There was a time—until very recently in the scheme of things—when there were no wild animals, because every animal was wild; and humans were few. Animals, and animal presence over us and around us. Over every horizon, animals. Their skins clothing our skins, their fats in our lamps, their bladders to carry water, meat when we could get it.
When we do encounter that animal presence, where can it lead us? That question was central to the poetry of Ted Hughes, who wrote some of the 20th century’s most vivid poems about animal life, and it drives Mark Wormald’s new book The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes (2022). In Wormald’s case, that question is initially literal, but is no less urgent or moving for being so. Fishing in the footsteps of Ted Hughes—who once said, “Fishing is my way of breathing”—Wormald encounters the rivers and creatures that Hughes captured in the pages of River (1983). Those creatures and rivers lead Wormald back to Hughes’s poems with renewed perception, but they also return him to his own memories, initiating new contact with submerged versions of the self.
But the question of where animals can lead us is also a very old literary preoccupation. A medieval Welsh story, “Culhwch and Olwen,” includes an account of recovery allowed only by encountering animal knowledge. Two of Arthur’s knights, Kai and Gwrhyr, set out looking for “Mabon, the son of Modron, who was taken when three nights old from between his mother and the wall.” They go into the forest and find the ancient blackbird of Cilgwri. But the blackbird knows nothing about Mabon and sends them to an even older animal, a stag. The stag sends them to an owl, older still, who sends them to an eagle, who sends them to the oldest animal of all, the salmon of Llyn Llyw. The salmon tells the men that when he swims up the river every night, he hears wailing. The salmon invites them to stand on his “two shoulders,” and he carries them up the river, where they find Mabon, imprisoned in a “house of stone.”
That story was first published in English in Charlotte Guest’s The Mabinogion, a 19th-century collection of medieval Welsh tales. In a letter, Hughes included The Mabinogion in a list of early literature and mythology that had been his “speciality” when he was a teenager. He called it “my secret patch.” Writing to his adult son Nicholas, Hughes claimed that “[a]t every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim.” But that “real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self” has been banished ever since a “secondary self” took control, at “around the age of eight.” Hughes calls that original childhood self an “inner prisoner.” In Hughes’s own life, his relationship to wild waters, wild creatures, and wild fish freed aspects of the self usually suppressed or unacknowledged. In an extraordinarily personal testimony submitted to the public inquiry on Torridge Estuary netting (1996), Hughes wrote that the “physical involvement with a wild river” changes anyone who fishes: “What comes awake are a thousand feelings and senses that we normally never use.”
Wormald begins The Catch with a double exposure. Ted Hughes stands waist-deep in a Devon river, the Torridge, fishing for sea trout. Wormald sits in the British Library, above the traffic on Euston Road, immersed in Hughes’s fishing diaries, reading about that day on the Torridge. Wormald realizes that Hughes’s diaries are more than an archival curiosity: they provide a new framework for understanding Hughes’s poems about contact with wildness, wild waters, wild fish. Robert Macfarlane calls The Catch “time-slipping, genre-shifting”—it melds literary criticism, literary biography, memoir, and deeply observed descriptions of remote waters. It takes its place alongside books that explore poetry through immersion in places that inspired that poetry. Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths, and Their Year of Marvels (2020) describes, via his own climbing and wandering, how a year in the Quantock Hills shaped poetry written there. Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012) fuses descriptions of walking the Icknield Way with meditations on the writings of Edward Thomas, who walked and wrote about that ancient trackway decades earlier. Virginia Woolf was one of the first 20th-century writers to argue that our understanding of literature is enlivened by experiencing the landscapes that inspired it. In her first publication, “Haworth, November 1904,” she wrote that visits to a writer’s home are “only legitimate when the house of a great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books. This justification you have for a pilgrimage to the home and country of Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.” The pilgrimages in The Catch are integral to its argument: the poems of River can’t be understood, not fully, on the page. They need to be encountered in place and in the process of fishing. The Catch is an argument for a different kind of literary criticism and engagement, one rooted in physical presence and experience.
Fishing is a rough art, but it is also a quiet one, an immersion in stillness and concentration. In a 1963 BBC radio broadcast that became Poetry in the Making, Hughes describes staring for hours at a “float, orange or yellow, the size of a lentil.” He explains that, immersed in that attention, “[y]our whole being rests” on that float until you enter “one of the orders of bliss.” Two decades later, he ascribed that sort of mindful consciousness to sea trout themselves. In the River poem “Strangers,” he wrote that the trout “[a]bsorb everything and forget it / Into a blank of bliss.”
Wormald kept listening to that radio broadcast while driving to the rivers Hughes fished, then read Poetry in the Making again, until something new emerged: he remembered that he, too, had fished in still waters. Those waters had a name, “Bottom Pool.” In one of the most moving and personal chapters in the book, Wormald describes the return of his own childhood memories: “[I]t is Ted who leads me back to my own childhood, restores it to me.” Wormald’s mother died from a heart attack when he was a child. For decades, he and his brothers hadn’t spoken about those childhood years. But remembering that pool, he phones his older brothers, and his brothers remember—Bottom Pool, they fished there for perch, and they fished another pool, Top Pool. It was their mother, a zoologist, who had first taken them there, where Wormald began fishing aged four. Hughes had introduced his own son, Nicholas, to fishing at that same age, four years old, and Nicholas became a zoologist. The Catch ripples with these sorts of biographical reflections and inversions and with lines of inheritance between knowledge of the natural world and poetry.
But a new motorway opened the year Wormald’s mother died, and construction “blasted those fields” between his house and the pools: surely Bottom Pool is gone. Then, studying Google Maps, he sees a “dark eye” in the green expanse of trees, and he drives west. Bottom Pool survived, and he finds it just beside the loud motorway. He’s brought a rod and an orange float. Following salmon in “December River,” Hughes avowed “I offered all I had for a touch of their wealth,” and, looking down at the waters of Bottom Pool, Wormald writes, “I give all I have to imagine some creature down there in the dead leaves, moving, watching, sniffing.” And he’s not alone: he catches a carp, the line breaks, and then the fish is gone.
But the conversations keep going. His brothers remember that photographs of their mother, photographs of them as children, disappeared after their father remarried. Do they still exist? They phone their father’s second wife and her son, learn that those photographs survived. Wormald finds a photograph of himself holding a fishing rod twice his size, “years before memory,” while his mother looks at him. “[P]oetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling,” Adrienne Rich writes in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993). In a specific and invidual way, The Catch demonstrates what these promises might mean.
Less than a year before he died, Hughes wrote a letter to his adult son responding to a peculiar dream Nicholas had told him. In the dream, Nicholas was walking up a path towards a glass door and a frog was “jumping up the path” behind him. Nicholas “closed the glass door, shutting out the frog.” Hughes wrote that he too had had dreams about animals when he was younger, when he was trying to “become whole instead of being two minds, one having all the clever ideas, the other having all the real knowledge.” At the end of the letter, he writes, “In 1963, you were hit even harder than me.” Nicholas was 13 months old then when his mother, Sylvia Plath, died by suicide in 1963. Hughes tells his son not to “laugh […] off” that dream: “[E]verything about you will be changed, by what follows the frog through the door.” It’s an extraordinary and strange promise. Hughes believed that following animal guides could change us, but what did he mean by that? In concrete terms, The Catch tells a story about what it means to be “changed by what follows” creaturely presence.
The Catch argues that poetry can be newly understood through immersion in place and in process, but it also argues that the circuit flows in two directions. Poetry, in turn, can transform our own experiences of wild places and wild creatures. After Nicholas showed Hughes mayflies along the river in Oxford, Hughes wrote in his diary, “Memory of the beautiful spents—or moulted greens—hanging under all the leaves, marvellous magical living fruit.” He called them “the ancient of ancients.” From Hughes, Wormald learns about the mayfly’s lifecycle: a “semi-translucent green and amber” casing releases an adult,
its one purpose to rise again into the air, dance, find a partner, mate, and then—spent, sated, exhausted, doomed—deposit fertilised eggs on the surface of the water, allowing them to drop to the riverbed, where two years will pass before May’s warmth and light triggers their rise to the surface.
Wormald calls that “the journey of the body and spirit in miniature, of beauty and suffering.” As he reads Hughes’s fishing diaries, he sees that “Ted isn’t just identifying the stages of development. He’s identifying with them.” And contact with these ancient insects brings the poet more deeply into his own sense of being alive: “Something about searching for living things under leaves that engages the soul,” Hughes wrote in his diary. In “Saint’s Island,” Hughes describes the mayflies as the life of the water itself: “This is he closest it comes / To consciousness and the flight into light.” Wormald follows Hughes to the Irish lough that inspired that poem, looks for those mayflies, and floats on the water in a “long vigil” hoping for fish, but instead finds something equally wondrous: “For twenty minutes we were surrounded by those dancing beauties […] to be floating within that halo felt like plenty.”
This May, I walked down to the brook below my own home. Overnight, mayflies had emerged. After reading Wormald and Hughes, I watched them as if for the first time. Like a Calder mobile, they rose and fell above the surface of the water. They don’t live long. As Hughes writes in “Saint’s Island,” “[T]hey are already souls.” In that poem, “living fruit” becomes “spooky fruit” because this is the insects’ last flight, their “afterlife,” but “[t]heir dancing has found that fault in time / To break through—to break out— / Into beyond.” Briefly I see nothing, experience nothing but what is present, these creatures moving over the water.
Reviewing Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the Earth (1970), Hughes wrote that “[t]he subtly apotheosized misogyny of Reformed Christianity is proportionate to the fanatic rejection of Nature, and the result has been to exile man from Mother Nature—from both inner and outer nature.” Returning us to outer nature, to wild places, poetry becomes a channel back to inner nature. In the river, there is the wildness and the wonder of the catch: “[T]hose flanks are always more dazzling, the shawl of water more miraculous than you could possibly have imagined,” Wormald writes. But now “you,” whoever is fishing—he—are also “protector,” responsible for this “extraordinary beauty,” and must “return it to its element, cradle that fish, working until the body flexes and it’s away upstream again, into the stream, gone, taking something of you, too. Humbled, but recovering. Recharged. Healed.”
Katherine Robinson’s poems have appeared in The London Magazine, Poetry Ireland, and The Hudson Review, and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes, Nature and Culture.