Life and Death in Hughes’ Poetry
Hughes employs the use of dramatic imagery to give the River Humber an appearance of an alive entity, ‘melting eastwards…..a loaded single vain’. The use of the word ‘vein’ is ambiguous as it could suggest a removal of sin after death; ‘draining away’. However, veins take deoxygenated blood back to the heart so perhaps Hughes could be alluding to the idea of reincarnation, that life does not end at death, as such. In Mayday on Holderness, we join the narration after death has occurred, with ‘the decomposition of leaves’. However, in A March Calf, Hughes describes death an an impending doom, with ‘hungry people getting hungrier’. The attitude towards life and death are very different. The March Calf addresses the idea of death as a negative, something that the calf is blissfully unaware of. However, in Mayday on Holderness, Hughes portrays death as the beginning of another life, perhaps explaining why he starts the poem after an initial death.
One of the principle themes in Mayday on Holderness is the immortality of nature compared with Humans. This is shown when Hughes describes the North Sea as ‘unkillable’. The idea of immortal nature is expanded on when Hughes claims the North Sea ‘swallows it all’. This shows that nature feeds off the dead decomposing remains of human life. Although the river is a symbol of life, the presence of our remains also symbolises death, shows life as a cycle. This contrasts with a March Calf, who feels immortal but is actually unknowingly preparing for his own death. Hughes questions this poor calf’s intentions, lamenting, ‘what did cattle ever find here to make this dear little fellow so eager to prepare himself?’
The title ‘A March Calf’, suggests that this calf in question is not alone. This suggests that life is not as unique as we may think. The idea of reincarnation is present in both a March Calf and in Mayday on Holderness, with this title especially suggesting that we are not at all unique, simply a reincarnation of someone else’s meaningless life. The ignorance that the calf has to this fact makes this poem especially poignant.
Mayday on Holderness also expresses views about the continuation of life after death, through Hughes’ use of the progressive aspect when describing the ‘length of gut is growing and breathing’. This is an obvious indication of life; juxtaposing the line before it, which contains the words ‘dead and unborn’. One especially poignant line is: ‘the owl announces its sanity’. This is similar to the description of the calf, where both are proud of their existence and feel the need to share it with the world; the March calf arrives ‘dressed in his best’. Both animals see life as a gift and a pleasure to lead. This is a refreshing attitude and it relieves us from the violent portrayal of life in the rest of Mayday on Holderness.
The maternal instinct is also present in both poems and it links back to the constant references to the creation of life throughout both poems. ‘ “Mother, Mother!” cries the pierced helmet’, perfectly portrays the last thought of a dying animal being that of their mother, who is responsible for their life. Hughes’ use of linkage shows the reader how close life and death are, perhaps that death is the end of a full circle, and the instance that follows it is life.
Mayday on Holderness contrasts well with a March Calf in its attitude to life that we actually lead. In Mayday on Holderness much of life is focused around the suffering of man, with stars making ‘pietas’. However, in a March Calf, the sincere nature of the calf allows it to lead a life of blissful ignorance, unaware of its fate. I believe that this is the main motive of Hughes in this piece. He is asking us the question of which life we prefer, one of suffering over our knowledge of our impending doom, or one where our focus is on our present and not on what is yet to come.