Poetic Reflections on a Geological Walk with Ted Hughes / / by Mike Stephenson

Prof Mike Stephenson is the executive chief scientist for decarbonisation and resource management at BGS. Here, he gives us an insight into the poetry of Ted Hughes, inspired by a geological walk through Yorkshire... 

Widdop Reservoir
On 21 September, the Yorkshire Geological Society organised a walk around Widdop Moor high in the Calder valley, tracing the steps of the great English Poet Ted Hughes and investigating the geology and landscapes that inspired some of his best poems. I introduced the walkers to Hughes’ great imagination and vision of the stones on the moors, the cemetery of the ancestors, and read the poems out in the wind and sun, in the landscape that inspired him.

Hughes grew up in West Yorkshire and his poetry is firmly based in the farms of the Calder valley and the Pennine moorland. As a boy he liked hunting and fishing and his early poetry, such as his first collection Hawk in the Rain (1957), contained startling imagery of the natural world. His Remains of Elmet (1979), a collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin, was a portrait of the moors and the Calder valley. The book contains photos paired with vivid poems seeming to spring from a strangely imagined world of vast creatures, stone gods and huge dramas played out on a geological timescale. In the poems you see some of the themes repeated from his earlier poetry like the startling Crow collection (1970), and his children’s stories such as The Iron Man (1968).

I’ve studied the work of Ted Hughes not as a student of literature but as a geologist, and reading some of his work you recognise an intuitive grasp of many geological concepts that seem to offer a different perspective, something that makes a trained geologist see the subject differently and that gives a new cultural dimension.

But reading the poems in the places on the walk around Widdop that inspired Hughes also seemed to give a greater insight into something that could be called Hughes’ personal mythology – the databank of images, ideas and impressions that formed while he was a boy roaming the hills and that perhaps fed his poetry all his life. Hughes’ mythology, his comprehensive imagination, was filled with ideas from geology and geomorphology, transformed by his interest in non-European cultures and in the ‘otherness’ of animals, so that boulders of millstone grit seem like:
A chess-world of topheavy Kings and Queens

Circling in stilted majesty 
Or like a:
… big animal of rock

… kneeling in the cemetery of its ancestors
But glaciers also lived in Hughes’ imagination, seeming to him like huge creatures growing or dying in the tributary valleys of the Calder. In some of the most powerful lines of verse in the Remains of Elmet, he imagines them returning while the heather looks on over immense time periods and while humans are here and gone in the blink of an eye:
Heather is glistening

Past hikers, gunshots, picnickers

For the star-drift

Of the returning ice

In Hughes’ personal mythology, hills can be the huge bodies of ancient creatures whose muscular flanks strain against the wind, only held in place by the ‘rigging’ of the hill walls:
The hills heeled, meeting the blast of space

The stone rigging was strong 
Sometimes the huge creatures seem to have come from outer space and have been buried under a glacier so that the creature
Has got up from under the glacier

And now lies openly sunning
Huge bones and space-weathered hide
For Hughes, those millstone grit boulders – or even cut building stones – seem to have the pulse of life in them, what he called an earth song. When people come to cut the rock, to conscript it for buildings for the ancient mills of the Industrial revolution, its earth song is exchanged:
It forgot its wild roots

Its earth song  
In cement and the drum song of looms
The idea of the earth song is something that geologists recognise, though perhaps not the phraseology that Hughes uses. Geologists or sedimentologists that study the sandstones of the millstone grit are used to recognising the ancient landscape in which the sandstones formed: the cross bedding, the graded bedding, the sole marks. These are the features that the rock carries with it from its formation to its destruction in weathering and erosion or metamorphism: its earth song. The earth song can be far away from its origin: sometimes we see in the walls of houses and in the stonework of Pennine mills the sedimentary features suggesting the river in which the sandstone formed 330 million years ago. Its earth song is still there.
Mike reads Ted Hughes' poems to the Yorkshire Geological Society

Geologists are fascinated with the idea of change, and perhaps this is one of the themes of the science overall, that processes bring about change, but that some vestige of the original is still there. Palaeontologists and sedimentologists even employ the word palimpsest (normally of reused parchment which contains remnants of the original writing) where something of the rock betrays its ‘true’ origin. 

This theme also fascinated Hughes all through his life and is perhaps one of the reasons why he was so interested in geological processes and landscape. An abiding feature of his poetry is change, change that is unsettling and never ending. Hughes loved the Roman poet Ovid, particularly his Metamorphoses. He translated these as Tales from Ovid (1997) and one tale has a particular take on geological change, the story of Niobe. Niobe boasted of her fourteen children, seven male and seven female, to Leto (the Titan) who only had two children, the twins Apollo and Artemis. As punishment for her pride, Apollo killed all Niobe’s sons, and Artemis killed all her daughters. Niobe, heartbroken, fled and turned to stone. In Hughes’ translation you get the feeling of human flesh turning to stone and of stone features packed within stone features.
Her open eyes became stones.
Her tongue

Solidified in her stone mouth.
The fact that the transformation has happened – the features of the woman are still there, can still be recognised – makes the change all the more shocking and strange, and emotionally arresting. But geologists understand this completely; the kind of change that transforms river sediments into the rocks of the millstone grit but still leaves a haunting glimpse of those ancient rivers, the tiny remains of the plants that lived in those flood plains, the shells that lived in the water.

Perhaps most moving for me is the hugeness of this change, the negligbility of humanity. Like geologists, Ted Hughes knew this and expressed it better than I think any geologist could… like the heather waiting for the ice to return. 

Top heavy kings and queens of Dicken Rocks

The walk ended at the truly strange Dicken Rocks south of Widdop reservoir. Here a bed or two of coarse millstone grit is riven by joints and has an overhanging top so that it looks like a row of cloaked figures. Perhaps these are the top heavy kings and queens of Hughes’ imagination. These stone figures seem to move, seem to:
Tremble the bog cotton

Under the sweep of their robes
The heavy heads of the figures look down on the observer, their bodies striped with cross bedding betraying their ancient origin. On the many stormy days up on the moors you can imagine the rain pouring over the stone and you return to Hughes’ Niobe where:
As the weather wears at her  
Her stone shape weeps 

Related blogs by Mike Stephenson:

If you're interested in geology and poetry have a look at Mike's other articles:


The walk was ably organised and lead by Andy Howard of the YGS who also provided excellent geological information on the stratigraphy, structure and glacial history of the upper Calder valley.

Lines of poems quoted from the Remains of Elmet: Moors, Hill-stone was content, Hill Walls, The Big Animal of Rock, Heather, In April. Niobe is from Tales from Ovid.