Ted Hughes’ ‘Capriccio’

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The Meaning of ‘Capriccio’

In 1990, Ted Hughes, England’s Poet Laureate, published a collection of twenty poems, entitled Capriccio. The volume was illustrated by artist Leonard Baskin, and published by his Gehenna Press in a limited edition of only fifty copies. At $4000 each, and filled with richly coloured engravings by Baskin, the beautifully boxed leather volume was a collector’s copy.

Dictionary definitions of ‘Capriccio’ refer to a musical improvisation,or  a work full of sudden changes, a freak, a fantasy. Its derivation is from seventeenth century Italian, and is made up of ‘capo’ (meaning ‘head’) and ‘riccio’, (meaning ‘hedgehog’). Hence, ‘capo-riccio’ means ‘hedgehog-headed’, and describes a head with the hair standing on end. Leonard Baskin’s frontispiece features a ghostly genderless head, its expression terrified, its hair springing up in all directions.

Overall, the title of Hughes’ sequence ‘Capriccio’ suggests unmotivated, purposeless acts, as well as horror, and lack of responsibility.

Many of the poems in Capriccio were written in the second person; the ‘you’ was not identified, although there were hints here and there (as in Folktale: He wanted the seven treasures of Asia).   It is now generally agreed that each of these twenty poems refers to some aspect of Hughes’ relationship with Assia Wevill.

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Ted Hughes. Photo Courtesy ‘The Guardian’