October 28, 2004

Hay poems by Hughes and Heaney.

Ted Hughes.Ted Hughes (1930-1998).

Ted Hughes (1930-1998).
“Feeding Out – Wintering Cattle at Twilight”

Ted Hughes (1930-1998).

Seamus Heaney.Ted Hughes (1930-1998).
“Last Load”

Seamus Heaney (1939-).
“Storm on the Island”

Seamus Heaney (1939-).

Seamus Heaney (1939-).
Last lines of “The Loose Box”

Pendleton. Winter feed. 21st cent.Two modern poets, close friends rooted in the tough western margins of the British Isles, are represented here by six poems. Only two, Hughes’ "Hay" and “Last Load,” have haymaking at their cores, and another, Heaney’s “Storm on the Island” mentions hay only as something with which the “wizened earth has never troubled us.” The sequence derives its unity from the sense of elemental struggle, in which hay is the hard-won prize, that keeps the winter animals, including humans, alive and comforted. The poems are particularly rewarding to those of us who have shared similar experiences, so vivid is the personal evocation of the sounds and smells and shapes and textures of traditional rural life, recalled from Hughes’ Devonshire moorland and Heaney’s Mossbawn childhood. The brilliant photograph that stands by Hughes “Feeding Out” is, geographically, a perfect companion, since Eric Ravilious worked in the same county in the same bleak season. What makes Heaney a great poet is the fresh lyricism of language and the multiplicity of meaning. A spade is not just a spade, peat is not just peat, and hay is not just fodder for animal nutrition but fodder for deep thought. “Fodder,” like all good hay poems, can be read repeatedly. It helps to have pulled loose hay from the “tight vise” of a packed stack, or to recognize the rick’s domestic architecture and “weathered eaves” or to connect winter hay with the sweetness of summer swathes. The “loaves and fishes” reference sanctifies the life-giving fother as miraculous or even sacramental. It jars a bit to read of hay being wastefully used to “bed the stall” (but straw may have been less available when and where Seamus was a lad). Then the word “bed” prompts us to re-read the whole piece as sexual trope, or as yearning loneliness. None of the other images in my collection expressed the latter mood as well as the Umbrian peasant scratching hay from the base of a carved rick.

MacWeeney. Scything, Aran. 1993.Ted Hughes (1930-1998).
from Collected Poems (2003), p. 317-318.

The grass is happy
To run like the sea, to be glossed like a mink’s fur
By polishing wind.
Her heart is the weather.
She loves nobody
Least of all the farmer who leans on the gate.

The grass is happy
When the June sun roasts the foxgloves in the hedges.
She comes into her flower.
She lifts her skirts.
It does not concern her
The pondering farmer has begun to hope.

The grass is happy to open her scents, like a dress, through the county,
Drugging light hearts
To heavy betrothals
And next April’s fools,
While pensioners puzzle where life went so airily.

The grass is happy
When the spinner tumbles her, she silvers and she sweetens
Plain as a castle.
The hare looks for home
And the dusty farmer
For a hand-shaped cloud and a yellow evening.

Happy the grass
To be wooed by the farmer, who wins her and brings her to church in her beauty,
Bride of the Island.
Luckless the long-drawn
Aeons of Eden
Before he came to mow.

Ravilious. Farmer Carrying Hay down Road. 1978.Ted Hughes (1930-1998).
“Feeding Out – Wintering Cattle at Twilight”
from Collected Animal Poems (1995).

The wind is inside the hill.
The wood is a struggle---like a wood
Struggling through a wood. A panic
Only just holds off---every gust
Breaches the sky-walls and it seems, this time,
The whole sea of air will pour through,
The thunder will take deep hold, roots
Will have to come out, every loose thing
Will have to lift and go. And the cows, dark lumps of dusk
Stand waiting, like nails in a tin roof.
For the crucial moment, taking the strain
In their stirring stillness. As if their hooves
Held their field in place, held the hill
To its trembling shape. Night-thickness
Purples in the turmoil, making
Everything more alarming. Unidentifiable, tiny
Birds go past like elf-bolts.
Battling the hay-bales from me, the cows
Jostle and crush, like hulls blown from their moorings
And piling at the jetty. The wind
Has got inside their wintry buffalo skins,
Their wild woolly bulk-heads, their fierce, joyful breathings
And the reckless strength of their necks.
What do they care, their hooves
Are knee-deep in porage of earth---
The hay blows luminous tatters from their chewings,
A fiery loss, frittering downwind,
Snatched away over the near edge
Where the world becomes water
[Page 37 ]
Thundering like a flood-river at night.
They grunt happily, half-dissolved
On their steep, hurtling brink, as I flounder back
Towards headlights.

Poortsvliet. Cow about to calve. 1975.Ted Hughes (1930-1998).
from Moortown Diary (1989).

Looking at cows in their high-roofy roomy
Windy home, mid-afternoon idling,
Late winter, near spring, the fields not greening,
The wind North-East and sickening, the hay
Shrinking, the year growing. The parapets
Of toppled hay, the broken walls of hay,
The debris of hay. The peace of cattle
Mid-afternoon, cud-munching, eyelids lowered.
The deep platform of dung. Looking at cows
Sharing their trance, it was an anomalous
Blue plastic apron I noticed
Hitched under the tail of one cow
That went on munching, with angling ears. A glistening
Hanging sheet of blue-black. I thought
Of aprons over ewes' back-ends
To keep the ram out till it's timely. I thought
Of surgical aprons to keep cleanliness
Under the shit-fall. Crazily far thoughts
Proposed themselves as natural, and I almost
Looked away. Suddenly
The apron slithered, and a whole calf's
Buttocks and hind-legs---whose head and forefeet
Had been hidden from me by another cow---
Toppled out of its mother, and collapsed on the ground.
Leisurely, as she might be leisurely curious,
She turned, pulling her streamers of blood-tissue
Away from this lumpish jetsam. She nosed it
Where it lay like a still-birth in its tissues.
She began to nibble and lick. The jelly
[Page 24 ]
Shook its head and nosed the air. She gave it
The short small swallowed moo-grunts hungry cows
Give when they stand suddenly among plenty.
21 March 1975

Scaylea. Haying on the PIckering Farm. 1956.Ted Hughes (1930-1998).
“Last Load”
from Moortown Diary (1989).

Baled hay out in a field
Five miles from home. Barometer falling.
A muffler of still cloud padding the stillness.
The day after day of blue scorch up to yesterday,
The heavens of dazzling iron, that seemed unalterable,
Hard now to remember.

Now, tractor bounding along lanes, among echoes,
The trailer bouncing, all its iron shouting
Under sag-heavy leaves
That seem ready to drip with stillness.
Cheek in the air alert for the first speck.

You feel sure the rain's already started---
But for the tractor's din you'd hear it hushing
In all the leaves. But still not one drop
On your face or arm. You can't believe it.
Then hoicking bales, as if at a contest. Leaping
On and off the tractor as at a rodeo.

Hurling the bales higher. The loader on top
Dodging like a monkey. The fifth layer full
Then a teetering sixth. Then for a seventh
A row down the middle. And if a bale topples
You feel you've lost those seconds forever.
Then roping it all tight, like a hard loaf.

Then fast as you dare, watching the sky
And watching the load, and feeling the air darken
With wet electricity,
The load foaming through leaves, and wallowing

[Page 48 ]
Like a tug-boat meeting the open sea---
The tractor's front wheels rearing up, as you race,
And pawing the air. Then all hands
Pitching the bales off, in under a roof,
Anyhow, then back for the last load.

And now as you dash through the green light
You see between dark trees
On all the little emerald hills
The desperate loading, under the blue cloud.

Your sweat tracks through your dust, your shirt flaps chill,
And bales multiply out of each other
All down the shorn field ahead.
The faster you fling them up, the more there are of them---
Till suddenly the field's grey empty. It's finished.

And a tobacco reek breaks in your nostrils
As the rain begins
Softly and vertically silver, the whole sky softly
Falling into the stubble all round you

The trees shake out their masses, joyful,
Drinking the downpour.
The hills pearled, the whole distance drinking
And the earth-smell warm and thick as smoke

And you go, and over the whole land
Like singing heard across evening water
The tall loads are swaying towards their barns
Down the deep lanes.
20 June 1975

Cawthorne. Hay meadow. 1999. Seamus Heaney (1939-).
“Storm on the Island”
from Death of a Naturalist (1991).

We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.
This wizened earth has never troubled us
With hay, so, as you see, there are no stacks
Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees
Which might prove company when it blows full
Blast: you know what I mean---leaves and branches
Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale
So that you listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too.
But there are no trees, no natural shelter.
You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs,
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,
We are bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

Ritch. Haystacks, Umbria. 1985.Seamus Heaney (1939-).
from Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996 (1998).

Or, as we said,
fother, I open
my arms for it
again. But first

to draw from the tight
vise of a stack
the weathered eaves
of the stack itself

falling at your feet,
last summer's tumbled
swathes of grass
and meadowsweet

multiple as loaves
and fishes, a bundle
tossed over half-doors
or into mucky gaps.

These long nights
I would pull hay
for comfort, anything
to bed the stall.

Gypsy Ray. Moorehill Stable. 1994.Seamus Heaney (1939-).
The last lines of “The Loose Box”
from Electric Light (2001).

Michael Collins, ambushed at Beal na Blath,
At the pass of Flowers, at the Blossom Gap, his own
Bloom-drifted, softe Avernus-mouth,
Has nothing to hold on to and falls again
Willingly, lastly foreknowledgeably deep
Into the hay-floor that gave once in his childhood
Down through the bedded mouth of the loft trapdoor,
the loosening fodder-chute, the aftermath...

This has been told of Collins and retold
By his biographer:

One of his boy-deeds
Was to enter the hidden jaws of that hay crevasse
And get to his feet again and come unscathed
Through a dazzle of pollen scarves to breathe the air.
True or not true, the fall within his fall,
That drop through the flower-door lets him find his feet
In an underworld of understanding
Better than any newsreel lying-in-state
Or footage of the laden gun-carriage
And grim cortege could ever manage to

Or so it can be stated
In the must and drift of talk about the loose box.

Posted by Alan Ritch at October 28, 2004 01:32 PM