Hughes as Poet Laureate

Undergraduate Kathryn Maude's essay evaluates the work Hughes produced as Poet Laureate. She finds that he places a great deal of emphasis on the monarchy as a unifying totem in society - but with limited success.

A Nation's a Soul
With a Crown at the hub
To keep it whole.

Ted Hughes became Poet Laureate in 1984, charged with chronicling in verse the births, marriages and deaths of the Royal Family. He filled the post until his own death in 1998. The poems he wrote as laureate, collected in Rain-Charm for the Duchy, are often criticised as stylistically poor and have been censured in some quarters for their unquestioning patriotism. So, why did Hughes become Poet Laureate, and how did writing to order affect his poetic imagination and tone?

Even a cursory glance at Hughes's Laureate poems suggests that his patriotism was heartfelt and entirely real. He became laureate at a difficult time for the monarchy and Sean O'Brien suggests that his response to this was 'to take the task entirely seriously and write more directly [...] in honour of the institution of the monarchy than might now be supposed possible' (in The Deregulated Muse, p. 38 - see Further Reading below). The epigraph at the beginning of the collection Rain Charm for the Duchy seems unambiguous in this respect, with the country portrayed as a wheel 'With a Crown at the hub | To keep it whole'. The Royal Family, as Hughes depicts it, is the nation's crutch in difficult times, a hub around which the whole country revolves. It could be argued that he is writing to the Royal Family: the poems can be seen as one man's homage to a great institution and its living representatives.

In poems like 'The Dream of the Lion', composed for the Queen Mother on her eighty-fifth birthday, a sense of reverence is conveyed particularly strongly. According to Hughes, the three Lions (his capitalisation) in this poem represent the Queen Mother herself (a play on her maiden name Bowes-Lyon), her astrological sign (Leo), and the Lion on the royal coat of arms, which he describes as the 'totem animal of Great Britain' (you can find this quotation - and the last one in this paragraph - in Appendix 1 of Collected Poems). The final lines describe how 'the Dream of the Lion / Dropping from air as manna dew, / Cleansing all, condensed on you / And the climbing sun revealed you, the Lion'. This addresses the Queen Mother directly, portraying her as a chosen figure anointed from on high by the spirit of Britain, the so-called 'Dream of the Lion'. The idea that this poem, at least, could be a personal, as well as a public, tribute to the Queen Mother is hinted at in the notes, as Hughes recalls that he first made the link between the Lion in the Queen Mother's surname and the Lion on the coat of arms 'during my boyhood obsession with the animal kingdom and my boyhood fanatic patriotism'. Writing poems for the Royal Family has brought out the child in Hughes that revered and respected the Crown, and they are pervaded by an atmosphere of deference.

However, the laureate poems could never solely be addressed to the Royal Family. They are designed to be public celebrations of important events in that family's life. Each of the poems in Rain Charm for the Duchy And Other Laureate Poems was originally published in a newspaper, so Hughes had to take into account his wider readership as well as the wishes of the Royal Family. In the notes to 'A Masque for Three Voices', Hughes actually states that he had 'taken pains to make [it] as accessible as possible' (Collected Poems, Appendix 1). It has been suggested that Hughes did not rise to the challenge of writing for these two very different audiences. A. Alvarez suggests that, with the exception of Birthday Letters, Hughes's better poems were written earlier on and in later life 'his duties as Poet Laureate seemed to have got the better of him' (this quotation can be found in The Epic Poise: A Celebration of Ted Hughes, ed. Nick Gammage (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), p. 210).

There appears to be a consensus that, in trying to make his poems accessible, Hughes lost the immediacy and depth found in collections such as Crow. When discussing the laureate poems, Sean O'Brien draws attention to 'Hughes's adoption of the careful plainspokenness more usually found in his work for children' (The Deregulated Muse, p. 39). 'A Masque for Three Voices' exemplifies this with stanzas like 'Being British is the mystery / That it is you or you or you or me? / I do not understand how this can be'. A kinship between the poet and the readership is sought as Hughes addresses us directly, and the simple rhyme scheme and rhythm echo the sing-song cadence of a nursery rhyme.  The historical sections of the poem are reminiscent of the programmes that fill dead hours in TV schedules: the Top Ten Dictators or the Top Twenty Great Moments of the Twentieth Century. The beginning of section three reads:

Einstein bent the Universe
To make war obsolete.
Ford swore his wished-for wheels would rush
The century off its feet.
The Soviet Butcher Bird announced
The new age with a tweet.

Again there is a simple rhyme scheme, abcbdb, and a strong rhythm with alternating four-stress and three-stress lines. Apparently to Hughes accessible poetry rhymes and has a strong rhythm. It seems a little patronising that his work addressing the public at large is reminiscent of his work for children, as if the meaning of the poems needs to be spelt out to the masses in case they don't get it.

The notes Hughes wrote to explain the laureate poems are longer than those for any other collection. The weight of symbolism is enormous and a few key images are repeated again and again. There is a preoccupation with unity and a history measured not in years but in the passing of generations. The crown features large in this mythology of the Royal Family; its circle symbolises both the unity of the people under the Queen and the continuity of the royal line as it is passed from one member of the family to the next. 'A Masque for Three Voices' begins:

A royalty mints the sovereign soul
Of wise man and of clown.
What substitute's debased those souls
Whose country lacks a crown.

Here the crown is described in , as a precious metal that elevates the 'base' souls of humanity to higher things. It also assumes that both the 'wise man' and the 'clown' will, following the prompts of their 'sovereign' souls, bow down to their sovereign. A remark O'Brien makes about the laureate poems as a whole has particular relevance here, as he states that 'the social order is justified by the fact of its existence...The central, impossible part of Hughes's task here is to resurrect it through a myth of consolation' (The Deregulated Muse, p. 39). Hughes seems to believe that the Royal Family is its own justification and speaks of the monarchy as it was in the past, when it truly was the focal point for the country. The myth Hughes attempts to perpetuate is that the Royals are still seen as the unifying force in the country today, which many would be quick to deny.

This mythical upholding of the monarchy is attempted through the evocation of a kinship between the peoples of Britain, which is again symbolised by the crown. Hughes states that in war time 'our sacred myth, the living symbol of a hidden unity, the dormant genetic resource, turned out to be the Crown' (Appendix 1, Collected Poems). In 'A Birthday Masque' the Crown is linked to the 'ring of the people', a Native American concept from the memoir of the Sioux Shaman Black Elk. The 'ring of the people' is the unity of a group of people in a society.  The section entitled 'The Ring' describes all the different groups of invaders that arrived in Britain and merged to become one people, paralleling this with the forging of a crown out of many different metals. It depicts:

a melt of strange metals
To be folded and hammered [...]
Till millionfold
It is formed, is the living
Crown of a kingdom
The ring of the people.

Different metals are combining to make a crown, and under that Crown the people combine to make a nation: the two circles of the crown and the people mirror each other. The only problem with this image is that it has little relevance to the world in which Hughes actually lived. Rand Brandes notes that 'Hughes' poetry resists history through...his belief in the healing capabilities of ritual and myth' (in The Challenge of Ted Hughes, p. 156, see Further Reading below). In this case this assessment is a valid one. The historical fact that the monarchy is losing its significance as the world changes is ignored, as Hughes focuses on the comforting myth of unity; one people under one crown. Seamus Heaney is correct when he remarks on Hughes as one of three poets who are 'hoarders and storers of what they take to be the real England' (in The Achievement of Ted Hughes, p. 19, see Further Reading). To Hughes, the real England is symbolised by the monarchy.

Another interesting aspect of Hughes' laureate poems is the link they create between animals, the land and the monarchy as three unchanging constants. His first poem as laureate was 'Rain-Charm for the Duchy - A Blessed, Devout Drench for the Christening of HRH Prince Harry'. This parallels the rain falling on the land Harry is to inherit with the holy water poured on Harry at his christening. The land and Harry are portrayed as inseparable, with the moors paying homage to the birth of the new royal child: 'I imagined the two moors / The two stone-age hands / Cupped and brimming, lifted, an offering'. The animals in the laureate poems also pay homage to the Royal Family, notably in 'A Birthday Masque' when the birds of England come together to find the Crown. The final stanza reads 'Thirty birds / Searching for God / Have found a Queen...Sixty wings / Making a crown'. The Queen is the representative of God on earth, as the head of the Church of England. The birds find the Queen when searching for God and they realise that their own wings, in a circle, can make the crown. All of the aspects of the country are united under the crown, in the myth if not in fact.

On balance, the critical opinion lies with Tony Harrison, a fervent anti-monarchist, who wrote a poem entitled 'Laureate's Block' after Hughes's death noting that 'It's not for Laureate poems we'll miss Ted Hughes'. Ted Hughes is not missed for his Laureate poems, but the poems he wrote for the Royal Family do give an interesting insight into a patriotism and unity of purpose that is now only a myth.

Further Reading

  • Seamus Heaney, 'Englands of the Mind' in Finders Keepers (London: Faber and Faber, 2002). This is a helpful comparison between the England of Ted Hughes' poetry with the Englands found in Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill. It has an interesting section on the rhythm of the poetry and its relation to the land.
  • Sean O'Brien, The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1998). Sean O'Brien sees Ted Hughes' Laureate poetry as reflecting the opinions and preoccupations of the upper classes. In Hughes' poetry overall, he suggests that the denial of politics can be read as an implicit call to maintain the status quo.
  • The Achievement of Ted Hughes ed. by. Keith Sagar (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983); and The Challenge of Ted Hughes ed. by Keith Sagar (London: Macmillan, 1994). These two books of critical essays edited by Keith Sagar are also useful, as they give a broad overview of all Hughes' poetry and show a variety of critical opinions.

Further Thinking

Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, described the job as basically thankless, and found that it gave him writer's block. Do you think Hughes' laureate poems display some of this difficulty?

Kathryn Maude's essay makes use of Sean O'Brien's negative view of these poems. In O'Brien's view, they let themselves and their readers down by not questioning the political system enough. Do you agree?

Alchemy, practised by alchemists, was a branch of occult philosophy with a particular interest in creating special substances through processes not unlike chemistry. Two of their most famous goals were immortality (by means, for example, of the philosopher's stone), and turning base metals to gold.

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