The Horses

June 24, 2013

This is an early Ted Hughes poem. I have been reading a lot of Hughes recently, and the Letters, which are well worth the time there is a wonderful long letter on Shakespeares Measure for Measure on P.404.

I have included at the end of this poem a short introduction I wrote for The Guardian for a little Hughes booklet.


I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark.
Evil air, a frost-making stillness,

Not a leaf, not a bird-
A world cast in frost. I came out above the wood

Where my breath left tortuous statues in the iron light.
But the valleys were draining the darkness

Till the moorline blackening dregs of the brightening grey
Halved the sky ahead. And I saw the horses:

Huge in the dense grey ten together
Megalith-still. They breathed, making no move,

With draped manes and tilted hind-hooves,
Making no sound.

I passed: not one snorted or jerked its head.
Grey silent fragments
Of a grey still world.

I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge.
The curlews tear turned its edge on the silence.

Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted

Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,

And the big planets hanging
I turned

Stumbling in a fever of a dream, down towards
The dark woods, from the kindling tops,

And came the horses.
There, still they stood,
But now steaming, and glistening under the flow of light,

Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves
Stirring under a thaw while all around them

The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound.
Not one snorted or stamped,

Their hung heads patient as the horizons,
High over valleys, in the red levelling rays

In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces,
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place

Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.

In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place. (from Horses)

In 1998, not long before his death, Ted Hughes published Birthday Letters, those poems written privately, over the years, to his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, who gassed herself in 1963.

These poems, authentic and honest as they are, stoked the kind of counterfeit interest that prefers gossip to poetry, and inevitably it was the romantic, tortured Plath/Hughes marriage that became the focus of a wider public awareness of Hughes. Feminists have always had plenty to say about the partnership – little of it in Hughes favour, but whatever the truth of that love-affair, (and there are only two people who can ever know the truth of a love-affair), it began with poetry. Hughes, at the end of his life, chose to return it there. Plath, I think, would recognise that.

A poem is an act of memory. Poetry was first forged out of the need to remember what would otherwise be forgotten in an oral tradition record-keeping is an art, not an act of administration.

Early poems are to be recited, memorised, passed on, and a heightened language lifted by rhyme and beat, makes the memorising easier. So poetry began as a practical art, an active remembrance, and while Birthday Letters is a very clear example of Hughes connection to poetrys original purpose, one of his earliest poems, Thought-Fox, (1957), swells like a scent-gland, marking the role of the poet as witness and carrier.

In Thought-Fox, the wild creature circling the tamed world comes as unknown energy, sensed but not seen. The bound of the animal out of instinct and into consciousness, its hot stink, is what makes the poem happen. For Hughes, poems happen in this meeting/mating between very different measures of energy the raw feral of the instinctual life, and the channelled potency of consciousness.

Thought-Fox has as its literary predecessor, Coleridges Frost at Midnight – a poem and a poet in dialogue with the guardian spirit of Nature. Like Wordsworth and Coleridge in the eighteenth century, Hughess relationship to Nature is vivid and necessary. Through the memory of his encounters with hawks, foxes, weather, landscape, Hughes invokes a balancing power to set against the crazy man-made world where everything happens at double speed and on the surface. As a poet, not a preacher, he doesnt need to hammer home his point he lets the poem itself be the counter-point, the reminder of another kind of life, vigorous in its energy.

Hughes is a vigorous poet nothing languid about him, and the muscle of his language lifts the ordinary or overlooked experience, turns it about, holds it up to the light, carries it for us, then gently puts it down where we wont forget it.

Hughes, getting up before dawn, staying up long after dark, (common features of his poetry), stands as witness to what the functional clock-driven world is too busy or too asleep to notice.

But it is misleading to think of Hughes as a Nature-poet, because that label, like all labels, strangles his scope. Rather, he is a poet working to bring back into touch two continents of experience that have tectonically separated, like casualties of a new ice- age

The natural world and its rhythms, he believed, are as necessary to humankind as any amount of progress, and so Hughes uses his own body as a bridge, feeling everything that he writes through the shock of being there he fished the rivers, crouched under the trees, had the adventure-spirit of a wild man. Then he translated Natures hermetic language into one we can read. (Remember that in all the fairy-tales, the one who finds the treasure is the one who can understand what is said by the birds or the wind..)

When Hughes began to write, in the 1950s, Post-War Britain was about slum clearance, new towns, a modern economy, machine-led progress, and equality-led politics. The best English poets (take Eliot and Auden, Spender and Isherwood, as examples), werent writing about animals and Nature. In fiction and in the theatre, the push was towards an urban society, and the rise of the working class, (think John Osborne, Joe Orton).

But Hughes, the Yorkshireman with the land in his DNA, began to re-write the human connection to the natural world, to re-wire it really, without sentimentality or evasion. His are no simplistic hymns to the past when everything in the Shire was lovely; rather his poems sniff out the bloodlines of our inheritance. We are made from the earth. Remember it, says Hughes.

What poetry prompts us to remember alters according to what we are most in peril of forgetting. The jargon of global warming and climate change brings no-one closer to the planet that is melting under our feet. Reading Ted Hughes is a wild call to live where the night snows stars and the earth creaks.