Ted Hughes, Prosopoeia and Impressionism

In my last post, I wrote about how Kerouac’s technique of repeatedly juxtaposing adjectives and nouns that aren’t expected to go together achieves a very singular and striking effect. Consider now this poem by Ted Hughes:


This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

The woods crash. The hills boom. The winds stampede. The hills – again – flap like tents in the breeze. And the fields quiver. Notice that there are two things at work here: the first is a technique called prosopoeiawhich entails investing inanimate objects with animate properties. But personification of this sort is a common enough trope in poetry; I think what is more interesting is the manner in which it is done. It is much like Kerouac (although here, of course, the combination is between verb and noun, not adjective and noun) – there is a sense of displacement and defamiliarisation in Hughes’ combinations. We often read about how strong wind blowing through the leaves of the forest gives the sense of a large beast crashing through the undergrowth, but do the woods themselves crash? Again, it is the hurricane that, blowing among the hills and the valleys, booms – but do the hills boom? And the wind itself does lots of things, but whoever imagined a wind stampeding like a herd of elephants or bison – that, indeed, is precisely the opposite of what we imagine wind to be. And yet, the sense-images work, because while they aren’t quotidian, we can nonetheless easily imagine, with some degree of effort, woods crashing, hills booming and wind stampeding. Novelty combines with recognition, then, to create – like Kerouac – a singular and powerful impact.

I also wrote about how Kerouac’s spontaneous prose bears some resemblance to impressionist paintings, that seek to depict a scene as it is experienced (and not just seen) by a combination of the senses. Hughes, I think, uses a very different technique – that is, unfamiliar images through the unexpected word-combinations described above – to achieve largely the same result. So, for instance, mountains don’t flap like tents and fields don’t quiver – in fact, flapping and quivering go entirely against the seeming solidity and immovability of the mountains, and the stability and permanence of a field. But Hughes is trying precisely to capture how we might experience hills and meadows on a specially windy day, how it might actually feel as though the hills and the fields have been cast off their moorings, and are now being buffeted by the storm. Much like, for instance, this painting captures water, or this one captures snow, it’s not about painting the picture as it is seen perfectly, but by expressing how all the senses respond to it. And within this framework, we can easily understand hills swinging and meadows quivering.


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