Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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. It was originally intended to be an “epic folktale,” though the crow’s journey was not completed. 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 into 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.
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,” Crow describes how he had the idea to create man's 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 critical 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 its somewhat disordered existence on earth.