How mad was Ted Hughes?

How mad was Ted Hughes?

I ask the question because I found the process of learning a poem of his for the purpose of recitation somewhat maddening.

I am used to memorising poetry. the better to perform it;  and sometimes I can master a poem in a day, but it took me months to memorise ‘The Hawk in the Rain’, the title poem of Ted Hughes’ first collection, first published by Faber and Faber in 1957.

Some of the text would become established in my mind, only for a process of disintegration to swiftly occur as soon as I turned away from the task.

The poem is now quite well embedded in my memory, so long as I keep practising it, and I enjoy the achievement of reciting it. This enjoyment does, just, outweigh the displeasure that the process engenders. This displeasure is occasioned in part by the piece not being a poem at all: it might, at first sight on the page, appear to be poetry; but it deceives. it lacks the integrity of a true poem. and I feel cheated.

I will give some reasons.

Here is the poem:


I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk

Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges,

Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,
And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs
The diamond point of will that polestars
The sea drowner’s endurance: and I,

Bloodily grabbed dazed last-moment-counting
Morsel in the earth’s mouth, strain towards the master-
Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still.
That maybe in his own time meets the weather

Coming the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside down,
Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him,
The horizon trap him; the round angelic eye
Smashed, mix his heart’s blood with the mire of the land.

To the eye, then, this appears to be some sort of poem; but, when we read it, we find that none of the customary principles of poetic patterning have been used ~ those principles that have given the fundamental aesthetic satisfactions of English poetry over the centuries.

First, there is no pattern of rhyme.

However, the piece may yet provide other patternings that will give aesthetic satisfaction and lead us to adjudge it a poem. It does exhibit a marked degree of alliteration; but, on a close analysis, there is nothing systematic in this feature of the piece: the frequency and positioning of the alliterating ‘beats’ is irregular, even chaotic and ugly. Here is an analysis:-

‘St.’1 ‘St.’2 ‘St.’3 ‘St.’4 ‘St.’5
Line 1 3 2,2 2
Line 2 2 2,2 4 3
Line 3 2 2 2 2
Line 4 2 2 2

In the first ‘stanza’ we have three Ds in line 1, two Hs in line 2, and so on. Then, in the second ‘stanza’, we have two pairs of alliterating ‘beats’ in the first two lines, and none in the last. In line 10 there are four Hs. In the final ‘stanza’ there is no alliteration at all.

We may amusedly and metaphorically say that this literary behaviour is ‘mad’; or we may say that it demonstrates some sort of mental instability; or we may say that it is evidence of an unprincipled technique. In this piece of writing there is an intense use of what may be called ‘poetic language’, but no principled, objective, poetic structure. It is a literary thing that is highly wrought, indeed overwrought; and thus badly wrought.

There are those who would say that this piece is a poem in ‘free verse’. That is wrong, because the term ‘verse’ implies and entails measure of a systematic sort. Here is an analysis of ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ showing how the piece may be structured, or not, in respect of the number of ‘beats’ in each line:-

‘St.’1 ‘St.’2 ‘St.’3 ‘St.’4 ‘St.’5
6/7 5 6 6 8
5 5/6 6 6 5
5 5 4 5 5
4 5 4 5 6

This is not a settled, systematic poetic structure: it is either a poor, an incompetent one, or a pretence ~ Ted Hughes, and his publishers, called this piece a ‘poem’.

We may now judge it not as a poem but as a piece of ‘poetical writing’, and try to make some sense of it as a grammatical and poetical utterance.

The ideas ‘voiced’ or ‘expressed’ in this word-thing leave us with an impression of conceit and bombast. Who is this person that has, somewhat unadvisedly one might think, chosen to go ‘sludging’ over clay ploughland in wind-driven rain to no apparent purpose? Were one to trudge so in the company of a child through clay that clutches (a nice poetical moment, that), one might laughingly show mock fear at having one’s wellies ‘snatched’ and of being swallowed by the earth’s mouth. But this is not the mood of the piece. We are, rather, in the ‘company’ of somebody whose thoughts turn morbidly to the idea of the dogged grave. It makes one rather uncomfortable to have such a ‘companion’ ~ but perhaps he or she has something worthwhile to say.

The first three lines of the second ‘stanza’ of the piece have a certain grace and composure (though we would like to take out the useless full stop after eye).

Then, however, the streaming air suddenly becomes a banging wind which the author in a somewhat silly and bombastic moment wants us to imagine being able to kill hedges. This hyperbole is not respectable. In our experience hedges are generally more resilient than that.

Line 9, though rhythmically isolated and distinct, gives some pleasure, even exhilaration, through its form; and the ‘self-dramatisation’ in it, shall we say, is within bounds; but it is followed by a line in which we are presented with what to us is another ridiculous idea, that of one’s head being hacked to the bone by mere rain. Once again we turn to the child beside us in our own imaginary ploughland and we have a laugh as a green boot ~ one with frog’s eyes on the toe ~ is again ‘grabbed’.

Next, we need to adjust the text to make sense of things: the hawk hangs [as] the diamond point of will.

Now we are asked to imagine ourselves ‘drowning’ in the wind-and-rain-swept ploughland, silly us; and then immediately to imagine being grabbed (bloodily now) by some ‘earth-hawk’ or ‘hawk-earth’.

This is all a bit ‘mad’.

Now Hughes as it were goes in for the kill. What follows is nonsense. A ‘sentence’ begins at line 16. That is the hawk and is probably the main subject of the sentence. In our analysis we take out the silly idea of weather somehow coming the wrong way. The hawk then becomes the subject of the verb suffers in line 17. We make sense of the next phrase by remaking it thus: [as he is] hurled upside down. Next, we make sense of the previous sub-section by joining it to line 18, so: suffer the air [to] fall from his eye.

Now we must ‘squelch’ through the absurd metaphorical landscape in which ponderous shires crash on a mere bird which should perhaps first have suffered the horizon to trap him. Then, after the only semi-colon in the piece, we are asked to work out what is the subject of mix in the final line.


I don’t know the answer. I find the whole awkward, unreal conception unacceptable. My memory keeps trying to eject it, but I keep rehearsing it for my grim amusement. I retire. I have no interest in trying to wrestle out any further meaning from a piece of writing that is overwrought and somewhat demented and which, though strikingly vigorous and ‘picturesque’ at times, is but an undisciplined attempt at true poetry.

The poem ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ is reprinted by kind permission of Messrs Faber and Faber.