Ted Hughes

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Ted Hughes



(Born Edward James Hughes) English poet, shortstory writer, novelist, playwright, editor, translator, and author of juvenile poetry, novels, plays, and short stories.

The following entry presents an overview of Hughes's career through 2005. For further information on his life and career, see CLR, Volume 3.


England's poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998, Hughes influenced the general direction of contemporary English poetry written since the early 1970s. His verse contributed to the renewed popularity of illustrated topographic poetry, which coincided with the rise of the ecological movement in the late twentieth century. Echoing the dialect of his native Yorkshire district, the language and syntax of Hughes's verse typically concerns the cunning and the savagery associated with the animal kingdom, often emphasizing the harsh realities of life. However, Hughes also garnered international renown with the publication of several volumes of children's literature designed to challenge young readers' imaginations rather than conform to cultural expectations. These works share many of the same motifs and themes found in Hughes's poetry for adults, including animal imagery, mythical symbolism, and a focus on environmental preservation. To make such themes more palatable for young readers, Hughes generally tempered, but did not entirely avoid, his stark depictions of the physical world. He adopted simpler language, injecting a humorous tone and sentimental outlook largely absent from his writings for adults.


The youngest child of Edith Farrar and William Henry Hughes, Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, a village in the moorland of West Yorkshire, England, on August 17, 1930. In 1938 his family moved to the mining town of Mexborough in South Yorkshire. Upon entering Mexborough Grammar School, Hughes soon befriended the son of the head forester at an outlying estate where he spent most of his time. Meanwhile, Hughes also began writing comic verse for his classmates and, with the encouragement of his English teachers, he published his first poems in the school's magazine in 1946. Although he won an Open Exhibition in English to attend Pembroke College at Cambridge University in 1948, Hughes opted to complete his National Service first. Between 1949 and 1951, Hughes worked as a radio mechanic at an isolated Royal Air Force station in East Yorkshire where he read and re-read the works of Shakespeare. In 1951 Hughes entered Pembroke College. Although he intended to study English upon enrollment, he graduated with a B.A. in archeology and anthropology in 1954. During the next two years, he held a series of part-time jobs as a teacher, security guard, gardener, and zoo attendant. In 1956 Hughes met and married American poet Sylvia Plath, who was studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship. With his new wife's assistance, Hughes published his first volume of poetry, The Hawk in the Rain (1957). After Plath completed her M.A. at Cambridge in 1957, the couple moved to the United States and settled in Massachusetts. Plath joined the English faculty at Smith College, and Hughes took a teaching position at the University of Massachusetts. There he met sculptor and graphic artist Leonard Baskin, whom illustrated many of Hughes's subsequent works, including several of his children's books. In 1958 the couple gave up their academic careers and moved to Boston to write full-time. During the summer of 1959, Plath and Hughes finished the manuscripts of their first major poetry collections, Colossus and Lupercal (1960), respectively. The couple returned to England in December 1959. Plath gave birth to a daughter, which prompted Hughes to focus on children's literature. He published his first collection of verse for young readers, Meet My Folks!, in 1961. At the same time, he also contributed reviews and essays to various periodicals and began delivering radio talks for the BBC's "Listening and Writing" serial program. After giving birth to a son in 1962, Plath became severely depressed. The couple briefly separated but then reunited until Plath took her own life in 1963.

Hughes almost completely stopped writing poetry for several years after his wife's suicide. He mainly concentrated on children's literature during the rest of the 1960s, publishing The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People (1963), How the Whale Became (1963), Nessie the Mannerless Monster (1964), and The Iron Man (1968). He also produced several radio plays for children. In 1969 Hughes again dealt with a series of personal losses—his mother died shortly after his girlfriend took her own life and that of their daughter. Despite such tragedy, Hughes began attracting notice as one of England's most promising poets, particularly with the publication of Crow (1970), a poetry cycle notable for introducing a symbol central to many of his subsequent volumes. Increasingly drawn to the experimental theater of Peter Brook, Hughes traveled with the stage director in 1971 to Iran. While there, he developed "orghast"—a new "language" that aimed for communication beyond words. He also wrote poetry based on Brook's experiments with the Prometheus theme and edited a collection of Shakespeare. When he returned to England in 1972, Hughes bought Moortown Farm and withdrew from the public realm until the mid-1980s, although he continued to write prolifically and often in collaboration with photographers and illustrators. In addition to his efforts to rehabilitate Plath's literary reputation, Hughes composed several noteworthy works for children during this period, including Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (1974), Moon-Bells and Other Poems (1978), Under the North Star (1981), and What Is the Truth? (1984). In 1984 Hughes was appointed England's Poet Laureate, a post from which he frequently advocated the protection of the environment. During the late 1980s, he primarily focused on children's poetry. Though he continued to write children's literature during the 1990s, notably The Iron Woman (1993) and The Mermaid's Purse (1999), he became preoccupied with literary prose. Hughes's later career is marked by a return to drama and translation, including Tales from Ovid (1997), which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. Following the publication of The Birthday Letters (1998), which also garnered the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, Hughes was named a member of the Order of Merit shortly before dying of cancer on October 28, 1998.


The primacy of the imagination in the educational process underlies most of Hughes's works for children. His essay "Myth and Education" articulates the idea that a good education should also develop the human faculty of imagination, which enables children to synthesize the "outer world" of manmade gadgets and culture with the "inner world" of the biological body and the human spirit. Moreover, Hughes believed that literature and art could counteract the sometimes harsh, materialistic realities of life in contemporary society. In Meet My Folks!, for example, Hughes developed lighthearted sequences of heavily-rhymed verse to describe a child's early, often frightening encounters with various imaginary relatives. Hughes's children's works generally tend to echo the major themes developed in his works for adults. The latter primarily involves legends of creation and birth, often expressed through the dark vision of a mocking, predatory bird, the crow. Meanwhile, Hughes's children's books explain the origins of natural phenomena and both wild and domesticated animals in order to allay children's concerns and fears. Set on the distant moon, the poems in The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People deal with darker aspects of the imagination, placing familiar animals in nightmarish situations so that young readers can safely placate their distrust of the unknown. Creation myths are at the heart of three different juvenile shortstory collections published by Hughes, beginning with How the Whale Became. The eleven fables in this book present a playful account of the origins of the animal kingdom without avoiding the inherent violence of the natural world. Similar stories followed in Tales of the Early World (1988) and The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales (1995). Another prominent theme in Hughes's writings for young readers is that of ecological preservation, demonstrated most famously in The Iron Man, which pits technology against nature. In this five-part tale, the title character, who must consume iron or steel to survive, arrives in a farming community and angers the residents by eating their tractors and agricultural tools. With the help of a young boy, the Iron Man makes peace with the townspeople and takes up residence in the local scrap yard. In the second half of the story, the Iron Man engages in battle with a "space-bat-angel-dragon," who thrives on humanity's warlike nature and eats living things. The Iron Man prevails as the space-beast gives up his old ways and embraces peace, indicating the importance of environmental awareness, tolerance, and forgiveness. The environmental theme continues in the book's sequel, The Iron Woman, which assails ecological irresponsibility before nature's integrity is restored by the novel's end.

A number of Hughes's children's books draw upon his nostalgia for the Mytholmroyd moorland of his youth, including Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, a cycle of poems chronicling seasonal changes from a child's innocent perspective, and Flowers and Insects (1986), a poetic sequence detailing the natural beauty of various species native to England. A wide variety of animals populate many of Hughes's writings such as What Is the Truth?, which describes God's visit to a rural community while the villagers utter poems about the farm animals and wild creatures with which they inhabit the world. Other examples of Hughes's animal-themed poetry collections are Under the North Star, featuring Arctic animals; The Cat and the Cuckoo (1987), centering on wild and domestic animals dwelling in the English countryside; and The Mermaid's Purse, spotlighting creatures of the sea. The four-volume omnibus edition Collected Animal Poems (1995) gathers Hughes's The Iron Wolf and What Is the Truth? for youth audiences and The Thought-Fox and A March Calf for adult readers. In addition to Hughes's original compositions, The Rattle Bag (1982) and its companion volume, The School Bag (1997), both co-edited by Hughes with Irish author Seamus Heaney, contain selected poems designed to cultivate an interest in literature among young readers. Another Hughes-edited anthology of poetry, By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember (1997), is prefaced by an account of Hughes's own strategies to memorize poems.


While critics have acclaimed Hughes's adult poetry for its innovation, vitality, and originality, they have also celebrated his contributions to children's literature with enthusiasm. In particular, most commentators have recognized Hughes's children's works for their complex, nuanced perspective on contemporary issues, contrasting them with the sanitized or oversimplified explanations usually offered to young readers. Other critics have praised Hughes for introducing children to literary forms and styles formerly regarded as beyond the ken of most youth. Some scholars have suggested that the brutality presented in his works may exceed many parents' boundaries, however, others have argued that such violence authenticates Hughes's otherwise honest meditations on the nature of the animal kingdom. In addition, commentators have analyzed the psychological subtext of the animal metaphors, savagery, and fantastic characters in Hughes's work, illuminating the significance of subconscious desires and fears in his writing. Hughes's insistence on raising consciousness about the environment among young people has also received considerable commentary from critics, who have frequently cited his treatment of natural motifs and animal imagery as particularly relevant to this cause. Finally, many have observed a variety of pedagogical values in Hughes's children's works, particularly his emphasis on the necessity of imagination to focus and nurture developing minds.


Juvenile Works

Meet My Folks! [illustrations by George Adamson] (juvenile poetry) 1961

The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People [illustrations by R. A. Brandt] (juvenile poetry) 1963; also published as Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems, 1976

How the Whale Became [illustrations by George Adamson] (juvenile short stories) 1963; also published as How the Whale Became and Other Stories

Nessie the Mannerless Monster [illustrations by Gerald Rose] (juvenile poetry) 1964; republished as Nessie the Monster, illustrations by Jan Pyk, 1974

Poetry in the Making: An Anthology of Poems and Programmes from "Listening and Writing" (juvenile poetry) 1967; abridged as Poetry Is, 1970

The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights [illustrations by George Adamson] (juvenile novel) 1968; also published as The Iron Giant: A Story in Five Nights, illustrations by Robert Nadler, 1968

The Coming of the Kings and Other Plays (juvenile plays) 1970; enlarged as The Tiger's Bones and Other Plays for Children, 1974

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (juvenile poetry) 1974; revised and enlarged as Season Songs, illustrations by Leonard Baskin, 1975

Moon-Bells and Other Poems (juvenile poetry) 1978

Under the North Star [illustrations by Leonard Baskin] (juvenile poetry) 1981

The Rattle Bag: An Anthology of Poetry [editor; with Seamus Heaney] (juvenile poetry) 1982

What Is the Truth?: A Farmyard Fable for the Young [illustrations by R. J. Lloyd] (juvenile poetry) 1984

Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth [illustrations by Chris Riddell] (juvenile poetry) 1986

Flowers and Insects: Some Birds and a Pair of Spiders (juvenile poetry) 1986

The Cat and the Cuckoo [illustrations by Flora McDonnell] (juvenile poetry) 1987

Tales of the Early World [illustrations by Andrew Davidson] (juvenile short stories) 1988

The Iron Woman [illustrations by Barry Moser] (juvenile novel) 1993

Collected Animal Poems. 4 vols. (juvenile poetry) 1995

The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales (juvenile short stories) 1995

By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember [editor] (juvenile poetry) 1997

The School Bag [editor; with Seamus Heaney] (juvenile poetry) 1997

The Mermaid's Purse [illustrations by Flora McDonnell] (juvenile poetry) 1999

Collected Plays for Children (juvenile plays) 2001

Collected Poems for Children (juvenile poetry) 2005

Other Major Works

The Hawk in the Rain (poetry) 1957

Lupercal (poetry) 1960

Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (poetry) 1970

Moortown Elegies (poetry) 1978

Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence (poetry) 1979

Tales from Ovid: Twenty-Four Passages from the Metamorphoses [translator] (poetry) 1997

Birthday Letters (poetry) 1998

Collected Poems (poetry) 2003


Lissa Paul (essay date May-June 2005)

SOURCE: Paul, Lissa. "‘Writing Poetry for Children Is a Curious Occupation’: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath." Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 3 (May-June 2005): 257-67.

[In the following essay, Paul recounts key literary events in the lives of Hughes and his wife, noted poet Sylvia Plath, between the summer of 1957 and December 1959, detailing the couple's transformation into professional writers and their exploration of the formal possibilities for writing children's literature.]

The flashy Ted and Sylvia story is the big-screen biopic—with Gwyneth Paltrow in the starring role. For more serious students of literature, there are other stories. There is Ted's version in his verse collection, Birthday Letters (1998), ostensibly written to Sylvia on birthdays long after her death. And there is Sylvia's version, in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000). I'd like to tell a different Ted and Sylvia story. It's a literary story; it's an American story—and it has a Horn Book connection. For the most part, my story takes place in Massachusetts, in Northampton and Boston, between the summer of 1957 and December 1959. It was there and then, at the beginning of their intimate creative partnership, that Ted and Sylvia negotiated the hazardous transformation from promising to professional writers; where they began to acknowledge formally the possibilities of writing poetry and prose for children as well as for adults.

Because beginnings make most sense when viewed from endings, my story begins at the end, in the archives at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where Ted's papers and books are now housed. There, among the two-and-a-half tons of archival material he gave to Emory, are two files classified as unidentified notes on "children's writing and teaching." They contain loose sheets of yellow scratch pad, unlined and undated (though they appear to be from a late stage in his career), on which Ted has written rough drafts for an apparently unproduced radio program. The rhythmically elegant phrase "writing poetry for children is a curious occupation" appears repeatedly as Ted tries out various ways of writing something that will resolve—as elegantly as the opening phrase—the inherent conflicts he sketches among producers, manufacturers, distributors, and consumers of children's poetry. Here's one version as Ted tries to articulate the problem:

And the most curious thing about it is that we think children need a special kind of poetry. Each writer for children has his own idea of what that is … Publishers, of course, know that poetry is not sold to children—it is sold to their parents or teachers. So this is the barrier to publishing children's poetry. The author thinks he knows what they want, or need, the teachers or parents think they know best. And the publisher thinks he knows best what poet & teacher think they know best. And we all think differently. Each author writing for children thinks the same—and all write differently.

Although Ted is talking about writing poetry for children, his remarks apply equally well to his prose. Poets always write as poets—tuned to rhythm, imagery, and feeling. Every phrase, every sentence, is carefully balanced so that it is held in perfect tension with the structure as a whole. But the main concern of this passage, as Ted tries to explain, is the problem of audience relations: Who is the text for? Adults or children? Who publishes it? Who buys it? Who knows best?

One craftily simple way Ted resolved the audience problem was by publishing, without comment, the same poem in different collections—some marked as being for children, some not. But that was a partial solution at best. He cared deeply about nurturing imaginative life and was attracted to the idea that children "are more fluid and alert" than adults. He was also troubled by the speed with which that openness was closed down and sealed up, hidden, as he says, behind a "space helmet." That's one reason Ted was so concerned with audience—and characterized that audience much as traditional storytellers might have characterized their undifferentiated audiences of adults and children. In a 1984 letter to me, Ted described the kind of writing that might reach such an audience as a "lingua franca"—that is, "a style of communication for which children are the specific audience, but which adults can overhear … and listen, in a way secretly—as children." And it appears that Ted was attempting to compose in that style, that "lingua franca," as early as 1956, on his honeymoon in Spain with Sylvia. That's when he wrote the first drafts of little animal fables that ultimately grew into the collection How the Whale Became.

In that bright Spanish summer of 1956, Ted writes, enthusiastically, to his beloved older brother Gerald: "I have written a book of children's & grown up animal fables which surprised even me." Sylvia writes with equal enthusiasm in her journal:

Yesterday Ted read me three new fables he'd just written for his fine animal book about how all the animals became: the Tortoise one was the funniest and dearest yet; the hyena, more serious about a bitter perverted character, and the fox and dog alive with plot and marvelous Sly-Look and Four-Square. I have great hopes for this as a children's classic. Even as I write, Ted is working at the main table on the elephant and the cricket stories. Living with him is like being told a perpetual story: his mind is the biggest, most imaginative, I have ever met. I could live in its growing countries forever.

The celebration was a little premature. Though Ted received initial encouragement from publishers, in 1957 his new creation fables (eventually published in 1963) were rejected as being "too sophisticated" for children. So, as questions of audience relations began to simmer for Ted, the fables were temporarily put on the back burner. But I'll return to them—Ted's stories about animals becoming themselves serve as a poignant counterpoint to the story about Ted and Sylvia becoming writers.

By early 1957, that brief Spanish interlude with its dedicated writing time had become a golden memory. Ted and Sylvia were back in the gray cold of England. Sylvia was completing her Fulbright-sponsored degree in English at Cambridge. Ted, having completed his degree there in anthropology in 1954 and a master's degree the following year, wrote and worked at odd jobs in the neighborhood. Among them was a stint, in the spring of 1957, teaching adolescents at what was called a secondary modern school—a school for the least able students, the ones putting in time between finishing elementary school and being legally able to leave. In the summer, Ted and Sylvia sailed for the United States. Sylvia began teaching freshman English at Smith College (her alma mater) that fall. In January 1958, Ted too took up an academic position, at the nearby University of Massachusetts, Amherst. By spring, both Ted and Sylvia knew that they'd had enough of teaching. Ted writes to Gerald: "Teaching is the deadly-friendly enemy of writing—so that while I am teaching I write nothing that's much good." Sylvia didn't like teaching much either, though she was, as she knew, fulfilling her academic destiny: star student to star professor. But teaching was strangling her writing, too. In Birthday Letters Ted writes about how trapped she appeared in her "blue flannel" teaching suit: "I watched / The strange dummy stiffness, the misery, / Of your blue flannel suit, its straitjacket, ugly / Half-approximation to your idea / Of the proprieties you hoped to ease into, / And your horror in it."

Ted's teaching experiences, both at the American university and at the British secondary modern, had alarmed him. Because he felt that the majority of the students he encountered had been "stupefied by mechanical entertainment, distraction," he began to formulate the idea (learned from his knowledge of myth and folklore) that imaginative stories could act as antidotes, that they could potentially counteract the stultifying effects of modern life. Ted exhorts his brother, repeatedly, to tell stories to his two young sons. "You should be telling them stories continually," says Ted, "the more ominous & frightful the better." So it came to pass that "some time in the spring," says Ted in his notes to Sylvia's Collected Poems, "they made the decision to leave teaching and attempt to live on their earnings as writers."

At that point several features that would shape their lives as writers—especially as writers for children and "secretly" listening adults—were already in place. Ted and Sylvia had saved scrupulously in order to afford the one crucial year they had allowed themselves to become full-time professional writers. They'd already recognized the contours of their mature writing lives and the role that children's litera- ture could play in it. They knew that the core subjects of Ted's imaginative landscape—animals, nature, myth, fable, folktale, fairy tale, and ballad—were subjects considered suitable for children. Sylvia increasingly took on some of those subjects, which chimed, in a Wordsworthian way, with Romantic ideas of childhood as being in tune with imagination and the natural world. By 1957, both Ted and Sylvia had added writing for children to the growing repertoire of genres in which they were working. Sylvia, in fact, writes to her mother that year: "Ted wants to make children's books his other field."

Ted had taken to heart the criticism that his first animal fables were "too sophisticated" and started to work on ways of reconciling his imaginative landscape with the requirements of publishers. While on a brief writing holiday in Cape Cod, just before the teaching year began, Ted writes to Gerald:

I am writing one children's story per day before 9 a.m. These are a sort that really should sell. The publishers showed such interest in my last year's attempt [the first How the Whale Became fables written in Spain]—which I wrote without having a notion of what children read at what age, and which were hopelessly abstract. Now I'm doing better. I am writing for about age six. A paragraph of simple story to each full page picture. Maybe if I practice a bit each day I could do the drawings too within a year or two. Now if I can keep this up—one a day—and I can, and if I can sell them—as I shall soon—either because they are good, or become good through practice, or both & my shortly-to-be-bandied name as a poet—then that will be quite a wage, and leave my whole day after 8:30 or so for more strenuous lofty attempts. These stories come to me absolutely naturally, so I'm not prostituting my imagination. I would like to produce a classic volume—about 5,000 children's stories. I shall bring in all the situations & characters etc. out of all the fairy tales, animal tales etc. that I have read & I have read millions in the last six years. Now, if I could do that it would be a classic because there would be so much in it for desperate parents. At present there are countless children's books, mostly bad, all different, very few that you want to read 2X—so parents don't know what to buy—they first buy one here & one there.

It's clear that Ted had been learning a lot about the children's book business. He and Sylvia had met the engraver and sculptor Leonard Baskin and his wife, Esther, who were both producing picture books for children. Another important source of information on writing for children is likely to have been Sylvia's 1956 edition of The Writer's Handbook, a collection of articles originally published in The Writer. (Sylvia's copy, heavily underlined and annotated, is housed in the archives in the rare book collection at Smith.) The Writer's Handbook contains several articles by children's authors (including Eleanor Estes), all filled with practical, commonsense advice about manuscript presentation, subject matter, and audience. Lee Wyndham, for example, in "Writing for the Look 'n' Listen Age," makes comments that Ted seems to have adapted. "The child's inner world," Wyndham says, "can be a subject." And here: "The young child wants the story in his book to reflect his everyday world because, familiar though it may be to us, to him it is still a thing of wonder, in each moment a new discovery." And finally: "As a writer for the young, train yourself to see, hear, feel, taste and smell in words."

Ted took those conventional instructions and transformed them into vital components in his own aesthetic. In Poetry in the Making (1967), Ted explains how a poem is like an animal, a living creature: "an assembly of living parts moved by a single spirit." He goes on to say that "as a poet, you have to make sure that all those parts over which you have control, the words and rhythms and images, are alive":

Words that live are those which we hear, like "click" or "chuckle", or which we see, like "freckled" or "veined", or which we taste, like "vinegar" or "sugar", or touch, like "prickle" or "oily", or smell, like "tar" or "onion". Words which belong directly to one of the five senses.

The aesthetic sense Ted articulates here also reflects his deep understanding of the way traditional folktales link precise observation of the outer world with emotional response to the inner. In a letter to Gerald, he says, "The thing about imaginative stories is that they make an inner mind and activate it, populate it and become the brain with which the child lives."

July 1958. Ted publishes his first story for children. Sylvia writes in her journal: "Vicarious joy at Ted's writing which opens promise for me too: New Yorker's 3rd poem acceptance & a short story for Jack & Jill. 1958: The year I stop teaching & start writing." Sylvia regarded the acceptance as a kind of talisman, confirmation of their "promise" as writers. When the story is published, Sylvia writes in her journal: "In the A&P I rushed to the magazine rack & there was Ted's story ‘Billy Hook and the Three Souvenirs’ in the July issue of Jack & Jill. The story was sumptuously presented: two fine lively color pictures & two half-tone drawings: gay & magic." Ted was less sanguine. In a letter to Gerald, he dismisses the story in a sentence: "The children's story I sold was so castrated when it finally came out that I don't want to send it to you." The story is a version of a famous Scottish border ballad, "Thomas Rymer," about a man who disappears forever into "Elfland" when he marries the fairy queen. Ted loved this ballad, and others of its kind, famously collected in the nineteenth century by F. J. Child. My guess is that Ted's ballad ending was cut, as the Jack and Jill version ends in a conventional way, with Billy Hook returning to the everyday world with his bride.

Despite Ted's disappointment at the published version, it was still an important marker for Ted and Sylvia. Every story sold, every poem, every award, represented tangible proof that they could, in fact, support themselves as writers. When Sylvia typed up their combined earnings from writing for the period between June 1956 and June 1958, the total came to $2,100.34. The biggest sums were from prize money. Poems mostly sold by the line: nine dollars, ten dollars, fifteen dollars. The New Yorker paid Ted sixty-four dollars for "The Thought-Fox," a sum significantly more than he received from poetry and literary magazines. And for "Billy Hook and the Three Souvenirs," Jack and Jill paid Ted fifty dollars.

Sylvia too tried her hand at the Jack and Jill genre. In a 1958 journal entry she sketches a plot for a domestic fantasy tentatively titled "Changeabout in Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen":

Suddenly, Ted & I looked at things from our unborn children's point of view. Take gadgets: a modern pot & kettle story. Shiny modern gadgets are overspecialized—long to do others tasks. Toaster, iron, waffle-maker, refrigerator, egg beater, electric fry-pan, blender. One midnight fairies or equivalent grant wish to change-about. Iron wants to make waffles, dips point for dents; refrigerator tired of foods, decides to freeze clothes, toaster tired of toast, wants to bake fancy cake….

The story is rejected and Sylvia is disheartened, although even in the sketch it's possible to glimpse the lost world of Sylvia's imagination at work in 1950s America. But Sylvia kept trying to break into publishing for children.

In a letter to her friend, author Ann Davidson, Sylvia writes bravely: "We are plugging our children's books. I go to see an editor at the Atlantic Press tomorrow, probably to get a rejection." The two long verse narratives Sylvia wrote for children in 1959, The Bed Book and The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit, were both rejected—and not published until long after her death. Yet Sylvia did make her debut in children's literature that year—in The Horn Book Magazine. In January 1959, then-editor Ruth Hill Viguers writes:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hughes:

Your names had been familiar to me for some time when our good friend Mel Culbrandsen [Viguers's neighbor] spoke of you. He knew of my interest in poetry and my wish to find unpublished poems for the magazine of which I am editor. Then this past week, my twin daughters in the Wellesley High School spoke of hearing Mr. Crockett [Sylvia's highschool English teacher] read some poems by Sylvia Plath to their English class.

Later in her letter, Viguers explains the Horn Book's mandate as "a literary magazine devoted to criticisms and evaluation of books and reading for children and young people. It is for adults—parents, librarians, teachers, artists, writers—anyone interested in the field of good children's books." In other words, she describes the way the Horn Book reaches children via adults—prefiguring the audience Ted later identifies as the one he wants to reach.

In February 1959, polite and enthusiastic young woman that she was, Sylvia writes a cheerful thank-you note to Ruth Viguers: "My husband and I enjoyed so much meeting you and having tea with you and your daughters when we were in Wellesley last." Then she adds: "Both of us enjoy writing poems about birds, beasts and fish, so we are enclosing one from each of us, about an otter and a goatsucker …" As an afterthought, Sylvia decides to include a few more, and in a postscript writes, "We're adding to the zoo a bull and a field of horses." What she's indicating to Viguers is that she and Ted have recognized that their animal poems, in keeping with Romantic nineteenth-century traditions, are suitable subjects for children's literature.

When published in the April 1959 issue of the Horn Book, Sylvia's "The Bull of Bendylaw" begins with an epigraph, a ballad fragment from F. J. Child's late-nineteenth-century collected English and Scottish Popular Ballads:

The great bull of Bendylaw
Has broken his band and run awa,
And the king and a' his court
Canna turn that bull about.

But Sylvia creates a much more complex creature and international creature in the poem she spins out of the Child ballad fragment. In her journal, Sylvia records the ideas she has in mind for the composition.

The Bull of Bendylaw-King & court: ceremony
& rule—tapestry meadow, daisies, marigolds—
playing card
King & queen
Bull—Dionysiac force—inspiration
Male virility—
Europa & bull
color: versus black bull

The detailed, conscious construction of the mythic world of her verse was typical of Sylvia. The poem itself presents her dense, filigreed approach to the crush of experience she brought to making poems. The bull, for example, is not just the bull of the ballad fragment but also the mythic Dionysian bull—and the bull of the bullfights Ted and Sylvia saw in Spain during their honeymoon—reconfigured as an "unbindable" sea creature:

The great bronze gate began to crack,
The sea broke in at every crack,
Pell-mell, blue-black.
The bull surged up, the bull surged down …

It's a wonderful, mature poem, its first publication in the Horn Book hinting that her poems were to reach both adults and children. In Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems, edited by Ted and published in 1981, "The Bull of Bendylaw" leads off the publications for 1959, the year Ted marks as an important transitional period for Sylvia, when her first collection of "book" poems (as she liked to call the ones she considered good enough for books) began to take shape. For a time, she'd considered using "The Bull of Bendylaw" as the title poem of the collection ultimately published as The Colossus in 1960. Retrospectively, it's possible to see "The Bull of Bendylaw" as a potential locus of Sylvia's poems for both adults and children, poems redolent with mythic, ballad, and folkloric traditions. Sylvia never published formally for children during her lifetime, though there is a hint that she was developing such plans once she had children of her own. In a BBC broadcast produced in January 1963, just before her death, she identifies her poem "You're" as "one of a growing series about a baby." "You're" is a riddle poem, of a piece with other traditional forms with which Sylvia had been working, the ones that communicate to children and adults, the ones that connect observed experience with inner emotion.

In the author note that accompanies "The Bull of Bendylaw" in the Horn Book, Sylvia is identified as having studied at Cambridge and taught at Smith, as having published in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and as living in Boston "with her husband, Ted Hughes, who is also a poet." That is, she appears promising. Ted does not appear again in the Horn Book until October 1964, when the influential children's literature critic Ethel L. Heins favorably reviews How the Whale Became, the creation fables born in that honeymoon summer of 1956: "A completely new kind of ‘how’ story," she says, "written by a young English poet with imagination, philosophical wisdom, and perceptive insight into the ways of animals and men." But even in 1959, Ted understood what kinds of stories he wanted to tell, what he wanted stories to communicate, and their value. In a letter to Gerald he writes:

The thing about imaginative stories is that they make an inner mind and activate it, populate it and become the brain with which the child lives. Without this inner world the child then becomes a mechanical reflection of his environment & responds to it—which is exactly as if he had been lobotomized or had some part of his brain cut away. Life has less meaning for such people, and is less interesting. Hence the incredible boredom & mental vacuity of vast tracts of the American and English younger generation. The whole purpose of education—apart from the mechanical apprentice to certain necessary skills is in rousing mental activity, an inner world.

In the same letter, Ted explains that he had found that kind of vital inner life ("belatedly & remorsefully") in what he describes as "the better sort of folk tale," and offers a few for Gerald to try out on his sons. Ted explains the purpose:

The aim isn't to turn them into writers or dreamers but to give them a bigger, stronger grasp of everything that comes up and a more flexible immunity and a supply of symbols to understand experience—explain it to themselves. Because these stories are composed of psychic symbols—unlike the run of nonsensical children's books which are unreal, essentially false and sentimental.

The four short fables Ted includes in the letter all are redolent with folktale traditions, though not identifiable as being from any single tradition. My favorite is a trickster tale of sorts, with apparently Russian antecedents. It's about a ploughman who unwisely wishes that a bear would eat his recalcitrant horse. When the bear appears, the ploughman is remorseful, but it's too late. A fox comes to the rescue with an idea to trick the bear into thinking he's being hunted. The bear falls for it:

"Save me," [the bear] cried, "And I promise not to eat your horse." At that moment the fox, without showing himself, shouted from the forest: "Ploughman, what's that big dark thing beside you?" "Say it's a stump," whispered the bear. So the ploughman pushed the bear, and the bear kept very rigid, so that he seemed to topple over like a stump.

Ted's poet's eyes and ears are very much evident in the passage: the dramatic cry, "Save me," and the image of the bear toppling "like a stump."

The moral questions multiply. The bear, once in the cart pretending to be firewood, has his head smashed by the ploughman's axe. And the fox (whom the ploughman initially says he'll reward with a chicken) is tricked into a sack of chickens, supposedly to choose the best one. The ploughman smashes the sack "against a wall with all his strength."

For twenty-first century readers—conditioned to school rules of zero-tolerance and a ruthless exclusion of violent stories from children—the story may seem shocking. But it's supposed to. It provokes readers and listeners into thinking about moral actions and consequences. Ted explains to Gerald that "the sadistic element is very prominent in all genuine folk tales. They are a sort of therapy for it, they get it out of the system. It's where repressed that it's so dangerous. Unrepressed it can be converted to more useful ends." That's it. The story provides ideas to think with, tools for imaginative approaches to otherwise complex problems.

In the end, Ted was able to engage the therapeutic virtues of those tales. Besides How the Whale Became, he produced two more collections of creation fables: Tales of the Early World and The Dreamfighter. They stand alongside other important, mythic works (stories, poems, and plays) Ted wrote for children, including The Iron Man (called The Iron Giant in America), The Tiger's Bones, The Iron Woman, Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth, and What Is the Truth? —all reaching for children and secretly listening adults. Sylvia's death in 1963 necessarily precluded the fulfillment of her early promise as a children's author, so evident in her writings of the late 1950s. What remains is the knowledge that her poem "The Bull of Bendylaw" saw its first published life in the Horn Book and that it was produced in that intensely creative period with Ted. It was a crucible of poetic achievement for both of them: volatile, productive—and destructive. But, in the end, the works stand. The promise is kept.



Grace Oliff (review date November 2000)

SOURCE: Oliff, Grace. Review of How the Whale Became, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Jackie Morris. School Library Journal 46, no. 11 (November 2000): 123.

Gr. 2-6—Hughes originally wrote these stories [How the Whale Became ] for his own children and first published them in 1963. They have remained in print in Great Britain, but this is the first American edition. The stories are of the pourquoi variety, providing fanciful explanations for why animals behave as they do. There is the tale of Owl, whose mean-spirited actions earn him taunts from the other birds; Elephant, who after much humiliation emerges as the most respected of creatures; and Donkey, whose indecisiveness seals his fate. These 11 selections are told with such wit, grace, and command of language that they are easily on a par with Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories and should have the same longevity and universal appeal that those tales enjoy. While the book can be read independently, it begs to be read aloud and is a veritable gold mine for storytellers. Morris's watercolors are impressive, and her cool palette, largely blues, soft grays, and greens, suits the rather aloof nature of the characters she portrays. There is one gorgeous full-page illustration for each selection, with smaller pictures scattered throughout. In all, a feast for both the ear and eye.

Gillian Engberg (review date 1 December 2000)

SOURCE: Engberg, Gillian. Review of How the Whale Became, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Jackie Morris. Booklist 97, no. 7 (1 December 2000): 709.

Ages 4-8. First published in 1964, [How the Whale Became, ] Hughes' creation fables await discovery by a new generation in this beautiful edition. From his lyrical introduction, describing the brand new world ("the flowers jumped up and stared around, astonished. Then … creatures began to appear"), Hughes moves on to tell his classic stories about how individual creatures came to be: the whale that began as a garden plant; the power-hungry owl ostracized by its peers; the handsome, clever cat, lazy but talented; and so on. Hughes balances these fantastic stories with a notion children will find inspiring: despite the fantastic stories, some animals became what they wanted to be simply by will and hard work ("Some wanted to become finches, some wanted to become lions, some wanted to become other things. The ones that wanted to become lions practiced at being lions—and by and by, sure enough, they began to turn into lions"). Hughes' prose, both comical and elegantly spare, finds a worthy match in Morris' lavish, detailed watercolors. Stunning spreads and border illustrations celebrate each animal's beauty, endowing the creatures with irresistible personalities (don't miss the lounging cat playing the violin), and extending the stories' comedy and soaring fancy. A volume to treasure.


Lissa Paul (essay date March-April 2000)

SOURCE: Paul, Lissa. "A Second Look: The Return of the Iron Man." Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 2 (March-April 2000): 218-25.

[In the following essay, Paul offers a critical re-examination of The Iron Man, discussing the book's origins, its publication history, and its adaptation as an animated film.]

The end of 1999 overflowed with "best of" lists: best of the year/century/millennium. As I was preparing this essay, I happened to be reading a list of the ten children's novels most likely to be read in a hundred years' time. The list was published by Books for Keeps, a British children's literature journal. The Iron Man was there. In England, The Iron Man, first published in 1968 by Ted Hughes, the late Poet Laureate of England, has been read and loved at home and at school by generations of children. In America, published as The Iron Giant, the book has had a very different history. It has gone in and out of print, with different publishers, and is not well known. Even the editors of the Horn Book, with their enviably encyclopedic knowledge of children's books, were only passingly familiar with it. Ditto for several American experts in children's literature with whom I checked.

Yet there are good reasons for writing about The Iron Man now. When Ted Hughes died at the age of sixty-eight, in October 1998, The Iron Man was celebrating its thirtieth birthday, and was acknowledged as one of the great classics of British children's literature—ranked with Winnie-the-Pooh, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Watership Down, and Wind in the Willows. So I'll confess that it came as something of a surprise to me—a Canadian straddling both British and American traditions—that Hughes's book was so little known in America, despite the fact that in 1999 it was released as a "a major motion picture," an animated film using the book's American title, The Iron Giant. The film received good reviews (three out of four stars in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail) and ran for about four months in Toronto cinemas before it was released on video. On the morning I was writing this passage, it was recommended on a Toronto radio station as one of the three best videos for children. Yet I'm told that The Iron Giant garnered very little attention in American cinema. A shame, really.

I loved the film—which is especially surprising because I'd gone to see it reluctantly, and had been prepared to hate it. That's because I've known The Iron Man intimately for a long time. Despite the fact that it is little recognized in America, I'm writing about it now because a book that remains as fresh and alive today as it was thirty years ago deserves to be known. The absence of this work from the pool of literature made available to American children is a loss.

Hughes was arguably one of the finest poets of the twentieth century. Throughout his long career he wrote eloquently, passionately, and prolifically for both children and adults. Besides a shelf full of books published mainly by Faber on their adult lists, Hughes published poetry, fiction, and drama for children, as well as criticism. Hughes was never just moonlighting in children's books. But it is The Iron Man I'll talk about here.

The fact that The Iron Man was a story Hughes told to his own children marks it in particular ways. It has the meticulous, ritual slowness that occurs only with frequent, intimate, domestic retellings. In its published form, The Iron Man retains the trace of its origins as a story told every night for a week, as expressed in the original subtitle, A Story in Five Nights. Though the subtitle has been cut from recent editions, a brief look at the five-chapter structure reveals a lot about the kind of story Hughes was trying to tell and why he was trying to tell it. For people who haven't read the book, I'll review the chapters:

* * *
Chapter 1. The Coming of the Iron Man

The Iron Man, "taller than a house," appears at the top of a cliff. He sways on the brink, crashes, comes to pieces, reassembles himself. And disappears into the sea.

Chapter 2: The Return of the Iron Man

The Iron Man reappears. And he's hungry. He eats farm machinery, much to the consternation of the farmers. So they decide to trap him in a pit. It is Hogarth, the young hero, who lures him in.

Chapter 3: What's to Be Done with the Iron Man?

The Iron Man resurfaces and begins eating metal again. Hogarth, feeling guilty about trapping him in the first place, has an idea. He leads the Iron Man to a scrap-metal yard—and a great recycling story is born, at least twenty years ahead of its time.

Chapter 4: The Space-Being and the Iron Man

A new threat appears, a space-being as big as Australia. And it wants to eat living things. Weapons of mass destruction are useless against it. Hogarth proposes the Iron Man as the champion of the Earth, in a test of strength against the space-bat-angel-dragon.

Chapter 5: The Iron Man's Challenge

The Iron Man challenges the creature to a trial by fire: the Iron Man will lie on a bed of fire; the space creature, on the sun. The space-bat-angel-dragon gives up after two rounds and becomes the space-bat-angel (no more dragon), singing "the music of the spheres" as he flies through the night.

* * *

If you read the story aloud, you will recognize the traces of its origins as a story told repeatedly to children. You'll hear the perfect rhythms of the prose, see the precision in every image, and find it difficult to resist performing the implied actions—as in this scene from the first chapter. It occurs just as the Iron Man begins to reassemble himself. The eye and the hand connect:

The hand stood up on three fingers and its thumb, and craned its forefinger like a long nose. It felt around. It touched the eye. Gleefully it picked up the eye, and tucked it under its middle finger. The eye peered out, between the forefinger and the thumb. Now the hand could see.

One reason I want to highlight a re-creation scene is to make explicit the kind of story this is: a moral parable, a little fable, in the tradition of tales told by Sufi poets or bards from the Heroic age. I know it is difficult to say that without sounding like some poker-faced New-Age preacher. But that would be the antithesis of Hughes's story. Hughes knew that children balk if they are told a moral story didactically, that the story only works if it is imaginatively true. The Iron Man is very much about the kind of psychic healing we desire when we say, as we often do, that we feel "shattered" or "fractured" or "broken up." That's why it is so telling that the book begins with the Iron Man falling apart and putting himself back together.

The story then proceeds, like nested dolls in reverse, as Hogarth metaphorically incorporates first the Iron Man and then the space-bat-angel-dragon—creatures as overwhelmingly, incomprehensibly huge as Hughes could make them. The Iron Man, as Hughes explains in an essay titled "The Interpretation of Parables" (March 1992 Times Educational Supplement), is "a giant of the technological world," and the space-bat-angel-dragon is "a monster from the depths of living matter." In the story, Hogarth learns to take these potentially threatening monsters and turn their powers to good. Hughes wanted his own children, and ultimately all readers of the story, to learn the same lesson: to integrate potential threats imaginatively, safely—in much the same way as Jung argues for the creative integration of the shadow side of the self. Hughes had compelling reasons for wanting to create such an imaginatively powerful story. The dedication pages in various editions of The Iron Man offer an explanation: they make visible Hughes's need to write a story about healing a fractured self.

In 1968, when the book was new, Hughes's own children were still very young. His daughter Frieda would have been eight, his son Nicholas six, and his daughter Shura, by his partner Assia Wevill, just one. Frieda, Nicholas, and Shura are all named on the dedication page in the early editions of the book. Their names tell Hughes's tragic stories—and his stories of survival. The mother of Frieda and Nicholas, the American poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide in 1963. And in 1969, just a year after the publication of The Iron Man, in a terrible copy of Sylvia Plath's suicide, Assia Wevill gassed herself, and Shura. Shura's name has disappeared off the dedication page in recent editions. There is no way to address those tragedies, but their story is part of the story of The Iron Man.

In 1970, one year after the deaths of Assia and Shura and two years after the publication of The Iron Man, Hughes first formally outlined the moral purpose of his story in a lecture called "Myth and Education," presented at a children's literature conference in Exeter, England. That essay was published in the first volume of Children's Literature in Education, though Hughes went on to revise it, editing out most of the explicit relationship with The Iron Man. He ultimately resolved the essay into a deliberate expression of the idea that stories can be restorative, curative. A year after Hughes's death, there is a sad irony, only recently revealed, that he at least partly believed his cancer was fatal because he didn't remain faithful to his own imaginative writing. At the end of his life, although Hughes was writing some poetry, he was writing a lot of criticism. As he believed that some kinds of imaginative literature could cure, he apparently believed that other kinds of writing could kill. By then, he was speaking as a man in his late sixties with a terminal illness, not as a father in his late thirties with young children to raise, as he was when he wrote The Iron Man. At that time, a healing story, a story with a moral purpose, was important, but it had to have the kind of hero children would take in, not one likely to be shut out. Enter Hogarth.

The boy in The Iron Man is called Hogarth—a distinctly unusual given name. (In the film, he is called Hogarth Hughes.) The name is a tribute to the great eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth, whose engravings of "modern moral subjects" (as he liked to say) revitalized English art. Hughes, like Hogarth-the-artist, was interested in constructing dramatic narratives as critiques of contemporary social and political institutions. Hughes, again like Hogarth, sets up his moral story as a kind of dramatic conflict. On one side is the "real" or "natural" self, able to engage imaginatively with an infinite variety of living things. On the other is the "artificial" or "imposed" self, most easily identified as a kind of oppressive official force: think about a person whose position as judge or soldier or police officer dominates (and so leads to the kind of brutality we often see reported about people blinded and made intolerant by their official powers).

In the film, the battle lines between the natural and the artificial are clearly drawn. That's at least partly because of the medium itself, for which the single narrative, the good guys versus the bad guys, works better than "a story in five nights." After reading a copy of the screenplay, Hughes wrote to the director, Brad Bird, saying how much he'd liked it, especially the way the story had been made "all of a piece, with terrific sinister gathering momentum" at the end.

On the good-guy side is Hogarth, the "natural" character capable of seeing the redemptive possibilities among various life forms, even one as large and potentially dangerous as the Iron Giant. Hogarth is aided in the film by an artist, a scrap-metal dealer who recycles junk into art. The super-good-guy in the film is the Iron Giant, an amalgam of the two monsters in the book. Because the Iron Giant is a flying space monster, he carries something of the space-bat-angel-dragon in him.

The villain in the film is brilliantly rendered as a fifties-style FBI-type government agent, complete with trenchcoat, hat, square jaw, and big teeth, who carries the wonderfully sonorous name of "Mansley." Here is the embodiment of the artificial, the man who is what he wears. The costume of the government agent acts as a kind of artificial armor. Mansley repeatedly stresses that his position gives him license to do much as he likes. And because the film, in a stroke of brilliance, is set in 1957 (unlike the book, which is set in a modern but otherwise unspecified era) in the heart of the Cold War, Mansley casts the Iron Giant as an enemy alien—giving him license to try to destroy the Iron Giant at all costs.

The climax of the film occurs when the megalomaniacal Mansley brings about the launch of a nuclear missile that will kill not just the Giant but everyone on the coast of Maine, including Mansley himself. That enables the Iron Giant to become a Superman figure (the link is established early in the film, when Hogarth gives his pet Giant some Superman comic books to read). Faster than a speeding bullet, the Iron Giant flies into space, catches the missile, and, in an act of supreme self-sacrifice, is blown to bits. But, because the Iron Giant, like the Iron Man in the book, is able to heal himself, to put himself together, the film ends on a note of reconciliation and restoration, as the pieces of the Iron Giant begin to reassemble themselves from around the globe.

The connection between the Iron Giant and Superman is exactly right, a way of correcting something I think was a major editorial mistake made when the book was first released for the American market in 1968. At that time, Harper, the original publisher, said that they did not want Hughes's story confused with the comic-book hero; thus they changed the book's title to The Iron Giant. At least that's what Ted Hughes told Julia MacRae, the well-known British publisher of children's books, when she asked him about the change during the 1970 Exeter conference. It was a diffident answer, a suitable response to an influential publisher. Hughes was forty then, with two huge tragedies just behind him, and ahead of him lay the responsibilities of raising his children and supporting them with his writing. But the title change to The Iron Giant was a mistake. The metrics and meaning are both wrong.

Hughes was a gifted poet, with, of course, a metrically sensitive ear. "Iron Man" sounds a spondee, pronounced with two heavy stresses. That makes sense, as the Iron Man is supposed to be a large, stately creature who moves hugely and deliberately. "Iron Giant" sounds as two trochees, and so sounds too cute, too bouncy. It is a trick of the eye and a trick of the ear, but the two syllables in "Giant" reflect back and require two syllables to be sounded in "Iron." The change disturbs the rhythm of the lines. Here is the opening of the British version:

The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff.

And here is the American:

The Iron Giant came to the top of the cliff.

The solemn, heavy stresses in the British version ("The Iron Man came") move steadily towards the pair of anapests ("to the top of the cliff"). The bounce in the trochaic "Iron Giant" spoils the effect. But the metrical change is only part of the problem.

The shift from "Man" to "Giant" also makes the meaning discordant. A giant, like an ogre, is big and dumb: think of a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk giant, a giant made to be outwitted by someone small, sharp, and quick-witted, like Jack. That's the opposite of the story Hughes tells about Hogarth and the Iron Man. Hogarth is supposed to internalize his mythic Iron Man, not kill him. The Iron Man is a superhero, a savior, a creature capable of healing himself, of healing fractures.

The Iron Man is a redemptive story. Although it is unlikely that the film title will be changed, I like to think that the film restores the "Man," even the "Superman," to the story. And maybe the next time the book is reissued for the American market, the publisher will restore the original title. And maybe, just maybe, as The Iron Man, American children too will have access to a great classic of twentieth-century children's literature: a healing story by one of the major poets of the century.


John Gough (essay date winter 1988)

SOURCE: Gough, John. "Experiencing a Sequence of Poems: Ted Hughes's Season Songs." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 13, no. 4 (winter 1988): 191-94.

[In the following essay, Gough characterizes Season Songs as an authentic poetry sequence appropriate for both children and adults, explaining the work's cyclical structure, thematic motifs, and nature imagery.]

Often children experience poetry in discrete chunks, reading one poem (usually fairly short) by one poet in isolation. This is the typical anthology format: page 9 is Hardy, page 10 is Clare, page 11 is Lawrence, page 12 is Whitman, and so on. It is rare for children to have a chance to read a group of poems by one poet. It is even rarer for children to have the opportunity to read a group of poems which are intended to cohere as a sequence.

There are not many sequences which can be read satisfactorily at a child's level. Shakespeare's Sonnets is too long and too adult a sequence; D. H. Lawrence's love sequence Look! We Have Come Through is simpler, but also requires too much maturity of the reader. Another example is William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. These poems offer such a remarkable simplicity of lyric verse and content that their deep and subtle complexity is disguised. But, although Blake's poems are largely about childhood and the movement towards so-called maturity, and although the poems are easy to read, at least at a surface level, they are essentially for adult readers, and even young adults find their riches hard to plumb unaided. So there is a problem in finding poetry sequences which are immediately suitable for children and young adults to read.

Of course, much poetry is written in such a way that each poem is meant to be read as an isolated piece, albeit within the larger context of a book which contains the poem. A glance at the contents page of almost any volume of any poet's Collected Poems will show this. Quite simply, most volumes of published poems are essentially no more than collections or accumulations of poems. They may have been written by one writer, but each poem was written separately from every other one. That one poem occurs next to any other poem is a matter of coincidence rather than poetic intention.

Yet it is extremely valuable for children to see poetry as something which can go beyond the confines of an isolated short lyric. For someone beginning to read and experience poems independently, this is similar to the situation of a beginner reader seeing that stories can go beyond the confines of the short picture story book and into the length and complexity of a chapter book. In both these situations, a beginner needs to develop a kind of reading stamina and to become independent and able to handle longer pieces, whether prose stories, longer poems or poetry sequences. Children may be able to read longer narrative poems, but what sustains their interest is predominantly the story rather than the poetry. The Odyssey or Beowulf, for example, both originally long poems, can be enjoyed, in translation, by young readers as prose narratives, where a verse translation may be too difficult for them to read.

A poetry sequence can offer a world of imagery and language, thought and feeling, sustained, not by narrative drive, but by poetic means. In such a sequence there is far more room than in a short lyric poem for a child reader to meet with the poet whose presence is bodied forth behind the lines, to see the human face of poetry, to see poetry as a growing process through one linked poem after another.

A list of sequences of poems which are accessible to children or young adults would include A. E. Houseman's A Shropshire Lad, R. L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel, and Clive Sansom's The Witnesses. Examples which are on the border-line between collection and sequence include A. A. Milne's When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, and Michael Rosen's Mind Your Own Business and Wouldn't You Like to Know. Here the recurring appearance of Christopher Robin and friends or of Michael Rosen and his family give some personal coherence to what would otherwise just be collections of discrete poems. It is interesting to read Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses and recognize how much of it is collection rather than sequence. Apart from "childhood," seen very simply and with Stevenson's nostalgia, there are no themes that can pull the separate poems together, and only a shadowy sense of the first person child who is "I" and the "nursie" glimpsed as though in a collection of unrelated snapshots.

One recent book of poems would stand at the head of any list of poetry sequences, and illustrates well the particular value of this kind of poetic experience—Ted Hughes's Season Songs (Faber, 1976, 1985). Hughes is the current Poet Laureate of Great Britain. This is an adult accolade for his adult poetry. But he has always offered special things to children. There is the modern myth of The Iron Man, a prose story with much poetic strength. There is the funny family verse album of Meet My Folks, which is a collection of quirky family portraits that does not cohere as a sequence. And there is the profound poetic fable What Is the Truth?, which is a barnyard narrative with considerable philosophic depth, mixing poetry and prose narrative.

But Season Songs is different from any of these, being a short book-length collection of poems which forms a true poetic sequence. Originally published in 1976, it has been reissued in 1985 with seven new poems. The note on the back of the paperback edition says that Season Songs began as children's poems, and certainly children can read and enjoy it. But, however it began, the sequence is neither exclusively for adults nor for children.

As the title suggests, these are a linked sequence of lyric short poems about the seasons, that is, the traditional four seasons of Europe. They have an Old World quality of Breugel's paintings of the seasons, or of the illuminations in a Book of Hours, or of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." This should not distance the poems from readers who do not live in the traditional Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter or who have never experienced falling autumn leaves or snow and frost. It can be argued that such a Eurocentric tradition of the seasons is simply an essential part of everyone's cultural heritage, in the same way that Snow White or the myth of Persephone have universal cultural relevance, even for Australians who bake in the perpetual summer of the Outback, or sub-continental Indians whose seasons are the Dry and the Monsoon Wet.

The poem sequence moves from Spring through to the dead ends of Winter, from new life to eventual death. But it is a cycle as much as a progression, a seamless cloth woven through with life and death as much as a linear narrative. The first poem, "A March Calf," begins:

Right from the start he is dressed in his best …
… a wedding natty get-up,
Standing in dunged straw
Under cobwebby beams, near the mud wall.

There is no sentimental bucolic vision, appealing and innocent as the calf is seen to be. The poet knows that

Hungry people are getting hungrier,
Butchers developing expertise and markets.

The world is a complex mixture: cobwebs, mud, hunger, dung, birth, wedding and death. The beginning contains an end, and the first words, "Right from the start", imply that there is also a conclusion.

Similarly the very last poem, "The Warm and the Cold," sees that:

Freezing dusk is closing
Like a slow trap of steel …


Moonlight freezes the shaggy world
Like a mammoth of ice …
Such a frost
    The flimsy moon
        Has lost her wits.

But his is not an end, wholly. The grip of winter seems to suspend or end time, but there are hidden promises:

The past and the future
    Are the jaws of a steel vice.
        But the cod is in the tide-rip
        Like a key in a purse.
            The deer are on the bare-blown hill
                Like smiles on a nurse.

There is still hope and the promise of new growth:

… the butterfly in its mummy
    Like a viol in its case …
The snail is dry in the outhouse
    Like a seed in a sunflower …
Sparrows are in the ivy-clump
    Like money in a pig.

And the last lines of the poem and the book are a return to the imagery of the first poem:

The sweating farmers
    Turn in their sleep
        Like oxen on spits.

This is nature poetry with a clear, blunt view of the world and the human condition.

Already these examples show some of the richness and strange turnings of Ted Hughes's language. Although he does not attempt the rhetorical complexity of Dylan Thomas, for example, there is a similarity with Hughes's search for startling metaphor, with a mixing of free verse and occasional rhyme, a love of alliteration and word chiming, and a shared interest in a natural world, sometimes personified, aiming at a mythic view of the here and now, full of bursting life and sudden and inexorable death—death with a hope of a kind of rebirth.

Consider the packed images, natural and philosophical, at the start of one of the "Autumn Nature Notes" :

The chestnut splits its padded cell.
It opens an African eye.
A cabinet-maker, an old master
In the root of things, has done it again.

The poem goes on to describe the chestnut's struggle against monsters and dragons (the metaphors used to describe people who eat roast chestnuts, small boys who play conkers, and slugs that devour the fallen nuts), a struggle to

… win a sunbeam princess
From the cloud castle of the rains

and grow into a tree. Because of its fantastical imagery, the poem is able to show simple living things with breath-taking freshness. This puts the scientific excitement and fascination of someone like David Attenborough into imagination and poetry. This is going on all around us, almost totally overlooked; yet it is incredible and worth profound study, and Hughes's poems are remarkable contributions to this study.

Some of the poems are reworkings of familiar ideas which deserve to be refreshed. For example, Hughes gives his own version of John Barleycorn in "The Golden Boy," but he dispenses with the fruition of alcoholic resurrection and celebration. Instead the Golden Boy is buried

And nobody cried …
Where grubs and insects
That nobody knows
With outer-space faces
That nobody loves
Can make him their feast
As if nobody cared.

The terrible murder of the Boy is described, with the grinding and then the baking and the relentless eating, but

Thanking the Lord
Thanking the Wheat
Thanking the Bread
For bringing them Life
Today and Tomorrow
Out of the dirt.

The Biblical and Eucharistic undertones are clear in a way that they never were in the traditional John Barleycorn paean to whisky and drinking. Again and again, ideas of nature and of God ("cabinet-maker, and old master" recalling Christ the carpenter and God the Father) are linked in the poems.

Similarly the "Death of Cock Robin" is very cleverly and effectively reworked in "Leaves," from the section on Autumn.

Who's killed the leaves?
Me, says the apple, I've killed them all.
Fat as a bomb or a cannonball
I've killed the leaves.

So it goes on: the swallow will stitch their shroud, the flooding river will dig their grave, the cold wind will be their chief mourner, the sunset will carry the coffin, the ploughing tractor will sing a psalm, and the winter Robin singing in the bare branches will toll the bell. The old myth of the New Year battle between the Wren and the Robin, with the sacrificial death of the Robin, is here totally recast, making a new version of the myth.

It is valuable for children to see how free verse, at its simplest, can work strongly:

There came a day that caught the summer
Wrung its neck
Plucked it
And ate it …
There came this day and he was autumn.
His mouth was wide
And red as a sunset.
His tail was an icicle.

Much of the strength of these poems comes from the mixture of personification and modern imagery that freshens older familiar ideas. The Spring poem, "March Morning Unlike Others," looks backwards as well as forwards:

The earth invalid, dropsied, bruised, wheeled
Out into the sun,
After the frightful operation.
She lies back, wounds undressed to the sun,
To be healed …
While we sit, and smile, and wait, and know
She is not going to die.

Thus Hughes re-expresses the myth of Kore or Demeter, renewed in images of modern medicine. There is also a hint, in the "frightful operation," of the fertility myth of male sacrifice such as Tammuz or Adonis.

Each poem stands well on its own. But there is added strength that comes from fitting within a whole sequence. Images recur from poem to poem. Swifts and swallows, migratory birds, are pictured stitching the air with blurring lines of flight, screaming around corners like crazy boys on motorbikes. Fish in the rivers are "green as engine oil." Sheep, rabbits, and fields appear repeatedly, along with earth, water, sunlight and sky.

There is also a fitting together of parts and processes into larger themes, such as birth, marriage, illness and death. The spring earth is an invalid recovering from "the frightful operation." Winter deer are "like smiles on a nurse." The calf's coat is "wedding natty," and the powerful fertility image of wedding also occurs in another, less direct version of John Barleycorn, the poem "Hay" :

The grass is happy
To run like a sea, to be glossed like a mink's fur
By polishing wind.
Her heart is the weather.
She loves nobody
    Least of all the farmer who leans on the gate.

Yet the grass comes into flower, and

She lifts her skirts …
To open her scents, like a dress, through the county,
Drugging light hearts
To heavy betrothals
And next April's Fools,
    While pensioners puzzle where life went so airily.

And the grass is then happy when it (she) is reaped:

… wooed by the farmer, who wins her and brings
  her to
    church in her beauty,
Bride of the Island.
Luckless the long-drawn
Aeons of Eden
    Before he came to mow.

Hughes juxtaposes the happy innocence (yet, "Drugging") of the grass with the April Fool consequences of innocent loving. The poem sees happiness in the coming to ripeness, the wooing and wedding. But this wedding is also death. Then the last three lines add complex twists of ambiguity. Ideas of "Church", "she", "Eden" and "he" are linked in an image which recalls Eve, and hints at her husband, who may be Adam, or the second Adam (Christ), who is the Good Shepherd but is also the farmer who mows and thus kills the grass. By bringing together images of bride, husband, and church, "Hay" implies a Christian sanctification of ancient pagan fertility rituals. It recalls corn dollies being ritually blessed at harvest festivals as tokens of a more primitive sacrifice. But, because the poem is about "grass", the sacrifice is indeed real and no mere token. The poem also mocks our naive longing for an imagined lost innocence of Eden, which is actually described as "luckless." As with the best of Hughes's writing, the language expresses an Anglo-Saxon simplicity and riddling compression, with alliteration, repetition of vowel sounds, and archaic turns of phrase—"Luckless the long-drawn …"

Interesting comparisons with other poets, such as Robert Frost or Seamus Heaney, who share Hughes's interest in nature and rural or farm experience are possible. However, Frost's and Heaney's work does not cohere into a sequence such as Season Songs, but consists of isolated poems which happen to share subject matter and voice. Similarly, comparisons with prose works, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods and other books about farming, seasons and country life are possible.

Season Songs could also lead adventurous readers on to Hughes's more demanding mythic works, such as Crow. This is an adult sequence of poems about a trickster figure who is part of nature and also part of myth. More closely related to Season Songs is the mixture of prose and poetry What Is the Truth? in which a prose narrative describes how God and his Son come down to earth to speak with the souls of modern village people—a farmer and his family, a poacher, a vicar, a teacher. While their human bodies are asleep, their souls utter or sing poems about the farm animals and wild animals with whom they live, work, and otherwise share the world. The narrative search for truth, and the common theme of animal life seen by humans hold together what would otherwise be a kind of bestiary.

A poetry sequence leads outwards to other works by the same writer and to other works by other writers. The relationships between the individual poems of the sequence lead to other poems within the sequence. Inevitably this web of relationships leads beyond the sequence, through the writer and through the work. A narrative drives a reader on by arousing curiosity about what happens next and how things will turn out. In a similar way a poetry sequence stimulates a reader to look for more, to seek larger patterns, to extend relationships, and to find out more about the particular writer who is embodied in the sequence in a more interesting way than can ever be the case with an isolated poem.

Clearly a poetry sequence offers a great deal to a child or a young adult. The poetic experience is richer and larger and more likely to be self-sustaining.

But even at the simple level of Season Songs, it is unrealistic for a teacher or other adult to expect to be able to give such a sequence to children and just let them read it. That is a possible first step. But, unless the children are already skilled and sensitive readers, it is rather a lame one. Another way is to read some of the poems aloud, perhaps with different readers for different poems. Try to heighten the first experience of the poems by performing them strongly. It is worth remembering that poetry sequences have often been set to music as song cycles. The oral performance of spoken poetry can learn a lot from the musical performance.

But once children have experienced the sequence or some section of it, it is necessary for the teacher to talk with them about this. The poems should not be trivially paraphrased or ransacked for clever language devices or littered with unhelpful technical terms. Poetry in the classroom has suffered too long from this. However, children are able to respond to appropriate literary criticism. Simple comments and group discussion can extend their initial experience of the poetry. Adult and child can consider the different ways that the poems relate to each other, how they contrast with each other, how ideas in one poem are repeated, augmented, and even changed by following poems. Adult and child can recognize that there are sometimes irreducible ambiguities, conflicting alternative meanings, and obscurities which are clearly suggesting emotions and ideas without yielding explicitly paraphraseable meanings. This is how literature, and all art, can reach behind words and immediate experience to things within us.

Good poetry is disturbing. That is, it challenges our sense of reality, and breaks down our complacency with strange ideas, new feelings and alternative pictures of the world. We think, for example, that we know all about the seasons because we have lived through them, and we have seen Christmas card images of snow rides and have raked up autumn leaves and seen the first daffodil, and we have learned the myth of Persephone. Yet Season Songs challenges our knowledge, recasting it in images of brides and hospitals and motorbike riders in the sky, seeing God in the padded cell of a chestnut, seeing the apple that kills the leaves, and showing autumn, not as mellowed fruitfulness but a devouring icicle-tailed monster.

Poetry is an acquired taste, and the taste can only be acquired by using poetry, rolling it around the tongue, spitting out words, chewing ideas, putting oneself into the action, taking risks, allowing oneself to be disturbed. Poetry sequences offer rich opportunity for acquiring this taste because the poetic experience is so much longer and more complex and rewarding than it is with short isolated poems. Season Songs is just such a rich experience.


Olivia Bottum Lenz (essay date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Lenz, Olivia Bottum. "Landscape of Our Dreams: Ted Hughes's Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 13, no. 1 (spring 1988): 22-5.

[In the following essay, Lenz investigates the psychological subtext informing the imagery, violence, and characters of Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems, discussing the manifestations of unconscious desires and fears in Hughes's poetry.]

Ted Hughes, England's Poet Laureate, is best known for his poetry for adults. He has also published several volumes of poetry for children, much of which is unusual, difficult, and challenging to the imagination. In the collection Season Songs (Viking Press, 1975), he describes nature and animals in language that is realistic, often beautiful, and full of feeling. The poems in Meet My Folks (Bobbs-Merrill, 1961-1973) are humorous descriptions of bizarre and fantastic relatives. In Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems (Viking Press, 1976), Hughes has given us poems which are full of startling humor, chilling imagery, fantastic violence, bizarre characters, and strong and primitive feelings. In this collection, the reader discovers all the difficulties and the rewards of this poet's work for children.

The poems in Moon-Whales deal with the creatures, plants, people, and customs of the moon. This particular version of the moon exists only in Hughes' imagination; he creates a world that is a twisted and bizarre reflection of our own. In these poems he explores the fears, desires, dreams and nightmares we all carry in the hidden parts of ourselves.

One of the tasks facing children is to learn the difference between "imagination" and "the real world," to distinguish the thoughts and feelings coming from inside themselves from the sensory input coming from outside. Another task is to learn to control their behavior; to do this they must develop the capacity to say "no" to some of their impulses. We never fully accomplish either one of these tasks. But the effort to be rational beings leaves us with many feelings and impulses we push down and turn away from. This "irrational" part of ourselves is the moon of Moon-Whales. Hughes' moon can be seen as a metaphor for the unconscious mind, a stage for the playing out of our hidden impulses. Here we see expressed the desires and fears that children experience directly and adults push back into the unconscious or disguise as neuroses. The poems are fueled by the energy of the irrational, which possesses a power made all the greater by our inadequate attempts to control it.

Most of the poems in Moon-Whales are in rhymed couplets whose ragged metrical variations nevertheless rest on a skeleton of a regular metrical pattern. The title poem, the first in the book, is in free verse. The lack of meter and rhyme slows the pace of the poem, and the varying line lengths have an undulating quality; the effect is mimetic of movement underwater.

Whales on the waterless moon move through the moon itself:

They plough through the moon stuff
Just under the surface
Lifting the moon's skin
Like a muscle

With the word "plough," Hughes tells us that the whales' movement is slow; they are moving against resistance but with great power. In the next stanza, they plunge deep into the moon,

Making their magnetic way
Through the moon's interior metals.

The predominant sound in the poem is "m," a continuous flow of sound dammed up at the mouth and released through the nose, a sound as long as a whale-song:

Their music is immense
Each note hundreds of years long
Each complete tune a moon-age
So they sing to each other unending songs
As unmoving they move their immovable masses
Their eyes closed ecstatic

The penultimate line, "As unmoving they move their immovable masses," is paradoxical and makes no literal sense. But it has the emotional effect of slow movement; the thrice-repeated syllable "move" out- weighs the literal meaning of the two negative prefixes. The "m" sounds make the line hum and with the long open vowels are mimetic of the haunting songs of real whales.

The emotion of the last line, "Their eyes closed ecstatic," colors the whole of the poem before it. Now we know how the whales feel as they move singing through the moon. The slow movement, the music, the long time-spans, the closed eyes of the whales—all these create a dream-like tone, the feeling one has on the edge of sleep. As the sound of the "m" cannot be contained but escapes through the nose, so our hidden impulses, denied expression, escape through our dreams. What is "moon stuff"? Is it ourselves (going back to the image of a human body at the beginning of the poem)? Are the depths the whales are plumbing those of our own minds?

The whales breathe rarely, but when they do they leave "a hole blasted in the moon's skin." This line is the single point of violence in the poem, exploding the heavy dreaminess for one moment and foreshadowing the violence to come in the poems that follow.

With the first poem, "Moon-Whales," Hughes sets the stage for his collection of poems. We are going to explore a strange world where earth-rules don't apply, a world whose creatures seem familiar but are not, a world both beautiful and profoundly disturbing.

Underneath the surface of many of the poems in the book are the deeply embedded fears we carry with us from early childhood. In "The Burrow Wolf," "Moon Horrors," and "A Moon-Witch," Hughes explores the fear of being eaten by horrible creatures. The obvious threat is loss of life, but perhaps the deeper fear is of loss of identity through being engulfed or overwhelmed by another person.

The threat is lightly treated in "The Burrow Wolf," a lively poem full of action. The wolf swallows anything coming near the moon:

The meteorites come down blazing with velocity
And this wolf greets them with a huge grin of ferocity.

Hughes is taking a playful approach to his words. He makes extensive use of double rhyme in his couplets (velocity/ferocity, swallows/marshmallows, adventures/dentures); here this technique of rhyming the last two syllables has its usual effect of forcing the reader to smile. His words are energetic—"whack", "blazing", "nosediving". The poem takes an odd twist at the end when Hughes suggests that if a spaceman should somehow escape the wolf's jaws on first landing, he would probably wander into them eventually:

For over the moon general madness reigns—
Bad when the light waxes, worse when it wanes—
And he might lunatically mistake this wolf for his
So the man in the moon ended his life.

Under the influence of moon-madness, the spaceman might see the beloved, familiar figure of his wife superimposed over the deadly wolf, and walk right into those ferocious jaws. What child has not been terrified of the transformation that anger, for example, can make in a familiar figure? Perhaps the scariest monsters are those hiding inside the people we love.

"Moon-Horrors" describes creatures so horrible they don't even have names, just numbers. In cheerful rhyme, Hughes describes in gory detail the varying fates of the victims of the different moon-creatures:

He attacks as a nightmare, and the sleeper dreams
    he is being turned inside out
And sucked dry like an orange, and when he wakes
    it has all come about.
Ever afterwards he is perfectly hollow and dry,
    while his precious insides
Nourish some gross number three
    wherever that monster now resides.

The poem is full of eating imagery: "sucked", "ravenous", "nourish", "smack their chops". In a similar vein, the witch of "A Moon-Witch" also sucks her victims empty; the imagery in places is chilling:

    … her misty feeler
Blooms red as blood in water, then milkily pales
And fades …

These three poems are typical of Hughes' treatment of violence in this book. The violence is gory and told in detail, but it involves creatures so bizarre and fantastic that it seems far removed from the everyday life of the child-reader. The use of rhymed couplets lightens the tone and puts the violence firmly in the world of make-believe. In these poems, a child can find a safe expression of his own angry or violent feelings without being threatened by a too realistic portrayal.

In the three previous poems, the threat seems to come from the outside. In "Moon-Walkers" and "Moony Art," the danger comes from internal impulses escaping into the outside world.

"Moon-Walkers" takes place the morning after a very bad night, a night in which the moon prominently appears:

After a bad night's sleeping
All night the full moon's glare seeping
Between your closed eyelids, and you tossing and
With dreams of heaven burning
And cellars smoking with mystery
And erupting and debouching monsters from prehis-

The sleeper awakes to discover giant footprints all over the ceiling, the walls, and the furniture. While he slept, the monsters appeared:

Nevertheless they came out like the far stars
    noiseless and weightless in the night
And vanished at first light
As if it were only the light which keeps them hid—
Or as if they came out of your dreams
    and went back in there (which they probably did).

Unlike most of the other poems in the book, "Moon-Walkers" has no discernible underlying metrical pattern. The lines vary wildly in length, from 7 to 22 syllables. The sole indication of order is in the rhyme scheme; the poem is in couplets. Rhymed couplets create the expectation of a regular metrical pattern. The frustration of that expectation highlights the lack of order and predictability, which echoes the sleeper's feeling of lack of control; something inside him has gotten out during the night and he has no idea what it was.

On a related theme, "Moony Art" explores the danger of fantasy becoming reality:

Whatever you want on the moon
You just draw a line round its outline
And it lumps into life—there it is.
If it's a dog it barks and needs feeding.
If it's a person—it's a person
And you'll have to look after him
Till he's learned to talk and manage.

The rest of the poem is a warning to be careful of what you draw and how well you draw it, because "what you draw, you get." One interesting idea that runs through the poem is that of the artist's responsibility for the creature he has brought to life, for example, feeding the dog, looking after the person.

Mankind has developed many stories of the disasters that ensue when artistic creations take on lives of their own. Perhaps these stories are only a more sophisticated version of the small child's belief that his feelings and fantasies can cause physical harm to others. "Moon-Walkers" and "Moony Art" are both examples of the child's confusion between his fantasies and reality. Such confusion leads to the fear that one's violent impulses will escape and do damage in the real world.

The fear that internal impulses will be released to do damage in the world naturally leads to the search for safeguards. In "Moon-Theatre" and "The Silent Eye," Hughes explores two safeguards people commonly look to for protection from their inner impulses: societal limits and the rule of conscience.

"Moon-Theatre" describes a daydream inspired by ordinary objects such as a teacup and a watch. The reader is instructed to:

Set the stage
With a teacup, a carving knife, a book open at any
A watch, a flower and a chair—
Then tap a drum and fix your eyes in a glassy stare.

What unfolds is an action-packed fantasy, which starts with the abduction (and implied rape) of a princess by an ogre:

Out of the teacup suddenly springs a princess
Fleeing from a battle. Brambles have torn her dress.
She is on a wild mountain. The carving knife
Gleams and an ogre appears, and chuckling he
    makes her his wife,
And carries her into the dark cave of the book
Which is almost hidden with leaves. Now look

The ogre disguises the princess in a wolfskin and calls her a wolf; she acts the part to keep his murderous relatives at bay. She flees, is chased by hounds and rescued (in a bloody battle) by a flower-prince. They both run

Toward the watch, which is a waiting express
That rushes them to a world where ogres cannot occur
And girls have to be girls, and boys boys, and he can
    marry her.

The violence in this situation has been resolved by flight to a world where "girls have to be girls, and boys boys." The wishful thinking taking place here is that in a conventional society with traditional sex roles, "ogres cannot occur." "Ogres" could be seen as coming from within (violent feelings) or from without (violent actions by others). The dreamer is looking for safety from both internal and external violence in the limits society sets on people's actions. By conforming to an approved societal role, the dreamer hopes that society will not permit him to act out his own violent feelings or permit anyone else to act violently toward him.

"Moon-Theatre" finds its resolution to the problem of violence in a wish for societal controls; "The Silent Eye" looks instead to the controls the individual puts on himself.

Children learn to set limits on their own behavior by first having limits set for them by parental figures. They gradually internalize parental injunctions and develop an internal "judge" that vetoes certain kinds of behavior and induces feelings of guilt if such vetoes are ignored.

"The Silent Eye" is symbolic of such a judge:

On the moon lives an eye.
It flies about in the sky,
Staring, glaring, or just peering.

The eye keeps a close watch over the person:

Mostly it hovers just above you and stares
Rudely down into your most private affairs.

That the eye is intimately bound up with the person is indicated at the end of the poem, when the eye weeps in sympathy when the person is "sitting sadly under crushing dismays:"

And soon it is sobbing and expressing such woe
You begin to wish it would stop it and just go.

The last line is an indication of the ambivalent feelings one has toward the internal "judge," which so often causes guilt and discomfort.

Accompanying the dream-like quality and violent imagery of some of the moon poems is a sexual undertone. In "Moon-Thorns," violent imagery suggests sexual experience. The poem describes the way roses grow on the moon. The thorns rush at a person and scratch him, blood from the cut drops to the ground and from the combined blood and dirt grows the rose:

The moon's thorns
Are corkscrew curved horns
Waiting in a bush
To make a startling rush
And stab you to the bone.
While you groan
A drop of your blood
Soaks in where you stood.
From that tiny mote of moon-mud
Pokes a tiny bud,
It strengthens, it grows,
It opens a surprising face
And that is the moon-rose
Famed throughout space.
The horned bloom given
At marriages in heaven.

In the first stanza of "Moon-Thorns," the description of the stab of a thorn drawing blood could be seen as a metaphor for the hymeneal injury. The association of blood and fertility is an ancient one, and Hughes explores it in the second stanza. The imagery in the second stanza is that of the growth of a baby, which begins as a bud-like fetus and strengthens and grows until at birth it "opens a surprising face," a human one. The "surprise" is the daily miracle of tiny human faces emerging into the world for the first time.

The reference to marriages in the final couplet adds strength to the impression that the poem is a metaphor for sexuality and birth. Particularly beautiful is the image of the "horned bloom," the rose with thorns, representing the two aspects of sexuality, which can bring either joy, or, if misdirected or misused, pain.

"Moon-Thorns" lacks the fantastic and grotesque quality of many of the other poems. Blood in this poem is not the result of violence by marauding monsters; rather, it is a symbol for human existence, representing both the physical and emotional components of our being. The poem is moving in its simplicity of expression coupled with richness of meaning.

In this collection of poems, Hughes has painted a landscape of the unconscious mind and peopled it with our hidden fears and desires. Children would not analyze the book this way; they might not be able to say why the poems interest or appeal to them. But in these poems, children find an echo of their inner feelings, fears and struggles, and they may well respond with interest.

Hughes has made several concessions to his child-audience. Much of his vocabulary is simple, concrete, and drawn from the everyday world of children. His persistent use of the rhymed couplet, which becomes a little wearing on adult sensibilities, might appeal more to the child's ear. His characters are taken from the child's world: pets, monsters, fairytale creatures. And unlike the realistic violence in his poetry for adults, in this book violence takes place on the moon; its grotesque and fantastic quality puts it a suitable distance from everyday life. Hughes means these poems to be pleasurably scary, rather than brutal or horrifying; still, some of his lines are quite chilling.

Although Hughes has made concessions to children in matters of form and setting, he has not given them poetry that is empty, banal or devoid of real meaning. Hughes' subject matter is the deepest, most hidden level of human feeling; his poems are a symbolic expression of our inner struggles. While this understanding may be beyond the conscious reach of many children, they may respond intuitively, finding the poetry psychologically satisfying, liking it without understanding all the reasons it appeals to them.

And because the poems are rich with layers of meaning, the adult reader also finds them satisfying. In Moon-Whales, Hughes has tapped into our inner selves and shown us the violence and disturbing beauty there.

Work Cited

Hughes, Ted, Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems. New York: The Viking Press, 1976.

Poems Discussed


"The Burrow Wolf"



"Moony Art"


"The Silent Eye"

"A Moon-Witch"



Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 2003)

SOURCE: Review of The Cat and the Cuckoo, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Flora McDonnell. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 4 (15 February 2003): 308.

Quirky, clever, mysterious, and lyrical poems about 28 wild and domestic farm animals comprise this collection [The Cat and the Cuckoo ], originally published (by Sunstone Press, with different illustrations) in England in 1987. A lonely ram bleats at the moon, a hedgehog hatches fleas. A dog sleeps: "He hogs the fire, he bakes his head / As if it were a loaf of bread. / He's just a sack of snoring dog. / You can lug him like a log. / You can roll him with your foot. / He'll stay snoring where he's put. / Take him out for exercise / He'll roll in cowclap up to his eyes." The pigeons are more elegant: "Up on the roof the Fantail Pigeons dream / Of dollops of curled cream. / At every morning window their soft voices / Comfort all the bedrooms with caresses." Hughes's slightly mismatched rhyme and meter lend an awkward charm to his subjects. McDonnell's (Giddy Up! Let's Ride, 2002, etc.) whimsical and folksy duotone paintings portray each animal in a countryside setting, sometimes with a human child or two observing; combined with the small-cut size of the volume, they give a comforting feel to these poems that sometimes veer wonderfully into dark animal thoughts. Similar in intrigue to the animal poems of Richard Michelson or Douglas Florian, similar in insight to the "small" poems of Valerie Worth, Hughes's poems are rich and musical, and will appeal to young readers. The few Briticisms may be as foreign to some American readers as the setting—yet neither detracts, as each poem encourages readers to observe something in a new way. (Poetry. 7-11)

Hazel Rochman (review date 1 April 2003)

SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of The Cat and the Cuckoo, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Flora McDonnell. Booklist 99, no. 15 (1 April 2003): 1406.

Gr. 3-6, younger for reading aloud—With physical immediacy, the 28 poems in [The Cat and the Cuckoo, ] this children's collection by the late British poet laureate bring readers and listeners close to each animal's sounds and movements. Sometimes the viewpoint is of a child right there watching, as when pigeons "clatter up, and veer, and soar in a ring / It's as if the house suddenly sang something." Sometimes Hughes imagines the animal's experience, not to personify it, but to be it, move like it. "With a rocketing rip / Squirrel will zip / Up a tree-bole." There's feeling, too, in the particulars—the half-domesticated goat with "Lumps of torn hair / Clued here and there." Opposite each poem, McDonnell's black-and-white wash illustrations, with big frontal close-ups of the animal in a farm setting, capture the silliness as well as realism and mystery. First published in England in 1987 and now reissued, this exuberant read-aloud collection will prepare kids for Hughes' unforgettable adult poems about fierce animals and nature.

Kathleen Whalin (review date May 2003)

SOURCE: Whalin, Kathleen. Review of The Cat and the Cuckoo, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Flora McDonnell. School Library Journal 49, no. 5 (May 2003): 136-37.

Gr. 3-6—Stylized ink drawings accompany [The Cat and the Cuckoo, ] a collection of poems first published in Britain in 1987. As in Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems (Viking, 1976; o.p.), illustrated by Leonard Baskin, Hughes's often stark images are paired with black-and-white drawings. Unlike Baskin's art, though, McDonnell's lighthearted portraits do not seem in harmony with the images that Hughes's words paint. The poet's animals are most true to their animal nature—his Crow "… lifts a claw— / A crucifix / Of burnt matchsticks"; his Cuckoo "… leaves her [the Linnet] to weep with a worm in her hand." Words, if not pictures, keep these creatures strong and wild.

Joanna Rudge Long (review date July-August 2003)

SOURCE: Long, Joanna Rudge. Review of The Cat and the Cuckoo, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Flora McDonnell. Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 4 (July-August 2003): 473-74.

Presented in the same appealing, hand-sized format as The Mermaid's Purse (rev. 9/00), these twenty-eight poems [The Cat and the Cuckoo ] (originally published in Britain in 1987) evoke members of the animal kingdom in language so deft that the profundity of the ideas suggested may elude the casual reader. But Flora McDonnell's powerful full-bleed art, layered in black, white, and shades of gray, sets the tone. Though there's humor aplenty here (a lethargic dog "will not race, he will not romp. / He saves his strength for gobble and chomp") and clever wordplay ("For that is my song. / Not very long. / There might be a better / Some wetter, wittier / Otter could utter"), there is also, at times, the menace of tooth and claw ("The speckled Thrush / With a cheerful shout / Dips his beak in the dark / And lifts the sun out. / Then he calls to the Snails: / ‘God's here again! / Close your eyes for prayers / while I sing Amen’"). There are several biblical and doctrinal references, most notably in "Crow." Calling himself "the Priest," the bird makes dark metaphorical use of the Eucharist in a provocative poem that almost demands comparison with William Blake's "The Tyger." Offer these uncompromising poems to children old enough, and astute enough, to appreciate their irony and ambivalence.


Publishers Weekly (review date 29 March 1991)

SOURCE: Review of Tales of the Early World, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Andrew Davidson. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 15 (29 March 1991): 92.

Like a cross between Kipling's Just So Stories and Twain's Letters to the Earth, these 10 original and imaginative creation tales [Tales of the Early World ] by England's poet laureate will appeal to adults and children alike. Hughes's God spends considerable time trying to straighten out His mistakes. By accidentally breathing life into a miniature trunk made from leftover elephant clay, God fashions the earthworm. A half-done creature left unattended is saved by God's mother, who lends the turkey-footed bird a beautiful shawl, thus creating the peacock. Hughes's brave new world includes a fortune-telling moon that "was actually a smile without a face" and "lay on the sea's rim like a face on a pillow," mountains that dance, a black hold that consumes the songs of birds, and creatures that definitely have minds of their own. Davidson's engravings depict a multitude of animal life, and his striking black cover—adorned with the yellow eyes of creatures yet to be made—is perfect for a book of myths that sparkle with drama, humor, pathos and beauty. All ages.


Publishers Weekly (review date 17 July 1995)

SOURCE: Review of The Iron Woman, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Barry Moser. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 29 (17 July 1995): 230.

Employing thunderously expressive language and searing imagery, the poet laureate of England concocts a nightmarish morality tale about ecology [The Iron Woman ]. Unfortunately, the sonorous prose and Moser's haunting engravings fail to camouflage a simplistic plot and shaky premise. A vast Iron Woman arises out of a marsh and vows, to a schoolgirl named Lucy, to destroy those who have poisoned the waters. Afraid for her father and the others who work at the toxin-dumping Waste Factory, Lucy contacts Hogarth, the boyish handler of the Iron Man (a figure introduced more than 20 years ago in Hughes's The Iron Giant ). The children's warnings do not stop the polluters, and so the Iron Woman, after being energized by Iron Man's Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon from outer space, turns every adult male in the country into some type of water creature. They resume human form only after a monstrous Cloud-Spider gets sucked off into space, which also causes the country's refuse to transform, miraculously, into a nonpolluting fuel/fertilizer/pesticide ("‘Our problems,’ said the prime minister, ‘seem to be strangely solved’"). Hardly a timely or instructive parable for readers who, despite their youth, know that there are no magical solutions to a pressing global concern. Ages 10-up.

Hazel Rochman (review date August 1995)

SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of The Iron Woman, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Barry Moser. Booklist 91, no. 22 (August 1995): 1946.

Gr. 5-8—[In The Iron Woman, o]ut of the filthy, polluted swamp near Lucy's house comes a great, towering, enraged, mud-covered monster, an iron woman. She brings with her the cry of all the water creatures in torment, and all the people she touches hear that screaming and pass it on to everyone they touch. The plague of instant contagion is a terrifying image for pollution. There's also dark humor as the iron woman rips down the waste factory and reduces the powerful executives to comic grotesques with fish faces above their starched collars and ties. British poet Hughes evokes a world so fierce and sinister that most of Moser's engravings (added for the American edition) seem tame by comparison; even the cover picture is disappointing. Toward the end, the story becomes too convoluted, the fantasy contrived. It's the allegory of environmental devastation—screaming creatures caught in a fiery tunnel—that is unforgettable.


Brian Alderson (essay date July-August 1998)

SOURCE: Alderson, Brian. "A View from the Island: Ted Hughes by Heart." Horn Book Magazine 74, no. 4 (July-August 1998): 465-69.

[In the following essay, Alderson explores the pedagogical implications of Hughes's strategy for memorizing poetry as explained in his introduction to By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember.]

From the depths of an old leather suitcase comes a touching memorabilium. It is an octavo "Studio Notebook," feint-ruled, for the use of school pupils, and it bears the inscription, in that Best Handwriting that is reserved for the pristine covers of new exercise books: "Brian W. Alderson. Form IIA" (which would, I suppose, equal fifth grade in the U.S.).

At the back of this notebook are written out, at the behest of Mr. Jack Muschamp, form-master of IIA, a number of poems. As I remember it, the idea was that each week the class should copy out a given poem and then learn it so as to give tongue, if required, the week after. The first of these poems is (surprise, surprise) "Daffodils" by William Wordsworth, immediately followed by "The Cloud" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, a fellow with names that provoked schoolboy mirth.

At this point Jack Muschamp faced incipient rebellion. The boys in the class (unreconstructed masculinists to a man) regarded this sort of stuff as fit only for the girls and demanded something more beefy, and, in consequence, there followed "The Charge of the Light Brigade," Thackeray's comic poem about a Chinaman's pigtail, and Hilaire Belloc's "Henry King; who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies." Here—appropriately enough—the formal record ends, but certainly more poems were learnt as time went by, along with some of the Psalms of David. Quite a few chunks of these exercises I can still recite now, if pushed. (The Psalms and other Bible readings have been less beneficial—engendering only a profound despair as our churchmen have vandalized the Scripture and Liturgy in their keeping.)

These reminiscences are prompted by the arrival last year of By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember, edited with an introduction by Ted Hughes (Faber, 1997). The book was not put together with Form IIA much in mind, and the only poem in it that figures in a children's book is "Jabberwocky"—although "The Tyger" and "The Sick Rose" from Songs of Experience are there, "for children" rather by accident. No; Mr. Hughes is really seeking to celebrate the value to anyone and everyone of getting poems "by heart" and to persuade us that "memorizing them should be like a game. It should be a pleasure."

Hooray for that sentiment, which, coming as it does from the British Poet Laureate, should carry near-regal authority. (In Britain, the title Poet Laureate goes back to Ben Jonson in the seventeenth century, and signifies a poet with a duty to write odes and suchlike for the Royal Court. They don't do that much these days—although Ted Hughes has done so—and, what's more, the modern holders of the title have accepted less poetical emoluments than their historic payment, which was a tun of canary wine.) Easy as it is to sympathize with Hughes's ambition for a revival of learning by heart, the strategy suggested in his introduction could prove counterproductive.

Worried that many people are put off poetry by having to learn it "by rote" (which was more or less the Muschamp method), Hughes enters upon an elaborate scheme for using our visual imagination as well as our auditory one. He has probably been influenced by his knowledge of bardic traditions, which subsisted in the time before print arrived, and he sets out an illustrative example of how a poem may be reconstituted in the mind as a sequence of images. Each one of these will, with practice, automatically link to its successor and aid, or complement, our recollection of the poem's words.

For Hughes, this analysis of a poem into image sequences is the play element in getting it by heart, and since he demonstrates his method with a dense and rhythmically complex poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, one can see his point.

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

But it could also be argued that for much poetry such play is an unnecessary distraction and that words alone may go roaring down the rollrock highroad all by themselves, giving themselves to us through their own momentum.

The chief defect of Henry King
was chewing little bits of string

may be thought too frivolous a couplet to support a serious argument against the Poet Laureate's play- way system, but one can get Belloc by heart in a trice "by rote" thanks to the craftsmanship of his diction, and that goes for anything up to Shakespeare's sonnets, too. (Another reminiscence: I have every reason to be grateful to Belloc's compulsive balladeering. Some years ago I was guest at one of the tea-time broadcasts that Myra Cohn Livingston used to host for Californian public radio. A fellow-guest on that never-to-be-forgotten occasion was the great Frances Clarke Sayers and, amid much merriment, we chanted as a kind of duet Belloc's dreadful story of Matilda "who told lies, and was burned to death.")

Oddly enough, Hughes seems to be aware of the potential of rote learning when, elsewhere in his introduction, he dilates on the memorable nature of sound-patterns, and this leads me to suspect that his animus against "learning by rote" may not be because of the method but the unimaginative teachers who adopt it. (To hear, as I have done, a whole class chanting "Tigatigaburninbrite [breath] Invaforrisovanite" gives pause for wonderment at the progress of education.)

And if wisdom and discrimination are what matters, then Ted Hughes is his own best advocate. Some years ago, in collaboration with Seamus Heaney, he compiled The Rattle Bag, a blissful hunk of an anthology where the reader can delve among nearly five hundred poems, or bits of poems, certain of finding words that will instantly attract and hold him. "A cairn," the editors call it, built up of poems that "lay about for the taking in places already well known to people"—and in the forefront of those people they saw "younger readers," for whom Jack Muschamp's clouds and daffodils would only be a limiting experience.

Now, The Rattle Bag has been joined by a companion volume, dubiously entitled The School Bag (Faber, 1997), which the editors describe rather bleakly as "less of a carnival, more like a checklist." That's because they've worked on a different principle here, collecting 266 poems, each by a different author (assuming that the generous helping of fifty-three English, Irish, and Welsh ballads and chants by Anonymous are not by the same chap). I can see that the contents of the Bag [The School Bag ] would be fun to assemble—what one poem by Shakespeare, or Whitman, or Edward Lear would you put in?—but given the ominous didactic implications of the title, I wonder whether Hughes/Heaney have not put too much trust in their readers' enterprise. If I'd encountered The School Bag in IIA, or IIIA, or IVA, I might have been frustrated at not being told more about these one-poem poets and not being told where to find more of their work.

Another peculiar thing about The School Bag is that it also prints Hughes's essay in By Heart on "memorizing Poems" and—if viewed alongside The Rattle Bag —more or less makes the 101 poems in By Heart redundant. And the oddity about that is that it's not really Hughes's style. For although the fact is not often bruited abroad, Ted Hughes is one of our choicest contemporary writers for children—and a part of his choiceness lies in his unwillingness to engage in redundant repetitions, as do those current purveyors of juvenile heartbreak and factitious horror. Admittedly his most celebrated story, The Iron Man (Harper, 1968, as The Iron Giant ) made a disastrous late-life mèsalliance with its sequel, The Iron Woman (1993), but, apart from that, Hughes has shown strength and versatility in all his writing for children, whether poems—from the off-beat nonsense of Meet My Folks! (1961; Bobbs Merrill, 1973) to the probing "farmyard fable" What Is Truth? (Harper, 1984); or his two volumes of "creation stories" How the Whale Became (1963; Atheneum, 1964) and Tales of the Early World (1988); or in the untilled field of children's drama: five plays, including his marvelous nativity play The Coming of the Kings, were published by Viking in 1974. In all this Hughes can be seen to share with such English contemporaries as Alan Garner, Peter Dickinson, and Janni Howker the quality of writing only when he has got something to say.

The editorial principle behind By Heart and the big anthologies is that there is some writing which we should live with as closely as possible—and you could do worse than make house-room for the editor's own books, too.

* * *

Postscript: The last twelve months have been something of an annus mirabilis for Ted Hughes. As well as the anthologies discussed above, he has published, for adults, Tales from Ovid, his own recension of the Metamorphoses, which won the British Whitbread Poetry Award, and Birthday Letters, a poem-sequence—or, rather, a tormented celebration of his meeting, marrying, and loss of Sylvia Plath. The book inspired the critics to responses that ranged from ecstasy to satire (see two limericks by Roz Chast in the New Yorker of March 16), and, in the context of arguments adduced in By Heart, its chain of 88 poems would seem to be nonstarters in the memorizing stakes (Chast is much easier). No amount of visual or aural acuity will make much of these dense, allusive, elusive verses, but it would be hard for Hughes's most intransigent critics to deny how often the seemingly impenetrable caverns give way to glittering passages and sudden illuminations which are, in substance, instantly memorable: the bat on Boston Common "a raving hyena the size of a sparrow," the "electrified tonnage" of the bear that raids their car in Yellowstone Park, and the cumulation of moments of anguish and resignation: "What happens in the heart simply happens …" Daffodils flower as well, in two of the most beautiful poems of the sequence, with

… the soft shrieks
Of their jostled stems, the wet shocks shaken
Of their girlish dance-frocks …

leading to a more penetrating vision than the sentimental iambics of William Wordsworth, that earlier Poet Laureate.


GraceAnne A. DeCandido (review date 1-15 June 2000)

SOURCE: DeCandido, GraceAnne A. Review of The Mermaid's Purse, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Flora McDonnell. Booklist 96, nos. 19-20 (1-15 June 2000): 1876.

Gr. 6 and up—From the work of the late Poet Laureate of England come 28 poems about sea creatures and the sea in a handsize volume [The Mermaid's Purse ]. The power of Hughes' use of language is evident in these short, cleverly structured poems, full of rich wordplay. In "Gulls," there's an echo of Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Back-flip, wisp / Over the foam-galled green / Building seas, and they scissor / Tossed spray." In "Sea Anemone," Hughes boldly rhymes an enemy with anemone. Flora McDonnell's black-and-white illustrations, with their thick jagged lines and calligraphic curlicues, are occasionally at odds with the darker textures of some of the poems, as in "Crab," who sings ominously that he "with pliers and pincers / Repair and remake / The daintier dancers / The breakers break." Sometimes a perfect image steals the breath, as in "Heron" : "I am nothing / But a prayer / To catch a fish." Older children engaged by the seafolk will be rewarded with poems that can limn a shipwreck as "the sea's rare rust-flower" blooming and withering cliffside.

Joanna Rudge Long (review date September-October 2000)

SOURCE: Long, Joanna Rudge. Review of The Mermaid's Purse, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Flora McDonnell. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 5 (September-October 2000): 591-92.

There's a bleak undercurrent running through this cycle of twenty-eight brief poems [The Mermaid's Purse ] concerning creatures of the sea, and some jolting tonal contrasts. "Sea Anemone," for example, opens with an ironic ambivalence ("For such a tender face / A touch is like a danger") that eventually dissolves into wordplay ("Many a friend, many a stranger, / Many an enemy / Melts in my embrace. / I am anemone"). The "Octopus" tempts victims with humorous repetitions that sound like the susurration of surf: "O jump from your vessel! / O dive with your muscle / Through Ocean's rough bustle! / Though I look like a tassel / Of hideous gristle, / A tussle of hassle, / I'm a bundle of charms. / O come, let us wrestle / With noses a-jostle! / You'll swoon in my arms …" Some poems are simply descriptive; others are marvelously evocative. The title poem perhaps suggests a chilling parallel to the late poet laureate's tragic marriage to Sylvia Plath, as an ordinary act (the mermaid opens her "purse" for an aspirin) erupts into startling violence: "Out came a shark / With a great black fin / Hissing: ‘Here's Nurse / And Surgeon in one / Great flashing grin!’ // Now headache / And head have gone / Or she'd feel worse." At its best, as in "Seal," Hughes's imagery is hauntingly dark and lovely: "Where ocean heaved / A breast of silk / And a black jag reef / Boiled into milk // There bobbed up a head / With eyes as wild / And wide and dark / As a famine child." McDonnell's bold drafting and impressionistic brush strokes capture the wildness of the sea and the poet's dark humor with sensitivity and panache. The hand-sized book is unusually appealing, with each poem set modestly on a black-and-white painting—like a mermaid's purse, it's small and innocent-looking but contains life in all its promise and ferocity.

Kathleen Whalin (review date October 2000)

SOURCE: Whalin, Kathleen. Review of The Mermaid's Purse, by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Flora McDonnell. School Library Journal 46, no. 10 (October 2000): 186.

Gr. 4-8—As in Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems (1976) and Under the North Star (1981; o.p., both Viking), Hughes's words evoke the elemental power that defines the poems' subjects [in The Mermaid's Purse ]. Each of the 28 selections explores the nature of a different sea creature. Hughes conjures an encounter with a monster of the deep ("So huge, so near, / So really here, / Your stare goes dry / To see me come / So like a swan, / So slow, so high / You cannot cry …"); the mystery in a shell ("You may wash out the sand / But never the sound / Of the ghost of the sea / That is haunting me"); and the artistry of a whale ("And wild as a hand / Among harp strings / Plunging through all / The seas she sings"). McDonnell's dramatic black-and-white paintings capture each poem's mood. While this is not the author's strongest collection, The Mermaid's Purse is still a rich source of thoughtful images by a master poet.


Lloyd Evans (review date 1 November 2003)

SOURCE: Evans, Lloyd. "Rocks and Guts and Bullocks." Spectator 293, no. 9143 (1 November 2003): 44-5.

[In the following essay, Evans offers a positive assessment of Hughes's Collected Poems, stating that the poet's Birthday Letters poems "are as harrowing and moving as anything Hughes wrote."]

Ted Hughes was the first living poet I loved. The same is probably true for countless kids who went to school in the 1960s and 70s. The general rule that classroom study engenders a lifelong dislike of poetry must make an exception of Hughes. Only a teacher of chart-topping ineptitude could prevent a child from enjoying those magical early portraits of animals. I still remember the sensational shudder that ran through me at the opening of ‘The Jaguar’ : ‘The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.’

It was ‘adore’ that got me. Pluck or pick or squash or sift, yes, I was ready for those, but ‘adore’. It didn't belong but it belonged. For me it was like the moment when the lozenge cracks and honey floods your tongue. Poetry could be physical.

Hughes's talent was copious but only when deployed within a very narrow wave-band. Nature was his element. Open this book [Collected Poems ] anywhere and coinages of audacious beauty soar off the page. Daffodils are ‘fresh-opened dragonflies, baby-cries from the thaw.’ Snow is ‘fallen heaven’. A boy finding a bull feels ‘the hotly-tongued mash of his cud breathing against me’.

Hughes's sense of orchestration can conjure any mood at will. Unsettling eeriness:

The howling of wolves
Is without world.
What are they dragging up and out on their
  long leashes of sound
That dissolve in the mid-air silence?

Or daft, helpless pleasure:

Suddenly hooligan baby starlings
Rain all around me squealing.

And the inexplicably ominous ‘Pike, three inches long, perfect’ …

Hughes was a nomad, an artistic chancer who convinced himself he was at home when he was stranded. The ‘Crow’ series—in which a bird posing as Every-man muses about love, life and God—is an embarrassing failure. I lost touch with Hughes from adolescence onward, preferring Larkin with his subtler and more urbane sensibility and his easier feel for human experience. Hughes was all rocks and guts and bullocks. He wasn't much of a narrator either. His gift is for the rugged stand-alone utterance. Many of his poems proceed by gentle lurches—they have the stark brilliance of still photographs but not the satisfying current of moving pictures. Often they lack shape, escalation or climax.

When he was asked to become laureate I think everyone sensed it wasn't quite right. Larkin declined, properly, and the office ought to have passed with Betjeman. To accept should, I feel, be taken as evidence that one is not suited to the job. Perhaps Hughes embraced the task in a careless or mischievous spirit. It's quite possible he was ribbing his patrons when he supplied verse of almost Aeschylean density. Like this:

And of the exultant larvae in the Barle's
        shrunk trench, their
filaments ablur like propellers, under the
    churned ceiling of light,
and of the Lyn's twin gorges, clearing their
    throats, deepening
their voices, beginning to hear each other….

That's Prince Harry's christening poem, as I'm sure everyone knows. I expect he's in the outback right now with his fellow jackaroos, teasing out the allusions over a glass of amontillado and a mythological dictionary.

The Birthday Letters are the last of Hughes's grand experiments. Most are patchy, some appalling, a few exceptional. It sold by the truckload, but I imagine many were bought as presents, probably delighting the giver more than the recipient.

A picture emerges of a relationship that veered between farce, melodrama and pretension. ‘We only did what poetry told us to do’ is their collective mission statement. The Muse's instructions involved acquiring a Chesterfield sofa of Prussian blue velvet, entertaining each other with ‘sostenuto renderings of Chaucer’ and using a ouija board on summer evenings to interrogate spirits about their favourite lines from Shakespeare. One of the undead wittily answered:

Never, never, never, never, never.

Bad omens abound. Plath complained bitterly of feeling trapped in England. The clammy weather and filth-encrusted buildings deepened her depression. They holidayed frequently. On a fishing trip in America they were caught by the tide and nearly drowned. Camping in a forest one night they were woken by a rogue grizzly which ripped their car to pieces. The following morning they learned it had already killed a man. In Spain, Plath succumbed to a fever and was convinced she was about to die. In Paris she refused to give money to ‘a dark stub gypsy woman’.

Like a pistol her finger
Came up to your face, all her momentum
Icicled into a pointer: Vous
Creverez bientôt.

At their best, the Letters [Birthday Letters ] are as harrowing and moving as anything Hughes wrote. He had finally found a way of realising a human response to human affairs. ‘By night I lie awake in my body,’ he wrote in ‘Life after Death’, I doubt if anyone who has lost a spouse could read that poem without reaching for comfort.



Paul, Lissa. Review of Collected Poems for Children, by Ted Hughes. Horn Book Magazine 83, no. 4 (July-August 2007): 409-10.

Praises Hughes's "exquisitely tuned words" in Collected Poems for Children, but notes that "[t]his is not a definitive collection of Hughes's children's poetry."

Philip, Neil. "The Shawl of the Beauty of the World: The Children's Books of Ted Hughes." Signal 34, no. 100 (January-September 2003): 191-202.

Survey of Hughes's fiction intended for young readers.

Sagar, Keith. "Hughes' Poetry for Children." In The Achievement of Ted Hughes, pp. 239-56. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1983.

Discusses the distinctive qualities of Hughes's children's verse.

Additional coverage of Hughes's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R, 171; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 33, 66, 108; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 4, 9, 14, 37, 119; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 40, 161; DISCovering Authors: British Edition ; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition ; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry ; Literature Resource Center ; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; Modern British Literature, Ed. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 7; Poetry for Students, Vols. 4, 19; Poets: American and British ; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers ; Something about the Author, Vols. 27, 49, 107; and Twayne's English Authors.