The Thanksgiving and Memorial Service for Ted Hughes,

Westminster Abbey, 13th May 1999
© Ann Skea

Fear no more the heat of the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done.
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers, come to dust

The soft Yorkshire accent filled the Abbey and it was a moment before we realised that this was Ted’s voice reading the Song from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline . It was an amazing, eerie and magical Experience. Nothing in the service so far, not the music, nor the singing and reading of Ted’s poetry, nor even the eulogy of his friend, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, matched the impact of hearing his voice again. The congregation listened in absolute silence, spellbound.

I never imagined, when I first began to study Ted Hughes’s poetry at the University of New England ( NSW, Australia) in 1970, and was drawn to his unsentimental and deep love of nature, that he would become England’s Poet Laureate. Nor did I ever imagine that I would meet him and become a friend, or that I would eventually sit in Westminster Abbey at his Memorial Service just across the aisle from the Prince of Wales and the Queen Mother.

I vividly remember the first impact of Ted’s poetry on me and the inspiring lecture which Alison Hoddinott gave on his work. Ted Hughes was one of the ‘New Poetry’ poets, along with Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin, included in the English 100 reading list in 1970. Although I enjoyed the other poets’ work, Ted’s struck a chord with me because of his clear-sighted acceptance of the violence in nature and of our own place in this natural world. He clearly deplored our propensity for blinding ourselves to the fearful symmetry of birth and death, and our ‘Egg Head’ arrogance in believing that we could control it all. He was, although no-one commented on this until quite recently, a poet-ecologist – anxious that we should be aware of the delicately balanced web of energies of which we are a part.

Over the years, I continued to read and enjoy Ted’s poetry but my eventual decision to write my Ph.D thesis on it came about almost by accident. Thinking about his poem, ‘The Bull Moses’, I formed a vague idea that a certain amount of mythology was involved in Ted’s work and that I would like to explore this further. So I chose “Myth, History and Religion in the work of Hughes, Yeats and Graves” as my M.Litt. dissertation topic. I soon realised that Ted’ s poetry was immersed in, indeed grew from, myth. Graves and Yeats went by the board, so did history. Myth and religion led to Blake and alchemy and sixteenth-century Neo-Platonism, and I soon had so much fascinating material that to stop my research when my M.Litt. was finished would have been almost impossible for me. So, I went on.

My Ph.D supervisor, Dr Geoff Gunther, had a deep interest in mysticism and Eastern religions and was able to offer valuable advice as I explored Ted’s use of these philosophies, and Alison Hoddinott, when Geoff was on sabbatical, managed to suitably restrain my enthusiasm for Ted’s occult interests (his “dottier beliefs”, as one critic recently described them).

Meanwhile, I wrote to Ted with a question about the alchemy in Cave Birds . His reply was friendly and wonderfully detailed and he replied to a later query in the same way, but he was never a frequent correspondent, his poetry always came first. And in spite of my frequent visits to England for family reasons, I was reluctant to try and arrange a meeting with him. Partly this was because I knew how many demands there already were on his time, partly it was my own need to maintain some objectivity in my writing, and partly it was sheer nervousness. I had followed Ted’s footsteps along such esoteric, difficult and often obscure pathways in the realms of knowledge that I was in awe of him. Our meeting, when it did occur, was suitably in line with his occult beliefs in the stars and predestination. I literally bumped into him.

I had just arrived in England when I read that Ted was giving one of his rare poetry readings at the opening session of the Cheltenham Festival. I just happened to have that time free, and I just happened to have a cousin living in Cheltenham, so I decided to go. The reading, as it turned out, was awful. Two other poets also read from their work, but the acoustics in the hall were so bad that it sounded as if all three were reading simultaneously from different sides of the room. I did not manage to contact Ted before the reading and I knew that public book-signing was something he never did, so after the session I decided to leave. I was walking out of the building when I changed my mind and turned to go back in – and walked straight into Ted, who was creeping away as unobtrusively as his impressive six-foot stature would allow. I introduced myself and he was warm and friendly, told me he was just off to Ireland, and wrote down his unlisted phone-number for me and urged me to ring him when he got back.

A week later, we met at Ted’s home in Devon and he took me and my husband, David, for a huge Devonshire Tea in a Dartmoor village. On the dashboard of his car lay a few hand-tied fishing-flies. His car was a muddle of boots and fishing-gear, and he drove like a country farmer (which he was) who is used to having the road to himself. We talked about faith-healing, astrology (his sister, Olwyn, it seems, is the expert), poetry competitions, artists, fads in literary criticism, other poets and, just in passing, what Ted was working on at that time. He had, always, a very strong, superstitious belief that to discuss his current work was unlucky.

After this, I met Ted several more times in Devon and in London and, at the time when he asked me to help collate his manuscripts (since sold to Emory University) David and I stayed on his farm, Moortown, in Devon. I grew to think of him as a gentle giant, warm-hearted and generous, with a sharp, Yorkshireman’s, sense of humour and a formidable range of knowledge. His commitment to poetry and to reviving and fostering the imaginative energies in our world was total.

My last conversation with Ted was only ten days before his death. I knew he had been unwell, but did not know just how ill he really was. He sounded full of energy and enthusiasm. The stage production of his translation of Racine’s Phaedra was receiving good reviews in London, and he joked about an old lady who had sat behind him at one of the afternoon performances he attended and who had loudly voiced the opinion that she would not like to be Dianna Rigg and “have to go through all that again tonight”. He also wanted me to see his translation of the Oresteia : “The best thing I have ever done”, he said, and promised to send me a copy. We planned to meet before I left England, but sadly his and my family commitments prevented that.

It was a great shock to hear of his death on the day I arrived home in Sydney.

Ted was never a lover of celebrity, pomp or grandeur. But he did believe in the value of rituals and he had a deep respect for the ancient and traditional relationship between the poet/bard, the people and their ruler. Westminster Abbey, the Queen’s church, was a beautiful and appropriate setting for this ritual celebration of Ted’s life and work. And the ceremony, as the Dean of Westminster said, was “an unusual. service for an unusual man”. It was simple, full of poetry and music, and Ted would have loved it.

Representatives of the Queen and Prince Philip, together with the Prince of Wales – who showed touching concern for his grandmother, the Queen Mother, who sat beside him – and Ted’s family and friends sat in the north and south transepts close to the High Alter. This was where I sat, and in this comparatively small area occasional shafts of sunlight shone down on us through the stained glass windows and illuminated the readers and singers. Beyond us, State and Church dignitaries sat in the Quire, which separates the transepts from the main body of the church. And beyond them, sat some thousand people who loved Ted’s poetry enough to have written to the Abbey for tickets. Many well-know and influential literary people were there, but the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, governed by the dignity of Abbey procedures but never pompous.

After the National Anthem and the Collegiate and Royal Procession, the service began with the ethereal voices of The Tallis Scholars singing, “Miserere nostri Domine”. Shusha Guppy sang a poem Ted had written especially for her; Michael Baldwin, Lord Gowrie, Dr Caroline Tisdall and Seamus Heaney spoke and read poems by Ted; Alfred Brendel played the Adagio from Beethoven’s Sonata No. 17 in D; and we all sang “The Lord’s my shepherd” and William Blake’s much loved and very patriotic “Jerusalem”. The service ended with The Tallis Scholars singing “Spem in Alium”, which had been chosen for the service by Carol Hughes, and with organ music by Bach.

Music in the Abbey sounds magnificent but the spoken word gets lost in the echoes. Nevertheless, Heaney’s reading of ‘That Morning’ reduced me to tears, partly because of the power of the poem itself and partly because I finally accepted that Ted is no longer there for me to write and talk to. I was not the only one to be so moved, especially when we listened to Ted’s recorded voice.

Carol, Ted’s wife, was amazing. She sat, beautiful and calm throughout the service, which must have been as difficult for her as it clearly was for Nicholas, Ted’s son, his daughter Freida , and his sister Olwyn. Ted’s older brother, Gerald, who lives in Australia, was also there. After the service, all the family gathered just inside the Abbey’s main doors and talked casually to people as they left. Outside, the police held back gawping tourists.

I, and a few other ‘Hughes scholars’, who had last met at a conference in Cairo several years ago, gathered by the Abbey Bookshop and then repaired to the Duke of Marlborough for some lunch. We agreed that Ted would have approved our choice and have joined us if he could. We also agreed that he had left us with a blessing:

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consumation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

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