Thursday, 27 February 2014

Heaney's "Prelude" and Hughes's

In my TLS article about Hughes and Plath I argued that Hughes considered Black Coat: Opus 131 to be his equivalent of Wordsworth's Prelude. I might have added that Roy Davids, who sold the archives to Emory and then the British Library, also told me that Ted had described Birthday Letters to him as "a kind of Prelude." So it's interesting to have discovered the following in one of the wonderful letters from Hughes to Seamus Heaney, now at Emory, which I'm rereading for a section on the book concerning the friendship between the two great poets. On 8 October 1989, Hughes writes to thank Heaney for the latest poetry sequence he has sent him. ‘The Quartet’, Ted calls it, but it was a draft of ‘Squarings’, the superb collection of 48 12 line autobiographical poems that appeared two years later in Heaney's Seeing Things. Hughes reads it as a reclaiming of Heaney’s own Lares and Penates, his spirit of home and place. It also makes him think of The Prelude ‘in the ranging self-reassessment, the lifting of sacred moments with ordinary gestures, into the pattern of the liturgy, and in the way the whole thing is a self-rededication, a realigning of yourself, to “the vows made for you”.’ I don't have the Selected Letters in front of me (they are in my writing hut, known to the family as the Ted Shed), so I'm not sure whether this letter was included. But what is striking is that Hughes sees that Heaney has written his Prelude, so he must focus on his own equivalent. He's been worrying at this for years, and confiding in Heaney. Back when he was putting Moortown together in 1979, he wrote to tell Heaney that this was a collection of bits and pieces that he had previously thought marginal or not good enough to publish. But what of the ‘central non-marginal lump of poetry’, he asks? He knows that it has yet to appear, and wonders whether it ever will. It did and it didn't. Given how much of Black Coat remains unpublished to this day, in some senses it still hasn't.

I vividly remember Heaney reading from and talking about Seeing Things, soon after its publication, at a wonderful Wordsworth Summer Conference in Grasmere, under the auspices of the late and much loved trinity of Richard Wordsworth, Jonathan Wordsworth and Robert Woof. Heaney spoke of the Wordsworthianness of his poems and I suggested to him that his title, Seeing Things, was a clear Wordsworthian hommage: a collapsing of the famous line from 'Tintern Abbey': 'We see into the life of things'. Heaney said that of course it was, but that until this moment he had not seen that it was.

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