Though November has just transformed itself into December here, still Ted Hughes’ sodden, rain-soaked poem from Lupercal (1960) comes to mind as I watch the TV footage of floods in the North-West of England. I’ve never thought enough attention has been given to the role of the narrator in this poem. It’s one of the selected poems studied on the Cambridge International Examinations’ A-level. Students are asked to discuss one specific poem in detail or two poems from a more thematic perspective. What follows is a loose version of the first type of question (apologies for some loss of formatting in the poem itself). NB. For another close discussion of an early Ted Hughes poem – ‘Meeting’ – click here.
The month of the drowned dog. After long rain the land
Was sodden as the bed of an ancient lake,
Treed with iron and bird less. In the sunk lane
The ditch – a seep silent all summer –
Made brown foam with a big voice: that, and my boots
On the lane’s scrubbed stones, in the gulleyed leaves
Against the hill’s hanging silence;
Hughes opens the poem with a bewildering mix of images of motion and stasis. Flooding must account for the “drowned dog” (more literal than figurative or colloquial here) and the absence of a verb emphasizes the stillness of death, the burden of the month, the real entrance way to winter. The land is so sodden as to have suffered inversion to become “the bed of an ancient lake”. It’s an alien landscape – trees (as so often in Hughes) are now composed of industrial “iron” and inevitably “birdless”. Yet in contrast to such stillness, the ditch water (which in summer is a soothing sibilant “seep silent”) is now possessed of a “big voice” composed of brown foam and beside it, the narrator’s boots scrape along the lane. These two sounds are all that can be arrayed against “the hill’s hanging silence” and the contrasts of movement and stillness, noise and silence compose the greater world of this poem.
Mist silvering the droplets on the bare thorns
Slower than the change of daylight.
In a let of the ditch a tramp was bundled asleep;
Face tucked down into beard, drawn in
Under his hair like a hedgehog’s. I took him for dead,
But his stillness separated from the death
From the rotting grass and the ground. The wind chilled,
And a fresh comfort tightened through him,
Each hand stuffed deeper into the other sleeve.
His ankles, bound with sacking and hairy band,
Rubbed each other, resettling.
It’s this greater world that the narrator fears and the tramp entrusts himself to. To the narrator, the tramp sleeping in a let of the ditch, is comparable to an animal, a “hedgehog”. In the narrator’s world view, this is no compliment and indeed in the next phrase (line 12), he considers the tramp “dead”. To give the narrator credit he perceives his mistake and next sees the tramp’s vitality, though (in a reversal of our preconceptions) it is his “stillness” rather than animation that “separate[s him] from the death” all around. The animation of the “wind” evokes a corresponding movement in the tramp: “a fresh comfort tightened through him, / Each hand stuffed deeper into the other sleeve”. There is paradox here too in that the tramp’s movements are intended both to shield him from the elements yet also settle him more comfortably among them.
The wind hardened;
A puff shook a glittering from the thorns,
And again the rains’ dragging grey columns
Smudged the farms. In a moment
The fields were jumping and smoking; the thorns
Quivered, riddled with the glassy verticals.
Lines 18 – 23 seem to represent a moment in which the narrator looks away from the tramp. What he sees is a world he might once have been familiar with dissolving before his very eyes. This is partly a result of optical effects brought on by atmospheric conditions, but Hughes’s language systematically destabilizes the solid and still (the farms, the fields, the thorns) and solidifies the diffuse and shapeless (the wind, the rains). Such a renovation of perception is comparable to the stunned narrator at the end of Hughes’ story ‘The Rain Horse’ (from Wodwo, 1967) who, after the terrifying encounter with the horse, sits “staring at the ground, as if some important part had been cut out of his brain”. The poem’s narrator reports in line 24 that he “stayed on under the welding cold” and the colloquialism of the first two words here implies that any sane person might have retired to shelter; whatever transformative process Hughes is representing in the encounter between narrator and tramp is already under way. The narrator seems to surprise himself by staying as if he were watching the actions of another.
I stayed on under the welding cold
Watching the tramp’s face glisten and the drops on his coat
Flash and darken. I thought what strong trust
Slept in him- as the trickling furrows slept,
And the thorn-roots in their grip on darkness;
And the buried stones taking the weight of winter;
The hill where the hare crouched with clenched teeth.
In fact he stays to continue to watch the tramp becoming part of the landscape: “I thought what strong trust / Slept in him”. All the critics you’ll read agree this is the key idea; but as Keith Sagar asks: in what exactly does “the tramp trust?” The image of sleep links this trust also to the fields’ “furrows”, to “thorn-roots”, to “buried stones” and to the hill itself where the hare is “crouched with clenched teeth”. Is this merely a trust in a viable future? A sort of wishful thinking? A consolation? Perhaps it is if the furrows imply next year’s crop, the roots suggest the new year’s growth, the stones will be unearthed to build new walls, the hare will survive to unclench in the Spring. There is something Romantically attractive about this reading and we might remember Wordsworth’s encounter with the Leech Gatherer who also seems part of the landscape (“as a huge stone”). Wordsworth is equally uncertain of the man’s status: “not all alive nor dead, / Nor all asleep”. As their conversation continues, the Leech Gatherer’s voice becomes indistinguishable from “a stream” and in some low level psychic derangement Wordsworth imagines the Gatherer as “Like one whom I had met with in a dream; / Or like a man from some far region sent, / To give me human strength, by apt admonishment”.
Rain plastered the land till it was shining
Like hammered lead, and I ran, and in the rushing wood
Shuttered by a black oak leaned.
The keeper’s gibbet had owls and hawks
By the neck, weasels, a gang of cats, crows:
Some stiff, weightless, twirled like dry bark bits
In the drilling rain. Some still had their shape,
Had their pride with it; hung, chins on chests,
Patient to outwait these worst days that beat
Their crowns bare and dripped from their feet.
But Hughes’ tramp is far less consoling, far more frightening. In the concluding stanzas, the narrator runs away – on the face of it to shelter from the rain though earlier this had not troubled him. He runs into a wood in something of a panic as the breathless, long-delayed verb here suggests: “in the rushing wood // Shuttered by a black oak leaned”. It’s what the narrator encounters in the wood that provides the final piece of the jigsaw for this poem. He confronts death in the shape of a gamekeeper’s gibbet and it is really death in which the tramp trusts, as much as he trusts himself to life. This is the point of the poem’s many transformational oppositions, of stasis and movement, solid and diffuse, sleep and waking, dead and alive. As the “flash and darken” of raindrops on his coat suggest, the tramp’s instinct is to entrust himself to both life and death without making any clear, rational distinction between the two.
I think the narrator has preserved this distinction and perhaps does so even at the end. Of the bodies on the gibbet, some are fresh, others are like “dry bark bits” being twirled in the rainfall. The narrator seems inclined to focus on those retaining their living “shape”, those who he says retain “their pride”, those who seem (like Wordsworth’s Gatherer) to teach patience, and endurance against “these worst days”. But the incontrovertible fact is they are all dead and death is lesson 101 in Hughes’ work as can be seen in Crow’s ‘Examination at the Womb-Door’ (Crow, 1970). It is the denial of death’s reality that leads to delusion and a false consciousness of our own position in the world. The narrator of ‘November’ still hankers after the human scale of virtues such as patience and Wordsworthian endurance. It is the tramp – ironically rather forgotten by the end of the poem, lying foetal in the let of the ditch, still huddled against the month’s elements – who entrusts himself to the risks of exposure and death, but in doing so may hear (what the sheltered narrator will never hear) the reply that Crow gives to the final question he faces:
But who is stronger than death?