I am of an age to have read each of Ted Hughes’s various volumes of poetry as they came out, and consequently suffered/enjoyed the same rollercoaster ride that many of his fans must have done, though possibly with different ups and downs according to taste. ‘The Hawk In The Rain’ – hm, interesting, need to keep an eye on this one. ‘Lupercal’ – even more interesting, with some definite wows in there. ‘Wodwo’ – a bit odd but still interesting. ‘Crow’ – yuk, how disappointing, not my cup of tea at all. ‘Gaudete’, now this is just plain weird but then ‘Moortown’ – ah, that’s more like it, bang on, especially the first section, and so on through the years with quite a few strange byways but never a dull moment.
So this week, then, one of those first definite wow poems from that second collection, ‘Lupercal’, one that showcases Hughes’s unrivalled power of empathetic identification with the otherness of the natural world and his ability to express the fear and fascination that this evokes.
Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.
In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads –
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds
The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date;
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.
Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them –
Suddenly there were two. Finally one
With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long,
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb –
One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks –
The same iron in this eye
Through its film shrank in death.
A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them –
Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast
But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,
Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.