As a figure, there is no-one more curiously maligned than Ted Hughes, nor more quintessentially the essence of 20th century poetry. Born in 1930, and having led a tumultuous life that included both the suicide of his first wife, writer Sylvia Plath, and rewards obtained for his writing, his poetry retains much of the dispirited views of the era; the misery and shock at the presence of another war, the glum attitude of the austerity measures that followed, and Hughes’ own personal tragedies, most notably the deaths of both his wives, and the vicious attacks vested upon him by fans of Sylvia Plath’s writing, who blamed him for her death. Writes critic Drue Heinz, “His voice is commanding. He is often invited to read his work, the flow of his language enlivening the text. In appearance he is impressive, and yet there is very little aggression or intimidation in his look. Indeed, one admirer has said that her first thought sitting opposite him was that this was what God should look like “when you get there.”
“I first started writing those comic verses when I was eleven, when I went to grammar school. I realized that certain things I wrote amused my teacher and my classmates. I began to regard myself as a writer, writing as my specialty. But nothing more than that until I was about fourteen, when I discovered Kipling’s poems. I was completely bowled over by the rhythm. Their rhythmical, mechanical drive got into me. So suddenly I began to write rhythmical poems, long sagas in Kiplingesque rhythms. I started showing them to my English teacher—at the time a young woman in her early twenties, very keen on poetry. I suppose I was fourteen, fifteen. I was sensitive, of course, to any bit of recognition of anything in my writing. I remember her—probably groping to say something encouraging—pointing to one phrase saying, This is really . . . interesting. Then she said, It’s real poetry. It wasn’t a phrase; it was a compound epithet concerning the hammer of a punt gun on an imaginary wildfowling hunt. I immediately pricked up my ears. That moment still seems the crucial one. Suddenly I became interested in producing more of that kind of thing. Her words somehow directed me to the main pleasure in my own life, the kind of experience I lived for. So I homed in. Then very quickly—you know how fast these things happen at that age—I began to think, Well, maybe this is what I want to do. And by the time I was sixteen that was all I wanted to do.”
– Ted Hughes, ‘The Art of Poetry, No. 71’, The Paris Review.
Wind is both within and out of Hughes’ normal style of writing – most of his most formidable works of poetry take place within such suspended periods, but personify the moment using animals; in Wind there is nothing even vaguely humanistic present throughout the whole poem, thus lending to it an air of almost complete animosity and luck; the people at the mercy of nature cannot do anything but wait for the night to end, and in a jump from his regular style, Hughes is not interested in describing this act of nature in the loving detail that he has shown in works such as The Thought-Fox. Instead, the description is written through action: what happens, and what doesn’t, leaving the image to develop inside the reader’s mind without the addition of very many adjectives. It works well for this poem; the detailed actions provide enough that the reader can imagine the house and the family, the vibrant anger of nature, the terrifying power it wields, and how helpless man is in the face of it.
The entire poem takes place over the course of one night: a family, cowering inside a house, listen as a fierce storm rampages outside. The wind, an elemental image that is most often linked with springtime, takes on an almost Shakespearean rage, drawing to mind allusions to the infamous storm scene in King Lear, which might have been an inspiration for Ted Hughes.
Hughes wrote about this poem, in ‘Poetry in the Making‘:
On and off I live on a house on top of a hill in the Pennines, where the wind blows without obstruction across the tops of the moors. I have experienced some gales in that house, and here is a poem I once wrote about one of them. The grass of the fields there is a particularly brilliant watered green, and the stone walls of the enclosures that cover the hill-sides like great nets thrown over whales look coal black. The poem is simply called: Wind.
In the poem, which can be read in full here, our first introduction to the storm is a brief one; Hughes merely writes – ‘this house has been far out at sea all night’, and it is interesting to notice how evocative the imagery is; in one line, Hughes has given us the idea of the house as a ship, storm-tossed and floating upon angered waves, at the mercy of the water. It gives the reader an immediate idea of the ferocity of the storm, as well as of the isolation of the house – in the reader’s mind, one imagines the land, broken only by trees or hills, but barren of any other life, and it’s a fragile thing to consider. Should something go wrong during this storm, the family is completely cut off from the rest of the world, isolated in the depths of angered darkness that is more than capable of breaking the boat into pieces.
Notice the onomatopoeia in lines 2-4: ‘crashing’, ‘booming’, ‘stampeding’, ‘floundering’, all big words of even bigger actions, crazy noise adding to the general unease of the first stanza; it is not just the wind that has been turned into an animal, but the rest of nature as well. The loneliness of the house is deepened. There is truly no other presence on the hill beside the storm, and the house, and that heightens the atmosphere of the poem to an almost fervent pitch.
One would imagine that there would be some respite from the storm upon the dawning of the new day; in fact, daylight, and sunrise, has often been used to symbolise a cleansing of the previous night’s energy and events. However, in Wind, nothing so obvious happens; the day dawns anew under an ‘orange sky’, and yet the storm is still proceeding.
Hughes writes, ‘the hills had new places’, thus showing the power of the storm – not only did it rage for an entire night, but it has shifted some topography and changed the landscape, it has changed the face of the hills, leaving behind an unfamiliar stretch of nature. Taking this a step further, imagine it from the point of view of the family; their home has now become a foreign place to them, as barren as a battlefield, and the storm that has shifted this power has not yet died down. In the same line, Hughes uses the world ‘wielded’, giving the wind an almost warlike intelligence – ‘wielded’ is mostly used for weapons, as well, which shows a state of menace on behalf of the wind and of nature towards the humans who are living on the hills.
All the colours chosen in this stanza are dropped into the stanza in such a way that their qualities are somehow exacerbated; in a colourless, frightening world, the sky is orange, the light ‘luminous black and emerald’, and by not comparing the colours to something else, it helps to clarify and sharpen the tone of the colour itself in the reader’s mind. There is something warning about the orange sky, about the ‘luminous black’ light that the wind scatters through the clouds, however it is hard to say what, exactly, is quite so threatening about the presence of colour.
This is the first presence in the poem of another human. Hughes writes, ‘At noon I scaled along the house-side’, and the use of the word ‘scaled’ brings to mind the image of mountaineering explorers, and to apply this same image to the use of the word ‘house-side’, to apply it to the image of a family cowering inside their house, somehow brings out the menace of the storm even further. It turns a happy, familiar symbol – that of the lit house, the family silhouetted in the window – into something threatening. Even the lord and master of the house cannot venture outside for any longer than a few minutes without being swept away by the wind. Man, in this instance, is wholly small and easily destroyed by the presence of nature. Notice the way that he sneaks alongside the house to the coal door, as though sneaking past a giant or some other master.
The man looks up, and the wind attacks him, it ‘dented the balls of my eyes’; this is how strong the wind is, how forceful it is, and how weak the man is. Further stating it, he goes, ‘the tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope’ – the landscape has become, once again, both unfamiliar and flimsy. A guyrope is used, sometimes, to anchor a tent to the ground, but here it is used to imply that the earth itself is about to be torn loose from its holdings and sent skittering away on the wings of that angry wind.
More references, here, to the wind’s strength – it leaves ‘the fields quivering, the skyline a grimace, / At any second to band and vanish with a flap;’. Its strength is such that it is in danger of tearing apart the whole world as though it is nothing more than tissue paper. The skyline, in particular, is such an evocative imagery; it implies that the wind is stronger, perhaps, than even God. What is God to the rage of nature? Nothing, according to Hughes, in a fit of temper, the wind will smash everything in its way.
In the third line, Hughes shows the violence is not just restricted to other things, but also to elements of itself. He writes that it ‘flung’ a magpie away’ – again, the carelessness of nature – and that it ‘bent like an iron bar slowly’ a black-back gull; it is so strong, according to Hughes, that it is forcing things outside of its shape to take the shape of other things. How could you challenge something of this particular strength?
Once more, another reference to green, and to the fragility of the world. Hughes writes, ‘The house / Rang like some fine green goblet in the note / That any second would shatter it.’ A reader can take the house as a larger indication of society and the world, and the wind is almost strong enough to break it into pieces; this also helps the reader to imagine the hushing sound that the wind is making as it blasts past the windows. It feels as though it could break it to pieces, though it might not actually manage to do that; however, the image itself is strong enough to make the reader feel breathless with anticipation.
And then it switches from the storm outside to the inside – it describes a family, completely consumed in watching the storm, ‘grip / our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought’, writes Hughes, showing how they are focused on watching the wind tear around their house. There is such a sense of possible destruction that to read this stanza is to read it with bated breath, waiting
And yet, it does not break. The poem goes back to describing the force of the storm – ‘feel the roots of the house move, but sit on, / Seeing the window tremble to come in’. Everything is terrified of the storm, including such unfeeling things as the windows, and the stones, which ‘cry out under the horizons’. The poem does ends cyclically, describing the destruction and the chaos wrought by the wind, and going back to the start.
Historical Background to Wind
This poem was written in 1966.
Hughes, writing about his way of writing, once stated:
There are certain things that are just impressive, aren’t there? One stone can be impressive and the stones around it aren’t. It’s the same with animals. Some, for some reason, are strangely impressive. They just get into you in a strange way. Certain birds obviously have this extra quality that fascinates your attention. Obviously hawks have always done that for me, as a great many others have — not only impressive in themselves but also in that they’ve accumulated an enormous literature making them even more impressive. And crows too. Crows are the central bird in many mythologies. The crow is at every extreme, lives on every piece of land on earth, the most intelligent bird.