Absorbed: Ted Hughes trout fishing in Devon in 1986 © Nick Rogers / Shutterstock

Ted Hughes, fishing and one man’s obsession

For Ted Hughes fishing was—like his poetry—an expression of his vivid animal instincts
June 16, 2022
The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes
Mark Wormald
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Late one evening in 1953, Ted Hughes, an English undergraduate at Pembroke College, Cambridge, was struggling to produce his weekly essay. At two in the morning with nothing to show but multiple attempts at the opening sentence, he gave up and went to bed. And there he dreamed. He was at his desk again when a curious figure entered the room. A tall fox, walking on its hind legs like a man, made its way towards him. Hughes saw that the man-animal had been terribly burned and was clearly in unendurable pain. It put its smouldering hand-paw on the essay to leave a bloody print, while announcing: “stop this—you are destroying us.” Hughes woke with a start and went to his desk to check for the bloody handprint.

Even students who like studying English respond warmly to the story, I suppose because it makes the common misery of an essay crisis into something with exotic metaphysical possibilities. It is a very good tale, a romantic allegory about the irruption of spontaneous natural energies into the stultifying life of the academic mind. The fox-man would no doubt agree with Wordsworth’s summary of the shortcomings of the “dull and endless strife” that comes from too bookish an existence: “we murder to dissect.” Yeats unfavourably compared the egghead dons who fussed over the text of Catullus with the magnificent oomph of the Roman poet himself—and it is wasting breath to point out, as Auden did, that it is only thanks to the eggheads that we have a text of Catullus to read in the first place. Of course, there is a mild paradox in all this since Hughes, no less than Wordsworth and Yeats, wrote brilliantly vivid literary criticism; but he evidently took the fox-man’s warning seriously, because shortly after the visitation he dropped English Lit altogether (in favour of Anthropology and Archaeology). 

Hughes recounted the story on numerous occasions, varying the details from time to time. He repeated one version to Sylvia Plath, who seems to have listened to the nightly reports from Hughes’s dream life with chary fascination: she “shamelessly plagiarised” it into a story, as she cheerfully admitted. Hughes himself turned the dream into one of his best early poems, “The Thought-Fox,” which toned down the nightmarish aspect and instead saw the nifty progress of the wild animal through a thickety wood (“Brilliantly, concentratedly, / Coming about its own business”) as a symbol for the coming into being of a poem. “The clock ticks, / The page is printed” ends the poem, now giving that memorable late night in Cambridge a happy ending.

Hughes always put “The Thought-Fox” at the start of his successive Selected Poems, as though to announce the master-theme. In his book, Poetry in the Making, based on talks he gave on BBC schools radio, he remembered a childhood spent capturing mice, pursuing magpies, adopting foxes: his diaries of the time recorded nothing but “my catches.” The connection between his boyish passion and his poetic calling was much more to him than a metaphor—“in a way, I suppose, I think of poems as a sort of animal.” Throughout his life he remained absorbed by animals and the glory of their non-humanness—he was the sort of man who stops the car to pick up a particularly good piece of roadkill. Mostly, however, his preoccupation found its profoundest expression in fishing. He wrote about the experience of standing for hours waiting for a bite with positive rapture: “you enter one of the orders of bliss,” as he explained to the schoolchildren.

At every moment your imagination is alarming itself with the size of the thing slowly leaving the weeds and approaching your bait. Or with the world of beauties down there, suspended in total ignorance of you. And the whole purpose of this concentrated excitement, in this arena of apprehension and unforeseeable events, is to bring up some lovely solid thing like living metal from a world where nothing exists but those inevitable facts which raise life out of nothing and return it to nothing.

You wonder quite what his audience, presumably more used to jam jars and minnows, might have made of that; but there would have been no doubt that Hughes was articulating something of momentous consequence. “Fishing is my way of breathing,” as he said on one occasion. More pragmatically, when the possibility of fishing being banned was floated in the 1980s, Hughes said he would have no choice but to emigrate.

So it makes sense to write a book about Hughes and fishing, and Mark Wormald, a distinguished Hughes scholar, has done just that. At the same time, Wormald has written a book about himself and about his “obsession” (as he candidly admits) with the poet and the pastime. He tells you about Hughes’s life and character, and pieces together the stories behind some of his poetry. Inevitably, he concentrates on the piscatorial end of things—including well-known pieces such as the great poem “Pike” (“Pike, three inches long, perfect / Pike in all parts”) but also on River (1983), with photographs by Peter Keen, which Wormald is right to want to push into greater prominence. The main events are here, including the often-told car crash of Hughes’s personal life (“Assia told David that Ted had kissed her, and that Sylvia had seen it” and so on); but anyone wanting a full biographical account should look elsewhere. The Catch sets itself a different task: it is in a tradition that goes back to AJA Symons’s The Quest for Corvo (1934), in which the author is as much the subject as the person being portrayed. “For a moment, reading this, it’s impossible not to consider my own life as a son, a stepson” is a typical sort of turn in The Catch; and we are accordingly given glimpses along the way of Wormald’s summer holidays in Wales and his departure for boarding school, of his ailing parents, his difficulties with his children.

Hughes wondered how he could ever write poems so full of the minutiae of fishing life

Wormald is a fellow of Pembroke and one of the unexpected twists in this book is the discovery that the study in which Hughes met his burning fox had for several years been Wormald’s own. “Forty years apart, Ted and I had shared a room,” as he puts it. Wormald follows Hughes from Pembroke to the riverbanks of Devon and Ireland: he is a fisherman himself and the book is principally concerned with “fishing in Ted’s footsteps.” The use of “Ted” throughout is itself a claim to intimacy though, occasionally, the sense of lives led in parallel feels strained: when, for example, we learn about Hughes travelling to Ireland in January 1966, Wormald adds, “the month, incidentally, of my own birth”; and when Hughes visits his son at Oxford, Wormald comments: “another odd coincidence: I was a student at Magdalen in the mid-1980s,” which doesn’t seem the height of uncanny happenstance. 

But the sense of coincidence that really matters is more mysterious. Absorbed by Hughes’s fishing diaries (there are 20 volumes of them) in the British Library, Wormald finds he has unwittingly licked his finger to help him turn the page and sees with a shock that his finger is now inky. This may not be music to the ears of the superintendent of the manuscripts reading room, but it affords a marvellous moment of Proustian time-travel for Wormald, who imagines “the last time that ink was wet was when it flowed from his nib, at his desk, in his writing shed, in the garden just above the Taw.”

Such moments of connection come chiefly on the riverbank.Wormald writes as passionately about the magic of the practice (not really a sport, hardly a pastime) as did his master, though in a more staccato manner. Fishing for him, he says, “has not been an escape from but into. Another dimension. Another world”: “putting you in your place. You feel your way. You deepen. You remake yourself. You become, for as long as you can make it last, a part of the river’s life.” As he contemplated River, Hughes wondered how he could ever write poems so full of the minutiae of fishing life—“who’ll know what I’m talking about?”—and he meant more than knowing your Alaskan bucktail from your Stoat’s Tail, or grasping the significance of “a carbon-fibre Hardy Richard Walker Farnborough, with a butt extension in case of serious fish or two-handed casting,” a piece of kit that Wormald recalls fondly in these pages. Wormald concedes that “if you don’t fish, if you’re not one of us…” the whole thing will seem rather perplexing, and I would certainly fall among the people he describes at one point as “non-fishing townsfolk,” having never picked up a rod nor felt any inclination to do so. But I enjoyed the wholly foreign modes of enchantment evoked here, which possess the fascination of any depiction of a private world with its own rules and rites.

article body image © Nick Rogers / Shutterstock

© Nick Rogers / Shutterstock

“Ted at first light flashing his minnow on the Taw, the souls and spirits of the night tearing at him, him standing firm against the current, striding on, upstream, in stolen ecstasy, deepening, finding reality”: the figure of Hughes that emerges is heroic, and Wormald’s filial admiration is conveyed with -uninflected conviction. Hughes was a keen poacher, and here nicking some trout on a May morning represents a step into a new department of experience: “Ted rose to the challenges he set himself. Or plunged into them. He went further. Deeper. Wilder. Bigger. Found more excitement, and more danger, than he could ever have dreamed…” As prose, that is purposefully not academic in its manners, but of course Wormald is an academic so in a way he knows himself to be an occupant of a world quite opposite to all the vivid animal energies. “The scholar in me wants but doesn’t need to know when Ted wrote his poem,” he says at one point, and it is not hard to see in his version of Hughes a kind of inspiring anti-type: “Cambridge can be a dry, flat world, full of words,” which is just what the burning fox came to say. 

Wormald’s sense of himself next to Hughes’s titanism has a winning honesty about it: he is a good deal more humanly scaled than his hero. Finding out the place where “Ted” had fished on one memorable excursion, Wormald tackles up “in awkward reverence, and something more” and, after a long time watching nothing happen, he suddenly gets a bite (“A carp! A CARP!”) but then, with perfect anti-climax, “the line breaks and it’s gone.” “Awkward reverence” is what the speaker of Larkin’s poem “Church Going” feels when he removes his cycle clips in church, a gesture that represents the diminished modern world. That sense of diminishment can come across as a bit glum, as when Wormald reflects that, despite the generosity of his father in buying him a fishing course, he had nevertheless not “been there to do for me what Ted did for his children”: “well, Dad was not Ted.” At other times the register is more comical. Trying for an Irish pike, his bait gets tangled up in weeds: “as I fumble with the rod, try to decide whether to bring it in, the bloody thing breaks… Somewhere, someone’s laughing at me.” Still, every day spent on the river without catching something is an invitation to go back and try again: “always another reason to go fishing. Or just to go where Ted fished, and when.”