Remains of Elmet, by Ted Hughes
Six years into her posthumous life,This might seem an odd way to start a book of poems which chart the present and lost landscape of the Yorkshire moors, but on the other hand it is exactly the point of the book. You might as well substitute the line: 'Keeping its old hills alive and attached to me'.
My uncle raises my mother's face
And says Yes he would like a cup of tea.
Her memory still intact, still good
Under his baldness,
Her hands a little plumper, trembling more
Chatter his cup in its saucer.
Keeping their last eighty years alive and attached to me.
Keeping their strange depths alive and attached to me.
The sixty-three poems which make up 'Remains of Elmet' explore the wind-blown vistas and lost histories of the Calder valley, west of Halifax, 'the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles'. The poems were initially written to accompany a set of black and white images taken by photographer Fay Godwin. And that is the point of the poems - they are poems describing loss - the loss we all feel for our own past, and the corresponding loss, not only of Elmet itself, but of the mills and farms that succeeded it in more recent history.
The poems cover a range of experiences, from a football match to loach fishing in the local canal. But the book really comes into it own in describing the dark crags, immense skies and weather of the valley. Hughes does this in visionary terms. The chapel in Heptonstall forms a constant backdrop to the series, and this lends an almost messianic quality to some of the poems. Describing millstone grit in 'Wild Rock', he writes
Tamed rock.And in 'Tree', he talks of a bent moorland tree as a priest who
[...] a soul-grinding sandstone.
Roof-of-the-World ridge wind
and rain, and rain.
Heaven - the face of a quarry.
FulminatedIt is of course a highly austere view of Christianity. But Hughes uses the same language to conjure the wonderful wild soul of the moorland. In 'Bridestones', he uses the analogy of the seriousness of chapel-going:
Against heather, stones and wild water.
Excommunicated the clouds
Damned the wind
Cast the bog pools into outer darkness.
Holy of holies [...]Elsewhere, this imagery becomes ecstatic.
Crowding congregation of skies.
Tense congregation of hills.
You do nothing casual here'.
Where the mothers [title]he writes in the opening poem. And in 'Hill Walls',
Gallop their souls
It set out -Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' - and the purchase of the blu-ray copy of the 2011 film with its soundtrack of rain, gale and stone spurred me to write this blog). 'Infatuated stones', the poem begins:
Splendours burst against its brow
Broke over its shoulders.
The hills reeled, meeting the blast of space.
Hills seeming to strainBut 'Remains of Elmet' is not a work which romanticises the Caulder valley. Another theme of the book is the inherent poverty of the landscape. In 'The Sluttiest Sheep in England' he describes sheep
And cry out
Three weird sisters.
[...] The brother
Who tasted the cauldron of thunder
that neverFor sheep here, read the whole hard history of the valley's human inhabitants.
Get their back ends docked. Who
Doctors their wormy coughs? Maggots
Bring them down in quarry dead ends
and the fluke reigns.
They get by
On the hill subsidy [...]
Or pose, in the rain-smoke, like warriors -
As I said, these poems are about loss. The untitled introductory verse I quoted at the start ends with a description of 'The huge fish, prize of a lifetime' caught by his uncle.
Any moment now, a last kickSuch is the fragility of the wild landscape, of history, and of human memory. Hughes captures this all magically and effortlessly.
And the dark river will fold it away.