Barley, by Ted Hughes

14 January 2012

Each grain is like seeds of gold bullion.
When you turn a heap with a shovel it pours
With the heavy magic of wealth.
Every grain is a sleeping princess –
Her kingdom is still to come.
She sleeps with sealed lips.
Each grain is like a mouth sealed
Or an eye sealed.
In each mouth the whole bible of barley.
In each eye, the whole sun of barley.
From each single grain, given time,
You could feed the earth.

You treat them rough, dump them into the drill,
Churn them up with a winter supply
Of fertiliser, and steer out onto the tilth
Trailing your wake of grains.

When the field’s finished, fresh-damp,
Its stillness is no longer stillness.
The coverlet has been drawn tight again
But now over breathing and dreams.
And water is already bustling to sponge the newcomers.
And the soil, the ancient nurse,
Is assembling everything they will need.
And the angel of the earth
Is flying through the field, kissing each on awake.
But it is a hard nursery.
Night and day all through winter huddling naked
They have to listen to pitiless lessons
Of the freezing constellations
And the rain. If it were not for the sun
Who visits them daily, briefly,
To pray with them, they would lose hope
And give up. With him
They recite the Lord’s prayer
And sing a psalm. And sometimes at night
When the moon haunts their field and stares down
Into their beds
They sing a psalm softly together
To keep up their courage.

Once their first leaf shivers they sing less
And start working. They cannot miss a day.
They have to get the whole thing right.
Employed by the earth, employed by the sky,
Employed by barley, to be barley.
And now they begin to show their family beauty.
They come charging over the field, under the wind, like warriors –
‘Terrible as an army with banners’,

Barbaric, tireless, Amazon battalions.
And that’s how they win their kingdom.
Then they put on gold, for their coronation.
Each one barbed, feathered, a lithe weapon,
Puts on the crown of her kingdom.
Then the whole fieldful of queens
Swirls in a dance
With their invisible partner, the wind,
Like a single dancer.

That is how barley inherits the kingdom of barley.


Perhaps it’s seeing heaps of barley recently, in a rather different context, at the Cantillon brewery (where I met the wonderful term ‘spontaneous fermentation’), that has made this stand out among the Hughes I’ve been reading recently. Is there any poet more fond of the full stop than Hughes?

[The Faber website is down so I can’t link to the book I read this in unless I direct you to a popular bookseller – anyway, it’s the Poems selected by Simon Armitage]

One Response to “Barley, by Ted Hughes”

  1. […] I wondered if Ted Hughes was the poet fondest of the full stop. Kosovel certainly challenges for the […]

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