“...lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them”
The aim of these posts is to try to put myself into the poem, into the mind of the poet and to do the same in reverse: to put the poem into my mind so I become a part of it and it a part of me (an essential thing if I’m going to get to know it). I started storing poems and bits of poems in my head at a very young age and I continue it to this day. I’m not sure it’s ever helped me in my careers or earned me a single penny. But it has been, and continues to be, enriching.One way of doing it is to put yourself in the footprints of the poet and go to the place that inspired the verse and see if something rubs off. Some are famous; Lulworth Cove for John Keats’ Bright Star, Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, St Giles Church (and of course churchyard), Stoke Poges for Gray’s Elegy, Westminster Bridge as captured by Wordsworth in September 1802. I’d like to visit some or all or those but am keen to add a few lesser known spots. Ted Hughes is well enough known and his poem ‘Pike’ is still an occasional visitor to English classrooms. Until I listened to poet Steve Ely and read Ian MacMillan’s book where Ely takes him to the very place, I’d always presumed it was set somewhere in the Calder Valley. Hughes was always described as coming from Mytholmroyd (pronounced my-them-royd). It took Ely to point out that his formative years were spent among the pits and engine sheds of South Yorkshire. The clues are in the verses. It says the pool is 50 yards across and next to a monastery. Not many of either up Calderdale.
So it’s three poets that have brought me to Roche Abbey with a sandwich, a can of Ben Shaw’s Yorkshire lemonade and a very creased edition of Ted Hughes 1960 volume, Lupercal which I bought after being inspired by my English teacher Colin Simpson in 1974. I mention my English teacher as both Ely and Macmillan credit their love of Hughes to inspiring teachers. And Hughes himself took up writing verse after his teacher, John Fisher, at Mexborough Grammar School inspired and encouraged him. It’s all about lighting lamps without diminishing your own.I want to find Laughton Pond. The dapper hipster in the abbey shop has never heard of it and there’s no-one else around so I make my own way. Get to within (what I later discover to be) 10 yards of the pond, take a wrong turning and head off entirely in the wrong direction. There is a pleasure in getting lost, in going wrong, that often leads to discoveries, but I’m keen to reach my goal so I ask a man who seems the part. Camouflage pants, heavy boots, olive green tee shirt and a fine arm of the tattooist’s art. He’s even got a dog with him. South Yorkshire mining towns are a mix of (once) industrial urban, and the surrounding fields. The grim and the glorious. Many who spent their working lives hundreds of feet below ground loved to spend as much of the rest as they could in the open air. The pits have long gone but the tradition continues. No sweet, liberal-minded conservationists here. They’d often have a gun, a jack russell or a couple of lurchers and a set of nets and snare wire. They knew the countryside through hunting in it. They know their way around. But they might not want to share the knowledge with one who started out that way but has grown a little bit Greenpeace, a little bit academic, a little bit like the sort of nonce who wanders around looking for the exact spot where a poet sat and fished seventy or more years ago. He sends me altogether the wrong way. But not out of spite or some secret pleasure in wasting my time. He knows another pond and thinks this is what I’m looking for. The other pond turns out to be two miles away. If only I’d thought to add a map to my packed lunch.I find it, the other pond that is. It takes an hour or so because I get distracted; make a few detours, find myself among more butterflies than I’ve seen since my childhood, a trespass into private woodland, some further advice from a wobbly cyclist with a spliff to guarantee the wrong direction, the avoidance of a bull and the every now and then presence of buzzards soaring, mewing and screaming. By the time I get back to the abbey I’m fair tuckered. The hipster has now been joined by a more grounded mate.
“Oh aye, it’s just round the back here. Left out of the door and left again. You’ll be there in two minutes.
I don’t begrudge the wrong turnings, the altogether out of the way and the weary legs. More learning has taken place through mistakes than by jumping straight to the right answer. And the pond is worth it. Almost glassy still at first and then blubbed with rising bubbles, the scatter of flies dancing on the surface, some ducks and perfect peace. Just the sound of the waterfall that marks the outflow, a slow swish of breeze in the trees and intermittent birdsong.
I read the poem. Not once but three times and realise that Hughes has caught not just the pike but the whole pond and every tree and reed and sky and passing cloud.
I sit and listen and watch. No water lilies from where I am, no amber caverns of weed but it can’t have changed much since 1943. As I start on my sandwich it strikes me that it was during the war when the 13 year old Hughes sat here and fished. I feel the years fall away. No ghosts here but a superb sense of presence both above and below the surface. I’m undisturbed for half an hour when a dog walker goes by. A sturdy youth in a Spanish football jersey with a puppy that will grow up to scare a few. He liked the idea of the pond being “as deep as England” but he hadn’t heard of Hughes. “Mind you” he added, “I’m not from Maltby, I live in Hooton Levitt.”
Pike by Ted Hughes
Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.
In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads-
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds
The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.
Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them –
Suddenly there were two. Finally one
With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb –
One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks –
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.
A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them –
Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast
But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,
Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly toward me, watching.