chapter  9
7 Pages

Hughes & the Female Addressee

The first words of Hughes’s earliest collected poem are “O lady:” a formal apostrophe, as saturated as possible with the signs of poetic convention. Remember that Crow had his head cut off for singing “O leaves.” The female addressee is completely sublimated: she is the lost or unattainable lover of Elizabethan sonnets, the sinister “ladie” of traditional ballads and above all, as many critics have remarked, the White Goddess of Robert Graves. If this poem was in any way inspired by a relationship with a real woman or girl, that empirical situation has left almost no trace. As Ekbert Faas says, she is “some oceanic goddess…the White Goddess to whose youthful worshipper Graves’ book…had already turned into a kind of Bible.” Faas also reports that the poem was written “as if to dictation” and that Hughes was left, Coleridge-like, “with the frustrating recollection of a lost line he failed to jot down” (Faas 71). It is a classic example of what Graves calls a Muse poem, directly inspired by the Muse and taking her as its subject. Graves writes: “a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright and lust” (24). In The Hawk in the Rain this poem, “Song,” was placed first. In the various selected volumes it is pushed into second place by “The Thought-Fox.” This is certainly a more appropriate introduction to the poems that immediately follow it in Hughes’s oeuvre: Faas points out that such direct representation of the Goddess almost disappears from Hughes’s poetry until Gaudete. But if we focus on the second half of his career, and especially on Gaudete, the “Uncollected” section of New Selected Poems, and Birthday Letters, the female addressee is of central importance. At the same time, the mere mention of these texts signals that the female addressee has crucially different forms and meanings at different stages, or in different projects. In these different forms and meanings can be seen something of the gender struggle that Hughes’s oeuvre enacts.