio 3 broadcast that he did not want “to write a history” (BBC 3 May 1980); but, apart from that, he did nothing to expand these views of his Elmet sequence, claiming only that Godwin’s photographs “moved me to write the accompanying poems” (ROE. Introduction). Similarly, in his note in Selected Poems 1957–81, he described the poems as “texts to accompany photographs, by Fay Godwin, of the Calder Valley and environs in West Yorkshire, where I spent my early years, and where I have lived occasionally since” (SP.238).

True as this may have been, a close examination of the sequence suggests that this is not the whole story; and it is as well to recall Sylvia Plath’s warning to her mother not to take Hughes’ explanations too seriously. Referring to one of Hughes’ early plays she wrote:

He is so critical of the play … that he needs to invent elaborate disguises as a smokescreen for it (Letters Home 16 Dec. 1960).

More frequently, it seems that Hughes provided a simple explanation for his work which masked its real complexity, exactly as he did in the programme notes for the Ilkley Festival performance of Cave Birds.

Remains of Elmet, in fact, is far less simple than Hughes’ published statements about it would have us believe. There is a metaphysical aspect to it which has been almost overlooked; and, as in Cave Birds, it has a transforming alchemical purpose. It also displays as many congruencies of thought and belief between Hughes and Blake as were evident in Cave Birds. It is a sequence not only by virtue of the poems’ common geographical location, but also because of a consistent underlying cosmology and because it represents, as reviewer Richard Murphy perceptively realised at the time of its publication, Hughes’ attempt to “re–sacralise” the world through poetry8.

Murphy, despite the fact that he was not wholly enamoured of the Elmet sequence, made several acute observations. Seeing Hughes in the role of prophet and mythmaker, he wrote: “Hughes marshals forces of metaphor, myth and prophecy to reconquer his populous northern territory, and hand it back to nature”. Yet, as the Elmet poems make clear, Nature would regain her territory without Hughes’ help, and Murphy describes the situation more accurately when he writes: “Now the puritan god has died, and the older Celtic deity is recovering her rites of the sun and the moon”.

Hughes’ poems in Remains of Elmet chronicle this process of reclamation, but he also attempted a re–creation of his own; and the shaping influence which he brought to bear in structuring the sequence makes this work Hughes’ own very personal account of an apocalyptic vision of the kind which Blake presented in Jerusalem.

To recognise this parallel, one needs to be aware of certain philosophical beliefs closely linked to Alchemy which underlie the work of both Blake and Hughes. The clue to these beliefs, and to their importance in Remains of Elmet, lies in the continual interaction between light and matter which is evident in the poetry and the photographs throughout the book. This interaction occurs in Hughes’ descriptions of the light on the landscape and in Godwin’s dramatic black and white photographs. Metaphorically, it occurs, too, in the illumination, feeling and insight which the words and photographs accomplish in the mind of the reader, and in the enclosure of this ‘light’ in the printed words and photographic images on the page. Just as Blake used his etching processes, “printing in the infernal method by corrosives” to melt “apparent surfaces away” and display “the infinite which was hid” (MHH 14:13–16), so Hughes and Godwin use the physical and chemical manipulation of light and darkness in the printing and photographic processes to embody their art.

The concept of the immersion of light in matter and its subsequent release is fundamental to Alchemy, where it is the basis of the Great Work. It represents a particular cosmology which was common to Neoplatonic and Hermetic philosophy, both of which were familiar to Blake through a number of sources: Thomas Taylor’s translation of an Ancient Greek text by Porphyry on Homer’s Cave of the Nymphs; Dr. Everard’s translation of Hermes’ Divine Pymander; and the alchemical books of Thomas Vaughan9, written under his pseudonym, Eugene Philolethes10. Hughes‘ familiarity with these ideas may have derived from his knowledge of Blake but it is most likely that he had read these texts and others of a similar nature. His own writing, particularly in articles and reviews, shows a wide knowledge of Hermetic texts as well as of Ancient Greek philosophy and world mythology.

According to Neoplatonic and Hermetic cosmology, primordial chaos contained infinite Light (often called ‘Divine Spirit’ or ‘Soul’); “an infinite darkness in the Abyss or bottomless Depth”; Water; and “a subtle Spirit intelligible in Power” which is called, variously, ‘Nimbus Numinis Descenatu’, ‘Anima Mundi’ and ‘Nature’ (Pymander). Light, attracted by the subtle Spirit (Nature), combined with it and became ‘coagulated’ matter. So, the sensible world was made and Soul was incorporated in material bodies to create living creatures. Because of these events, infinite Light and Soul became finite and subject to dissolution. With dissolution, however, the Soul is again released, an event of which Vaughan wrote:

Ignorance gave this release the name of Death, but properly it is the Soule’s Birth, and a charter that makes for her liberty (V.50).

So, the dialectic of light and darkness began and the cyclical process of the imprisonment and release of divine light (or Soul) was set in motion.

Porphyry’s description of the process is more poetic. He writes of the Soul’s fall, back into the dark

witch’s brew of genesis which truly mixes and brews together the immortal and the mortal, the rational and the emotional, the Olympian and the terrestrial. The souls are bewitched and softened by the pleasures that lead them back again into genesis, and at this point they have special need of great good fortune and self–restraint lest they follow and obey their worst parts and their emotions and take on an accursed and beastly life. (Porphyry.10).

This world of genesis is our world, the world of Circe, the witchy Moon Goddess, a world dominated by “the cyclical progress and rotation of metensomatosis”. It is the Soul’s grave, but it is also its cradle (V.50).

In Remains of Elmet, Hughes uses these concepts and sometimes even Porphyry’s exact phrases in his poems, equating the “witch’s brew11 with, amongst other things, the wild weather which is so common in the “cradle–grave” of the Calder Valley (‘Moors’ (ROE.19) and ‘Where The Mothers’ (ROE.10)). Similarly, the northern setting which Hughes chooses for his poems acquires symbolic significance when related to Porphyry‘s statement that “the northern regions belong to the Soul descending into genesis”. Hughes also gives many of the moorland plants and animals a symbolic status which parallels that attributed by Porphyry to Homer. Birds associated with water, such as Hughes’ curlews and snipe, take on the role of the Naiad Nymphs which Porphyry “thought of as the souls coming down into genesis, and hovering over the water” (P.270). The “purple aeons” of heather, which clothe the ‘The Big Animal Of Rock’ (ROE48;44) in Elmet, resemble the organic “sea–purple cloth” woven by Naiads on the “massive stone looms” which are the “bones” of Earth – cloth which Porphyry equates with “flesh, woven of blood” as a “cloak for the soul around which it is wrapped” (P.29). And the “nectar/ Keen as adder venom” (ROE.48), which attracts the moorland bees of Elmet, finds a Porphyrian parallel in the amphorae of ambrosial honey that attract bee/souls to the “pleasures of descent into the flesh” (P.30-1); for despite their heavenly origin, “the Souls are bewitched and softened by the pleasures that lead them back again to genesis” (P.9–10).

Even the goat which the farmers wait for in the poem ‘Auction’(ROE.107) has a symbolic parallel in Porphyry’s essay: the Zodiacal constellation of Capricorn (the goat) marks the “southern gate” through which Souls “enslaved by genesis, are set free, coming to live again and receiving, as it were, another birth” (P.33–34).

The myths of these early cosmologies are expressed in spiritual terms but they also had great explanatory relevance to the degenerative/regenerative patterns so evident in the physical world of Nature12. And whilst it is Nature with which Hughes deals most closely in Remains of Elmet, the parallels between the myths of the imprisonment of light and soul in matter and his own beliefs in the “luminous spirit” (the divine spirit of Hermetic myth) hidden deep within us, suggest the underlying spiritual aspect of his work (WP.124–5).

In addition, whilst evidence that Hermetic myths have directly influenced Hughes’ handling of Remains of Elmet is to be found throughout the sequence, his opening poem, ‘Where The Mothers’ (ROE.10) provides an early and clear example of this. Using rhythms and sounds which capture the wildness of the elements as they are commonly experienced on the pictured moors, Hughes describes the disembodied souls as they, like the wind and the rain, howl through heaven and

Pour down onto earth
Looking for bodies
Of birds, animals, people.

The condition of these souls seeking material rebirth, is linked within the 13 lines of this poem to the fallen condition of our world (which is literally a “star–broken stone”, separated from the sun but totally subject to its power) and to that of Hughes’ own small part of the world, the Calder Valley: it is an unchanging, changing condition of death and rebirth as part of Nature’s cycles, and it is symbolized by the “cradle–grave” throughout this Elmet sequence.

The blackness which dominates Fay Godwin’s photograph, encroaching on the light in which the stone crosses stand, suggests the darkness which the disembodied souls are choosing to re–enter. Their “secret and wild” happiness is that of souls choosing to “follow and obey their worst parts and their emotions” (P.10). For, as Porphyry writes: “The urge for pleasure makes them long for the accustomed way of life in and through the flesh“. Thus, these souls may choose the “silent evil joy” of mortal life which, as ‘Abel Cross’ (the name of the pictured stone crosses) may remind us, led our biblical ancestors to evil.

There are echoes of Nordic myth, too, in Hughes’ opening lines where the ‘Mothers’ “gallop” like Valkyries across the land looking for bodies to re–animate. But ‘The Mothers’ are also the elements: the alchemical ‘Mothers’ – Air, Water and Fire – from which, together with the fourth element Earth, all things are created13. In the poem, the vivid immediacy of these elements “howling” through the bleak landscape gives the mythical ‘witch’s brew’ of the world of genesis a physical reality. Here, as in other poems in this sequence, the abstract ‘elements’ of philosophy are materialised as the forces of Nature, in this case the inclement weather – “The witch–brew boiling in the sky–vat” (‘Moors’ (ROE.19), which so frequently prevails on these West Yorkshire moors.

Hughes’ ability to give abstract ideas a concrete form and to present ancient philosophies in a modern context was exercised to its full in the poems of Remains of Elmet. Even the smallest detail of Hughes’ landscape is frequently both realistically evoked and of symbolic importance. Just as the first poem captures the harsh wildness of the weather in this region and the sense of exhilaration which it can sometimes bring, so the “lark–song just out of hearing / Hidden in the wind” describes a phenomenon common on these moors where the faint, high song of the lark reaches the listener in wind–blown snatches. This detail suggests an ephemeral joy which tempers the violence of Hughes’ scene, but the ground–dwelling lark which soars so high into the heavens to sing is also a suitable symbol by which to link Heaven and Earth, immortal and mortal, just as the lines themselves mark the moment of embodiment in the text of the poem.

The lark is not a common bird in myth or folklore, but it is worth noting that Shakespeare and Blake also made similar symbolic use of this bird. The lark, in Cymbeline, sings “at heaven’s gate” (‘Song’.2:3); and, for Blake, the lark was “a mighty Angel” (Mil.40:12) which mounts to “a Crystal Gate … the entrance of the First Heaven” (Mil.39:61–2). Kathleen Raine writes that Blake used the lark as a symbol for the “dimensionless point where eternity flows into time” (Raine.159), a symbolism which is particularly apt for Hughes’ poem.

As the opening poem of Remains of Elmet, ‘Where the Mothers’ establishes the several themes which will be linked throughout the book. The pagan philosophy and mood of the poem, the hints of Nordic mythology, and the reference to the Earth as a “star–broken stone”, all establish the historical context from which the present day Calder Valley evolved. Here, Hughes re–creates the British Celtic kingdom of Elmet which “For centuries was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hideout for refugees” (ROE.Introductory Note).

Such was the “cradle–grave” of the Industrial Revolution and of the people who made it possible.

The theme of ‘The Mothers’, too, is established here and is reinforced by Hughes’ dedication of the book to the memory of his own mother, Edith Farrar (who died in 1969) and by his prefatory poem (ROE.7) in which his mother lives on briefly for him through her brother. The recent history of the Calder Valley, the dreams and aspirations of its people – “the arguing immortal dead / The hymns rising past farms” which Hughes records in this book, are her memories and her brother’s: “Archaeology of the mouth” which Hughes has attempted to record before the “frayed, fraying hair–fineness” of the thread linking their lives to his is finally broken. Yet, as has already been suggested, there is more to the theme of ‘The Mothers’ than this. It encompasses, also, the philosophical, alchemical ‘Mothers’ and, most importantly, Nature (the Mother Goddess herself) and the regenerative cycles by which she redresses the errors of humankind and restores universal harmony. The Celtic pre–history of the West Yorkshire, too, is an essential part of this theme, for The Mothers (Matres or Matronea) were an important triad of Celtic fertility goddesses, and Brig (Brigid) the patron goddess of poets, gave her name to the Celtic Brigantian people who once inhabited Elmet.

Closely woven into all these themes, is that of fallen divine Light and its ultimate release, which has already been discussed. In addition to the Hermetic and NeoPlatonic influences, however, there are prophetic and visionary aspects to the Hughes’ handling of this particular theme in Remains of Elmet which strongly resemble those of Blake in The Four Zoas and Jerusalem. Each poet has been greatly influenced by the visions described in the New Testament book of ‘The Revelation of St. John’, but in Remains of Elmet it is as if Hughes has adopted Blake’s symbolism of Albion/England from Jerusalem and given it reality. The rock on which Blake’s Albion lies becomes the enduring rock of the Yorkshire moors; Blake’s “Furnaces” are the fires of the sun; and his “starry Wheels” are the “blind skylines revolving dumbly” (ROE.50) over Elmet. All around, the wind, the rain, the storms and the thunder of the Calder Valley rage as they do in Jerusalem:

Albion cold lays on his Rock: storms and snows beat round him,
Beneath the Furnaces & the starry Wheels & the Immortal Tomb
Howling winds cover him: roaring seas dash furious against him
In the deep darkness broad lightnings glare long thunders roll.

The initial fall into generation in the first poem of Remains of Elmet parallels Man’s turning away “down the valleys dark” (Jer.4:22) of Ulro. From then, until the apocalyptic vision in ‘The Angel’ (ROE.124), Hughes’ sequence chronicles the working of Nature’s powers, by means of which the land “Stretches awake, out of Revelations” (‘The Trance Of Light’ (ROE.20), the creatures live and die, and the trapped souls are finally released.

In Remains of Elmet, as one poem clearly states, “It Is All / Happening to the sun. / The fallen sun” (ROE.23); and the Blake poem which this echoes might well serve to summarise Hughes’ healing purpose in this sequence:

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past & Future sees,
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees,

Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew,
That might controll
The starry pole
And fallen fallen light renew!

“0 Earth, 0 Earth return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

Turn away no more:
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor
The wat’ry shore
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.”
(Songs of Experience: ‘Introduction’).

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

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