A reader coming upon Ted Hughes’s Crow for the first time will realize immediately its forceful, almost savage turning away from English poetic tradition. In its harsh treatment of human relations, religious and moral assumptions, and the function of consciousness in the natural world, Crow offers page after page of profoundly raucous poetic rebellion.
Hughes’s protagonist is Crow—omnivorous, homely, solitary, and ubiquitous. Borrowing from Celtic mythology, the Old Testament, and various aboriginal legends, the poet creates a rich, potent mythology of his own for this figure. “Two Legends” introduces the book’s central concerns. It is a litany of enigmatic statements focusing on muscle and on organ, on force as the origin of life: “Black was the without eye/ Black the within tongue/ Black was the heart/ Black the liver, black the lungs.” This incantation of the body’s tissues ultimately leads to the soul, black also, the sum here of the struggle to overcome or contain the Genesis-like void from which everything springs. Thus in the second legend of the poem, an “egg of blackness” hatches a crow, the figure that will for the rest of the collection symbolize alternately the life force and the primal element of chaos. He will speak for both intuition and deception and will be a preserver as much as a destroyer. An ambiguous semideity whose hoarse cry celebrates the cyclic processes of birth and death, the crow is “a black rainbow/ Bent in emptiness/ over emptiness/ But flying” that is (in Hughes’s final, unpunctuated line of the poem) immutable and free of social, religious, or scientific attempts to organize or to define elemental realities.
These rational or spiritual attempts are alluded to in many of the poems in Crow as Hughes turns Crow’s baleful stare upon one conventional system of thought after another. Following the biblical “begat” sequence in “Lineage,” Hughes offers a trio of poems describing Crow’s birth and his paradoxical reliance upon death. “Examination at the Womb-Door” offers a bleak catechism in which the answer to all but two questions is “Death.” The interrogator, never identified, reduces Crow—and by implication all creatures, human beings included—to mere anatomical features possessed ultimately by death: “Who owns these scrawny little feet? . . . this bristly scorched-looking face? . . . these unspeakable guts? . . . these questionable brains?” Yet even thus dissected, Crow is only “held pending trial” by this negating power of death. Although death “owns all of space” and is “stronger” than hope, love, and life, Crow is allowed to pass after realizing that he, embodiment of the life force, can paradoxically overcome or outlast death itself. The stark refrain of “death” throughout the poem in fact makes Crow’s final response all the more forceful: “But who is stronger than death?/ Me, evidently.”
Here, as elsewhere in Crow, the tone is equivocal, tentative. Crow is at one level the spirit of inventiveness, of making do. In both “A Kill” and “Crow and Mama” Crow’s experiences resemble nothing so much as crash landings after which he must improvise for survival. He smashes into the “rubbish” of the ground in the former poem and crashes on the moon in the latter, only to crawl out and take up the struggle that Hughes sees as the essential reality.
Crow proves resourceful. In “A Childish Prank” he already thrives on malicious humor, as the poem revises the origins of human sexuality into a quintessentially Hughesian myth of pain and misunderstanding. Pondering the problem of how to invest Adam and Eve with souls, God falls asleep, thereby allowing Crow to invest the parents of humanity with the two writhing halves of a bitten worm, which have been dragging man and woman toward each other ever since. The same supplanting of the spiritual or Godly with the physical and naturalistic takes place in “Crow’s First Lesson,” in which God tries to teach Crow to say—if not to feel or to understand—“love.” Every attempt to speak the word results in the creation of something dangerous or grotesque. A final try produces only the sexual grappling of man and woman. God cannot part them, and Crow flies “guiltily off.”
The next several poems in the volume involve Crow’s sojourns, following his various...
(The entire section is 1801 words.)