English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

25 August 2023

Ted Hughes’s Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity

Dr Steve Ely, senior lecturer in creative writing at The University of Huddersfield, discusses their research on the work of the poet Ted Hughes.

Black and white close up head shot of the poet Ted Hughes who is looking directly into the camera with a serious expression
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin © British Library Board

In 2022 I was awarded an AHRC grant to complete a two-year programme of research entitled Ted Hughes’s Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity. The research is designed to explore and expound the view that Hughes’s most distinctive, original and best work—the work that made his name—is essentially Expressionist, characterised by a visionary subjectivity that transforms content in order to present his own unique view of the world. Although his work is almost always rooted in observation, most clearly so in poems that take animals and nature as their ostensible content, Hughes is rarely content with limiting himself to realist or naturalistic representations. Imagination, argument and didactic intent combine in his work to create symbols and metaphors that articulate his own apocalyptic truths. Beyond this, an important secondary aim of the research is to use Expressionism to understand Hughes in the context of twentieth century movements and tendencies in the arts in general, not simply in ‘English Literature’, thereby facilitating a broader and more nuanced understanding of the achievement and status of an artist still too often understood as a ‘maverick’.

Expressionism is an elusive and contested term, and not one typically applied in Hughes studies, or indeed, in English Literature, and part of my research—and the work of the symposium—will be to explore, expound and critique its meaning in this context. An exciting range of talks—Hughes and German Expressionist cinema, Hughes and Alchemy, Hughes and ‘absolute music’, a number of presentations on Hughes’s relationships and affinities with other artists and writers including Peter Brooke, Barrie Cooke, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Alan Moore, Janos Pilinsky, Sylvia Plath, William Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, and several analyses of key works, including Seneca’s Oedipus, Crow, Gaudete, Capriccio and ‘Mayday on Holderness’, ‘The Howling of Wolves’ and ‘Anniversary’—will break new ground in doing so. Of course, many of the talks draw extensively on research conducted in the British Library’s rich and endlessly rewarding Ted Hughes archive.

I’m a poet with a dozen or so publications under my belt, including Englaland (2015), Lectio Violant (2021) and The European Eel (2021). However, a lifelong interest in Hughes led to a parallel career as an English literature academic, as Director of the Ted Hughes Network at Huddersfield University, where I also teach Creative Writing. These two strands came together to inform this research. Initially, an interest in developing a better understanding of my own processes and methods of artistic creation led me to explore and become more self-conscious about my own writing in a cross-disciplinary context. This led to the realisation that the application of a similar approach might provide a fruitful method of interrogating and understanding Hughes’s encyclopedic oeuvre, to gain a sense of where—in all that diversity and richness—his main achievement lies.

An important step on the journey to Ted Hughes’s Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity was the publication in 2020 of James Keery’s Apocalypse!, a revisionist anthology of the neglected and maligned poetry of the 1940s, its predecessors and antecedents, in doing so demonstrating the ‘visionary modernist’ context which provided the matrix for Hughes’s emergence—and to some extent ‘explains’ his singularity in the Movement-dominated English poetry scene of the mid/late Twentieth century. In 2022 Professor John Goodby and I organised dual symposia—Apocalypse I and Apocalypse II, at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Huddersfield respectively—inspired by Keery’s work and insights. Apocalypse’ (book and symposia) helped catalyse my thinking and led to the AHRC application and my current research.

Indeed, as the research has developed, apocalypse is increasingly becoming an important concept in helping me to articulate my understanding of Ted Hughes’s Expressionism. There’s a two-fold sense to this. In the Greek, ‘apocalypse’ means a revealing, unveiling or vision—an inner experience triggering an urgent, highly subjective response. Of course, ‘vision’ is a key aspect of Expressionism. However, through the content and notoriety of the Apocalypse of S. John the Divine (the Book of Revelation in most Protestant Bibles), a second understanding of apocalypse—disaster, catastrophe, the end of the world—has become dominant. Much of Hughes’s poetry is concerned to address and articulate apocalypse in this sense, not only in his eco-poetry and his address to the atrocity and conflict that characterises the modern world, but also in his work addressed to ontology and being, his sense that humans are catastrophically cut-off from the spontaneity of their natural lives and are thus not only unable to live in harmony with themselves, their peers and the natural world, but are consequently locked into disastrous cycles of alienation, violence and self-harm. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to come up with a general definition of Expressionism to inform my research. However, I’m increasingly thinking that ‘apocalypse’ might be key: visionary work, rooted in a singular world view, articulated via imagination and addressed to urgent themes, as so much of Hughes’s work is, is almost certain to produce Expressionist work.

notebooks, letters and other material from the Ted Hughes archive arranged in a fan shape on a flat surface
Material from the Ted Hughes Archive

Ted Hughes Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity will take place in the Pigott Theatre, Knowledge Centre, British Library on 15th September, 2023. Attendance is FREE to members of the public, but Eventbrite booking is required.  More details, the symposium programme and the booking link can be found here: https://research.hud.ac.uk/institutes-centres/tedhughes/expressionism/symposium/.