Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

All but the laughter of foxes.

Elmet cover

Elmet by Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin

The Calder Valley in West Yorkshire (just in West Yorkshire … although it flirts dangerously with Lancashire) was carved from the local millstone grit  by ice, wind and rain.  When man first arrived in the area he inhabited the higher ground, along the spring lines.  With the coming of the Industrial Revolution –  and the industries that needed water – he migrated downwards, leaving the old villages deserted and the old dwellings decaying on the hillsides.  The valley bottom filled with people, mills, chimneys, and cramped, overcrowded  housing  – all fighting for space between the canal, the river, the road and the railway that weave through it.

Inevitably, because of rising costs, cheap imports and  falling demand, it all  came to an end.  The mills closed, the industries left, and now if you visit the Calder Valley the river runs clear, the old mill buildings are either being demolished or converted into housing the local population can’t afford and the only evidence of the once filthy air is the blackened stone – some of it so badly eroded by industrial pollution that no-one dares risk cleaning it.

It’s a landscape of contrasts.  Up on the moors, with the curlews and the lapwings, you’d never guess what lies in the valley beneath, so steep are the valley sides.  But down in that valley, you’re all too aware of the hills rising on either side.  They were the millworkers’ lungs – their escape from the appalling, desolate grind of their working lives.

It cries out to be photographed, but not in colour.  It needs black and white to capture its essence – and in Fay Godwin it found its soulmate and chronicler.  Her beautiful, unsentimental images of Calderdale – of extraordinary tonal range – where what spurred Ted Hughes into writing some of his most focused and intense poems.  Poems and images first came together in 1979 in The Remains of Elmet – first edition copies of which regularly change hands for thousands of pounds.

In 1994, Hughes and Godwin reissued The Remains of Elmet with new poems and images added – and retitled it, simply, Elmet. They both believed it to be their best work … and Godwin in particular said it was the book she wanted to be remembered for.

Historically, Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England.  Its exact boundaries are not known – but very roughly, it covered what is now West Yorkshire, and its heart was the Calder Valley.

Ted Hughes was born in Calderdale – in Mytholmroyd, just down the valley from Hebden Bridge.  In spite of the fact that he actually lived most of his life away from the valley, it permeated his work until the day he died.  To quote Emily Brontë – whom he greatly admired – it went through and through him, like wine through water, and altered the colour of his mind.

Reading his pared-to-the-knucklebone poems alongside Fay Godwin’s atmospheric images is an experience quite unlike any other in poetry.  He never used ten words when two would do:


Are a stage

For the performance of heaven.

Any audience is incidental.

If you wish, you can look on Elmet as being simply a collection of tone poems – and indeed Hughes himself described it as his “definitive collection of Calder Valley poems”.

In one, simply called ‘Wind’, he offers a vivid description of what it’s like to ride out a storm in the Pennines:

Now deep

In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip

Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other.  We watch the fire blazing,

And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,

Seeing the window tremble to come in,

Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

Another, ‘Heptonstall’ (a village dominated by its two churches – the newer one built beside the ruins of the old one) captures the whole essence of the place in the first line:

Black village of gravestones.

Look a little deeper though and a theme seems to emerge … that which survives.

And that which survives in Calderdale – after the industrial revolution, war, an indifferent world and the Pennine weather have all done their worst – is the valley itself, its inhabitants, its history and its memories.

There are poems about:

The sluttiest sheep in England

That never get their back ends docked.

We read about the men who survived The Great War, and those who didn’t; about the non-conformists, about the rocks and the trees and the blackened buildings – and also about his muse – Emily Brontë, whose spirit suffuses not only this darkly beautiful corner of West Yorkshire but also Elmet itself.

The wind on Crow Hill was her darling.

His fierce, high tale in her ear was her secret.

But his kiss was fatal.

Through her dark paradise

Ran the stream she loved too well

That bit her breast.

In the most extraordinary poem in the whole book, ‘Chinese History of Colden Water’, Hughes imagines a Chinese immortal falling asleep beside peaceful and leafy Colden Water (a tributary of the Calder) to dream of  the nightmarish clatter of clog-irons and looms, of gutter water and headscarves and biblical texts.  He wakes in a  panic:

Chapels, chimneys, roofs in the mist – scattered.

Hills with raised wings were standing on hills.

They rode waves of light

That rocked the conch of whispers

And washed and washed at his eye.  Washed from his ear

All but the laughter of foxes.

‘All but the laughter of foxes’ … No-one but Ted Hughes could have written that line.

Faber and Faber. 1994. ISBN: 0-571-17288-1. 135pp.

5 comments on “All but the laughter of foxes.

  1. rosyb
    April 1, 2009

    I loved this piece, Moira. The choice of lines and the way you get across what they are doing and the atmosphere and how they relate to the real place was wonderful. Particularly struck by “Black village of gravestones.” Short and sweet indeed.

  2. Jackie
    April 1, 2009

    Wow, this must be something, as was your review. I like Hughes poems & to combine them with b&w photos must be the perfect combination. I’m glad they reissued the book so more people could access it. Hughes poetry is about nature and something more, something indefinable and alluring. Thanks for this well done review.

  3. Hilary
    April 1, 2009

    What a marvellously evocative review of an utterly unique work of art. Thank you, Moira.

    I remember the impact that ‘Remains of Elmet’ had when it was published – no wonder Fay Godwin considered it her finest work. I do so agree about the essential rightness of black-and-white for these images. There is a cottage industry these days in taking vivid colour(ed) photos of Yorkshire scenes for gorgeous illustrated books, and it is as if there is an instinct to repudiate the harshness of the landscape.

    Ted Hughes – patron saint of foxes – they do mean a lot to him, don’t they. I’ve never thought of the noise they make as laughter, myself, not even crazed laughter. I must listen again.

  4. Pingback: Vulpes Libris on Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin’s Elmet : Chris Routledge

  5. Pingback: Results and Fox-spects: Looking back on two years of Vulpes Libris « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on April 1, 2009 by in Entries by Moira, Poetry: 20th Century and tagged , , , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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