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We are fortunate, I think, in knowing as little about William Shakespeare as we do. With no biography to distract us, all we have to think about is the work. The recent publication of a biography of Ted Hughes helps to make the point.
Hughes was scrupulous to begin with in keeping himself out of his poetry. He was a nature poet, like John Clare, and like him was at his best writing about the natural world, not from his point of view, but from the point of view of the animals and the elements. He showed us swifts ‘erupting across yard stones’, thrushes ‘more coiled steel than living’, horses ‘megalith-still’, cold that ‘squeezes the fire at the core of the world’, wind ‘stampeding the fields’.
He is an observer, a man who seeks to understand himself by identifying with nature. Take Snowdrop for example.
Now is the globe shrunk tight
Round the mouse’s dulled wintering heart.
Weasel and crow, as if moulded in brass,
Move through an outer darkness
Not in their right minds,
With the other deaths. She, too, pursues her ends,
Brutal as the stars of this month,
Her pale head heavy as metal.
Does he see in the mouse his own ‘dulled wintering heart’, in the beauty of a snowdrop his own brutality in pursuit of his own ends? Perhaps. But not because he makes the natural world in his own image, rather that he makes himself in the image of the mouse, the weasel and the crow.
Clare is the same. His best-known line is also his weakest. ‘I am, but what I am none cares or knows’ is mere self-pity. We only have his word for that, but we know he is right when he describes how a wryneck protects her eggs from a bird-nesting boy:
The sitting bird looks up with jetty eye
And waves her head in terror to and fro,
Speckled and veined in various shades of brown,
And then a hissing noise assails the clown
And quick with hasty terror in his breast
From the tree’s knotty trunk he sluthers down
And thinks the strange bird guards a serpent’s nest.
Clare is always at his best when his observations of the natural world keep man in his place.
Spider and bee all mimicking at will,
Displaying powers that fools the proudly wise,
Showing the wonders of great nature’s plan
In trifles insignificant and small,
Puzzling the power of that great trifle man,
Who finds no reason to be proud at all.
It all went wrong for Ted Hughes, as it does for a journalist, when he became the story himself. The impersonal voice, the anonymous poet of The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal, were lost forever. Instead, he put on a mask. He became Crow.
But it was not a real crow, it was an invention, anthropomorphic, a symbol of everything that had gone wrong in the poet’s life.
Crow convulsed, gaped, retched and
Man’s bodiless prodigious head
Bulbed out onto the earth, with swivelling eyes,
Jabbering protest –
And Crow retched again, before God could stop him.
And woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened.
The two struggled together on the grass.
God struggled to part them, cursed, wept –
Crow flew guiltily off.
Or as John Clare put it, ‘I am, yet what I am none cares or knows’.
The animals Hughes wrote about then were mythical, creatures of his own making. Later, in Moortown Diary for example, his descriptions of encounters with the natural world read like notes for something he plans to write later.
Rain. Floods. Frost. And after frost, rain.
Dull roof-drumming. Wraith-rain pulsing across purple-bare woods
Like light across heaved water. Sleet in it.
We know now, of course, that all the time he was working on Birthday Letters. Instead of thinking about the profound, unknowable world of nature, his mind was on himself and the need to set the record straight about what he was.
Roe-Deer, a poem in Moortown Diary, captures his sense of detachment from a world with which he was once able to identify so closely.
In the dawn-dirty light, in the biggest snow of the year
Two blue-dark deer stood in the road, alerted.
They had happened into my dimension
The moment I was arriving just there.
They stand in the road, he and the deer, looking at each other.
I could think the deer were waiting for me
To remember the password and sign
That the curtain had blown aside for a moment
And there where the trees were no longer trees, nor the road a road
The deer had come for me.
The sense of loss is powerfully conveyed, as if he is looking back over the years to the poems he used to write in the world he used to inhabit before he forgot the password. He is an intruder now. He is part of the story, and however hard he tries, he cannot forget who and what he is.
A writer’s biography is an irrelevance. It would add nothing to our understanding of Shakespeare’s poems and plays. The tragedy of Ted Hughes is that it became a permanent distraction, not only for us, but for him.