One of my most visited blog posts in recent months has been the discussion/analysis of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘November’, The Month of the Drowned Dog: click here. The poem had been in my mind as we are studying it (along with a range of other poems by Hughes) in the Cambridge International Exam Board’s A level course for Literature in English. I suspect I am getting hits from students around the world also following the same course and – without wanting to become a major source of plagiarism – I thought this week I might discuss another poem from the same selection.
‘Meeting’ was first published in The Hawk in the Rain (Faber, 1957) and is one of several poems in that collection to present what has been called “the central theme or event in Hughes’ poetry: the usurpation or invasion of the world that the rational intellect has constructed by a power that is represented as greater and ultimately more real” (Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (Palgrave, 2006). The poem ‘Egg-Head’ is a much less concise treatment of the same issue. The common meaning of ‘egg-head’ – an intellectual, probably arrogant, person (usually a man?) – operates in Hughes’ poem which intends to berate such characters for what they exclude from their life experiences. But the egg image also implies a fragility which suits the poet’s purpose of critiquing the limits of such attitudes. Egg-heads, like Humpty-Dumpty, are always in danger of being cracked open. So the ‘Egg-Head’ character peers at life (this latter word gathers to itself extraordinary power and significance in Hughes’ as in D H Lawrence’s work) “through his fingers”. He deploys methods of “defence”, is “walled in” and “shuts out” and he “resists”. All this is achieved, Hughes roars in an angry, flurried combination of chewy consonants and Latinate vocabulary (that is perhaps not as controlled as it might be):
By feats of torpor, by circumventing sleights
Of stupefaction, juggleries of benumbing,
By lucid sophistries of sight
This is the vitriolic tone of the attack on the rational mind’s defences. It is countered by not wholly convincing phrases intended to be representative of life such as a “leaf’s otherness, / The whale-monstered sea-bottom, eagled peaks / And stars that hang over hurtling endlessness” quickly supplemented by “the flash / Of the sun, the bolt of the earth”, then “the looming mouth of the earth” and finally “the whelm of the sun”. What does emerge from such phrases is the link of life with the natural world, with great power, with incalculable scale.
All these ideas are better conveyed in ‘Meeting’ and a prose/short story version of Roberts’ “central theme or event” can be seen in ‘The Rain Horse’ (from Wodwo (1967); also found in the CIE Prose Anthology called Stories of Ourselves (p.271)). The young man at the start of this story has already come “too far” from the orderly “tarmac lanes” he had intended to walk. He had come hoping vaguely for “something, some pleasure, some meaningful sensation, he didn’t quite know what”. His encounter with the uncanny, threatening, apparently evil-intentioned horse of the title instead gives him a “fright and shame”. At the end he strips himself naked, sits staring at the ground “as if some important part had been cut out of his brain”. Roberts again interprets this sequence of events such that the horse is representative of un-delimited life, a “shamanic spirit” challenging the young man’s rational control and perception. So it’s less that something has been cut out of his brain (though he may feel the loss of self-constructed barriers as a loss) more that whole fields of experience, emotional and spiritual possibilities have been opened to him. This misinterpretation of the impact of life (in Hughes’ sense) is something also seen in ‘Meeting’.
‘Meeting’ opens with another of Hughes’ straw-men, a self-regarding male whose “smile”, in the first phrase, suggests he is well-pleased with what he views in the “mirror”. But as with ‘Egg-Head’, it is the exclusion of all else, all otherness, that concerns Hughes. Even as he smiles, the man “shrink[s]” the rest of the world to a “trinket”, the tinkling consonants (t-k-t) here neatly suggesting the insignificant bauble all else becomes in his view. The word is then countered by the grand sweep of the poem’s key phrase intended to evoke the too-often unregarded universe beyond the rationalist’s view: “the whole / Sun-swung zodiac of light”. Here the wide open vowels (o-u-u-o-a-i) suggest breadth and scale, the sibilance suggests a dynamism, the zodiac evokes images of both night sky and astrological/mythic elements, the light suggests the elusiveness of life on this scale. For all this to be reduced to a “trinket” feels both absurd and tragic (for Keith Sagar this is both “hubristic and solipsistic”, reducing the universe to the point where man can erroneously “feel himself to be a god in it”). To drive the reductive point home even more clearly the trinket shape is said to appear “On the rise of his eye” which I take to be the curvature of the man’s pupil, but describing it as a “rise” also reminds us of the man’s own arrogantly elevated self-image.
After the colon/caesura of line 3, Hughes uses the metaphor of a dramatic “role” for the man’s behavior to stress both its importance and falsehood. The role Hughes gives the man (or the role the man imagines himself to be playing) is that of Dr Faustus, the arrogant over-reacher, so consumed with his own importance that (in Christopher Marlowe’s play) he barters his soul for earthly power and pleasure though clearly warned of the consequences. He simply doesn’t seem to think the ordinary rules apply to him. The image of flinging “a cape” suggests an Elizabethan stage scene and that word “life” reappears here in all its significance since this is what the actor/man feels he can “outloom”. That Faustus himself outloomed ordinary life and religious sanctions for 24 years is relevant here; as is the fact that he was dragged screaming to Hell at the close of the play. Hughes imagery contains within it the condemnation he intends in the poem.
These opening four and a half lines set up the character of the young man. After the full stop in line 5 the “event” begins (and consists of one sweeping, irresistible sentence). Like the man in ‘The Rain Horse’, this man also wanders into the wilder realms of nature, to “an empty mountain slope”. To apply the adjective “empty” to this place is just one of the man’s errors, imagining a terra nullius where there is multifarious life and significance. What he actually encounters here is a “black goat”. It’s around here perhaps that a reader becomes more conscious of the poetic form Hughes is using. It’s terza rima, a form of triplets rhyming aba bcb cdc and so on. On the whole, Hughes manages this really well (line breaks at lines 5 and 8 perhaps turn more for form than sense and the rhyme word demanded in line 16 is awkward). The difficulty and complexity of this form might be a gesture to the rational man whose mind enforces order and organization, or contrastingly, the looping, self-involvement of the scheme might suggest Hughes’ own perception of the lived world’s interconnectedness.
The goat’s appearance has conventional features suggestive of threat and this means we are seeing it from the man’s perspective. Colours of “black” and “yellow-eyed” are ugly, as is the hyphenated phrase “square-pupilled”. Its onomatopoeic, assonontal and threatening movements (“clattered and ran”) are a challenge as is the position it takes up, “forefeet firm on a rock”, the sizzling fricatives and the ‘clatter’ of the monosyllabic “rock” further reinforce this. Of course, the goat’s placement “above” the man is significant of Hughes’ true valorization of this encounter. This is contrasted with line 11, as the “black devil head” is the man’s assessment of the creature, a designation that what lies beyond his usual comprehension must be categorized as evil.
One reason why this poem is more successful than ‘Egg-Head’ is that Hughes, in the final 7 lines, takes us seamlessly into the man’s transformative experience as a result of the encounter. Images of startling differences in scale occur. In contrast to the earlier belittling of the universe as a “trinket”, the man’s experience is now likened to being gathered up in “gigantic fingers” and placed on a “bare / Palm” for examination. The man’s littleness is the point and the “eye” of the universe (via a simile in line 15) is likened to “a living hanging hemisphere”. This eye is like the whole visible sky above him; a powerful contrast to the way in which the whole “zodiac” was itself reduced to a flickering shape on the man’s own “eye”. The reversal from arrogance to a newly-realised humility is brilliantly conveyed.
But perhaps there are doubts about the man’s epiphany. He is studied (or feels he is being studied) by the vastness of the real universe. His littleness and vulnerability, as in the phrase “his blood’s gleam”, is being examined by the “ray” of the world’s eyebeam. The differences in scale between “gleam” and “ray” are accentuated in line 17’s cosmic simile, describing the ray’s gaze as “Slow and cold and ferocious as a star”, the polysyndeton slowing the phrase down to again evoke a sense of great scale and distance. The goat’s exit is rapid (and again onomatopoeic) and the final ray/away rhyme of the terza rima brings the event to a definite sense of closure. So the man does not have a moment like the young man in ‘The Rain Horse’ where actual changes in his mind are suggested but it’s hard to believe he will return to his mirror smiling in quite such a self-satisfied way. I’d like to think him more open to experiences of “world” such as Louis MacNeice describes (from a less primitivist, more political perspective) in his poem ‘Snow’:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
(read Olivia Cole’s discussion of ‘Snow’ from Magma Magazine.