Ted Hughes and Crow

by Ann Skea

"Mythic poets," Hughes wrote in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1), ". . .seem to be a distinct biological type." In their work, beneath the "surface glitter of the plot," there lies a deep "mythic plane" where, as for the Occult Neoplatonistsof Shakespeare’s time, "all archaic mythological figures and events are available as a thesaurus of glyphs or token symbols" (2). For such poets, myth is part of the essence of their poetry rather than something on which they draw from time–to–time.

Hughes, himself, was just such a mythic poet. Through myth he had access to all the intensity and drama of life and death; to universally recognisable patterns of human behaviour; to the powerful energies of gods and devils; and to ritual frameworks which have been used for centuries to contain such powerful energies and emotions. Yet, for him, myth was more than a thesaurus, it was also a divining–rod,a tool for channeling and controlling the energies he worked with, whether they were conscious or subconscious energies, sacred or profane, good or bad.

"Crow" Kyoto Wall Hanging

This is not just my own opinion. There is ample evidence of Hughes’ intentions and of his belief in the power of myth in his prose writing (some of which is collected in Winter Pollen (3)) and, especially, in his discussion of Shakespeare’s work in Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Being. There is evidence in an important early interview between Hughes and Ekbert Faas (4).There is also very persuasive evidence in the patterns which can be discerned in his poetry and which are traced in detail in my own book Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (5), and in the work of Sagar, Scigaj, Hirschberg, Faas, Gifford and Roberts (6).

Hughes was interested in Occult Neoplatonism, in Cabbalah, and in Alchemy and he was knowledgeable about all these arts. This is not to say that he devoted himself to the practice of all or any of them. But he did believe in occult (or hidden) powers and he believed, as did the Neoplatonists, that poetry is a discipline, a mnemonic tool, and that it can be used to bring healing, creative energies into a world which is sorely in need of them."Poetry," he once said, "is magical. . .; is one way of making things happen the way you want them to happen" (7). More recently, in an interview with Amzed Hossein, he said "One of the great problems that poetry works at is to renew life, renew the poet’s own life, and, by implication, renew the life of the people, if they respond to the way he has done it for himself" (8).

Hughes’ first published poems, in The Hawk in the Rain (9), are examples of his use of small poetic charms which contain powerful animal energies. They were "written in an effort to create an absolutely still language," (10) he told Ekbert Faas. Yet these small, self–contained symbolic creatures are full of energy, not at all the "graven images" that one critic thought them to be (11).In Lupercal (12), Hughes turned to myth as a magical ritual: "Almost all the poems in Lupercal were written as invocations to writing," he told Faas. Like the Lupercalia as it was celebrated in Ancient Rome, these poems enact a cathartic rite, and Hughes completed it with a prayer:

. . .Maker of the world,
Hurrying the lit ghost of man
Age to age while the body hold,
Touch this frozen one.

In broadcast plays, and in other writing and reading in these early years, Hughes continued to develop his knowledge of occult and spiritual disciplines and to experiment with mythic patterns in his work. Between 1959 and 1965, he was writing The Bacchae ("based on the Euripides play" (13)); an oratorio based on the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead);using his own dreams as creative inspiration (The Wound (14)); beginning to write Gaudete (15), with its Dionysian rites; reading about Shamanism, Sufism and Alchemy;and writing a verse play based on an ancient alchemical text, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (16). Hughes’Foreword to Difficulties of a Bridegroom (17) shows just how much he believed that this particular alchemical text influenced his work.

Crow (18), however, was the first sequence of poems in which Hughes began to create an extensive folk–mythology of his own, complete with a fallible God (reminiscent of Blake’s Nobodaddy) and with a questing hero who, in the end, turns out to be inadequate for the task which he, and Hughes, have set themselves. The origin of Crow is well documented. In an article written in 1985 (19),Hughes explained:

Crow grew out of an invitation by Leonard Baskin to make abook with him simply about crows. He wanted an occasion toadd more crows to all the crows that flock through hissculpture, drawings, and engravings in their varioustransformations. As the protagonist of a book, a crowwould become symbolic in any author’s hands. And asymbolic crow lives a legendary life. That is how Crowtook off.

The first Crow poems appeared on broadsides and in limited edition books. In 1970, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, was published by Faber and Faber, and it has since been reprinted several times, sometimes with additional poems. It does not contain any of the various fragments of explanatory commentary which Hughes added whenever he read the poems in public or on tape.There are Crow poems published in other of Hughes’ poetic sequences, and some of these he only identified as part of the Crow story long after their first appearance in print ("Bride and Groom Lie Hidden. . ." in Cave Birds (20), for example). The complete Crow story has never been published, but the second edition of Ted Hughes: A Bibliography (21) has probably the most comprehensive list of Crow poems together with their various locations.

What follows below is an unpublished extract from the dissertation which I wrote for my M.Litt. degree in 1981. As such, it now represents old knowledge about Crow, but it includes some of Hughes’ stated intentions, some of the Crow story, comments on the influence of the Trickster figure of North American Indian folk–lore, and the place of the Crow story in Hughes’ use of the Quest as a theme and as a pattern for his own poetic development.