Time to get serious

I apologise in advance for this blog which is rather remorselessly technical; but it may be interesting at least to some readers of poetry; and these are matters which teachers and students in Creative Writing classes should certainly consider from time to time.

In a recent issue of his journal Areté Craig Raine has an article about ‘the line’ in poetry, arguing that it is the basic unit of meaning, and that it sets a pattern against which the deviations essential to a work of art are measured.  This is one of those important subjects poets do, or certainly should, think about constantly, but seldom write about because so much is dependent on instinct, and it’s so very hard to make and defend rules.  It is brave of Raine to have a shot at it.
            My response is the Leavisite one: ‘Yes, but…’

My first reservation is that he puts too much emphasis on the iambus – the da dum metre.  When I was young I quickly decided that the basic unit of English poetry was the pentameter – five stresses, which the line did not encourage you to speak as if they were iambics, though historically they mostly were.  There is a brief period when the iambus rules, and you hear the da dum drum beating – in Dryden and Pope, in Dr Johnson – but that historical phase passes quickly.  Before and after, while observing the iambic in writing, poets invite you to ignore it in the reading – or at most to hear it only as a ghostly presence, a ghostly absence.  The measures are there; but you are not asked to hear them, or sound them in reading.

 Ben Jonson said ‘Donne for not keeping of accent deserved hanging.’  What did he mean by this?  Only that in reading his poems you have to ignore, forget, pass over, what the poet has not ignored in the writing.  Donne’s discipline in ‘A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ is extraordinary – five 9-line stanzas, each rhyming abbacccdd, and with the lines being, in order, 2 pentameters, 2 tetrameters, 1 trimeter, and 4 pentameters.    

            Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
            Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,    
                 The sun is spent, and now his flasks  
                 Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;          
                            The world’s whole sap is sunk:
            The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,
            Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
            Dead and interred; yet all these seem to laugh
            Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.                        

Keats’s Nightingale ode is 8 stanzas of 10 lines, all iambic pentameters except the 8th, a trimeter, and rhyming ababcdecde; but to read them as you would read lines by Pope would sound artificial and absurd.*

            My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains
                    My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk,
            Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
                    One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk:
            Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
                    But being too happy in thine happiness –
            That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
                                In some melodious plot
            Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
            Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

When it comes to the 20th century there is a general freeing up. In the 1950s the idea of speech stresses was common.  The basic line was still the pentameter, but you counted, not iambic feet, but where you felt the speech stress fell.  The lines were mostly pentameters, but could move around rather loosely between three, four and five stresses.
And then there was Ezra Pound, whose case Raine avoids altogether.  Pound said, ‘to break the pentameter – that was the first heave’ (Canto LXXXI).  He doesn’t say ‘the iambic pentameter’.  It was the norm of the five stress line that he felt was constructing and had to be broken.  Pound did it by a general looseness, the rule of instinct, and even of lawlessness, rather than the rule of law – insubordination of the kind which Donald Davie, who thought he was England’s advocate for Pound, nonetheless deplored as a symptom of social and even moral decay.

            The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s
            bent shoulders
            Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,
            Thus Ben and la Clare a Milano
                             by the heels at Milano
            That maggots shd/ eat the dead bullock
            […]                        but the twice crucified
                                         where in history will you find it?
            yet say to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper
                 with a bang not with a whimper,
            To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of

            The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful,
                                         Rain also is of the process.
            What you depart from is not the way
            and olive tree blown white in the wind
            washed in the Kiang and Han
            what whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
                                                                 what candour?

It is not only the iambus that is gone; so is the pentameter.  Craig Raine would probably say the line is still there – and that that was his point; and it’s true that the lines and the line-breaks in that passage, and probably in most of Pound, are important.
            But Raine’s article makes an exception to his rule that the line must be a unit of sense.  His exception is W.C. Williams famous ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’:

            so much depends

            the red wheel

            glazed with rain

            beside the white

(He suggests, cleverly, that each of these pairs is visually – i.e. in its shape – a wheelbarrow.) I think if you make one exception there will always be more.  It is easy to find an absurd example, as he does, of Robert Creeley’s strung out poems; but not difficult, to find one that works.

            light –


The point here perhaps, as with the Williams wheelbarrow, is the direction, down the page.  That is another kind of ‘poem’ – the kind that races over the line and achieves an onward momentum by not allowing the line to be the unit of sense, but part of a larger sense which won’t allow it to stop.

I remember asking myself why James K. Baxter’s open (unrhymed) sonnets were spaced out in couplets when there was nothing, neither rhyme nor the run of sense, that made it necessary or was advanced by it.  It was a form he took from Lawrence Durrell; and I decided it was just a matter of eye-and-mind, to make the reader take the poem more slowly and consider the words more carefully.  Fourteen unrhymed lines hunched up on a page are not encouraging.  They don’t invite, or suggest, an open mind or a relaxed discourse.  Spread out, even in pairs which are otherwise lacking any particular utility, they are more inviting. And for the reader to be puzzled, asking, ‘Why these breaks?’ and finding no obvious answer, is keeping attention longer and more carefully focussed.

Slowness or speed – the spacing can collaborate with either, and affect the sense; which is why Anne Carson, in another example Raine offers, has breaks which (he complains) are ‘arbitrary’.  Arbitrariness is a little assault on the reader, like a nudge – or even an elbow-jolt.  It’s uncomfortable not to be able to cite a rule, or at least a reason, why something is as it is, and why it works or doesn’t; but that, I think, is what poetry has become.  More, it is what it has always been.  Criticism, saying and showing why poems work or don’t work, was always a matter of preferences dressed up in the uniform of authority.  The critic succeeds, not by being ‘right’ (any fool can be right) but by persuasion.  You like it?  Try to tell me why, and I will try to tell you why I don’t.

Discussing the Carson example Raine says it may seem stuffy to object – ‘a bit like faulting Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.’  But his way around this is to reiterate his basic point, as if by simple repetition its truth is established:

            But the line is the fundamental unit of poetry.  The line is the steering wheel that
            harnesses the Pegasus power of poetry.  You can’t give up the steering wheel,
            you can’t relinquish control completely.

It is so because it is so; and there’s a slip into analogies-and-assertions in combo – the line is like the steering wheel in the car, and we all know how important that is!  To me these statements are very nearly meaningless.  As for the Pollock analogy, it deserves better consideration than the aside it gets: ‘I’m with Giacometti, who characterized Abstract Expressionism as “l’art du mouchoir”’.

One element in the making of modern poems which Raine doesn’t mention is syllabics – something Auden learned, I think, from Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.  In About the House, the poems he wrote to celebrate his enormous satisfaction in at last achieving home ownership, Auden offers a sequence of chatty introductions, one poem to each room.  ‘This egocentric monologue’ he calls the one addressed to the ghost of Louis MacNeice, about the room in which his writing was done – ‘The Cave of Making’.

                                                     After all it’s rather a privilege
                 amid the affluent traffic
            to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
                 background noise for study
            or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
                 cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
            or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
                 being read or ignored: our handful
            of clients at least can rune.

The syllable count is loose, but throughout quite a long poem it roughly alternates 15 and 8, producing, not a sense of form so much as an amble – a passeggiata as untidy as the man himself, and as interestingly full of quirky information.  I think syllabic poems of this kind challenge Raine’s idea of the line as the unit of sense.  It runs on like prose, and the sense runs with it.  If we apprehend it as poetry, that has little or nothing to do with the line, and depends on distinction in the language, the grammar and syntax, on wit and intelligence, and on the sense of compression and linguistic economy.  Yes it could all be written as prose, and no that would not be the same; so the fact that it is ‘in lines’ is important – but that is not the same as saying ‘the line’ is the ‘unit of sense’.  If there is anything of primary importance it is the forward momentum, grammatical and syntactical: in other words, the writing.

It will be useful here if I take an example from my own work, because I can explain the thinking behind it.  In my novel My name was Judas I made Judas a poet, and each chapter ends with a poem which in some degree reiterates what has just happened, but also adds to it and sometimes reflects on it.  For each of these I used a form I’d used a few times before, the three-line thirteen syllable tercet.  This meant the individual lines varied in length, but each three line group added up to thirteen syllables.  I had thought of putting a tercet at the front of the book which would explain, or excuse, the form, but decided against it, hoping someone might arrive at it without prompting.  So far as I know only one person did – Professor Mac Jackson who is also an expert on Shakespeare’s sonnets.  The key was going to be

            Thirteen syllables
            because there were
            thirteen of us.

which is, of course, itself thirteen syllables, the number of Jesus and his twelve disciples.  Here is the poem* at the end of chapter 4, in which the boy Jesus, visiting the Temple in Jerusalem, is given the opportunity to offer a pigeon for sacrifice, but at the last moment, when he is supposed to utter the prescribed prayer and hand the bird to the Levite ready with the knife, he releases it, saying that was what Yahweh instructed him to do:

            In the beginning
            was the word, the
            sentence, the text

            that made of the
            pigeon a paradigm
            of the soul

            and gave to
            the stone he held the
            light of the divine.

            He was his own
            first convert, able
            to see himself

            burning, bathed
            in the white fire of
            the noun and the verb.

There are two complete sentences here.  The poem could, of course, be set out as five 13-syllable lines, but that would have a different effect and still not alter my argument.  It is not the line as unit that matters here but the sense of a march of meaning down the page.  That was the effect I was most conscious of in writing these poems – that I was working always for economy, for a movement of sense ahead, and that the syllable count forced me to consider every word and every alternative way of making the same sense – not line by line, not even thirteen by thirteen, but sentence by sentence, and as a poem.

Postscript:  Craig Raine is an old friend and when I sent him this piece he protested that I had not done justice to his argument – indeed, that I had misrepresented it.  I wanted to add his protest (and anything further he had to say) to the blog, but he wouldn’t allow that because it ‘had not been written for publication’.  So I simply record here that that is what he felt, and leave the reader to discover exactly what he said in Areté itself, in issue 48, Winter 2015.  In any case, whether fair to Raine or not, it seems to me what I wrote here about poetic form and the poetic line is of interest without reference to what triggered it.  These are matters that should be thought about consciously by anyone/everyone who aspires to write poetry.  If you think you can get away with writing stuff that doesn’t go all the way to the edge of the page, but without giving matters of poetic form and its history a thought, you are deluding yourself and should try something else – singing in the bath, for example.

Areté has a surprising range of top contributors, the result partly of Raine’s network of connections dating from the time when he was Faber’s poetry editor, and equally from his many friends in the British literary and academic community.  He has been a don at Oxford during the past decade or more, and has recently retired but is still a Fellow of New College.  If you wish to subscribe to Areté, or persuade your librarian to subscribe, it can be ordered on line at www.aretemagazine.com  

The address is Areté Magazine, New College, 8 New College Lane, OXFORD OX1 3BN, U.K.

And a note to Auckland readers: Dean Parker’s play POLO, currently on at the Sky City Theatre, is not just a left-liberal satirical romp with side-swipes at Judith Collins and the National Party, but more than that – a comedy that becomes a poem about Auckland, a sort of love lyric to our city, whimsical and in the end quite moving.

                                                                                                            C.K. Stead

* Oddly there is one irregularity – the last line of stanza 2 is inexplicably an alexandrine.
* ‘The stone he held’ is a reference back to something earlier in the chapter, where the boy Jesus gives an impromptu sermon on a stone,


Reading Jonathan Bate’s new biography of Ted Hughes has set me reviewing my own encounters with the poet’s work at intervals over most of my literary life since I bought his first book, The Hawk in the Rain, and gave it to Kay for her 24th birthday in 1957. We still have that now badly foxed first edition which I had inscribed with quotations from the poems themselves:

                 For Kay

                Who sees straight through the bogeyman,
                The crammed cafés, the ten thousand
                Books packed end to end


                This mildewed island
                Rained on and beaten flat by wind and water.

                Karl, Bristol, 24.12.57

At the time I was doing a PhD on poetic Modernism, so my attention was focussed on the early years of the 20th century, on the impact of Yeats, the Georgians, the poetry of World War I, and the arrival of Eliot and Pound on the scene. As for contemporary British poetry of the 1950s, I had discovered two years earlier the poems of Philip Larkin and had been keenly interested and impressed; and now here was Hughes. I soon found him an alien temperament. In the back of the book I noted (as was my habit at the time, thinking always of how many poems and lines my own first collection might have to be) ‘41 poems, 974 lines’ – and put it aside. Larkin was more interesting among British contemporaries; and beyond work on the PhD, my keenest contemporary focus remained always on what was happening in New Zealand.

But Hughes is such a large presence he is not one I could go on ignoring forever. Reading this Jonathan Bate biography I’ve felt again that I’ve been resisting Hughes most of my life. There’s an anxiety about this, a habit of critical conscientiousness learned when young, a feeling almost of guilt as if, as a serious reader of poetry, it’s my duty to have an opinion. This is slightly absurd; but these literary-critical questions are worth exploring – there’s usually something to be learned from them, if not about the poet then about oneself.

Aspects of Hughes’s life have been impossible to ignore – most notably his marriage in 1957 to the American poet Sylvia Plath, the birth of their two children, the break-up of their marriage when he left her for the beautiful, thrice married Assia Wevill, Sylvia’s suicide in 1963, and then the impact of the post-mortem publication of her poems. I have that first Faber edition of Ariel, Plath’s posthumous collection which was a sensational public success, with its dark malevolent images of the male, sometimes father, sometimes husband, often both. Ted appears there as ‘the vampire’ who ‘drank my blood’ for seven years, and her own suicide is foreseen and celebrated:

                Is an art, like everything else
                I do it exceptionally well

The two books, his of 1957 and hers of 1963, seem to match one another, both with yellow and blue dust-jackets now, after almost sixty years, falling apart. Whereas my reaction to his poems had been one of failure (his or mine) to engage, with hers I felt the force of them, a sense that it was a raw force, rough, even rough-shod, with an edge of hysteria and self-dramatisation. The sense of immediacy was what was most striking, and that made Ted’s poems by comparison seem muffled.

For all of 1965 (the year of T.S. Eliot’s death) I was on leave in London and took part in the Commonwealth Festival readings at the Royal Court Theatre. One of the poets I read with was the Canadian David Wevill, whose wife Assia had left him for Ted, and had borne Ted’s child Shura. Rumour and gossip surrounded him and one looked for lines of distress and thought they were there. His book of poems, Birth of a Shark, published only the year before, was dedicated to her. They had not divorced, and the rumour was that he looked after the Hughes child some of the time, and wanted to preserve the marriage. There were eighteen Commonwealth poets at the Festival and each was commissioned to write a poem. David Wevill’s began

                Every man
                Carries a scandal
                At his heart.
                The woodpile hides
                A baby or
                A dead wife’s bones

And ended

                Down the same darkness
                Retrieve my lost diamond.

The alliance of Ted and Assia (David’s ‘lost diamond’) we now know went through many ups and downs until 1969 when she too killed herself. Sylvia in her suicide had taken special care that the gas did not reach the children asleep upstairs. Assia on the other hand took her and Ted’s little daughter Shura with her – curled up with her on the kitchen floor so they died together.

When word of this got about, Ted, already in disfavour because of Sylvia’s death, and because of the way she seemed to present herself as his victim, became the object of a feminist vendetta which over the next two decades increased in volume and nastiness. He was reviled, his books stolen and savaged in bookshops, his house set on fire and archives damaged; he was hounded in public places and attacked at poetry readings as Plath’s murderer. Plath’s grave in Yorkshire, where Ted’s family came from, was attacked again and again and his name chiselled off the stone that identified her as ‘Sylvia Plath Hughes’.

Ted’s infidelities were indeed multiple and complex – the woman he was in bed with the night Sylvia died, for example, was not Assia but another; but he was also by now a grieving father and husband, and no feeling was spared for him. His life had become, for the time being, thoroughly politicised; and though there had been no sign of him at the 1965 Festival he continued to publish new work. We lived on Prince Albert Road that year, in sight of the Zoo that figures in his poems, and in ear-shot of the occasional lion roar or wolf howl. Within easy walking distance was the house, blue-plaqued because W.B. Yeats had lived there, where Sylvia died. Our G.P. was Dr Horder who had described Sylvia as ‘a model patient’ and who had phoned Ted with the (surely intended to be accusing/punishing) words, ‘Your wife is dead.’

By now my own first book of poems had been published in New Zealand and my first critical book, The New Poetic, in the U.K. with a U.S. edition pending. Insofar as contemporary British poetry interested me, Auden, the senior figure, was still producing new work, and Larkin seemed the junior, weird and wounded perhaps, but a star. At least equally important, in America Robert Lowell and John Berryman were filling the frame. Lowell, whose Life Studies had so strongly influenced Plath, would soon be moving on to the liberation that his sequences of ‘open’ sonnets represented.

I was conscious of new work by Hughes, but didn’t look closely until Crow (1970, dedicated ‘To Assia and Shura’), whose raw energy I tried hard to like and admire, but which made me wonder sometimes whether he was trying to match Ariel for impact. If he was, he was not succeeding. You can’t manufacture desperation on that scale. Only circumstances in combination with temperament can give it to you; and though Ted may well have had (indeed had created) the circumstances, his temperament was curiously British and unruffled. The wildness of Crow struck me as what the French call voulu – willed, trumped up, meretricious.

                Something grabs his arm. He turns. A bird-head,
                Bald, lizard-eyed, the size of a football, on two staggering bird-legs
                Gapes at him all the seams and pleats of its throat,
                Clutching at the carpet with horny feet,
                Threatens. He lifts a chair – fear lifts him –
                He smashes the egg-shell object to a blood-rag,
                A lumping sprawl, he tramples the bubbling mess.
                The shark-face is screaming in the doorway
                Opening its fangs.

Who was he trying to frighten? Himself perhaps. Now here are some lines by Larkin written around the same time. The poem begins typically, ‘Groping back to bed after a piss’, and has the poet parting the curtains to look up into the interchanging moon-and-clouds of the night sky. It ends

                One shivers slightly looking up there.
                The hardness and the brightness and the plain
                Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

                Is a reminder of the strength and pain
                Of being young; that it can’t come again,
                But is for others undiminished somewhere.

The writing is not perfect – the movement of the lines, especially the last, is slightly awkward. But in their tentativeness they seem truthful and don’t aspire beyond the level of the human and fallible. Craig Raine writes that ‘Ted had more charisma than anyone I’ve ever met’, and that he was ‘a spell-binding talker’. I never met him, nor Larkin either, so didn’t experience the ‘charisma’ of the one nor the reputed stammering insufficiency of the other. In the end, as always, it’s the poems on the page that matter – in Hughes’s case so many, and in Larkin’s so (relatively) few.

Two books; 'The Hawk In The Rain - poems by Ted Hughes' and 'ARIEL - Poems by Sylvia Plath'.

Meanwhile the Plath dispute raged on, clouding the critical climate. Nothing said about Hughes as poet could seem to stand entirely separate from Plath; and Plath the poet was difficult to separate from Plath the ‘victim’ of Hughes. There were those who took Plath’s side, notably the British critic and Hampstead Ponds swimmer Al Alvarez; and those who took Hughes’s – including the American poet Anne Stevenson, despite the fact that she had been at College with Sylvia. And then there was Janet Malcolm who stood brilliantly between, striking a balance in her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I once in the 1980s travelled in a tour bus at an academic conference with Anne Stevenson, who turned out to be deaf in one ear – so on the return journey I positioned myself on her hearing side and we had our previous conversation over again, filling the gaps. When I told this a few years later to Alvarez he said (of course) that Stevenson was deaf on the Plath side.

In 1984 the poet laureate John Betjeman died, and it was assumed the post would go to Larkin. It was offered, but poetry had deserted Larkin in recent years and he declined. It was then offered to Hughes who accepted – embraced it with an eagerness many found bizarre. The Plath affair had slowly faded from public consciousness, and the poems he now produced as laureate gave new and quite different grounds for anxious attention. As Bate writes, ‘With his belief in the poet as shaman of the tribe and the royal family as embodiment of the land, he took the role more seriously than any of his twentieth century predecessors.’ He was soon the Queen Mother’s favourite fishing companion, and regarded by Prince Charles as a ‘guru’. His 1992 collection of laureate poems, called Rain Charm for the Duchy, had the little rhyming epigraph

                A Soul is a wheel.
                A nation’s a Soul
                With a crown at the hub
                To keep it whole.

The title poem of the collection had the sub-title ‘A Blessed, Devout Drench for the Christening of His Royal Highness Prince Harry.’ There was no irony here – this was serious right royal, loyal British stuff.

But while the critics gasped, the wider public embraced him. If he was good enough for the Royals he was good enough for Britain. So now with confidence that many – probably the majority – were on side with him, he began to feel he could return to the subject of that first marriage and Sylvia Plath’s suicide. The result was the 1998 collection Birthday Letters in which he goes over that painful ground in memory. My feeling when I reviewed the collection in the New Zealand Listener was that it was as if we had all been hearing about, and even perhaps attending seminars on, the Hughes/Plath story for two or three decades, and that Hughes had been attending them too – but with the advantage that he had access to the diaries, his and hers, that had kept the record. The poems didn’t strike me as sharp new insights, but as pieces written by someone who knew what we all knew, but knew it better, and was versifying. I also had the memory of Verlaine having said, on reading Tennyson’s In Memoriam, written to commemorate the death of his friend Hallam, ‘When he should have been heartbroken he had many reminiscences’. There was good writing, it was accessible, human, sometimes touching, but lacking economy and the intensity economy brings; or perhaps that should be reversed – lacking the intensity that enforces economy. It was autobiography in verse, on a par with something like Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal of 1939, but without the historical interest.

But the success of Birthday Letters with the buying public was extraordinary. It was said a book of poems had never sold in such numbers since the days of Byron’s fame. What can match celebrity gossip for attracting public attention? The Times greeted it as
The Greatest Book by our Greatest Living Writer
and reported that ‘Hughes gives his account of one of the century’s most celebrated and tragic love stories.’ All around the Anglophone world the news was that a great poet had ‘broken his silence’. Almost overnight the devil Hughes became Saint Ted, royal favourite and sad rememberer. The British poet Anthony Thwaite, who had just published his Selected Poems, complained that it received no public attention at all: ‘Taddeo Grande [Great Ted] has swept the board.’ Once again, and more dramatically even than usual, the ‘Faber poet’ sucked all the oxygen from the poetry scene and left it otherwise depleted.

Bate acknowledges that critical (as distinct from journalistic) responses were mixed; but his own tone is reverent. He rates Hughes high among the English poets, alongside Wordsworth, sometimes with Shakespeare. One has to take this opinion seriously; but it seems to me there is little or nothing critical, analytical, detailed, to support it. He appears on the whole to be in the grip of a very English kind of nationalistic awe.

Birthday Letters is the collection that gives this biography its shape. Bate takes a line here from Hughes himself – that the whole Plath debacle had deflected him for many years from ‘the true voice of feeling’. ‘Everything I have written since the early 1960s’ Hughes wrote in a letter, ‘has been evading. It was a kind of desperation that I finally did publish them. […] If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago I might have had a more fruitful career.’

So Sylvia figures in the end as both the cause of a major interruption to the career of a great poet; and yet at the same time, as the subject of his major work. Perhaps there is not a contradiction buried somewhere in this, but to me it feels as if there must be. And when Bate, seeming to follow hints from Hughes, suggests ‘his infidelity to others was a form of fidelity to [Plath]’, I felt there was something shabby either about the poet, or his biographer, or perhaps both. Not that sexual fidelity is a necessary moral principle; but to make it a principle observed by non observance seems devious in the extreme.

When Hughes died in October 1998 there was a funeral service at which Seamus Heaney, Irish Nobel Laureate for literature and professional/international charmer, spoke of ‘a rent in the veil of poetry’. Hughes was cremated and his ashes scattered in a spot he’d chosen on the Duchy of Cornwall, equidistant between three fishing rivers, where his name and dates were chiselled on a slab of granite. The following May, Bate reports, ‘the great and the good of the nation’, including Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Prince Charles, gathered in Westminster Abbey where Hughes was to be remembered in Poet’s corner. Heaney delivered ‘another silken eulogy, comparing Hughes to Caedmon, father of English poetry, and to Wilfred Owen, to Gerard Manley Hopkins and to Shakespeare. The Prince of Wales described his poet as the incarnation of England.’

I suppose Queen Victoria might have referred to Tennyson as ‘her poet and the incarnation of England’, but I doubt there is another precedent.

                                                                                                                    - C.K Stead