Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Village Idiot

Phillip Larkin (a poet I do not much enjoy) refused the Laureateship on the death of John Betjeman in 1984.  Knowing that Ted Hughes (a poet I admire) would be next in line, Larkin said, "I like Ted, but in a just society he wouldn’t be the Poet Laureate, he’d be the village idiot."

Well, you should know our line on idiocy by now.  What higher recommendation could there be? But Larkin did have a point: Hughes was, for an intelligent and gifted man, capable of truly exalted silliness.

Not having read it, I reserve judgement on Hughes' opus on the mythic roots of Shakespeare, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, allegedly a very silly book.  It does have a certain "tin foil hat" aura, to be sure, and that has caused me to replace it carefully back on the shelf each time I have considered starting to read it.  But, this being the week of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, it is Hughes' views on the monarchy that have been on my mind.

It should not surprise me that Ted Hughes was a monarchist, but it always does.  The hereditary monarchy, I suppose, is one of the few remaining institutions with a mythic dimension, where the divergent, parallax view of office and office-holder is particularly obvious.  You may be mad, but you're still George III.   You may be drab and eat your breakfast from Tupperware boxes, but you're still Gloriana 2.0.

As Neil Roberts says in an interesting essay on the subject:
When he was appointed in 1984 many of his admirers, including myself, thought it incongruous.  Hughes, the celebrator of everything in nature that threatens the decorousness of human arrangements, who had pronounced civilisation an evolutionary error, as a member of the royal household seemed like Emily Brontë as lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria.
Well, yes, indeed.  But Hughes had a concern with the intersection of "natural time" ("where the flower of five million years ago is still absolutely up to date") with historical time, and saw the monarchy as belonging more to the former than the latter.  You, like me, may disagree. But the mask of official "royal witch doctor" was clearly one he was keen to try on.

One of the reasons I like Hughes is that he forces us onto ground most of us would rather avoid: for example, are myths metaphors or realities?  When someone's story embodies the myth of Adonis, are they "like" Adonis, or are they Adonis, even if only as a transient avatar?  Hughes is not simple-minded on these matters, but neither is he agnostic.

Why should we care?  Well, consider the spectrum represented by the word "belief" -- from full-on snake-handling lunacy to timid Church of England temporising -- or the challenging ways "faith" can still manifest itself in the contemporary world.  It's clearly still a subject worth thinking about.  Richard Dawkins seems to think about little else, of late.

Anyway, faced with the spectacle of 1000 boats struggling idiotically through the rain on that "strong brown god", the tidal Thames, and the accompanying steady drizzle of inanity from media commentators with nothing to say about an event almost perfectly free of content, mythic or otherwise, the whole-hearted ravings of the Village Idiot somehow seem more compelling, and of more substance, than the bloodless urbanities of the Village Librarian.

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