Ted Hughes - The Life of a Poet, by Elaine Feinstein

Extract from Chapter 2 - Pembroke College (pages 21-24)

Copyright Elaine Feinstein 2001.

Pembroke College

In October 1951 Ted Hughes went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read English. He was twenty-one and after two years in the ranks of the RAF, with its usual drudgery of boots and kit and poor food, the change in his situation was startling. He was given a fine set of rooms in the First Court, the oldest part of the college, to the left of the main gate. As in all men's colleges, a bedder came in every day to bring him shaving water, deal with the washing up and make his bed

In autumn 1951, while most of England was still drab and dingy in the aftermath of the war, Cambridge was much as it had always been. The stone of the Wren Library was a Florentine yellow in the sunshine; the lanes across the Backs smelled of leaf dust and wood smoke; the willows were gently reflected in the Cam. The gabled shops along Petty Cury bent forward like those in a children's fairy tale. Heffer's bookshop, with old-fashioned knobbed glass in its bay windows, offered free maroon leather pocket diaries, lecture lists and wall calendars to undergraduates. The usual means of getting about was on a bicycle, and these were often piled high outside Mill Lane lecture rooms, the main centre for Arts lectures, just across Trumpington Street from Pembroke College and the famous cake-shop, Fitzbillies.

Some of the university rules were more suited to schoolboys than to ex-servicemen. Undergraduates were required to wear short gowns to attend lectures, see their tutors, eat in Hall, or go about the streets after dark. Any young man suspected of being a student and not correctly dressed could be challenged and fined. There was a Proctor - a senior member of the university - accompanied by two 'bulldogs' (often porters with a turn of speed), who could halt and question any undergraduate who thought to make an escape. All the college gates were locked at 10 p.m., and any undergraduate returning after that time had a fine of two pence; after 11 p.m. it rose to four pence. If he came back after midnight, he could either try climbing over the spikes on the back gates of the college, or face an interview with his tutor in the morning. However, undergraduates were left free to arrange their own hours of work. No one checked attendance at lectures; those reading English were taught to feel that reading in the library could be an equally useful mode of study. A large number of activities - dramatic societies, university magazines and amateur choirs - were encouraged.

At the end of a cobbled lane, past the Arts lecture rooms, stood The Mill public house, where in sunny weather undergraduates could stand outside to watch the waters race through the lock between the upper and lower reaches of the Cam. Close by, cows and horses strayed across the footpath of Coe Fen. Along Silver Street stood Newnham College, built in the nineteenth century for women undergraduates; the only other foundation that admitted women was Girton College, two miles out from the city centre. It was 1949 before female undergraduates were allowed to be full members of the University of Cambridge. Even then male under- graduates outnumbered female undergraduates by more than ten to one.

Cambridge made little concession to creature comforts. Food was not luxurious. To reach the few baths you had to cross a cold, draughty court. Yet the sense of a world of privilege was everywhere. In spite of the enfranchisement offered by the 1944 Education Act, the undergraduate population remained predominantly public school and upper middle class. Sports jackets with leather patches on the elbows were commonplace and men who had just been demobilized often dressed in pipe-stem tweed trousers. Some undergraduates, who fancied themselves as Sebastian Flyte from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, wore bow ties and brocade waistcoats.

The undergraduate literary magazine with most prestige was Granta. In the year before Hughes arrived in Cambridge it had been edited from Trinity, first by Peter Shaffer and then by his brother Anthony, reading History and Law respectively. Whoever took over the magazine had to be willing - and able - to take on its overdraft, which under Anthony Shaffer was about £500. In Hughes' first year Granta was edited by Mark Boxer, a handsome young man given to wearing green and 'notable for an olive Sephardic beauty - mossy eyes, wavy hair, graceful limbs', who was to find fame as a cartoonist. Michael Podro, now a Professor of Art History at the University of Essex, was at Berkhamsted with Boxer, and reported Boxer saying with shameless aplomb: 'The way the world works is that there is an apex - and that's where it's interesting to be.' Undergraduates who aspired to journalism could write for the weekly newspaper Varsity. Among many other magazines that ran for no more than a few issues was Chequer, which was for a time edited by the poet Harry Guest and subsequently by Ronald Hayman of Trinity Hall.

Young men at Cambridge who thought of themselves as aspirant poets could feel their ambitions encouraged by writers of a previous generation, including George Barker and Dylan Thomas, who came to talk to the English Club. Robert Graves, then at the very height of his reputation as a poet, delivered the dark Lectures. Stephen Spender launched his new cultural magazine Encounter at the Socialist Club. A chosen few would be invited to eat with these luminaries after their lectures. Ted Hughes made no move to be among them.

A particularly smart set of undergraduates, reading English, were centred on King's College and had connections to literary life in London. Several of the dons, including George ('Dadie') Rylands and Noel Annan, had been friends with members of the Bloomsbury Group, and continued to relish whatever was witty and frivolous. At a polar extreme was F.R. Leavis, at Downing College, who with his wife Queenie, had nothing but contempt for the King's College vision of literature as a delightful game, with social entry into amusing society as the natural reward. They had dedicated their lives to expounding the standards by which they felt serious writing should be judged, and had no time for those who saw literature as a means of self-promotion. Leavis had a wide influence, through lectures that were always packed, a network of former students and the critical journal Scrutiny, which had a worldwide reputation. He might have seemed a likely focus for Hughes' disaffection; yet although he enjoyed Leavis' lectures, Hughes did not, as he explained to Keith Sagar, enjoy his detailed practice of dissecting poetry.

Hughes' first year was a difficult one. In spite of the kindness of his college mentors and his own personal confidence and easy composure, to which many visitors to his rooms pay tribute, Hughes was well aware of the class divisions that permeated the university, and he held on all the more obstinately to the Yorkshire accent that would have been used to place him instantly. As he wrote later, in his 'Soliloquy', he had a liking for

       every attitude showing its bone,
And every mouth confessing its crude shire.

Olwyn Hughes' copy of The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse is now in the college library, signed by her. Ted would have been introduced to those poets in his first term for Prelims (as the first-year exams were called). He enjoyed Donne's vigour, and Herbert's clarity too, but declared the others were 'writing clues for crossword puzzles'. His supervisor for a time was Doris Wheatley and, when she wrote many years later to congratulate him on becoming Poet Laureate, she confessed that she had learned more from him about Dylan Thomas than he had absorbed from her about John Donne.

Hughes was well aware of the world of jeunesse doree that centred on King's College, and the cultivation of an exclusive world of 'them' and 'us' embodied in the Pitt Club. As David Ross, a Cambridge friend of later years, put it: 'We hated everything about them.' Hughes knew personally no undergraduates likely to emulate Boxer's effrontery in his first year. He may well have heard the stories of his unconventional behaviour, however. Towards the end of Boxer's third and final year, a poem by an aristocratic young man - Anthony Houghton, published m Gmnta, got Boxer into trouble. The offending lines, which admonished God to 'Get out of bed, you rotten old sod', seem mild enough these days, but they were seen as blasphemous by the university Proctors, particularly a Mr Prest, and Boxer was sent down. The lively wit that marked his presence marked his leaving also, and there are many who will remember his departure in a hired hearse: 'A funeral procession halted in King's Parade, a coffin was shown to the multitude and Mr Hugh Thomas, a president of the Union, climbed up beside the coffin to deliver a valedictory oration.' In a letter written to Keith Sagar on 16 July 1979, Hughes refers to 'social rancour' as being one of the reasons he thought the university had proved such a destructive experience for him. His reaction was not dissimilar to that ofD.H. Lawrence. When invited by Bertrand Russell to visit Maynard Keynes in 1915, he expressed his hatred of the chic Cambridge coterie who dominated the English literary centre.

Hughes' supervisor at Pembroke was Matthew Hodgart, Director of Studies in English. Hodgart recognized Hughes' exceptional talent, even though he did not always complete the obligatory weekly essays on time. His tutor, whose job was to oversee his moral welfare, was Antony Camps, a bachelor then in his thirties with a slight stammer. Camps regularly invited his students to tea and was 'immensely supportive to young men from working class backgrounds trying to find their feet in Cambridge'.

The Dean of Pembroke, Reverend Meredith Dewey, lived in college .....