Apropos of poets laureate, I was the other day listening to a recording of Ted Hughes reading February 17, which describes in horror-porn detail the botched stillbirth of a lamb.
I pulled against the corpse that would not come
Till it came
And after it, the long, sudden, yolk-yellow parcel of life in a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups
And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.
An impossibly tough (in all senses of the word) act for Andrew Motion to follow, Hughes. I admire him, though you couldn’t describe his poetry as enjoyable. A brilliant wordsmith but with more than a hint of what you might call The Hemingway Syndrome, ie. an over-eagerness to proclaim his rugged masculinity, presumably as compensation for his unmanly vocation.
But I do like Hughes’s brutal, unromantic take on nature. I have mentioned before the idea for a TV programme cooked up by me and my old man called Isn't Nature Disgusting?, in which the anti-Attenborough host would encounter various of God’s excreting, stinking, parasitic, disease-bearing creatures, and would greet each one not with wonder but with undisguised repulsion. Come to think of it, that nature-nausea is what Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist is about.
You could argue though, that Hughes’s mangled lamb kebab is not about ‘nature’ at all. Farmed sheep are no more natural than hedge sculptures, if you define ‘natural’ as being ‘all that in the world which is not man or created by man.’ Of course, this definition may not leave us with very much that is natural, at least on Planet Earth. ‘Rural’ would be a better word for the Hughes world, and rural is terrible enough for city-slickers.
One of the countless ways you can divide up religions and worldviews is between those that Buddhistically see man as fundamentally part of nature; and those that draw a critical line between man (above nature, and with a soul) and animals (all soulless, even dolphins). Interestingly, whichever line you take, the ever-increasing scientific revelations about the natural world present problems. For unless you’re someone who happens to find excreting-stinking-parasitic-disease-bearingness wondrous in itself, it is a lot easier to feel one with nature from a distance.
Which brings us inevitably to the ichneumon wasp, that astonishing creature which goes around laying parasitic eggs and robbing people of their Faith. The ichneumon, as all good Darwinists know, kills its caterpillar prey in such a uniquely repulsive and indifferent way that Charles himself finally gave up on God, saying “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”.
The ichneumadon wasp sure is a cold, nihilistic bastard, but he’s undoubtedly Natural. Darwin couldn’t reconcile that with a Nature-creating God, even if man is separate from nature. And who wouldn’t want to be separate from nature, if nature is that meaninglessly cruel wasp? Screw Buddhism, we’re better than that. But of course Darwinist science itself has humbled man by putting him firmly back into nature, which means we’re fundamentally made of the same stuff as the ichneumadon. But we must be different, mustn’t we? And if we are different, then what are we? And if we’re not, whence comes our disgust?
Alas, all we can do is weep at the wasp, as the Sea of Faith drifts out of touch,
Well yes, says the caterpillar,
but that doesn’t help