“Dead Farms, Dead Leaves:” Culture as Nature in Remains of Elmet & Elmet
Hesiod’s description of the Golden Age is regarded as the earliest antecedent of pastoral, the idealised literary mode that came, four centuries later in the Idylls of Theocritus to be associated with shepherds and their pipes, and four centuries later again, to be located in the literary construct Virgil overlaid on the Peloponnese region of Arcadia. Ovid retold a version of the Greek myth of the Golden Age and Ted Hughes’s version of this pastoral is expressed with ironic contemporary relevance: “Listening deeply, man kept faith with the source.” The poem “Open to Huge Light,” from Remains of Elmet, however, evokes the opposite of Arcadia. The humans are sheep and the (wind-)shepherds, who, in a twist of the pastoral iconography, are now playing “the reeds of desolation” rather than idealisation, are revealed by Fay Godwin’s photograph to be trees. That the sheep’s heads might hold any awareness of the nature of that desolation, or any awareness of their responsibility for it, seems unlikely. They are not “listening deeply to the source.” Startled by something-that flash of emptiness —they turn back to the business of eating, or rather, to unpack the metaphor, business as eating. This poem both celebrates the celestial light to which these two trees are witness before this wind-blown Yorkshire moor, and the end of the pastoral as a mode of celebration. Here is merely emptiness, actually deforested in the uplands by a Bronze Age culture based upon wood: houses, fencing,
heating, ships (Rackham 35). Hughes’s translation of Ovid’s version of the Golden Age makes the point by continuing: “Then the great conifers/Ruffled at home on the high hills./They had no premonition of the axe/Hurtling towards them on its parabola./Or of the shipyards.” (TO 9)
In Elmet, published after fifteen years as a completely reconstituted second edition of Remains of Elmet, the poem previously titled by its first line, “Open To Huge Light” is now titled, as many of the earlier first-line-titled poems are, to reveal its location: “Two Trees at Top Withens.” And the second edition’s better print (now duotone) of the photograph reveals the desolation of the broken stone walls at Top Withens, a ruin which is the location of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. So here are a second (physical) and third (literary) sense in which human culture contributes to the desolation of this actual place. “Two Trees at Top Withens” is a post-pastoral poem and one which hints that human culture, whilst being as natural as eating, is also as self-absorbed and as head-down to its effects.