Ted Hughes (1930–1998), “The Blue Flannel Suit” (1998)
The Yorkshire-born Ted Hughes was educated at Pembroke College of the University of Cambridge before working a variety of jobs while beginning his career as a poet. In 1956, Hughes met the American poet Sylvia Plath, whom he married on June 16, 1956, only four months after their initial meeting. That particular date (June 16) was chosen because it is the date of “Bloomsday,” the day of the action of James Joyce’s Ulysses, suggesting the very literary nature of their union. The relationship was a troubled one, however, though they did remain married until her death by suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. Hughes’ last poetic work, Birthday Letters (1998), explores his relationship with Plath. That book, along with his translation Tales from Ovid (1977), both won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for Poetry. His 1968 children’s science fiction novel The Iron Man was successfully adapted to film as The Iron Giant in 1999.
Hughes’ reputation as a poet continually grew, until he was appointed the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1984, a position he held until his death in 1998. Much of Hughes’ earlier poetry deals with nature and animals, reflecting his own rural background and love of nature. His later poetry draws heavily upon sources in myth and the British bardic tradition, inflected through the influence of modernist poetry and shifting his focus on nature into a more ecological viewpoint. His late poetry, in particular, went against a prevailing trend in which British poetry tended to employ modest language to explore domestic themes. Hughes, on the other hand, explored large, mythic themes in an elevated language of almost Shakespearean proportions.
“The Blue Flannel Suit,” published in Birthday Letters is one of numerous poems in the collection that deals specifically with Plath. As such, it is much more personal than most of Hughes’ poetry—one of those poems in which the speaker and the poet can be assumed to be identical, with the poet directly expressing his own feelings. The suit of the title is the one that Plath wore for her first day of teaching at Smith College in 1957, just prior to her 25th birthday. Plath had graduated from Smith in 1955 and returned there after attending Newnham College, Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship. At Cambridge, she met Hughes, and they were married and living together when she began teaching. Plath, however, found it difficult to both teach and write, and it ultimately became clear that she was not temperamentally well-suited for teaching.
In the first stanza of the poem, Hughes’ acknowledges his failure to realize that Plath was already in real emotional trouble at the time, imagining instead that her privileged background and high-priced education, combined with her prodigious talent, would make success easy for her. In the next stanza, he notes that he now realizes, though he did not realize at the time, that Plath had been under an enormous amount of pressure at Smith, where expectations were impossibly high, given her reputation as a poet and the amount the college had paid to bring her aboard. In this stanza, he notes the blue suit of the title, realizing how uncomfortable Plath seemed in this suit, an outfit chosen to make her look professional and professorial, but one in which she was extremely uncomfortable, feeling like she was wearing a “straitjacket.” Then, in the final heartbreaking stanza Hughes acknowledges his realization now that she was not, back in 1956, merely the juggernaut he imagined but was also “the lonely girl who was going to die.” Seven years after the morning described in this poem, Plath was stilled by death, an event from which Hughes’ himself admits to having never recovered, leaving him permanently bending over her coffin, as he had done at her funeral more than thirty-five years earlier.
The Blue Flannel Suit
I had let it all grow. I had supposed
It was all OK. Your life
Was a liner I voyaged in.
Costly education had fitted you out.
Financiers and committees and consultants
Effaced themselves in the gleam of your finish.
You trembled with the new life of those engines.
That first morning,
Before your first class at College, you sat there
Sipping coffee. Now I know, as I did not,
What eyes waited at the back of the class
To check your first professional performance
Against their expectations. What assessors
Waited to see you justify the cost
And redeem their gamble. What a furnace
Of eyes waited to prove your metal. I watched
The strange dummy stiffness, the misery,
Of your blue flannel suit, its straitjacket, ugly
Half-approximation to your idea
Of the properties you hoped to ease into,
And your horror in it. And the tanned
Almost green undertinge of your face
Shrunk to its wick, your scar lumpish, your plaited
Head pathetically tiny.
Knowing yourself helpless in the tweezers
Of the life that judges you, and I saw
The flayed nerve, the unhealable face-wound
Which was all you had for courage.
I saw that what you gripped, as you sipped,
Were terrors that killed you once already.
Now I see, I saw, sitting, the lonely
Girl who was going to die.
That blue suit,
A mad, execution uniform,
Survived your sentence. But then I sat, stilled,
Unable to fathom what stilled you
As I looked at you, as I am stilled
Permanently now, permanently
Bending so briefly at your open coffin.
Imtiaz Dharker (1954- ), “A Century Later” (2014)
Imtiaz Dharker was born in Pakistan but moved with her family to Glasgow, Scotland, when she was still an infant. A highly awarded poet who has read widely to students around the United Kingdom as part of the organization Poetry Live, Dharker is considered one of contemporary Britain’s most inspirational poets, her simple, straightforward style addressing a number of important issues in powerful and effective ways. She is also a truly global poet who addresses issues of international concern to an international audience—as well as an accomplished artist whose drawings appear in all of her books of poetry. In the 2020, she became the Chancellor of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
The poem “A Century Later” is quite typical of Dharker’s poetry. In plain, accessible language, she extends a single metaphor throughout the poem, comparing the struggles of girls in many parts of the world to receive an education to the dangers and difficulties faced by soldiers going into battle. The poem expresses great sympathy (and admiration) for the many girls around the world who have sometimes literally risked their lives in a quest for what we in the West regard simply as a normal part of the growing up: the right to be an ordinary girl seeking knowledge and normalcy.
The title of this poem refers to the fact that it was written exactly 100 years after the beginning of the World War I, a war whose horrors inspired a great deal of poetry by anti-war poets such as Wilfred Owen. This anniversary then triggers the comparison that is central to the poem, whose war images are drawn specifically from World War I. The poem also alludes specifically to the 2012 shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a young human rights activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman while campaigning for the education of women in Pakistan. Yousafzai survived the assassination attempt and continued her work, subsequently winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 and becoming a well-known international figure. It is appropriate, then, that this poem is ultimately a hopeful one; it suggests that the bullets of oppressors cannot defeat the urge for knowledge and the power of books: as the poem states, “you cannot kill a book or the buzzing in it.”
A Century Later
The school-bell is a call to battle,
every step to class, a step into the firing-line.
Here is the target, fine skin at the temple,
cheek still rounded from being fifteen.
Surrendered, surrounded, she
takes the bullet in the head
and walks on. The missile cuts
a pathway in her mind, to an orchard
in full bloom, a field humming under the sun,
its lap open and full of poppies.
This girl has won
the right to be ordinary,
wear bangles to a wedding, paint her fingernails,
go to school. Bullet, she says, you are stupid.
You have failed. You cannot kill a book
or the buzzing in it.
A murmur, a swarm. Behind her, one by one,
the schoolgirls are standing up
to take their places on the front line.
Simon Armitage (1963– ), “Conquistadors” (2019)
Born in Yorkshire and educated at the University of Manchester, Simon Armitage worked for many years as a probation officer in Manchester before his writing career finally took off, allowing him to devote himself to writing after 1994. Since that time, he has been extremely prolific, producing work in a variety of genres and media. Among his several collected volumes of poetry are Book of Matches (1993), The Dead Sea Poems (1995), and Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). He has written two novels, Little Green Man (2001) and The White Stuff (2004), as well as All Points North (1998), a collection of essays on Northern England.
Armitage’s poetry is characterized by a dry wit and a simple, accessible style, even as it addresses a number of serious and important subjects. He has also engaged in important ways with the literary tradition. For example, in 2006 he produced a dramatized version of Homer’s Odyssey, while his 2007 translation of the British classic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was adopted for the ninth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and he was the narrator of a 2010 BBC documentary about the poem and its use of landscape. He is professor of poetry at the University of Leeds, having served in the prestigious position of Oxford Professor of Poetry from 2015 to 2019. Armitage also writes for radio, television, film, and stage. He maintains a prominent public presence, making numerous appearances on radio programs and podcasts. In March 2020 he launched his own podcast, The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed, which is also broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Armitage has even released an album of music as the lead singer of a band known as The Scaremongers.
“Conquistadors” was the first poem written by Armitage after he became the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 2019. It is quite typical of his poetry in that it addresses an important historical event, the first manned landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, when American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot upon the surface of the moon at Tranquillity Base. But Armitage observes this event in the poem via his memories of his own reaction as an excited six-year-old already in search of his first kiss (with an anonymous young girl) and romantically hoping to time that kiss to coincide with the moon landing. Then, styling himself as “Simon Armstrong,” he imagines himself stepping on the moon, then sardonically notes the attempts of American President Richard Nixon (whose nickname was “Tricky Dick”) essentially to announce that all of space is now open for colonization, as the Apollo 11 craft approaches the surface of the moon. (On a phone call to the astronauts on the moon, broadcast live around the world, Nixon told them: “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become part of man’s world.”) Armitage then ends the poem on a less humorous note, suggesting that space might not be so pleased at this news, given the baleful history of colonization on earth, as in the near-genocidal impact of the Spanish Conquistadors on Native Americans, referenced in the poem’s title.
In this afterthought
he’s just turned six,
the astronaut in him
doing his damnedest to coincide
the moon landing
with his first kiss,
hoping to plant his lips
on —— ———’s
as Simon Armstrong
steps from the module
onto Tranquillity Base.
But as Tricky Dicky clears his throat
to claim God’s estate
as man’s backyard
from the Oval Office,
and the gap narrows
to feet then inches,
suddenly stars recoil
to the next dimension
and heaven flinches.