Stubbing Wharfe – Ted Hughes – Analysis

Stubbing Wharfe
Between the canal and the river 
We sat in the gummy dark bar. 
Winter night rain. The black humped bridge and its cobbles 
Sweating black, under lamps of drizzling yellow. 
And the hillsides going straight up, the high woods, 
Massed with tangled wintry wet, and the moorland 
Almost closing above us. The shut-in 
Sodden dreariness of the whole valley, 
The hopeless old stone trap of it. Where shall we live? 
That was the question, in the yellow-lit tap-room 
Which was cold and empty. You having leapt 
Like a thrown dice, flinging off 
The sparkle of America, pioneer 
In the wrong direction, sat weeping, 
Homesick, exhausted, disappointed, pregnant. 
Where could we start living? Italy? Spain? 
The world was all before us. And around us 
This gloomy memorial of a valley, 
The fallen-in grave of its history, 
A gorge of ruined mills and abandoned chapels, 
The fouled nest of the Industrial Revolution 
That had flown. The windows glittering black. 
If this was the glamour of an English pub, it was horrible. 
Like a bubble in the sunk Titanic. 
Our flashing inter-continental sleeper 
Had slammed into a gruesome, dead-end tunnel. 
Where could we camp? The ideal home 
Was trying to crawl 
Up out of my Guinness. Where we sat, 
Forty years before I was born 
My drunken grandad, dragged out of the canal, 
Had sat in the sheet singing. A house of our own 
Answering all your problems was the answer 
To all my problems. All we needed 
Was to get a home – anywhere, 
Then all our goblins would turn out to be elves, 
Our vampires guides, our demons angels
In that garden. Yes, the garden. The garden 
Swelled under all our words – like the presence 
Of what swelled in you. 
Was there in my Guinness. Where, exactly? 
That was the question – that dark 
Peculiar aftertaste, bitter liquorice 
Of the secret ingredient. At that black moment 
Prophecy like a local owl, 
Down from the deep-cut valley opposite 
Made a circuit through its territory – 
Your future and mine. ‘These side-valleys,’ I whispered, 
‘Are full of the most fantastic houses, 
Going for next to nothing. For instance 
Up there opposite – up that valley – ‘ 
My certainty of the place was visionary, 
Waiting there, on its walled terrace – an eyrie 
You had no idea what I was talking about. 
Your eyes were elsewhere – 
The sun-shot Atlantic lift, the thunderous beaches,
The ice cream summits, the whispers of avalanches, 
Valleys brimming gentians – the Lawrentian globe 
Lit the crystal globe you stared into 
For your future – while a silent 
Wing of your grave went over you. Up that valley 
A future home waited for both of us – 
Two different homes. Where I saw so clearly 
My vision house, you saw only blackness, 
Black nothing, the face of nothingness, 
Like that rainy window.
                                    Then five bowlers 
Burst in like a troupe of clowns, laughing. 
They thumped down their bowls and ordered. Their star turn 
had a raging ulcer, agony. 
Or the ulcer was the star. It kept 
The five of them doubled up – tossing helpless 
On fresh blasts of laughter. It stoked them 
Like souls tossing in a hell, on a grill 
Of helpless laughter, agony, tears 
Streaming down their faces 
Like sweat as they struggled, throats gulping, 
To empty their glasses, refilling and emptying. 
I had to smile. You had to smile. The future 
Seemed to ease out a fraction.

Ted Hughes (1930 – 1998) from Birthday Letters

A poem based on a couple in a Yorkshire Pub on a dreary wet winter evening. The two people sharing a drink are from quite divergent backgrounds. And this is a recall of an actual event in the life of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in the first years of their marriage. They had just returned from America in December 1959 and Sylvia was four months pregnant with Frieda. They spent that Christmas in Yorkshire with family.

The discussion focused on the future and where to live. And TH would love to live in the style of one of the old homes despite painting a woeful picture of the post-industrial collapse –

Your future and mine. ‘These side-valleys,’ I whispered,
‘Are full of the most fantastic houses,

Stubbing Wharfe is the name of a hotel near the Calder River in Hebden Bridge a village of great personal identity for Ted Hughes. Sylvia Plath is buried in the graveyard extension at St Thomas’s church in Heptonstall, Hebden Bridge. And this outcome is inferred in his words while a silent / wing of your grave went over you together foretelling blackness as well as her final resting place.

Ted Hughes had a great affinity and love of his native area. His granddad had an enjoyable evening at a similar Pub 40 years ago –

my drunken grandad, dragged out of the canal,
had sat in the sheet singing.

In contrast Sylvia Plath was thinking of her American Boston background and the Atlantic coast –

The sun-shot Atlantic lift, the thunderous beaches,
The ice cream summits, the whispers of avalanches,
Valleys brimming gentians – the Lawrentian globe
Lit the crystal globe you stared into

They were silently entertaining their own different thoughts. Of note, that many years later after the death of Sylvia, Ted bought a house nearby called Lumb Bank. It is now used as a retreat to help further young aspiring writers.

I love the description of the evening and can relate to it easily. TH’s choice of words reflects my personal experience –

The black humped bridge and its cobbles 
Sweating black, under lamps of drizzling yellow.
And the hillsides going straight up, the high woods,
Massed with tangled wintry wet, and the moorland
Almost closing above us.

And an apt description of the environment which suffered the consequences of the collapse in the mills –

The fallen-in grave of its history, 
A gorge of ruined mills and abandoned chapels,
The fouled nest of the Industrial Revolution
That had flown.

I could add though that those enclosing moors always have that eternal fascination. And I am sure Thomas Hardy would agree considering ‘Egdon Heath’ in Dorset (‘Return of the Native’).

Then the arrival of the five bowlers in hilarious exuberant mood with laughing voices completely dominated the indoor Pub scene. And Ted and Sylvia were detracted from the gravity of their depressive thoughts ‘I had to smile. You had to smile / The future Seemed to ease out a fraction‘. Nice that such a jolt can happen unexpectedly to us at times.

This poem shows Ted Hughes had an appreciation of Guinness, and so too his grandad who over indulged! Here is his description of Guinness in line 44 – peculiar aftertaste, bitter liquorice of the secret ingredient. Which has a certain Irish touch of the magic in the wording.

I went to University in Bradford (1965 – 68) I have an affinity with the West Riding and the Pubs. In my first term I stayed with four other students in a family house in Ikley and travelled into Bradford by bus every day. I did enjoy walking on the moors and going to the Cow and Calf Hotel. Wharfe is the name of a well-known river which flows through Ikley and Wharfedale is the name of the associated valley.

From my days in Yorkshire, I remember drinking a beer called Newcastle Brown. And eating pie and peas, and if I could re-visit, I will sure have a bowl and a pint!

Ted Hughes on Wikipedia – Ted Hughes – Wikipedia

A link to the Stubbing Wharf Hotel – About – The Stubbing Wharf

And a link to Lumb BankArvon | residential creative writing courses and retreats UK

A Message to my Granddaughters

Mt Ainslie, Canberra – looking down on the city centre and Lake Burley Griffin
A Message to my Granddaughters 
in response to Michael Thwaites
Sometimes you slowly still, 
and within a certain satisfaction exudes
into a self-absorbed contentment.
And you say a quiet thank you,
as a peace envelops the soul.
Sometimes you slowly still.
I chose a marvellous city to call home,
the break of morning, the stars departing,
The mirror lake, the cutting Autumn air,
The sun unfolding on the Brindabellas –
I chose a marvellous city to call home.
And what a city, your native city.
The expansive view from Mt Ainslie
portrays Walter Burley Griffin’s plan in 
the continual change of trees, hills, water,
his forever friends in living beauty.
And in this vista, commanding features - 
St John’s Church, the War Memorial,
Civic Centre, The National Library,
the new and old Parliament buildings,
Regatta Point, Commonwealth Gardens,
Capital Hill … and so much more, caught
in the moment of an Autumn morning.
But will you appreciate in likewise fashion 
And will your days stretch to a contented life
and will you, when time falls back against the years,
will you … well, who knows! …
But on this morning, I will say again –
I chose a marvellous city to call home.

Richard Scutter March 2022, Canberra

March is the start of Autumn in Canberra. And this year it has not been a case of a sweltering summer and the autumn change will not be so dramatic; but always a time to appreciate the beauty of the changing colours of the trees.

And on this day, it is a time to value your home wherever you live. Hopefully, your home has not been violated by needless violence generated by future fear from another country.

All the best, Richard

Originally – Carol Ann Duffy – Analysis


We came from our own country in a red room
Which fell through the fields, our mother singing
our father’s name to the turn of the wheels.
My brothers cried, one of them bawling, Home,
Home, as the miles rushed back to the city,
the street, the house, the vacant rooms
where we didn’t live any more. I stared
at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw.

All childhood is an emigration. Some are slow,
leaving you standing, resigned, up an avenue
where no one you know stays. Others are sudden.
Your accent wrong. Corners, which seem familiar,
leading to unimagined pebble-dashed estates, big boys
eating worms and shouting words you don’t understand.
My parents’ anxiety stirred like a loose tooth
in my head. I want our own country, I said.

But then you forget, or don’t recall, or change,
and, seeing your brother swallow a slug, feel only
a skelf of shame. I remember my tongue
shedding its skin like a snake, my voice
in the classroom sounding just like the rest. Do I only think
I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space
and the right place? Now, Where do you come from?
strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.

Carol Ann Duffy

A poem about being asked this question … ‘where do you come from originally?’ … obviously you are now in another place. But being asked that question you have to give the questioner your own personal response to your original home place … and of course this may be many locations back depending on the extent of relocation in your life coupled with the time lapse of how long ago it was that you were back home in that original location.

This poem is the first poem in the book ‘The Other Country’. Arguably the first poem in a book is usually a key poem to entice readers to delve further. In similar regard the first stanza of that poem is most important.

For this Post I am going to look at that first stanza in the context of having read the whole poem enabling greater contextual background which might empower the text to greater understanding. That first line is so important too and the words ‘red room’ catch the reader into a bit of a thought puzzle. Here are my thoughts …

The poem is about the grief of a child in leaving their first home in the city to a place in the country. And the child remembers that time dearly and the journey is by car. The child is in a ‘red room’ so it could be reference to a red car. A child’s room in a house is very important to that child. Her new home in transit as she rides with her parents could in fact refer to the space in the car. ‘Red’ is a highly emotive colour for example a colour which promotes anger in a bull. The car is also ‘falling’ ‘through the fields as it travels personifying grieve.

Quite clearly there is great contrast between the emotional state of the child and the joy expressed by her mother as the mother sings to the tune of her husband’s turning wheels.

The child’s brothers appear to be younger but in great sympathy. And the contrast is again highlighted by the bawl of the brothers against the song of the mother. The brothers to not actually say ‘home, home’ – the ‘bawl, bawl’ states this meaning through these cries.

Although the car is travelling away from the city – in the eyes of the children each mile away is a mile back to their original home. Back to the city, back to the street, back to their original home and back to their precious first rooms. The rooms are now vacant which adds poignancy. Again there is great contrast in the two directions associated with the change of location. Joy in one direction sorrow in another.

It appears the child has something in her hands in the car to remind her of her room. She is holding the ‘paw’ (hand) of her precious mute toy-friend. A friend that is ‘blind’ to the predicament of the journey.

This poem gives reinforcement on why Carol Ann Duffy is such an eminent poet in the minds of many readers and gives authority to CAD in being chosen as the UK Poet Laureate in 2009.

Some more questions that you may be hesitant to contemplate – Where do you come from originally? and How does your current mind create the image of that past place?  How does it differ from the actual reality of that original first experience?

Carol Ann Duffy on Wikipedia