First published in 1979, Remains of Elmet is a poetic sequence by Ted Hughes with photographs by Fay Godwin. The work responds to the landscape and people of the Calder valley, the place of Hughes’s birth and early childhood. Hughes expands on his subject in the Preface to the 1979 edition:
The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees. Then in the early 1800s it became the cradle for the Industrial Revolution in textiles, and the upper Calder became ‘the hardest-worked river in England’. Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. They are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly.
Hughes’s ‘pennine sequence’, as he titled it, presents a poetic vision of the valley that evokes the myths, histories and collective memories weaved into this unyielding land and its people. His taut verse and Godwin’s evocative photography do not merely describe but also embody the rhythms, sounds and atmosphere of the area.
The Preface and the ‘Remains’ of the title signal that this is a lament for what has been lost, yet the sequence also reads as an affirmation of the transcendent power contained within the landscape. Hughes held this belief in common with Emily Brontë, who had also lived in West Yorkshire. As Hughes writes in the Preface, the land holds a ‘spectacular desolation’, a ‘grim sort of beauty’.
Remains of Elmet is also a deeply personal collection of poetry addressing Hughes’s childhood memories and formative experiences. Hughes dedicates it to his mother, who had died a decade earlier in 1969.
What is unique about this copy?
After meeting in 1970 Hughes and Godwin’s creative partnership reached its zenith in Remains of Elmet. Hughes’s sequence is beautifully integrated with Godwin’s strong, imaginative black and white photographs of the region. The Rainbow Press edition, shown here, includes four photographs. The Faber & Faber edition of the same year expanded to 63 photographs.
The Rainbow Press was a small press established by Hughes and his sister, Olwyn Hughes, in 1971. This copy is number 25 in a limited edition of 180 copies, the first 70 on handmade paper, and is signed by the author and photographer. It is bound in calf leather, using a specialised binding technique known as ‘tree calf’. The highly-polished leather is stained to produce a dark tree-like pattern. Fittingly, the result achieved by the Hugheses evokes other natural forms such as a river and its tributaries.
This is a presentation copy of Remains of Elmet that originally belonged to Lisa and Leonard Baskin, friends of Hughes. It contains a handwritten dedication to the Baskins and their children, together with two stanzas of unpublished verse (also written in Hughes’s own handwriting) that compares Heptonstall, the home of Hughes’s parents from the 1950s, and Halifax, the nearest large town. It is from a special collection of books by or about Hughes that was acquired by the British Library from Baskin’s widow in 2004.