Ted Hughes’ “Six Young Men” is inspired by a photograph of six men shot at Lumb Falls near Hebden Bridge in the earlier part of the last century. All the six men were killed in the First World War. At the first reading, the poem comes across as a take on the futility of war. Particularly as Ted Hughes’ father was amongst the two percent of the regimen that had survived Newsnight Review critic Tom Paulin asserts that Ted Hughes, hailed from ‘that slightly different species’ – a generation ‘who took in the blood of the First World War with their mother’s milk, and who up to their middle age knew Britain only as a country always at war, or inwardly expecting and preparing for war…’
The poet begins by stating that the celluloid holds the six men well. They were permanently held, but in this ephemeral photograph. It holds them together as well. Though it has been four decades now and the photograph has become ochre-tinged,it has nor wrinkled the face or hands. And this is particularly significant, as the face is primarily considered as the identity of the person. Nevertheless time has advanced so much that their cocked hats are not fashionable now. Each one of them held their own, had their own individuality:
One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.
And yet six months later they all were dead, their bashfulness and ‘cocky pride’ were of no use anymore. They are all set for a Sunday spree. The background seems really wonderful with the bilberried bank, thick tree, the leafy valley .etc. Yet what foregrounded the pictured were their expressions. They hold an advantage over the natural vegetation in being animate and having rational capabilities. Yet now, only the valley remains unchanged, and they no longer exist. Nor does their unity hold significance as echoed by the mingling of the seven streams.
Their ends are recorded as follows. It does not matter whether the records are fact or fiction, for they are no longer alive to rectify the facts:
This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
A man’s photograph with his smile is as permanent a show-piece as a locket. Yet it is turned into a mangled mass of weight overnight. The flash of the camera has held him immortally; however the flash of the war only captured his rotting smile for an inconspicuous forty years.
From the futility of war Ted Hughes swiftly moves to the hollowness of life and inevitability of death as in Philip Larkin’s “Ambulances”. Any person whom you shake hands with are not anymore alive than the figures in the photograph; though they can be apprehended through the five sensory perceptions. They are no more real than prehistoric figures or fairytale beasts, just because they are transient beings. And because, they are instruments in the hands of Destiny and circumstances.
To glorify life from a glimpse (of the photograph) may well be dementing. The word ‘dement’ has two meanings -1. To make (a person) insane. 2. To cause (a person) to lose intellectual capacity. It may be equally insane to glorify the photo. Or to deify the photo may entail a person to give up his reasoning capabilities, for they are of no use in the first place….it may leave him on the verge of an existential dilemma.
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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