Charlie Bell Ted Hughes: A Beginner's Guide.
Hodder & Stoughton, 2002,
96 pages, £ 5.99
No doubt, short, affordable introductory guides are called for among the critical literature about Ted Hughes. Ted Hughes: A Beginner's Guide is one of them, and its shortness and affordability may be a reason for many students and libraries to grab this book.
Aiming at younger students who are unfamiliar with Ted Hughes, A Beginner's Guide offers 10 short chapters ranging from » Why Read Ted Hughes Today« through biographical and work-related information to » Critical Approaches« (i.e. basic literary critical approaches). At the end of each chapter the reader is presented a simple summary of what had been said, and text boxes explain keywords and concepts, like »Talmud« or »Romanticism«, throughout. Also useful is the glossary at the end of the book which repeats and summarises some of the critical or cultural concepts mentioned.
With about 90 pages A Beginner's Guide is short. And at £5.99 it is affordable. Yet, shortness and low cost seem to have come at a rather high price, forcing simplification and condensation. The absence of photographs (apart from the cover) seems directly connected to this. In their place the producers opted for line drawings with a strange sense of overt, in-the-face attempts at caricature [see esp. pp. 38, 49, 54, 67, 80]. These give the guide the feel of a 1960s/70s textbook and are a general motivation to quickly flip the page. Or worse, they might transport the feeling of not being taken serious as a reader.
The book starts out with a chapter titled » Why read Ted Hughes today?«. The first answer is: »He is Very Popular.« Hmm. Fair enough. Though I am not sure this answer will get many readers interested. The second reason given (»He has a Unique Vision«) is better grounded though the explanation turns out a little shallow. The third reason, though bordering cliché, »He has Changed the Way We Look at Language« follows in the same vein as does the final reason given for reading Hughes's work: »He Helps Shed Light on the Work of Sylvia Plath.« . The gist of this first chapter:
»Ted Hughes is a giant of the twentieth century:
Chapter 2 is »Biography and Influences«. Under the heading »Early Years« the author offers a 4 paragraph summary of Hughes's life from 1930—ca.1950. Though quite correct for its brevity, the guide again slips into cliché and common prejudice, as, talking about Hughes's local roots, it claims that: »the starkness of the landscape and the phlegmatic Yorkshire temperament came to pervade his character.«[4, my italics: I suppose the producers do not target students from Yorkshire?] Reading on, we are taken to the Cambridge years, where we learn that »following university, Hughes went through several casual jobs [...] most notably, at the local zoo.«[5, my italics] Ironically, at the zoo, Hughes was washing dishes (!), as the author correctly mentions later, though it may be that the more frequent visits may also have offered him chances to watch some of the animals.
The book continues to whiz through the 1950s and 60s, again staying close to the surface of biographical fact but nevertheless quite correctly. Until it slips into the kind of erroneous statements which riddled Feinstein's 'biography'. For 1962 it states that »Hughes was busy on all sorts of projects and especially on the Crow collection ...« continuing that, in 1963, »The Crow project was left unfinished and the available poems were collected and published as Crow in 1970«. While Hughes's writing was certainly developing into a direction which, through his work on the Bardo Thödol and the »Difficulties of a Bridegroom« projects, would eventually culminate in Crow, fixing work on the Crow project to 1962/3 is certainly too early. Especially for a Beginner's Guide.
The chapter then takes us to the early 1970s and then, similar to Feinstein's biography, jumps to 1984 (Laureate appointment) before fizzling out in a paragraph called »Final Years«.
Next comes »Influences« (1 ¼ pages) followed by the third chapter » How to approach Ted Hughes«. It gives a rough but helpful literary critical context and hints the reader to try several readings and/or readings aloud. Using »The Thought-Fox« as an example, the guide briefly explains the use of metaphor and formal devices, like half-rhymes. Chapter four, » Major Themes and Preoccupations«, tries to grapple with Hughes's interest in Shamanism, Caballah, and 'the occult'. Offering statements rather than verified critical evaluation it falls short of communicating a deeper understanding. The guide then quickly runs through other 'themes' like »Man Going Wrong«, »The Subjugation of the Feminine«, »A Sense of Foreboding«, »Loss and Lack«, »The Inadequacy of Language« and »The Search for the Real«, »The Healing Power of the Imagination« and »The Use of Myth«.
Chapter five is » Major Works: The Early Poetry«. It begins with The Hawk in the Rain, dealing with selected poems from the book under headings like »The Animal World«, »Love« and »War«. The author is brief, and quite correct, though unfortunately, discussing »The Hawk in the Rain«, he falls for the common equation of author = speaker of a poem  — a slip he otherwise tries to avoid in the book. He continues with a similarly short analysis of Lupercal, before going on with Crow. Wodwo does not make it into the » Major Works« section, though it could have greatly helped the author's overall argument (and here not only the title poem). But that's fine, of course, since one cannot include every work in a guide of roughly 100 pages. In the Crow section the author again falls for his earlier mix-up, stating that »in 1969, after Plath's death,«  Hughes stopped with the Crow project. He means Assia Wevill, of course, but many a student might have difficulties recognising the slip. What follows is a very strange statement, to which Charlie Bell comes back at least three times in the pages which follow: »It may be that Hughes was not thinking very clearly, for although the collection caused a huge amount of interest when it was published, he came to regret not giving his readers any kind of context in which to place The Life and Songs of the Crow.«  This regret came rather late in Hughes's life, while initially he thought that the poems could work on their own (a similar situation arose with Cave Birds):
»The story is not really relevant to the poems as they stand. Maybe I'll finish the story some day and publish it separately. I think the poems have a life a little aside from it. The story brought me to the poems [...].«
[Ekbert Faas / Ted Hughes: Interview in The London Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 10, January, 1971].
In readings, however, Hughes usually told parts of the background story to Crow, and in 1997 published an outstanding new recording including the link narrative and re-establishing the connection with Cave Birds, mentioned by Charlie Bell but not verified [details on the recording here]. Apart from such minor issues, most of the Crow chapter is fine.
Chapter six, »Major Works: Post-Crow« begins with Gaudete, then takes on Cave Birds, then Moortown Diary. While, in my opinion, the author fails in getting across why he considers Cave Birds as a »major work«, the much more accessible and suitable Remains of Elmet/Elmet is strangely missing from the »Major Works« chapters. Similarly, there's no mention of River (equally accessible) or Wolfwatching or any of his children's books — all of them possible »major works« (The Iron Man gets a short paragraph in the »Major Themes« chapter). Instead, there's a section »The Laureate Poems« section, fine as it is, but I suppose many critics will have many a reason to bring forth why The Rain-Charm for the Duchy does not quite hold up to other publications mentioned.
With the lack of mention of all the other accessible publications, the choice for chapter seven, »Major Works: Birthday Letters« seems opportunistic. Again, to me, the chapter fails to communicate, why this »major work« took preference over more accessible ones. Its poems are often dense, and not exactly accessible without background knowledge. And that the volume became such a big seller and was praised (many a times for the wrong reasons), should not automatically qualify it as a major work in a Beginner's Guide.
Chapter eight, »Reactions to Hughes's Work« gives a rough, five-page ride through more than four decades of criticism, while chapter nine, »Critical Approaches« will doubtlessly come rather useful to the student of literature. Bell's decision to place some information which could help students understand the context of Cave Birds here  seems difficult. From my experience with students, chapters on Critical Approaches are often just given a cursory reading.
Chapter ten, »Where to Next?« gives 1 ½ pages of hints what else to read, places to visit and websites.
It is always difficult trying to condense any writer's life and work into a few pages. Yet, Ted Hughes: A Beginner's Guide does not quite live up to the expectations one might have even of short and affordable guides to literature. And while it provides the student with some helpful material, several of its statements call for closer verification. The decision to include explanations of key words and concepts in text boxes and glossary is plaudable, and certainly a step in the right direction for such guides. But it must be hoped that subsequent editions will undergo a thorough revision or re-consideration.