When I got to the church, on foot, slurping the last of a cappuccino from a Styrofoam cup, half a dozen of those big black hearse-like English taxis had formed a kind of procession in the roundabout out front, and some of the other guests were climbing out: middle-aged people leaning on their umbrellas like canes, the men and the women alike dressed in dark suits, because this was a memorial service, yes, but also because it was another rainy day in London. We proffered tickets in sherbety colors and were shown in through the open doors. Because I had a blue ticket, a docent in a long gown told me to walk all the way up the nave, and so I did, past the rood screen, past the pipe organ, past the plaques put up to honor priests and generals and other first-class English dead, until I reached the north transept, where I claimed a seat on the aisle and craned my neck. I had seen Westminster Abbey before, but from behind a camera as a tourist: It was smaller than I had pictured it, and more delicate, as though built from blocks of shortbread that had improbably withstood eight hundred years of Catholicism, Protestantism, imperialism, liberalism, secularism, tourism-what next?
Past the altar was Poet’s Corner, where, someday soon, a plaque would be dedicated to the poet I had come from New York on the red-eye to remember, though he and I had never met. Today, however, the entire cathedral was dedicated to him. The place was packed. Once Prince Charles and the Queen Mum had taken their seats "God Save the Queen" was sung, and a man in surplice and cassock rose at the lectern to say that because Ted Hughes had been an unusual poet, this would be an unusual service.
When he died last October, Ted Hughes was eulogized as one of the only truly great English writers of his time: poet, translator, interpreter of Shakespeare, author of beloved children’s books, handsome husband of the tormented genius Sylvia Plath, and poet laureate to the queen (which is why he was being celebrated at Westminster Abbey that day). I work as an editor with his American publisher, and I had worked with Hughes on his last few books: a volume of astonishing versions of tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translations of plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Racine, and Birthday Letters, a book of poems written in the form of letters to Plath, who killed herself in 1963. Hughes and I-I never called him Ted-exchanged letters and spoke on the phone every month or so, always about poetry or his books. It was amusing to see him and his wife, Carol, who were said to live in an ancient farmhouse in Devonshire, gradually master the use of a computer and a fax machine; I am proud to have helped nudge him in the direction of the Ovid book, which I think is going to last, and I especially like a letter he wrote to me describing what he was trying to do in his translation of Racine’s Phèdre: To create "a dialogue like a face-to-face duel with flame throwers."
When he died, I still had a message from him on my answering machine tape, his deep orator’s voice thanking me for sending him a book on Shakespeare that he must have known he would never get to read. It was a working relationship, only that, two people on the telephone talking about words on a page, and yet, in the scheme of things, it was one that meant a lot to me.
Maybe it was because I hardly knew him that I looked to the memorial service to reveal his character. It would not be right to say that I was disappointed, for it was a beautiful and moving service. The Tallis Scholars sang music from the English Renaissance, and we all sang Blake’s "Jerusalem," faltering in the hard parts; Alfred Brendel played an adagio from a Beethoven sonata; some friends read poems and made remarks, and Seamus Heaney, in a kind of keynote, spoke movingly of his great friend, putting him in the English tradition of King Arthur and Beowulf and recalling the funeral in Devon-the dead poet’s coffin, in the hands of family and friends, borne toward its final resting place at knee-height "as though on a current of light and air."
That image, it happened, echoed an image in the scriptural text, from Revelation, that had been read at the other end of the service an hour earlier, and that Her Majesty’s Stationery Office had printed in big dark type in the program. It read: "Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."
The passage is the natural ending of the book of Revelation (the rest is a kind of epilogue), and so the natural ending of the Scriptures; it goes on to describe the attributes of the servants of God-they shall see his face, his name shall be on their foreheads, etc.-and the life promised to them: "And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever."
I learned all that a few days later when I checked my Jerusalem Bible back in New York. That morning in Westminster Abbey, as Seamus Heaney returned to his seat and I sat fidgeting in mine, I thought to myself that something was missing here, and not just the spirit of the dead. It was the expectation that such a service should reflect the dead at all. Had I brought that with me from America? Or was it a Catholic expectation, the impulse to measure the distance between the liturgy and the life actually lived? I wondered if Ted Hughes, who had had cancer for a couple of years before he died, had taken a part in planning the service. It was beautiful, yes, and moving, and yet the service-not just the cathedral or the pomp and circumstance but the whole enterprise of Christian memorial-seemed to me to stand between us and the man we had come to remember. Ted Hughes, as I understood him through his books, was no vague or vestigial Christian, someone who had believed in some fashion once upon a time and still bore the mark of the Lamb on his forehead; no, as far as I knew he was his own kind of pagan-and I use the old, charged word because it seems to me to convey his vital relationship to the works of nature and those of classical antiquity, which, along with Shakespeare, were the deepest sources for his poetry. In Hughes’s work, the mythological is the real: the doomed heroines in his versions of Phèdre and Alcestis seem to come straight out of his own life (his second wife killed herself as well), and the mythological superstructure of Birthday Letters, in which Plath’s father looms spectrally as a god of the dead calling his daughter to join him there, is arguably the most personal aspect of those frankly personal poems, there as the author’s idiosyncratic reading of an episode that has been scrutinized every which way-as his effort to reclaim, through inscrutable imagery, the story of his own life and the lives of those who were close to him.
My question, then: How do these things, the pagan and the Christian, fit together? Will they cosmically reconcile, as in the passage at the end of Revelation, the two shores joined by the river that runs through them? Or is reconciliation an earthly affair-is it the business of believing Christians to try to reconcile the two impulses in our own lives and the world around us? Or is no reconciliation necessary, because in the end one set of stories and symbols is as good as another, and you work with what is at hand?
The service was coming to an end; the program indicated a song from Cymbeline, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. I could see Prince Charles clutching his own program across the way-a man who, like Ted Hughes, had seen his own wife die young and had been blamed for her death, the whole episode taking on the stature of a twentieth-century myth-and it occurred to me that he had sat through her funeral in this very place. Watching Princess Diana’s funeral on television, I had been struck by the fact that Westminster Abbey seemed to gain in aura the further its Christian origins and purpose receded into the distance; and now I felt that it was no longer a Christian place at all but a sort of natural wonder, erected in the thirteenth century and maintained for seven hundred years so that modern English people would have someplace grand and solemn in which to pay tribute to their dead.
"Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages; / Thou thy worldly task hast done / Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages...." It was Shakespeare, of course, instantly recognizable. "No exorcizer harm thee! / Nor no witchcraft charm thee! / Ghost unlaid forbear thee! / Nothing ill come near thee! / Quiet consummation have; / And renowned be thy grave!" But I could hardly hear the words for the sound of my thoughts. Only later, standing in the courtyard outside the cathedral chatting with some of the other guests, did I realize that the voice reading them aloud had been Ted Hughes’s voice, the voice I had supposedly gotten to know him by these past few years. The others exulted: How wonderfully strange it had been to hear Ted speak from beyond the grave! It had been the high point of the service, hadn’t it? I nodded agreement. I had missed him, alas; and as I imagined him, near death, reading those lines about death into a tape recorder as though to make sure that he would be present at his own memorial, I recognized what I had admired in Ted Hughes-the craftiness, the fidelity to his great precursors, the unabashedly large sense of himself, the attention to last things; and, though I had never really known him, I missed him all over again.