On first reading Ted Hughes’s “Birthday Letters”
Post-this, post-that, post-the-other, yet in the end
Not past a thing. Not understanding or telling
But often past oneself,
Pounded like a shore by the roller griefs
In language that can still knock language sideways.
I read it quickly, then stood looking back
As if it were a bridge I had passed under—
The single span and bull’s eye of the one
Over the railway lines at Anahorish—
So intimate in there, the tremor-drip
And cranial acoustic of the stone
With its arch-ear to the ground, a listening post
Of soul on its lonely path, the rails on either side
Shining in silence, the fretful part of me
Stepped in so deep in unshadowed apprehension
I felt like one come out of an upper room
To fret no more and walk abroad confirmed.
Passive suffering: who said it was disallowed
As a theme for poetry? Already in Beowulf
The dumbfounding of woe, the stunt and stress
Of hurt-in-hiding is the best of it—
As when King Hrethel’s son accidentally kills
His older brother and snaps the grief-trap shut
On Hrethel himself, wronged father of the son
Struck down, constrained by love and blood
To seek redress from the son who had survived—
And the poet draws from his word-hoard a weird tale
Of a life and a love balked, which I reword here
Remembering night-tremors once on Dartmoor,
The power station wailing in its pit
Under the heath, as if we’d stepped from Devon
Into King Lear, and that king’s breaking heart
And Cordelia’s breaking silence called to you,
Chooser of poem light, ploughshare of fields unsunned.
“Imagine this pain: an old man
Lives to see his son’s body
Swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
And weep for his boy, while the black raven
Gloats where he hangs: he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning he wakes to remember
That his child has gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall, now that this boy
Has entered the door of death forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling.
The banquet hall bereft of all delight,
The windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
The warriors under earth; what was is no more.
No tune from harp, no cheering in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a dirge, suddenly without joy
In his steadings and wide fields.
Such were the woes
And griefs endured by that doomed lord
After Herebeard’s death. The king was helpless
To set right the wrong committed. . .”
Soul has its scruples. Things not to be said.
Things for keeping, that can keep the small hours gaze
Open and steady. Things for the aye of God
And for poetry. Which is, as Milosz says,
“A dividend from ourselves,” a tribute paid
By what we have been true to. A thing allowed.