Early Ted Hughes (Forerunners)

Here are fourteen early poems from Ted Hughes, all of them from before the more well-known collections Wodwo and Crow. The powerful voices he gives to the animal and natural world, to history and mythology, to the experience of war, even to the theology of a sixteenth-century martyr burned at the stake, are well worth revisiting and reading aloud.

The Hawk in the Rain
The Horses
Invitation to the Dance
Six Young Men
The Ancient Heroes & the Bomber Pilot
The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar
Mayday in Holderness
Hawks Roosting
The Bull Moses
My Uncle’s Wound

The Hawk in the Rain

I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk

Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges,

Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,
And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs,
The diamond point of will that polestars
The sea drowner’s endurance: And I,

Bloodily grabbed dazed last-moment-counting
Morsel in the earth’s mouth, strain to the master-
Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still.
That maybe in his own time meets the weather

Coming the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside-down,
Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him,
The horizon trap him; the round angelic eye
Smashed, mix his heart’s blood with the mire of the land.

The Horses

I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark.
Evil air, a frost-making stillness,

Not a leaf, not a bird –
A world cast in frost. I came out above the wood

Where my breath left tortuous statues in the iron light.
But the valleys were draining the darkness

Till the mooring – blackening dregs of the brightening grey –
Halved the sky ahead. And I saw the horses:

Huge in the dense grey – ten together –
Megalith-still. They breathed, making no move,

With draped manes and tilted hind-hooves,
Making no sound.

I passed: not one snorted or jerked its head.
Grey silent fragments

Of a grey silent world.

I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge.
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.

Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted

Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,

And the big planets hanging –
I turned

Stumbling in the fever of a dream, down towards
The dark woods, from the kindling tops,

And came to the horses.
There, still they stood,
But now steaming and glistening under the flow of light,

Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves
Stirring under a thaw while all around them

The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound.
Not one snorted or stamped,

Their hung heads patient as the horizons,
High over valleys in the red levelling rays –

In din of crowded streets, going among the years, the faces,
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place

Between the streams and red clouds, hearing the curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.


Angrier, angrier, suddenly the near-madman
In mid-vehemence rolls back his eye
And lurches to his feet –

Under each sense the other four hurtle and thunder
Under the skull’s front the horses of the sun

The gentle reader in his silent room
Loses the words in mid-sentence –

The world has burned away beneath his book
A tossing upside-down team drags him on fire
Among the monsters of the zodiac.


This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black –
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

Invitation to the Dance

The condemned prisoner stirred, but could not stir:
Cold had shackled the blood-prints of the knout.
The light of his death’s dawn put the dark out.
He lay, his lips numb to the frozen floor.
He dreamed some other prisoner was dragged out –
Nightmare of command in the dawn, and a shot.
The bestial gaoler’s boot was at his ear.

Upon his sinews torturers had grown strong,
The inquisitor old against a tongue that could not,
Being torn out, plead even for death.
All bones were shattered, the whole body unstrung.
Horses, plunging apart towards North and South,
Tore his heart up by the shrieking root.
He was flung to the blow-fly and the dog’s fang.

Pitched onto his mouth in a black ditch
All spring he heard the lovers rustle and sigh.
The sun stank. Rats worked at him secretly.
Rot and maggot stripped him stitch by stitch.
Yet still this dream engaged his vanity:
That could he get upright he would dance and cry
Shame on every shy or idle wretch.

Six Young Men

The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –  
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed. From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom, and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk and weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.

The Ancient Heroes & the Bomber Pilot

With nothing to brag about but the size of their hearts,
Tearing boar-flesh and swilling ale,
A fermenting of huge-chested braggarts.

Got nowhere by sitting still
To hear some timorous poet enlarge heroisms,
To suffer their veins stiffle and swell –

Soon, far easier, imagination all flames,
In the white orbit of a sword,
Their chariot-wheels tumbling the necks of screams,

In a glory of hair and beard,
They thinned down their fat fulsome blood in war,
Replenish both bed and board,

Making their own good news, restuffing their dear
Fame with fresh sacks-full of heads,
Roaring, burdened, back over the wet moor.

When archaeologists dig their remainder out –
Bits of bone, rust –
The grandeur of their wars humbles my thought.

Even though I can boast
The enemy capital will jump to a fume
At a turn of my wrist

And the huge earth be shaken in its frame –
I am pale.
When I imagine one of those warriors in the room

And hear his heart-beat burl
The centuries are a stopped clock; my heart
Is cold and small.

The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar

Burned by Bloody Mary’s men at Carmarthen. “If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.” (His words on being chained to the stake.)

Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.

So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.

But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.

When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.

Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.

Mayday in Holderness

This evening, motherly summer moves in the pond.
I look down into the decomposition of leaves –
The furnace door whirling with larva:

                                                                      From Hull’s sunset smudge
Humber is melting eastward, my south skyline:
A loaded single vein, it drains
The effort of the inert North – Sheffield’s ores,
Bog pools, dregs of toadstools, tributary
Graves, dunghills, kitchens, hospitals.
The unkillable North Sea swallows it all.
Insects, drunken, drop out of the air.

The sea-salts, scoured me, cortex and intestine,
To receive these remains.
As the incinerator, as the sun,
As the spider, I had a whole world in my hands.
Flowerlike, I loved nothing.
Dead and unborn are in God comfortable.
What a length of gut is growing and breathing –
This mute eater, biting through the mind’s
Nursery floor, with eel and hyena and vulture,
With creepy-crawly and the root,
With the sea-worm. entering its birthright.

The stars make pietas. The owl announces its sanity.

The crow sleeps glutted and the stoat begins.
There are eye-guarded eggs in these hedgerows,
Hot haynests under the roots-in burrows.
Couples at their pursuits are laughing in the lanes.

The North Sea lies soundless. Beneath it
Smoulder the wars: to heart-beats, bomb, bayonet.
“Mother, Mother!” cries the pierced helmet.
Cordite oozings of Gallipoli,

Curded to beastings, broached my palate,
The expressionless gaze of the leopard,
The coils of the sleeping anaconda,
The nightlong frenzy of shrews.

Hawks Roosting

I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

The convenience of the high trees!
The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly –
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads –

The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

The Bull Moses

A hoist up and I could lean over
The upper edge of the high half-door,
My left foot ledged on the hinge, and look in at the byre’s
Blaze of darkness: a sudden shut-eyed look
Backward into the head.
                                            Blackness is depth
Beyond star. But the warm weight of his breathing,
The ammoniac reek of his litter, the hotly-tongued
Mash of his cud, steamed against me.
Then, slowly, as onto the mind’s eye –
The brow like masonry, the deep-keeled neck:
Something come up there onto the brink of the gulf,
Hadn’t heard of the world, too deep in itself to be called to,
Stood in sleep. He would swing his muzzle at a fly
But the square of sky where I hung, shouting, waving,
Was nothing to him; nothing of our light
Fond any reflection in him.
                                                  Each dusk the farmer led him
Down to the pond to drink and smell the air,
And he took no pace but the farmer
Led him to take it, as if he knew nothing
Of the ages and continents of his fathers,
Shut, while he wombed, to a dark shed
And steps between his door and the duckpond;
The weight of the sun and the moon and the world hammered
To a ring of brass through his nostrils.
                                                                      He would raise
His streaming muzzle and look out over the meadows,
But the grasses whispered nothing awake, the fetch
Of the distance drew nothing to momentum
In the locked black of his powers. He came strolling gently back,
Paused neither toward the pig-pens on his right,
Nor toward the cow-byres on his left: something
Deliberate in his leisure, some beheld the future
Founding in his quiet.
                                        I kept the door wide,
Closed it after him and pushed the bolt.


Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads –
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date;
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them –
Suddenly there were two. Finally one.

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb –

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks –
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them –

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.

My Uncle’s Wound

Not much remains of my uncle’s Normandy.
The stones, but he’d signed none.
The grass is in its fortieth generation
And the skylines have moved subtly – pampered curves
Of a slut risen in the world.

Under the March washing wind
New wheat tugged and glistened.
We walked up a lane he had last marched up sick
With the black stench of dead men
And the beckoning of shell-burst and mile-off machine-gun –

He monologued the march he had come
Sleepwalking in the khaki familiar column,
Singing, but inwardly one silent eye
Seeing for the first time the crazed eyes of men
Once blown to pieces then reassembled

Hurriedly and healed with a cigarette –
The river of stretchers, bandages, crutches and blood
Oozing down from the trembling ridges
Where the twentieth century broke surface
And the machine guns transformed mathematics.

I was squeezing myself into the ditches
Reading my final moment off grassblades
Or the untroubled procedure of beetles,
Or else floating gingerly at head-height
My neck bare to the chill of an express track

Along which the vistas exchanged lightnings.
The fields, as they changed, were still finding dead men –
Richer dark patches in the pale watercolour wheat.
I scavenged for a memory, crumbs of rust or of bone
In one dead man’s shadow of fertility.

But I found nothing and maybe they weren’t dead men.
And when I looked at my uncle, to see in a glass
The landscape as it had been,
He had turned to a wandering bit of a dream.
It was a cold-eyed country, up and earning

Daily bread in a thoroughly wakened world.
He seemed certain only of the low wood
Bristling the ridge – in the first mist of bud –
Towards which we were walking and towards which
Long ago, he had started to run

Sketchily with some tentative others when
A bullet picked him up by the hip-bone
And laid him in a shell-hole. The sun
All the remainder of a day stared down
Into his wound. The war had gone

Away and left him alone
With a deliberate sniper who now signed
His brow with blood, and as that shrank him flat
Below the crater wall, bullet by bullet
Dug down after him and signed him again.

I wanted the exact spot – the earth-scar of that hole
Through which he bloodily crept into wealth and fatness.
I would have put in my wallet
One of the green-flagged thread-root wheat grains
Of his resurrection.

He’d lost touch – it was all “Somewhere down there.”
Somewhere or other in time, somewhere in him.
As the world’s mass kept those skylines so quiet
He became quiet
With his memories. But I know memory

As I know the blood-crammed dried out rabbit-coloured
Crumbs of soil that thicken this earth,
Or the blinding of the sun, or the green wheat blades
Sucking the crumbled soil
Into their glistenings.


On moors where people get lost and die of air
On heights where the goat’s stomach fails

In gorges where the toad lives on starlight
In deserts where the bone comes through the camel’s nostril

On seas where the white bear gives up and dies of water
In depths where only the shark’s tooth resists

At altitudes where the eagle would explode
Through falls of air where men become bombs

At the poles where zero is the sole hearth
Water is not lost, is snug, is at home –

Sometimes with its wife, stone –
An open-armed host, of poor cheer.

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