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. 
Everything 
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