Posts Tagged ‘Ted Hughes’

 

The writer Ted Hughes had a long engagement with Shakespeare.
Story goes, in the early 1950s, just as he was to go up to Cambridge – working-class boy makes good – he was called-up, as all were in those days, to do his National Service. He said he spent those two years in various look-out posts, reading all of Shakespeare’s works. It went on from there.

The culmination of this long engagement came first in his 1971 book, A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, published by Faber and Faber. His argument there was – ever the controversialist –  that we can appreciate Shakespeare’s poetic art as well in excerpts from the plays, as in sticking solely with the published poems.
His argument is more than borne out by the samples he gives. This is indeed an excellent book.

The part relevant to my argument here, is the postscript. This is a long essay on what Ted Hughes saw as the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, and forms the heart of what became his next big attempt on Shakespeare: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. He came to blame the writing of this as a betrayal of his/the muse, and resulting in his last illness.

In these works he came up with what he called ‘the tragic equation ’ of Shakespeare’s writing. This was all to do with the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, its psychic properties, and engagement with history.

For this blog I am just looking at a detail of that postscript, beguilingly called ‘Note,’ in A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse.

In the ‘Note’ he discusses how Shakespeare’s craft and art underwent a ‘quantum leap.’ It was a ‘quantum’ leap because it worked on the level of a new weighting of language and language use rather than big themes. He writes of how Shakespeare’s mature style used a ‘high’ word ie a usage from a lexicon outside the normal language of the audience, that was paired with a ‘low’ word, to qualify a third. He writes ‘… the new, unfamiliar, word from the ‘high’ language is balanced, interpreted and translated by an old word (or words, or image made up of old words) from then ‘low.’ In practice, this becomes usually a combination of one word of classical derivation with another of native… derivation.

He goes on to call this a ‘masterful democritisation’ of language, for ‘welding the audience into a single thing.’ He dates this change in resource of language from All’s Well That Ends Well onwards.

Here he brings in another conceptual avenue: ‘If other evidence is valid and he used a Brunoesque mnemonic system…’ Ted Hughes was hedging his bets with that  ‘If’, but it is evident he has been reading A study of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1936), Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966) by Frances Yates. All, but certainly one or two of the above.

What is it about this causes Ted Hughes to make this claim? How, he seems to ask, could Shakespeare have memorised all these new words? His answer, by using a memory system, a mnemonic. And then tying this in with the newly available books by Frances Yates on The School of Night, Giordano Bruno et al. He ties this to Shakespeares’ quoted use of tables: ‘set it down in ‘…‘tables’, or notebook…’. (p187, 1991 edition). There are a number of such references to ‘tables’ used in this way.

He gives the example from All’s Well That End Well of a line from a speech:
On the catastrophe and heel of pastime
He reads the use of catastrophe as one of Shakespeare’s new words; how is it used with the term heel, then? By reading catastrophe as  down-turn… heel then becomes, of the foot, but more, it becomes in context the image of Achilles’ heel.
Ted Hughes writes:
‘By regarding the line as a slightly modified ‘New Word’ entry in his ‘tables’, where the word to be mastered is matched with its translation and ‘fixed’ with its mnemonic image….
(page 186/7).

What do you think?

There is, of course, another explanation for that word ‘tables’, other than implying a mnemonic system of tables.

Roger Chartier, in Inscription and Erasure, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), writes of how between 1577 and 1628 a certain London bookbinders sold what were called Tables. Many examples survive, complete with bookbinder’s name and London address.
A direct reference to these can be found in Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5, lines 107-11.
They are notebooks with the added ability of being able to be wiped clean.
In effect they were the wax tablets as used in medieval times. As we see from Roger Chartier, they were still in use in Shakespeare’s time. He describes them as part of the materiality of the text.
They were small: hand-sized, and rectangular: wooden trays, usually in pairs, strapped together with leather, so they could be closed face to face to save what had been imprinted from smudging. These trays were filled with bees wax, to be marked on, written on, with a metal stylus. They could be erased with a wet cloth, allowed to dry, and used again.
Roger Chartier writes how an eleventh-century priest-poet, Baudri de Bourgueil, wrote in detail about his tablets/tables. The wax in time would become old, blackened, full of grit.
Being wax, they would also be vulnerable to temperature: cold, draughty cloisters and scriptoria  probably held ideal conditions.

By Shakespeare’s time, we read, the medium had been changed from wax to a mixture of plaster, glue and varnish (page 23, Inscription and Erasure). The ‘tables’ of this period also included in their package printed almanacs, tables, weights and measures, calendars… much like our own notebooks.

So what, then, of memory systems? You need to go back to the Hamlet reference, above. Just before that speech, comes the phrase, table of my memory.
We read in Roger Chartier, how many such Tables could be collected, and stored. Their contents were not erased, but kept for transcription onto parchment, vellum in the future. They were, in effect, stored writings: libraries.

Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium was one of the main sources for describing a memory system (though many found the descriptions confusing, incomplete). By Chaucer’s time Geoffrey de Vinsauf had dispensed with this as far too outlandish.
By Shakespeare’s time the Tables would be used for storing quotations, improving phrases, then jottings, recipes, tittle-tattle. They became known as ‘writing tables,’ or ‘table books.’
And memory systems, as part of what might be considered ‘occult’, were very much forced underground after the fall from favour of Dr John Dee, and especially in Jacobean times.

We have here, though,  the act of writing as an act of memorising. Any student will know this: the physical act of writing notes on paper aids to remembering in revision.
And yes, I did keep a straight face when I wrote that – though only just.

Behind this memory–writing equation is maybe an episode from Plato’s Phaedrus. Here, Theuth (Thoth), the Egyptian god, had invented the art of writing: using visual, drawn, images, to convey spoken words. He presented his invention to the king of all Egypt, Thamus. He refused the gift, on the grounds that it would make people lazy, not having to remember everything.

I do not know the book by Plato, and cannot tell what was made of this anecdote by Socrates. It certainly would not be left to stand alone, that is for certain.
Topic for another day.

Roger Chartier is one of the chief writers of the histoire des mentalities school of cultural history.
He writes in French, but many of his books are available in translation.
Inscription and Erasure is a book full of riches. I would recommend it very highly.

 

 

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Some years  ago I spent a week at one of the Arvon Foundation Writing schools.
The one I attended is called Lumb Bank. It is in West Yorkshire up on the heights of the Pennine hills.

It is a most amazing place: think of high tumbling expanses of moorland in all directions, open to all weathers. Then imagine it fissured with deep, steep and narrow river valleys.
In a meeting of such river valleys, a natural bowl, is the little town of Hebden Bridge. Yes, it does have a bridge, one that bridges several rivers meeting there. Not many years ago it felt the force of the floods. The town centre was deep under water for weeks.

1
To get to Lumb Bank from Hebden Bridge, especially for first-timers, as I was then, I would heartily recommend the local bus. This is an excellent initiation.
It is little more than a people carrier – and for good reason.

This bus ascends the long step gradient up the moorside. It seems impossibly steep for the little motor, but the worse has yet to come. It is when we reach the village at the top the trouble really starts. First, let me say, this bus only runs in the summer time. It was late summer I was there, and the poor driver’s nerves must have been frayed by then.
Up to that point the road had been straight and decently tar-macadamed. When we reached the beginnings of the hill-top village of Hepstonstall the road surface reverted to road cobbles.
By bus you notice just how narrow the passage is between houses there. The tiny people carrier barely scrapes between the buildings – one jerk, and surely there must be some collision.

Heptonstall – a moor-top village of grey stones, hugging the earth, anchoring themselves there, against the huge sweeps of wind that blow-across, and a constantly changing sky. What a place.
https://heptonstall.org/loocal-history/
One of the small farms roundabout acquired the reputation as the den of coiners. The Cragg Coiners would snip edges off the silver coins, melt them down and then make their own coins. They were coated base-metal, but had the same weight of the silver coins.
It was a capital offence, of course.
In the Civil War the village and environs became the centre for Parliamentary parties to ride out and subdue Royalist areas.

E P Thompson in his monumental, The Making of the English Working Class, has a couple of entries for Heptonstall. It was a hand-loom weaving community, and as such fiercely independent. The hand-loom weavers were self-employed, and known for working odd hours. E P Thompson notes how some groups would regularly take Monday off, sometimes Tuesday as well, on the grounds of them being saint’s days. They then would work like mad the rest of the week, evenings and Saturdays, to catch up.
There was a break-out of typhus; the surgeon noted the terrible conditions of the village: there was one stream to cater for all, and that terribly fouled. The cottages had dirt floors; they would be strewn with rushes, but in the constant wet, would become so muddied as to make conditions worse.

On the other hand, unlike the factory weavers, who all this is written in contrast to, they did grow fresh vegetables, flowers, had relatively clean air, and could attend the many local festivals.

*

When the bus reaches the reasonably flat part of the village road atop the gradient, there is a sharp left turn. This is why, you realise, it is only a tiny bus, because anything longer and that top turn would be impossible.

But my stop was out of the village on the other side. Out there, the houses gave way to farms, and then there was a gateway. That was it: middle of nowhere. But what a nowhere.
The view from up there was panoramic. The moors undulated in their colours in all directions. Wonderful. Breathtaking.

My gateway led back down the side of the moorside, to, tucked away in trees, the Lumb Bank Centre Writing School.
The week’s tutor-leader was the generous and amiable Lawrence Sail, a man whose time I valued immensely. He was co-working with Sujata Bhatt in her first, and I think her last, turoring role. Every course has a mid-week guest, and we were joined by Jo Shapcott, a writer whose work I enjoy greatly.

2
Back in the village of Hepstonstall just off the right hand side of the one road back to the bottom town of Hebden Bridge… just down to the right, is another amazing sight. You enter into an open space in the middle of houses. It is all paved with gravestones; you walk on gravestones.  And there are the remains of a church. Roofless, with its pillars pointing up to the sky. Abutting this ruin is a new built church of St Thomas a’ Beckett.

Ted Hughes has a marvelous poem in Remains of Elmet, that captures the place well:
Hepstonstall Old Church

A great bird landed here

Its song drew men out of rock,
Living men out of bog and heather
………………………………………………..
Then the bird died.

Its giant bones
Blackened and became a mystery.
………………………………………………………….
There is, of course, next to the church,the usual small, cramped graveyard. So cramped, that they have had to use the adjoining pasture as extra grave space. Here, after all the cramped, crowded stone, are open fields again. One flat, grassy space is neatly rowed with small headstones.
Among them, this one:

MsPlath'sGrave

The times that headstone has been defaced and replaced.
Another poem by Ted Hughes, this one tucked away in Earth-Numb, the Beacon section, called:

The Stone

Has not yet been cut.
It is too heavy already

……………………………………..
It will transport its face, with sure strength,
To sit over mine, wherever I look
……………………………………………………..
It will have across its brow
her name.
…………………………………………………..

Coming away I met a local man. ‘The problem,’ he was telling me, ‘is keeping the grass down.’ One of the Church Committee.
‘We brought sheep in. Thought that the most sensible.’
Yes, the practical, no-nonsense side of me applauded that.
‘But people complained.’ he said.
Sheep droppings on graves. But sheep droppings, like rabbit, deer scat, are the most innocuous of all, surely.

By ‘people’, he meant, the others.
Hepstonstall, and Hebden Bridge by reputation, have more PhDs per square mile than anywhere else in England. It is the Ted Hughes-effect. The places made special by writers gather something of an aura that draws people.
How times have changed.
The cobbled road had indeed been macadamed, and the cobbles rediscovered when work was being done. The inhabitants petitioned to keep the cobble surface; the concrete lamp-posts were also replaced with ornate old gas-lamp posts that had been converted.

*

I sneaked out one midnight, crept back through the village, to the church, that field. I stood by her grave. It was strange to think of her down there, underneath. Most unknowable person.
Strange, note. Not disturbing, not tragic even; it was more a sadness, the sadness of those who would have had to stand by unable to help or do anything.

There was a pathway back through the fields, and the night bright enough to make my way, so I returned that way. It was the risk I relished; the unseeable cliff edges.
One further field seemed strewn with big boulders. I went closer; they were sleeping cows. I just stood there with them.
I’ve felt this before: the great vistas, the rocks and fields and hills; all insensate. I yearned all the time for something living, warm, ticking with life. Here they were, my fellow beings, in all that emptiness.

For some those empty places are where they meet their own edges, borders. For them it is where words come, coalesce.
For me, that place is in the melee of living beings.

Did her grave talk to me? If it did, it was in a language I could not hear. I feel something was passed on. Maybe. Something so deep, I can only feel its ripples.

PS
There is a pathway back to the town, down the steep moorside. It is under trees, slippy, but quicker, and a direct route to the bridges at the bottom. Part way down there is an old overgrown graveyard; it does not have the orderly rows of the new top one. Under old trees are leaning high stones, ivied, mossed, of old Methodist graves, each inscribed with Old Testament names. It is a small, discreet, and private place (‘but none, I think, do there embrace‘). You do not feel the thousands of feet having known that place, like they have claimed that field at the top. It has kept its quiet, its solemnity.

E P Thompson again notes how a local man, Dan Taylor, ex-collier, and new Methodist, built his own chapel, carrying the stone down on his back. He later went out evangelising, his religious enthusiasm mutating through to founding his own Baptist New Connection. He travelled, it is estimated, 25,000 miles in the next years, giving 20,000 sermons.
Most of that travelling would have been on foot.