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Gaudete (Faber Poetry) Paperback – 8 May 2001
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The passion of the writing in this volume has been described as delivering the sensation of a line writing itself in front of the reader's eyes.
About the Author
Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was born in Yorkshire. His first book, The Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957 by Faber & Faber and was followed by many volumes of poetry and prose for adults and children. He received the Whitbread Book of the Year for two consecutive years for his last published collections of poetry, Tales from Ovid and Birthday Letters. He was Poet Laureate from 1984, and in 1998 he was appointed to the Order of Merit.
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Partly written in prose and partly in forceful free verse, at times the book has the psychological insight and realism of a good novel; at others, particularly in the verse sequence in the epilogue, it becomes enigmatically mystical (who is the ‘you’ the writer, presumably Lumb, is addressing?). It often has a strongly cinematic flavour, especially in a wonderful chase sequence reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s Apocalyto. While it’s hard not to read the story in a biographical light, Lumb a transformed version of Hughes himself, it’s also difficult to judge what it is mainly intended to be about: extra-marital relationships and their consequences; religious practice; man and nature, with animals at points in the story a dumb version of the chorus from a Greek tragedy? At any rate, a vivid and gripping read.
The book would be improved by a List of Characters to help keep the villagers distinct in the reader’s mind as the events progress. Perhaps Faber could consider this for the next edition.
It tells the strange story of the vicar of a country village that is replaced by a 'changeling' and thereafter seduces all the women of the village - with dire consequences. In the Hughes' canon it is something of an oddity but hugely readable and full of the sharp description and emotional depth that characterizes much of Hughes' work.
It's not written in classic verse, but it's the closest Hughes came to writing a 'long poem', a poetic narrative with the epic feel of an Odyssey or a Paradise Lost. It doesn't sit on the same level as these works, but you certainly get the feeling while reading it that you're reading more than a standard collection of poetry (something Hughes seemed to be striving towards throughout his career, from Crow to Birthday Letters).
To add a note of caution, when I first read Gaudete I got the distinct feeling that the resolution wasn't fully worked, developed or realised. I thought that publishers' demands had caused him to cut short his masterpiece and present something almost unfinished, but reading about the book's history I know now that this isn't true. But still I get the impression that he could have done more with it, re-worked the conclusion, given it as much meat as he'd given the rest of the project.
And then, after having said that, we get the Epilogue. Dark, spiritual, mystic and disturbed, an extra layer to something that had seemed to end too quickly. It feels like a literary sucker-punch, and we're left reeling slightly, wondering what on earth we've just read.
Gaudete is not an all-time classic; it's not even Ted Hughes' best piece. But it's overlooked, occasionally under-rated, and packed with muscle. Reminiscent almost of the visionary poetry of Blake, it calls out to be classed among the stand-out literary moments of late 20th Century English prose-poetry.