What can we make of the early drafts of a poem? What is the status of the discarded line?
These questions were somewhere in the back of my mind as I prepared for my three-week visit to the Rose Library to pore through the Ted Hughes archive as part of the research for my PhD. Now, as I contemplate the 101 pages of typed notes and transcriptions I accumulated over those weeks, figuring how best to put it all to use, such questions are topmost.
My thesis, concerning the relationship of between Hughes’s work and Christianity, rests in large part on a half-dozen key poems, and naturally I was keen to examine early drafts of these. One such poem is “The Hawk in the Rain,” the title poem from Hughes’s 1957 debut collection, and the manuscript resources relating to this poem were, I found, especially rich. Interpreting these riches, however, is giving me pause.
The poem’s significance for my work lies in its function as a figuration of the crucifixion. Of course, this connection exists already for any reader who realizes the poem’s debt to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” with its explicit dedication “to Christ our Lord” – but whether the relationship is one of hijacking and antagonism, or whether Hughes takes up Hopkins’s Christological theme as his own is a question I hoped the drafts would help answer. I was pleased, therefore, to find early manuscript versions of the poem (MSS 644 Ted Hughes papers, Box 57, Folder 1) containing far more explicit references to divinity than the published poem, including a few versions which refer to the well-known biblical story of Jesus walking on the surface of a stormy sea. The hawk is described as a “water-walker”, and the comparison underscores the transcendent poise of the hawk as seen by the poem’s speaker slogging through a muddy countryside.
But these lines did not survive to the poem’s final published version. So how do I interpret their deletion? I could say that they demonstrate how Hughes was engaging imaginatively with the figure of Christ, finding ways of overlaying his earthy Yorkshire scenery with a Christian metaphysic, and even though Hughes may have decided that “water-walker” was an allusion too far, his intention remains intact. Alternatively, I could say that Hughes, having played with the explicit Christ image, recoiled from its implications and removed the line, thus restoring the poem’s anti-transcendent earth-boundness.
The appearance and disappearance of such an explicit Christ reference in the poem’s composition need not be taken as suggesting more than the poet’s hesitancy and indecision over whether to admit the connection between the Christian symbol and the raptor. If Hughes can be trusted to understand his own past self, the potential for such a connection was there from a young age. In a 1990 letter he writes:
I made the association, somehow, between the world of animals, which is excluded by culture, & persecuted (killed & eaten) & the “real thing” in human beings—the part which our own culture tortures, i.e. sacrifices, crucifies. I identified, you see, the sacrificed God, the divine self which has to die to come into life, with the whole animal & vegetable kingdom, which culture tortures & destroys.
This was a very primitive thing to do, but I did it in a completely literal sense. Somehow animal life (the whole of life outside the human ego, perhaps) became identified with Christ in particular, but with the divine world in general (the world from which ego has separated us.)
But a letter written so many years after the fact of his childhood (Hughes was born in 1930) has its limits as a source. Hughes was an enthusiastic self-mythologizer, which means he was a self-interpreter, and no worthy myth is interpreted once and let be. As an older man he writes that in his youth he made the connection between nature and Christ in an intuitive, “primitive” way; curious that he then dithers over the question of how explicitly Christ-like to make his hawk. Had his education – especially his publicly much maligned Cambridge degree, the wounds of which were still fresh when “The Hawk in the Rain” was being composed – interfered with his properly primitive instinct, introducing doubts, second guesses, an educated reluctance to own the Christ connection?
In a late essay on poetic meter Hughes refers to the windhover of Hopkins’s poem as a “hallucination,” a word which rather stands out in that context, for Hughes uses it to describe his own bird in “The Hawk in the Rain.” The intertextual wink is hard to mistake, but whether the connection between the two poems, and their mutual invocation of Christ, is best understood as part of Hughes’s poem’s composition, or its later interpretation, is the question I can’t decide. Did the young Hughes really see in nature the constant revelation of the “sacrificed God,” or did it suit his older self to believe so? Do the archive drafts reveal the suppression of an instinct, or the trying (and possible rejection) of an intellectual notion? The issue finally comes down to this: does the discovery of the discarded “water-walker” line make Hughes’s hawk more Christ-like, or less?
Perhaps I can take a leaf from Hughes himself here. In his essay “The Evolution of ‘Sheep in Fog’” he reads Plath’s famous late poem through its several surviving drafts, and he invariably interprets discarded lines and images as contributing positively to the final meaning of the poem. Discarded lines may be inaccessible to the reader who knows only the poem’s final, published version (which is to say, pretty much everyone), but they are not false growths to be weeded out – rather a kind of root system, determining the structure and health of the poem’s final flowering. A poem’s draft history, writes Hughes, is “a log book of its real meaning.”
By such a line of thought Hughes’s allusion in “The Hawk in the Rain” to Christ walking on water becomes an unerasable if scarcely perceptible organ of the poem’s activity: a permanent part of what the poem is trying to say. The Rose Library’s Hughes archive is full of such moments, by which the poems grow richer, though no less mysterious.