A “treasure trove” of unseen poems and letters by Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and the artist Barrie Cooke has revealed the depth of a close three-way friendship that one Cambridge academic has described as a “rough, wild equivalent of the Bloomsbury group”.
Cooke, who died in 2014, was a leading expressionist artist in Ireland, and a passionate fisherman. Fellow fishing enthusiast Mark Wormald, an English fellow at Pembroke College, Cambridge, came across his name while reading Hughes’s unpublished fishing diaries at the British Library. He visited Cooke in Ireland, and discovered the close friendship between the three men.
“Barrie told me that ‘outside Seamus’ family, I’m the closest man to Seamus alive’. And he said, ‘Ted and I have fishing in common, and Seamus and I have art and mud in common’,” said Wormald.
The academic visited Cooke again years later when the artist had developed dementia, and read to him from Hughes’s fishing diary, written in February 1980, detailing the moment the poet laureate landed his first Irish salmon.
“The diary ended: ‘It’s the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen, said Barrie.’ And Barrie, who’d been listening rapt, said, ‘I did say that, Mark.’ And then he said, ‘would you like to see the letters?’” said Wormald.
Cooke showed him an old cardboard box stuffed with “the most wonderfully expressive letters”, photographs showing the affection the three men held for each other, and 85 poems by Hughes and Heaney, some unpublished; a collection that was believed to be lost, and reveals the direct influence Cooke had on the work of the two poets.
In a letter from Heaney in March 1972, written as he was deciding to embark on life as a freelance writer, his friend: “Your confidence in us engendered confidence in ourselves and it is strange how the secret will to change burgeoned after that morning’s walk at Luggala and then, more irresistibly, in your kitchen on the Saturday night when we ate the pike. The first supper!”
There were 25 letters from Hughes, written over 30 years; a poem by Hughes titled Trenchford on Dartmoor, written for Cooke and his then-partner Jean Valentine; and a sketch by Hughes called The Dagda Meets the Morrigu on the Unshin Near Ballinlig, an angler’s retelling of Irish mythology.
When Hughes spent time with Cooke, his head and heart turned “Irishwards” towards a “freedom and flow”, he wrote; finding an “inner freedom” that made him and his son Nick “completely happy”, as he told Heaney.
“For Ted Hughes, tortured soul, controversial figure, to find that complete happiness is pretty remarkable,” said Wormald.
The friendship between the three men was already known: Heaney and Hughes worked together, while Cooke is credited for suggesting and illustrating Hughes’s poem The Great Irish Pike. But the collection also contains “wild” images of Hughes’ work Crow, and shows that their collaboration went back to the early 60s.
“For both Heaney and Hughes, evasiveness was a really significant principle of their work and they needed to protect their privacy. They regarded Barrie as a kind of secret friend … an exemplary devotee of art, and drew huge strength from that. And they knew that basically it was under the radar,” said Wormald, who has co-edited two books on Hughes, and whose book The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes is due to be published in 2021.
“The tenderness of the letters between these men takes my breath away, and it transforms what we know about their work and personal lives. Hughes emerges as an absolutely devoted father, a wonderfully generous friend, and someone who lived and breathed nature through fishing. And Cooke’s influence on Heaney, as an artist who was completely committed to the natural and mythological history of Ireland’s waters, was real and enduring, as was the nourishment Heaney took from their friendship.”
Cooke’s daughters gave Pembroke College, Hughes’s alma mater, first option to acquire the collection.
In a video by Cambridge University about the acquisition, the academic describes the “deep triangular friendship” as “a rough, wild equivalent of the Bloomsbury group, but completely unrecognised”.
Pembroke College will now catalogue and curate the collection in its library, with a series of exhibitions to follow.