Hughes, Ted (Vol. 9)
Hughes, Ted 1930–
Hughes is an English poet, playwright, editor, and writer of books for children. He is a nature poet in the sense that his poems express, in their descriptions of wildlife and landscape, the brutal savagery of nature. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[The] real limitation of Hughes's animal poems is precisely that they conjure emotions without bringing us any nearer to understanding them. They borrow their impact from a complex of emotions that they do nothing to define, and in the end tell us nothing about the urban and civilised human world that we read the poems in. If they reach back, "as in a dream", to a nexus of fear and sensation, this is just the point and the reason why they frequently fail as poetry: one difference between dreams and art is that art deepens our understanding while dreams on their own do not. Larkin's horses are more profound than Hughes's, in fact, because they show us something about the relationship between the horses' world and our own instead of just frightening us with theirs.
Hughes's poetic world is really a prehistoric world of natural violence, where humanity has only the barest fingerhold: when the poems are not about animals they are often about inanimate nature ("October Dawn"), and they give no place to emotions and experience of an essentially human kind. In this sense Hughes is a nature poet, a kind of tough mid-century Blunden (compare their pikes or their Octobers), and makes no serious attempt to face the "full range" of his experience: the experience and emotions that control his poems are frequently those that we share with animals, and these are evoked "as in a dream" more often than they are explored. It would be one thing to write a single poem or two out of this idea, but to make it the dominant theme of an entire output is quite another. When Hughes makes a direct attempt on human experience the result is often catastrophic: when people feature in the poems they serve as occasions for the poet's own cocksure imagination ("Famous Poet", "Vampire") or comfortable romanticising ("A Woman Unconscious") and never imply a real human engagement or any of the self-doubt that this might sometimes carry with it. It is always hard for a poet to write about people, because there is a deep and perpetual antagonism between human individuals and the poetic images through which we attempt to understand them. But this is what gives poetry its work and its justification. With Hughes the victory goes simply and completely to the images …, and the result is a cruel absence of compassion and a profound denial of the capacity for growth, love and uniqueness which makes human beings human (and not simply one more species of animal). Hughes's poems are often very fine technically, with sharp detail and imagery and a tense motion perfectly suited to their dramatic content ("Pike", "Esther's Tomcat", especially)…. But their most important lesson, it seems to me, concerns what can and cannot be done in an idiom which is decreasingly workable and relevant today and which involves, with Hughes at any rate, a lack of any essential commitment to the human world and its conflicts. (pp. 10-12)
Colin Falck, in The Modern Poet: Essays from 'the Review', edited by Ian Hamilton (© Ian Hamilton), MacDonald, 1968.
Hughes's desire for language free of any gentility is akin in motive to Baraka's stress on the brutal side of white America's consciousness, and he took intellectual clues from a book on shamanism and from certain interests of Vaska Popa's. But anyone can see how much his earlier poetry, whatever it's about, is intimately in search of a language so hard and fierce it will taste of blood. His animal poems in Lupercal are concentrations of that search, projections of a sophisticated and even decadent neo-primitivism. When he broke out of their thematic grip, he still kept the same aim of making the intensity of his language, in itself, his symbolic means. "Cadenza" [in Wodwo] … is perhaps Hughes' most purely lyrical poem despite its violent buffoonery at the very end. It consists of a series of images, proliferating in singing couplets after the one-line opening stanzas, evoked by a violin solo. The images are of death-terror, lost love, and mourning. They make for a dazzling surrealist elegy, and the rhythmic idiom inevitably recalls, because it echoes and summons up their very tone and pitch, the voice and tone of Sylvia Plath's poetry, especially the title-poem of Ariel. Her miraculous buoyancy and, simultaneously, her suicidal death-consciousness reverberate in many of the lines and couplets of "Cadenza." (p. 60)
In Crow, Hughes tries to suppress that voice which stamped itself into his own spirit even while Sylvia Plath was going through the terrible phase, at once passionate and charged with deadly hatred, defined by the poems in Ariel. Husband and wife, as young poets developing together with a definitely reciprocal influence on one another despite their quite individual minds and styles, had shared a desire to be ruthlessly true to their perceptions and to the demands of language. One can actually see, in certain poems of the Crow sequence, a continuation of that reciprocity. They present both a fused voice and an ongoing dialogue. Meanwhile, the larger vision of the sequence as a whole pushes toward a kind of negative transcendence, archaic, archetypal, anti-lyrical, and obliterative of personality. The process by which Hughes creates a context for "the plainest and ugliest language" while guiding the interplay of opposites into what he calls "a bit of an epic" makes Crow an improvisational structure just as surely as are the superficially more diffuse great American sequences. (pp. 60-1)
Hughes's work … is of the same order as some of the most interesting American work of the age. It represents a formal ordering of a kind that the best American poetry has been after for a long time but that British critical hostility has made it difficult for English poets to pursue. Such a triumph is always internationally significant, and the explosive violence in Hughes's poetry seems especially expressive to Americans at this moment. (p. 61)
M. L. Rosenthal, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Spring-Summer, 1973.
Many of the younger British poets have … turned to myth as a vehicle of personal expression. One of the most gifted, Ted Hughes, has invented his own myth in the figure Crow, a primitive creature depicting the human consciousness exposing its own visions of immortality and love as evasions of the ever-present reality of death and the violence of man's history. Crow's world [in Crow] is as stark as Beckett's, even closer in its atmosphere of total desolation to that of Endgame than Waiting for Godot, and he himself, like Beckett's mythical figures, is a composite of unconscious drives and yearnings reacting without order or comprehension to an equally chaotic nature. Reduced even further than Beckett's characters to the level of pure appetite, lust, aggression and rage, Crow, like them, acknowledges both classical and Christian mythical figures, only to interpret their deeds through the perspective of his own narcissism and despair. He consumes them and, stripped of their exalted roles, they become part of his essence. Toward God, his adversary, he is equally violent.
Hughes's various techniques—mock ballads and songs, ritual questions and incantations, direct accounts of battle and carnage that suddenly take on the mad logic of dreams, imitations of the contents and tone of Genesis that conclude in savagery and violence—all expose the deepest layers of consciousness struggling not only to survive the constant threat of extinction, but even to retain its fantasy of power and control. At the end of "Examination at the Womb-Door," having answered a long series of questions with the repeated word "Death," Crow is asked the last one: "But who is stronger than death?" The ambiguity of his reply typifies the distortion of myth which is its essential means of revealing the consciousness that conceived it: "Me evidently," he says, and he has passed the test.
In many of the poems of this volume, Crow's elemental probing, staring, prophesying, struggling and weeping have the effect of genuine mythical narrative, but there are times when he seems more a manifestation of Hughes's self-conscious efforts to establish his creature's unqualified rage as a mythical force than a conveyor of general psychic conflict. This self-consciousness in the use of myth to depict extreme possibilities of mental experience occurs in much of contemporary poetry. (p. 13)
Lillian Feder, in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1974.
[Ted Hughes's Selected Poems 1957–67] is scarcely the occasion for thorough revaluation of his work, but one may hazard a few thoughts after reading this selection of pre-Crow poems…. [Enough] individual poems can be found in The Hawk and the Rain and Lupercal "The Thought-Fox," "The Horses," "Wind," "Meeting," the fine "October Dawn," and the even more impressive "November," "Thrushes," and "Pike"—to support an account of Hughes as an authentic minor poet. Most of these display, in addition to the natural forces encountered, an "I" that encounters them with piety, fostered alike by beauty and by fear. Such respect is felt strongly within the speaking voice's rhythms of presentation—not in dramatic shifts of tone … but in the sure grip and force of assertion…. (p. 229)
But what would he do when he ran out of animals, went the joke. The answer was to let Crow stand for everything in the universe that isn't mind or soul, then write increasingly simplified "cartoon"-like poems in which you assume the voice of God and don't stay for question or answer…. [We] look to the poet to provide us with more complex, various, and interesting versions of experience than we ourselves can come up with. Hughes seems to me humanly deficient in his vision of things…. For me … [Crow is a disaster]: the humanly tentative, relatively flexible moments of seeing in the earlier books are no more; the poetry is now sensationalistic, bloody but unsustaining. And there looks like more coming—his latest sequence is called "Cave Birds."
I am also aware that Hughes's progress could be seen quite otherwise…. But the performance of Crow is of the sort that polarizes readers into comparably cartoon-like extremities of posture; so it is good to have this selection remind us that it was not ever or always thus in Hughes's organized violence upon language. (pp. 230-31)
William H. Pritchard, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976.
Hardly any of criticism's established systems of value, most of which are one way or the other neoplatonic, prove adequate for dealing with Ted Hughes's poetry, either as frames or as starting points. More obsessively than Lawrence, Hughes demands that we forget everything, moral value included (and moral and intellectual temporizing especially), in order to perceive the extent to which our assumptions about the nature of existence are crude illusions of perspective, innocent epistemologies based upon fastidiously selective habits of perception. Even to say that is to imply a conventional humanistic agenda which Hughes appears to have moved beyond. In fact he has divested romanticism of all its notions of sentimental humanistic utility, and it seems to me that this represents a quantum progression even beyond Lawrence…. Hughes is nothing if not committed, and he goes his way, pressing toward apocalypse this century's hardened antihumanistic pessimism.
It is not an accident that his poems are unpeopled, and it seems unlikely that he will one day cast off his shaman's raiment and disclose himself to have been R. D. Laing in disguise. There are reassuringly lyrical moments, most recently in Season Songs, but even Hughes's lyricism is gothic and is motivated chiefly by weather and beasts and stones…. The question that he … [broods] over is whether achieving it is worth the cost, even where existence without it is worth less. Like Beckett, Hughes has the forbearance, and the cynical distrust of mere aesthetic form, to leave the question unresolved.
The mode of being which clearly is not worth living is the effect of the enlightenment extended into our time: vital relationships suppressed at all levels of experience by the rule of intellect…. For Hughes it would seem that the modern predicament is an effect … of our powers of sympathy having gone awry, become abstract rather than affective, so that in denying "essential human subjectivity" in the interest of protecting others from ourselves, we have ceased to be selves at all and have broken off our continuity with the forces of nature, which are by definition brutal. (pp. xciii-xciv)
It seems inevitable that Hughes will be intelligible mainly to the St. Georges of the world and that his energies, like Blake's, will in the end be harnessed to serve rationalism's vested interests. Perhaps the nearest thing to revelation we can hope for now is that occasionally a modern reader will look up from a volume of Hughes's poems onto a cold geometry of architectural glass and prestressed concrete and feel momentarily insecure—or perhaps, glumly, very much like a clockwork orange. (p. xcvi)
Vereen Bell, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1976 by The University of the South), Summer, 1976.
The Anglican Reverend Nicholas Lumb has a surprising way with him. It seems
He is starting Christianity all over again, right from the start.
He has persuaded all the women in the parish.
Only women can belong to it.
They are all in it and he makes love to them all, all the time.
Because a saviour
Is to be born in this village, and Mr. Lumb is to be the earthly father.
He is eventually killed by outraged husbands after a quasi-theoriomorphic ritual orgy which goes murderously wrong.
The whole plot of this long narrative poem is not quite so simply hilarious. Lumb is some sort of duplicate of Lumb from "the other world"—the substitution is effected in a nightmarish prologue. The real Reverend Lumb stands up at the end on the west coast of Ireland and leaves a notebook of opaque poems on a rock—and these form the conclusion of Gaudete. Yes, the whole as a whole is perplexing. "Poets in our civilization … must be difficult."
But the central action is splendid, available, and generally fine writing. It would be tempting to recommend starting a first reading here but for the fact that the mysterious and bloody prologue (whatever its ultimate point) productively complicates one's response to the clear people, clear events and potential humour of much of what ensues. It causes the action to be attended by a continuous and disturbing ambiguity.
Form and technique are fascinating. The poem we are told was originally intended as a film scenario. It is comprehensible that Ted Hughes might try one. He has that sure poetic instinct that heads implacably for the particular instances rather than ideas or abstraction; he has an especial talent for evoking the visual particular; he has an avowed belief in the inability of words to match experience….
Thoughts and conscience take the shape of visualized fantasies and dreams. The story-line picks its way from picture to picture. We follow (for example) a woman moving from room to room, we focus on a drop of water on a tap, on mirrors, a conifer through the window, an orange vase …; "she stares towards her husband's medical reference library, to numb herself on its dull morocco"….
Poetical narrative is borrowing cinema's distinct method of narrative: cinema's method of switching scene and "point of view", cinema's method of suggestive particularizing, cinema's method of getting across action, thought and emotion.
It might not have worked (Antonioni's scripts incidentally make uproariously awful reading). But Ted Hughes has produced a strange bastard form that does work, often brilliantly. It works not simply because he is a fine writer. It is because he has such an acute sense of the suggestive power of specific visual images and the ability to evoke them in words…. Gaudete is obviously a very different work from Hughes's other poetry, but it indulges one of his most familiar talents. It ranks I think with The Hawk in the Wind or Lupercal (high praise)—though I must admit to preferring the earlier work….
Like all good writers Ted Hughes has good qualities vulnerable to caricature; and like all good writers he occasionally caricatures himself. His style characteristically involves wonderfully violent bombardments of basic words. But these can tend towards overkill, to excessive agglomeration and unproductive mixed metaphor….
If a tendency towards an occasional self-defeating extravagance be admitted, his own theoretical pronouncements supply a clue to the cause. Hughes has a strong sense that words cannot match what one actually feels and sees. In Words and Experience, for example, he writes as follows: "There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow's flight. All we can do is to use a word as an indicator, or a whole bunch of words as a general directive…. And a bookload of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying." So we get our bunches of sometimes despairing and ineffectual words—he tries too hard. But not often: mostly his work belies his own pessimism. And (more important) Ted Hughes can do more than reproduce experience. The theorizing mentioned above suggests a rather cramping view of the relationship of art to life; but luckily his poetry in general does not. Art can imitate the form, art can be better than life.
Oliver Lyne, "The Lecherous Reverend Lumb," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 1, 1977, p. 800.
[The] narrative poetry of Ted Hughes … seems with each book to grow more rigidly violent in matter and style. Though the first few pages [of "Gaudete"] present a Mithraic baptism in which live bulls are disemboweled above the spread-eagled victim of a ritual flagellation, the violence of expression exceeds that of incident.
A radio "squirts out a sizzle of music," while bees at apple blossoms are "groping and clambering into the hot interiors of the blood and milk clots." When a lady is excited, "a lump of boiling electricity swells under her chest"; later, a man hears his daughter, pregnant by Lumb, playing piano: "Her hands seemed to be plunging and tossing inside his chest." Even the foundation garments are done in hot purple: "the hot silken frailties, the giant, gristled power, the archaic sea-fruit inside her, which her girdle bites into."
From such hysteria there is nowhere to go; so, when Lumb sees that an entire street has become a mass grave, he is "too astonished to speak," a characteristic, excruciating anticlimax. "Powerful," chime the reviewers' blurbs, and Hughes courts the adjective with bloody persistence. His language and characters both resemble ponderous items of antique military engineering, futile rams and engines, so manically overbuilt for power that they cannot budge: fantastic artifacts of peacetime generals.
Such writing is bad not because it tries to make violence seem erotic, stimulating, morally "powerful," but because it makes violence and eroticism both seem merely literary and boring. In fairness to "the most powerful and original voice in English poetry today" (according to the London Times Educational Supplement), I should say that the book has to do with dark ritual truths, the prime core of the abnormal…. So, for some readers the violence may be justified by deeper rewards; but as for me, I can't find anything under all that ketchup except baloney. (pp. 4-5)
Robert Pinsky, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 25, 1977.
In his continuing examination of violence and its role in the world, Hughes does not choose sides for or against the forces that are set in opposition to each other, except in a few particular situations. For the most part, violence is an accepted fact of life that exists as the connecting link between all creatures in the history of the earth from prehistoric times to contemporary England…. Again and again Hughes stresses the subtle connection in the primitive drives of the wind, the jaguar, the soldier, of all creation…. [The] animal world is used by Hughes as a means of gaining greater insights into the human world. (pp. 92-3)
Hughes does begin with the assumption that violence is an inherent element of all being, but this does not involve the glorification or propagation of violence through his poetry. Instead, Hughes sees that because the mainstream of twentieth-century thought, modern liberalism, has been unwilling to admit that man's nature in some way partakes of a primitive violence, man has become unable to cope with this element in his world. Like other elements of life, says Hughes, violence in vacuo is morally neutral and only takes on qualities of good and evil from its social and historical environment. (p. 93)
[Hughes's] speaker is more often a created persona than the voice of the poet. Another technique that effectively removes both reader and poet to a distance from the poem is the choice of the animal world for symbols of primitive violence and force. Ironically, by shielding himself in these ways from charges of insensitivity, Hughes opened himself up to criticism from another source. His detachment has been interpreted as a rejection of compassion and involvement with human affairs…. Such criticism ultimately falls short of coming to terms with the poetry. The elements that Hughes employs to gain detachment were used by Donne and Milton, by Eliot and Yeats. Detachment implies neither insensitivity nor disengagement. (p. 94)
[His] continual accents upon large and complex patterns of behavior give his poetry a sense of … depth. Primitive myth and symbol are integral elements of his poetry, as seen in the titles of two of his volumes: Lupercal and Wodwo. His later volume, Crow, shows Hughes moving more consciously in this direction. The crow is a frequent figure representing discord and strife in folk iconography. He is called the Great Crow or Crow Father in both Eskimo legends and in American Indian myths. While the effect is closer to the mythmaking of Yeats or the restructuring of myths by Lawrence, the technique is nearer to Hardy's in The Dynasts, where the reader is shown the forces of the world at work, moving both through and beyond the limitations of man. (p. 95)
His primary concern is with violence as a primitive force that is invested in every form of life. It is here that his tone of assertion is present, for the one dominant theme that emerges throughout his poetry is that this mythic violent force is inherent in the very essence of being, from the wind and rocks to humankind. The basic conflict in life revolves on man's attempt to deal with these forces, which on the one hand are subhuman but by that very token are beyond man's capability to subdue. Man must come to terms with this element in his nature, not through suppression or escape (both of which are impossible), but through accommodation. In a sense this demands a Lawrentian "lapsing-out," for man's consciousness and intellect are the basic obstacles to a successful accommodation. Hughes sees the intellect's indulgence in the life of violence as a perversion of the primitive instinct for violence that still persists in the animal world. It is at this point that the poet shows regret for what he sees to be lacking in the modern expression of violence. Violence in nature is actually a positive force, but when man imposes the intellect upon it, he makes it into something destructive. Under these conditions Hughes becomes an apostle against violence. But he emphasizes the distinction and points to the source of the pollution. His emphasis is finally positive, with the assertion that man must commit himself to life in spite of what he might consider the destructive consequences of violence upon life. (p. 96)
What we notice in [the] earlier poems that tell of violence in the natural world is a direct, sincere voice, the voice of an observer who knows that his detached descriptions are sufficiently effective for his purpose. But the poems in Crow, having as their subject a mythical force rather than an actual animal, take on a cynical tone that is echoed in the bitter laughter heard in many of the poems. The poet's vision has crystallized and unified, and the certainty with which he now approaches his theme demands a unique strength. (p. 97)
His response [to violence] tends to be analytical rather than emotional, and he is more interested in the nature of the violence than in man's reaction to it. The poetry of Hughes is not of the immediate historical moment and as a result is not in … danger … of becoming dated. (p. 99)
Man is the creature who has been excluded from the violence of nature, for his violence is no longer instinctual but planned and intellectualized. Recognizing this rift between the two worlds of violence, Hughes in poem after poem sets out mental scouting parties that explore the forms of violence that still link man to the other world: birth, sex, war, and death. He sees these experiences as means for man to reestablish his connections with his primitive origins. (p. 101)
Crag Jack is a symbol of all men who have lost identity with their violent origins and who have partial insights into their unconscious instincts. Hughes is frequently preoccupied with examining these insights, always asking if it is possible, after birth and childhood, to make some kind of accommodation with the violence in his nature. This search provides much of the tension in his poetry, for the release that he expects to come from indulging the instincts (in sex, in war) is usually frustrated by the very fact that his characters are human. He never advocates the abandonment of humanity in pursuit of one's instincts, and his characters often find it impossible to straddle the civilized and the instinctual worlds.
One of the connectors that he examines is the sexual union, and the poet's response is typical of the philosophical dilemma in which he frequently finds himself. The sexual act, we might expect, should be represented in his poetry as a viable connection with the instinctual world. But Hughes is above all honest, and love and sex are seldom positive forces in his work. Rather it is man's inability to be both man and animal at the same time that dooms the sexual response. For in accommodating oneself to his sexual instincts, he submits to a primitive and thoroughly selfish impulse, or, by avoiding them, he is drawn into ugly repressions. (p. 102)
There is constant tension and confrontation between man's intelligence and the powers represented by Crow. Hughes sees one of man's basic failings to be his continuous effort to objectify "evil," or in Crow's amoral world, the black forces. "Crow's Account of St. George" is one of the most horrifying poems about human relationships in our language. It begins with the premise that man is misdirected in attempting to see a logical order in the universe:
He sees everything in the Universe
Is a track of numbers racing towards an answer.
Because of this orderly universe, he is led to believe he can control and master those elements that he finds hostile…. The mistake soon becomes evident; by projecting the evil outside man, it remains undetected as it grows within and around him. Once he begins to search out evil, he encounters it everywhere—the blackness is omnipresent. (p. 109)
Because man has become isolated from what Hughes sees as his true nature, the poet offers for a solution an accommodation with his violent nature that depends upon his ability to fuse the intellectual and instinctual. All attempts to overcome the outbreaks of violence from below result either in defeat for the human element ("Two Wise Generals") or at best in a standstill that promises continuing struggle in the future "Thistles"). Since there seems to be no danger of man's abandoning intellect and consciousness, Hughes directs his attention to an accommodation that man must make with the instinctual part of his nature. In the effort to achieve this balance, he must abandon himself to or at least consent to the violent forces within him and accept his consciousness not as a help in this matter but as a burden. He seeks a way to relieve the tensions of poems like "Secretary" and "Incompatibilities," tensions that frequently result in unresolved frustrations. He recognizes the validity of submitting to the destructive element, while at the same time realizing the necessity of emerging as a whole human being. Two sides of this essential problem are explored in the title poems of The Hawk in the Rain and Wodwo. The former shows the man caught between the two forces and unable to resolve the tension; the latter depicts a symbolic accommodation that releases this tension. (p. 110)
The thrust of violence can be positive or negative; in "The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar" the poet's metaphysical concern with violence finds a workable metaphor that stresses the revitalizing powers of violent action…. Preaching a lesson of man's basic brutality and the necessity for accommodation with this part of one's nature, [the poet] must necessarily come into conflict with traditional social values. But his success as poet does not rest in his retreat from violence but in exploring this as his theme. The poet finds greater credibility among his readers not in avoiding this issue (like the neohumanists) but in pursuing the study of violence in man's nature. Those who try to frighten people away from violence are leading people astray: "An ignorant means to establish ownership/Of his flock!"
Those who try to escape the implications of living in a violent world are generally shown to be failures. Man may attempt to substitute wisdom, shrewdness, ideals of brotherhood, for the forces of his violent nature, but his attempts prove futile. (pp. 115-16)
Frustration seems to be the tone of a number of poems illustrating the theme of man's destructive nature, the frustration being barely controlled by a poet who feels his audience does not dare to listen to him. "Criminal Ballad" presents the education of what Hughes would consider the romantic humanist, the man who insists on defending his vision of a happy world. But as he vigorously protests the beauty of the world, this very act bloodies his hands, marks his participation in the destructive acts he struggled against. His initial response is to weep for the loss of his imagined world, until he realizes that the real world is absurd and cruel, and nothing he will do can change it; so "he began to laugh." This is a difficult lesson to have set before us, but Hughes insists that we face the situation nakedly. In this sense, his poetry becomes a rending of the veil, the veil of illusion that allows us to remain in happy contact with nature, with our fellow men, with ourselves. Any attempt to alter this reality, or any effort to contend with the dark forces is futile and ridiculous—the traditional concept of the mythic hero who might come to destroy the black force and make the world safe for mankind is absurd. "The Contender" who devotes his life to this crusade has in the end only "his senseless trial of strength" as his reward. (p. 118)
Although Hughes sees the attempted escape from violence as an escape from life, and the intellectual's circumvention as a sign of weakness and ineffectual temporizing, he never assumes an assertive stance that indiscriminately approves of all violent acts. Hughes seldom creates circumstances that lend themselves to a strong criticism of violence, but there are several striking poems in which this occurs. From these poems we understand what he finds offensive in the modern expression of violence and how he feels an essentially healthy instinct has been perverted in modern history.
His basic complaint is that modern violence has ceased to be a function of those instinctive urgings that he writes about in most of his poetry. "The Ancient Heroes and the Bomber Pilot" contrasts ancient and modern wielders of violence, stressing that what is lacking in the pilot is the sense of personal self-expression in his acts so that they become totally destructive both in reference to himself and to his victims. The ancient heroes on the other hand found healthy expression in their violent acts…. The bomber pilot … is a highly sophisticated instrument of war, trained to kill by command, not from need or desire. Contrasting his own actions and motives with his ancient counterparts, he is mortified: "The grandeur of their wars humbles my thought." (pp. 122-23)
Nor is man greatly concerned with individual suffering and violence. In "A Woman Unconscious" man's modern consciousness is preoccupied with universal destruction, which is a substitute for his concern with private tragedy. It is no longer a question of one warrior fighting another…. The bomber pilot could make the enemy capital "jump to a fume," but he would be insensible to the suffering of the thousands burned alive. Hughes seriously challenges this loss of values in an atomic age, and cries out with more immediate passion than is usual in his poetry…. (pp. 123-24)
While registering the frustration, the despair, and the moral indignation [aroused by contemporary society], Hughes never retreats from what the majority of his poems describe as man's commitment to life, his association with primitive nature. His final accents are positive, for Hughes asserts that the human spirit, not only in spite of the violence of its nature, but also because of it, must always turn towards life, never away from life.
Hughes quite clearly expresses this part of his philosophy in a short three-stanza poem that is almost lost in the middle of The Hawk in the Rain: "Invitation to the Dance." This is an extremely important poem in a discussion of Hughes's attitude towards violence, for while acknowledging that the essence of life is touched with violence and brutality, it asserts that these elements should not deter us from committing ourselves to a full and active participation in life. (pp. 125-26)
The ultimate value of Hughes might be [that he had] the strength to stand up and endure in the face of violence…. [He] fulfills that famous prescription of Faulkner: "The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail." (p. 127)
His ability to involve himself with violence and to handle it with an exciting poetic technique distinguishes him from those contemporaries who retreat to the security of safe traditional technique and conventional minor themes. (p. 129)
Lawrence R. Ries, "Ted Hughes: Acceptance and Accommodation," in his Wolf Masks: Violence in Contemporary Poetry (copyright © 1977 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1977, pp. 92-129.