Ann Skea: Ted Hughes' Memorial Service

The Thanksgiving and Memorial Service for Ted Hughes,
Westminster Abbey, 13th May 1999

Fear no more the heat of the sun
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done.
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers, come to dust

The soft Yorkshire accent filled the Abbey and it was a moment before we realised that this was Ted's voice reading the Song from Shakespeare's Cymbeline. It was an amazing, eerie and magical experience. Nothing in the service so far, not the music, nor the singing and reading of Ted's poetry, nor even the eulogy of his friend, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, matched the impact of hearing his voice again. The congregation listened in absolute silence, spellbound.

I never imagined, when I first began to study Ted Hughes's poetry in 1970, and was drawn to his unsentimental and deep love of Nature, that he would become England's Poet Laureate. Not did I ever imagine that I would meet him and become a friend, or that I would eventually sit in Westminster Abbey at his Memorial Service just across the aisle from the Prince of Wales and the Queen Mother.

Ted was never a lover of celebrity, pomp or grandeur. But he did believe in the value of rituals and he had a deep respect for the ancient and traditional relationship between the poet/bard, the people and their ruler. Westminster Abbey, the Queen's church, was a beautiful and appropriate setting for this ritual celebration of Ted's life and work. And the ceremony, as the Dean of Westminster said, was "an unusual. service for a unusual man". It was simple, full of poetry and music, and Ted would have loved it.

Representatives of the Queen and Prince Philip, together with the Prince of Wales - who showed touching concern for his grandmother, the Queen Mother, who sat beside him - and Ted's family and friends sat in the north and south transepts close to the High Alter. This was where I sat, and in this comparatively small area occasional shafts of sunlight shone down on us through the stained glass windows and illuminated the readers and singers. Beyond us, State and Church dignitaries sat in the Quire, which separates the transepts from the main body of the church. And beyond them, sat some thousand people who loved Ted's poetry enough to have written to the Abbey for tickets. Many well-know and influential literary people were there, but the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, governed by the dignity of Abbey procedures but never pompous.

After the National Anthem and the Collegiate and Royal Procession, the service began with the ethereal voices of The Tallis Scholars singing, "Miserere nostri Domine". Shusha Guppy sang a poem Ted had written especially for her; Michael Baldwin, Lord Gowrie, Dr Caroline Tisdall and Seamus Heaney spoke and read poems by Ted; Alfred Brendel played the Adagio from Beethoven' Sonata No. 17 in D; and we all sang "The Lord's my shepherd" and William Blake's much loved and very patriotic "Jerusalem". The service ended with The Tallis Scholars singing "Spem in Alum", which had been chosen for the service by the Prince of Wales, and with organ music by Bach.

Music in the Abbey sounds magnificent but the spoken word gets lost in the echoes. Nevertheless, Heaney's reading of 'That Morning' reduced me to tears, partly because of the power of the poem itself and partly because I finally accepted that Ted is no longer there for me to write and talk to. I was not the only one to be so moved, especially when we listened to Ted's recorded voice.

Carol, Ted's wife, was amazing. She sat, beautiful and calm throughout the service, which must have been as difficult for her as it clearly was for Nicholas, Ted's son, his daughter Freida , and his sister Olwyn. Ted's older brother, Gerald, who lives in Australia, was also there. After the service, all the family gathered just inside the Abbey's main doors and talked casually to people as they left. Outside, the police held back gawping tourists.

I, and a few other `Hughes scholars', who had last met at a conference in Cairo a couple of years ago, gathered by the Abbey Bookshop and then repaired to the Duke of Marlborough for some lunch. We agreed that Ted would have approved our choice and have joined us if he could. We also agreed that he had left us with a blessing:

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consumation have;
And renowned be thy grave!