Shown here are two books reviews by Ted Hughes in draft, selected from a larger collection of similar material.
The first typescript piece, for the 29 October 1963 issue of Listener, reviews Shamanism by Mircea Eliade and The Sufis by Idries Shah.
Drawing on Eliade’s ‘major survey’, the majority of Hughes’s review focuses on an account of shamanism. It provides insights into how the concept of the shaman is central to Hughes’s relationship with poetry.
Hughes viewed the poet’s role, and the act of reading, as essentially shamanic: ‘The initiation dreams, the general schema of the shamanic flight, and the figures and adventures they encounter, are not a shaman monopoly: they are, in fact, the basic experience of the poetic temperament we call “romantic”’. As examples of works displaying ‘shamanic flight’ he names John Keats, W B Yeats and T S Eliot, as well as fairy tales and ancient heroic epics. And like the traditional shaman’s ‘public purpose’, Hughes believed that poetry possessed raw power to heal and enlighten its audience.
Others, such as Seamus Heaney, have identified Hughes as a shamanic poet. Famously, Hughes made a connection between an early poem, ‘The Thought-Fox’, and a dream he had had two years before writing it. As Hughes describes in the review, this is a typical shamanic experience: ‘the most common form of election comes from the spirits themselves: they approach the man in a dream’. Sometimes it may take a very simple form, such as a vision of an eagle among Buryat people, or the experience may last for days and is believed to involve total psychological transformation.
The second piece, for the 12 April 1964 issue of the New York Times Book Review, reviews The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by C Day Lewis. It consists of multiple drafts in typescript and Hughes’s own hand, written out on different papers. The opening paragraphs, in particular, have been heavily revised and rewritten. Interspersed with Hughes’s drafts are photocopies he made of Wilfred Owen’s poems from the Day Lewis edition.
Hughes counted Owen among the best of poets, so it is no surprise that this review is an eloquent account of Owen’s life and work. Born in Yorkshire’s Calder Valley in 1930, Hughes was attuned to the loss that World War One had wrought. His own father, William Hughes, was haunted by the knowledge that he was the only one of 17 in his regiment to survive the Gallipoli campaign. The influence of both his father’s experiences and Owen’s poetry are found in poems such as ‘Bayonet Charge’ (from The Hawk in the Rain) and ‘Wilfred Owen’s Photographs’ (from Lupercal).
For Hughes, part of Owen’s genius lies in his ability to transform what he saw before him into poetry; ‘for immersing himself in and somehow absorbing that unprecedented experience of ghastliness, the reality of that huge mass of dumb, disillusioned, trapped, dying men’. Hughes repeatedly turns to this concept of Owen as witness, or even as visionary: ‘It was Owen who showed what the war really meant to us, in immediate suffering and general implication, as nobody else did’.
The review reveals that Hughes was struck by Owen’s deep capacity for empathy and feeling. Hughes goes so far as to characterise Owen’s body of work as a Pietà. Traditionally, a Pietà is an image of Mary embracing the dead body of Christ. Hughes sees this image in Owen’s mother embracing her son, in Owen embracing a dying soldier, in Owen’s identification with the ‘enemy’. The Pietà image is strongly found, Hughes suggests, in ‘Strange Meeting’, which the fellow poet believes is also one of Owen’s greatest poems.