Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hughes "A Modest Proposal"

Also in The Hawk in the Rain collection is the poem "A Modest Proposal."  The idea that the hawk in The Hawk in the Rain might have been Sylvia was perhaps novel, but there is little doubt that she has become a wolf in this one.  Here is Hughes' first stanza:

    There is no better way to know us
    Than as two wolves, come separately to a wood.
    Now neither's able to sleep -- even at a distance
    Distracted by the soft competing pulse
    Of the other; nor able to hunt -- at every step
    Looking backwards and sideways, warying to listen
    For other's slavering rush.  Neither can make die
    The painful burning of the coal in its heart
    Till the other's body and the whole wood is its own.
    Then it might sob contentment toward the moon.

    [Plainer English in the first line might have been, "there is no better way for us to know each other," so did Hughes mean more or something else than that?  He doesn't seem concerned about anyone else knowing them in the rest of the poem so I'll assume not.
    The next seven lines seem straightforward which pretty much describes the human condition for the more intense of us.  I can understand "Till the other's body" is desired, but "the whole wood"?  At this point owning the whole wood isn't clear, but see below.]

The next stanza reads,

    Each in a thicket, rage hoarse in its labouring
    Chest after a skirmish, licks the rents in its hide,
    Eyes brighter than is natural under the leaves
    (Where the wren, peeping round a leaf, shrieks out
    To see a chink so terrifyingly open
    Onto the red smelting of hatred) as each
    Pictures a mad final satisfaction

    [These wolves, Ted and Sylvia, retire to their individual thickets to nurse their individual wounds.  In line three we learn (gratuitously? "Eyes brighter than natural under he leaves" -- surely that would be assumed.  However, the next line perplexes.  Not only are both these wolves under leaves with their bright eyes, but a wren is under there with them (one wren, two sets of leaves).  What is the wren up to?  Is this the Day of the Wren, St. Stephen's Day?  Is the wren betraying one or both of these wolves?  Is he doing that simply because it is his nature?  He seems to be more sympathetic than that.  He is crying out to see "a chink," presumably a bloody chink in one or both of the wolves "terrifyingly open."
    In the next line "Onto the red smelting of hatred" strikes me as awkward.  Had Hughes written "To the red smelting of hatred" I might have imagined the wren warning these wolves that if they kept it up they were risking their passion turning from love to hatred.  "Onto" seems to reach for something more abstract and less sensible.  The last phrase, "as each pictures a mad final satisfaction" describes each wolf imagining the defeat of the other -- something the clever wren might well be shrieking his warning against.  On the other hand he is more probably warning against what is about to occur in the final stanza:]

     Suddenly they duck and peer.
                                                        And there rides by
    The great lord from hunting.  His embroidered
    Cloak floats, the tail of his horse pours,
    And at his stirrup the two great-eyed greyhounds
    That day after day bring down the towering stag
    Leap like one, making delighted sounds.

[One is tempted to conclude that Hughes is here recommending this peaceful alternative to their present violent relationship.   But that doesn't seem likely.  It wasn't in either of them (at least at this time) to become domesticated, to take on the patronage of a great lord, to run at his side making delighted sounds (in their poetry).  There would be no hope of owning the whole wood, for it would belong to the Lord.  One may think of Wyatt's "Whoso lists to hunt, I know where is an hind . . .'  In Wyatt's poem the deer Lord's preserve is dangerous:  "And graven with diamonds in letters plain / There is written, her fair neck round about: / Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,  / and wild for to hold though I seem tame."  But Hughes intends something wilder, two wolves laying waste their powers not hunting (writing) but fighting each other.  They are not able to hunt, which would mean success of a different kind.  They rend each other while the wren shrieks.  On the other hand they can only "duck and peer" at the alternative.  They are after all wolves and not greyhounds.  They make fierce and not delighted sounds -- in the wood, which is the place where poetry is made.  Although, if one thinks forward to Plath's Ariel one sees that she hunted quite well in her fury.]

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