Ted Hughes and Crow (Continued)

by Ann Skea

The poem, "Theology"(Wodwo p.l49), introduces into Hughes’ published poetry his own interpretation of the Biblical God. This imperfect, fatherly figure, however, had appeared already in How the Whale Became and other Stories (22), a book of children’s fables somewhat similar to Kipling’s Just So Stories (23). There, Hughes depicted God as a friendly character who manufactured the creatures of the earth out of clay which was then baked in the ovens of the sun("How the Tortoise Became", HWB p.53). Yet this God is not responsible for all creation. The whale, for example, grows quite of its own accord in God’s "little back garden" ("How the Whale became", HWB p.23). Also, unknown to God, a demon with creative powers of its own lives in the middle of the earth where it manufactures the bee and tricks God into breathing life into it ("How the Bee became", HWB p.60). From these children’s stories, came the God of the poem "Logos" in Wodwo (24), who is also the fallible, almost human God of the Crow poems which Hughes had begun writing in 1966.

"Book Cover Art" by Robert Baskin

In Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Hughes, for the first time, wrote a sequence of poems within a framework which took the form of a folk–mythology of his own construction. Through the quasi–human figure of Crow, he continued his own journey of exploration into the human psyche and, at the same time, his handling of the death/rebirth theme in his poetry began to be more complex. It took on the aspect of a quest, a Shamanic journey to the underworld, which Hughes believed to be the basic theme in many folktales, myths and narrative poems (25).

The poems included in Crow are part of a large number of poems which make up a "vast folk epic" (26) which tells the story of Crow. Hughes began this story at the suggestion of American artist, Leonard Baskin, who wanted an accompanying text for some of his anthropomorphic bird engravings. Amazingly, Hughes once said that he began Crow as children’s story (27): but the eventual development of Crow’s character, the sardonic, sometimes gruesome humour of the poems, and Hughes’ sophisticated and heretical manipulation of Biblical stories,has made Crow very much a bird for adults. Speaking on the BBC before the publication of Crow Hughes explained something of the Crow story and the nature of Crow:

Nobody knows quite how he was created or how he appeared.He was created by God’s nightmare. What exactly that is Itried to define through the length of the poem, or thesuccession of poems (28).

More details of the Crow story were given by Hughes at his poetry reading at the Adelaide Festival in 1976 (29):

God is having a nightmare. This hand/voice — this thing —arrives at the moment he falls asleep and grabs him roundthe throat, rushes him through the Universe, pushes himbeyond the stars and ploughs up the earth with his faceand throws him back into heaven. The moment he dozes offthis hand arrives and it all happens again, and he can’tunderstand what there can be in his creation which is sohostile. . . .Eventually this voice/hand speaks.

An argument develops between God and his Nightmare about the adequacy of Man as a creation. "God is very defensive of Man. Man is a very good and successful invention and given the materials and situation he’s quite adequate." But whilst God is arguing with his nightmare, Man has

sent up a representative to the gates of Heaven. . . .to askGod to take life back because men are fed up with it. SoGod is enraged that man has let him down — so hechallenges the voice to do better: given the materials andthe whole set–up, to produce something better than Man.

Crow Man, by Steve Dooley

"Crow Man" by Steve Dooley

The Nightmare plunges back to "ferment and gestate in matter" and a little embryo begins. That is how Crow was created. As a creation which is better than Man, Crow is a failure, for Hughes also said that "maybe [Crow’s] ambition is to become a man." However, Hughes made it clear that the actualCrow story is "not really relevant to the poems as they stand:  . . .I think they have a life a little aside from it. The story brought me to the poems . . . (it) was a sort of machine that assembled them" (30). He went on to say:

The first idea of Crow was really an idea of style. Infolktales the prince going on the adventure comes to thestable full of beautiful horses and he needs a horse for thenext stage and the King’s daughter advises him to takenone of the beautiful horses that he’ll be offered but tochoose the dirty, scabby little foal. You see, I throw outthe eagles and choose Crow. The idea was originally justto write his songs, the songs that a Crow would sing. Inother words songs with no music whatsoever, in a supersimple and a super ugly language which would in a way shedeverything except just what he wanted to say without anyother consideration and that’s the basis of the style ofthe whole thing.

This allegory of the folktale prince and his choice of horse is an interesting one, for it shows Hughes deliberately adopting the "wretched, black, horrible, little nothing" (31)(which is Crow as God sees him when he first appears), as his vehicle and "mask" for his new poetic journey.

Crow comes complete with all the mythological and folk–loric accretions which crows have gathered through their long existence, and, of course, all the natural characteristics of the crow species. Some of these attributes Hughes adverted to in his BBC talk when he said:

The Crow is the most intelligent of birds. He lives injust about every piece of land on earth and there’s agreat body of folk lore about crows, of course. No carrionwill kill a crow. The crow is the indestructible bird whosuffers everything, suffers nothing. . .(32).

In a letter to A1an Bold (33), he also wrote:

Crow is the bird of Bran, is the oldest and highest totemcreature of Britain . . . England pretends to a lion — butthat is a late fake import. England’s autochthonous Totemis the Crow. Whatever the colour of Englishman you scratchyou come to some sort of crow.

Hughes, therefore, makes it clear that Crow has many characteristics in common with Man. Also, given the cheeky, interfering, amoral, destructive and sometimes constructive personality which emerges through the medium of Crow’s "life and songs," plus Hughes’ own predilection for mythological archetypes,the comparison of Crow with the Trickster figure common in many mythologies is natural (34).

Paul Radin, an authority on the Trickster Cycles of the North American Indians, describes Trickster as being:

 . . .at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giverand negator, he who dupes others and is always dupedhimself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he isconstrained to behave as he does from impulses over whichhe has no control. He knows neither good or evil yet he isresponsible for both. He possesses no values, moral orsocial, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yetthrough his actions all values come into being . . .Laughter, humour and irony permeate everything Tricksterdoes . . .he is primarily an inchoate being of undeterminedproportions, a figure foreshadowing the shape of man (35).

Here is the counterpart of Hughes’ Crow, who, laughing, singing and eating, displays his supreme egotism by "Flying the black flag of himself" ("Crow Blacker than Ever", C p.69) through the havoc and horror which he has helped to create.