Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522
Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow by Ted Hughes is a poetry volume that was originally intended to be an anthologized folktale history of the crow from the beginning to the end of the universe. Drawing from various world mythologies, Hughes created poems about this crow figure and the various roles he plays.
The first episode in the volume is called “The Quarrel in Heaven.” In this short prose piece, God has finished creating the world, but he has a recurring nightmare. This nightmare includes a Hand and a Voice, which appears each night, kidnaps God, drags him through the earth, and then drops him back in heaven in a cold sweat. The nightmare mocks God’s creation, particularly mankind. Meanwhile, man sits at the gate of heaven waiting to speak to God, so he can beg God to take back life from everything because it is far too difficult. God challenges the nightmare to “do better,” and as a result it creates the crow on earth from an embryo. The crow becomes God’s companion, and God instructs the crow to perform various tasks and trials, some of which are intended to destroy the crow. However, the crow survives each of God’s tests, often interfering with God’s own activities, sometimes for mischief and sometimes to learn.
What follows is a series of poems and prose episodes that describe the life, experiences, and functions of the crow as outlined above. Because it is difficult to summarize every poem, I will discuss several notable ones from the volume.
In another episode, the crow searches the universe for his female Creator. While he is out, he is met by a hag who asks him to carry her across a river. As he completes this task, the hag asks the Crow questions about love that are difficult to answer. When they reach the other side of the river, the hag transforms into a beautiful young woman. Some of the poems in the text attempt to answer the hag’s questions.
The Crow is often depicted as a Trickster figure throughout the volume, doing things for his own merriment or to create chaos. For instance, in “A Childish Prank,” the Crow describes how he had the idea to create man and woman’s genitalia by biting a worm in two and “stuffing” the different ends inside their bodies. This crass poem represents the crude, mischievous side of the Crow.
Another important aspect of the volume is the series of poems that address Biblical themes. In “Crow Blacker than Ever,” the Crow says he is responsible for the crucifixion by nailing heaven and earth together. In “Apple Tragedy,” Hughes rewrites the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, which happens because Eve lets the serpent have sexual intercourse with her. Each of these examples shows how throughout the text, Hughes often mocks Christianity.
Overall, the volume traces the crow’s journey to find his true purpose in life, though he never quite discovers or achieves it. Critics often suggest the crow represents mankind itself and his somewhat disordered existence on earth.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1801
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 adventures throughout a blasted world, where civilizations have risen and fallen against the background of an essentially predatory, immutable natural order. “Crow Alights” brings him to mountains, sea, and stars before he comes upon an old shoe, a rusted garbage can, and other refuse of the twentieth century. Though he scrutinizes the evidence, Crow cannot piece it together or explain the motionlessness of the human face and the hand he perceives through a window. The last five lines of the poem—separate, end-stopped one-line stanzas of clipped or fragmented sentences—effectively communicate the sense of wreckage out of which Crow must somehow derive his existence. “That Moment” describes a similar situation. The human race may have just extinguished itself, but the event is merely another opportunity for Crow, who starts searching for his next meal.
On the other hand, when “Crow Hears Fate Knock on the Door” it is a prophecy he feels inside him, more troubling for his being its source, a feeling “like a steel spring/ Slowly rending the vital fibres.” It is because of this unease, perhaps, that Crow begins to question his own conduct in the next poem, “Crow Tyrannosaurus.” Like the prehistoric Rex, Crow is bound by the most elemental of laws—“the horrible connection,” as one critic puts it, “between creature and creature: kill to live.” Observing bird and beast and human around him, Crow wonders at all the deaths “gulped” in order to survive. No sooner does he consider the morality of such a natural order than he is compelled by it to kill again. He may wish to change, to refine himself out of the blood and guts of creation, but he cannot escape his design and function. Kill-and-eat mechanism that he is, Crow finds himself stabbing at grubs even as he questions the action. He survives the dinosaur and may outlast humanity, but not through any transcending of his given role.
Nevertheless, Crow does seem to develop something like a conscience. “Conscience” cannot be understood in its religious sense but rather as Crow’s coming to terms with the consequences of his actions, both for himself and for others. Even in a poem such as “Crow’s Theology” Hughes does not allow the presumably benign realization of God’s love to go uncontested. Just as he cannot keep himself from stabbing the grub earlier, Crow must meditate fiercely upon this God and his relationship with the rest of Creation. If God “speaks” Crow’s language and Crow’s mere existence is somehow a form of divine revelation, as the poem has it, then “what/ Loved the stones and spoke stone?” What, indeed, speaks and loves the silences of creation, including the silence of death? Crow’s answer, arrived at through the only philosophy he can know, is that there are two Gods, one much bigger than the other, loving his enemies and having “all the weapons.”
As if to test this hypothesis, Crow mounts a challenge in “Crow’s Fall,” Hughes’s rendering of Lucifer’s ill-fated aspirations. Here, Crow is described as having once been white, an angelic figure that decides that the sun is “too white” and so tries to attack and defeat it. Crow summons all his powers, but the sun only brightens at this futile assault, leaving Crow so charred that even his voice is left scorched. Like Lucifer, Crow is not killed; also like Lucifer, he manages out of his pride to fashion his own version of events: “Up there . . . Where white is black and black is white, I won.” Also like Lucifer, Crow is a “light bringer”; his lessons in endurance and in the rapaciousness of existence are bitter epiphanies.
After his fall, Crow embarks on a series of experiments with language, testing his powers of perception and creation against the memory of his disastrous try at “love.” He discovers in “Crow Goes Hunting” that words bound away like hares, fly off like starlings. He concocts other words to shoot at those escaping him, but none stays within his control. Crow gazes after them “speechless with admiration,” beginning to intuit the vexed relation of words to the things they name.
The fablelike “Crow’s Elephant Totem Song” dramatizes a similar disquiet. The elephant, originally “delicate and small,” is set upon by hyenas maddened with envy and torn into pieces that they carry away into their respective “hells.” At the Resurrection—in this tale, not Christ’s Second Coming—the elephant reassembles himself: “Deadfall feet,” “toothproof body,” “bulldozing bones,” and “aged eyes, that were wicked and wise.” Like Crow’s fall from an arrogant purity (whiteness), the elephant’s death-and-rebirth into a “wicked and wise” homeliness provides a morality play for Hughes, one based on the law of the jungle or veldt rather than on Judaic or Christian tradition.
From “Crow’s Playmates” on, the book rushes to its conclusion, as scene after scene has Crow creating and miscreating. All Crow can do is watch his “works” take on lives of their own and then try to survive the destruction they cause. After he creates gods to keep him company, each tears from him some part of his power until he is but a “remnant, his own leftover, the spat-out scrag.” A parallel event occurs in “Crow Blacker Than Ever.” Here God and Adam, disgusted with each other, turn toward their respective paradises—heaven and Eve—when Crow mischievously nails together the two realms. The agony this produces, God and humanity unwillingly connected, is what Crow deems his “Creation,” victoriously flying “the black flag of himself.” The apocalyptic “Crow’s Last Stand” begins with a “burning” that Hughes breaks across several lines until reaching what the sun cannot burn any further. The sun “rages and chars” against this last obstacle, obviously an emblem of survival and resilience in the midst of catastrophe: “Crow’s eye-pupil, in the tower of its scorched fort.” This eye, as pure perception, may be the final, irreducible image of consciousness in Hughes’s mythology.
Hughes said his idea in Crow was to reduce his style “to the simplest clear cell—then regrow a wholeness and richness organically from that point.” The collection’s mythic power, brutal diction, and sardonic bleakness of vision make it one of the truly landmark works in post-World War II English poetry. Whether attracted to or repulsed by these qualities, no poet or reader of poetry can claim not to hear the dark echoes of Hughes’s Crow in the literature of other writers since this collection’s appearance.