My AS level students are in the last throes of revising for exams coming in May. One question will be on a selection of Ted Hughes poems and what follows is an essay in the style required of them by the exam board (a single poem analysis of the Practical Criticism kind). ‘Her Husband’ first appeared in 1961 and then in Hughes’ 1967 collection Wodwo which mostly contained poems written before Sylvia’s Plath’s suicide in 1963 but also a few others (such as ‘The Howling of Wolves’) written after it. Hughes’ next major publication was Crow in 1970. Leonard Scigaj has noted how many of the Wodwo poems contain “recurring feuds and destructiveness” and ‘Her Husband’ is a domesticated, Lawrentian version of this.
Comes home dull with coal-dust deliberately
To grime the sink and foul towels and let her
Learn with scrubbing brush and scrubbing board
The stubborn character of money.
And let her learn through what kind of dust
He has earned his thirst and the right to quench it
And what sweat he has exchanged for his money
And the blood-weight of money. He’ll humble her
With new light on her obligations.
The fried, woody, chips, kept warm two hours in the oven,
Are only part of her answer.
Hearing the rest, he slams them to the fire back
And is away round the house-end singing
‘Come back to Sorrento’ in a voice
Of resounding corrugated iron.
Her back has bunched into a hump as an insult.
For they will have their rights.
Their jurors are to be assembled
From the little crumbs of soot. Their brief
Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it.
Ted Hughes is more renowned for his portraits of animals and natural landscape than people. Especially early on, he is more interested in, as he expressed it, capturing animal and natural life in language as he does so brilliantly in poems like ‘The Jaguar’, ‘Wind’ and ‘Thrushes’. However, it’s not true to say Hughes does not write about human life and some would argue that a poem like ‘Hawk Roosting’ though on the face of it about a creature is really about human behaviour. In ‘Her Husband’ Hughes is clearly focussed on the human in a marriage which is full of bitterness and resentment.
‘Her Husband’ is written in the third person, giving a distanced but vivid portrait of a marriage through the events of one evening. The title of the poem forms part of the opening sentence so the poem’s opening line, starting with “Comes home”, already gives the impression of the husband as an almost impersonal force, unnamed perhaps because already all too familiar to his wife. The thumping alliteration of the opening line (dull – dust – deliberately), reinforces the man’s brute entry into the house. As a working miner he spreads “coal-dust” about the house but Hughes emphasises his inconsiderate nature with the adverb “deliberately” and the forceful, unpleasant verbs associated with his arrival: “grime” and “foul”. This opening quatrain flows quickly, being unpunctuated from start to finish, evoking an arrival which is sudden, sweeping, unstoppable. The ugly internal rhyme of “foul towels” also contributes to the impression of his disruptive arrival and Hughes conveys the husband’s resentful attitude with the idea that he intends to teach his wife about the “stubborn character of money”. This personification of money as a person difficult to deal with, to persuade, cleverly conveys the husband’s own difficulties with the exhausting character of his day’s work. But he intends to impress this resentment on his wife who he wants to work (repetitively) with “scrubbing brush and scrubbing board”. This is not a relationship in which we see any love, compromise or mutual respect, though we have yet to be shown much of the wife’s perspective.
In fact the second quatrain continues in much the same vein with a repetition of the phrase “let her learn”. All this repetition conveys the husband’s determined intentions. Lines 4-8 also introduce a vocabulary of a more moralistic kind. The narrative voice echoes what must be the husband’s thoughts about the way he has “earned” the “right” to go drinking in the pub before he returns home. He regards the earning of his wage as a physical and personal “exchange” of his physical “sweat” for cash and the hyphenated phrase describing money as possessing “blood-weight” particularly conveys the sense of his personal sacrifice as a working man, how he feels the day’s work metaphorically costs him “blood” (as a miner this might be sometimes literal too). I think Hughes goes some way here to encouraging sympathy from the reader for the husband’s situation but the quick return to his aggressive, even vicious, attitude to his wife in the heavily alliterated and emphatic phrase “He’ll humble her” (line 8) definitely lessens any sympathy I may be feeling.
The simple metaphor of casting “new light” on his wife’s role is used in line 9. There is a sort of tired familiarity throughout this poem (on both husband and wife’s sides) and I suspect this sort of encounter is not the first of its kind so the idea of him casting/teaching “new” light probably really reflects his sense that however much he tries to do this she does not “learn” to behave as he expects by more obediently taking note of what he sees as her “obligations”. I doubt whether he himself would have used many of the moral terms that the third person narrative voice employs in these lines, so the distancing voice Hughes has chosen to use enables these more abstract points to be made. It’s only at line 10 that we get a sense of the wife’s “answer” to her husband’s demands. As has been implied already, her reply to his demands is not at all submissive. We are told “part of her answer” is the disgusting-sounding meal with its “fried, woody chips” though it’s partly unpleasant because it has had to be kept warm in the oven “for two hours” (the fact that he’s so late home increases our sympathy for his wife). But her fight back is sustained it seems; the other “part” of her answer to his demanding and bullying attitudes must be spoken to him or probably shouted. Interestingly, Hughes gives us none of this directly as it is only implied in the brief phrase “Hearing the rest” in line 12.
The husband’s corresponding response to his wife’s uncooperative (surely complaining) reply is immediate and violent. The husband’s vigorous determination causes Hughes to run-on sentences at the end of both stanza 2 and 3. Here, the violent verb “slams” shows how he disposes of her cooked meal in the fire and sweeps out of the house and “away round the house-end” all in one flowing, swift, uninterrupted sentence. The husband’s singing voice is described as “resounding corrugated iron” in a typical Hughesian metaphor (linking the organic with the metallic or industrial). Also the song he chooses to sing is full of irony and deliberately insulting as it is a romantic song of lost love. Line 16 gives us a brief last glimpse of the wife’s response, her body language suggesting her own stubborn resentment, “bunched into a hump”. Hughes adds a simile to make her antagonism even more clear: “as an insult”.
The final quatrain now departs from the specific actions of the married couple and returns to the more moralistic and even legalistic language that I noted earlier in the poem. Here the narrator’s distance from the domestic argument is clear again. This poem was first published in Wodwo (Faber, 1967) and, as a relatively early Hughes poem, it is unusual in its focus on individual people though this distancing effect suggests he may be observing their behaviour in the same way as he does a jaguar in a cage or the power of the wind. Line 17 is the shortest sentence in the whole poem and declares, in firm monosyllables, that both sides in this conflict “will have their rights”. This makes it clear there is no room or desire for compromise. The final three lines introduce the language of the law court (a divorce court perhaps?) though the jury are “to be assembled / From the little crumbs of soot”. This soot reminds us of the coal-dust he brings into the house in line 1, but also of the burnt dinner thrown into the fire-back in line 12. These tiny black specks suggest to me that such a jury will never come to any clear conclusion in this dispute. They suggest the hopelessness of the couple’s situation. This rather depressing ending to the portrait of a marriage is confirmed in the final line and a half as we are told that the legal “brief” (a technical term for one side’s case in a law court) follows the smoke and soot up the chimney. This suggests that the arguments on both sides metaphorically go up in smoke. Hughes concludes in the plainest language: “nothing more is heard of it”. The way in which the events of the dismal evening vanish up the chimney suggest the likelihood that something similar may happen again tomorrow and the day after.
So Hughes’ portrait of a marriage is very bleak indeed. The narrative voice describes events at a distance and though there are occasions when the reader does feel sympathy for the people involved, the language of the poem itself is not at all emotional. The poem’s voice sees events from both husband and wife’s perspectives though it’s interesting that we are never given any actual dialogue in this domestic row. Hughes’ irregularly-lined and unrhymed quatrains suit the poem’s plain description in a mostly colloquial tone: this is not a poem or situation where any lyricism or poetically-charged language would really be appropriate.