As the train approaches its destination, the poem gains momentum as though possessed of some new energy, then suddenly slows down. The philosophical discourse slackens too, as Larkin can no longer sustain the intensity of his superior knowledge that extends far beyond the superficiality of socially constructed rituals. He relinquishes the awareness that the journey was merely a “frail / Travelling coincidence”: the experience now inhabits the past, and Larkin releases his hold on it, leaving him free to pursue the fertile possibilities of the future.
Larkin has taken us on a journey through more than simply space and time: it has been a journey through experience and knowledge. It has revealed and observed the substance of Englishness: its landscape and the people who inhabit it. The gentle closing lines of the poem: there swelled A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain is an optimistic release of the ‘true’ meaning of life that can never be fully sustained, or indeed realised, by most Englanders.
In the poetry which makes up The Whitsun Weddings, Larkin presents the reader with a simple and uncomplicated depiction of the matter of England, through which it is easy to perceive what is the matter with England. Ted Hughes has an altogether different attitude towards the matter of England, and indeed towards poetry itself. There are few overt references to the English nation in his New Selected Poems 1957-1994, primarily because Hughes does not deem the rational division of the earth into separate states to be of any real importance.
To him landscapes, animalistic forces and the scope of nature are not contingent upon the demarcation of a particular region – they are equally in existence the world over. However, certain landscapes in his verse can be identified geographically, and many of these are of England, or at least an England of the past. For example, Remains of Elmet is a series of poems which has as its backdrop the last Celtic kingdom; within this geography Hughes brings together history and the activity of contemporary life to create a mythic effect.
England is depicted through the portrayal of the whole of western civilisation. The sentiments contained in Hughes’ poetry apply to England because it has been shaped by the same processes as western culture, and both are now in the grip of a spiritual and natural paralysis. Hughes harbours a powerful contempt for western civilisation because its values and attitudes have impeded the operation of man’s natural energy. 4 He conceives of civilisation as a cage from which man must break free and rediscover basic instincts.
Thus the role of contemporary society is negated, and the logical rationalism of modernity is denied, in favour of the evocation of primitive but unrecognised natural forces at work in man and his environment. Hughes sees that being “disconnected from this inner [primeval] world, life becomes empty, meaningless, sterile. “5, so he uses poetry as a means to discover this life by giving voice to the figure beneath the mask of civilisation. Social history becomes translated into a natural history by Hughes’ poetry: in ‘October Dawn’ for example, the social is related to the evolution of the landscape.
6 ‘October Dawn’ sets a precarious civilisation against the puissant force of nature, a battle which civilisation inevitably loses. This poem emphasises that western culture is subject to the benevolence of the earth, and can be reclaimed at any point. So “A glass half full of wine” is “left out / To the dark heaven all night” like an offering to placate some primeval god. Yet the insubstantial wine glass, an emblem of civilisation, is “doomed” as natural forces begin to conquer all things man-made: “Ice/ Has got its spearhead into place.
” The delicacy soon gives way to something more forceful, which is reflected by the elemental and energetic diction: “a fist of cold / Squeezes the fire at the core of the world. ” Such is the unbridled power of nature that it has eliminated the civilised man and all evidence of his existence, and reinstated the “Mammoth and Sabre-tooth”, but has only just begun its domination. The potential of the landscape is immense: “And now it is about to start. ” ‘Football at Slack’ appears in Remains of Elmet, a collection that focuses on a real world inhabited by real people as opposed to the mythopoeic world of Crow, for example.
Here, the human and the elemental interact in an exhilarating celebration of vitality. But significantly the human activity of football, a game that occupies an increasingly central role in the culture of England, is contained within the bounds of the landscape: “Between plunging valleys, on a bareback of hill. ” The football game is recounted in a gently mocking tone; the football players take on an absurd quality, and become almost clown-like figures: “Men in bunting colours / Bounced”, and “The rubbery men bounced after it”.
There is something incongruous about the whole activity – men flailing around in the landscape, chasing a ball while the enduring hillside looks on. As always, nature exercises control over the activities of man: “The ball jumped up and out and hung on the wind / Over a gulf of treetops. ” Nature exerts its powers on the men, as though in teasing; for although: “the rain lowered a steel press” leaving the players practically submerged, they remain: “washed and happy”. Man interacts with the landscape, and there is the connotation that the landscape watches the match and is entertained by it.
Hughes identifies in this football game a vestige of man’s natural energy. Yet although in this instance the natural and the social operate side by side in a complicit agreement, ‘Football at Slack’ carries the suggestion that the hillside could at any time unleash its power on the comical figures: “a golden holocaust / Lifted the cloud’s edge”. A bleak, physical landscape once again has supremacy over humankind, and primitive energies possess the advantage over the peculiarities of western civilisation.
An awareness of the carnal mentality shared by animals and humans alike is basic to Ted Hughes. 7 The impulse to get back to a new and more vital life principle is ever present in his poetry -he strips humanity down to a bare animal in order to attempt a reconciliation with a consciousness that has insisted on the alienation from the ‘inner life’. ‘The Long Tunnel Ceiling’ is a drama of consciousness, and illustrates the way in which the observation of animals, as representative of the true order of nature, provides the stimulus for the re-acquaintance with our true selves.
In ‘The Long Tunnel Ceiling’, the sight of a trout in a canal marks a departure from the mundaneness of modern life, and the verse that contains it. The fish takes on the persona of a natural god, a: “Master of the Pennine Pass”, and in that capacity is exalted, indeed almost worshipped, by Hughes. The sighting of the: “Molten pig of many a bronze loach” triggers in the poet an imaginative flight into a mystical, natural landscape – a flight on which he is accompanied by the reader: Brought down on a midnight cloudburst In a shake-up of heaven and the hills
When the streams burst with zig-zags and explosions. An encounter with a single, inert fish initiates a mental and spiritual departure from the heedless bustle of modern life, with its: “Lorries from Bradford [and] Rochdale” that pass insistently overhead. The animal is accepted as a desirable and precious aspect of the self; against this knowledge, the industrial society that surrounds the poet and the trout fails to possess any meaning. We are left with an awareness of a “wild god” that flowers like a symbol of hope and sustenance amid the relentless passage of modern life.
‘Her Husband’ is one of the few poems by Hughes to possess a socially oriented view. A precarious social hierarchy, with males assuming a higher status because they know: “The stubborn character of money”, is portrayed. The existence of humans and their ultimately insignificant social structures are sustained through the violation of the landscape. Thus civilisation is supported and underpinned by nature. Yet the poem suggests that the physical earth will revenge its desecration at the hands of ruthless humanity: “Their jurors are to be assembled / From the little crumbs of soot.
” The transience and superficiality of western culture is contrasted with the enduring and far superior presence of the landscape and its fossil fuels: “Their brief / Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it. ” The farcical notion of the “rights” of humanity is burnt away as effortlessly as the coal. Hughes portrays basic natural forces with a language of energy and vigour, and in doing so creates a mythic dimension. The poetry of Ted Hughes is neither social commentary nor a straight-forward description of the geography of England.
It condemns the whole of western culture, of which England is a part, for distancing itself and its people from the strong primitive urges that comprise the inner self. His aim is to: “reconnect our own natural energies with those in the external, natural world”8 through the medium of poetry. Both Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes both —examine the matter of England, and expose its flaws. But their attitudes towards and treatment of this England differ radically. The term “English poets” seeks to unite the two perspectives of two poets that remain essentially irreconcilable.