Ted Hughes’ Vacanas: The Difficulties of a Bridegroom

First Published in Ted Hughes : Cambridge to Collected, M. Wormald, N. Roberts, T.Gifford (Eds.), Palgave Macmillan, 2013.

© Ann Skea.

Some time in 1973–4, Ted Hughes read A.K.Ramanujan’s book, Speaking of Siva1, and, in the vacanas of the Siva–worshipping mystics of Southern India, he discovered poems written in the same simple, direct, honest speech as that of his own early poem ‘Song’2. ‘Song’, as he told Drue Heinz, had come to him, ‘as such things should in your nineteenth year – literally a voice in the air’, when he was a National Service conscript doing night duty at RAF Patrington in the East Riding of Yorkshire3. It was the first of his poems that he ever kept. Twenty–four years later, he was so excited by the rediscovery of that ‘voice’ that he wrote to close friends like Daniel Weissbort and Lucas Myers exhorting them to buy Ramanujan’s book.

He then took a new notebook and began to write his own versions of these Kannada vacanas4.

Unlike any of the other notebooks which Hughes kept at that time, this Vacana Notebook5 has survived intact. So, it is possible to see the order in which these poems were written; and to follow the development of Hughes’ vacanas from his first, fairly close, modelling of them on those of Basavanna, the twelfth–century Indian poet–saint, through greater and greater freedom from Basavanna’s words, to poems which are wholly his own, although still conforming to the ideals and the general style of vacana poetry.

Siva Nataraja

These ideals are based on the mystical process of becoming one with a god or with a divine Creative Source. The god to whom Basavanna addressed his vacanas was the Indian god, Siva, in a local manifestation as ‘Lord of the Meeting Rivers’. For Hughes, the Creative Source was never identified with a particular god but he saw the manifestation of that Source everywhere in nature and so chose to address his vacanas to the ‘Lady of the Hill’. She was, in many respects, identical to Robert Graves’ White Goddess, but she was also simply the animating force in nature, and she was Hughes’ poetic Muse.

Lady of the Hill

Whatever god is addressed, vacanas are a form of worship in which the devotee speaks directly and truthfully to the god as an ordinary man or woman might speak to a particularly demanding husband or wife, using natural, colloquial language to express their love and devotion, but also to vent their anger, puzzlement and despair.

I’ll sing as I love’, wrote Basavanna6: and he sings of the pain and ecstasy of that love. But he also argues, pleads, demands, questions and berates. He acknowledges that a price must be paid in order that he may be worthy of this union, but he complains that he does not understand why he is treated so badly or know what, exactly, is required of him. Hughes’ vacanas, too, follow this pattern.

Vacanas have no formal metre or rhyme, and very little punctuation. But they do have the ‘swift, living voice of the oral style7 which Hughes admired, and their rhythms are those of folk–song, traditional folk–tales and riddles. They are full of repetitions and paradoxes and, although they are spontaneous and passionate and grounded in common everyday experiences and images, there is often a hidden, spiritual meaning in the worldly metaphors and allegories the poet uses. Above all, they are an intensely personal form of a religious devotion which not only avoids formal creeds, rituals and dogma but frequently criticizes them as misguided, superstitious and even hypocritical.

In these Indian vacanas, Hughes found again ‘a style as close and natural’ to him as that of Crow, which, as he told Faas was ‘simply picking up a style that I had neglected earlier’ ‘the way I wrote for a while when I was about nineteen8. He also found the ‘ideal vernacular’ which he heard in Shakespeare’s language: the ‘super–easy’ language which goes directly ‘from centre to centre9. Here, too, he found poetry which develops ‘outwardly into history and the common imagery of everyday life’ and also develops ‘inwardly in a sort of close parallel’, a quality which he admired in Yeats’ poetry and which he considered to be essential for any writer’s development10.

Ramanujan describes the inward, spiritual development of the devotee, which can be charted in the vacana sequences of the Indian poet–saints, as the ascent of a mystical ladder. The six steps of this ladder lead the poet from devotion, through discipline and knowledge, to enlightenment and ecstasy and, ultimately, to complete union with the Creative Source.

In order to make this ascent, the Indian poet–saints regarded themselves, quite literally, as the true husbands or wives of the god. They dedicated their lives to their god, and become worldly brides or bridegrooms struggling to achieve the spiritual perfection which would allow them to become wholly one with the god. Constantly, they strove for that spiritual union; and worldly unions are seen in their vacanas as unfaithfulness to their spiritual spouse. ‘Other men are thorn / under the smooth leaf’, wrote the twelfth century, female, poet–saint Mahadeviyakka. ‘I cannot take / any man in my arms but my lord // white as jasmine’11.

Hughes, in his vacanas, only partly adopts this convention. He becomes the spiritual bridegroom of his Lady of the Hill and struggles to be worthy of that union. He sings to his Goddess in just the same way as Basavanna sang to his Lord of the Meeting Rivers. However, he sees his Goddess’s presence in every human female: ‘It has taken every living woman / To make a body for you to live in.’ he writes12. Thus, worldly unions were not proscribed and, in his vacanas, they are seen as part of his Goddess’s testing of him and part of his spiritual learning and growth.

Whilst the poems in Hughes’ Vacana Notebook do express the many difficulties of a worldly bridegroom who is devoted to his spiritual spouse, his own poetic journey up the spiritual ladder is less apparent here, where he was learning to write vacanas with Basavanna as his teacher, than it is in the Epilogue poems of Gaudete13. These Epilogue poems were chosen from the hundred or more vacanas which Hughes had eventually written14, and only eighteen of them came from the Vacana Notebook. Nevertheless, the poems in this notebook do demonstrate a poetic journey. They are written in the simple, ‘full-frontal sort of music15 which is characteristic of Crow, and they have the same primitive power: but the speaker is fully human and has, already, a clear spiritual goal. Hughes’ vacanas are clearly another step in the Alchemical transmutation he was striving for when, as he later said, he revived his preoccupation with the ‘Difficulties of a Bridegroom’ – a phrase which he discovered in 1962 through the seventeenth–century Alchemical work of John Valentin Andreae16, and which became the working title of almost everything he wrote for several years17.

No discussion of these poems can convey their extraordinary power. Hughes began his study of vacanas in the traditional Indian way by choosing a guru, but, although he modelled his earliest vacanas quite closely on those of Basavanna, the strength of feeling and emotion in them is wholly his own, and his communication with his Goddess is intensely personal. The naked vulnerability of this is such that in several of those vacanas which Hughes chose to include in the Gaudete Epilogue and, later, in Orts, the first person pronouns have been transposed to the impersonal ‘he’. Not until he wrote the poems of Capriccio, Birthday Letters, and Howls & Whispers, did Hughes address the Goddess as openly and directly again, or draw as openly on his personal life; and it is notable that the language of these late sequences of poems is as simple, direct and personal as that of Hughes’ vacanas, and the women to whom they are addressed are never named.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The first vacana in Hughes’ Vacana Notebook is closely modelled on the first of Basavanna’s poems in Ramanujan’s book.

Look’ demands Basavanna, ‘the world, in a swell / of waves, is beating upon my face18. Hughes similarly demands attention: ‘Watch me’, he begins, but although the images he uses are similar, it is not the waters of Basavanna’s Lord of the Meeting Rivers which threaten him but the rising tide of pollution in our own world, which is the world of his ‘Lady’, Nature.

At this first step of the spiritual ladder, both men are struggling with the world, its ills and its temptations. Basavanna cries out to his Lord in anguish as he describes worldly troubles rising from his heart to his head and threatening to drown his spiritual concerns and silence him. In Hughes’ vacana, however, the tide of pollution is as real as it is metaphorical: his foothold is insecure, ‘fouler drink and more rubbish’ threaten his body: ‘Why should it build at my chest’, he asks: ‘Why should it rope at my throat’.

Both poets express their puzzlement but, unlike Basavanna, Hughes has not yet learned humility. Basavanna questions and pleads with his god: ‘How can I tell you anything / when it has risen high / over my head / lord lord / listen to my cries /’. Hughes puts his questions more bluntly, expressing sheer frustration rather than a plea for help: ‘Lady / How can I bring you what I bring you / When it has risen over me’.

Hughes’ next two vacanas extemporise on the same theme of besetting worldly ills, and, since vacanas always reflect the poet’s own life, he chooses his own metaphors for this. The sickness of the world becomes ‘Like a dog in the home’ bullying him for attention: ‘It will not let me lay out / My gifts for you, lady. / It devours them or defiles them’. Then, for the first time, he gives his Goddess her full title: ‘Lady of the hill’, he demands (or pleads, depending on how you read it) ‘Drive away this dog and destroy it / You are abler’. Once this is done, he says, foolishly presuming that she can be bargained with, ‘Then I will give you / Myself19.

The next poem is more cryptic and much more personal in its symbolism. It is also less arrogant. The world, in this third poem, is a sterile ‘wolfless domain’ into which someone has loosed a rabid wolf. The wolf, for Hughes, was a totemic animal and always, in his work, wolf energies can be both destructive and creative. Now, this wolf ‘Follows, in the wood’ and he asks, ‘Whose pet was it? / Or whose captive?’ He makes no claim that it is his Lady’s creature but she, he says, has ‘the salve / the tool of execution’ and ‘the courage’ to deal with it. Yet, he does not want it killed. ‘All I need is your presence’, he tells her, ‘To give me the wolf’s tail’.

Sometimes, especially early in his apprenticeship to Basavanna, Hughes’ remaking of the vacanas is clear to see. At other times, the words and imagery which Hughes drew from his own domestic setting are so different to those used by Basavanna that only a common theme or message can be discerned. This remaking went on in the Vacana Notebook with greater and greater freedom, until Hughes had worked through all but the last few of the vacanas by Basavanna which are in Ramanujan’s book. Then, suddenly, the poems are completely Hughes’ own20; and it is from these that the eighteen poems which were included in the Gaudete Epilogue were chosen.

As an example of a close remaking of a Basavanna poems, VN 6 is one of the clearest. Yet, without knowledge of Basavanna’s vacana number 52 one might easily take Hughes vacana for an early Moortown poem. Both poets once again depict the bridegroom’s struggle with the temptations and ills of the world. Both liken themselves to a cow wallowing in wordly mud. Basavanna has, he says, ‘fallen into a quagmire’, where he ‘make[s] mouths at this corner and that’. He wails that there is no one to look for him and that no one will find him until his Lord ‘sees this beast / and lifts him out by the horns’. Hughes, too, is ‘Like a cow sunk in clay quag’. He bellows or sinks in silence but knows that ‘Neither man nor tractor’ can help him. He, too, knows that only his beloved can save him: ‘Only you / Descending from your hill / Can lift me, cleanse me, restore me / O lady.

Another of Hughes’ vacanas, which might well be misinterpreted without Basavanna’s parallel poem for comparison, uses a metaphor which occurs only rarely in Basavanna’s vacanas but is common in those of Mahadeviyakka. As a female poet-saint, Mahadevi defied social and cultural conventions to become one of the mostly male worshippers who dedicated their lives to Siva. For her, especially, ‘marriage’ to Siva meant that she regarded any relationship with a human male as adultery. ‘My lord, white as jasmine, is my husband21, she wrote, and ‘I cannot take / any man in my arms but my lord22.

Unfaithfulness was the common metaphor in Indian vacanas for any neglect of the god (or goddess) for worldly things; and, the blunt, colloquial word which is translated as ‘fornication’ was the favoured way of describing this. So, whilst both Hughes and Basavanna begin one vacana, ‘I went out to fornicate’, it would be unwise to take this statement at face value. Both poems are, in fact, warnings of the dangers inherent in over–indulging in worldly pleasures and excitements, and neglecting your Lord or Lady. When Basavanna ‘went to fornicate23, he was stung by a scorpion, stripped by a watchman, and beaten by his ‘husband’ when he got home. ‘All the rest, O lord of the meeting rivers’, he complains, ‘the king took for his fines’. The scorpion, the watchman, the husband, the king in this vacana – all may be avatars of the god or the god himself.

In Hughes’ poem24, the indiscretions and punishments he suffers are similar, but he states quite clearly that the danger was to his soul. When he ‘went out to fornicate’, he was shockingly burned, stripped and beaten ‘by a waiting gang’, and the woman who nursed him was a witch who ‘stole my soul and roasted it, inside her own’. When he got home, there was ‘nobody to help’ and ‘the damage was bad’. ‘Heal me, Lady of the Hill’, he pleads. ‘Cool me with your health’.

Such, are the punishments for those things which Hughes describes in another vacana as ‘running after sugars25 . Punishment, however, is accepted and proudly borne, because the ‘scars’ it leaves are his Lady’s ‘signature’ of ownership. All Hughes asks in return for his suffering is some direct knowledge of his Lady. ‘Only show me yourself’, he begs, ‘Lift off me the last amercement’ and ‘Let me thank you’.

Basavanna, in a parallel poem, asks to be blinded, deafened and crippled, so that he may not see, hear or follow anything but his Lord26. But everything Hughes had learned about mysticism and magic by this stage of his life would have made him wary of tempting the gods by asking them for such specific disabilities. So, he speaks only of his devotion and his willingness to endure.

Hughes clearly understood the experiences Basavanna describes and had felt the same spiritual longing – the same shamanic ‘call’ to devote himself to the Divine Creative Force. By drawing on his own life and his own world he charted a parallel spiritual journey but it was not yet his own journey, simply steps along the path which Basavanna showed him. So, the poets move together from worldly concerns of temptation, endurance and puzzlement, to expressions of their growing understanding of a Divine presence in all things. They express their understanding that spiritual enlightenment cannot be gained by worldly means. They know, and they try to teach us through their poems, that no physical endeavour, no amount of hard work, will get us to heaven: neither ‘the engine under the car bonnet’, nor ‘the factories’, nor ‘the labour of all heads and their talk’ can ‘catch one tremor’ of that Divine presence27. Religious instruction, dogma, ritual, and mechanical ways of worship have already left us, as Hughes later wrote in Remains of Elmet, ‘at the dead end of a wrong direction28.

Parrots recite’, writes Basavanna scathingly in a poem which deals metaphorically with religious ritual: ‘So what? / Can they read the Lord?29 But only Hughes calls on his Lady to ‘Correct the direction finder’ and (in lines which combine all the elements and recognize the healing alchemical power of Nature) ‘Let me find you / Without losing the water, or the air, or the fire / Or the earth30.

Although these poets see the energies of the Divine Creative Source, god or goddess, present everywhere around them, they discover that no words, no image, no metaphor can describe that Mystery. So, the inadequacy of words and the impossibility of describing their experience of the Divine is a common theme in vacanas. This difficulty is readily apparent in the frequent deletions and revisions in Hughes’ Vacana Notebook. Vacanas VN 56 and VN 76, for example, both deal with Hughes’ attempts to find words for his Lady’s beauty, but ‘grubby words’ or ‘epithets’ and ‘slimy’ phrases will not do. Amidst the many deletions and corrections, Hughes describes his efforts as being like using newspaper and string to wrap beautiful roses. And the final lines of both these vacanas sum up his problem precisely: ‘Words fall withering / On the sudden spring / Of your emergence’.

Have words / Any part in your worship?31 Hughes asks. And he calls his own words ‘provisional’, ‘like the trial and error sign language / Of an explorer who is nearby to the lost temple’. ‘Even just bare words’, he says, are only ‘blazes, marks on trees’ showing ‘the way of his penetration’. Words are deceptive, temporary, ‘forgettable32: they evaporate ‘If the speaker’s smile says otherwise’. So, ‘Look at me Lady’, Hughes begs, ‘Listen to all I do not manage to say33.

Basavanna, an excellent poet, bewails his lack of poetic and musical skills. He knows nothing, he says, of metre or time–beats; nothing about ‘iamb and dactyl’: ‘I’ll sing as I love34, he declares. Similarly, Hughes reports: ‘I sang to a beautiful girl / Whatever came into my head / I just sang it35. And both poets ask to be made into instruments suitable for this devotional work. ‘Make of my body the beam of a lute’ suggests Basavanna to his Lord of the Meeting Rivers: ‘Clutch me close / and play your thirty-two songs36. Hughes, in a parallel poem, asks his Lady of the Hill to reshape him ‘to the necessary form’: to make his head ‘a clear resonator’, his bones ‘a tried frame’, his nerves ‘tensed to your scale’. ‘Hold me’, he demands, ‘In the hall of your people / Then sing your song’.

There are warnings in these vacanas, too, of the dangers of becoming the bride or groom of a Divine being. If, like a shaman, you have been called and you have accepted that call, there is no going back. Basavanna’s warning is blunt: ‘Don’t you take on / this thing called bhakti [devotion]’37. And Hughes, using different imagery, tells us that it is ‘Better, happier to stay clear of the pure / Water of the source38. Both poets describe the inevitable pain of serving your Lord or Lady. For Basavanna, it is like a saw which cuts going in and coming out; like putting your hand into a pitcher which contains a cobra: it is potentially deadly. For Hughes, there is both joy and pain in knowing and serving his Lady but the results are far reaching. Nothing, he warns, will ever be the same again. Your everyday world will smell of decay. Your hunger for the Divine will be like that of a lover for the loved one’s company; and for ‘the kiss / especially for the kiss’. You will be irrevocably changed, but still tied to your human body: ‘the you you have to die with – stays’, like ‘stone / of the stone hill’ over which the pure water of this Divine Source still flows.

Such are the difficulties of any bridegroom or bride who is helplessly devoted to a wife or husband whom he struggles to understand and please. And such, is the difficult quest for spiritual enlightenment in a world which makes demands on the body at every moment. Basavanna likens this to having ‘a grindstone hung at the foot’ ‘a deadwood log at the neck’. He is held between the two, unable to ‘float’ or ‘sink’: neither able to let his soul fly, nor able to immerse himself wholly in the everyday world39. Hughes chose metaphors from his own life, where he was juggling the conflicting demands of farming and writing:

The cow groans in the field
Her calf half in the world
A pain expands in my head
Calling to me for help.

One drags him ‘toward the door’, the other to his table to write. Torn between these two seemingly irreconcilable demands he prays: ‘O Lady of the hill / Deliver both / And deliver me from both40.

In a later vacana, which has no clear parallel in Basavanna‘s poems, he is even more blunt about this difficulty of reconciling the demands of body and spirit: ‘Body and mind, you see / Get nowhere’, he tells his Lady of the Hill, ‘You will have to carry something’.

Nevertheless, in the spiritual journey which Basavanna’s poems chart and which Hughes’ vacanas follow, both poets know that the Divine is an inextricable part of everything in the world they live in and that they are part of that unity. ‘It is not a difficult etiquette / But a simple marriage’ says Hughes. And he sees that whatever he does in the world will affect his Goddess: ‘This is how my cruelties / Make my life miserable’, he tells us, ‘For she and I are one flesh / One spirit41. And, to his Goddess: ‘I know you are here beside me / Always and everywhere’, but, ‘This is my home / And I feel no fear, only joy / Very strong steady joy/ And dismay // O Lady of the Hill42.

You snatched me up and you carry me off / O lady / To sing43, Hughes tells his Lady. And, at this stage in his Vacana Notebook, he began to break away from his steady paralleling of Basavanna’s poems and to sing his own songs, adopting the vacana tradition of ‘kin-sense and kindness for living things….a love of man, beast and thing44, and also the equally traditional rejection of the veils which formal religion and religious dogma put in the way of Truth.

Both Basavanna and Hughes recognized that Truth and unity with the god cannot be taught. Basavanna, in a number of vacanas, decries various Indian religious and cultural rituals, practices and superstitions. Hughes speaks of own experience of the spiritual quest. Some, he says, ‘wear crosses’ and show ‘souvenir’ keys to ‘the treasures of heaven’, but not the true key or ‘the treasure’ itself45. ‘I have / both key and treasure / Of the living One’, he says, ‘But can I show either?’ And, in a poem which was to become the first from the Vacana Notebook to be included in the Gaudete Epilogue: ‘churches topple / Like the temples before them. // The reverberations of worship / Seem to help / Disintegrate such erections46. By contrast, Hughes’ ‘lady of the hill’ (the phrase is partly deleted in the Vacana Notebook and completely missing from the published poem), endures and flourishes in the natural world around him.

All of the poems in the last half of Hughes’ Vacana Notebook reflect his own direct knowledge of the Goddess and of her absolute power. They express, too, his experience of living in two worlds, the mundane and the spiritual, and being unable to belong wholly to either. Sick with love, he is ‘rusted firm’ not to ‘East West North or South / But to the Centre47. Most of the time he is, as Ramanujan puts it, ‘a fool of god48 , half mad with ecstasy and fear.

Hughes’ Lady of the Hill is everywhere around him. She ‘Is an ocean of marvels’ which he will ‘never fathom’. And to be ‘within touch / of her and hers and her’ is, likewise, a mystery. Yet, whilst her choice of him fills him with ‘bafflement and joy’, her power also fills him with terror. ‘O lady of the hill / You scare me’, he admits, citing the ‘inhuman cruelty’ involved in the complete loss of Self required of those who accept ‘initiation49 into her mysteries. Her terrifying beauty and power invests his vision of nature. He sees it in the frailest ‘primrose petal’s edge’ and in ‘the eye of a hare’. When she is revealed to him, ‘and is veiled’ it is, he says, like being gripped ‘by the nape’ and banged against a wall ‘Till blood drips from the mouth50. Yet he accepts that pain, acknowledging that it ‘cannot really be given’, ‘only paid down/ Equal, exactly51 for her presence. Whilst other men spend their lives bitterly seeking acknowledgement, recognition and respect for their learning, he ‘like a criminal’ keeps secret ‘in terror’ his knowledge of the ‘deep touch’ of his Goddess’s fingers52. Yet, like everything in this world, he knows he will never experience more ‘Than the fleeting warm touch / Of your footfall / / as you pace / Your cage of being53.

Unlike any of the vacanas in Ramanujan’s book, Hughes sees his Goddess embodied in every woman. Basavanna (in vacana 430) wrote of his Lord’s ‘eighty–four–hundred thousand faces’ and begged him to ‘put on just one / and come test me’. But for Hughes, ‘every living woman’ embodied the Goddess and was a test which She set for the human male. ‘Like hooks / That catch men / For the future of the species’, he wrote, and they are ‘cleverly baited / And angle cleverly’. ‘I sickened’, he remembers ‘for this one’s this and that one’s that’, ‘for that one’s elfin side glance’ and (using an image he would later use to describe Sylvia Plath in ‘18 Rugby Street’ in Birthday Letters) ‘for that one’s long smoothness / her flanks lithe as a fish54. Human love and passion may seem like union with the Goddess and may, indeed, be a way of honouring her, but although these women embody her they are only shadows of her true self. They are ‘wild and naked’ as a foxglove, but she is wild and naked ‘as a fox55.

Nevertheless, through his relationships with mortal women Hughes learns hard lessons. In two poems early in the notebook, when he was still following Basavanna‘s path and bewailing with him the ills of the world, Hughes wrote: ‘Horrible things happened / They taught me / How they need not have happened56. And ‘I had what is called love / So much such a weight of it / The axle broke / On the cart of everything that was not love’. It was, he said then, like being taught a language but ‘understanding nothing57. Now, in the later poems, he understands, but that does not always make things any easier for him. In images which describe both human love and love of the Goddess he writes:

We built a life together
Out of feather looks
Hay smiles
Wool–whisp words and weaving of doings.

This was a life built out of careful ‘provisioning’ ‘burrowing works’, and ‘rowdy badger play’. But ‘we could not live it’. All he wants, he tells this woman/Goddess, is to live ‘just for a while’ in the evolving ‘space tower capstan / Of the universe’ which he sees in the beauty of nature. But clearly this is an unworldly, seemingly impossible dream, whether the woman is human or a goddess.

The final stage of the spiritual journey, however, is union with the Goddess in which there are no divisions, and no more need for worship, questions and uncertainty. Hughes knows that no matter how much he works and dreams of such a union with his Lady, only she will decide when to reveal herself and hold him to her. He knows that she is both everything and nothing, but he knows, too, that nature belongs to her and is her ‘stepping stone from nothingness // Across the shoreless58. As he reaches the end of this Vacana Notebook the Goddess is closer to him than she has ever been. She has tempted him, come to him, ‘unlaced’ his ‘hood’ and ‘whispered “Fly”’. But, ‘Now you have opened the door –// What?’ he demands. And he is as impatient as any bridegroom:

Hurry, hurry, my love, my love
I rest, I rust.

Soon enough I start falling to pieces59.

Finally, almost at the end of the Vacana Notebook, the marriage is consummated. Hughes describes the ecstasy of being one, however briefly, with the Goddess. The poem, which became the final poem in the Gaudete Epilogue, is full of the ‘Glare’ which assaults him and transports him. It is everywhere around him, coming from the grass, from the clouds, from the ‘home gloom’. ‘Blinded’ he closes his eyes but ‘the darkness too is aflame’. ‘So’, just like this, at last and in this way, he marvels, addressing his wonder to his Lady, ‘you have come and gone again / With my skin60.

Nothing can be or will ever be the same again, and the final poems in Hughes’ Vacana Notebook reflect this. Almost all of them were included in the Gaudete Epilogue, but in different order and at different stages of that particular spiritual journey. Only one, however, has the dramatic impact and the sense of fiery unreality which Hughes captured in ‘Glare’. It is the final poem in the Vacana Notebook, and it was based, as Hughes told Ekbert Fass, on a dream61. It begins: ‘Something to sing about / The rattlesnake dropped from a comet’, and, with many deletions and corrections it describes Hughes’ complete dislocation from the Earth, his rebirth ‘In a blowing of particles’ as ‘a blind bare puppy’[deleted], and how ‘God’[deleted] gave him ‘your thumb to suck’[deleted]. What is substituted for these deletions is very close to the version of the poem which was published in the Gaudete Epilogue with the opening line ‘The viper fell from the sun’, and both Sagar and Scigaj identify it, there, as a poem describing shamanic rebirth.

‘Glare’ bears some resemblance to a poem by Allama Prabhu which begins ‘Light / devoured darkness62. But although Allama’s poem is as simple and as brief as Hughes’, it does not have the terrifying climax of Hughes’ final two lines. The image of complete helplessness – of a man, naked and disorientated, ‘like a discarded foetus’, who is then taken up and nurtured by the Goddess – is an image of rebirth which is almost equally appropriate to the shaman’s rebirth after becoming a skeleton in the underworld, as it is to the devotee’s final rebirth in complete physical and spiritual union with the Divine Creative Source.

Having filled his Vacana Notebook, Hughes continued to write his own vacanas. Then, as he was working towards the publication of Gaudete, he decided that a sequence of vacanas would make an appropriate conclusion to the Reverend Nicholas Lumb’s return from the underworld. The real Reverend Lumb was always intended to have a shamanic role in Gaudete: his visit to the underworld was an essential part of his negotiations with the Goddess and Hughes had intended to write this underworld journey as a parallel story to that of the changeling Lumb’s adventures in the real world, but he never did so63. Instead, a sequence of vacanas came to chart Lumb’s negotiations with the Goddess. ‘In these poems’, Hughes told Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts64, ‘Lumb adds up several women in his life, assuming them, as he does so, into that female in the other world (or hidden in this world)’. Then, acknowledging the way in which his own personal life was integral to these vacanas, he said: ‘Naturally, I could only lend him people I have known’. He went on to note that the woman in the vacana which begins: ‘I know well65, for example, was a friend, Sue Alliston, who lived, as he once had, in 18 Rugby Street (like Sylvia Plath, she appears in ‘18 Rugby St.’ in Birthday Letters) and who was, at that time, dying of Hodgkin’s disease.

In two other vacanas, Hughes borrowed women who had been important in his life: Sylvia Plath, in the vacana which begins ‘Once I said lightly’66; and his mother in ‘Waving goodbye from your banked hospital bed/… ’67. Neil Roberts notes that both Rand Brandes and Len Scigaj suggested that these two poems refer to Sylvia Plath68. William Scammell, in an article in The Poetry Review in 1998, also made this claim69. Hughes, however, specifically denied that ‘waving goodbye…’ is about Sylvia Plath. In a telephone conversation with me shortly before his death he confirmed that it was about his mother, Edith Farrar Hughes.

Very shortly after Gaudete was published, Hughes told Sagar: ‘the poems at the end seem to me about the furthest point, so far, some of them – Even so, they leave me very unsatisfied’. That ‘whole batch of writing’, he said, now looked ‘provisional and interim70. Hughes’ Vacana Notebook, therefore, should be seen as exploratory and experimental: as the first steps in writing a particular kind of poetry, rather than as a carefully thought out and ordered sequence. It does, however, represent an important step in Hughes’ development as a poet. Not only did it re–establish the simplicity and power of a language that he thought he had lost, or neglected for too long, it also showed him a way in which he could write about his own life and his own dilemmas on the spiritual quest.

Nevertheless, as well as a natural antipathy to self–exposure, Hughes had, as he told Keith Sagar much later on, a ‘near-inborn conviction that you never talk about yourself in this way – in poetry71. So, he quickly returned to his usual practice of adopting a persona in his poems, and it was not until he began to write the Capriccio, Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers sequences, that he was willing to risk writing again in the direct, vulnerable, unguarded, autobiographical way which had made his vacanas so powerful.

Click here to see a chart listing all the poems in Ted Hughes’ Vacanas Notebook, possible parallels with the poems of Bassavana, and the dates and places of the first publication of Hughes’ poems.


1. Ramanujan, A.J., Speaking of Siva, London, Penguin Classics, 1973.

2. Keegan, P. (ed.), Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, London, Faber, 2003. p.24.

3. Heinz, D., The Paris Review, Vol.37, No.134, Spring 1995. p.11.

4. Manuscript notebook, Ted Hughes Papers, Box 57 / 16, Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta, USA.

5. For identification purposes, I have capitalised this phrase and will refer to poems from this notebook by the initials VN and a page number (my numbering).

6. Basavanna 494, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.82.

7. Hughes, ‘Revelations: the genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer’, Winter Pollen, London, Faber, 1994. p.67.

8. Faas, E. The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. p.212.

9. Faas, E. The Unaccommodated Universe. pp.203-4.

10. Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe. p.204.

11. Mahadeviyakka 93, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva. p125. Mahadeviyakka was a younger, female contemporary of Basavanna.

12. Hughes, VN 62.

13. The spiritual journey reflected in the Gaudete Epilogue was charted very perceptively by Keith Sagar in The Art of Ted Hughes, Cambridge UP, 1978; and again, from a different perspective, by Leonard Scigaj in The Poetry of Ted Hughes, Iowa UP, 1986.

14. Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe, p.138.

15. Hughes to Anne-Lorraine Bujon in Christopher Reid (ed.), Letters of Ted Hughes, London, Faber, 2007. p.632.

16. Andreae, The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, Minerva Books, London (undated).

17, Hughes, Foreword to Difficulties of a Bridegroom, London, Faber, 1995. p.ix.

18. Basavanna 8, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva. p.67.

19. Hughes, VN 2.

20. The poems on pages 14 and 15 of the Vacana Notebook are clearly not vacanas but first drafts of the longer poem, ‘He gets up in dark dawn’, which was published in The Listener, 16 June 1977. Keegan (ed.), Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, p.379.

21. Mahadeviyakka 283, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.134.

22. Mahadeviyakka 93 in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.125.

23. Basavanna 111, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva. p.75.

24. Hughes, VN 17.

25. Hughes, VN 7.

26. Basavanna 59, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.70.

27. Hughes, VN 8.

28. ‘Top Withens’, in Hughes, Remains of Elmet, London, Faber, 1979. p. 103; Keegan (ed.), Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, p.486.

29. Basavanna 125, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.76.

30. Hughes, VN 18.

31. Hughes, VN 37.

32. Hughes, VN 59.

33. Hughes, VN 21.

34. Basavanna 494, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.82.

35. Hughes, VN 51.

36. Basavanna 500, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.83.

37. Basavanna 212, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.79.

38. Hughes, VN 25. This vacana was published in Ted Hughes’ Orts, Rainbow Press, 1978. p.38.

39. Basavanna 350, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.80.

40. Hughes, VN 26.

41. Hughes, VN 27.

42. Hughes, VN 29.

43. Hughes, VN 38.

44. Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, ‘Introduction’, p.54.

45 Hughes, VN 40.

46. Hughes, VN 46. Hughes, T. Gaudete, London, Faber, 1979, p.190. Keegan (ed.), Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, p.368.

47. Hughes, VN 59.

48. Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.174.

49. Hughes, VN 53.

50. Hughes, VN 55.

51. Hughes, VN 54.

52. Hughes, VN 44.

53. Hughes, VN 85.

54. Hughes, VN 52.

55. Hughes, VN 48.

56. Hughes, VN 31.

57. Hughes, VN 30.

58. Hughes, VN 67.

59. Hughes, VN 79.

60. Hughes, VN 86.

61 Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe, p.139.

62. Allama 675, in Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.164.

63. cf. Ted Hughes to Craige Raine, 23 February 1984, in Reid (ed.), Letters of Ted Hughes, p.479.

64. Notes to Gifford and Roberts included with a partly unpublished letter to Keith Sagar: 4. October 1979. British Library. Add. Mss. 78756.

65. Hughes, Gaudete, p.190; Keegan (ed.), Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, p.368.

66. Hughes, Gaudete. p.181; Keegan (ed.), Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, p. 361.

67. Hughes, Gaudete, p.185; Keegan (ed.), Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, p. 364.

68. Roberts, N. Ted Hughes: A Literary Life, Hampshire, Palgrave, 2006, Note. 52, p.228.

69. ‘Burst Open Under Blue–Black Pressure’, The Poetry Review, Vo. 88. No.1. Spring 1998, pp.82-87.

70. Hughes to Keith Sagar, 30 May 1977 in Reid (ed.), Letters of Ted Hughes, p.383.

71. Hughes to Keith Sagar, 18 July 1998 in Reid (ed.), Letters of Ted Hughes, p.720.

Ted Hughes’ Vacanas: The Difficulties of a Bridegroom. © Ann Skea April 2014. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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