Ted Hughes Poetry: British Analysis
Ted Hughes’s poetic career was somewhat cyclical. His first volumes of verse contain individual poetic statements on the nature of the created world, focusing on particular animals, plants, people, and seasons. These poems are intended as explorations of identity, of the “thing in itself”—following closely the late Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose emphasis in much of his nature poetry was on the “this-ness” or “selfhood” of each created being.
Although Hopkins saw such creation as manifestations of the variety and infiniteness of the Creator, Hughes denied the existence of divinity. In the earlier poetry, his metaphysical claims are very limited; at most he acknowledges some sort of unconscious inspiration, in the manner of Robert Graves, whose concept of the “White Goddess” as poetic inspiration and creative spirit influenced him heavily, and also of Dylan Thomas, though at first Hughes lacked the exuberance of these poets.
Yet Hughes increasingly felt the need for some sort of philosophical expression for his romanticism. That expression, when it came, was as surprising as it was forceful. The themes of violence that characterize the early poetry are transformed in the cycle of mythological poems Crow and Gaudete to an anarchic energy that subverts the organizing institutional principles of humankind, as expressed in religion, culture, and rationality. Hughes’s need for a mythology to advance his personal poetic development was akin to that of William Butler Yeats, a poet he much admired (he claimed that at Cambridge he knew all of Yeats by heart).
Again like Yeats, having established a mythology in the middle part of his career and having made some very powerful poetry out of it, Hughes felt free to leave it to one side. Thus, from Moortown onward, his poetry tended to return to a more specific focus, based on the natural life surrounding him. He also returned to poems of personal reminiscence and the ritualized violence of war, and as a last gesture, to the publication of poems over his failed marriage to Plath.
The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal
Most of Hughes’s poetry was first published in various poetry magazines and in literary and other journals, although some was commissioned for specific projects. Critical work on Hughes has grown steadily since the publication of The Hawk in the Rain, which was widely recognized from the first as showing great promise. The poems in this volume can be taken alongside those of Lupercal, since their composition must be seen as overlapping. One volume contains forty poems, the other forty-one. Rather more from Lupercal find their way into Hughes’s 1982 Selected Poems, 1957-1981.
Many of Hughes’s most anthologized poems are to be found here—for example, “The Thought Fox,” “Hawk Roosting,” “Esther’s Tomcat,” “Six Young Men,” “View of a Pig,” “An Otter,” and “Pike.”
Most of these are animal poems that in their specificity, brilliance of imagery, and originality of viewpoint are immediately striking and reasonably accessible. It has been pointed out, as a caution, that only a limited number of poems in The Hawk in the Rain are real animal poems. In fact, to believe that the animals presented are real is to misunderstand the poetry, epitomized in “The Thought Fox,” which explicitly states that the place of such animals’ existence is in Hughes’s imagination, for which memory and observation have only provided the raw materials. The majority of his poems are in fact infused with animal imagery. For example, the protagonist of “Famous Poet” is a monster, the subject of “Secretary” is “like a starling under the bellies of bulls,” and “A Modest Proposal” is built around the extended simile of two wolves.
Lupercal is perhaps more obviously about animals, and here the nearest influence is D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence, however, develops more moral sympathy for his creatures than does Hughes, whose attitude is far more ambivalent. Hughes frankly admits to terror at times—for example, in “Pike,” whose pond he “fished/ With the hair frozen on my head/ For what might move.” The pike, like the hawk and the thrushes, is a perfect killing instrument; this reality both fascinates and horrifies Hughes. He recognizes in these creatures depths of darkness that exist within himself. The Jungian idea of a personal shadow is never far distant. In a number of his poems, including “Pike,” “An Otter,” and “To Paint a Water Lily,” the dualism of natural life is vividly portrayed in terms of the surface and depths of water.
In a more ambitious poem, “Mayday on Holderness,” this idea is combined with a geographical image of concentric circles. Starting with “the furnace door whirling with larvae” on a pond, through the generating life of the country in springtime, he sees all such draining into the North Sea, beneath which the dead soldiers of Gallipoli lie still, crying, “Mother, Mother!” The “Mother” is profoundly ambiguous, since it is “motherly summer” that moves on the pond in the apparently endless cycle of regeneration ending in (violent) death.
Few of the other poems in these first two volumes—apart from “Pennines in April” and “Wind,” in both of which the landscape is seen in terms of the sea—are what might be called regional. Nevertheless, the sense of a northern English countryside is very strong, especially in its bleakness, its mud, and the sheer struggle required to survive there. A number of poems deal with humans who can survive such conditions—“Roarers in a Ring,” “Dick Straightup,” and “Crag Jack’s Apostasy.” More significantly, other survivors are praised, though somewhat enigmatically, in “The Retired Colonel” and the powerful “The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar.” What the characters of these poems possess is a physical courage drawn from the deep wellsprings of natural life. Farrar’s courage, therefore, is not so much religious or moral as spiritual, in the Lawrentian sense Hughes later developed.
The title poems of both volumes were omitted from Selected Poems, 1957-1981. “The Hawk in the Rain,” perhaps too reminiscent of Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” contrasts the earthbound poet, drowning in “the drumming ploughland,” to the hawk that “effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.” The poet is aware of “the master-/ Fulcrum of violence where the hawk stands still,” but the violence emanates not only from the hawk but also toward the hawk, which ultimately crashes to the ground. This awareness of the continuity of forces running through nature, destructive yet energy giving, is one of the central features of these two volumes. The other title poem, “Lupercalia,” celebrates a Roman festival of fertility, Lupercus being a god of prophecy also. The poet perhaps sees himself as a priest celebrating both prophetically and ritualistically the mystery of the fertility of nature, giving birth by sacrificing.
Another group of poems is the war poems: not of World War II, as might be expected from a poet whose boyhood was spent in that period, but of World War I, in which his father fought (William Hughes was one of the few survivors of a regiment otherwise wiped out). Later poems, such as “Out” (Wodwo) and “Dust As We Are” (Wolfwatching), explain how the young boy heard his father reenacting these traumatic experiences. Clearly, he entered deeply into his father’s sufferings, and the impact of the violence of humankind in war must have shaped his perceptions of universal violence.
Between 1960 and 1967, Hughes concentrated on children’s poetry and poetic drama. The births of his own two children during these years seem to have moved him to channel his creative effort into working his animal poetry into comic and fable-related material. Hughes did a number of school broadcasts, including a reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. This echoes poignantly Hughes’s own personal tragedy at this time, the breaking up of his marriage and his wife’s subsequent suicide. Undoubtedly, these sad events affected his poetic output immediately and in the longer term acted as catalysts for radical changes in style and manner.
The volume that collects Hughes’s adult poetry of the period, Wodwo, reflects this upheaval. Some critics see it as a pivotal volume in Hughes’s development; certainly it must be seen as transitional. In this, and in its overall layout, it is very similar to Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959), published not long before. Like Lowell’s volume, Wodwo contains two sections of poetry sandwiching several prose pieces, some of which are autobiographical. Although Hughes’s stay in the United States had brought him into touch with such American poets as Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Lowell, the differences remain striking. The open confessional style that Lowell (and John Berryman) developed is the very opposite of Hughes’s private manner of creating poems from which autobiographical details must be excavated skillfully, fragment by fragment.
Wodwo contains some forty poems, to which a few others were added later. Although the poetry is transitional, Hughes selected a greater proportion of it for his 1982 selection than of any other volume. It moves toward a fabular, allegorical, or mythic approach to animals and plants, as in “The Bear,” “The Green Wolf,” and “The Howling of Wolves.” Each creature in these poems manifests some aspect of a life force, certainly, but in a more ritualistic and metaphysical way than in earlier poems. The title poem tells of some legendary animal seeking its identity, full of questions, exploring the dualism of intention and instinct, of self and not-self. Though still in the romantic tradition, many of the poems seem explicitly antiromantic in sentiment; in “Skylarks,” for example, Hughes denies the truth-beauty equation. Despite critical claims to unity, the volume is more a collection of parts: Hughes is still searching for a belief system for his poetics. The arrangement of poems within the volume seems somewhat random, and their internal logic appears arbitrary. The title of one poem, “You Drive in a Circle,” is rather apt for the whole collection.
Nevertheless, a number of poems in Wodwo do point forward to Hughes’s next volume, Crow. “Logos,” “Reveille,” and “Theology” reorder the Adam and Eve story in the simplistic, demotic comic style that typifies Crow. The powerful “Pibroch” suggests the medieval sense of the chain of being, while it denies medieval teleology—leaving a bleakness and pessimism caught also in “Wings” and “Gnat Psalm.” Hughes’s verse, too, is far more experimental in Wodwo, ranging from the tight balladlike form of “The Bear” to the loose “Wodwo,” in which punctuation and line structures have almost collapsed. Particularly, Hughes is moving away from poetic rhetoric toward the direct speaking voice (as did Lowell), and the isolation of the single line or phrase is exploited as an alternative to stanza form. Thus, even if Crow did come as a shock, there had been hints of it previously.
The cycle of Crow actually began as a response to an invitation from the American artist Leonard Baskin to write poems to accompany his drawings of mythic animals, particularly a crow that was half bird, half human. Hughes was already aware of the crow in various Native American legends as a trickster figure, and he saw in this image an “object correlative” on which to construct the mythology he needed for his poetic. The volume is subtitled From the Life and Songs of the Crow, suggesting that the original intention was, as it had been for Yeats, to construct a full mythology. The complete mythology failed to materialize, however—possibly because of certain irresolvable contradictions in the enterprise—and thus there is very much of a provisional feel to the volume. Later editions added several more poems, and there seems to be no internal reason that other poems should not be added, deleted, or rearranged. Nevertheless, Crow came as a new, powerful, and quite shocking voice in British poetry in the early 1970’s, a voice that most reviewers did recognize as once and for all establishing Hughes as a major poet, if not the major poet of his generation.
Hughes’s need for myth springs from two explicit causes, with probably two unstated factors also involved. First is his stated rejection of Christianity, its account of creation and of the Creator, and the nature of its spirituality—a rejection arising from his encounter with narrow fundamentalism in the village chapel of his boyhood. His rejection is in some sense reactionary: He still needs Christian myth, especially the account of the Fall. Many of his poems in Crow and elsewhere rework the figures of Adam, Eve, and the serpent, introducing Crow as a “wild card” element to suggest a creative principle separate from the God of the Genesis account (see, for example, “Crow’s Theology,” “Crow Communes,” and “Crow’s First Lesson”).
Second is his rejection of demythologizing rational humanism and the preeminence of the word as logical utterance and rational discourse. In this he follows William Blake and Robert Graves, as he does stylistically. He sees modern Western civilization as having lost its primitive energies through its superficial materialism and its denial of the spirit. For him, though, the spirit is out of nature, not out of Christianity—there is nothing holy about it, nor any moral necessity to it (“A Disaster” and “Crow’s Account of St. George” are illuminating in this regard).
These rejections are explicit. Not openly explored yet clearly influential in Hughes’s life are the nuclear threat that hung heavily over the world in the 1960’s and 1970’s and the tragic deaths of two women close to him. There also seems to have been a difficult, unresolved relationship with his mother. At a psychological level, Crow could be interpreted as an attempt to exorcise these tragedies and to resolve his feelings toward the women involved (as in “Criminal Ballad,” “Song for a Phallus,” “Crow and Mama,” and “Lovesong”). On a political level, the nuclear threat could be seen as a subtext, underlining for him the urgency for Western civilization to find new roots to draw on, however primitive or pagan.
A new influence on Hughes’s style in this period was contemporary East European poetry, especially that of Vasko Popa, whose work he helped to make known in the West. Like Popa, Hughes was interested in colloquial, folktale-like myths as images of survival, and he used poem cycles to build up such mythology. The trickster figure is basically a survivor, although the central contradiction is that usually he stays unchanged, whereas Hughes wants Crow to develop and to take on different roles and guises—as victim, helper, rebel, humankind, even Hughes himself as poet.
Crow is anarchic; so is the verse form. Words mean what Hughes wants them to mean. His rejection of rational discourse is exhilarating, creative, and unpredictable; it is also arbitrary, exasperating, and sometimes sheer nonsense, a total poetic joke. Hughes at times seems bardic, the shaman, willing to be possessed by spiritual forces to speak wisdom or healing; at other times he seems a naughty boy writing rude words. Yet “the song was worth it,” as he writes in the final enigmatic “Two Eskimo Songs.” Here also water finishes up “utterly worn out utterly clear.” The cycle is meant ultimately as a purification of the will to live: What it does not give is a purpose for living.
Gaudete (meaning “rejoice”) seeks to resolve some of the contradictions of Crow by positing a hero and his shadow (to use a Jungian term), or double. This double is, in fact, the protagonist—the Reverend Nicholas Lumb, acting as substitute vicar for a village (Lumb Bank is actually the name of Hughes’s house in Yorkshire). In fact, he sets himself up as high priest of a pagan fertility cult and spends his time bringing to life the latent sexuality of the village women by making love to them. In a climactic scene, a young woman is ritually initiated into the pagan cult but is killed by its priestess (or witch), who is jealous of Lumb, since she suspects that he is human enough to want to elope with the girl. Meanwhile, the village men, out of jealousy and anger, pursue Lumb in a semiritual stag hunt and shoot him. The bodies of the girl, Lumb, and the priestess, who has stabbed herself, are then burned by the men to hide the evidence.
The main part of the narrative is told in some fifty-five sections of a new, flexible, and pulsating narrative verse, interspersed with passages of poetic prose. The narrative is enfolded by a prologue and an epilogue, which deal with the real vicar, abducted by dark forces out of a dead world to heal a woman. For his inability to do this, he is violently beaten in a purgatorial ritual and then resurrected. The fruits of his resurrection, which takes place on the west coast of Ireland, are some forty short, gem-like poems, centering on the theme of suffering and emptying self.
The whole volume is quite extraordinary. Unlike previous volumes, it must be read as a unity—it is impossible to extract, reorder, or add. It is clearly an achieved work: Response is one of purgation or catharsis. The mythic basis is Dionysus and his female followers, the Bacchantae, though ritualistic patterns from other fertility cults are also used. In an interview given in 1971, Hughes called his poetry “a war between vitality and death . . . [that] celebrates the exploits of the warriors on either side.” In a reworking of Graves’s White Goddess, he links Venus with Sycorax, a female figure turned by the Middle Ages into the figure of Mary, and now lost. Western humanism has served Adonis, the god of rationality. Gaudete then becomes the reinstatement of Dionysus—and Venus—as the new spiritual force, Adonis having brought a general death.
In this release, however, men and women become totally separated—the men into their violence, their killer instincts, and the women into their unconscious fertility. Normal men-women relationships necessarily break down. The end is destruction and harm, as damaging as anything Adonis brings. Yet by creating Lumb as a duality, Hughes is able to avoid the dichotomy that he elsewhere describes as possible responses to the energy “of the elemental power circuit of the Universe”: Refusal brings death, but acceptance brings destruction. To escape the dichotomy, one needs the purgatorial experience—not the naked instinctual one, though it is necessary to recognize and embrace the shadow within oneself—and through it to come to some sort of resurrection of spirit. Both Lumbs undergo a death. Out of this comes, at the end, a Dickinsonian distillation of regenerative and intuitive wisdom, cryptically and allusively personal. It rounds off a poem that seeks a way forward (not merely a subversion), as an alternative to both Christianity and modern secularism.
Between Crow and Gaudete, Hughes produced a number of other volumes, two of which were done in close conjunction with Leonard Baskin. Cave Birds was based, like Crow, on a series of Baskin drawings of various fabular birds. Hughes then wrote further poems, for most of which Baskin did drawings—some thirty in all. The volume represents a reworking of Crow in a much more positive and orderly fashion. A bird—a cockerel to start with—is drawn into the underworld into a Kafkaesque trial scene. As it realizes the guilt of its rationalism, it takes on a series of shifting guises to reach its own hidden psyche. It refuses easy answers, going through execution, a dying to self, until finally it meets (in Jungian fashion) an anima, a female counterpart. Their marriage in “Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days” suggests renewal through love, reversing poems such as “Lovesong” and “The Lovepet,” in which sexual love is shown as purely destructive and possessive. Finally comes resurrection—as a falcon, the Egyptian Horus, a sky god. Thus the book contains a complete cycle of dying and rising, showing the need to die in order to live spiritually. Hughes’s final question is “But when will be land on a man’s wrist?” At their best, the poems have a beautifully cadenced sensitivity; at worst, they are perhaps too tied to Baskin: Hughes’s rhetoric begins to establish itself too easily.
Season Songs was also done with Baskin, but this time Baskin was merely Hughes’s illustrator. The pieces in this book were intended for children primarily, but they manifest a delightful marriage of traditional seasonal poetry and the vivid children’s poetry of a few years earlier. A number of the poems seem assured of a place in the many anthologies produced for schools. Nature is not romanticized here, but neither is it full of the instinctual violence and bleakness of Lupercal or the chaos of Crow. “Swifts” and “The Harvest Moon” are good examples of the suppleness of style of which Hughes was now master, and also of his mixing of modern and traditional imagery.
Remains of Elmet
Another volume, Remains of Elmet, was produced at this time, in conjunction with the photographer Fay Godwin. A later volume, River, was done in the same way. Remains of Elmet is a portrait of the region of Hughes’s youth, whereas Season Songs, anticipating Moortown, reflects the Devon countryside and farm where he had settled.
Moortown is a mixed volume, almost an anthology in itself. It incorporates a large section of poems centering on the Devon farm, but written over a period of time as a “verse farming diary,” and then several separate sequences or minicycles. One of these, “Prometheus on His Crag,” had been published separately in 1973, the result of an invitation to take part in a drama festival in Persepolis, Iran. For this occasion Hughes had written a drama, Orghast (pr. 1971), centered partly on the Prometheus myth. The cycle of poems emerged indirectly from this play as a sort of meditation.
For inclusion in Moortown, several more were added, making a total of twenty-one. They trace the sufferings of Prometheus from his first awakening to his agony, chained to a rock, as part of his punishment for stealing fire from the gods (though he does not remember doing so), to his trying to identify the full suffering (the vulture pecking at his liver, the heat and the cold, the permanence of the enchainment), to his coming to terms with it. The vulture is even admired for its being a perfect instrument of punishment. The sequence ends with a poem as full of questions as “Wodwo,” but also with a sense of acceptance that the poet’s humanity is made up of pain and endurance. The poems themselves are in tightly controlled yet very flexible stanzas, with a typical disintegration at the end into isolated lines and phrases. The imagery, again typically, is startling, violent yet lyrical in its dramaticity.
The second sequence is “Adam and the Sacred Nine.” Here again, an originally mythic figure holds this shorter cycle together. Each poem describes a different bird that comes to present itself to Adam—not for him to name, as in the Genesis account, but for him to learn from. One or two poems, such as “The Dove Came,” are in the Crow style; each bird is symbolic or allegorical and all are far removed from the Lupercal treatment. Further sequences are titled “Earth-Numb” and “Seven Dungeon Songs.”
The farming poems are more relaxed and personal, focusing largely on the sufferings and joys of the farm animals in creating new life; births and miscarriages are detailed, almost gratuitously at times, along with deaths and partings of mothers and infants. Certainly the treatment suggests that creation, even with human intervention, works poorly. Nevertheless, the quality of felt experience is powerfully portrayed. In this antipastoral, the reader comes to see Hughes as a compassionate, sensitive farmer.
Flowers and Insects and Wolfwatching
The farming poems, like Season Songs, show Hughes moving away from mythic statements toward more lyrical and personal ones. This tendency continues in Flowers and Insects and Wolfwatching. In the latter, myth remains in “Two Astrological Conundrums” and “Take What You Want But Pay for It,” but “Wolfwatching” is a more orthodox zoo poem, and “The Black Rhino” has an ecological message. Perhaps the most attractive poems here are those of reminiscence, especially concerning his father. The violence of the war poems of The Hawk in the Rain is now counterbalanced by a small boy’s watching of a shell-shocked father.
Fortunately, becoming British poet laureate did not have a negative impact on Hughes’s creativity, as can sometimes happen. Although his laureate poems, collected in Rain-Charm for the Duchy, and Other Laureate Poems, were not particularly striking, what was striking was the publication of the deeply personal Birthday Letters. For the first time, Hughes allowed his account of the Plath marriage to be told, in eighty-eight poems written over a twenty-five-year period. The poems show Hughes as somewhat passive, even as a victim of Plath’s instability and despair. The poems won for Hughes a posthumous Whitbread Award for Book of the Year in 1998.