Spectre Versus Rector

I read Gaudete, the long narrative poem by Ted Hughes, published in 1977.

I first saw a reference to this in the Introduction to An Aesthetic Of Obscenity, the anthology of novels by Jeff Nuttall. The volume included The Patriarchs, his short novel from 1980 (subtitled “An early summer landscape”). It commences:

The poet Jack Roberts has dominated the narrow world of English letters for at least fifteen years. As it happens this is little credit to him. English letters during these fifteen years have been in the hands of a talentless and unadventurous group of poets who see to it that most good writing doesn’t get published. The lyric force which Roberts possesses is efficient to procure for him a certain distinction amongst these carping utterers. The academic orthodoxy of his early work has ensured its publication.

Nuttall had been enthusiastic about some English poetry since 1945 – in Bomb Culture, he praised Thom Gunn’s early work – but he felt it was like much else since 1960, hanging in suspension and needing a push from the radical avant garde, which he aligned himself with. In The Patriarchs, the figure of Roberts rides high as a successful southerner on tour in the North, treated with awed respect from college lecturers for reading his latest stuff at a literary festival. The narrator is simply Nuttall himself, marginal and unpopular, seen as dated and irrelevant by anyone who does see him. “There is no isolation. I walk in the houses of dead men’s heads.” Chapters of narrative are intercut with brief memoirs of his time in hospital undergoing surgery, and brooding on the real purpose of art: “Trajectory complete. Dark warmth the root of noonday ecstasy. The face of death the edge of pain and thus the very name of living.”

According to the Introduction, Roberts’s appearance was based on Hughes’s at the Ilkley Literature Festival in 1975. Nuttall also wrote a review of Gaudete in New Yorkshire Writing, a journal that got into a lot of trouble because of some other words he contributed. I can’t find a copy of his Gaudete review, but it is noted that he praised the final Epilogue as “… certainly Hughes’s best, spacious, bewildered, wonderstruck… they seem to me to be the light at the end of the tunnel whose walls are formed of Crow and Cave Birds”. According to Carrie Smith, those poems are “are the only part of Gaudete which can be found in Hughes’s Collected Poems.” So I wanted to read Gaudete as it sounded nothing like anything else by Hughes I’d read or heard of.

It is a quite short book – like The Patriarchs, a short novel with short sections, switching between modes. After the epigraphs from Heraclitus and Parzival, there is The Argument of the work, and the ten page Prologue describing the fall of the central character. After that are 60 brief sections, each no more than 3 pages, telling the story of what must have come after that event, although no clear internal chronology is given. The final Epilogue begins with a simple narrative introduction and is then followed by about 40 short poems, the work of the transformed man.

The Prologue begins with the Reverend Nicholas Lumb walking “through the oppressive twilight of an empty town, in the North of England.”

He has no idea where he is going. Or where he is.

Is it dusk or is it eclipse?

He urges himself, as if towards solid ground.

He concentrates on the jolt of his reaching stride and the dragging flap of his cassock.

It is never explicitly resolved whether Lumb’s uncertainty is a spiritual crisis about his vocation, which may have been building for some time, or the sudden influence of the special effects occurring around him.

The sky is darkening.

The charred black chimneys jag up into the yellowish purple.

Has he already been transported to a special zone, or a trance state? What Northern town would have empty streets, at any time of day or night?

He turns abruptly into a side-street

And is immediately stumbling.

He draws back to the wall.

All the length of the street, dead bodies are piled in heaps and strewn in tangles everywhere between the heaps.

These mounds of dead flesh don’t appear again, at least to no living witnesses. So it seems Lumb has already been transported  before the Prologue began, and only started to sense his new reality afterwards. After a series of violent apparitions and suffering figures he can’t help, he reaches an apparent exit.

…Then stone steps upwards into daylight. He stands at the bottom of the steps and looks up at the moving clouds. He hears street noises and sees the top of a bus go past and a woman with shopping. A mongrel dog peers down at him between rusty railings. He turns back, and finds himself in a derelict basement full of builder’s old lumber. He looks down at his blood-varnished body, crusting black, already flaking, and trembling with shock and bewilderment. He strives to remember what has just happened to him. He can no longer believe it, and concludes that he must have been involved in some frightful but ordinary accident. He searches round for some other exit from this basement, in growing agitation, but there is only the door to the street. He returns to the bottom of the steps and stands looking up again at the clouds, till his trembling becomes hard shivering. Suddenly he remembers the streets full of corpses, but his dread then was nothing like what he feels now. He forces himself to move.

He climbs the stone steps.

Presumably the moment of crossing this threshold is his reconnection with the mundane world after this sojourn in Hell, coinciding with the “cancellation” of his changeling predicted in the Argument.

The Changeling-Lumb is active in his parish, travelling about with little time for worship in amongst his sexual adventures with all of the female members of his congregation. This has not gone unnoticed amongst their menfolk.

Garten is fishing for the vicar. He is venturing jokey, overbalancing insinuations, as he sips. Felicity mentions the Reverend Lumb too often.

Old Smayle defends the vicar.

He admires him. The vicar, he declares,

Has realised that his religious career

Depends on women,

Because Christianity depends on women.

For all he knows, all those other religions, too, depend on women.

Not everyone takes it so lightly. Major Hagen cannot accept what he has seen his younger wife up to with the clergyman. The Major is a walking embodiment of the values of the Old Country.

Hagen’s face is graven, lichenous.

Outcrop of the masonry of his terrace.

Paradeground gravel in the folded gnarl of his jowls.

A perfunctory campaign leatheriness.

A frontal Viking weatherproof

Drained of the vanities, pickled in mess-alcohol and smoked dark.

At first he pretends unconcern with “machine laughter / Unconnected to any nerve”. He loses his patience, raging at her with energies drawn from the symbols that define his existence:

There is so much he must not fail.

Humiliation of Empire, a heraldic obligation

Must have its far-booming say.

Three parts incomprehensible.

A frenzy of obsolete guns

Is banging itself to tatters

And an Abbey of Banners yells like an exhausted schoolmaster.

Some of Changeling-Lumb’s “Women’s Institute” can’t accept being only one amongst many, and a younger lover takes her own life, close by some other caged animals.

Now she can look at the birds,

Her father’s prisoners,

Her girlhood’s confidantes.

She sees just how squalid and miserable they are.

And they regard her too without any affection.

Changeling-Lumb does not seem to have any special insight into his own nature or how he came to be here. He is also attacked by apparitions in 2 sequences that echo the crises that the original Lumb suffered when he was transported. There is a bizarre battle (witnessed by one of his young lovers) in which he is peacefully out fishing and then an unusually powerful catch turns out to be his own double, rising out of the water to fight him. Eventually the challenger retreats back under water, “Holding aloft the stump from which the hand has vanished”, and leaving Changeling-Lumb to “lever up the demonic fingers” and throw the lost hand in after him. In a solitary vision, the Changeling witnesses the scene after his van has crashed into water and he has entered a realm of dead bodies submerged in the Earth and dangerous animals loose and stamping on them. All this dissolves away at the end of the fugue state, and “His van sits empty, the doors wide open, as if parked for a picnic”.

All of this is rather like a 70s folk horror film in the mood of The Wicker Man and similar fare. But it is all accelerated and the climax approaches and blurs past – some great ceremony, with Lumb wearing an animal head, a sacrifice is performed, the outraged pillars of patriarchy set out on a manhunt. Then they conveniently eliminate all traces of what has gone on, burning the church so that at the end of the main narrative “All evidence goes up”. In the Epilogue, Original-Lumb recovers his earthly existence in “a straggly sparse village on the West Coast of Ireland”.

I do not think Gaudete has much to do with any religion as a theme. Nobody is too concerned about what Christianity may or may not really require, as we never see this cleric find time to preach a sermon or perform a mass, at least not one that would be recognised by his own Church. He is a seer, an inspiration, a role taken more by creative artists nowadays, who may chafe at the respect and responsibility. The celebrated artists and poets, who could appear at festivals and functions and be treated deferentially.

One of the poems in the Epilogue:

Churches topple

Like the temples before them.

The reverberations of worship

Seem to help

Collapse such erections.

In all that time

The river

Has deepened its defile

Has been its own purification

Between your breasts

Between your thighs

The course of history being driven by erotic energy rather than a striving towards Heaven (the crude word play on “erections”) and worship undermines itself with “reverberations”, whilst fluid desire moves the Earth beneath the sky.

The transformation of Lumb is a personal emotional disorder, and I would take this as a metaphor for the descent into depression and anhedonia. The depressive may make a recovery, but they are transformed. Gaudete is a story of that transformation, using the absurd and creaky tricks of the pastoral horror story and supernatural tales of possession. Those images were well-circulated by 1977. We can easily find another contemporary example, in one of the narrative songs of Mark E.Smith, just starting his writing career at that time. The picture at the top is from the review of Dragnet in the Irish music magazine Hot Press.

The title “Spectre Versus Rector” is in the section of “UNRECORDED” ideas mentioned in the letter sent to Tony Friel on 25th January, so it at least predates the publication of Gaudete. We don’t know what, if any, form it had at that stage, and it might not have been more than a title and an idea of a story. M.R.James is stated as the inspiration within the final lyrics themselves, though it’s not usual in his oeuvre for a body to be possessed, rather than pursued or haunted. It’s not impossible that Hughes’s work could have been used as an additional source of inspiration, even if Smith only read about it rather than the text itself. We know it was reviewed in New Yorkshire Writing, and he certainly read various alternative and underground papers and magazines at the time. He had an impulse to write something quite different from his own material, as well as everybody else’s; something must have possessed him.

5 thoughts on “Spectre Versus Rector

  1. INTERESTING piece, and interesting links, thanks. Wasn’t aware of New Yorkshire Writing, but can imagine MES might have been aware of the hoo-ha it created at the time. Can’t think of a direct MES/Hughes link, beyond the tangential mention of Hebden Bridge in BLINDNESS: “The flat is evil and full of Cavalry and calvary / And Calvary and cavalry. / “Do you work hard?” / It said, “I am from Hebden Bridge. / Somebody said to me: I can’t understand a word you said.” Of course, Hughes was from Mytholmroyd, not Hebden, but according to the annotated Fall, that line works both ways: from the English civil war to the industrial revolution, HB was so isolated it had its own peculiar accent. But in the second half of the 20thC, incoming outsider posh southern accents were incomprehensible to the locals.

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  2. “The charred black chimneys jag up into the yellowish purple.” I can hear as a pre-echo of “The estates stick up like stacks”, and the scenario at the end of Gaudete could also have inspired “Hard Life In Country”, maybe. In those days writers like Hughes got more media attention so it’s possible there could have been a slot on some BBC2 arts programme mentioning the work.


  3. Indeed, you’re right. I’ve always found Hughes a bit of a tin-eared poet, despite coming from West Yorkshire myself. But this Gaudete sounds good, almost like Hughes being influenced by MES rather than vice-versa, and I guess Hughes’ double spouse suicide backstory was already well-known by then and would prick MES’ interest. Both men deeply interested in astrology, and only born 22 miles apart. Albeit on opposite sides of the border.

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  4. Interesting piece!

    From looking into Yorkshire New Writing, it seems Barry Collins was closely involved, which establishes a link with his Play for Today The Lonely Man’s Lover (1974), a really rather crucial all-filmed piece that features a Hughes-like protagonist and was shot in and around Hebden Bridge. It is similarly perceptive on class and localised attitudes to Alan Garner and Colin Welland’s varied work of the same era.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That appears to be on YouTube – many thanks, will watch later.

    I didn’t realise that the Jeff Nuttall who edited New Yorkshire Writing was the brother of the Cambridge Shakespeare scholar A.D. Nuttall, who wrote some incredibly deep and perceptive stuff, eg Shakespeare The Thinker. If that’s your sort of thing.


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