On Tuesday, the poet Ted Hughes was commemorated with a monument in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, among the remains of Chaucer and Wordsworth, Dickens and Hardy (I have not visited myself since my brother’s memorial service there in ’88).
In the summer of 1956 Hughes married the poet Sylvia Plath and for their honeymoon they went to Spain and watched a bullfight. As she wrote in a letter to her mother:
I’d imagined that the matador danced around with the dangerous bull, then killed him instantly. Not so… The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality.
I feel I would have had exactly the same response were it not for the fact that the first corrida I saw was headed by El Fandi, four days before his alternativa, in the Maestranza of Seville. Sheer chance.
Plath wrote a poem about her bullfight experience, in which a picador was injured by the bull.
Arena dust rusted by four bulls’ blood to a dull redness,
The afternoon at a bad end under the crowd’s truculence,
The ritual death each time botched among dropped capes, ill-judged
The strongest will seemed a will towards ceremony. Obese, dark-
Faced in his rich yellows, tassels, pompons, braid, the picador
Rode out against the fifth bull to brace his pike and slowly bear
Down deep into the bent bull-neck. Cumbrous routine, not artwork. Instinct for art began with the bull’s horn lofting in the mob’s
Hush a lumped man-shape. The whole act formal, fluent as a dance.
Blood faultlessly broached redeemed the sullied air, the earth’s grossness.
Hughes described the situation, and Plath’s view, in much more profound detail in the last volume of poems he published, Birthday Letters, which included the following poem.
You Hated Spain
Spain frightened you.
Where I felt at home.
The blood-raw light,
The oiled anchovy faces, the African
Black edges to everything, frightened you.
Your schooling had somehow neglected Spain.
The wrought-iron grille, death and the Arab drum.
You did not know the language, your soul was empty
Of the signs, and the welding light
Made your blood shrivel.
Bosch held out a spidery hand and you took it
Timidly, a bobby-sox American.
You saw right down to the Goya funeral grin
And recognized it, and recoiled
As your poems winced into chill, as your panic
Clutched back towards college America.
So we sat as tourists at the bullfight
Watching bewildered bulls awkwardly butchered,
Seeing the grey-faced matador, at the barrier
Just below us, straightening his bent sword
And vomiting with fear. And the horn
That hid itself inside the blowfly belly
Of the toppled picador punctured
What was waiting for you. Spain
Was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver
You dared not wake with, the puckering amputations
No literature course had glamorized.
The juju land behind your African lips.
Spain was what you tried to wake up from
And could not. I see you, in moonlight,
Walking the empty wharf at Alicante
Like a soul waiting for the ferry,
A new soul, still not understanding,
Thinking it is still your honeymoon
In the happy world, with your whole life waiting,
Happy, and all your poems still to be found.
(Because sometimes I am sickened by how aficionados seem to have only good things to say about bullfighting.)