The bliss of Dartington Hall and the Ways with Words literature Festival! The Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings in the south west of England - grey stone walls crammed with history. Add in the delight of many of your favourite authors, green lawns to lie on with the sunlight filtering through the cherry trees, a glass of wine in hand and Waterstones’ book tent just across the grass, and - as a way of spending the afternoon - it takes a bit of beating.
I first came to Dartington 20 years ago to talk about Christina Rossetti, so it is wonderful to be here again to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a literature festival. The bedroom I’ve been allocated is like a royal suite - one of the heritage rooms with antique furniture and medieval graffitti. The bed was so big I needed a step-ladder to get into it! Sadly, I couldn’t take a photo of the wall drawings because the white wall just reflected back the flash. A ship has been carved into the wall, probably by soldiers billeted here at the end of the 14th century.
Once we’d unpacked and recovered from the 7 hour drive, we went to the Ted Hughes Memorial Lecture in the Great Hall, given this year by Blake Morrison. He was brilliant on Hughes’s poetry and his life, making illuminating connections between the two informed by interviews he had had with the poet.
I hadn’t known that Ted Hughes had given up his study of English Literature because, after struggling for hours on an essay, he dreamt that a fox came into his bed, burnt and injured. The fox put his paw (a human hand in the dream) on a white page and left a bloodprint on the paper. ‘Stop this,’ he said to Hughes, ‘You are destroying us.’ After that, Hughes transferred to Archaeology and Anthropology believing that the structures of critical thought taught by the university system ruined creativity. The fox became the equivalent of a ‘spirit guide’ and it occurs three more times in his poetry - the marvellous Thought Fox, and the ‘fox for sale’ poem in the Birthday Letters. Later Hughes told Blake Morrison that for a poet ‘Prose is a killer’.
Apparently Hughes felt that the real fall in human history had come with the loss of animal innocence - and that our egotism, introspection and self-consciousness separate us from our creativity and prevent us being whole. He often quoted the phrase ‘Every man must skin his own skunk’, and he believed that every poet must be true to their own experience - getting to grips with what was real. Poets who could do that became healers.
Later he apparently acknowledged that much harm had come from his decision not to write about his own tragic experiences - the deaths of Sylvia Plath and then Assia Wevill and her daughter by Hughes. Not dealing with grief and its consequences, he said, creates a canker inside that eats away at your creative self - it ‘takes a piece of yourself away, like an amputation’.
More from Dartington tomorrow.