The Farming of Verse
: the Georgic Mode in the Poetry of Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Alice Oswald

  • Jack Thacker

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Abstract

This thesis examines the relationship between poetry and agriculture in Britain and Ireland over the last fifty years, with a particular emphasis on the work of three major poets: Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Alice Oswald. The agricultural and horticultural work of these writers, it is argued, constitutes a revival of the georgic mode – a long-standing tradition of verse writing based on the classical example of Virgil’s Georgics. Although the georgic is commonly acknowledged in accounts of pre-twentieth century English literature, it has largely remained absent from critical discussions of contemporary poetry.

Taking W. H. Auden’s phrase that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ to be written in the spirit of the georgic, this thesis attests to the survival of the mode as ‘a way of happening’ in modern times. Beginning with an analysis of the evolution of the georgic in both literary and critical examples, it proceeds to document how, for Hughes, Heaney, and Oswald, direct experience of manual, and especially agricultural, labour has proved to be a crucial factor in their responses to economic, political, and environmental crises.

In addition to examining these poets’ treatment of agricultural subject matter, this thesis offers a sustained investigation into the formal aspects of their farming and gardening verses: from Hughes’s poetic journal about raising livestock in Devon, to Heaney’s evocations of growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, to Oswald’s gardening lyrics and longer poems about the lives of outdoor workers. It contends that the georgic’s insistence on the harsh realities of labour – a factor which distinguishes it from other received labels such as pastoral or ecopoetry – can deepen our understanding of the complexities and contradictions inherent in literary representations of the countryside.
Date of Award23 Jan 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorRalph R G Pite (Supervisor) & Nick Groom (Supervisor)

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