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Poetic electrons: Ted Hughes and the mayfly

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In 1981, the artist Leonard Baskin wrote to the poet Ted Hughes with a list of fifteen projected poems about insects that would feature in their next collaboration. It began with ‘The Mayfly’. A poem with that title appeared in London Magazine in 1983, but was never collected. The central poem in Flowers and Insects (1986) which Baskin illustrated, ‘Saint’s Island’, incorporates several phrases and insights first used in ‘The Mayfly’. And in 1993 Hughes published ‘The Mayfly is Frail’, in a revised text of his collection River (first published in 1983).

This paper describes Hughes’s education in the mayfly. Like its subject, it had a long and hidden larval stage, but took memorable flight in a fishing trip to Ireland in May 1982, which ended at Saint’s Island on Lough Ree. Two remarkable prose accounts of this trip are among Hughes’ papers in the British Library. Between them they shape a visionary narrative, beginning with an Oxford tutorial in entomology from his son Nicholas, and detailing Hughes’s attempts, in the company of a group of fanatical Irish fishermen, to catch lough trout on imitations of its dun, or Green Drake, and spinner, or Spent. The poetry that emerged from this experience is faithful to these circumstances but also transcends them, offering a powerful vision of ecological interconnection not just to lovers of poetry but to all those concerned for the health of our rivers and lakes.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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