October’s child

If April is the cruellest month, October is the most glorious and the true “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. The English poet Ted Hughes called it “marigold”.

“October Dawn” appeared in the The Hawk in the Rain (1957), the first collection of poems published by Hughes and the one that made his name. The New York Times published a review by  the American poet W. S. Merwin saying:

“The poems abound in the one sort of originality that ultimately matters; they are quick with a life that is uniquely their own. They are not without occasional echoes, not so much of other poets in particular (Robert Graves, perhaps, as distinctly as any) as of bits of the current poetic tradition. Indeed, if anything these echoes enhance the excitement of reading the poems since they are able to contain such echoes without ever slipping into any of the expected varieties of contemporary poetry, and without ever leaving any doubt as to whether someone else could have written them.”

Throughout the 20th century and well into the 21st, the First World War has permeated British culture. Its impact on Hughes was personal and several poems in his first book of poetry speak to what almost amounts to an obsession. “Griefs for Dead Soldiers” and “Six Young Men” are elegies for the young Yorkshiremen who died on the battlefields of Flanders, while “Bayonet Charge” and “Two Wise Generals” debunk its glorification.

Hughes was born in 1930 in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His mother could trace her ancestry back to William de Ferrières, who came to England with William the Conqueror. One of her ancestors had founded the religious community of Little Gidding, later memorialised by the American poet T. S Eliot in Four Quartets. At the start of the Great War, Hughes’ father enlisted with the Lancashire Fusiliers and fought at Ypres. A bullet narrowly missed killing him when it lodged in a pay book in his breast pocket and he was one of just 17 men of his regiment to return from the Dardanelles Campaign (1915–16). Stories of Flanders fields filled Hughes’s childhood imagination.

The Hawk in the Rain is dedicated to Hughes’ first wife Sylvia Plath, who typed out almost all the poems and submitted them to a competition. In February 1957, the judges – W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Marianne Moore, who knew a thing or two about poetry – awarded Hughes the first prize (publication by Harper and Row). Moore wrote: “Hughes’ talent is unmistakable, the work has focus, is aglow with feeling, with conscience; sensibility is awake, embodied in appropriate diction.”

Despite the natural imagery in The Hawk in the Rain – one of the finest collections in what was to be a prolific career – Hughes is less a poet of nature (like his elder contemporary R. S. Thomas) than of the elements, including human passions and foibles. And, while he writes with great perception about the countryside, his preoccupation is with contradiction and struggle. The month of October is pregnant with nostalgia and impending loss: October’s child.

Autumn“October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out

To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition

Of ice across its eye as if
The ice-age had begun its heave.

The lawn overtrodden and strewn
From the night before, and the whistling green

Shrubbery are doomed. Ice
Has got its spearhead into place.

First a skin, delicately here
Restraining a ripple from the air;

Soon plate and rivet on pond and brook;
Then tons of chain and massive lock

To hold rivers. Then, sound by sight
Will Mammoth and Sabre-tooth celebrate

Reunion while a fist of cold
Squeezes the fire at the core of the world,

Squeezes the fire at the core of the heart,
And now it is about to start.”

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