Ted Hughes: alive in the river of light

So we found the end of our journey,
So we stood alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

That is the inscription on the memorial stone to Ted Hughes, unveiled in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey last night. It’s an extract from ‘That Morning’, a poem from his 1983 collection, River.

We came where the salmon were so many
So steady, so spaced, so far-aimed
On their inner map, England could add

Only the sooty twilight of South Yorkshire
Hung with the drumming drift of Lancasters
Till the world had seemed capsizing slowly.

Solemn to stand there in the pollen light
Waist-deep in wild salmon swaying massed
As from the hand of God. There the body

Separated, golden and imperishable,
From its doubting thought – a spirit-beacon
Lit by the power of the salmon

That came on, came on, and kept on coming
As if we flew slowly, their formations
Lifting us toward some dazzle of blessing

One wrong thought might darken. As if the fallen
World and salmon were over. As if these
Were the imperishable fish

That had let the world pass away –

There, in a mauve light of drifted lupins,
They hung in the cupped hands of mountains

Made of tingling atoms. It had happened.
Then for a sign that we were where we were
Two gold bears came down and swam like men

Beside us. And dived like children.
And stood in deep water as on a throne
Eating pierced salmon off their talons.

So we found the end of our journey.

So we stood, alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

Laying the memorial stone
Following a lengthy campaign, the memorial to Hughes, former poet laureate who died in 1998, was given its place in the Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. Members of his family including his widow, Carol, and Frieda, his daughter with Sylvia Plath, joined friends and fellow poets including Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Simon Armitage and Blake Morrison.

All the members of a family scarred by tragedy were recalled in the ceremony. Heaney – who said at Hughes’s funeral, “No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft; no death in my lifetime has hurt poets more” – gave the oration and read several Hughes poems, including ‘Some Pike for Nicholas’, recalling some of his happiest hours with his son, Nicholas, who killed himself in 2009 after battling depression for years. Juliet Stevenson read Hughes’s tender verse about his daughter ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’.

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin

Yesterday on Radio 4, Simon Armitage pointed out that, though Ted Hughes is indelibly associated with the Calder valley, he only lived in that part of the world until he was about seven:  ‘I think it became a kind of template, not just for his early work but for all mature work as well – a kind of lens through which he could see all of the world.

Speaking about ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’, Simon Armitage described it as ‘a really tender poem, I think we might be invited to imagine that ‘moon’ is the first word his daughter speaks.  She comes out into the doorway and sees the moon and responds to it.  It’s such a wonderful poem: it’s like a kind of equation in language where he’s managed to balance this little girl against a whole planet’. Armitage said that poetry was in Hughes’ breath and in his blood, and speaking of the words from ‘That Morning’ carved on the memorial stone he said:

Those three lines say as much about his work as anything: the immediacy of it, but also the absolute depth.  It’s mesmerising and crystal-clear at the same time.

Armitage also spoke about Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ which he read at the ceremony last night:

It’s a poem about the act of writing – the visitation of the fox is compared with the visit of the poem, this kind of mysterious thing that comes to him, and it’s one of those that’s suddenly there in front of your eyes, printed, as he says, before you know it.  It’s sort of  a magic trick really – and the fox then disappears back into the wood.

Fence by Fay Godwin

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Heptonstall, 1978, by Fay Godwin

See also

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