Bridegrooms to the Goddess: Hughes, Heaney and the Elizabethans

  • Neil Rhodes


‘WILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY’. ‘A PORKER-WISE BARD’. ‘EXIT — CHASED BY A BOAR’. The sniggering captions pasted above reviews of Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being give a fair indication of the book’s reception when it came out in 1992.1 The first major study by an English poet laureate of the National Bard, it tried to establish, in more than 500 pages, ‘the mythic and structural unity of Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre’ by tracing ‘the nature and immanence of the Great Goddess, in her various manifestations, through the characters of his heroines and the fates of his heroes’.2 It is, of course, unsurprising that such a tenacious syncretization of our myriad-minded poet should have provoked ridicule, and no less so because support for this misdirected enthusiasm was provided by an epigraph from Yeats: ‘I have often had the fancy that there is some one myth for every man, which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all he did and thought’.3 And it was, in fact, two Irish reviewers, from different communities, who were prepared to pay tribute to Hughes’ monolithic, mythopoeic Shakespeare.4


English Poet Time High Education Supplement Roman Catholic Priest Tragic Hero Renaissance Culture 
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  1. 1.
    See Terry Eagleton, The Guardian (2 April 1992);Google Scholar
  2. Terence Hawkes, The Times Higher Education Supplement (19 June 1992);Google Scholar
  3. Anthony Burgess, The Observer (12 April 1992). See alsoGoogle Scholar
  4. John Carey, The Sunday Times (5 April 1992).Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    W. B. Yeats, ‘At Stratford-On-Avon’, in Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 107.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    A third was the Scot, Douglas Dunn, in The Herald (23 April 1992). All three are, of course, poets as well as academics.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Tom Paulin, The London Review of Books (9 April 1992) andGoogle Scholar
  8. Seamus Deane, The Irish Times (23 May 1992). Deane’s metaphor, whether consciously or not, surely refers to the Protestant Robert Farrar, martyred under Queen Mary and an ancestor of Hughes on his mother’s side. Farrar is commemorated in Hughes’ poem ‘The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar’. See also Tom Paulin, Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 262.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Ted Hughes, A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), p. 181. The essay was completely revised for the second edition (1991), since its original argument had been expanded into Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. It was reprinted, together with the introduction to the selection, as ‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’, in William Scammell (ed.), Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), pp. 103–21.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), pp. 67, 69.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    See especially Louis Adrian Montrose, ‘“Shaping Fantasies”: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture’, Representations, 1. 2 (1983), pp. 61–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 14.
    Hughes, Goddess, p. 90. In arguing that Shakespeare was a Catholic, Hughes acknowledges his debt to Peter Milward, Shakespeare’s Religious Background (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1973). The subject has been discussed more recently by E. A. J. Honigmann in Shakespeare: Thelost years’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 114–25 and by Eamon Duffy and others, including Milward, in contributions to The Tablet (27 April, 11 May and 25 May 1996). For comment on Hughes’ 1971 essay, see Graham Bradshaw, ‘Hughes and Shakespeare’, in Keith Sagar (ed.), The Achievement of Ted Hughes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), pp. 52–69.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), p. 426. See also Graves’ comments on Queen Elizabeth as deity and the Royalist invocation of Mary during the Civil War: ‘there is an unconscious hankering in Britain after goddesses’, White Goddess, p. 406. Hughes has a long note on Graves in his Goddess, p. 458; Paulin, Minotaur, pp. 252, 266.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (eds), William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), V.vii.115–16 (p. 1100).Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Ted Hughes, Difficulties of a Bridegroom (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. ix. Hughes also discussed the theme in an interview with Ekbert Faas published in Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980), pp. 208–15, and Faas explored it further in ‘Chapters of a shared mythology’ in Sagar (ed.), Achievement, pp. 107–24.Google Scholar
  16. 20.
    See Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the human body in renaissance culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1995). The blazon, and what Sawday calls the Renaissance culture of dissection, is not, I think, gratuitously imported into the discussion, since it intersects usefully with Hughes’ views about the assault of science on nature. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century is linked with Protestantism and the so-called ‘dissociation of sensibility’ (‘Christianity deposes Mother Nature and begets, on her prostrate body, Science’; see ‘The Enviromental Revolution’, in Winter Pollen, p. 132). Blazon is also used by Seamus Heaney; see below, and compare David Norbrook’s comment, ‘The detailed enumeration of the parts of the woman’s body can be seen as reflecting the new scientific mentality with its mastering gaze, its passion for mapping the world in order to gain power over it’, quoted in Sawday, Body, p. 192.Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    On this poem in particular, and gender issues in Hughes more generally, see Nathalie Anderson, ‘Ted Hughes and the Challenge of Gender’, in Keith Sagar (ed.), The Challenge of Ted Hughes (London: Macmillan, 1994), pp. 91–111 — a brave attempt to rescue the male.Google Scholar
  18. 23.
    Ted Hughes, Gaudete (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), pp. 113–14.Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    Edward Larrissy, ‘Ted Hughes, the feminine, and Gaudete’, Critical Quarterly, 25.2 (1983), pp. 33–41. A revised version of this essay appears in Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry: The Language of Gender and Objects (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 125–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 29.
    Seamus Heaney, Bog Poems (London: Rainbow Press, 1975). Heaney recalls Hughes saying to him, ‘this is your ground’, in conversation with Robert Druce; see Robert Druce, ‘A Rainbow on a Thorn: An Interview with Seamus Heaney’, Dutch Quarterly Review, 9 (1979), pp. 24–37.Google Scholar
  21. 30.
    John Haffenden, Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 74. Heaney has written about Hughes and England in ‘Deep as England’, Hibernia (1 December 1972), a review of Hughes’ Selected Poems published the week before the Mother Ireland broadcast, and ‘Englands of the Mind’, in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), pp. 150–69.Google Scholar
  22. 32.
    Ciaran Carson, ‘Escaped from the Massacre?’, in The Honest Ulsterman, 50 (1975), p. 186. The poem, however, seems to offer the promise of sectarian reconciliation.Google Scholar
  23. 33.
    Clair Wills, Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern I rish Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 57.Google Scholar
  24. 34.
    On Spenser and Ireland, see Willy Maley, Salvaging Spenser: Colonialism, Culture and Identity (London: Macmillan, 1997).Google Scholar
  25. 36.
    Heaney, ‘Unhappy and At Home’, The Crane Bag 1.1 (1977), p. 68. Also in this interview, Heaney remarks that his early attempts to write about the sectarian problem ‘went underground and I became very influenced by Hughes’ (p. 67).Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    Heaney, Preoccupations, p. 48. Sidney’s father had been Lord Deputy of Ireland. Sidney himself visited the country and wrote a Discourse on Irish Affairs (1577), defending his father’s levying of a land tax. Derek Mahon’s poem about Sidney, ‘Penshurst Place’, is discussed by Heaney in Place and Displacement (Grasmere: Trustees of Dove Cottage, 1984), pp. 112–13.Google Scholar
  27. 39.
    There has been a great deal of excellent commentary on these poems. Of particular value for the present discussion, especially with regard to gender issues, are Edna Longley, ‘North: “Inner Emigré” or “Artful Voyeur”’, in Tony Curtis (ed.), The Art of Seamus Heaney (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1994), p. 93, who argues that Heaney ‘succumbs to the goddess’; Neil Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), who remarks on the ‘male poet gazing on, and responding to, female victims … they are poems whose artfulness operates in the vicinity not only of voyeurism, but of necrophilia and of an attraction to the bodily marks of pain’; John Haffenden, ‘Seamus Heaney and the Feminine Sensibility’, Yearbook of English Studies, 17 (1987), pp. 89–116; Larrissy, Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry, pp. 148–58.Google Scholar
  28. 42.
    This is not to disparage work by Elizabeth Butler Cullinford, ‘“Thinking of Her … as Ireland”: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney’, Textual Practice, 4 (1990), pp. 1–21 orCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Seamus Deane, ‘Seamus Heaney: The Timorous and the Bold’, in Celtic Revivals (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), p. 178.Google Scholar
  31. 45.
    Thomas Blenerhasset, Direction for the Plantation in Ulster (1610), sig. D1v.Google Scholar
  32. 46.
    Thomas Gainsford, The Glory of England (1618), p. 149. On the circumstances of composition, see Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet (London: Macmillan, 1993), p. 143. The original version was published in The Listener (22 February 1973).Google Scholar
  33. 47.
    Quoted from James P. Myers (ed.), Elizabethan Ireland: A Selection of Writings by Elizabethan Writers on Ireland (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1983), p. 242. See alsoGoogle Scholar
  34. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, ‘Dismantling Irena: The Sexualizing of Ireland in Early Modern England’, in Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer and Patricia Yaegar (eds), Nationalisms and Sexualities (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 157–71 andGoogle Scholar
  35. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, ‘Irish representations and English alternatives’, in Brendan Bradshaw, Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley (eds), Representing Ireland: Literature and the origins of conflict 1534–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 1–23. I have not identified Gernon’s map, but there is an anthropomorphic Dutch engraving of 1598, which depicts Elizabeth as Europa. Ireland is locked between her left arm (England and Scotland) and a raised sword; see Roy C. Strong, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 14–15.Google Scholar
  36. 48.
    Quoted from Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), pp. 129–30, 141.Google Scholar
  37. 51.
    Henry Hart, Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992), p. 70.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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  • Neil Rhodes

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