Tuesday, 21 July 2009

46. Ted Hughes - 'The Suitor' (1962)

To János Csokits 6 August 1967 [János Csokits was a Hungarian poet friendly with TH]

[...] The Suitor is a story of death & the maiden & is a prophecy – I wrote it in 1962, ?January, almost under dictation. The Suitor is me, the man in the car is me, the girl is Sylvia, the Stranger is death, & the situation turns me into an animal – as Gog. Also, the girl is my spirit of light, my Ophelia.'
(The Daily Telegraph, 'Ted Hughes: A life thrown into turmoil', 7 October 2007, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3668391/Ted-Hughes-a-life-thrown-into-turmoil.html)

'She's whispered to me that she might be
All things bright and beautiful tonight'
(Jake Thackray, 'Salvation Army Girl', 1967; Jake in a Box, 2006)

'And here I am, hopeful of a beginning. As yet, I have not spoken to her.'
(Ted Hughes, Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories, Faber and Faber, 1995, p.126)

Now this is powerful stuff, a great modern poet crafting an almost mythical tale. The story is simple - rival suitors waiting for a girl - but is rather more than just a mood piece.

Written in 1962 and published in Wodwo (1967), it is of course productive to view from a biographical angle - see Hughes's letter above - but this should not obscure the craft and other wider resonances.

Hughes perceives himself as split into two, a powerful, seemingly repressive figure - with an official, professional air - and a solitary, game-playing youthful suitor. The tall man inspects the vistas 'officially', 'gigantic in the tricky light', whereas the youth is ever crouching, hiding or creeping around. (p.131)

It is a first-person narrative, and the youthful narrator - presumed to be fifteen, as he first encounters the girl at school, and she is said to be that age - allocates plenty of emphasis to his feelings about the man (who has, it is ambiguously suggested, left the girl in the house, imprisoned). 'He glances at me and I recognise the type of face, I recognize a familiar category of face. Ah, no! I like him less and less, in these seconds. I like what I infer less and less'. (p.130) This controlled, colloquial sounding narration indicates the unnamed youth (or young Hughes, as we might infer) dislikes the older man that he might become. Before reading about Hughes's letter, I had felt this was possibly her father, ambiguously abusive - 'She flies to the wall, as if she had been struck.' He is arguably protective of her, in that he unambiguously attacks the rival suitor, the Trilby-wearing stranger - possibly warding off her death, as he sees it?

The girl herself, the object of the story, is scarcely characterised; is more of an elemental force, who has compelled these suitors to her door. Young Hughes has walked five miles, in inapt dancing shoes, to get there; the love seems to be courtly, and can only remain so in the context of this story: 'Is she exclusively my secret? I scarcely know her. I have watched her at a distance, outstanding among three hundred others.' (p.126) Whilst never having spoken to her, she has clearly enraptured him, and is only seen through his perception in this narrative - when emerging from the older man's 'managerial' car, she is described in terms of her 'great fleece of hair'. Appropriately classical imagery used to evoke her distance from the scrupulously observed natural setting.

Here is a fascinating sound recording of Hughes, reading from Crow, his 1970 collection of poems:

Such tactile, northern vowels; just listen to how he pronounces 'fact' and 'black' - the predominant colour applied to the setting in The Suitor.

The setting brings out Hughes's clear-sighted, blunt lyricism; every part of the suitors' strange game is described as embedded within a harsh, cold, grimly romantic landscape - the same to be recognised in his poems. It cannot help but evoke Hughes's Yorkshire and the Calder Valley in particular in its archetypally northern gloom: 'A wind chopping and cutting and swirling in from all directions throws up the boughts of the elms as I pass under the rectory wall, and swipes my lapels against my cheeks, and clogs my hair with the drizzle.' There is, you guessed it, heavier rain, later, which in the true northern manner does not bother the narrator*, or alter at all the progress of the suitors' game. Such grasp of the north, and the simplicity of the situation, brings to mind the work of Jake Thackray, with his mythically prosaic Yorkshire tales.

Then there is the house - 'a truly commonplace house, semi-detached, pebble-dashed' - which takes on a forboding aspect as the tale unfolds. And then, the people; young Hughes at one with bleak nature, almost a northern stone wall himself: 'I hug my garments to me, reshuffling my warmth. Behind me the shrubbery shudders and flinches dismally. I am a black column of patience.' (p.128) As the suitors circle the house, after the tall man has left, all of the lights in the house are out; the imagination cannot comprehend what has passed and what may pass: 'Has she gone into a dark house? Is she sitting in the dark?' (p.133)

And, the resolution? Bloody great in its lack of resolution - ending in a bizarrely existential state of stasis. The young suitor has transmogrified into a figure almost resembling Alan Bates as Charles Crossley in Skolimowski's film - from a Robert Graves short-story - The Shout (1978), and the stranger is playing notes on a flute, notes that vie with and overcome the winds.

A vivid scene of hopelessness which burns itself into your mind; here's the whole of the last paragraph:

'And now in a kind of inane ecstasy, I writhe up my features again, stretching my mouth wide, making my eyes bulge, like a man laughing at tremendous volume or uttering a battle-cry, but in absolute and prolonged silence, while the flute notes dot and carry about the black garden and climb the wall and tap at the dark window and come circling back to the bowed attentive figure here, not three feet from me.' (p.134)



  1. Bleeding 'eck. That final paragraph sends shivers up yr spine, doesn't it? It's got that quality of being at once oblique and transparently multi-layered, although I suppose the two qualities are kinda the same...

    Incidentally, Csokits worked with Hughes on translating several volumes of Hungarian poetry - the journal Modern Poetry in Translation that Hughes co-founded (and Csokits probably worked on - I've never read any of the early volumes) was instrumental in popularising Eastern European poetry in the 1970s. Their volume of translations from Janos Pilinszky, 'The Desert of Love', is harsh and bleak, but well worth checking out.

  2. Hi Dan,

    This was a great story, of a whole different magnitude to many of the others I have read (however good many may be). M.R. James, John Wyndham on the way... (much delayed)

    I really should have been reading more Ted Hughes all these years; just recently have had a look at his laureate poems - they seem a very curious balancing act, from the bits I have read... will seek out the volume you mention.

  3. I should have probably mentioned Alan Garner, too, in this context; particularly The Owl Service, the Granada TV series of which I have been watching... similarly powerful allusions to myth; the Mabinogion in that case.