Inside and Out – The force of nature in poems by Ted Hughes (’Wind’); Seamus Heaney (‘Storm on the Island); Ian Hamilton (‘The Storm’) & Brian Jones (‘The Measure of the Need’).

forces of nature final

Paul McLoughlin:

Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Wind’ plays (its exaggeration is wilful) on the familiar mismatch between human consciousness and unthinking nature. It is an obsessive interest. In ‘Thrushes’ (Lupercal, 1960) Mozart’s genius involves (with ‘bullet and automatic / Purpose’) his closing the gap, so that thought and action happen together, and it helps explain why Hughes has often been accused of admiring violence. Animals are instinctive. Nature isn’t even that. It is the natural world’s thoughtlessness that upsets one of Miroslav Holub’s protagonists (‘Man Cursing the Sea’) who rails against its implacable force before finding a measure of personal control in a more effective and life-enhancing response (‘he came down / and patted / the tiny immense stormy mirror of the sea. // There you go, water, he said / and went his way’). In the poems by Hamilton and Jones, women fearful of an approaching storm look to their male partners for help in the face of it.

Exaggeration suggests humour, of course, and Derwent May believed that in ‘Wind’ ‘the constant flicker of humour’ lends greater authority to the way in which the wind is described. But that same ‘flicker’ (even if it’s there) might equally risk undermining both speaker and poem. There is not much that’s discernibly humorous about the poem’s last line, for example (‘Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons’, though it’s worth mentioning in passing how much is gained in the final word’s plurality). This wind is manic (‘crashing’, ‘stampeding’, like crazed beasts). Everything it encounters is by contrast timid (‘quivering’ or being made to ‘tremble’). Nature is merciless. Hughes’s ‘flung’ magpie anticipates the ‘flung brick’ of his first wife’s ‘Medallion’ (written in 1959) though the magpie, as in all the best cartoons, survives, unlike Plath’s snake. Hughes is unsparing in the memorable violence of his imagery: the wind is ‘brunt’, a gull is ‘bent like an iron bar slowly’, and ‘we’ humans are left ‘deep / in chairs’ to ‘grip / Our hearts’ in the service of zeugma (unable to ‘entertain book, thought, / Or each other’). The poet said that in writing this poem he was ‘mainly concerned with the strength of the blast, the way it seems to shake the world up like a box of toys’. Is Hughes’s memory trifling with brutality, or is the humour May finds a conscious attempt to recognise and blunt it?

Both Hughes and Heaney present the house as a place of shelter and well-being, somewhere civilization happens. Hughes’s is a particular house, the one he is in. Heaney’s houses are more generic and social, even if each remains isolated. In Hughes, the third quatrain’s pre-occupied ‘I’ gives way to ‘we’ as late as line 19 (of 24), something worth noting because Heaney’s first word is ‘We’. He is a poet of civility. Hughes is altogether more assertive (and more inclined to provoke a fearful response). His first line has three near-spondees (‘This house’, ‘far out’ and ‘all night’). It affords a number of ways of being sounded out, even should we limit those ways to plausible speech rhythms. Trying to limit the stress points in this ten-syllable line requires Hopkins’s sprung rhythms. The line is alive with (and to) numerous possibilities (and its image of a house that is a sea-tossed ship might otherwise easily slip past without much notice). It is one of the lines that announced a new poet to the English scene.

The image itself introduces us to a language of extremity and violence (such as a storm-tossed ship might endure). Heaney is polite. The violence in ‘Storm on the Island’ is militaristic (‘strafed’, ‘bombarded’), a device which lends it an oddly civilized reason for happening; it is violence a humanly-devised cease-fire could put an end to. The damage caused by Hughes’s wind, however, is randomly collateral. Both houses face the violence of turbulent weather and host human responses to its natural onslaught but if the poems relate obviously to one another in terms of subject-matter, one about wind and rain, the other about a storm, it is not merely their diction that separates them but the attitudes their differing languages reveal. Both poems remind us that hard-won civilisation would be destroyed should a violent nature gain access to where we reside and seek comfort in each other. In Hughes, such an intrusive assault seems more overpowering. We may ‘grip / Our hearts’ but we are not in control. Heaney’s ‘flung spray’ seems less potent: it merely ‘hits’ the windows that in Hughes are the wind’s eyes. Heaney’s is a more manageable ‘flung’ than either Hughes’s or Plath’s.

‘Storm on the Island’ begins ‘We are prepared’. Heaney’s universe is immediately peopled, and it has time to recall Greek drama in its account of a gale that can ‘raise a tragic chorus’. Hughes invokes other, more magical worlds when he refers to the sound the wind makes: ‘The house / Rang like some fine green goblet in the note / That any second would shatter it’. Heaney’s is a more civilized storm that refuses to bow even to the relatively mild exaggeration of a ‘tame cat’ turning temporarily to savagery. If we can survive the war of a wind that ‘dives’ and ‘strafes’, then we can survive ‘being bombarded by the empty air’. What is strange, the final line suggests, is that ‘it is a huge nothing that we fear’. Are we supposed to be reassured by this closing assertion? That our civilisation and civility are protection enough? It is a long way for a reader to travel from ‘nothing’ to the ‘nothingness’ one supposes Heaney wanted us to infer: it is not ‘nothing’ that we fear. In both poems, the external, physical storm provokes inner turmoil. One causes the other, consciousness emerging as a possible means (with differing likelihoods of success) of erecting a protective shield about our human vulnerabilities. We are inside hearing what is without, the stones that ‘cry out’ or the ‘nothing that we fear’. It is arguable that, in psychological terms, the poems end at the very point at which they become of particular interest. Both closing lines are memorable and distinctive but their meanings own an opacity and faux-conclusiveness that some may find disappointingly unearned. In this sense they are in danger of declining into poeticisms.

The Hamilton and Jones poems focus on mental states rather than on the storms themselves. The former’s opening is ‘Miles off, a storm breaks’, while the latter begins ‘The storm keeps us awake’. Such matter-of-factness shares more with Heaney’s ‘We are prepared’ than with Hughes’s more self-consciously poetic ‘This house has been far out at sea all night’ (however much the Hughes is satisfying in both rhythmic and sonic terms). But quickly we are made aware that it is the people we are concerned with here and not the weather. (In Hughes, possessive pronouns appear four times, in Heaney’s more civil poem nine times, in Jones twelve, and in Hamilton fifteen. They reflect both point-of-view and preoccupation). The similarities between Hamilton’s poem and Jones’s are those of setting and event. In both poems a storm unsettles a couple at home. In both, the woman looks to the man for comfort and safety. The differences, however, are instructive.

Hamilton’s poem is the more compact and imposing, and the more self-consciously artful. The storm outside is not dwelt on. It is miles away, and merely ‘ripples’ into the room. It is the source of the woman’s fear, but it metamorphoses into something altogether more complex and disturbing, part-healing, part-sexual desire, and there is even a hint (in ‘my great hands stir’) of his speaker’s own ‘brute thunder’. (In Jones, the menace – in his case inherent to whatever words of comfort he can find to say – is openly acknowledged.) Indeed, the reader of ‘The Storm’ may grow increasingly perturbed by the dominant tone of locutions like ‘grip’, as she, the one fearful, is not doing the gripping. In Hughes it is our hearts that are being gripped. In Hamilton it is, physically, the woman herself. She is ‘startled’. She wants him to intervene between her and what she fears. He has been unmoved, it seems, by the weather, noting instead the ‘delicate bowl’ of her head, that she thinks ‘the storm might break’ (like Hughes’s green goblet). She kneels subserviently, surrendering to his ministrations, which are what exactly? The man is in control, even while ‘wondering how to do it’. This ‘it’ (another example of that dread word that so often results in accidental ambiguity or confusion) is presumably that of relieving her of her burden, but Hamilton’s desire for control means that the woman’s once ‘tight mouth’ now ‘opens’. It is difficult for a reader to settle on quite what this might mean.

How much meaning can this openness be allowed to bear? The ‘compacted brevity’ that Neil Corcoran has observed in Hamilton’s work, begins, in its quest for pared-down, essential control of subject-matter, to raise unlooked-for moral questions about the relationship the poem deals with. If Jones’s speaker is aware of the possibility of his own unintended menace, Hamilton’s is not, and this is the result, not only of the latter’s position of control in the poem, but also of Hamilton’s being more concerned with the artfulness of his poem than he is with the characters in it. It reminds us of Stoppard’s witty rejoinder that Hamlet may not have cared about what happened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but Shakespeare should have done. Hamilton may have been less in control of readers’ responses than he supposed. In a poem in which everything appears carefully controlled, Hamilton’s (or his speaker’s) intent is surely not helped by the sexual being so schoolboyishly signalled in the line-ending ‘come’ and in ‘wanting me’.

If Jones is also preoccupied with control, it is control over the necessities of circumstance, the need to provide comfort, rather than over the power inherent in any Hamilton-like personal control of the woman and the situation she is in. Jones’s storm keeps both man and woman awake. It ‘bruises…smacks…savages’. He is less overtly concerned with poetic effect, his verbs and adjectives less fierce than Hughes’s yet stronger than Heaney’s. His speaker attempts to empathise. He recalls his wife being fearful of ‘thunderous nights’ (‘was it an hour ago?) but can recall ‘no words, but total fright // and a wind battering’. Jones may have been thinking here of the fear that informs Edward Thomas’s ‘Out in the Dark’, and interestingly it is a woman, his daughter Baba (Myfanwy), who speaks in Thomas’s poem (he said as much in a letter to Eleanor Farjeon). Fear of thunder and fear of night are clearly related psychologically, but even if ‘We are far / out in the dark’ is an allusion to Hughes’s opening, Jones, like Edward Thomas, is less inclined to dwell on the elemental power of nature than he is on the need for companionship and safety. His speaker’s words carry a quality of threat in themselves, they are ‘curtains in a draught’. Words of comfort may be usurped from one circumstance to another but they cannot disguise the menace of what the curtains weakly hold at bay. But the couple lie apart, and she shows no sign of needing anything more than his presence. Images of night and day, light and dark, inform his wish to bear her trouble. He seeks, not altogether convincingly, to reassure her in a closing sentence that also reminds, in its meandering complexity of clauses, of Edward Thomas working his way through a taxing problem:

 

						 To lie apart

		in a threatened home, to buffet 
		down vast nights, while every small 
		habit of self and daylight bobs 
		away on darkness, is no nightmare, love, 

		being the measure of the need that makes 
		dearer the way the dawn gathers your face, 
		settles curtains, and reinstates 
		my presence through the awareness in your hand. 

 

The opening ten poems or so of Jones’s first collection brought him unusual attention and present a less than perfect marriage. Here, in this poem, the speaker appears unable to offer anything more than a cliché-d comfort and companionship. He is struggling even as his partner is, though in a different way. The image of ‘vast nights’ being compared to an individual’s ‘small habits’ plays on the same kind of oppositions to be found in the other three poems: those of brute forces threatening trembling vulnerabilities. The poem’s speaker realizes that whatever they do to comfort each other they remain unbridgeably separate. This is the human condition. He calls her ‘love’, but it is difficult to discern anything more than their seeking comfort in one another. The storm has, at least, made the woman more attractive to him, and there is genuine feeling in the way his response to her does manage to settle curtains and, to a certain extent, minds, and in the way the awareness of his presence in her hand quickens his own sense of being alive. If the sentence is a little laboured it might be excused on the grounds that it is attempting to be honest without being hurtful, and in doing that makes for an ending less pat than those of the other three poems. It risks more.

The nightmare in Jones’s poem is elsewhere and personal. The lying apart calls up a worrying about relationships we find in Robert Lowell’s ‘Man and Wife’ (‘Sleepless, you hold / your pillow to your hollows like a child’). There is a worrying, too, about sex, although Lowell’s wife-speaker in “To Speak of the Woe that is in Marriage” is altogether more desperate: ‘Gored by the climacteric of his want, he stalls above me like an elephant’. For all Hamilton’s civilised delicacy, it is easier to imagine (contrary to his speaker’s certainties) the woman in his poem thinking as Lowell’s woman does here, than it is to project such thoughts into the more timid mind of the woman in Jones’s poem. But where Hamilton goes in fear of abstraction (and berates it in others), Lowell’s ‘climacteric of his want’ is a heightened version of ‘The hot need / that goads and crazes’ in another of Jones’s poems, ‘To a Wife Gone Away’. Hamilton eschews such stuff. But Jones remains interested not so much in psychology as in feeling when he worries about what might be going on inside someone else’s head. ‘Seeing My Wife Go Out Alone’ finds the protagonist lying beside his wife ‘Not daring to raise my head from your pillowed hair / To find your eyes wide open, scanning / Unchallenged space, where all the questions start’. This is the space Heaney’s poem describes as a ‘salvo’, and it prompts us to recall the close of Larkin’s ‘Here’ where the speaker, after a journey through countryside and town, reaches the coast and looks out to sea (in more reflective mood than Holub’s man initially adopts): ‘Here is unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach’. The four poets considered here are struck by the same fear, which they attempt to make manifest in their differing ways through the conduit of wind or storm.

All four are the poems of highly-regarded young men still in their twenties. Some readers may sense this in the patness of the Hughes and Heaney closing lines, in Hamilton’s self-conscious, even arrogant, honing, and in Jones’s homage to Edward Thomas. The Jones may be the least well-known but it may have claims on being the most personal and authentic, the most clearly felt. Yet it is easy perhaps to see why Hughes’s poem attracted the most attention. It is a confident, bravura performance. Hamilton wrote relatively few poems (which Faber reissued regularly whenever ten more were available). He became better known as a formidable literary critic whose magazine, the Review (in which his poem first appeared) proved highly influential in the nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies. Seamus Heaney, of course, went on to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, while Brian Jones eventually rather disappeared from public and critical view (though a New & Selected Poems would appear from Shoestring Press in 2013). All four poems were included in their poets’ first collections.

 

 

Five Poems from Brian Jones New & Selected Poems, Shoestring Press, 2013.

 

The Measure of the Need

The storm keeps us awake. The wind
bruises the house, smacks open the yard door,
savages it. Against my thigh
your knuckles harden, reminding me not to sleep.

I am remembering what you said
was it an hour ago? was it about
some fear of thunderous nights? I can recall
no words, but total fright

and a wind battering. We are far
out in the dark, and what are words,
if I murmur them, but curtains in a draught,
usurped and menacing. To lie apart

in a threatened home, to buffet
down vast nights, while every small
habit of self and daylight bobs
away on darkness, is no nightmare, love,

being the measure of the need that makes
dearer the way the dawn gathers your face, 
settles curtains, and reinstates
my presence through the awareness in your hand. 

Seeing My Wife Go Out Alone

Left at the window, helpless at your going,
Watching unusual space lengthen between us,
I note a jaunty step I once desired,
Hips heaving, head still lacking confidence,
Arms rather stiff, the shoulders tensioned high – 
Bizarre regalia of a puzzling mind
That won me to you seven years ago.
I see now I have failed to liberate,
That liberation is not part of love.
I’ve watched your shoulders sag with tenderness
Over the hunger of our suckling child;
Nothing I’ve felt so soft as your bare arms
Across my back at midnight or at dawn;
Your head lolls back in laughter frequently
On neck pliant and nerveless. And yet now,
As distance interposes, you resume
Your solitary history, and I know
It is not distance only – loss of me,
My touch, our child – occasions this old style. 
I’ve learnt more intimately this is defeat,
Lying on your soft belly, joined
Still at the thighs, and at the breast by sweat,
Not daring to raise my face from your pillowed hair
To find your eyes wide open, scanning
Unchallenged space, where all the questions start. 

To A Wife Gone Away

A starved and skulking spring. A few primroses
coldly daub the banks. The sensitive 
might hear the groans of trees
leaning upon locked buds. I hear nothing,
write nothing. The paper is coy and chaste
under my need. And you are silent. The only growth
is lust. Lust smears my flesh, maddens. I have become
a scorch and sprout between the legs 
because you are absent, silent. Passing hags
strut with sensual virtues, schoolgirls
triumph across my view, and now
I would not know you from them. You have no history.
I have scorched your voice away, your tenderness.
You are a fragment, one of the bellies, groins
I slink among. O climb out of my head,
that tight silence! Remind me. Be gathered
and complete again. The hot need
goads and crazes, but what’s lost of you
torments with a long ache to be recalled. 

Death Of A Cat

Always fastidious, it removed its dying
From us, and lay down by it in the dark
As if death were a mouse, and a cat’s role 
To deal with it, and not involve the house;
Chose a remote spot that, when I bent to help,
Shocked because it existed – I had thought
The mind a complete map of home; left dust
On my fingers when I had settled it
In front of the fire on an old blanket;
Insisted to the last on standing
And walking with frail dignity to its water
In its usual place in the kitchen, disdaining 
The saucer we had thoughtfully set near it. 

And death was a wind that tested regularly
The strength the cat had left, and in its walk
Puffed on its flank and made it totter
Then courteously desisted. Death can wait.
Powerless, with crude tears, we watched the cat
Totter and reassert itself again and again
Its life the fuel for its will to live
Until the bones appeared, blood dried in veins,
The pelt was ragbag remnants, the eyes gone out
And the wind’s task was easy and the cat fell. 

Thaw

Suddenly air is careless, generous,
caressing where it gripped. On lawns
the snowmen shrink to tiny pyramids
their eyes of frizzled coke roll out like tears
the blackbird launches song on running streams
and rising like a tide the grass
wells over snow and leaves it islanded
while hills like withheld waves tremble to move. 

Time lives again. There are ripples, rivulets
in lanes and gutters, shimmers across bark;
stones and jutting tree-roots shine, while
the heart that through the rigid months became
a memory of spring, an easy yearning,
must be itself again, trembling, susceptible. 

Paul McLoughlin

About Paul McLoughlin

Paul McLoughlin was born in London of Irish parents. He retired from teaching in 2012. He continues to play jazz saxophones and flute. What Certainty is Like was published in 1998 by Smith / Doorstop, and What Moves Moves (2004), Forgetting To Come In (2007) and The Road to Murreigh (2010) by Shoestring Press. He has also edited and provided an introduction for Brian Jones: New & Selected Poems (Shoestring Press, 2013).