Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes 152750557X, 9781527505575, 9781527510319

Shamanism is not a religion, but a technique of achieving ecstasy through chanting, the beating of a drum and the shakin

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Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes
 152750557X, 9781527505575, 9781527510319

Table of contents :
Table of Contents
Ted Hughes as Shaman
Hughes and Tradition
Shamanistic Knowledge of Death
Shamanistic Healing
Healing Akin to Mythmaking
Hughes' Mythological Scenarios
Chapter One
The ‘Episodic’ and the ‘Encyclopaedic' in Hughes Animal Poems
Chapter Two
Crow – Journey Towards Enlightenment
The Journey of Crow
How to Interpret the Myth
Workings of Pragmatic Myth
The Language of Crow is Shamanic
Chapter Three
Cave Birds - An Alchemical Cave Drama or a Tribal Myth?
Historical Myth
Alchemical Drama
Sufi Fable
The White Goddess – Usurpation of the Feminine
Death and Rebirth
Chapter Four
Gaudete - Reconciliation of the Inner and Outer World in Terms of Gender
Cockpit or ‘the Despotism of the Eye’
Reverend Lumb as Shaman
Hades and Dionysos are One
Parzival and His Brother
The Myth of Gaudete
Selected Bibliography

Citation preview

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes By

Ewa Panecka

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes By Ewa Panecka This book first published 2018 Cambridge Scholars Publishing Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Copyright © 2018 by Ewa Panecka All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. ISBN (10): 1-5275-0557-X ISBN (13): 978-1-5275-0557-5


Introduction ................................................................................................. 1 Ted Hughes as Shaman .......................................................................... 1 Hughes and Tradition ........................................................................... 13 Shamanistic Knowledge of Death ........................................................ 17 Shamanistic Healing ............................................................................ 21 Healing Akin to Mythmaking .............................................................. 23 Hughes' Mythological Scenarios.......................................................... 24 Chapter One ............................................................................................... 31 The ‘Episodic’ and the ‘Encyclopaedic’ in Hughes Animal Poems .... 31 Hawk .................................................................................................... 33 Jaguar ................................................................................................... 40 Otter ..................................................................................................... 48 Fox ....................................................................................................... 51 Chapter Two .............................................................................................. 55 Crow – Journey Towards Enlightenment ............................................. 55 The Journey of Crow ........................................................................... 61 How to Interpret the Myth ................................................................... 70 Workings of Pragmatic Myth ............................................................... 73 The Language of Crow is Shamanic .................................................... 75 Chapter Three ............................................................................................ 81 Cave Birds - An Alchemical Cave Drama or a Tribal Myth? .............. 81 Historical Myth .................................................................................... 82 Alchemical Drama ............................................................................... 83 Sufi Fable ............................................................................................. 84 The White Goddess – Usurpation of the Feminine .............................. 85 Death and Rebirth ................................................................................ 87


Table of Contents

Chapter Four ............................................................................................ 109 Gaudete - Reconciliation of the Inner and Outer World in Terms of Gender...................................................................................... 109 Cockpit or ‘the Despotism of the Eye’............................................... 115 Reverend Lumb as Shaman ............................................................... 119 Hades and Dionysos are One ............................................................. 120 Parzival and His Brother .................................................................... 123 The Myth of Gaudete ......................................................................... 124 Conclusion ............................................................................................... 131 Selected Bibliography ............................................................................. 135


Ted Hughes as Shaman Most scholarly research is the result of a kind of evolution. The poetry of Ted Hughes became the subject of my PhD thesis, which I completed in the year of his death, in 1998. For the following two decades – a substantial period of time in a reader’s and a scholar’s life – I read Hughes and discussed his poems with students. Twenty years means a lot in a reader’s and a scholar’s life. The present monograph is my second look at Hughes’ verse, which, it is hoped, will reveal more depth and substance than the original range of perspectives. Not only are the old themes revitalized, but a closer look at the criticism of Hughes is taken. While considering new ways into the reading of his poetry, I was aided by my research on Poets Laureate, Literature and the Monarchy: The Traditional and the Modern Concept of the Office of Poet Laureate of England, published in 2014, where, among twenty official bearers of the title, I wrote about the 14-year tenure of Ted Hughes. When Hughes was appointed to the office, Seamus Heaney called him “shaman of the tribe”, whose role would be to put his readers in vital imaginative contact with the geological, botanical, historical and legendary reality of England itself.1 In the modern perspective, the mission of the Poet Laureate of England is to speak for the nation and comment on the nation’s current concerns rather than to praise the monarch. As Laureate, Ted Hughes was more than an exotic cultural figure of Mircea Eliade’s shaman or a Jungian offshoot of imaginal psychology. His poetry offered a healing substance, uniting the beautiful and the sublime, and thus illuminating the natural world as a path to spiritual experience. For Hughes, the unifying vision was symbolized by the Crown and needed to be constantly re-negotiated, ‘refolded’ and ‘re-hammered’.2 When Hughes was admitted to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, Jeanette Winterson wrote: 1

Seamus Heaney in: Scigaj, Leonard. Critical Essays on Ted Hughes (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), p. 64. 2 Ibid.


Introduction He is a poet working to bring back into touch two continents of experience that have tectonically separated. The natural world and its rhythms, he believed, are as necessary to humankind as any amount of progress, and so Hughes uses his own body as a bridge, feeling everything that he writes through the shock of being there - he fished the rivers, crouched under the trees, had the adventure-spirit of a wild man. Then he translated nature’s hermetic language into one we can read.3

The day of Hughes' death was dark and cold. To some it recalled the storm scene in King Lear, with black clouds covering the entire country, torrential rain, hail beating down and gales blasting autumn leaves. The Poet Laureate, one of the most eminent in the British bardic tradition, embarked on his last shamanistic flight and it seemed as if nature was bemoaning the loss. William Scammell wrote in his tribute: If we'd absorbed Ted's best poems into some part of our being, as a great many people have, the idea of nature sharing in our grief at the death of its greatest celebrant since Hopkins, Wordsworth or Keats, is not so fanciful after all. Thanks to him we have been ‘startled by [our] own existence’ into some awareness of those awesome powers we share the universe with. Who's to say that on occasion they don't speak to us and for us, better than we speak for ourselves?4

How did Ted Hughes make his readers aware of ‘those awesome powers’? In his poems he called for the destruction of the artificial, sterile personality created by Western culture and thus offered a way of liberating man’s true, instinctual self. In doing so he performed a healing, regenerating ritual, often likened to shamanistic practitioners' magic. Poetry is a natural vehicle for the expression of feelings and emotions, and the shaman – poet can transcend the constraints of ordinary language.5 Hughes claimed that in human language, ‘animal music’ in which the poet can evoke the spirits, is present.6 Since most of Hughes' animal poems, and some whose protagonists are human, are based on shamanistic rites, for the sake of the following discussion it will be helpful to summarize a general formula of the shamanistic crisis.


Jeanette Winterson, in: The Guardian, March, 2008. William Scammell, A Tribute to Ted Hughes’ in: The Independent on Sunday Culture, 1 November 1998, p. 3. 5 David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (Now York: Random House), 1996, p. 256. 6 Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, citing an interview with Hughes, Times Literary Supplement 1, October 1971. 4

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


A shaman is a kind of exorcist whose function is to restore natural order. He is an intermediary between this world and the next. Dissatisfied with reality, he identifies himself with an animal, and clad in the animal's skin undergoes a series of transformations, involving suffering and dismemberment. He enters the underworld which he visits escorted and instructed by a guide. Having acquired a new awareness of himself and the world, the shaman comes back to the community which he serves, sharing the revelation. Joseph Campbell gives the following account of the ritual: A. A spontaneously precipitated rupture with the world of common day, revealed in symptoms analogous to those of a serious breakdown: visions of dismemberment, fosterage in the world of the spirits, and restitution. B. A course of shamanistic, mythological instruction under a master, through which an actual restitution of a superior level is achieved. C. A career of magical practice in the service of the community, defended from the natural resentment of the assisted community by various tricks and parodies of power.7

It is important to see that the shaman undergoes all the suffering for the sake of his community and that his mission is to cure and to heal. Mircea Eliade, in his interpretation of shamanism, accentuates the shaman's role as one of magical defense, the exorcism of evil and restoration of spiritual health. Thus the shaman is, first of all, a witch doctor and a psychotherapist: The shamans have played an essential role in the defense of the psychic integrity of the community. They are pre-eminently the antidemonic champions; they combat not only demons but also the black magicians!8

The shaman performs a cultural function as well. The animal mask he chooses is ‘charged’ with all the mythology of the species.9 His ecstatic journey to the underworld has the intention to restore natural order. The shaman's guides, his ‘helping spirits’, often assume animal forms. Eliade explains: 7

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 265. 8 Mircea Eliade, Shamanism; Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (New York: Princeton University Press, 1972), p.508. 9 Stuart Hirschberg, Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1981), p. 11.


Introduction Each time a shaman succeeds in sharing in the animal mode of being, he in a manner re-establishes the situation that existed in illo tempore, in mythical times, when the divorce between man and the animal world had not yet occurred.10

The shaman can cross the borderline between the living and the dead and as such, he can ‘die’ and ‘return’. Having come to grips with suffering, with a terrifying inward experience, the shaman is no longer at the mercy of death. What is more, he contributes to his community's knowledge of dying by presenting it as a rite of passage to a spiritual mode of being. Eliade thus summarizes the journey: The lands that the shaman sees and the personages that he meets during his ecstatic journeys in the beyond are minutely described by shaman himself, during and after his trance. The unknown and terrifying world of death assumes form, is organized in accordance with particular patterns; finally it displays a structure and, in course of time, becomes familiar and acceptable.11

Is it possible for a modem poet to become a shaman? Perhaps for many it would be too demanding a task, but not for Ted Hughes, who, along with his title of Poet Laureate enjoyed the well- deserved nickname of the Crow of Avon, coined by Holbrook.12 Both critics and Hughes' readers alike saw this particular Laureate as a shaman who speaks to the readers clad in his animal, crow-like mask. It would be interesting to apply the description of the shamanistic crisis offered by Campbell in order to establish if Ted Hughes' life and work followed the successive stages of the ritual. Stage A is about suffering. Of pain and anguish Hughes had more than a fair share. The trauma of Sylvia Plath's tragic suicide (11 February 1963) caused the poet to fall silent for two years. In 1969, Assia Wevill, at that time Hughes' lover, took her own life and that of their daughter. Campbell says that a good shaman dies more than once: ‘It is said,’ declared Alexeyev Ivan, ‘that the really good shamans are cut up three times in their life, the poor only once. The spirit of an exceptional


Eliade, Shamanism..., p.94. Ibid., p.p. 509-510. 12 David Holbrook, ‘The Crow of Avon? Shakespeare, Sex and Ted Hughes’ in: The Cambridge Quarterly vol. 15, 1986, p.p. 1-12. 11

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


shaman is born again after his death. They say that great shamans are reborn three times.’13

The shaman, in addition to his private suffering, takes upon himself the community’s crises. A state of personal anguish can heighten his awareness of tribal disasters. So what, for Hughes, is the modern tribal disaster, and what, according to the poet, needs to be healed? In his poetry, he voices his disillusionment with Western Christian culture, which he on numerous occasions labelled ‘mistreatment of the White Goddess’. Hughes claims that from the 1560s, there has been a gradual rise in the determination to divide nature into abstract good and physical evil.14 He identifies nature with a goddess who recalls Robert Graves' White Goddess presented in his famous study of poetic myth. The White Goddess represents natural law and love of sensation and organic life. Graves tries to show that in the beginning of all world myths there is always a powerful female goddess who is usurped by a male god.15 Walder concurs, reminding us of Graves' idea that the suppression of the female was first enacted by the Greek mythologists.16 Hughes insists that during the Reformation, the ‘goddess’ - in the form of Roman Catholicism was being put down, finally and decisively, by a pragmatic, skeptical, moralizing, desacralizing spirit: (...) the spirit of the ascendant, Puritan God of the individual conscience, the Age of Reason cloaked in the Reformation.17

The poet feels that there is a need for a new divinity to replace Christianity, which he calls the worn out religious machinery of a worn out culture. Michael Sweeting interprets Hughes' diagnosis of the tribal


Campbell, The Masks of God..., p.265. Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (London: Faber, 1992), p. 84. 15 Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, amended edition (London: Faber, 1961) 16 Dennis Walder, Ted Hughes. Open Guides to Literature (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987), p. 81. 17 Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess... p. 85. 14



disaster saying that today’s world is ‘too much held back by its rationality and its arbitrary taboos’.18 As a result of his disappointment with Western Christian culture and following his long silence after the death of Sylvia Plath, Hughes wrote Wodwo (1967). Scigaj interprets the volume as a shamanistic flight: In the poems of Wodwo one learns that Hughes' disenchantment is personally experienced in private life and analyzed through plausible social psychology. The disenchantment is earned through the unremitting agony of the poems and a positive alternative is offered. Through this disencumbering process Hughes opens the door for the emergence of Oriental patterns of thought he had been meditating on throughout the early sixties.19

If we view Hughes’ life as that of a shaman, stage B is, according to Campbell, the time of mythological instruction. Having suffered and having diagnosed the reasons, the shaman is instructed by a guide. It was the White Goddess who guided Hughes to regeneration. At Cambridge he studied Anthropology and Archeology, and in the sixties he and Sylvia Plath acquired extensive knowledge of Ancient Greek, Hermetic and Sufi practices and philosophies. Hughes considers himself a myth-maker for a post-Christian world. Although Malinowski claims that myths cannot be ‘invented’ deliberately because as such they will be alien to the social context to which they should belong,20 Hughes insists on re-inventing the myth. He wants a myth which will be universal: as it might be invented after the holocaust and demolition of all libraries, where essential things spring again - if at all - only from their seeds in nature - and are not lugged around or hoarded as preserved harvests from the past.21


Michael Sweeting, ‘Hughes and Shamanism’ in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement of Ted Hughes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), p. 74. 19 Leonard Scigaj, ‘Oriental Mythology in Wodwo’ in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement..., p. 128. 20 Bronislaw Malinowski, Myth in Primitive Psychology (New York: Anchor Books paperback, 1954), p.p. 45-55. 21 Ted Hughes, a letter to Keith Sagar in: Sagar, Keith The Art of Ted Hughes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1978). p. 107.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Ritual story telling has a healing function, McKenna calls it ‘epic narration of mythical scenarios’.22 An important aspect of myth-telling is its practicality; it can heal mistreatment of the White Goddess. In other words, it can offer solutions to problems in order, as Scigaj puts it: To heal the subject - object dualism and the divorce of mind from instinct that leads to cultural schizophrenia.23

Hughes expresses a similar view: The myths and legends, which Plato proposed as the ideal educational material for his young citizens, can be seen as large - scale accounts of negotiations between the powers of the inner world, under which ordinary men and women have to live. They are immense and at the same time highly detailed sketches for the possibilities of understanding and reconciling the two.24

Hughes viewed writing as a shamanistic experience and gave numerous accounts of various poets as shamans. He considered Yeats a shaman because of his (Yeats') sense of a tribal disaster,25 he saw Shakespeare's fable as a shamanistic dream,26 and applied shamanistic patterns to his discussion of Leonard Baskin' s prints, thus showing that such shamanistic patterns can successfully explain not only literature but also visual arts.27 Some critics remained skeptical. Bradshaw wrote that before accepting the shaman as a symbol of psychic integration, we have to ask practical questions: Do we believe that shamans fly, or that their intestines turn to opal after death? What do we actually know about the incidence of neurosis and schizophrenia in primitive societies?28


Dennis J. McKenna & T.K. McKenna, The Invisible Landscape (New York: the Seabury Press, 1975), p. 25. 23 Leonard Scigaj, (ed.). Critical Essays on Ted Hughes (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1992), p. 227. 24 Ted Hughes, ‘Myth and Education’ in: Winter Pollen..., p. 151. 25 Ted Hughes, ‘The Poetic Self’ in: Winter Pollen..., p. 271. 26 Ted Hughes, 'Notes on Shakespeare' in: Winter Pollen..., p. 120. 27 Ted Hughes, Introduction to The Collected Prints of Leonard Baskin (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1984). 28 Graham Bradshaw, ‘Creative Mythology in Cave Birds’ in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement..., p. 213.



It seems that Hughes answered those questions in his interview with Faas, when he explained that shamanism is a method of controlling natural energies, of harnessing them through myth and religion: If you refuse the energy, you are living a kind of death. If you accept the energy, it destroys you. What is the alternative? To accept the energy, and find methods of turning it to good, of keeping it under control - rituals, the machinery of religion.29

Using his knowledge of primitive cultures and their mythologies and religions, through shamanistic techniques, with the help of powerful symbols, Hughes can invoke the Universal Energies and make them subservient to himself. Skea comments: Hughes' poetry shows the persistence of his early belief that he has a special and unusual relationship with Nature and that this gives him privileged access to the Energies. Together with his visionary and poetic skills, such beliefs have convinced Hughes that he is, like his Cave Birds protagonist, an appointed being, and that his poetic task is essentially that of the ancient poets and shamans. His stated intention has always been to use poetry as a means of negotiating with the Energies, and of channeling them into our world in order to bring us healing and enlightenment.30

Eliade calls the shaman an artist, a creator of oral literature. The shaman's adventures in the other world recall the adventures of epic heroes. The shaman, in order to fall into a state of trance, imitates songs of birds and his ‘second state’ of heightened emotional awareness resembles that of lyrical poetry. The shamanic seance follows a dramatic structure, with highly elaborate ‘staging’. Very modestly, Eliade concludes his study of shamanism by saying: These few remarks on the cultural creations made possible or simulated by the experiences of shaman must suffice. A thorough study of them would exceed the limits of this work. What a magnificent book remains to be written on the ecstatic ‘sources’ of epic and lyric poetry, on the prehistory


Ekbert Faas, ’Ted Hughes and Crow’. Interview with Ted Hughes, London Magazine vol. 10, 1971. 30 Ann Skea, Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (Armidale, New South Wales: University of New England Press, 1994), p. 238.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


of dramatic spectacles, and, in general, on the fabulous worlds discovered, explored, and described by the ancient shamans... .31

Graves suggests that the best test of a poet's vision is the accuracy of his portrayal of the White Goddess and the island over which she rules.32 The goddess is not separate from the world of things and she is present also in the human unconscious, from where she can be summoned and made accessible by an expert shaman.33 The very language of the shaman, the music or the melody of it, can alone have healing properties. The music can put listeners, as poetry can put readers, into a state of trance, which is a pre-requisite for healing. There is a description of the process in Gaudete: Lumb Is walking in a circle. The room is a maze of smoke From smouldering piles of herbs in ashtrays. He is holding something up, it is a stag's antlered head on a pole, Heavy and swaying and shag-maned. The pipe and drum music is tight, shuddering, repetitive machine Which seems bolted into the ground And as if they were all its mechanical parts, the women are fastened into it, As if the smoke were the noise of it, The noise of it raucous with the smoke and the smoke stirred by it. A hobbling, nodding, four-square music, a goblin monotony, The women in a circle clapping to the tread of it. Their hair dangles loose, their eyes slide oiled, their faces oiled with sweat In the trundling treadmill of it. It is like the music of a slogging, deadening, repetitive labour. They have left their faces hanging on the outside of the music as abandoned masks. They no longer feel their bodies. 31

Eliade, Shamanism..., p.p. 510-511. Graves, The White Goddess..., p.p. 24-25. 33 Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Critical Study (London: Faber, 1981), p. 19. 32



They have been taken deep into the perpetual motion of the music And have become the music. Gaudete, p. 139.

It will be obvious from the tragic story of Reverend Lumb that the shaman's mission requires a lot of courage; balancing between reality and the supernatural realm, he runs the risk of losing control of spiritual forces with a resulting dissociation of personality. The White Goddess combines beauty and horror, and she can be dangerous to those who love her: The poet is in love with the White Goddess, with Truth: his heart breaks with longing and love for her. She is the Flower-goddess Olwen or Blodeuwedd; but she is also Blodeuwedd the Owl, lamp eyed, hooting dismally, with her foul nest in the hollow of a dead tree, or Circe the pitiless falcon, or Lamia with her flickering tongue, or the snarlingchopped Sow-goddess, or the mare-headed Rhinnon who feeds on raw flesh. Odi atque omo: ‘to be in love’ is also to hate.34

Hirschberg interprets Hughes' Skylarks as a poem about Sylvia Plath, whose ‘terrifying ambivalence of a personality’ is ‘so open to the powers of creation that it brings on its own destruction’.35 To heed the danger, shamans use animal totems onto which they transfer their suffering and anguish. Transferring the totemic ritual into the world of the poet's reality, we can say that the poet needs a way to distance himself from his personal experience; otherwise, he will not be able to keep himself from the dreaded dissociation of personality. To illustrate Plath's phenomenon, Hirschberg quotes after Aristophanes the myth of the lark who existed before the earth and before the gods. When the lark's father died the lark buried him in his own head, as there was no other place; no earth to bury him in. According to Hughes, or rather according to Hirschberg's interpretation of Skylarks, Sylvia Plath buried her father in her own head, and ‘carried his grave continually with her, as the lark bears its crest’.36 Hughes' way, fortunately, was not Plath's way: he gave account of his coming to grips with the experience of her death in Birthday Letters, which saw light thirty years after her suicide, when the poet felt he had acquired enough distance and control over his pain and his sense of loss. 34

Graves, The White Goddess..., p. 448. Hirschberg, Myth..., p. 59. 36 Ibid., p. 59. 35

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Both his life and personality testify that Ted Hughes was himself a mythic presence. In such moments, he saw Sylvia Plath as an embodiment of the White Goddess, and Assia Wevill as the Black One.37 Hughes uses myth with the same intent as psychologists do: We live in the translation, where what had been religious and centered on God is psychological and centered on an idea of the self-albeit a self that remains a measureless if not infinite question mark (...)38

According to Levi-Strauss, through a language of myth provided by the shaman, sick people can express psychic states which are ‘unexpressed’ and ‘otherwise inexpressible’.39 This idea recalls what Jung said on individuation of the self. We need to go through a sort of transformation mystery in order to arrive at our true, integrated self.40 The shaman provides us with a language to express our psychic states very much in the way the psychiatrist offers diagnosis and therapy. The shamanistic ritual as it is performed in Hughes' opus. As a modern shaman, he suffered and offered the readers new insights acquired through his suffering : he wrote poetry. As a modern shaman, Hughes suffered and offered readers new insights acquired through his suffering: he wrote poetry. Yet, there was a practical side to his preoccupation with the Goddess as well. It can be argued that Hughes managed to accomplish the final, ‘C’ stage of the shamanistic crisis which, according to Campbell, consists in the shaman's magical practice in the service of the community. In 1984, the appointment of Hughes as Poet Laureate came as a shock. Some believed that a poet so obviously subversive, celebrating the amoral and often violent energies of nature, fighting against the civilizing norms of society, accused of ‘nihilism’ and even “sadism”41 should never have been given the title. But Hughes treated the post of Poet Laureate seriously, seeing it perhaps as something akin to becoming the nation’s shaman, and to becoming the nation’s shamanistic healer, not only in the metaphorical, 37

Edward Hadley, The Elegies of Ted Hughes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 142. Ted Hughes, 'The Poetic Self'..., p.p. 274-275. 39 Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (London: Penguin, 1963), p. 21. 40 Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Alchemy revised edition (London: Routledge, 1968), p. 81. 41 Paul Bentley, The Poetry of Ted Hughes: Language, Illusion and Beyond (London: Longman. 1998), p.p. 51-52. 38



but also in the literal sense. He engaged audiences in his poeticshamanistic rituals and strived to educate the young, for whom, he believed, there was still hope. As Morpurgo commented: Ted Hughes opened our eyes, he taught us to fly.42

Ted Hughes wrote ‘The Last Migration’ for a book whose royalties were donated to the Fauna Preservation Society. He wrote a knowledgeable review of Max Nicholson's The Environmental Revolution43 and submitted an offer to The Times Educational Supplement suggesting that schools should encourage children to plant trees. He also launched an educational charity which he called ‘Farms for City Children’, a project that would enable thousands of city children a year to live and work on a farm for a week. As a shaman proper, Hughes read his poetry publicly and his audiences were thrilled. Reid writes that hearing Hughes was like getting a secret glimpse into the workings of what had been powerful but also puzzling, we were being, not just diverted, but initiated, introduced to mysteries.44

Hughes naturally preferred young audiences. He came to ‘Farms for City Children’ and read his poetry to children in the evenings. He created ‘The Children's Laureate’, an honour to be awarded biannually to a writer or illustrator of children’s literature in order to focus awareness of the best of children's books among adults and children alike. Hughes also worked for the theatre. He was tireless in his support of new plays, and founded Sacred Earth Drama, which promoted plays by children or adults that, instead of focusing exclusively on man's relationship to man, dealt with man's relationship to the natural world. Robert Butler, who sat on a committee with him, said: Hughes believed that adults could be especially moved by plays they watched with children or plays that were performed by children. He quoted


Michael Morpurgo, 'Ted Hughes: Children's Champion' in: The Epic Poise..., p. 227. 43 Ted Hughes, Review of The Environmental Revolution by Max Nicholson in: Spectator, 21 March 1970. 44 Christopher Reid, 'Ted Hughes as Reader' in: Gommage, Nick (ed.) The Epic Poise (London: Faber, 1999), p. 228.

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the Chinese sages that the man in whom the child's heart and mind has died is no better than a dead man.45

Hughes founded the Avron Foundation, which was set up to run short courses for ‘apprentice writers’. With the Avron Foundation, fourteen apprentice writers live and work for a week with two well- known, published authors, gaining help and inspiration from such interaction. In 1992, when Hughes published Rain — Charm for the Duchy and other Laureate Poems, he spoke of his ‘boyhood fanatic patriotism’ in the notes provided to accompany the collection. There is a sense in his poems that in order to ‘exorcise a ghost it must be allowed to speak’46. For Hughes, the shock was that of the Great War and its tremendous impact on England and his family. It is interesting that a rebel like Hughes should further show his patriotism by supporting the institution of the monarchy. The Queen of a secular democracy is head of the Church of England, which must have become an inspiration to Hughes, the worshipper of the White Goddess.

Hughes and Tradition In order to analyze his poetry it is necessary to place Hughes in the literary tradition of his times. In the mid-1950s, Ted Hughes defined himself as a poet writing in opposition to the Movement. The Movement was never a recognised school of poetry, but rather, a coherent attitude towards writing poems. Robert Conquest, in ‘Introduction’ to the anthology of the Movement poems titled New Lines, wrote that ‘it is free from both mystical and logical compulsions and - like modern philosophy – is empirical in its attitude to all that comes’.47 In other words, Conquest claimed that the authors of his anthology – John Holloway, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Donald Davie – advocated a new approach to literature, refusing to present visionary wastelands with heaps of broken images obscuring the view, and substituting them with neat, trimmed lawns and well-clipped gardens. The poets refused to enter the world of vision, the world of the unconscious, and that of the dark gods. The reason was simple enough: the Movement in the mid-1950s was

45 Robert Butler, 'Ted Hughes and the Stage' in: The Independent on Sunday Culture, 1 November 1998, p. 3. 46 Ibid., p. 119. 47 Robert Conquest, (ed.), Introduction to New Lines: An Anthology (London: Macmillan, 1956).



still suffering from post-war trauma, trying to forget the dreadful past rather than come to grips with the experience. Hughes said about the Movement: One of the things these poets had in common I think was the post-war mood of having had enough...enough rhetoric, enough overweening push of any kind, enough of the dark gods, enough of the id, enough of the Angelic powers and the heroic efforts to make new worlds. They’d seen it all turn into death camps and atomic bombs.48

The Movement wrote against Eliot and against the 1940s, which both ‘gave the Id too much of a say.’49 Ted Hughes, from the very beginning of his career, adopted a different stand. His first adult poem, The Little Boys and the Seasons, appeared in 1954 and was written under the pseudonym Daniel Hearing. Later, Hughes abandoned the pseudonym, but he never strayed from the sense of mission of the Biblical Daniel. As Annie Schofield helpfully reminds us,50 the canonical Book of Daniel from the Old Testament is an apocalyptic poem written in a period of crisis, when Israel was suffering under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes. Daniel is a prophet, a visionary whose visions are shamanistic flights preceded by ritual preparation: And I Daniel alone saw the vision: for the men that were with me saw not the vision: but a greater quaking fell upon them, so that they fled to hide themselves. Therefore I was left alone, and saw this great vision, and there reminded no strength in me: for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength. Yet I heard the voice of his words: and when I heard the voice of his words, then I was in deep sleep on my face, and my face toward the ground. And, behold, an hand touched me, which set me upon my knees and upon the palms of my hands.51

Unlike the poets of the Movement, Hughes does not shrink from the dreadful experience of the nuclear disaster. Crow gives us his account of the battle. Sharing his vision is a profoundly disturbing task but Hughes, a 48

Annie Schofield, ‘Hughes and the Movement’ in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement..., p.p. 22-35. 49 Ibid., p. 23. 50 Ibid., p. 22. 51 Book of Daniel: 7-10.

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Daniel, refuses to lull his readers to sleep with the Movement’s quasiAugustan tune. It seems that the contemporary scene of British poetry can be divided into the respective adherents of nature or culture, very much reflecting the dilemma that has always been present in literature. Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts see Ted Hughes between Peter Redgrove and Seamus Heaney saying that: Both of these poets have shown a keen interest in Hughes, and the interest has been reciprocated. There are close parallels in the three writers’ thoughts about poetry, and (...) the differences that emerge against this background will we hope illuminate the work of each poet more interestingly than a comparison of more obviously contrasting writers would.52

The ‘more contrasting’ perspective can be seen in the poetry of Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill: while Hughes, Redgrove and Heaney profess their faith in nature, Larkin and Hill are ‘on the side’ of culture. Hughes, Redgrave and Heaney consider themselves visionaries; they believe in the inward source of inspiration. For Hughes, writing poetry is capturing animals, and Redgrove once said: ‘what you write in a book is only one variety of organic growth, organic life’.53 Seamus Heaney expressed a similar view: A poem is alive in an animal, mineral and vegetable way. It comes out of a creature, out of a man’s mind and feelings, and it lives and is clothed in the substance of words.54

All three poets have criticised the Platonic-Christian division between soul and body, and all condemned Western civilization which abused Nature and the feminine. All admit to being influenced by Jung and Graves. It is interesting to study the subtle differences between poets whose approach is overtly similar. The main difference between Heaney and Hughes is in their treatment of Celtic mythology. While the myth of Gaudete has to be lived through by the parishioners of Lumb, the Bog Queen does not ‘process’ the myth any further.55 Paul Redgrove, on the 52

Gifford and Roberts in: Achievement..., p. 90. Interview with Mike Erwin and Jed Rasula, Hudson Review, vol. 8, No 3, autumn 1975. 54 Interview with Anthony Bailey, Quest, Jan/Feb, 1978. 55 Gifford & Roberts, p. 96. 53



other hand, presents his vision as ‘practising his enlightenment in his poetry.’56 In Redgrove there is less pain and suffering, and less of a search, than in Hughes. There is also less of a question mark. Gifford and Roberts analyze Redgrove’s Silence Fiction: The protagonists of this poem live in a house built over an early cave dwelling, to which they are admitted by a ‘bismirched woman’ in ‘defiled white.’ While they ‘Light in the chimney roots our lower fires, and begin our lives on the unadorned earth floor’, the wind and rain can be heard cleansing the upper hearth of its soot-flowers.’ The poem concludes with their return to the house on the surface, and conveys the calm of the remembered lower levels which are the foundations of the ‘clattering’ conscious life.’57

Hughes would have asked: what did they feel before they returned, and what price did they have to pay? Unlike Redgrove’s, Hughes’ vision is never finished. It is always at the stage of negation. In order to position Hughes in the context of ‘poets of culture’, it is helpful to rely on Seamus Heaney and his brilliant account of the language of Hughes, Hill and Larkin viewed in Eliot’s context of auditory imagination.58 Auditory imagination, according to Eliot, means the influence of cultural and historical depths, and the implications of certain words and rhythms. Heaney thus classifies Hughes as a pagan, drawing upon Anglo-Saxon and Norse elements, and on the Middle English alliterative tradition. Consequently, his language is that of primitive cultures, folk poetry, ballads and Shakespeare. Hill, according to Heaney, has a similar Anglo-Saxon base, but it has been modified by the medieval Latin influence, by the vocabulary and values of the Mediterranean, and by the Anglo- Romanesque scholastic imagination. Hill has always insisted on technical discipline and has tried to rid his language of excessive passion. As a result, he has accomplished a dry poetry, often verging on the cliché: Philip Larkin’s language, according to Seamus Heaney, is the language of the Renaissance, ‘frenchified and turned humanist by the Norman conquest, made nimble, melodious and plangent by Chaucer and Spenser, and besomed clean of its inkhomisms and its irrational magics by the eighteenth century.’59 The industrial landscape of Larkin and his 56

Ibid., p. 102. Ibid., p. 104. 58 Heaney, in: Achievement.., p. 14. 59 Ibid., p. 15. 57

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presentation of the modern predicament are devoid of the magical and the melodious lament of Hughes’ The Remains of Elmet.

Shamanistic Knowledge of Death Hughes' life followed the successive stages of shamanistic initiation. The part about a good shaman dying many times must, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt, or rather understood in a metaphorical sense, as a period of heightened awareness caused by spiritual, and not necessarily physical suffering. After all, in Western culture, people who inflict physical pain or suffering on themselves are often considered not altogether sane. And yet Hughes thought about death very much in the way Japanese samurai did, believing that physical suffering relieves the pain of the soul. In a letter to Gifford and Roberts he writes: Part of the fascination of Hara-kiri is our recognition of what it implies - an ultimate confrontation of the real pain of pain, a deliberate, controlled translation of psychological pain into physical pain, the absolute acceptance of the reality of what hurts. It is part of the reverence - in that case not short of worship - for the actuality of inner experience.60

Consequently, Hughes viewed the moment close to extinction as a threshold for initiation, a gate opening to some new insight. This explains why he always felt a certain affinity with Eastern European poets such as Popa, Pilinszky, Hoáub, Herbert, Milosz and RóĪewicz, to whom he could relate better than to his compatriot colleagues, members of the Movement. The reason was the difference between British and Eastern and Central European attitudes to the war. Hughes' interest in war had first been fed by his father’s experience at Gallipoli during the First World War, and by the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who died in that war. Hughes was also fascinated with the poems of Keith Douglas, who fought in the Western Desert and was killed in Normandy during the Second World War. He felt that Eastern European poets shared with him the knowledge of war, which he thus defined in the introduction to a volume of Keith Douglas' poetry: In a sense, war was his [Douglas'] ideal subject: the burning away of all human pretensions in the ray cast by death. This was the vision, the unifying generalization that shed the meaning and urgency into all his observations and particulars: not truth is beauty only, but truth kills 60 Thomas West, Ted Hughes. Contemporary Writers (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 83.


Introduction everybody. The truth of a man is the doomed man in him or his dead body.61

The Movement typically looked the other way. In a natural selfdefense impulse, they preferred to be silent about Hiroshima and death camps. In contrast, Hughes turned to Eastern Europe for inspiration and enlightenment on the shamanistic knowledge of death.62 In 1969, Vasco Popa, Janos Pilinszky, Miroslav Holub and Zbigniew Herbert, along with W.H. Auden, took part in a ‘Poetry International’ in London, an event made possible through Hughes’ personal contacts. The poets proclaimed poetry to be the ‘universal language of understanding’.63 Ted Hughes tried to project his world imaginatively into the world of Eastern Europe poets because he found his western perspective inadequate to express the concerns of the post-war reality: The Western poet perhaps envies his brother in the East, for while he sings of comparative comfort, comparative freedom, comparative despair, the reality of the threat and the disaster is not his. There is a tendency for the Western poet to become isolated and turn inwards, whereas the poet of the East is in tune with the rhythms of his people in a much more direct and dynamic way.64

Hughes, not wanting to write about ‘comparative’ experience, sought empathy with his ‘eastern European brother.’ We find an extreme example of such empathy in the poetry of his wife, Sylvia Plath, who created the figure of an imaginary Jew, a survivor of the concentration camps, herself an imaginary woman, transported to Auschwitz on the death trains. Survivors have enhanced perception and can provide us with models for survival.65 He appreciated not only the message, but also the style of their poetry which gave the otherwise chaotic and terrifying experience a clarity achieved through images, tales and myth (Crow). This is what Hughes


Ted Hughes, ‘Keith Douglas’ in: Winter Pollen..., p. 214. Annie Schofield, ‘Hughes and the Movement’ in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement..., p.p. 22-35. 63 Michael Parker, Hughes and the poets of Eastern Europe in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement..., p. 37. 64 Miroslav Holub, ‘The Lesson’ in: Selected Poems, trans. Ian Milner and George Themer ( London: Harmondsworth, 1967 ), p.p. 27-29. 65 Parker, p. 44. 62

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himself said about Eastern European poets in the introduction to Popa's Selected Poetry: Like men come back from the dead they have an improved perception, an unerring sense of what really counts in being alive. This helplessness in the circumstances has purged them of rhetoric. With delicate maneuvering, they precipitate out of a world of malicious negatives a happy positive. And they have created a small ironic space, a work of lyrical art, in which their humanity can respect itself.66

Hughes defined the ‘coming clear’ stage, the ‘extreme moment’, as one experienced by man close to death, in his famous essay on Janos Pilinszky, a Hungarian poet who saw the reality of war and prison camps, and whose personal experience became ‘the world of his deepest, most private poetic knowledge’.67 The moment closest to extinction turns out to be the creative moment. In the essay Hughes says: We come to this Truth only on the simplest terms: through what has been suffered, what is being suffered and the objects that participate in the suffering. The mysterious thing is that in Pilinszky the naked, carnal, helpless quality of this truth is fused with the utmost spiritual intensity. The desolate furnishings of his vision are revealed by their radiance. The epiphany of this peculiarly bleak and pitiless God is the flash-point in all these psalms.68

The idea of ‘extreme moment’ is also presented in Hughes' interpretation of drawings by Leonard Baskin.69 And again, this ‘extreme moment’ is viewed as a moment of ‘flash vision’, a sudden illumination earned at the threshold of death. Another consequence of near-death and coming back to life through successive regeneration is that of moral development.70 Hughes called it ‘the central experience of a shattering of the self and the labor of fitting it together again or finding a new one.’71 Jung believed that in the process of 66

Ted Hughes, Introduction to Vasko Popa, Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 1969, p.p. 10-11. 67 Ted Hughes, 'Janos Pilinszky' in: Winter Pollen..., p. 231. 68 Ibid., p. 233. 69 Ted Hughes, ‘The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly’ in: Winter Pollen..., p. 92. 70 Nicholas Bishop, Poetry and Grace: the Dynamics of Self in Ted Hughes adult poetry (Ph. D. Exeter University, 1998), p. 13. 71 Ted Hughes, ‘Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath's Poems’ in: TriQuarterly vol. 7, 1966, p.p. 81-88.



individuation, we have to go through the pain of death to the falsity of the self. The false personality must die in order for the true one to be born. Jung diagnoses Western Man by saying that: the Logos ... eternally struggles to extricate itself from the primal warmth and primal darkness of the maternal womb; in a word, from unconsciousness. Divine curiosity yearns to be born and does not shrink from conflict, suffering, or sin. Unconsciousness is the primal sin, evil itself, for the Logos. Therefore its first creative act of liberation is matricide, and the spirit that dared all the heights and all depths must, as Synesius says, suffer the divine punishment, enchainment on the rocks of the Caucasus. Nothing can exist without its opposite; the two were one in the beginning and will be one again in the end. Consciousness can only exist through continual recognition of the unconscious, just as everything that lives must pass through many deaths.72

The character of Birkin in D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love puts it very simply: one must cease to be, for that which is perfectly [himself] to take place in [him].73

Gifford and Roberts give an analysis of Stations by Ted Hughes, reading the poem as an illustration of regeneration through annihilation.74 In doing so, they also indicate that Hughes' choice of animal masks came out of his belief that ‘the creative - destructive tension in animals is a natural part of the larger cycle of forces in the universe.’75 A special experience requires an appropriate language of expression. Kristeva says that the death drive, which Freud diagnoses as characteristic of a melancholic person's superego, can ultimately turn to depressive withdrawal and the creating of a metalanguage which is different from the language of pain.76 Bentley claims that Kristeva's theory explains the disfigured and abstracted language of Crow:


Carl Gustav Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious Collected Works (London: Routledge, 1959), p. 96. 73 D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 209. 74 Gifford and Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Critical Study..., p. 92. 75 Ibid., p. 75. 76 Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia trans. Leon S. Roudinez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 27.

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The poems function as so many attempts to get a potentially debilitating ‘encounter with despair’ back on the Symbolic move, to fix it in a representation, a move that none the less repeatedly falls through itself as the chosen signifier or field of signifiers proves to be too flimsy for the task.77

The language of the shaman is the language of despair and that of death.78

Shamanistic Healing The shamanic poet speaks in the language of death which he acquired through illumination in a moment close to extinction. His main function is to serve his community by dressing its wounds, and by healing. About poetry’s power of healing, Hughes wrote in his essay on Keats: what I imagine he [Keats] meant was that true poetry (he was very keen on the necessary discrimination), the stuff which mankind finally values, is a healing substance - the vital energy of it is a healing energy, as if it were produced, in a natural and spontaneous way, by the psychological component of the auto-immune system, the body's self-repair system.79

In a discussion on how it is possible for the poet to heal, Sweeting quotes the example of Parzival, who healed the Fisher King by asking about his health.80 By analogy, it could be argued that it is enough for the poet to ask questions for his community to be healed. Sweeting qualifies this, saying that the act of asking questions need not always be premeditated or conscious; It should be noted that the goal is always interaction with the reader / patient even if the poet is not aware of that when writing.81

Of course, to achieve his aim, the poet / shaman has to ask the right sort of questions, the ones which, painful as they appear, can shake us to a new awareness. Hughes describes shamanistic suffering as a painful stage on the way to regeneration, which can be called the psychic equilibrium of 77

Bentley, p.p. 51-52. Gifford and Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Critical Study..., p.p. 85-86. 79 Ted Hughes, 'Keats on the Difference between the Dreamer and the Poet' in: Winter Pollen..., p. 249. 80 Michael Sweeting, ‘Hughes and Shamanism' in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement..., p. 77. 81 Ibid., p. 77. 78



the shaman's community. However, he does not write about his own experience; Hughes' account of the poet-shaman and healer is devoted to T.S. Eliot: But Eros exacted his cost at the beginning. Everything about Eliot's early life suggests that in some obscure part of himself he had foresuffered the sacrificial death of that deity even before he began to write under compulsion. This event, which was so much of his theme, and which lies so visibly among the roots of his poetry, can be seen as the spontaneous occurrence, in extraordinarily vivid and literal form, within him of that universal phenomenon, the traditional shaman's crucial initiatory experience of visionary dismemberment. And just as only after that ‘death’ (and after being reassembled by divine beings) the conventional shaman can begin to turn his abnormal powers and susceptibilities to account and launch out on his poetic, dramatic, visionary, healing-trance enterprise for the benefit of his people, so Eliot's case suggests how closely the creative, redemptive activity of poetry (of art in general) conforms to this thaumaturgical, natural process... .82

In his essay on Leonard Baskin's drawings, Hughes explains the workings of ‘mana’. He says that mana is the body's natural response to a serious hurt, a wound. It is a common mythological and folklore belief that a wound to be healed ‘needs laid in it the blade that made it. And if the blade might cut to a depth where blood and cries no longer come – only mana comes.’83 In other words, poetry, in order to be effective, has to be disturbing. Rue Jacobs says that Hughes understood the theatre as a healing stage with actors as healers.84 Skea thus summarizes Hughes' opus in its healing aspect: Poetry, therefore, is not just Hughes' personal means of linking his own inner and outer worlds: it is an expression of the Universal Energies in action and, through its musical power and its power to stimulate the common human faculty of imagination, he uses it as a means of channeling these healing energies to others.85


Ted Hughes, 'The Poetic Self: A Centenary Tribute to T.S. Eliot' in: Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose ed. William Scammell (London: Faber, 1995), p. 284. 83 Ted Hughes, 'The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly' in: Winter Pollen..., p. 95. 84 Fred Rue Jacobs, 'Hughes and Drama' in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement..., p.p. 154-170. 85 Ann Skea, Ted Hughes: the Poetic Quest (Armidale, New South Wales: University of New England Press, 1994), p. 16.

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Healing Akin to Mythmaking It seems obvious to Hughes that healing can also happen through dreams for a dream is the equivalent of a narrative tale. Such tales have a collective meaning when they possess mythical content. Hughes explains the workings of a tale on a listener, in this case, a child: When we tell a child a story, the child quickly finds his role; as the story proceeds the child enters a completely imaginative world ... to some extent he goes into a condition of trance ... And so whatever happens to him in the story happens under condition of hypnosis. In other words it really happens. If in a story he is put through a humiliating defeat, the effects on him are of real victory. This is how these early storytellers could claim good fortune and so on for the listeners to their heroic tales.86

To sum up, the shamanistic healing process is based upon three factors: 1. energy, or ecstasy (illumination) 2. myth, expressed in some form of ritual (asking questions) 3. resultic catharsis (healing the wound). Sweeting claims that in the poetry of Hughes, the emphasis is laid not so much on the final product as on the cathartic process itself.87 Ted Hughes viewed story-telling as a healing strategy which can bring together the inner and outer world. His creative imagination was mythopoetic. In the course of my argument, the life of Ted Hughes has been presented as including a practical side to his shamanistic vocation. His role was that of bard and Poet Laureate, a public servant, who suffered both personal loss and disappointment with Western Europe. What he learned he tried to teach to his audience, publicly reading his poetry and setting up projects and foundations aimed at saving Nature and educating young poet-shamans. He also wrote for the theatre, initiating stage healing for the public and actors alike. Since death is essential in the shamanistic flight ritual, Hughes' attitude to dying has been described as ‘the extreme moment’, as a threshold of illumination. Hughes argued, after Keats, that poetry has a healing substance and that the poet can heal by asking the reader disturbing questions, thus initiating a cathartic, regenerating process. 86

Ted Hughes, 'Myth and Education in Children's Literature' in: Literature in Education vol. 1. 1970, p. 18. 87 Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen, p. 143.



Hughes' Mythological Scenarios Given that, in order to heal, stories told by the shaman need to have a disturbing, mythical content, a closer look has to be taken at the tales Hughes presents to his readers. To me, they all seem to be based on three myths: of the Sufis (Nasrudin), alchemical drama (Chemical Wedding), and Bardo Thödol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead).

The Sufis Hughes always thought highly of the Sufis. He thought they were ‘the only society of sensible men there has ever been on earth’.88 In his discussion of a book by Idries Shah, Grand Chief of the Sufis, Hughes said that ‘shamanism might well be a barbarized, stray descendant of Sufism’.89 Hughes claims that everything in European culture outside of Christianity — which is to say, Masons, Rosicrucians, Tarot cards, the Kabbalah, in short everything that is somehow connected with the occult — comes from the doctrine of the Sufis and is a set of ‘degenerate, strayed filterings’90 of the Sufi teachings. He admits, however, that occasionally the Sufi philosophy manifested itself in its best pure form: here Hughes says in his introduction to the Sufis (borrowing from Graves) that the noble Druidic tradition of bardic schools in Ireland originated precisely from the Sufis.91 Hughes gives an interesting account of how candidates for Sufi-hood are selected and trained. Many elements of the ‘curriculum’ recall shamanistic ritual: Candidates for Sufi-hood are selected for their natural aptitude to live the Sufi way: they undergo many years of rigorous mental and spiritual training in theSufi schools, a highly refined course of moral selfdevelopment, annihilating themselves without heaven or hell or religious paraphernalia of any kind, and without leaving life in the world, to become the living substance of Allah, thepower of creation: a master Sufi lives this life, and performs therefore incredible miracles as a matter of


Ted Hughes, 'Regenerations' in: Winter Pollen..., p. 59. Ibid., p. 58. 90 Ibid., p. 59. 91 Ibid., p. 59. 89

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course. His purpose is to lead others along the Sufi way, but only those who, coming to be led, are capable of being led.92

Hughes quotes Idries Shah, who always indicates in his publications of Sufi literature that traditional tales are most crucial to the training of sages and saints of Islam.93 The purpose of those stories is the listener's arrival at some sort of self-knowledge. The main idea of the Sufis is that of the Unity. All the truths about the nature of the self, God and language are mirrors of each other. Bishop interprets the philosophy saying that ‘here self-knowledge immediately becomes the primary objective, because man has no object of study closer to hand than his own self’.94 Idries Shah conveys the idea in a typically Sufi way, quoting the words of Hermes Trismegistos inscribed on the Emerald Tablet: What is above is like what is below, what is below is like what is above ... Everything is formed from the contemplation of unity, by means of adaptation ... It was borne by the wind and nurtured by the Earth ... Through wisdom it rises slowly from the world to heaven. Then it descends to the world, combining the power of the upper and the lower. Thus you shall have the illumination of all the world, and darkness will disappear.95

The Sufi stories by Mulla Nasrudin are only important in the context of the listener's self-development, their aesthetic value being irrelevant. Hughes says, however, that the stories have to work on the hearer's imagination so that the expected result of self-development can take place: By stories alone, or almost alone, they [the Sufis] claim to be able to bring a man o communion with his highest powers and abilities, to communion with God in fact. The hearer needn't necessarily understand the significance of the stories, as long as they work on his imagination. So, working on and altering his imagination, they alter his ideas about himself, about mankind, about the world and about all the strategies that operate in it. They use specific stories for specific purposes.96


Ibid., p. 59. Idries Shah, The Sufis (London: Octagon Press, 1964). 94 Nicholas Bishop, Poetry and Grace..., p. 39. 95 Idries Shah, The Sufis, p. 189. 96 Ted Hughes, 'Myth and Education’ in: Children’s Literature in Education vol. 1, 1970, p. 62. 93



Alchemy The best explanation of how the theory or philosophy of alchemy can be applied to the analysis of Ted Hughes' poetry is to be found in Ann Skea's The Poetic Quest.97 She notes that both Alchemy and Sufism have been considered secret doctrines. They both state that the only way of passing knowledge is the direct one: from master to disciple. Teaching is not explicit; the masters speak through metaphor and symbol. In a way, the fact that Alchemy and Sufism express their meanings in mythical narrative made it possible for their respective adherents to avoid religious persecution. Alchemy was especially ‘well disguised’, existing as a practical and materialistic art of trying to chanel base material into gold. Like the Sufis, the Alchemists appreciate the message of the already quoted Hermetic Tabula Smaragdina, whose earliest known record appears in an eighth century Arabic text which is ascribed to a famous alchemist, Jabbir-ibnHayyan. Following the principle that ‘All things proceed from one and are one’ ‘is constantly reiterated in alchemical writings, and Alchemy, like Sufism, contains a body of mystical teaching based on this percept’.98 Alchemy can be seen as a process of spiritual change, of transforming the dirty and ugly in man into the pure and the gold: Alchemy is an esoteric mystical doctrine in which the practical techniques of the alchemical art are an allegory for spiritual transubstantiation - a mnemonic for the stages by which spiritual truth might be approached. At this level the alchemical process, the ‘magnum opus’ (often described allegorically as a journey) is a process by which the divine spirit (the soul) is gradually freed from the chaos of the human body (the ‘Raw Stuff’) and is purified and finally reunited with it so that a state of enlightenment and wholeness may be achieved.99

It is interesting that the role of the alchemist, although similar to that of the shaman and the Sufi storyteller, includes a new aspect: that of ‘self transubstantiation’. Skea thus describes Hughes diction:


Ann Skea, Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest..., p.p. 39-46. Ibid., p. 40. 99 Ibid., p. 46. 98

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[he] not only adopts the symbolic and mystical traditions of Alchemy, he takes on the role of alchemist and subjects both himself and his readers to the purifying processes of transmutation.100

Like a Sufi storyteller, Hughes tells a story in order to arouse in his readers an almost ‘chemical’ readiness to change and purify: Hughes uses this magical power of words to re-activate in his audience's imagination some of the great mythological and mystical stories of the world. Thus, just as the Alchemist uses skill and energy (fire) to extract the spiritual, ‘alchemical’ gold from the primal chaos of his original mixture, so Hughes uses his poetic powers to activate the reader's imaginative energy and to ‘crystallize’ understanding from the ‘chaos’ of the human mind.101

Faas mentions that after Sylvia Plath's suicide, Hughes spent a year working on a verse drama adaptation of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz by the seventeenth-century hermeticist, Johann Valentine Andreae.102 Faas suggests that Hughes wanted to find some consolation in the alchemical belief that nothing disappears from this world by vanishing into thin air: people and things simply change their modes of existence: At the time, this key text of sponsa and sponsus mysticism must have appeared to Hughes like a retroactive verification of what otherwise seemed so irretrievably lost to his own vision.103

Gifford and Roberts, in their critical study of Cave Birds, helpfully mention that Jung, in his numerous writings on the subject of alchemy, explored its aspects of mystical transformation or rebirth that occurred within the alchemist in the process. Jung called it individuation of the self.

Bardo Thödol When Hughes studied anthropology at Cambridge, he seems to have become familiarized with Oriental mythology, and he deepened his interest in the field while he and Sylvia Plath were staying in a lonely 100

Ibid., p. 47. Ibid., p. 47. 102 Ekbert Faas, 'Chapters of a Shared Mythology: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes' in: Sagar, Keith (ed), The Achievement..., p.p. 117-118. 103 Ibid., p. 117. 101



artists' colony at Yaddo, in New York State in late 1969. They practised ‘exercises of meditation and invocation’, which Hughes, according to Faas, ‘aided by handbooks of Cabalistic and Hermetic magic, had been pursuing for some time’.104 In Yaddo, Hughes met the Chinese composer Chou-Wen-Chung, who persuaded him to write the libretto for a large orchestral composition based upon the Bardo Thödol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.105 C.G. Jung wrote a psychological commentary to the Bardo, interpreting the book as meditation on the fact that we are constantly reinitiated into the collective unconscious: The unconscious is the root of all experience of oneness (dharma-kaya), the matrix of all archetypes or structural patterns (sambhoga-kaya), and the conditio sine qua non of the phenomenal world (nirvana-kaya).106

Jacobs, in his essay on Hughes and drama, explains the concept of the Bardo.107 He says that the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a kind of guide to the living (the shamans?), offering instructions on how to help the dead in their passage through the Bardo. The Bardo is the ‘between’ state, where the souls stay ‘earthbound but immaterial’.108 It is a place where the dead and living can meet, where ‘the shaman visits to speak with the dead’.109 The Bardo is a place of madness and it can be entered by the living during certain dreams. Scigaj summarizes the sense of the Bardo thus: As the deceased passes from the Chikkai Bardo state of the first four days after death into the Chónyid Bardo state of the fifth to fourteenth days, the possibility of experiencing the liberating nirvana of the Void, the DharmaKaya of Clear Light, lessens markedly, for karmic illusions appear, urging the soul back to participation in the phenomenal world. Here the text constantly exhorts the deceased not to fear or desire such illusions, to abandon egotism and recognize that all thought-forms the radiance of thine own intellectual faculties comes to shine. They have not come from any 104

Ekbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unacommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980), p. 87. 105 The Tibetan Book of the Dead, ed. W.Y. Evans-Wentz. With Psychological Commentary by Dr. C.G. Jung (London: Oxford University Press), 1960. 106 Ibid., p. x/ix. 107 Fred Rue Jacobs, 'Hughes and Drama' in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement..., p.p. 161-169. 108 Ibid., p. 161. 109 Ibid., p. 161.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


other place. Be not attracted towards them, be not weak, be not terrified, but abide in the mood of non-thought formation. In that state all forms and radiances will merge into thyself, and Buddahood will be obtained.110

Those who remain egoistic and unable to separate themselves from intellect and the material world, on the fifteenth day after death, will achieve the state of Sidpa Bardo – the state of involvement with animal instinct. The deceased are whirled about by karmic winds of instinct and reincarnated forty nine days after death.111 It shall be demonstrated that the poet in Cave Birds undertakes a journey through the Bardo, almost literally following the above description. Skea describes the journey as ‘the terrifying bardo-state of illusion, a state likened in sacred Buddhist texts to that which follows the experience of luminosity, and in which are encountered demons which are projections of the human mind’.112 Skea uses the concept in her analysis of Hughes' Gulkana.113 Gifford and Roberts note that Hughes' interest in Sufism, Alchemy and the Bardo Thodol was aroused by the degree of discipline which their respective adherents and believers are willing to enforce on themselves.114 It is worth analyzing the three philosophies or myths interwoven into his poetry, together forming a framework of Hughes' own, shamanistic ritual. The poet's opus will be discussed chronologically for I wish to show how his poetic voice transformed with time. I shall start with Hughes' early volumes, Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal and Wodwo, follow through Crow and Cave Birds, and conclude the shamanistic flight with Reverend Lumb and Gaudete.


Leonard Scigaj, 'Oriental Mythology in Wodwo' in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement..., p. 141. 111 Ibid., p. 141. 112 Ann Skea, Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest..., p. 227. 113 Ibid., p.p. 227-228. 114 Gifford and Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Critical Study..., p. 184.


The ‘Episodic’ and the ‘Encyclopaedic’ in Hughes Animal Poems As a child, Ted Hughes molded animals from plasticine: ‘whenever I got hold of plasticine clay or wax, a Jaguar was what I automatically modelled […]. I had been modelling one Jaguar since I was about five’.1 Feinstein underlines Hughes’ admiration for animals, concluding that it was no coincidence that his son Nicholas grew up to be a zoologist.2 Also Frieda, his daughter, recalls Hughes passing his fascination with animals on to his children: ‘when I was a child my father taught me to skin a roadkill badger and cure its pelt, how to shoot, how to cast o fly (we practiced on the lawn before putting it into practice on water) and how to draw birds, just as he and his brother had drawn birds together as children’.3 Before discussing the animal poems, it is necessary to justify the choice of a chronological or contextual method, arguing that it is worthwhile to follow Hughes' shamanistic characters from the early through to his later poems. Can we assume that it is the poet's intention for his readers to see his animal protagonists progress? Is the Bear from Birthday Letters (1998) the same animal as in Lupercal (I960)? Northrop Frye makes a helpful distinction between episodic and encyclopaedic literature, saying that a poet who shows an 'episodic tendency' communicates as an individual, and that his form, naturally, will be 'discontinuous'. Frye calls such poets 'independent' in the sense that their poems read as single units. A poet with an 'encyclopaedic tendency', however, speaks as a 'spokesman of society', which means that his poems will lend themselves to reading as part of a larger whole. They will be interdependent because of the mythical elements that they share.4 1

Ted Hughes, in: Reid, Christopher (ed.) Letters of Ted Hughes (London: Faber, 2007), p.p. 586-588. 2 Elaine Feinstein, Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001), p. 238. 3 Gerald Hughes, Ted and I (London: The Robson Press, 2012), p. XII-XII. 4 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Princeton University Press, 1956), p. 54.


Chapter One

It seems that Hughes’ poems are like Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience: though both Tyger and Lamb can stand on their own, the impact of: Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?5

will be fully appreciated only after we have read the whole volume. Like Blake, Ted Hughes views myth as a poetic ritual, as a ‘manifestation of man’s relationship with the creator and the world of spirit’.6 In his interviews and critical essays, Hughes often paid tribute to John Crowe Ransom, saying how much he was influenced by his poetry.7 Crowe Ransom made a plea for what he called the 'ontological critic', thus starting the movement of New Criticism, which promoted close reading of individual poems, laying stress on their individuality and selfconsistency.8 According to Frye's terminology, it seems that Crowe Ransom spoke against the 'encyclopaedic', favoring the 'episodic' in literature. Though Hughes appreciated Crowe Ransom’s poetry, he did not share his critical stand. In the interview with Faas, he not only justifies a poet's use of myths and symbols, but also claims that the mythology should be constantly developed and updated in order to keep in touch with the changing world: You choose a subject because it serves, because you need it. We go on writing poems because one poem never gets the whole account right. There is always something missed. At the end of the ritual up comes a Goblin. Anyway within a week the whole thing has changed, one needs a fresh bulletin. And works go dead, fishing has to be abandoned, the shoal has moved on. While we struggle with fragmentary Orestes some complete Bacchae moves past too deep down to hear. We get news of it later ... too late. In the end, one's poems are ragged dirty undated letters from remote battles and weddings and one thing and another.9


William Blake, Selected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1996), p. 86. Janne Stigen-Drangsholt, Ted Hughes and Romanticism (A Poetry of Desolation and Difference, Cercles 12. 2005), p. 109. 7 Faas, 'Ted Hughes and Crow' Interview..., p. 10. 8 J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms (London: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 422. 9 Faas, 'Ted Hughes and Crow' Interview..., p. 11. 6

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


In light of the above, Ted Hughes appears to have successfully reconciled Frye's 'episodic' and 'encyclopaedic', showing that a poet can preserve his independent personality and, at the same time, speak for the community in larger patterns that modify each other. In the interview with Faas he says: Every writer if he develops at all develops either outwards into society and history, using wider and more material of that sort, or he develops inwards into imagination and beyond that into spirit, using perhaps no more external material than before and maybe even less but deepening inner dimension until it opens up perhaps the religious or holy basis of the whole thing. Or he can develop both ways simultaneously. Developing inwardly, of course, means organising the inner world or at least searching out the patterns there and that is a mythology. It may be an original mythology. Or you may uncover the Cross - as Eliot did. The ideal aspect of Yeats' development is that he managed to develop his poetry both outwardly into history and the common imagery of everyday life at the same time as he developed it inwardly in a sort of close parallel ... so that he could speak of both simultaneously. His mythology is history, pretty well, and his history is as he said "the story of the soul".10

Following Hughes' conclusion, his totemic animals and shamanistic characters will be observed on the journey from their seeming innocence to well-earned experience. The argument will focus on successive stages of their shamanistic flight which Yeats would call 'the story of the soul’.

Hawk The analysis will begin with the hawk. In fact, there are two hawks. The first one comes from Hughes' early volume Hawk in the Rain (1957). Having read the poem one immediately calls to mind 'the weariness, the fever and the fret' of the human world as contrasted with 'full throated ease' of the nightingale from Keats' famous ode. Unlike the romantic poet, Hughes is down to earth; in place of romantic ‘forlorn’ feelings, the poet gives us a description of a man drowning in clay which, eventually, will become his grave. Also the bird is different: his hawk is not a 'dryad of the trees' but a bird of prey, hanging still as a master - fulcrum of violence. The hawk: Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye. His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet, 10

Ibid., p. 11.


Chapter One Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air. While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges, Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart, And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs, The diamond point of will that polestars The sea drowner's endurance: And I, Bloodily grabbed dazed last - moment-counting Morsel in the earth's mouth, strain towards the master – Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still.

The poem seems to have been built on a contrast between the freedom of the bird and the vulnerability of the man: the bird is bound upwards, to the stars, whereas the man's direction is downward, to the earth's mouth: I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth's mouth, From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk

The surprising, metaphysical twist, the shocking conclusion in the manner of Donne's comes at the end of the poem, in the penultimate stanza. Keats' nightingale is an artist whose song will never die while Hughes' hawk does not consider his existence in terms of eternity; what is more, he is ignorant of death. And yet, inevitably, death will come to the hawk, he will be trapped by the horizon, and having fallen from his height, he will crash against the land: That maybe in his own time meets the weather Coming the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside down, Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him, The horizon traps him; the round angelic eye Smashed, mix his heart's blood with the mire of the land. Hawk in the Rain, p. 11.

It seems that Hughes has told one of his Sufi or alchemical tales: what is above is like what is below, what is below is like what is above. The hawk is hurled upside down and his heart's blood is mixed with the mire of the land. Keats' nightingale will never die; he will live in his song. Hughes' hawk will also live on, and his mode of existence will change as well; now

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


he has descended from his heights and has come to the earth. What is above is like what is below. It is surprising to read so many unfavorable reviews, criticizing Hughes and his hawk for their alleged inconsistency of style and obscurity of meaning. Nicholas Bishop, applying the standards of New Critical Psychology, claims that the images of ever-increasing violence that afflict the persona of the poem, contrasted with the hawk's control of the universe, add to the reader's impression of harm done by Nature to the protagonist (poet-hawk?). Bishop also states that the urge of the persona to go upwards, to separate himself from the mouth of the earth, means advocating a kind of escapism into the form of Imaginary or False Personality: By elevating the aesthetic critical positive - cf. Gifford and Roberts' reading - and finding the pleasurable height of that linguistic moment enhanced rather than undermined by the continuity with poetic tradition (Hopkins and Thomas), the reader is not making an independent judgement about an artistic object, but expressing a dangerous psychological preference. He wants to go straight upwards, or soar over the depths like Jung's theologian, separating off the 'beautiful' language from the 'ugly' diction of lines 8-10 and 13-14, which may be judged as the understandably inferior productions of a 'promising', linguistically ambitious poet. This acquired aesthetic sensibility is the visible evidence of False Personality in literary criticism, threatening to fabricate the poem's verbal triumphs and cast the poet's future in its image; its omission of any psychological understanding of the relationship between the persona's movement 'up' and 'down' actually reinforces the violence of the poem, preventing any healing of the dramatized psychic split through a divisive act of readership.11

It is difficult to accept Bishop's criticism. While a psychiatrist will wish for his patients to regain mental balance, a poet will want the opposite; he will try to shake his readers out of their complacency by asking disturbing questions. Poets-shamans heal by suffering and by inflicting pain which is a prelude to the readers' spiritual regeneration. Even if, according to Paul Bentley, Hawk in the Rain is about the 'metaphysical self', a self that seeks its ideal unity only at the cost of repressing its bodily reality12, one needs to remember that this interpretation holds true for half of the poem only. Hughes hawk is 11

Nicholas Bishop, Re-making poetry. Ted Hughes and a New Critical Psychology (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), p. 52. 12 Bentley, The Poetry of Ted Hughes..., p. 15.


Chapter One

superior to the man in that unlike the latter he does not get frustrated seeking his ideal unity because the only reality he knows is physical. The hawk's behaviour calls to mind a stallion from a poem by Walt Whitman. In one of the songs from Leaves of Grass he says that in the gradual process of losing touch with nature man has outgalloped himself. In his poetry, Whitman warned readers against the dangers of Western civilization, and a hundred years later, in addition to his alchemical or Sufi tales, Hughes warns readers of another: that of the White Goddess, symbolising Nature suppressed by intellect. He acts like a Parzival in the hope that the readers, confronted with disturbing questions, will be led towards moral rebirth. In order to see if the hawk has changed in the course of time, the reader may watch him in Lupercal, the volume published three years after the Hawk in the Rain. Hawk in the Rain remained silent. The poet was a speaking persona and the hawk was simply there, looming large over the man and the landscape till he crashed and mingled with 'the mire of the land'. But Hawk Roosting speaks. In this poem he is a speaking persona and man is absent from the scene, which creates a change of perspective: I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed. Inaction, no falsifying dream Between my hooked head and hooked feet: Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

Hawk Roosting shares with Hawk in the Rain his central poise and stillness: 'the hawk effortlessly at height hangs his still eye, his wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet, steady as a hallucination in the streaming air' (Hawk in the Rain), 'my eyes closed, inaction no falsifying dream between my hooked head and hooked feet' (Hawk Roosting). Unlike Hawk in the Rain, however, Hawk Roosting is self-conscious. He reflects upon his life and upon his role, that of a killer distributing death as he pleases. In his seeming inaction he rehearses attack: I kill where I please because it is all mine. There is no sophistry in my body: My manners are tearing off heads The allotment of death. For the one path of my flight is direct Through the bones of the living. No arguments assert my right:

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


He believes that he has been made to kill: his hooked head and hooked feet are perfect instruments of annihilation. The whole of creation is on his side, as if, acting as his accomplice: 'the air's buoyancy and the sun's ray are of advantage to me': The convenience of the high trees! The air's buoyancy and the sun's ray Are of advantage to me; And the earth's face upward for my inspection. My feet are locked upon the rough bark. It took the whole of Creation To produce my foot, my each feather: Now I hold creation in my foot Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly –

Such could have been the words of Hawk in the Rain, had he spoken. Like Hawk in the Rain, Hawk Roosting is unaware of death. He considers himself the centre of creation, the master of the universe: 'I am going to keep things like this'. The sun is behind me Nothing has changed since I began. My eye has permitted no change. I am going to keep things like this. Collected Animal Poems, p. 31.

When the poem was published, it caused such turmoil among the critics and readers alike that Hughes had to defend his hawk: The bird is accused of being a fascist ... the symbol of some horrible totalitarian genocidal dictator. Actually what I had in mind was that in this hawk Nature is thinking. Simply Nature. It is not so simple maybe because Nature is no longer so simple. I intended some Creator like the Jehovah in Job but more feminine. When Christianity kicked the devil out of Job what they actually kicked out was Nature ... and Nature became the devil. He doesn't sound like Isis, mother of the gods, which he is. He sounds like Hitler's familiar spirit. There is a line in the poem almost verbatim from Job.13


Faas, Ted Hughes and Crow..., Interview..., p. 8.

Chapter One


Sagar interprets the reference to Job and Nature by quoting a fragment from the Book of Job in which Job's god is presented as the god of hawks: Doeth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south? Doeth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high? She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock and the strong place. From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off, Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she. Job 39: 26-30

and later by concluding: Whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine.14

In Job, God still acknowledged Nature as divine. Later, the Hebrews gave it to the devil, in order to ' accommodate their God to human mortality'.15 The story echoes that of the White Goddess, usurped by a Puritan Jehovah. Hirschberg comments on the 'feminine' aspect of Nature and, consequently, on the hawk: Hughes’ reinterpretation of the hawk as feminine and identification of Nature with the hawk's characteristics as a malevolent, controlling, devouring force is more significant for his poetry than the original choice of the hawk itself.16

The 'reinterpretation' means that the feminine attribute of the Hawk is likely Hughes' own invention. He identifies the hawk with Isis, mother of the gods, although, according to Egyptian mythology, the hawk was not Isis, but the son of Isis and Osiris whose name was Horus. Having explained the reference to Job and Isis made in Hughes' interpretation of Hawk Roosting, it is time to concentrate on his most intriguing words: 'in this hawk Nature is thinking'. Does it follow that Nature is cruel and violent? In the famous interview with Ekbert Faas


Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes..., p.p. 48-51. Ibid., p. 49. 16 Stuart Hirschberg, Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes..., p. 14. 15

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Hughes vanquished the critics who accused him of writing the poetry of violence: The role of this word "violence" in modern criticism is very tricky and not always easy to follow. I wonder if it's used in other countries. Do American critics use it? It's hard to imagine how the distinction can be made, outside recent English poetry. One common use of it I fancy occurs where the reviewer type of thinking of his audience ... his English audience. When my Aunt calls my verse "horrible and violent" I know what she means. Because I know what style of life and outlook she is defending. And I know she is representative of huge numbers of people in England (...). So to define their use of the word violence any further, you have to work out just why her way of life should find the behaviour of a hawk "horrible" or "disgusting" just as she finds any reference to violent death "frightening somehow".17

Hughes ironically says that what we watch on TV, the perpetual tortures and executions we observe 'slumped every night in front of our sets' ... 'in attitudes of total disengagement, a sort of anaesthetised unconcern' is a lot more brutal and cruel than anything we see in Nature.18 Nature is not cruel, nor is Hawk Roosting a genocidal dictator. The Hawk does not kill for fun, his predatoriness has been programmed by Nature in the world which consists of predators and their preys. His seeming cruelty is only natural. What shall we call man's ? From the comparison of the two hawks it can be seen that Hawk in the Rain and Hawk Roosting are the same animals, powerful predators unaware of their mortality. Each poem can be read and appreciated on its own, but if read together each modifies the other with the result that they portray Nature thinking in the bird. The man is inferior because he is given to self-analysis and a sense of mortality, which he carries like an overwhelming burden. In his animal poems, Hughes seeks some communion with the unknown forces governing the universe. Like an ancient shaman, he believes that his work is 'a journey beyond the rational to the primitive depths of experience to liberate the self.'19 And he finds the animal world appropriate for such a journey precisely because the existence of this realm 'is unquestionably stable, permanent and exempt from change'.20 17

Faas, Ted Hughes and Crow, Interview..., p. I. Ibid., p. 2. 19 Hirschberg, Myth..., p. 12. 20 Ibid., p. 12. 18


Chapter One

The two hawks are one hawk, the same. Only our knowledge of them has developed with time.

Jaguar It is worth analyzing another pair of poems to see if the conclusion about the two hawks holds true for the two jaguars. The first jaguar emerges in the volume titled Hawk in the Rain. The jaguar calls to mind the panther from a short story by Kafka, The Hunger Artist. It is about a man who made fasting his skill and occupation. First in the circus and then in a zoo, he demonstrated to the spectators that he could go without food as long as he pleased. When his popularity slowly wore out, he died unnoticed and was eventually found many days later, buried in the stinking straw of his cage. He is reminiscent of one of Hughes' animals from Jaguar, either trying to attract the attention of the visitors or just sleeping in the straw: The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun. The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut. Fatigue with indolence, tiger and lion Lie still as the sun. The boa constrictor's coil Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or Stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw. It might be painted on a nursery wall.

The panther in Kafka's short story, like the jaguar from Hughes' poem, ignores the viewers and seems to be leading his own independent life. Although caged, he is free: 'but there's no cage to him more than to the visionary his cell: his stride is wilderness of freedom'. Nature cannot be contained. Like the hawks, ignorant of death and thus powerful and undisturbed, the jaguar is unable to comprehend the implications of imprisonment or lack of freedom. He simply is free: But who runs like the rest past these arrives At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerised, As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom – The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear – He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him

It seems that the jaguar is a visionary, whom the poet envies for his freedom and strength: More than to the visionary his cell: His stride is wilderness of freedom: The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel. Over the cage floor the horizons come. The Hawk in the Rain, p. 12.

Perhaps Hughes feels like Kafka's hunger artist, who has perished in a cage, forgotten by his audiences? Gifford and Roberts do not consider Jaguar to be a successful poem, blaming its weakness on the poet's indulgence in the desire to find an uncomplicated value in animal life, to see the animal as 'a beautiful, powerful nature spirit' that simply puts man in his place.21 Pamela Law holds a similar view, saying that Jaguar is too elegant, too anthropomorphic and, in general, too easy: 'both in its ideas (the mining/bomb metaphor for the jaguar, the equation of the jaguar and the visionary) and its language the rhymes, which Hughes seldom uses, and here to what effect? (strut/nut, or/straw) and the off-rhymes (sun/lion, coil/wall)'.22 She concludes by saying that: 'he wants to do too many things at once and none of them with much conviction'.23 Maybe Hughes felt the same because in Wodwo, the volume written ten years after the first Jaguar, the poet gives the animal a second glance. Second Glance at a Jaguar Skinful of bowls, he bowls them, The hip going in and out of joint, dropping the spine With the urgency of his hurry Like a cat going alone under thrown stones, under cover, Glancing sideways, running Under his spine. A terrible, stump-legged waddle Like a thick Aztec disemboweller, Club-swinging, trying to grind some square 21

Gifford and Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 70. Pamela Law, 'Poetry as ritual: Ted Hughes' in: Sidney Studies in English, vol. 7, 1976, p. 85. 23 Ibid., p. 86. 22


Chapter One Socket between his hind legs round, Carrying his head like a brazier of spilling embers,

The second jaguar is much more complex than the first. The early jaguar was angry and enraged, but his rage was directed outwards, against the spectators and the surrounding world. He was a visionary whom the cage could not contain. The jaguar from Wodwo is free in the sense that he is not imprisoned in a cage. And yet, he is a prisoner of his own body, of his 'jaguarness'. On the surface, the poem resembles Blake's Tyger, but the likeness disappears on a second reading. True, the Tyger lives in the forests of the night and Hughes' Jaguar hurries through the underworld: Muttering some mantrah, some drum-song of murder To keep his rage brightening, making his skin Intolerable, spurred by the rosettes, the Cain-brands, Wearing the spots off from the inside, Rounding some revenge. Going like a prayer-wheel, The head dragging forward, the body keeping up, The hind legs lagging. He coils, he flourishes The blackjack tail as if looking for a target, Hurrying through the underworld, soundless.

And yet Blake's Tyger displays fearful symmetry: he inspires awe and is only potentially evil. Hughes’ jaguar is a killer, and he likens him to a gangster: And the black bit of his mouth, he takes it Between his back teeth, he has to wear his skin out, He swipes a lap at the water-though as he turns, Swiveling the ball of his heel on the polished spot, Showing his belly like a butterfly, At every stride ha has to turn a corner In himself and correct it. His head Is like the worn - down stump of another whole jaguar, His body is just the engine showing it forward, Lifting the air up and showing on under, The weight of his fangs hanging the mouth open, Bottom jaw combing the ground. A gorged look, Gangster, club-tail lumped along behind gracelessly, He's wearing himself to heavy ovals, Collected Animal Poems, p. 56.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


This jaguar is not beautiful; it is graceless, with his head like a stump and his legs like stumps, wearing Cain-brands on his skin. The Cain brands mean that he is doomed to be evil, that he has been cursed. His situation calls to mind that of the Old English Grendel, the unhappy creature whom God refused the right to salvation, or that of Milton's Satan, for whom the pleasure ordained was hate and not love. Hirschberg explains that according to Indian tradition certain mantrahs chanted repeatedly are meant to release the personality from terror, from the pain of existence and from 'a bestial perspective'.24 Chanting his mantrah, Hughes' Jaguar tries to oppose the curse of Cain. In his admirable determination, he recalls Shakespeare's Macbeth, fighting with fate and thus attempting the impossible. The Jaguar is so vivid, not because of its physicality, but because it looks human, or rather, a human views the animal relying on its symbolic connotations. Hughes offers the following interpretation of the second jaguar: A jaguar after all can be received in several different aspects: ... he is a beautiful, powerful nature spirit, he is a homicidal maniac, he is a supercharged piece of cosmic machinery, he is a symbol of man's baser nature shoved down into the id and growing cannibal murderous with deprivation, he is an ancient symbol of Dionysus since he is a leopard raised to the ninth power, he is a precise historical symbol to the bloodyminded Aztecs and so on. Or he is simply a demon ... a lump of ectoplasm. A lump of astral energy.25

In my opinion, the jaguar can best be viewed as a shaman, the poet himself. G. Reichel-Dolmatoff says that among the Paez Indians, it is believed that the jaguar spirit, or jaguar-monster, has shamanistic qualities and is a shaman's guide and helper, 'in preparation for ritual actions the shaman must establish contact with the jaguar-spirit and transform himself into a jaguar'.26 The first jaguar was a visionary, a poet. Concentrating on his vision, he enjoyed spiritual freedom and rejected physical constraint as irrelevant. The second jaguar is also a poet, a shaman, who is trying to free himself from ‘mind forged menacles’. Through suffering, through his mantrahpoetry, he hopes to liberate himself and his poetic vision.


Hirschberg, Myth..., p. 34. Faas, Ted Hughes and Crow..., p. 8. 26 G. Reichel-Dolmatoff, The Shaman and the Jaguar (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1975), p. 43. 25

Chapter One


In the survey of Hughes' shamanistic predators, it is turn for the pike from the poem included in Lupercal (1960). Hughes' pike in his almost divine grandeur resembles the animals of D. H. Lawrence: he brings to the mind both the majestic Snake and the mysterious Fish: In Fish there is a fragment about a pike: But watching closer That motionless deadly motion, That unnatural barrel body, that long ghoul nose..., I left off hailing him. I had made a mistake, I didn't know him, This grey, monotonous soul in the water, This intense individual in shadow, Fish - alive. I didn't know his God. I didn't know his God. D. H. Lawrence, Poet, p. 82.

Lawrence's animals belong to the unfathomable realm of Nature, where they live governed by instinct and intuition, and where they enjoy harmony, peace and joyful love. True, Lawrence does not know their God but he assumes him to be grand and awe-inspiring. His pike does not display 'the malevolent aged grin', which Hughes' fish is wearing. And Hughes' God, or rather his pike's God, does not inspire awe; on the contrary, his manifestation makes our hair stand on end. Sagar helpfully summarizes the difference between Lawrence's and Hughes' presentations of the animal world by saying: In Hughes' pond there is little room for joie de vivre. Lawrence not only insists on its presence, he insists on its primacy. It is essential to his metaphysic.27

There is no joy in Hughes' pond but something rises from the depth and watches the poet as he is watching the pike. The reader has an impression of being slowly immersed in the waters of the pond, of steadily entering the darkness of its depth, 'stilled' and 'legendary'; of exploring their inner life:


Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes..., p. 43.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Pike, three inches long, perfect Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold. Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin. They dance on the surface among the flies. Or move, stunned by their own grandeur, Over a bed of emerald, silhouette Of submarine delicacy and horror. A hundred feet long in their world. In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads – Gloom in their stillness: Logged on last year's black leaves, watching upwards. Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds The jaws hooked clamp and fangs Not to be changed at this date; A life subdued to its instrument; The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Mollema says that such an immersion is the function of poetry: As Hughes himself said about the poem in Poetry in the Making. 'I captured not just a pike, I captured the whole pond, including the monsters I have never hooked' (p. 21). Which is almost in itself a definition of the function of poetry, to face up to, to recognise, and bring into the net of words the dark places of the mind.28

Hughes explains the idea of the dark places of the mind in the following words: There is the inner life, which is the world of final reality, the world of memory, emotion, imagination, intelligence, and natural common sense, and which goes on all the time, consciously or unconsciously, like the heartbeat. There is also the thinking process by which we break into that inner life and capture answers and evidence to support the answers cut of it. The process of raid, of persuasion, or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender, is the kind of thinking we have to learn and if we do not

28 A. Mollema, 'Mythical Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes' in: Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters\ol. 2, 1972, p. 13.


Chapter One somehow learn it, then our minds lie in us like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.29

Gifford interprets Pike, or fishing, as a metaphor for the workings of poetic imagination. The hunter becomes the hunted, the watcher is himself being watched, and his initial concentration on the pike 'turns inward, towards the surfacing unknown self.30 Eliade tells that the narratives of shamans are filled with accounts of their encounters with pikes who are their helping spirits and act as intermediaries between the shaman and the animal world.31 One such encounter is portrayed by Hughes: Owls hushing the floating woods Frail on my ear against the dream Darkness beneath night's darkness had freed, That rose slowly toward me, watching. Collected Animal Poems, p. 28.

In Pike, Hughes presents the meeting with the dark forces of the irrational, the meeting made possible through the shamanistic pike: A pond I fished, fifty yards across, Whose lilies and muscular tench Had outlasted every visible stone Of the monastery that planted them Stilled legendary depth: It was as deep as England. It held Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old That past nightfall I dared not cast But silently cast and fished With the hair frozen on my head For what might move, for what eye might move, The still splashes on the dark pond,

Hirschberg claims that the cannibalistic pike is not only the symbol of 'a predatory visage of irrationality and violent death', but it also exemplifies


Ted Hughes, Poetry in the Making (London: Faber, 1967), p.p. 57-58. Gifford and Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 44. 31 Eliade, Shamanism…, p. 88. 30

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


the superiority of dynamic and terrifying nature over man's egocentric and rationalistic reality.32 Taking a second look at the pond, the reader will see that it has changed with time. Hughes first portrayed it in 1960 in Lupercal. The second picture comes from the volume River, which was published in 1983, and the title of the poem is Ophelia. The pool is no longer threatening. It opens itself up to Ophelia, as if willing to reveal its secrets to her: it 'unfurls' its 'undercloud': Where the pool unfurls its undercloud – There she goes. And through and through The kneading tumble and the water - hammer. If a trout leaps into air, it is not for a breather. It has to drop back immediately

There are no predatory pikes in the pool. Instead, there is a trout, jumping not for a 'breather' or looking for fun, but because he has been so programmed by nature, and as such, will continue until his death. Ophelia is wading into the pool knowingly; she is simply crossing the threshold to the afterworld: Into this peculiar engine That made it, and keeps it going, And that works it to death – there she goes Darkfish, finger to her lips, Staringly into the afterworld. Three Books, p.122.

Indeed, Hughes' pool has changed: from the mysterious seat of violent, vaguely threatening, uncontrollable forces of nature to the centre of natural transformation and rebirth. Ann Skea says that water is a source of rebirth for religious man, and for the poet, it is a source of natural imagery:


Hirschberg, Myth..., p.p. 21-23.


Chapter One From whatever aspect of Hughes' thought one approaches River, it is soon apparent that the waters are for him, as they have always been for religious man, the ultimate source of life, energy and renewal. The natural rhythms of the river's year provide him with a unifying theme and a rich source of natural imagery: and by linking these rhythmic patterns to events in the cosmic year, and weaving them into allusions to common religious and mythological epics, he achieves a broader, healing purpose and makes this work an extension of the shamanic alchemical task he undertook in Cave Birds and Remains of Elmet.33

It seems that Hughes had gone a long way from Lupercal to River. In the sixties, he made his readers aware of the dark forces governing the universe. In the eighties, he showed how, through myth and ritual, those forces can be channeled and controlled. He presented shamans at work; helping the community to achieve spiritual rebirth and showing them that death is not the end – it is a stage leading to regeneration. A second glance at Ophelia reveals that in the pond, she is guided and instructed by a trout. Ann Skea reminds us that Trout has a very special significance for the White Goddess, acting as her familiar: In River, as in all Hughes' other work, the Goddess's presence is all pervasive; but sharing equal prominence with her in this sequence are the fish - Salmon and Trout - which 'worship the source, bowed and fervent' (R. 118). These are the shamanistic guides which move at will through the fluid, mercurial interface between this world and the otherworld of the imagination, drawing Hughes with them. They are the familiars of the Goddess, gaining their life and energy from her waters, absorbing her magical and sinister powers, and sharing her duplicity.34

Otter In many ways the poem Otter resembles Pike. The otter is a creature which moves freely between two worlds, land and water: I. Underwater eyes, an eel's Oil of water body, neither fish nor beast is the otter: Four legged yet water - gifted, to outfish fish: With webbed feet and long ruddering tail And a round head like an old tomcat.

33 34

Skea, The Poetic Quest..., p. 219. Ibid., p.p. 210-211.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Brings the legend of himself From before wars or burials, in spite of hounds and vermin - poles; Does not take root like the badger. Wanders, cries; Gallops along land he no longer belongs to; Re-enters the water by melting. Of neither water nor land. Seeking Some world lost when first he dived, that he cannot come at since, Takes his changed body into the holes of lakes; As if blind, cleaves the stream's push till he licks The pebbles of the source; from sea To sea crosses in three nights Like a king in hiding. Collected Animal Poems, p. 52.

Thus the otter leads a double existence - one physical and one submerged in the depths of its inner self. Hirschberg points to the shamanistic properties of the otter: While the otter, for Hughes, is a symbol of the soul in hiding, the deep soul, his spilt existence makes him particularly suitable as a projection, in the form of a totem animal, of the shaman's habitual mental state of being conditioned to allow his soul and body free movement in different realms.35

Eliade explains that the animal has a special significance for the Ojibwa Indians. They believe that a messenger of the great spirit, 'seeing the miserable state of sick and enfeebled humanity reveals the most sublime secret to the otter'.36 He also makes the otter immortal. It can act as a shaman and exert healing abilities; it can be the shaman's 'double', his 'alter ego'.37 Sagar offers a symbolic interpretation of the otter as man's (shaman's) 'double':


Hirschberg, Myth..., p. 17. Eliade, Shamanism..., p. 316. 37 Ibid. 36


Chapter One The otter, crying without answer for his lost paradise is surely, in part, an image of the duality of man, neither body nor spirit, neither beast nor angel, yearning for his Eden home where death was not.38

Hughes' early otter is torn between the two worlds, hunted by dogs and men. In the end, his pelt is stretched over the back of a chair, a decoration in a cruel man's house. The otter re-appears, over a decade later, in Gaudete (1977). This time man is not his enemy, just the opposite: the otter has been chosen for the Reverend Lumb's totemic animal. With the otter, he exchanges his body and soul. Lumb is looking for some world he has lost, and like the otter, he is yearning for his Eden home where death was not. That dissociation of personality needs to be healed. Lumb summons the otter from the lake: Then he put the back of his hand to his mouth. He pursed his lips against the back of his hand. A peculiar, warbling thin sound. It was like a tiny gentle screaming. A wavering, wringing, awful sound, that caught hold of their heads and was nearly painful. It was like a fine bloody thread being pulled through their hearts (...) Till at least the creature was sitting there in front of them, the size of a big cat, its dark fur all clawed with wet, craning towards the man, sniffing and shivering, so he could have reached out his hand and touched it, and the girls could smell the wild smell of the fish of the lough. Gaudete, p. 174.

The otter stared at the man and then was gone. The priest, to whom the girls told the story of a strange man (Lumb) and the otter, and who originally was quite sceptical about the whole episode, started to think about it as a miracle: His thoughts flew up into a great fiery space, and who knows what spark had jumped on to him from the flushed faces of the three girls? He seemed to be flying into an endless, blazing sunrise, and he described the first coming of Creation, as it rose from the abyss, an infinite creature of miracles, made of miracles and teeming miracles. And he will went on, describing this creature, giving it more and more dazzingly shining eyes, and more and more glorious limbs, and heaping it with greater and more extraordinary beauties, till his heart was pounding and he was pacing the room talking about God himself, and the tears pouring from his eyes fell shattering and glittering down the front of his cassock. Gaudete, p. 175.


Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes..., p. 39.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Lumb's otter is a messenger from the underworld. He comes from the inner depths of our soul, and he also serves as another helping spirit of the White Goddess. The otter is a symbol of poetic inspiration. As such he can bring about the spiritual rebirth of those who have witnessed his summoning (readers) and to the summoner himself (poet, shaman). Unlike the early Otter, the one in Gaudete is happy, purposeful, and aware of his special nature and peaceful coexistence with man. From the discussion of the poet's shamanistic animals, it will have become clear that Hughes views the poetic process as hunting and capturing animals. This is what he said in Poetry in the Making: The special kind of excitement, the slightly mesmerised and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind, then the outline, the mass and colour and clear final form of it, the unique living reality of it in the midst of the general lifelessness, all that is too familiar to mistake. This is hunting and the poem is a new species of creature, a new specimen of the life outside your own.39

The idea is best illustrated in The Thought - Fox, the poem included in Hughes' first volume Hawk in the Rain (1957).

Fox The poet is alone, sitting by the window of his room. It is a winter night, quiet and snowy. The fox slowly emerges from the darkness: his nose is touching a twig, then his eyes emerge, and his footprints can be seen in the snow until the whole fox enters the poet's head. A poem is written, the page is printed. As with the jaguar, the poet shares with the fox his creative process. According to Neil Roberts, “Hughes does everything possible to suggest that the agency of creating the poem has passed from the speaker to the fox”.40 The poem begins ‘I imagine’, which prepares the reader for a metaphor: the fox is seen as poetic imagination: I imagine this midnight moment's forest: Something else is alive Beside the clock's loneliness And this blank page where my fingers move. 39

Hughes, Poetry in the Making..., p. 17. Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (London: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2006), p. 21. 40

Chapter One


Through the window I see no star; Something more near Though deeper within darkness Is entering the loneliness:

Writing poetry is indeed like catching animals; the poet summoned his thought-fox from the dark of his subconscious. Richard Webster thus comments on what happened on the winter night: The fox is no longer a formless stirring somewhere in the dark depths of the bodily imagination; it has been coaxed out of the darkness and into full consciousness. It is no longer nervous and vulnerable, but at home in the lair of the head, safe from extinction, perfectly created, its being caught for ever on the page. And all this has been done purely by the imagination. For in reality there is no fox at all, and outside, in the external darkness, nothing has changed: 'The window is starless still; the clock ticks, The page is printed. The fox is the poem, and the poem is the fox.'41

Hughes adds: I suppose that long after I am gone, as long as a copy of the poem exists, every time anyone reads it the fox will get up somewhere out of the darkness and come walking towards them.42

The fox came to the poet as inspiration, illumination, an epiphany through which he meant to reveal a certain truth about the nature of creative process: Cold, delicately as the dark snow A fox's nose touches twig, leaf; Two eyes serve a movement, that now And again now, and now, and now Sets neat prints into the snow Between trees, and warily a lame Shadow lags by stump and in hollow Of a body that is bold to come


Richard Webster, 'The thought - fox' and the Poetry of Ted Hughes' in: Critical Quarterly, vol. 26, 1984, p. 37. 42 Hughes, Poetry in the Making..., p. 19.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Across clearings, an eye, A widening deepening greenness, Brilliantly, concentratedly, Coming about its own business Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox, It enters the dark hole of the head. The window is starless still; the clock ticks, The page is printed. Collected Animal Poems, p. 54.

Cuddon defines epiphany as 'a manifestation of God's presence in the world' or as 'a complex and revealing insight of grace as well as intuition of immortality.43 The fox re-appears in a poem from Birthday Letters, (1998), Epiphany. More than any other shamanistic totemic animals discussed in the present analysis, this fox took on a very personal dimension: Not the bulge of a small animal Buttoned into the top of his jacket The way colliers used to wear their whippets But its actual face. Eyes reaching out Trying to catch my eyes - so familiar! The huge ears, the pinched, urchin expression The wild confronting stare, pushed through fear, Between the jacket lapels. 'It is a fox-cub!' I heard my own surprise as I stopped. He stopped. 'Where did you get it? What Are you going to do with it?' A fox-cub On the hump of Chalk Farm Bridge!

In Epiphany, as in all poems from Birthday Letters, Hughes is trying to find the reason why his marriage to Sylvia Plath failed. In the poem, he says that he could not comprehend the epiphany of the fox-cub; he failed to read the hidden message. He ignored the eyes of the fox trying to reach his, trying to make him see. Now he is desperately blaming his ignorance and rationalizing the personal tragedy: My thoughts felt like big, ignorant hounds Circling and sniffing around him. 43

J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms..., p.p. 237-238.


Chapter One Then I walked on As if out of my own life. I let that fox-cub go. I tossed it back Into the future Of a fox-cub in London and I hurried Straight on and dived as if escaping Into the Underground. If I had paid, If I had paid that pound and turned back To you, with that armful of fox If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage I would not have failed the test. Would you have failed it? But I failed. Our marriage had failed. Birthday Letters, p. 113.

The cunning traditionally associated with foxes is linked with nonrational knowingness. The fox-cub knew the way, but his shamanistic encounter ended with Hughes rejecting the irrational and, ultimately, failing the test of his and Sylvia's marriage. If he had accepted the truth of the fox, if he ‘had grasped that whatever comes with a fox’ instead of behaving like one of the ‘big, ignorant hounds’, he could have saved their love. Hughes managed to reconcile the episodic and the encyclopaedic in his poetry. His animal protagonists change, or rather, they grow with time as the poet's vision is changed and modified. The change can be illustrated by comparing the initial and the final presentations of chosen animal totemic emblems. The position of the poet to these emblems, according to Hirschberg, is that of a shaman to his totem animals, his guiding spirits: The relationship between Hughes and the terrifying predators he describes is like that of a shaman to his totem animal. Eskimo legends and myths, for example, speak of an animal that wounds the candidate, tears him to pieces or devours him, then new flesh grows around his bones. Sometimes the animal that tortures him becomes the future shaman's helping spirit.44

The period 'in - between' the successive transformations of the protagonist, 'the new flesh growing around his bones', will be discussed in the context of the same main character undergoing a major crisis and dramatically changing in the process. Enter Crow. 44

Hirschberg, Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes..., p. 12.


Crow – Journey Towards Enlightenment Before he published Crow (1970), Ted Hughes presented the epic theme of heroic journey in its most basic form, as the eternal death/rebirth cycle of Nature, where the natural world interacts with human reality. However, the shamanistic encounters with the hawk, the jaguar, the pike, the trout, the otter and the foxes offer but momentary glimpses into the Absolute. Hughes decided to explore the suppressed Natural Energies in the form of an epic journey, a heroic quest of the Everyman or Everybird of Crow. Ann Skea says: In the common thematic patterns of world myth, and of the traditional stories of many cultural groups, Hughes traces the outline of the heroic quest - the epic journey towards enlightenment and healing which imaginatively extends our vision beyond the confines of the ordinary world.1

The previous chapter illustrated man's inadequacy when confronted with the power of Nature. It is not that man is physically or spiritually weaker; rather, it seems that he cannot learn from Nature, that he fails to decipher the meaning of epiphanies granted him by shamanistic visitations in the body of totemic animals. An artist can capture animals and transform them into sources of poetic inspiration. Non-artists' vision is blurred and cannot be extended beyond the confines of the real world. Man needs to be taught. He has to be guided towards enlightenment by Everyman's figure on his epic journey from innocence to experience. Jung, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, gives Frye's 'episodic' and 'encyclopaedic' (discussed in the previous chapter) his own interpretation. He distinguishes between two modes of artistic creation: the psychological and the visionary. The psychological draws upon conscious human experience or, to put it simply, on 'real life'. The visionary comes from the unconscious, from the deepest awareness which is 'larger than life'. Jung's 1

Skea, The Poetic Quest..., p. 9.


Chapter Two

explanations of the 'psychological' and the 'visionary' can help in interpreting the message of Crow. The 'psychological' mode of artistic creation comes from conscious human experience: Countless literary works belong to this class: the many novels dealing with love, the environment, the family, crime and society, as well as didactic poetry, the larger number of lyrics, and the drama, both tragic and comic. Whatever its particular form may be, the psychological work of art always takes its materials from the vast realm of conscious human experience from the vivid foreground of life, we might say. I have called this mode of artistic creation psychological because its activity nowhere transcends the bounds of psychological intelligibility.2

Jung goes on to define the visionary approach as a ‘sample of eternal chaos’, which he further describes as ‘ demonic and grotesque’. The experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression is no longer familiar. It is a strange something that derives its existence from the hinterland of man's mind - that suggests the abyss of time separating us from pre-human ages, or evokes a super - human world of contrasting light and darkness ... The value and force of the experience are given by its enormity. It arises from timeless depths; it is foreign and cold, many-sided, demonic and grotesque. A grimly ridiculous sample of the external chaos ... it bursts assunder our human standards of value and of aesthetic form. The disturbing vision of monstrous and meaningless happenings that in every way exceed the grasp of human feeling and comprehension makes quite other demands upon the powers of the artist than do the experiences of the foreground of life ... We are astonished, taken aback, confused, put on our guard or even disgusted - and we demand commentaries and explanations ... The reading public for the most part repudiates this kind of writing - unless, indeed, it is coarsely sensational - and even the literary critic feels embarrassed by it.3

Nicholas Bishop claims that Crow is 'the first of Hughes' books to deepen the inward exploration far enough that it begins to take on the structural hardness of a mythology',4 and thus seems to accentuate the poet's transition from the psychological to the visionary, or from the episodic to the encyclopaedic. 2

Carl Gustav Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (London: Ark Routledge Kegan Paul, 1933), p. 180. 3 Ibid., p.p. 180-182. 4 Bishop, Re-making poetry…, p. 109.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


It would be interesting to analyze how Hughes arrived at the change of his artistic mode. First of all, in Crow, one feels the absence of a meaningful objective world. The world of Crow is not like 'real life'. Rather, it comes from 'the hinterland' of the mind, in Jung's understanding of the term. Walder observes: As I suggested earlier, with Wodwo. Hughes' treatment of the animal world, his ostensible major subject all along, became radically different. He became freed from almost all ties of the actual attributes of the animals evoked. And in Crow Hughes goes a step further: the real attributes of his creature take on a surreal, mythical dimension.5

Crow is not like a crow; unlike Hughes’ totemic animals, Crow is a mythical figure. Seamus Heaney remarked the transition which in Hughes’ poetry came with Crow. In his interpretation of Littleblood, he comments on 'a shift' in the plane of understanding from the tragic to the trancendental'6, which can be interpreted as a turn from the psychological, individual or private to the visionary, general and communal. In the life and songs of Crow Hughes creates a mythical world and its inhabitants, whose whereabouts make it possible for the poet to handle broader human themes. At public readings of Crow, Hughes presented his audiences with the mythic framework of his work, however a more comprehensive summary of Crow's story was offered by Sagar: God, having created the world, has a recurring nightmare. A huge hand comes from deep space, takes him by the throat, half-throttles him, drags him through space, ploughs the earth with him then throws him back into heaven in a cold sweat. Meanwhile man sits at the gates of heaven waiting for God to grant him audience. He has come to ask God to take life back. God is furious and sends him packing. The nightmare appears to be independent of the creation, and God cannot understand it. The nightmare is full of mockery of the creation, especially of man. God challenges the nightmare to do better. This is just what the nightmare has been waiting for. It plunges down into matter and creates Crow. God tests Crow by putting him through a series of trials and ordeals which sometimes result in Crow being dismembered, transformed or obliterated, but Crow survives them all, little changed. Meanwhile Crow interferes in God's activities, sometimes trying to learn or help, sometimes in mischief, sometimes in 5 6

Walder, Ted Hughes..., p. 65. Seamus Heaney, 'Omen and Amen: On 'Littleblood' in: Epic Poise..., p. 61.

Chapter Two


open rebellion. It is, perhaps, his ambition to become a man, but he never quite makes it.7

Sagar helpfully traces back Crow's lineage in mythology. The Celtic death-goddess, the Morrigu, was a Crow. The God of healing known variously as Cronos, Saturn, Aesculapius and Apollo was a Crow - god. His Celtic name was Bran, a totem of England. Sagar thus recalls the ancient national myth: Bran, when he knew himself to be dying, ordered his head to be severed and buried on 'The White Hill' (now Tower Hill) as a charm to protect England from invasion. This tradition has persisted to such an extent that when, during the Second World War, the Tower ravens died out, new ones were immediately supplied and their wings clipped to prevent them escaping.8

Crow has always been present in literature and art. We Shall Be Eaten by Ravens and Crows is the title of Stefan ĩeromski's story, one of the most disturbing works in Polish literature. ĩeromski's crow lacks what E.A. Poe endowed his raven with; it is neither mysteriously romantic nor dignified. On the contrary, it embodies all that is vulgar or filthy. Other folk and fairy tales, however, tend to show crows as tricksters, cunning and observant, but at the same time, quite friendly to man. Crow does not fly away in autumn, as other birds do. He stays with man. He eats carrion, and in doing so, performs a useful role in the cycle of nature. It is interesting to establish why Hughes chose a crow and not a falcon as his protagonist. Sagar comments, pointing to the real bird’s characteristics: The prevalence of ravens and crows in folklore derives largely from the real bird's characteristics. The crow is the most intelligent of birds, the most widely distributed (being common on every continent), and the most omnivorous ('no carrion will kill a crow'). They are, of course, black all over, solitary, almost indestructible, and the largest and the least musical of songbirds. It is to be expected that the Songs of the Crow will be harsh and grating. He kills a little himself, and, as carrion eater, is dependent on the killing of others and first on the scene at many disasters.9

The fact that Crow is first on the scene at many disasters is important for interpreting the poem as a tribal myth, told in the times of a tribal 7

Sagar, The Art..., p. 106. Ibid. 9 Sagar, Ted Hughes..., p. 25. 8

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


disaster, and diagnosed as a fall or failure of Western Christian civilization. Hughes interprets Crow's adventures as an attempt of an animal to be transformed into a man: Having been created, he's put through various adventures and disasters and trials and ordeals, and the effect of these is to alter him not at all, then alter him a great deal, completely transform him, tear him to bits, put him together again, and produce him a little bit changed. And maybe his ambition is to become a man, which he never quite manages.10

Ramsey offers a chronological summary of Crow11, showing that the first seven poems center around the theme of getting Crow born into earthly life. Later Crow acts as Trickster, playing jokes on God and man alike. The next stage is a run of prophetic or eschatological poems where the prophecies come true. Finally, Crow is drifting into the human condition. The sequence ends with four summary poems, where Crow emerges ‘no longer humanized, a mediator with human impulses, but rather the absolute monarch of the desolation that men now have it in them to create on earth: truly, a place where no man would go, and no crow fly’.12 From what has been said about Crow so far, it will have become clear that the key concept that needs to be employed in order to understand the poem is that of transformation. Ramsey claims that in the course of his adventures, Crow, a Disney-cartoon-like figure, undergoes a series of transformations, including torture and dismemberment with the ambition to become a man. He fails, for from the very beginning, he is a toy in God's hands and initially man's rival. In the end, we find him suffering together with human kind: beginning as an avowed meddler who has been created by an opponent of God to show him up in his Creation especially with regard to Man, Crow goes through a progress in which he becomes less and less an adversary of Man, and more and more a humanly vulnerable creature himself, sharing helplessly in the human predicament.13


Ted Hughes, 'Ted Hughes' Crow' in: The Listener 30 July 1970, p. 149. Jarold Ramsey, 'Crow or the Trickster Transformed' in: The Achievement..., p.p. 180-181. 12 Ibid., p. 182. 13 Ibid., p. 178. 11


Chapter Two

Hughes’ Crow is presented as Trickster. Paul Radin, in The Trickster, included the Winnebago Indian cycle of stories about Wakdjunkaga.14 In his adventures, Trickster commits comic outrages against tribal standards of morality and decency; he is completely amoral. Although he has many human attributes, he does not behave like a human being: his hands, for example, fight against each other. Trickster is very important; he is a Fool, present in each and every one of us. He can be a destroyer or preserver, a god or an animal, depending what meanings the reader will invest him with. Radin thus comments on the significance of the Trickster myth: It embodies the vague memories of an archaic and primordial past, where there as yet existed no clear-cut differentiation between the divine and the non-divine. For this period Trickster is the symbol. His hunger, his sex, his wandering, these appertain neither to the gods nor to man. They belong to another realm, materially and spiritually, and that is why neither the gods nor man knows precisely what to do with them. The symbol which Trickster embodies is not a static one. It contains within itself the promise of differentiation, the promise of god and man. For this reason every generation occupies itself with interpreting Trickster anew. No generation understands him fully but no generation can do without him. Each had to include him in all its theologies, in all its cosmogonies, despite the fact that it realised that he did not fit properly into any of them, for he represents not only the undifferentiated and distant past, but likewise the undifferentiated present with every individual. This constitutes his universal and persistent attraction. And so he became and remained everything to every man - god, animal, human being, hero, buffoon, he who was before good and evil, denier, affirmer, destroyer and creator. If we laugh at him, he grins at us. What happens to him happens to us.15

Jung analyzed the visionary mode of creation. As if following his own interpretation of the visionary as the unconscious, he considers Trickster to be a shadow, a devil hidden in our bosom, a potential danger, a projection of man’s wildest dreams. Trickster is man’s submerged self: The so-called civilized man has forgotten the trickster. He remembers him only figuratively and metaphorically, when, irritated by his own ineptitude, he speaks of fate playing tricks on him or of things being bewitched. He never suspects that his own hidden and apparently harmless shadow has qualities whose dangerousness exceeds his wildest dreams. As soon as people get together in masses and submerge the individual, the shadow is

14 15

Paul Radin, The Trickster (New York: Penguin, 1972), p.p. 168-169. Ibid.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


mobilized, and, as history shows, may even be personified and incarnated.16

Campbell calls Trickster: 'a clown figure working in continuous opposition to the well - wishing creator ... as accounting for the ills and difficulties of existence this side of the veil'.17

The Journey of Crow Crow as a Trickster figure begins his epic journey towards enlightenment. The most important seems to be constructing Crow's Imago Dei, his vision of God. In his interview with Faas, Hughes declares his disappointment with Christianity, saying that it is 'just another provisional myth of man's relationship with the creator', and he calls the God of Crow a 'man-created, broken down, corrupt despot of ramshackle religion who bears about the same relationship to the creator as say, ordinary English does to reality'.18 Crow learns about man, God and himself, and the reader will follow his education throughout the sequence of poems. To begin with, man did not get his soul from God. The God of Crow is fairly incompetent and his concept of a human seems vague; he simply does not know what to make of man. It is Crow, an animal, the embodiment of primitive instincts, who provides man with a body made after his own image, the image of the Black Beast. A Childish Prank is the poem that best illustrates the process. God is considering the problem of a human soul, uncertain how he should set inert bodies in motion? He seems unable to decide and, tired with futile attempts, he eventually falls asleep. Then Crow, a Trickster demiurg, having secretly stolen into the Garden, invents sexuality and in this way makes the two human beings alive. After all, man and woman have no alternative since 'God went on sleeping'. Ramsey comments on A Childish Prank as an example of Hughes’ 'subversive paganism': With A Childish Prank. Crow has fully arrived in life, and takes up his career as Trickster and Transformer with gusto. Here and elsewhere in the book, as Hughes undermines Christian myth, there is a kind of child's naughty delight in blasphemy, in saying forbidden things right under God's

16 Carl Gustav Jung, 'On the Psychology of the Trickster - Figure' in: Radin Paul, The Trickster, p. 206. 17 John Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (New York, Pantheon, 1949), p. 292. 18 Ted Hughes, Ted Hughes' Crow..., p. 16.


Chapter Two nose; the poem is, really, a paradigm of Hughes' sacrilegious use of mythic traditions.19

It seems that from the very beginning, Crow disrespects not only God, but also the race of men. Perhaps he immediately realises his own superiority: while he has already found out the truth about his "beastness", man and woman remain unaware of their original nature. But eventually, they learn by following Crow's way to illumination. In Crow Sickened, having captured the Black Beast, Crow strikes the creature and himself feels the blow. From then on he knows that he is the Beast while in Crow's Account of St. George, man murders and examines animals, looking for the truth of them and, by nature, makes 'his wife and children lie in their blood'. Davis interprets St. George as a saint with an 'objective eye', a rationalist who kills the demon of the inner world which he wants to repress. It is no wonder that in killing the demon, he murders his wife and children, and annihilates a part of himself.20 Crow knows he is a beast and St. George also realizes the demonic element in himself. The question arises as to what should Crow and man do with such revelations? It seems that they try to live according to their new knowledge. Crow Tyrannosaurus is a carrion eater and does not intend to fight his carnivorousness: Crow thought 'Alas Alas, ought I To stop eating And try to become the light?' But his eye saw a grub. And his head transsprung stabbed. Crow Tyrannosaurus, p.24.

Man Tyrannosaurus is also a carrion eater: Even man he was a walking Abattoir of innocents His brain incinerating their outcry. Crow Tyrannosaurus, p.24.


Ramsey, 'Crow or the Trickster Transformed...', p. 179. Alexander Davis, 'Romanticism, Existentialism, Patriarchy; Hughes and the Visionary Imagination' in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Challenge of Ted Hughes (London: Macmillan/St Martin's Press, 1994), p.p. 72-73.


Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Gifford points to the pompous diction of 'Alas Alas' and the absurdity of stopping eating, of becoming 'the light'. Crow's instinct tells him to eat and man's intellect helps him to rationalise a feeling of guilt: For Crow, being a bird, the question, 'in a destructive - creative universe, is guilt absurd' is answered by 'transsprung' and the fateful step-by-step evolution of the last line. With a man, as in Thrushes, it is otherwise human eating is not automatic - and the poem's irony and grim realism do not disguise a poignant sense of loss.21

Having discovered the truth about their nature (natures), Crow and man try to position themselves in relation to God. Crow tries God. He asks questions and wants answers to his doubts, but he simply fails to be advised. Already in A Childish Prank Crow saw God as a helpless being 'snoring, sleeping, agape'. In Crow Communes, he calls God 'a great carcase'. Communion does not erase a sense of disappointment and yet Crow becomes stronger, not because he has been joined with God, but because now he can deny, even joke about, the very significance of the act. Thus he gets rid of God; the truth he has discovered is appalling, but Crow is strong enough to face it: 'Well,' said Crow, 'What first?' God, exhausted with Creation, snored. 'Which way?' said Crow, 'Which way first?' God's shoulder was the mountain on which Crow sat. 'Come,' said Crow, 'Let's discuss the situation.' God lay, agape, a great carcase. Crow tore off a mouthful and swallowed. 'Will this cipher divulge itself to digestion Under hearing beyond understanding?' (That was the first jest.) Yet, it's true, he suddenly felt much stronger. Crow, the hierophant, humped, impenetrable. Half-illumined. Speechless. (Appalled.) Crow Communes, p. 30. 21

Gifford & Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 144.

Chapter Two


Man is not strong enough to reject God. He remains eternally bound by his illusions of God which are in a constant clash with an awareness of his own hybrid nature, the nature of a human beast. Like in Crow Tyrannosaurus, man acts according to his animal self but in doing so, he feels guilty, as if he has betrayed God. In Crow Blacker than ever, Hughes shows that the saddest thing about Christianity is a sense of betrayal. Take a beast, pretend that it is divine and you create hell: When God, disgusted with man, Turned towards heaven. And man, disgusted with God, Turned towards Eve, Things looked like falling apart. But Crow Crow Crow railed them together, Nailing Heaven and earth togetherSo man cried, but with God's voice. And God bled, but with man's blood. Then heaven and earth creaked at the joint Which became gangrenous and stankA horror beyond redemption. The agony did not diminish. Man could not be man nor God God. The agony Grew. Crow Grinned Crying: 'This is my Creation', Flying the black flag of himself. Crow Blacker than ever, p. 69.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Hughes again demonstrates Crow's superiority. Crow is free, free from any gangrenous, stinking bonds and that is why he can ridicule God and man. He triumphantly and shamelessly waves his black flag, which is a symbol of his 'beast-ness', 'crow-ness' that is dependent only on its own animal self, the black flag of the Black Beast. This time, Crow is more of an evil than a joking Trickster, making another prank 'nailing heaven and Earth together'. From the poems discussed so far, it appears that it is not God who rules the world. God is a good-hearted, but rather clumsy fellow, disgusted with Creation and no longer interested. Still, as can be seen in Lineage, there exists some order according to which the world goes on. Crow nails God and man together, thus causing the perpetual 'gangrene', Crow performs malicious childish pranks on the race of man, doing it regardless of God's will. It seems that Crow is the overwhelming power, the all-embracing evil. The reader is inclined to believe in Crow’s supremacy until he comes across Crow's Account of the Battle. Man, a helpless tool in God's or in Crow's hands, treats wars and battles as specific games or rituals. The rules are clearly defined, and there is no room for changes and surprises. People were, are, and will be killed 'with too like no consequences'. Violence and cruelty have become something too obvious, something all too routine. Nobody is going to be moved or terrified by death, blood and cries. People act like automatons, passively playing their parts according to an eternal convention. They show no feelings except weariness. Does Crow's Account of the Battle present man as the supreme evil power who will compete with Crow for the title since their main rival, God, has been disposed of? Hughes claims that there definitely exists an overwhelming evil power that rules the world. Potential evil can be discerned everywhere, and its physical realisations can be seen. Evil is supreme – all Creation, both Crow and man, and God, are subject to its pranks. The human fear of evil (as can be read in Lineage) created God, which partly explains his imperfection; he is no longer thought to be eternal. He was himself made up by man and therefore cannot be considered to be the Beginning or the Ultimate End: In the beginning was Scream Who begat Blood Who begat Eye Who begat Fear Who begat Wing Who begat Bone Who begat Granite

Chapter Two

66 Who begat Violet Who begat Guitar Who begat Sweat Who begat Adam Who begat Mary Who begat God Who begat Nothing Who begat Never Never Never Never Who begat Crow Screaming for Blood Grubs, crusts Anything

Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth Lineage, p. 14.

The idea was first introduced in Crow's Theology. Crow realises that there exist things different from the ones God created and therefore loved and he is wondering who made them: Crow realised there were two Gods – One of them bigger than the other Loving his enemies And having all the weapons. Crow's Theology, p. 35.

The other God also created the things he did not love, things that he considers to be his enemies. He can afford to say that he loves them having 'all the weapons' in store. Initially, Crow believes God loves him, otherwise he would not have been created, 'he would have dropped dead'. This, however, proves to be a very doubtful piece of evidence, a rather naive reasoning on Crow's part - 'so that was proved'. As can be seen later, Crow's life experiences do not confirm his initial trust in divine love: Lonely Crow created the gods for playmates But the mountain god tore free And Crow fell back from the wall-face of mountains By which he was so much lessened.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


The river - god subtracted the rivers From his living liquids. God after god - and each tore from him Its lodging place and its power. Crow's Playmates, p. 60.

The subversive violence of Hughes' presentation of Christianity makes the reader feel that for the poet, it means a lot more than 'another provisional myth'. Ramsey says about Crow: In these poems, Hughes tries to fight his way free of a still - prevailing Christian - humanistic frame of reference that in its omissions and distortions of human facts makes our inherently bad lot a good deal worse.22

Crow has completed his Imago Dei. On his journey of initiation, he met God and he was not impressed. He has learned more about man and his world. Both Crow and man are carnivorous, alienated, and both share each other's black secrets. And, undoubtedly, they are strong in their will to survive. Here is Crow in the poem Crow and the Sea. The Sea can be referred to here as the Sea of Life, as Life itself. Crow tries to come to grips with the Sea: he ignores it, wants to understand it, fight it, remain passive towards it, all in vain. Crow cannot cope with the Sea of Life, yet he does not give up or remain still 'as a crucified man cannot move'. In Crow and Stone, Crow demonstrates his power. For the first time he shows that the statement from Examination at the Womb Door, saying that Crow is 'stronger than death', is fully justified. Stone, a symbol of endurance and durability, proves to be inferior when confronted with Crow's power. Stone is 'champion of the globe' but ultimately turns into dust while Crow, perhaps due to his cruelty and ruthlessness, but mostly because of his strength and vitality, will live forever. Stone is 'featureless', passive and therefore doomed to become 'dust'. In Wodwo, especially in the final poem of the collection, Crow is shown to outwait and outlive all adversity, with his vital power and cruelty threatening the existence of all that is not Crow. Wodwo is also strong, constantly searching for roots. Crow has already answered questions about his lineage and he goes on to look for a place where he will be able to live peacefully with his knowledge – a knowledge which has been dearly paid for, as stated in the poem Truth Kills Everybody. Stubborn and resistant, Crow goes on 22

Ramsey, 'Crow...', p. 173.


Chapter Two

searching. Although 'truth kills everybody' and Crow is 'blasted to nothing', he is not a loser in the game: 'O leaves', Crow sang, trembling, 'O leaves -' The touch of a leafs edge at his throat Guillotined further comment. Nevertheless Speechless he continued to stare at the leaves Through the god's head instantly substituted. Glimpse, p. 90.

Leaves signify the will of rebirth, a new life. They appear in spring and die in autumn, but perpetually reappear. So does Crow. The truth killed him, but Crow is strong; he knows that the Sea of Life does not return his love, 'the touch of a leafs edge at his throat guillotined further comment', but despite all that is against Crow, his will to survive remains undisturbed. Unlike for man, for Crow, God's image does not kill the enjoyment of life. Man is also tough. His strength is much more heroic than Crow's. While Crow takes his power from knowledge, experience, sober calculation and the view of the Waste Land free from false beliefs and great expectations, man draws his strength from illusions. It seems that even if man managed to get rid of his links with God, he would not be happy at all. The Contender resists life, he does not want to enjoy it, he rejects women, men and children and then he lies 'crucified with strength'. There are some echoes of Crow Blacker than ever here. It seems that the Contender waits for the prize of God's grace. He looks upwards 'into the singing nothing' and waits, unchangeable, immovable, strong, absurd and tragic. True, says Hughes, this 'trial of strength' is senseless, unjustified, and costs man 'the real life', as Crow understands it, but it is at the same time a necessary illusion for man's survival in the waste. In the course of his epic journey towards experience, Crow has learned about God, about man and himself. He also contemplates the natural world, stones and leaves, and he realises that they are all manifestations of Nature, of the White Goddess – cruel, ruthless, usurped by the Christian God, but still indestructible. Nature is crow's and man's mother, their goddess, and they will never be able to separate themselves from her. The Western Christian world tries to kill the White Goddess and in doing so brings destruction on itself:

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


When Crow cried his mother's ear Scorched to a stump. When he laughed she wept Blood her breasts her palms her brow all wept blood. He tried a step, then a step, and again a step Every one scarred her face for ever. When he burst out in rage She fell back with an awful gash and a fearful cry. When he stopped she closed on him like a book On a bookmark, he had to get going. He jumped into the car the towrope Was around her neck he jumped out. He jumped into the plane but her body was jammed in the jet – There was a great row, the flight was cancelled. He jumped into the rocket and its trajectory Drilled clean through her heart he kept on And it was cosy in the rocket, he could not see much But he peered out through the portholes at Creation And saw the stars millions of miles away And saw the future and the universe Opening and opening And kept on and slept and at last Crashed on the moon awoke and crawled out Under his mother's buttocks. Crow and Mama, p. 17.

In the poem Revenge Fable someone tried to change his trajectory; he wanted to get rid of his mother. He attempted to do it in many ways: torturing, trying to frighten, offend, punish, and humiliate her. Finally she died, crying. That her death was at the same time her son's death can be


Chapter Two

read in the last line of the poem: 'His head fell off like a leaf'. Bishop comments on Crow and the Goddess as mother and son: The concentrated focus on the Imago Dei naturally invited by myth powers Crow's repeated efforts to locate his true Creator, God's 'nameless hidden prisoner'. Some of the initial encounters have already been noted: 'Crow and Mama', 'Revenge fable' and 'Magical dangers' all evidence Crow's (or the protagonist's) attempt to 'get rid of the mother'. In each poem, Crow fails, and is either warned or corrected. But the poems which advance in Crow's consciousness, or a development of the creative potential within his double image, inch him towards a discovery of his own 'higher' value through the objective symbol of the Goddess.23

How to Interpret the Myth Crow's adventures can be interpreted in many ways. Sagar, using Blake's concept of single, twofold, threefold and fourfold vision, calls Crow's quest an attempt to achieve fourfold vision. Following Blake's idea, man’s vision can fall, but it is possible to recover a unified perspective: Stage one is the recognition of the all-pervading symptoms of single vision as such, of the need to undertake the psychic or spiritual journey out of its dark prison, and to engage it in a lifelong battle. Stage two is the release of the energies which will be needed for this battle and this journey, energies which, denied and represented, have become 'reptiles of the mind'. Stage three is the recovery of innocence. Stage four, the recovery of unified vision, will be a vision of the holiness of everything that lives.24

Sagar claims that Crow can never achieve threefold vision, which is recovery of innocence. He witnesses war, murder, madness and cruelty which compose a single vision. He confronts the energies in form of obstacles, like a dragon, a serpent, an ogress. The poems are mostly about the mistakes Crow commits; there is no way forward for Crow and his vision remains limited. And yet he must be admired for his heroic efforts – ‘Crow's quest, though he does not himself know it, is ultimately the same as Hughes' quest, to achieve fourfold vision and thereby become fully a man, reborn into a redeemed world of joy’.25


Bishop, Re-making poetry..., p. 136. Sagar, The Achievement..., p. 286. 25 Ibid., p. 298. 24

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


It is possible to interpret Crow's quest as an example of correction by affliction. In the introduction, Ted Hughes was presented as shaman, and physical suffering as a way of relieving the pain of the soul. Crow is full of bodily distortions and dismemberments and yet, like a Disney–cartoon character, he will not change. West writes about the exorcism of body as object, which is a first step towards healing; only in the case of Crow the operation does not work: The final image of Song for a Phallus sums up the resistance of the state which Crow is supposed to animate, by helping the poet who invented him to renew old organs and remake his body. Thus Song for a Phallus is indirectly a sort of exorcism of the self at its worst.26

Lacan's theory of the mirror stage can account for shamanistic fantasies of death and dismemberment into which Hughes puts the tragic-comic figure of his Crow. Lacan claims that children, in their early development, go through 'the mirror stage'. They recognize their image in the mirror and register its coherence in contrast with the helplessness of their body. We almost fall in love with our mirror image which reflects us as integrated, organised beings. In the moments of our mental disintegration and disorganization, we have fantasies of our bodies dismembered, undergoing a process parallel to that which is going on in our minds:27 Reality was giving its lesson, Its mishmash of scripture and physics, With here, brains in hands, for example, And there, legs in a treetop. Crow's Account of the Battle, p. 26.

Enright compares Crow to a Vulture from Hughes' Prometheus on his Crag, the Vulture that Prometheus himself had to admire because 'it knew what it was doing and it went on doing it'. 'Doing it' means tearing and devouring man, the reader, hoping for his (the reader's) subsequent healing and illumination.28 Early in the chapter, Jung's commentary on the Trickster was mentioned. According to Jung’s conception, the Trickster (here: Crow) symbolises the shadow-side of our psyche, the dark side


West, Ted Hughes..., p. 80. Jacque Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1977), p. 4. 28 D.J. Enright, 'Crow: A Reading' in: The Epic Poise..., p. 62. 27


Chapter Two

which is considered negative and inferior, and therefore suppressed by the Ego-Personality. Bishop aptly comments: Crow and Trickster alike are faithful copies of 'an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level', dominated by primitive biological instincts like sex and hunger, and radically hostile to the processes of conceptual formulation.29

The interpretations of an epic journey towards enlightenment, of a quest with the aim to recover fallen vision, of Crow as Trickster-Fool or man's suppressed Ego Personality, of correction (unsuccessful) by affliction, of a disintegrated mind unable to reconcile its coherent mirror reflection with the helplessness of reality, share certain characteristics. They give evidence of Hughes' heroic search on behalf of the readers to whom he presents his vision, hoping for their spiritual regeneration. Crow failed to become a man, but he came close. It is hoped that man will change. Crow is there to watch him, a compassionate fellow sufferer in the world where, as Ramsey said, 'no man would go and no crow fly'.30 In Eat Crow (written in 1964) there is a dialogue which best illustrates man's relation to crow: She: A crow is a sign of life. Even though it sits motionless. Morgan: And a man, lying alone, among stones, with a rifle, lying limply, in a waterless land, in a grey desert of tumbled stone, with one bullet, a man dryer than a lizard, is a sign of life. Even though he does not move. She: The crow watches the man. Morgan: Between the crow and the man, across three hundred yards of primaeval stone, a horrible connection has found its way. Now these two can never separate. The stones are in their usual trance, rapt to the circles of galactic dust. They hear nothing of the song of silence these two sing together, these two silent living ones, alone with each other in the stone land ... The furnace roars in the silent man and 29 30

Bishop, Re-making poetry..., p. 112. Ramsey, 'Crow…', p. 72.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


And the crow glitters, in the early grey light, molten bronze and phosphors setting in his darkness, set out to cool, fresh from the furnace. The crow ruffles. She: the crow is composed of terrible black voice. He is neither stone or light. But voice that can hardly utter. He looks this way and that. The forms of the stones, the fractures of heavenly accident, the resolute quality of light, hold the crow anaesthetised, every hour in more skilled patience, resigned to the superior stamina of the empty horizon, limber and watchful. Morgan: The laws are still with the living. She: The crow arrived before dawn, smelling the man, and setting to watch at extreme range. Morgan: And when he saw the crow, in the blue thinning light, the man gave thanks to the studded, baleful pallor of the heavens, and to this strange faced company of stones. His prayer has produced not quails and not manna. A crow has come up from the maker of the world. She: The crow watches the man. Eat Crow, p.7.

Workings of Pragmatic Myth Crow is a practical myth. To metaphysical or cosmological questions it proposes simple answers. Gifford comments: The importance of 'practicality' is that it is not (as it might seem) reductive, but something irreducibly and commonly human (...) The animal or divine inhabitants of the early world are imagined as people finding solutions to practical problems resembling those encountered in everyday life. (...)31

The practicality can be seen in A Childish Prank, where Crow solves the problem of man's and woman's inertia by biting the worm in two and stuffing half of it into each of them; now each half will strive to join the other. Bishop, who in his analysis favours the approach of New Critical 31

Gifford & Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 119.


Chapter Two

Psychology, seems to agree with Gifford's insistence on the practicality of Crow's myth. He calls it 'pragmatic': Myths are in this sense not only historical but also essentially 'pragmatic', concerned with solving little psychological problems (...), because of its nature as a creative myth, the Crow - narrative regularly envisages this exploration in its wildest metaphysical aspect. (...)32

It is difficult to characterise the nature of Hughes' myth. Crow can hardly be called an example of 'new mythic method' in Eliot's understanding of the concept: unlike Ulysses, Crow is not manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity that could give shape and meaning to history. Rather, he employs the world folklore going beyond Indo-European traditions into the myths and tales of the Eskimos, the Japanese, various North American Indian tribes, and the Persians, and the Talmud and the Koran.33 Ramsey calls Hughes’ strategy ‘manipulating parallels’: Nor can it be said, really, that in his mythic method Hughes is manipulating parallels between the modern and the antique and/or primitive worlds: instead, he seems to be intent, with help from world folklore, on re-writing portions of Creation itself so that the first story in our book of human predicaments is more consistent with the chapters in which we live. There is a historical perspective in these poems, as we will see, but much of the time it is subsumed in a controlling perspective that manages to be at once mythic, and deeply personal.34

Crow is not historical. The perspective employed by Hughes seems to be that of trying to understand what went wrong with Creation. It seems that Hughes uses elements of world mythologies freely; his poems would be understood even, as he says, if all libraries fell victim to a holocaust. Anthropologists will trace the myth of Crow to its many sources, and less educated readers will enjoy Crow as it is, itself, a comprehensive myth. The method of Hughes is that of iconotropy, which Graves describes as rearranging the visual elements of a story to make a different story.35 Thus Hughes produces his own creative myth.


Bishop, Re-making Poetry..., p.p. 130-131. Ramsey, 'Crow...', p. 72. 34 Ibid. 35 Gifford & Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 134. 33

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


The Language of Crow is Shamanic All Crow's songs are dynamic. Almost every song tells us a story, or, in fact, proceeds with Crow's story from birth, through initiation, maturity, first experience connected with mother, God, man, other birds, and with the Universe. The songs are full of dramatic tension. They move through action and dialogues. Crow's First Lesson or Crow Alights are mini-stories with their mini-plots and mini-characters. They often begin like regular fairy tales: 'There was this terrific battle' (Crow's Account of the Battle). 'There came news of a word' (A Disaster). 'Once upon a time God made this Elephant' (Crow's Elephant Totem Song). But Crow is not a hero. He is Everybird who serves as a counterpart for Everyman, and Hughes does not let the reader forget about his antiheroic commonness and ordinariness. The concept is best illustrated in Crow and the Birds. While all the birds either have some lofty aims in their lives, e.g.'the owl sailed clear of tomorrow's conscience', or enjoy sophisticated aesthetic pleasures, e.g.'the eagle soared clear through a dawn distilling of emerald', Crow is more down to earth. Since his only purpose is survival, he wants to eat: 'Crow sprawled head-down in the beach-garbage, guzzling a dropped ice-cream'. Crow is not Hawk Roosting. From his birth, he is destined to be 'screaming for blood, grubs, crusts, anything, trembling featherless elbows in the nest's filth'. Crow is ugly and by no means exceptional – garbage and filth are his sources of food, and therefore, strength. No wonder his songs are harsh. Hughes explains his choice of the protagonist, saying that he needed a certain style, a specific voice: The first idea of Crow was really an idea of style. In folktales the prince going on the adventure comes to the stable full of beautiful horses and he needs a horse for the next stage and the king's daughter advises him to talk none of the beautiful horses that he'll be offered but to choose the dirty, scabby little foal. You see, I throw out the eagles and choose the Crow. The idea was originally just to write his songs, the songs that a Crow would sing. In other words, songs with no music whatsoever, in a supersimple and super-ugly language which would in a way shed everything except just what he wanted to say without any other consideration and that's the basis of the style of the whole thing.36

Crow does try to speak a different language. Glimpse is a failed attempt at an ode: 'O leaves'.. A Bed-Time Story is another failure. Crow 36

Ted Hughes, 'Ted Hughes & Crow', Interview with Faas..., p. 20.


Chapter Two Then sat down to write his autobiography But somehow his arms were just bits of stick Somehow his guts were an old watch-chain Somehow his feet were two old postcards Somehow his head was a broken windowpane 'I give up', he said. He gave up. Creation had failed again. A Bed-Time Story, p. 71.

The key note of Crow is that of dissonance rather than harmony. Bentley claims that the word in Crow is 'dialogic', not in narrative sense, but rather as a dialogue between points of view: the impasse Crow must negotiate in these poems is (following Hughes' comments) essentially discursive, and would seem to stem from the inadequacy of cultural inscription (religious, mythical, scientific, popular) in the face of the 'living suffering spirit' that Crow represents. In this respect, the formulaic patterns of many of the poems serve to foreground the otherness of the discursive materials (cartoons, the Bible) that are provided for Crow to represent himself, and it is significant that Crow inserts himself into a discursive frame only on condition of fiddling with its key elements (as in the biblical scenarios) and by bringing yet other discursive frames to bear (the 'low' language of cartoons). To read Crow's words at face value is therefore to miss the point.37

Crow cannot control words. For him language is a collision, a hunt and a disaster, which can be seen in Crow's First Lesson, A Disaster, The Battle of Osfrontalis and Crow Goes Hunting. Words came with Life Insurance policies Crow feigned dead. Words came with warrants to conscript him Crow feigned mad. Words came with blank cheques He drew Minnie Mice on them. Words came with Aladdin's lamp He sold it and bought a pie. Words came in the likeness of vaginas in a row He called in his friends. Words came in the likeness of a wreathed vagina pouring out Handel 37

Bentley, The Poetry of Ted Hughes..., p. 45.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


He gave it to the museum. Words came with barrels of wine He let them go sour and pickled his onions. Crow whistled. Words attacked him with the glottal bomb He wasn't listening. Words surrounded and over-ran him with light aspirates – He was dozing. Words infiltrated guerrilla labials Crow clapped his beak, scratched it. Words swamped him with consonantal masses Crow took a sip of water and thanked heaven. Words retreated, suddenly afraid Into the skull of a dead jester Taking the whole world with them But the world did not notice. And Crow yawned - long ago He had picked that skull empty. The Battle of Osfrontalis, p. 34.

Crow tries to resist words. Bishop says that in this way, the language of Crow 'rids Hughes of the deviances of the superego stylist and his ventriloquisms - Empathy, Abstraction, Didacticism'.38 The question that remains to be asked is to what extent the language of Crow resembles that of a shaman. Crow refuses to be dismembered and put together again as a new being: he wants to remain Crow. In other words, the refusal to give up life makes it impossible for him to receive a new self and let go of the old. Sweeting interprets Crow as a failed shaman: He presides over what closely resembles a shaman's altar, which is also made of 'skills' and a 'scaffold of bones'. But his kingdom is empty and he reigns over silence.39

38 39

Bishop, Re-making Poetry..., p. 118. Sweeting, 'Hughes and Shamanism' in: The Achievement..., p. 82.

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And yet, in the final four poems of the Crow sequence, Crow will be instructed by a shamanistic guide towards rebirth and regeneration. An Eskimo guide from Fleeing From Eternity teaches him about the redemptive value of suffering: He got a sharp rock he gashed holes in his face Through the blood and pain he looked at the earth. He gashed again deeper and through the blood and pain He screeched at the lightening, at the frost, at time. Then, lying among the bones on the cemetary earth, He saw a woman singing out of her belly. He gave her eyes and a mouth, in exchange for the song. She wept blood, she cried pain. The pain and the blood were life. But the man laughed The song was worth it. The woman felt cheated. Fleeing From Eternity, p.92

Through pain and suffering we are reborn. Through pain and suffering we achieve poetic inspiration (the song). The same idea is expressed in How Water Began to Play. Water, like man and Crow, meets pain, blood and suffering. As a result ‘It lay at the bottom of things / utterly worn out / utterly clear’. Littleblood, the last poem of the sequence differs from the rest of Crow. Heaney reads it as a song of hope: ‘It is, as if, at the last moment, grace has entered into the Crow - cursed universe and a voice that had hitherto been an obsessive and self-flagellating as the Ancient Mariner’s suddenly finds that it can pray’.40 Littleblood offers a kind of prayer and reconciliation: Littleblood Grown so wise grown so terrible Sucking death’s mouldy tits Littleblood, p. 94


Heaney, ‘Omen and Amen: On Litteblood…’, p. 61.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


is begged by the poet to 'sit on his finger and sing in his ear', thus redressing the lost balance in Crow's and man's lives. The readers of Crow will rightly claim that the ending of the protagonist's journey towards enlightenment is anticlimactic. Although Crow has learnt so much about himself, man, God and the universe, he has never achieved his ultimate goal of becoming a man. Crow does not transform because he is unwilling to die a symbolic (or actual) death, which is an inherent part of shamanistic experience. And yet, in Two Eskimo Songs and Littleblood, the final poems of Crow, Hughes gives the reader hope and promise of rebirth and spiritual regeneration. The idea is carried over to Cave Birds, the collection of poems which can be read as a sequel to Crow.


Cave Birds - An Alchemical Cave Drama or a Tribal Myth? Shamanism is not a religion but rather a ritual, a magic practice whose aim is to heal and correct or to repair the wrong. Healing, correction and repair imply a change for the better, and ritual is a process. The present study attempts to analyze chosen aspects of shamanistic practice. The analysis of early poems revealed that Hughes’ animals undergo a transformation as man’s shamanistic guides on his way to regeneration and rebirth. The epic poems of Crow illustrated the process of magic instruction, with Crow as Man’s antagonist and a Trickster figure. According to Frye's classification of the episodic and the encyclopaedic, or Jungian the psychological and the visionary, Crow, with its mythic perspective, will rather evolve towards the encyclopaedic and the visionary, though many of the poems can be read and appreciated on their own, outside the broad context of the whole volume. Cave Birds is a drama with a unifying plot and sub-plots, a crisis and a denouement. Bishop comments on the ‘mythic structure’ of the book, claiming that ‘no poem has its meaning alone’: Cave Birds is the natural development of the process of 'pulling yourself together' which Hughes inaugurated in Crow. As a consequence, the mythic structure of the book is etched even more definitively, so that none of the poems included in the sequence can acquire an individual life beyond the transformative purpose of the narrative nor are they made available for consideration as separate literary objects.1

Given that Cave Birds is a myth, in order to see if and how it differs from the myth of Crow, it will be helpful to specify the poet’s sources. The previous chapter pointed to many and varied influences on Crow, stressing the fact that the volume's underlying myth is a hybrid of the world lore. Famous mythopoeic narratives such as Paradise Lost, Ulysses, and The Waste Land are not myths in themselves, but they include mythic themes. 1

Bishop, Re-making poetry..., p. 175.


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Just like John Milton, James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes creates his own myth, distinct from those shared by the community he is part of. Bradshaw calls Hughes' creative mythology an imaginative creation, ‘differing in form and function from myths that are rooted in communal beliefs and in rituals on which the life of the community is thought to depend’.2 Hughes tries to invent a tribal myth for a community that does not have any: ‘It might even be said that one important function of Hughes' creative mythology is to dramatise the lack of a sustaining communal myth’.3

Historical Myth An interesting thing about Cave Birds is that, unlike Crow's, its myth is historical. In Crow, it is hardly possible to relate the poem's happenings presented in the form of tribal crises to any specific events from world history. In Cave Birds, one can identify such relationships. For Hughes, the death of old religions with the coming of Christianity, and the subsequent deposition of the Goddess, started a series of cultural disasters; hence the volume's original title: Death of Socrates and his Resurrection in Egypt. Ted Hughes always looked for a human equivalent of what he admired in the animal world. His attack on the Socratic heritage, the critique of science and technology as de-humanizing, the superiority of culture over Nature, explains why he makes Socrates the cock which has to be sacrificed in order to be reborn a beautiful falcon. Robinson comments on Socrates last wish, asking for a cock to be sacrificed to Asclepius: Even his closing call for a cock to be sacrificed is a rationalist’s characteristically world – and life – denying jest: Asclepius is the god of healing, and a cock the appropriate sacrifice to thank his for recovery; life is a disease for which death is the cure.4

The discussion of the poem will begin with the circumstances of its first publication and a summary of its plot. Cave Birds, a drama or a play in verse, was first presented to the public in a 'performance' at the Ilkley Literature Festival in May of 1975, shortly followed by a broadcast on BBC Radio 3. It originally included nine poems, accompanied by 2

Bradshaw, 'Creative Mythology in: Cave Birds' in The Achievement..., p. 212. Ibid., p. 213. 4 Craig Robinson, Ted Hughes as Shepherd of Being (Palgrave Macmillan, 1989), p. 101. 3

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


drawings by Leonard Baskin. The collection grew, and by 1978, Hughes had written 22 poems more, of which Baskin illustrated the majority. Any summary of the plot will imply a way of interpretation. Those who favour New Psychological Criticism will say that Cave Birds is a description of a moral process, that of arriving at one's true personality.5 Gifford and Roberts see Cave Birds as a shamanistic journey, which almost exactly follows Campbell's summary of the shamanistic crisis: The sequence begins with a kind of psychic trauma in which the hero's complacent view of the world and his place in it is shattered by the visitations of various terrifying bird-beings who confront him with the evidence of his material nature and morality. His own ego is symbolised by a cockerel. He is taken on a journey into himself, the first stage of which is a classic process of death and rebirth. This death is both the destruction of the complacent ego and a full conscious realisation of his own actual physical death. He is changed from a cockerel to 'a flayed crow in the hall of judgement'. After an interlude in which he is offered and rejects various illusory heavens he enters the second major stage, the symbolic marriage with a female who is both his hitherto imprisoned daimon or inner self and the spirit of material nature. The last poem, an apotheosis of the transformed hero as a falcon, is followed by a brief Finale which undermines any complacent sense of finality the reader may have about the process he has been taken through.6

Sweeting offers a similar account of the protagonist's adventures in the spirit world, with the accent on the hope of regeneration7 while West divides the volume into birth, awareness, and rebirth poems, concluding with the liberated prisoner's epithalamium.8 It is possible to think of other interpretations which the volume invites. In addition to Hughes' familiar tales, those of alchemy, shamanism, Sufism and the White Goddess, Cave Birds can be viewed as an allegory of the cave, Kafka's nightmare, morality play, Campbell's egoless return and Kristeva’s discourse of depression.

Alchemical Drama Since the full title of Cave Birds is An Alchemical Drama it will be natural to focus on the alchemical interpretation first. In Cave Birds the 5

Nicholas Bishop, Re-making..., p. 178. Gifford and Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 203. 7 Sweeting, 'Hughes & Shamanism' in: The Achievement..., p. 85. 8 Thomas West, Ted Hughes (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 82. 6


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most important alchemical element is the mystical transformation, or rebirth that occurs within the alchemist in the course of an outward operation. Another alchemical component would be the symbolic marriage of body and soul.9 Bishop claims that 'alchemy, or the alchemical nature of the drama enacted in Cave Birds, is the keystone to any structural appreciation of the sequence'.10 Bentley shares the opinion saying that 'references to the alchemists' Hermetic vessel in Cave Birds, the 'cauldron of tongues' of The Owl Flower and the 'wind fondled crucible' of The Risen are clearly to be read along these lines.11 A shamanistic reading is another option, suggested by Gifford's summary of the plot. Sweeting's interpretation of the volume presents the central episode as a consequence of the shaman's initiatory dream call.12 Skea helpfully clarifies the difference between the Shaman and the Alchemist, claiming that while the former travels to the otherworld for healing energies, the latter is himself changed in the process.13 She comments: Because of such magical effects, Alchemy is not simply an allegory or metaphor for the spiritual journey, it is, for those who participate in the process, the journey itself. In Cave Birds, therefore, Hughes not only adopts the symbolic and mystical traditions of Alchemy, he takes on the role of Alchemist and subjects both himself and his readers to the purifying process of transmutation.14

Sufi Fable The story of the cockerel was adapted by Hughes from the twelfth century Sufi fable The Conference of the Birds by a Persian poet, Farid udDin Attar.15 This is the story of the birds' search for a king, which can be read as a guide for man in his quest for spiritual truth. Thirty birds look for God, King, or Simurgh. Very few reach the aim of their quest and learn that they themselves are God, King and Simurgh at the same time. Although Skea acknowledges the Sufi framework of Cave Birds, accentuating the idea of the divine in the human, she warns the reader 9

Gifford & Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 200. Bishop, Re-making..., p. 176. 11 Bentley, ' The Poetry of Ted Hughes'..., p.p. 82-89. 12 Sweeting, ’Hughes and Shamanism’, p. 71. 13 Skea, The Poetic Quest..., p.p. 46-47. 14 Ibid., p. 47. 15 Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds, trans. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984). 10

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


against the potential risk of applying a Sufi reading at the expense of an alchemical one to Cave Birds: The belief that all creatures carry God and the seeds of enlightenment within them is the fundamental tenet of Sufism, as it is of Hermeticism, and it is a belief which is essential to an understanding of the theme in Hughes' Cave Birds (...) Despite the relevance of Sufi thought to Hughes' own concerns and the obvious links between Attar's poem and Hughes' Cave Birds, it is not specifically a Sufi framework within which Hughes chose to construct his bird-drama. Instead, Hughes turned to an art which has many things in common with Sufism but which has, in addition, a history which made it particularly suitable for Hughes' purposes at that time. That art was Alchemy.16

Bishop also accentuates the Sufi background of Cave Birds, which necessarily involves an alchemical interpretation.17

The White Goddess – Usurpation of the Feminine Another familiar tale of Hughes is that of the White Goddess. Hughes himself saw Cave Birds as a story of Socrates, the violator of the White Goddess, a story of his crime, correction and resurrection in Egypt, the place where the Goddess is still alive: The Death of Socrates and his Resurrection in Egypt - with some ideas suggesting that aspect of it which is a Critique of Sorts of the Socratic abstraction and its consequences though Christianity to us. His resurrection in Egypt, in that case, would imply his correction, his re-absorption into the magical - religious archaic source of intellectual life in the East Mediterrean, and his re-emergence as a Horn - beloved child and spouse of the Goddess.18

Connected with the White Goddess is the theme of usurpation of the feminine by the masculine, the subsequent crisis and finally a reconciliation in terms of gender.19 Davis explains Hughes' treatment of the theme: ‘On one level, Hughes is using a female personification of unconscious being to 16

Skea, The Poetic Quest..., p. 39. Bishop, Re-making poetry..., p.p. 180-183. 18 Gifford & Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 260. 19 Alexander Davis, 'Romanticism, Existentialism, Patriarchy. Hughes and the Visionary Imagination' in: Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Challenge of Ted Hughes (London: Macmillan, 1994), p.p. 81-85. 17


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connote how a misogynist culture creates a dangerous unconscious through repression and also suppressing actual women’.20 Cave Birds can be interpreted as one of Hughes’ familiar tales; alchemy, shamanism, the Sufis and the White Goddess. The volume may also be read in the context of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Although the word 'cave' is not mentioned in the volume and to Gifford and Roberts it signifies 'the inwardness of the drama, its location in the 'cave' of the protagonist being',21 it seems that the shadows on the wall, the shadows representing false illusions of reality, can account for a Platonic reading of the poems as a journey from the darkness of the cave to the light of the sun.22 Sweeting claims that Cave Birds resembles Kafka's nightmare of The Trial with the accused unaware of his crime and charges.23 Skea says it is possible to read it as a morality play, more specifically as a version of the fifteenth century English drama, The Summoning of Everyman. In both plays we have Everyman, summoner, trial, penance and regeneration: Both protagonists are guided on their journey by innate, intuitive Knowledge and both lose Strength, Beauty, Discretion and their Five Wits at the grave. Eventually, through penance, contrition, humility and love, the female aspects of the protagonist's personalities (Good Deeds and her sister, Knowledge) are strengthened and restored, and the drama can end with glorious spiritual rebirth.24

Bradshaw likens the spiritual rebirth to Campbell's 'egoless return; to a state of soul antecedent to the birth of individuality, which is projected in Cave Birds and achieved through the process of alchemical purification,25 while Bentley claims that the language of Cave Birds is the discourse of depression, illustrating the process of coming back or getting over this state: According to Kristeva, Depression is the hidden face of Narcissus, the face that is to bear him away into death, but of which he is unaware while he admires himself in a mirage. Effecting this change of face in the opening poem, Cave Birds sets out to transform the 'black sun' that rends and 20

Ibid., p. 82. Gifford & Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 200. 22 Davis, 'Romanticism...', p. 87. 23 Sweeting, 'Hughes and Shamanism'..., p. 81. 24 Skea, The Poetic Quest..., p. 49. 25 Bradshaw, 'Creative Mythology...', p. 222. 21

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


threatens to engulf the narcissist's world by projecting (with the support of religious, alchemical, Jungian symbolism etc.) improvisory meanings onto it, in the same way that Baskin's drawings of the raven and vulture in particular look like roughly improvised attempts to give some sort of negotiable form to a shape that otherwise threatens to black out the page.26

Death and Rebirth The poems from the sequence follow characteristic stages of the cockerel's death and rebirth. The Scream, the first poem of the collection, reads like Blake's Introduction to The Songs of Innocence. Behind the seeming joyfulness and self-assurance of the innocent protagonist the reader can discern an imminent danger, guilt and terror. Blake calls it 'staining the water clear', Hughes, who, as has been demonstrated by the comparison of Keats' nightingale and his Hawk, is romantic with his physicality rather than with the feelings says that 'the scream vomited itself'. The protagonist opens his mouth to praise but the privilege of prayer is given only to the innocent. That is why he remains silent, mute like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. The only sound he can produce is the vomited scream: When I saw little rabbits with their heads crushed on roads I knew I rode the wheel of the galaxy. Calves heads all dew - bristled with blood on counters Grinned like masks where sun and moon danced. And my mate with his face sewn up Where they'd opened it to take something out Lifted a hand He smiled, in half-coma, A stone temple smile. Then I, too, opened my mouth to praise But a silence wedged my gullet. Like an obsidian dagger, dry, jag-edged A silent lump of volcanic glass,


Bentley, The Poetry of Ted Hughes..., p. 90.

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88 The scream Vomited itself.

Three Books, p. 66.

If the protagonist is a poet, an artist, it can be assumed that only the innocent, 'spiritually purged', will enjoy the ability to create art. At the very beginning, he is studying shadows on his nursery wall. As we remember from Plato's Allegory of the Cave, shadows are just projections of reality; they are misleading illusions. The protagonist 'slept in the sun's mercy', and he interpreted the world's violence as something irrelevant, something that did not concern him; something that 'only' made him feel 'brave and creaturely'. There was the sun on the wall - my childhood's Nursery picture. And there my gravestone Shared my dreams, and ate and drank with me happily. All day the hawk perfected its craftsmanship And even though the night the miracle persisted. Mountains lazed in their smoky camp. Worms in the ground were doing a good job. Flesh of bronze, stirred with a bronze thirst, Like a newborn baby at the breast Slept in the sun's mercy. And the inane weights of iron That come suddenly crashing into people, out of nowhere, Only made me feel brave and creaturely.

Bradshaw quotes a passage from Jung's Mvsterium Coniunctionis, where the observer watching projected figures resembles the protagonist of The Scream: the passive process becomes an action. At first it consists of projected figures, and these images are observed like scenes in a theatre ... If the observer understands that his own drama is being performed on this inner stage, he cannot remain indifferent to the plot and its denouement. He will notice, as the actors appear one by one and the plot thickens, that they all have some purposeful relationship to his conscious situation, that he is being addressed by the unconscious, and that it causes these fantasy images to appear before him. He therefore feels compelled or is encouraged by

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


his analyst, to take part in the play and, instead of just sitting in a theatre, really have it out with his alter ego.27

The protagonist now awaits visitations of different characters, who come to him in the body of birds. They resemble the ghosts who haunted Scrooge, only Hughes' drama is written in a mood very different from Christmas jubilation. The first to appear before, or within, the protagonist, according to Jung's interpretation of the inner drama, is The Summoner: Spectral, gigantified, Protozoic, blood - eating. The carapace Of foreclosure. The cuticle Of final arrest. Among crinkling of oak - leaves - an effulgence, Occasionally glimpsed. Shadow stark on the wall, all night long From the street - light. A sigh. Evidence, rinds and empties That he also ate here. Before dawn, your soul, sliding back, Beholds his bronze image, grotesque on the bed. You grow to recognise the identity Of your protector. Sooner or later – The grip.

Although the Summoner comes from the very depth of the protagonist's soul and he is the protector, his figure is terrifying: 'spectral, gigantified and blood eating'. Gifford explains the dual perception of the Summoner saying that 'foreclosure is a barring of the right of mortage


Bradshaw, 'Creative Mythology...', p. 225.


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redemption upon non-payment of duties'.28 The protagonist, whose guilt is his innocence (ignorance), has not paid his duties to the Summoner, his soul. Now the latter comes to demand the dues in the form of ‘a gangster protectionist’.29 The next poem is After the First Fright, a confrontation between the Summoner and the protagonist, who is trying to figure out the charges brought against him and to understand his situation: I sat up and took stock of my opinions. I argued my way out of every thought anybody would think But not out of the stopping and starting Catherine wheel in my belly. The disputation went beyond me too quickly. When I said: 'Civilisation', He began to chop off his fingers and mourn. When I said: 'Sanity and again Sanity and above all Sanity', He disembowelled himself with a cross-shaped cut. I stopped trying to say anything. But then when he began to snore in his death-struggle The guilt came. And when they covered his face I went cold. Three Books, p. 68.

After the first fright, after the initial terror caused by the Summoner's visitation, the protagonist starts to rationalise his situation: 'I (...) took stock of my options / I argued my way out of every thought anybody could think'. He tries to explain to the Summoner which values he finds worth living by. He mentions civilisation and sanity, which causes the Summoner to chop off his fingers and, finally, commit Hara-kiri. Only when the Summoner is dead, does the guilt come to the protagonist. He realises that trusting civilisation and sanity has been wrong. Hughes saw the protagonist as Socrates, who proclaimed the supremacy of reason over instinct, and in that way killed the White Goddess. The images of death and dismemberment which must precede a journey to the underworld call for a shamanistic interpretation of the poem. Skea comments: The protagonist's attempt at dialectic fails and he is forced to share in the ritual sacrifice which is made. This, by its nature (disembowelment with a crossshaped cut) resembles the annual sacrifice of the annual sacrifice of 28 29

Gifford & Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 206. Ibid.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


the Sun-king to the Goddess, which was once practiced to ensure the continuance of the natural cycles of fertility.30

Skea helpfully explains the meaning of the Catherine wheel. St. Catherine was a martyr and the 'wheel' was the wheel of torture on which St. Catherine was martyred. The wheel also symbolises the wheel of revolution that destroyed Nature.31 The protagonist now realises his guilt, but before his trial, there needs to be an investigation which comes with The Interrogator. She uses an Xray, adjusting the lamp and sending the light into the protagonist's eyeball: Investigation By grapnel. Some angered righteous questions Agitate her craw. The blood-louse Of ether. With her prehensile goad of interrogation Her eye on the probe Her olfactory X-ray She ruffles the light that chills the startled eyeball.

She collects the evidence against the protagonist, the evidence which will be presented in 'the courts of the afterlife'. The sun examines the shadow of a man who is stripped to the bone of his pretence, which reads like a combination of Platonic and shamanistic interpretations: Small hope now for the stare-boned mule of man Lumped on the badlands, at his concrete shadow. This bird is the sun's keyhole. The sun spies through her. Through her He ransacks the camouflage of hunger.

30 31

Skea, The Poetic Quest... p. 71. Ibid., p. 70.


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When the 'dripping bagful of evidence' has been collected the bird flies off: Later, a dripping bagful of evidence Under her humped robe, She sweeps back, a spread-fingered Efreet, Into the courts of the afterlife. Three Books, p. 69.

In Baskin' s drawing, the Interrogator is a vulture. She conducts her investigation with 'grapnel claws' and 'tearing beak', thus giving the protagonist a foretaste of his execution. The charges in court are presented by the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff comes as the bird of light or enlightenment. She is the protagonist's 'moon of pain'. Her feet are 'buried in your chest', and yet she is 'your heart's winged flower', ready to substitute the False Personality, the ignorant and guilty part of the protagonist. She is 'the life - diving bush of your desert'; she is life itself. Her accusations are painful and yet they open for the protagonist a way to rebirth. Bradshaw offers an excellent interpretation of the poem: The haunting invocation of 'the bird of light', the 'wise night-bird' that is also 'your moon of pain', is now both concentrated and firmly integrated within the sequence: that suppressed, suffering part of the protagonist's own nature which had surfaced in The Scream is now emerging to 'supplant' the established self - the cockerel self in its ego-directed desert.32

Time for sentence and penance has arrived. Enter the Executioner. The word 'hemlock' makes one think of Socrates, and the poem is a description of his death. In Ancient Greece, convicted criminals were condemned to take hemlock. Skea refers to Plato's account of the death of Socrates, full of details of the sorrow the philosopher's friends felt when they saw him die.33 He comes in under the blind filled - up heaven Across the lightless filled - up face of water He fills up the rivers he fills up the roads, like tentacles

32 33

Bradshaw, 'Creative Mythology', p. 231. Skea, The Poetic Quest..., p. 84.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


He fills up the streams and the paths, like veins The tap drips darkness darkness Sticks to the soles of your feet

First, the natural world dies for our protagonist. Death and darkness fill up the moon, the stars, the sea, the rivers and the roads. That is how Nature died for Socrates, who believed in the supremacy of thought and intellect over the natural and spiritual. Then his body slowly dies: his tentacles, his veins, his feet, his mind and his eyes. And now he is pure, innocent like before his birth 'It feels like the world / Before your eyes ever opened'. Again, the physical death of the protagonist opens for him the gate to spiritual rebirth. The protagonist has to forsake his body, to undergo a kind of dismemberment in order to be put together again. He fills up the mirror, he fills up the cup He fills up your thoughts to the brims of your eye You just see he is filling the eyes of your friends And now lifting your hand you touch at your eyes Which he has completely filled up You touch him You have no idea what has happened To what is no longer yours It feels like the world Before your eyes ever opened Fills up Sun, moon, stars, he fills them up With his hemlock – They darken He fills up the evening and the morning, they darken He fills up the sea Three Books, p. 75.

Regeneration has to be earned through suffering and elimination of all pretence and falsehood.

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The Accused Confesses his body – The gripful of daggers And confesses his skin - the bedaubed, begauded Eagle - dancer. His heart The soul - stuffed despot. His stomach The corpse - eating god. And his hard life -lust - the blind Swan of insemination. And his hard brain - sacred assassin. On a flame - horned mountain - stone, in the sun's disc, He heaps them all up, for the judgement.

The 'blood aberration' is corrected on the way to 'a beatitude'. Through redemptive suffering the 'mudded body' of the protagonist is sacrificed on an altar and awaits judgement: So there his atoms are annealed, as in X-rays, Of their blood - aberration His mudded body, lord of middens, like an ore, To rainbowed clinker and a beatitude Three Books, p. 76.

Each part of the body knows its charges and crimes; the protagonist 'heaps' them together to be purified in the flame of the sun. Skea comments: The destruction of the corporeal body in the sun's purifying flames will reveal the true colours of the protagonist; beneath the profane mask is the

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


rainbowed essence of his soul. Suggesting this, Hughes ends his poem with biblical images of hope and blessing.34

Having got rid of his body the protagonist embarks on a journey which leads him to a new adventure. The protagonist travels through the Underworld, the world of the unconscious. He witnesses marvels and boredom, wild horses and the islands of women. But his journey is, first of all, the collection of self-knowledge. First, the Doubtful Charts of Skin Came into my hands -I set out. After some harmless, irrelevant marvels And much boredom at sea Came the wrecked landfall, sharp rocks, hands and knees Then the small and large intestine, in their wet cave. These gave me pause. Then came the web of veins Where I hung so long For the giant spider's pleasure, twitching in the darkest corner. Finally After the skull-hill of vision and the battle in the valley of screams After the islands of women I came to loose bones On a heathery moor, and a roofless church.

It is as if he watches himself, his body, from a distance; he can learn to become aware of himself as he really is. Skea summarizes his passage as a shamanistic descent: In this poem, the rituals of a shamanic journey are strongly present in the inner journey which the protagonist makes and which Hughes presents as a literal excursion through the physical body. Beginning with an awareness 34

Ibid., p. 89.

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of his skin against the hard rocks, the protagonist moves on to an awareness of limbs, intenstines and veins, his skull and, finally his bones.35

Eliade calls the process 'contemplating one's own skeleton' and describes it in the following way: Though no shaman can explain to himself how or why he can, ... as it were by thought alone, divest his body of its flesh and blood, so that nothing remains but his bones. And he must then name all the parts of his body, mentioning every single bone by name; and in so doing, he must not use ordinary human speach, but only the special and sacred shaman's language which he has learned from his instructor.36

Hughes, the poet - shaman, uses his own, poetic language to name the protagonist's bones, and through this language, reveals truths larger than life. 'To a shaman – the language is' not the circuit of mutually interrelated arbitrary signs of the linguistician, but an openable path to ‘Being, the reality of what is’.37 Wild horses, with blowing tails and manes, Standing among tombs. And a fallen menhir, my name carved into it, And an epitaph: ‘Under this rock, he found weapons’. Three Books, p. 77.

Now the protagonist is ready to be put together, to be reborn. In The Baptist, after so much pain and suffering, the protagonist is washed in the waters of rebirth and purgation. The healing starts; the protagonist is helpless, 'blindfolded', 'gagged' and bandaged like a mummy or a baby in his 'swathings'. And his pain and grief 'dissolve' or evaporate and make him a well armoured 'seed under snow'. He is vulnerable , as every newborn is, but has all the potential ('seed') to flourish. New life has started for the protagonist.


Ibid. Ibid. 37 Robinson, p. III. 36

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


The Baptist Enfolds you, as in arms, in winding waters A swathing of balm A mummy bandaging Of all your body's puckering hurts In the circulation of sea. A whale of furtherance Cruises through the Arctic of stone, Bearing you blindfolded and gagged So you dissolve, in the cool wholesome salts Like a hard-cornered grief An iceberg of loss Shrinking towards the equator A seed under snow In its armour. Three Books, p. 85.

He got a new life but he still needs somebody who will guide him on his way out of the Underworld. The guide explains that he can lead the protagonist out from the ashes, from emptiness and nothingness. The Guide When everything that can fall has fallen Something rises. And leaving here, and evading there And that, and this, is my headway. Where the snow glare blinded you I start. Where the snow mamma cuddled you warm I fly up. I lift you. Tumbling worlds Open my way

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98 And you cling And we go

The guide is a swift, the bird whose link with the spiritual world is acknowledged by shamans.38 I am the needle Magnetic A tremor The searcher The finder Three Books, p. 94.

Skea says about the swift: ‘It is like a 'Magnetic' needle, pointing the way to the Northern realms where lie the world axis and Mankind's earliest mythical Heaven, and which are also the home of the Sun-Eagle, the mythological mother of the Yakut shamans’.39 Finally, the protagonist, who was a cockerel before his transformation, becomes a falcon. He rises from the dead in Egypt, which would make a perfect place for the resurrection of Socrates. Brandes comments: ‘For Hughes, Socrates represented the overly logical, abstract, ethereal man that has lost contact, like most of the Western world, with his intuitive, emotional and natural self’.40 Egypt represents feelings, emotions, intuition and nature, as opposed to the Western culture. The falcon is a 'convict's release'. He is likened to a cross or the Saviour himself: 'his shape / Is a cross, eaten by light, / On the Creator's face. His father is Sun the God, he has been 'eaten by light'. The world does not matter to him, 'he slips behind the world's brow'. The wind lovingly fondles him as he flies in splendour.


Ibid., p. 114. Ibid., p. 115. 40 Rand Brandes, ‘The antropologist’s uses of myth’ in: The Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes, edited by Terry Gifford, Cambridge University Press, 2011. 39

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


The Risen He stands, filling the doorway In the shell of earth. He lifts wings, he leaves the remains of something, A mess of offal, muddled as an afterbirth. His each wingbeat - a convict's release. What he brings will be plenty. He slips behind the world’s brow As music escapes its skull, its clock and its skyline.

And without 'the dirt becomes God', the Sufi tenet that there is a divine spark in every one of us, the ritual of transformation could have been completed: Under his sudden shadow, flames cry out among thickets. When the soars, his shape Is a cross, eaten by light, On the Creator’s face. He shifts world weirdly as sunspots Emerge as earthquakes. A burning unconsumed, A whirling tree Where he alights A skin sloughs from a leafless apocalypse. On his lens Each atom engraves with a diamond. In the wind - fondled crucible of his splendor The dirt becomes God. But when will he land On a man’s wrist? Three Books, p. 100.

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With the final question Hughes shakes the reader to some new awareness; the falcon is not a man and the readers should not hope to follow the cockerel's way to regeneration. In the last poem of the sequence, Hughes admits that at the very end of the ritual, he wanted to mess it up to show that man should not feel too complacent and selfsatisfied in his belief in the finality of the transformation the cockerel has experienced. Finale At the end of the ritual up comes a goblin. Three Books, p. 101.

Hughes’ poetry accentuates fluidity of the self. As early as in Thought Fox, he presented the non-human world entering man’s psyche and consciousness. Gifford warns the reader against ‘complacent assumptions’. He says: Despite the pervasive bird imagery, the reader becomes accustomed to thinking of the hero as a man, and of the sequence's development as the transformation of a man. This being so, the final couplet But when will he land On a man’s wrist must come as a shock. He is clearly a challenge to the reader, as much as imperative as a question, a warning against any complacent assumption that reading or writing a poem is a substitute for reality. It is also perhaps a reminder to the poet himself of how natural to him it is to write a poem however great - about a bird as the culmination of a human drama. In the text The Risen is immediately followed by a Finale: At the end of the ritual Up comes a goblin which one cannot help reading as a comment on that final couplet.41

The transformation of the cockerel is paralleled with transformation in the human world. The human transformation involves man and woman, and is presented as reconciliation in terms of gender, which first is signalled in In These Fading Moments I Wanted To Say. 41

Gifford & Roberts, A Critical Study..., p. 231.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


So some perfect stranger's maiming Numbs me in freezing petroleum And lights it, and lets me char to the spine Even the dusty dead sparrow's eye Lifts the head off me - like a chloroform Had lost every reflection'. The whole earth Had turned in its bed To the wall. Three Books, p. 73.

The hero is 'imbecile innocent' and as such, he resembles the cockerelprotagonist from The Scream. The natural world is turning away from him; like the cockerel-protagonist, he has lost touch with Nature: How close I come to flame Just watching sticky flies play How I cry unutterable outcry Reading the newspaper that smells of stale refuse How I just let the excess delight Spill out of my eyes, as I walk along How imbecile innocent I am

The female companion seems to understand more and can reflect upon his (her?) guilt: But she was murmuring: 'Right from the start, my life Has been a cold business of mountains and their snow Of rivers and their mud Yes there were always smiles and one will do a lot To be near one's friends But after the bye-byes, even while the door was closing, even while the lips still moved The scree had not ceased to slip and trickle The snow-melt was cutting deeper Through its anaesthetic The brown bulging swirls, where the snowflakes vanished into themselves

Chapter Three


That is why she turns her back on her male bedmate, thus showing her dominance and superiority. She knows that what used to be natural and warm: 'Yes there were always smiles and one will do a lot / To be near one's friends /', turned to be conventional and cold: 'But after the bye-byes, even while the door was closing (...)' Had lost every reflection'. The next poem concerning a 'human dimension' is Something Was Happening. She began to burn. Some, who had been close, walked away Because it was beyond help now. They did not stay to see Her body trying to sit up, her face unrecognizable With the effort Of trying to be heard, Trying to tell How it went on getting worse and worse And when I saw the quince in April tufted again with emerald And knew - again everything had got past me The leather of my shoes Continued to gleam The silence of the furniture Registered nothing The earth, right to its furthest rims, ignored me, Only the snow - burned eagle-hunter Beating himself to keep warm And bowing towards his trap Started singing (Two, three, four thousand years off key). Three Books, p. 80.

Again, like in In These Fading Moments I Wanted To Say, man and woman live in two separate worlds. While he, again 'anaesthetised' like in the previous poem, walks strolling and pondering a ‘big’ decision: 'Ought I to turn back, or keep going?', the woman dies, her heart stops beating:

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


While I strolled Where a leaf or two still tapped like bluetits I met thin, webby rain And thought: 'Ought I to turn back, or keep going?' Her heart stopped beating, that second. As I hung up my coat and went through into the kitchen And peeled a flake off the turkey hulk, and stood vacantly munching Her sister got the call from the hospital And gasped out the screech. In the fifteen seconds I was scrubbing at my nails and glancing up through the window

She tried to explain, in her last moment, how she was hurt, but he was not there to hear it. The earth, Nature, again ignored him; he could not communicate with the Green Mother or the White Goddess. Again the world 'had got past him', and again Hughes identifies the Goddess with the female principle. Consequently, she, the woman, comes first: She looks at the grass trembling among the worn stones Having about as much comprehension as a lamb Who stares at everything simultaneously With ant-like head and soldierly bearing She had made it but only just, just Three Books, p. 93.

The woman, like the cockerel-protagonist, was created 'via the vulture's gullet'. She is sensuous, the pleasures of her belly make her eyes shine: After There was Nothing Came a Woman Whose face has arrived at her mirror Via the vulture's gullet And the droppings of the wild dog, and she remembers it Massaging her brow with cream Whose breasts have come about By long toil of earthworms


Chapter Three After many failures, but they are here now And she protects them with silk Her bones Are as they are because they cannot escape anything They hang as if in space The targets of every bombardment She found her belly In a clockwork pool, wound by the winding and unwinding sea First it was her toy, than she found its use She curtains it with a flowered frock It makes her eye; shine

She is not an intellectual. She has 'as much comprehension as a lamb' who is, however, brave, with 'soldierly bearing'. Again she is presented as superior to man who, although absent from the poem, came as a second, which can be confered from the poem's title. Skea comments: The woman, like the cockerel, is a beautiful creature. Her delight in the 'winding and unwinding' rhythms of Nature which she finds within her, her glowing acceptance of her function, and her gentle incomprehension and 'soldierly bearing' in the face of events over which she has no control, all mitigate the vanity and self-love which are apparent in her urge to caress and decorate her body.42

And yet the male protagonist is allowed to join the woman in a sexual act; where through their union they feel at peace with Nature and each other: His Legs Ran About Till they seemed to trip and trap Her legs in a single tangle His arms lifted things, felt through dark rooms, at last with their hands Caught her arms And lay down enwoven at last at last


Skea, The Poetic Quest..., p. 223.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


His chest pushed until it came against Her breast at the end of everything His navel fitted over her navel as closely as possible Like a mirror face down flat on a mirror

The man and the woman are one: they look 'like a mirror face down flat on a mirror', which recalls the Hermetic and alchemical 'what is above is like what is below'. Their union is natural: 'Like a bull pressing towards its cows, not to be stayed / Like a calf seeking its mama /. Their union is like death - the end and the beginning of a new life, 'when the mourners have gone / And the stars come out'. The most important is that the union of lovers also means their reconciliation with Nature: 'And the earth, bristling and raw, tiny and lost / Resumes its search / Rushing through the vast astonishment /'. From the poems, it follows that the woman has to be the initial impulse, the force which has to induce a transformation in the man. Their union means coming back to the Goddess, to Nature. And so when every part Like a bull pressing towards its cows, not to be stayed Like a calf seeking its mama Like a desert staggerer, among his hallucinations Finding the hoof-churned hole Finally got what it needed, and grew still, and closed its eyes Then such truth and greatness descended As over a new grave, when the mourners have gone And the stars come out And the earth, bristling and raw, tiny and lost Resumes its search Rushing through the vast astonishment. Three Books, p. 95.

The last poem from the sequence relates the transformation and rebirth of the cockerel-protagonist to what is happening in the human world. Having achieved a death-like reunion in a sexual act, the lovers have to be born again. They are given a new life and create each other by putting together parts of each other's body.


Chapter Three Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days She gives him his eyes, she found them Among some rubble, among some beetles He gives her her skin He just seemed to pull it down out of the air and lay over her She weeps with fearfulness and astonishment She has found his hands for him, and fitted them freshly at the wrists They are amazed at themselves, they go feeling all over her He has assembled her spine, he cleaned each piece carefully And sets them in prefect order A superhuman puzzle but he is inspired She leans back twisting this way and that, using it and laughing incredulous Now she has brought his feet, she is connecting them So that his whole body lights up

The regeneration is presented in a mechanistic way. Their bodies indeed appear to be mechanisms which have been taken to pieces and are now put together again. And he has fashioned her new hips With all fittings complete and with newly wound coils, all shiningly oiled He is polishing every part, he himself can hardly believe it They keep talking each other to the sun, they find they can easily To test each new thing at each new step And now she smooths over him the plates of his skull So that the joints are invisible And now he connects her throat, her breasts and the pit of her stomach With a single wire

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


She gives him his teeth, tying their roots to the centrepin of his body He sets the little circlets on her fingertips She stitches his body here and there with steely purple silk He oils the delicate cogs of her mouth She inlays with deep - cuts scrolls the nape of his neck He sinks into place the inside of her thighs So, gasping with joy, with cries of wonderment Like two gods of mud Sprawling in the dirt, but with infinite care They bring each other to perfection. Three Books, p. 98.

Skea observes: As Hughes' man and woman in their 'inspired' condition re-assemble their bodies, the life energies re-animate them, and the whole process becomes one of joy and wonder at their own, and the other's beauty. It is typical of Hughes' descriptions of Nature that each part of the body is conjured into imaginative being by a precise and beautiful detail - the 'shiningly oiled' articulations of the hips; the teeth 'tied by their nerves to the spinal' centrepin 'of the body; the little circlets' on the skin of 'her fingertips'; and the steely purple silk 'of the veins beneath the skin which 'stitch' the body together.43

It is beautiful love poetry resembling Donne's in that it presents love as a death-like experience and abounds in shocking and original conceits, like love making likened to construction-building. In the interpretation of Cave Birds as a death / rebirth ritual, poems were chosen which best illustrate the process. Naturally, the adherents of the shamanistic, cave, psychological, Sufi, alchemical etc. theories will make a different choice. Whatever the interpretation, they all involve death and rebirth of some kind. As stated at the beginning of the chapter, when it was first published in 1975, Cave Birds was not a ‘finished product’. In the course of the three years which followed, and the two years before the first publication, Hughes added more and more poems to the initial version. The result 43

Ibid., p. 127.


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seems to be a collection of poems of a loose framework. However, an alchemical interpretation assumes a structure in the repetition of motives and in the natural mixing of substance. For example, there are many poems in which the protagonist again comes to a near death or rebirth experience long after the reader has decided that the cockerel has already achieved a state of grace (The Owl Flower, comes after Walking Bare and before The Risen).


Gaudete - Reconciliation of the Inner and Outer World in Terms of Gender Ted Hughes explained to Faas that shamanistic flight is a frame narrative which includes a lot of stories from the world lore; it is “the skeleton of thousands of folktales and myths. And of many narrative poems”.1 The discussion of Cave Birds was concluded by saying that the only way for man to heal the split between the inner and the outer worlds is through reconciliation of the female and male principles. The female represents Nature or the White Goddess, which has always been one of Hughes' favourite tales. The male stands for St. George, afraid of the demon, of the irrational, and for Socrates, denying the existence of the inexplicable. St. George appears in Crow and Socrates is a cockerel whose resurrection in Egypt is witnessed in Cave Birds. It must be stressed, however, that neither St. George, nor Socrates, nor man and woman from Cave Birds have ever featured as main characters in Hughes' poetry. In his early volumes, Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal, Wodwo, man serves as a background for fascinating Hawk, Jaguar, Pike, Otter and Fox. He emerges as an inferior being, unable to comprehend the truths that the shamanistic animals could pass on to him. Only poets can capture animals and treat the encounters as sources of artistic inspiration. In Crow, man is Crow's rival, his partner and an unattainable ideal. Man in Crow is a failure, living on illusions of God, unable to reconcile the beastly and the divine. Crow rejects God and learns from his Eskimo guide about the redemptive value of suffering. Crow, not man, undertakes an epic journey towards the enlightenment. In Cave Birds, man is given a bigger part to play. The transformation of the cockerel into a falcon is paralleled by the transformation of man and woman in the human world; from strangers to each other, unaware of their respective needs and natures, they emerge in a perfect union of lovers. The union is possible only after man has learnt to accept and appreciate Nature as part of the female principle. Unlike Hughes' animals, evolving from 1

E. Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, Press, 1980), p. 206.


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specific, blood-and-flesh creatures of his early poetry towards the mythical creations of Crow and Cave Birds, man and woman follow the opposite direction. In Gaudete (1977), man and woman become men and women, or ladies and gentlemen, or a community of a little town in the North of England. They have names and surnames – Pauline Hagen, Mrs Westlake, Betty, Garten, Felicity – and, importantly, they have their priest, an Anglican clergyman named Reverend Lumb. The characters in Gaudete are described through the accumulation of small details, but they are all stereotypes rather than individuals. Skea claims that the one-sidedness helps the reader to discover the visionary dimension of the drama: ‘this cartoon-like quality […] allows us to experience the dramatic speed and energy of the poem’.2 Hughes meant Gaudete to be made into a film scenario and, indeed, the poem reads like a script, with precise instructions for the camera and the actors. Gaudete is about Reverend Lumb, who is kidnapped by supernatural creatures or spirits into the underworld. The creatures provide a duplicate of Lumb, a being who looks exactly like the original Lumb, and make him act as if he were Reverend Lumb, performing his priestly duties in the parish. The new Lumb, the changeling, looks like the original, but does not feel or think like him. He is made of a wooden log, and interprets the Christian doctrine of love in his own way, making love to virtually all women in the parish with one of them committing suicide, and others either getting pregnant by him or hoping to do so in an effort to bring a new Messiah to the world. The cuckolded husbands get together and decide to get rid of Lumb at the moment he is leading a ‘holy mass’ with the women of the village, the service which is a combination of a sexual orgy and a blood sacrifice. Reverend Lumb disappears from the world and the original reappears in Ireland, changed, singing the praise of the White Goddess. Hughes offers the following summary in form of an argument: An Anglican clergyman is abducted by spirits into the other world. The spirits create a duplicate of him to take his place in this world, during his absence, and to carry on his work. This changeling interprets the role of minister in his own way. The narrative recounts the final day of 2 Ann Skea, ‘Gaudete and the Reverend Lumb’s, Parish and Parishioners’, The Ted Hughes Society Journal, Volume 4, Issue 1, p. 43.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


events which lead to his cancellation by the powers of both worlds. The original man reappears in this world, but changed. Gaudete, p. 9.

Before proposing a key to the interpretation, the discussion will follow Reverend Lumb from his initial to the final transformation. The poem starts with the Prologue, presenting the circumstances of Lumb's abduction and the creation of his duplicate. Lumb is alone, walking through an empty town which looks like a desert. He then encounters a heap of dead bodies, resembling a mass grave. Lumb becomes lost in a labyrinth of streets, each carpeted with corpses; the view is nightmarish: He turns again to find the empty street where he first walked. But directions have shifted. And the street he comes into is carpeted with corpses - the same. He clambers over corpses, from street to street, turning and turning among the streets, and every street is the same - a trench of fresh corpses. Finally, he simply stands, listening to the unnatural silence. He realises he is lost. The whole town is a maze of mass-graves. Gaudete. p. 13.

There follows one of the most important scenes of Gaudete. Lumb meets his guide, an old man in scarecrow rags who speaks in Irish and leads the priest to a suffering baboon woman, asking Lumb for help. But Lumb cannot help for he is not a doctor. He can only pray: He declares he can do nothing He protests there is nothing he can do For this beautiful woman who seems to be alive and dead. He is not a doctor. He can only pray. Gaudete, p. 15.

If Lumb is to be judged according to his shamanistic competence, he fails, already in the Prologue, in the very first lines of the poem. The shaman is both a doctor and a priest, responsible for conducting religious rituals and for spiritual health of his tribe. Lumb does not understand that to pray means to heal. The Reverend experiences a dualistic conflict between the doctor and the priest, unable to reconcile the split in his personality:

Chapter Four


His action expresses the alienating contemporary cultural emphasis on specialization, upon the growth of a mechanical efficiency within narrowly defined, self-enclosed margins. This special emphasis encourages the growth of the Personality, with its own terminology or universe of signs, from which other systems of understanding embodying other psychic components are gratuitously excluded. As soon as Lumb separates off the ‘spiritual personality’ of the priest from his ancient role of material internal healer, the judgement that follows is psychically inevitable - from the psychological - esoteric view, doctor and priest are simply two sides of the same coin.3

The whole poem is built on splitting images. The first one concerns the doctor and the priest. The next divide which needs to be obliterated is one between Parzival and his Moslem brother, which is another mythological version of the story of the dualistic self. Parzival, in von Eschenbach’s version of the tale, initially lacks compassion but when he learns that the question he has to ask the dying King is an inquiry about his health, he heals the monarch and restores prosperity to the Kingdom. Reverend Lumb will experience a trial of suffering, leading to a new consciousness. Unfortunately, the change involves himself only; Lumb will fail to heal the community. Hughes has chosen a fragment from Parzival as a motto of Gaudete: The introductory verses imply that the duality of personality is man’s inherent feature: Their battle had come to the point where I cannot refrain from speaking up. And I mourn for this, for they were two sons of one man. One could say that ‘they’ were fighting in this way if one wished to speak of two. These two, however, were one, for ‘my brother and I’ is one body, like good man and good wife. Contending here from loyalty of heart, one flesh, one blood, was doing itself much harm. Parzival (Book XV) Gaudete, p. 8.

Lumb will be given a brother who will assume his own body. Strange men ask the priest to choose a tree and he thinks he is going to be hanged. But the creatures have a different plan. Lumb is tied to the tree stump and, 3

Bishop, p. 146.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


both he and the tree, are flogged together. The priest faints and when he wakes up, he sees his double in place of the log to which he has been tied. The man is wearing his clothes, his ‘clerical garb’. And then the men make Lumb kill a white bull and bathe the priest in the animal's blood and intestines: A long-handled hook rips the bull's underbelly from ribs to testicles. Half a ton of guts Balloon out and drop on to Lumb. He flights in the roping hot mass. He pushes his head clear, trying to wipe his eyes clear. Curtains of live blood cascade from the open bull above him. Wallowing in the greasy pulps, he tries to crawl clear, But men in bloody capes are flinging buckets of fresh blood over him. Many bulls swing up, on screeching pulleys. Intestinies spill across blood-flooded concrete. The din is shattering, despair of beasts And roaring of men, and impact of steel gates. Bull's skins stripped off, heads tumbling in gutters. Carcases fall apart into two halves. Lumb scrambles from the swamp. He tries to wipe his eyes and to see. Gaudete, p. 19.

The ritual flogging, blood sacrifice of the bull, and Lumb bathing in the animal's blood and intestines recall another split crucial to the understanding of Gaudete: the scenes make the reader think of Dionysos and Hades. While Dionysos is the god of intoxication and madness, interpreted as ‘death in life’, Hades symbolizes depths of the psyche, of the unconscious. Dionysos, like Osiris and Christ, suffered, was torn apart, and resurrected. Hughes precedes the Argument of Gaudete with two mottos in the form of epigraphs, of which one concerns Parzival and his brother. The other motto reads: If it were not Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld, for whom these obscene songs are sung and festivals made, it would be a shocking thing, but Hades and Dionysos are one. Heraclitus Gaudete, p. 8.


Chapter Four

Another of Hughes' themes emerges here; death is a necessary stage leading to regeneration and spiritual rebirth. The new Lumb is ready to leave for his parish. The original one is abducted to the underworld where, supposedly, he will undergo a period of shamanistic instruction. The reader will never know what has happened in the underworld. When the original Lumb is seen again, he summons an otter from the lake as easily as he summons his poetic inspiration in order to write hymns praising the White Goddess. His poems constitute the Epilogue of Gaudete. It is the new Lumb, a changeling born of a log to which the original Lumb has been tied by the spirits, whose whereabouts the reader is asked to follow through the narrative of Gaudete. First there is Major Hagen, watching Lumb's randez-vous with his wife on the Japanese bridge. He watches the scene through a pair of his voyeuristic binoculars. Hagen then argues with his wife and kills a dog that comes to her rescue. Next the reader meets Commander Estridge and his daughters. Jennifer Estridge commits suicide ‘for the love of Lumb’, and numerous love scenes between Lumb and other women from the village – Mrs. Westlike, Mrs. Holroyd, Mrs. Evans – are presented. To the husbands, Garten shows a photograph depicting Lumb making love to Mrs. Evans. All the men congregated at the Bridge Inn bar are preparing their revenge, while the women attend Lumb's ritual, a sacrificial mass during which Felicity, a woman with whom Lumb has expressed a wish to escape from the village, is murdered. She is stabbed with a sword by Maud, Lumb's housekeeper, who then commits suicide. Lumb is hunted by the men of the village and finally finds his death in the lake. The bodies of Maud, Reverend Lumb and Felicity are burned together: Felicity Has to be part of a presentable accident. They take her body forcibly from Garten And bring it into the basement, where they find Maud Curled on the floor around Lumb's dagger, her temple to The boards, as if quite comfortable in death, And like a foetus asleep, with crossed ankles. They stretch her out on one side of Lumb. They leave Lumb's dagger in position because nobody wants to touch it. They lay Felicity on the other side of Lumb. So the three lie, faces upward, with touching hands, on the narrow table, On top of the pyre. Lumb's eyes are closed, but the women's eyes are wide. The men arrange all this in deep silence, entranced by the

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


deep satisfaction of it. Evans brings a can of petrol. Holroyd anoints the pile, he douches the three bodies. Windows are smashed out for vents. Holroyd spatters a petrol fuse up the stair and out into the churchyard. Then drops a match onto it. All evidence goes up. Gaudete, p. 170.

There is more to Gaudete than what follows from the summary above. Hughes has created a new myth on which the structure of the poem rests, including Hughes' familiar tales of shamanistic flight.

Cockpit or ‘the Despotism of the Eye’ In Myth and Education Hughes claims that the despotic eye makes it impossible for an individual to react to the world in an imaginative way. He illustrates his theory with an example of people sitting in a cockpit: But we sit, closely cramped in the cockpit behind the eyes, steering through the brilliantly crowded landscape beyond the lenses, focused on details and distinctions. In the end, since all our attention from birth has been narrowed into that outward beam, we come to regard our body as no more than a somewhat stupid vehicle. All the urgent information coming towards us from the inner world sounds to us like a blank, or at best the occasional grunt, or a twinge. Because we have no equipment to receive it and decode it. The body, with its spirits, is the antennae of all our perceptions. The receiving aerial for all our wavelengths. But we are disconnected. The exclusiveness of our objective eye, the very strength and brilliance of our objective intelligence, suddenly turns into stupidity - of the most rigid and suicidal kind.4

Hughes echoes Coleridge, who claimed that the full capacity of imagination can be realised only when we free ourselves from what he called despotism of the eye'.5 We should not let ourselves be enslaved by what we see and analyse the view on rational grounds. Coleridge distinguishes between objective imagination, limited by the physical eye's range of vision, and visionary imagination in Blake's understanding of the term. Visionary imagination is fourfold and involves an ability which Crow 4 5

Davis, p. 72. Ibid.

Chapter Four


never attained, but which the protagonist of Cave Birds regained: to see the world as a unified totality. In Gaudete, Major Hagen and other men in the village become victims of objective imagination, of their single vision. Hagen uses his binoculars to be closer to his wife, to see her better. He should have been looking at her as a whole, employing his heart and his whole self. As it is, with his binoculars he only alienates himself from her: Hagen Contemplates their stillness. The man-shape To which his wife clings. He does not detect Lumb's absence. He can watch his wife But not the darkness into which she has squeezed her eyes, The placeless, limitless warmth She has fused herself into, Clasping that shape And shutting away the painful edges and clarities of the gusty distance, Under the toppling continents of hard-blossomed cumulus The tattery gaps of blue And the high, taut mad circus. Gaudete, p. 26.

Hagen can watch his wife, the way she looks and behaves, but ‘not the darkness into which she has squeezed her eyes’. The eye will see an object, but to perceive it wholly, one needs visionary imagination, the fourfold vision. Douglas Dunn describes objective imagination as the morality of the cinema. In the cinema, we employ our sense of sight, according to the wish of the director: Close up on this one, close up on that one, cut to ... fade, dissolve, etc. In this case, it looks as if Mr Hughes has directed his poem along lines laid down by Ken Russell. (Has Ken Russell been influenced by Ted Hughes? Discuss.)6

Hagen is operating his camera-like binoculars. Major Hagen, a gamehunter watching the world through the telescope, resembles a film director shooting a scene: 6 Douglas Dunn, ‘For the Love of Lumb’ in: Books and Writers, vol. 10, 1977, p. 17.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Major Hagen, motionless at his window, As in a machan, Shoulders hunched, at a still focus. The parkland unrolls, lush with the full ripeness of the last week in May, under the wet midmorning light. The newly plumped grass shivers and flees. Giant wheels of light ride into the chestnuts, and the poplars lift and pour like the tails of horses. Distance blues beyond distance. The scene Balances on the worm's stealth, the milled focal adjustment, under the ginger-haired, freckle-back thick fingers and the binocular pressure of Hagen's attention. Gaudete. p. 23.

Davis applies an existential reading to objective imagination seen as slavery of the mind to the eye. According to Sartre, imagination is necessarily an annihilation of reality: in order to imagine something, one has to posit its non-existence as an object of perception. In other words, the other's gaze is that which turns the self into an object of its look, thus depriving it of its freedom.7 In this way, the person looking makes a slave of an object of his scrutiny. In Gaudete, Estridge is watching Mrs Holroyd through his telescope and projects on her the identity of the country love of his youth. She becomes a slave of his gaze: Estridge is pleased with his telescope Which brings him a hen flattened under a cock in the barn doorway. Then the birds scatter, long-legged. Mrs Holroyd emerges, with dazzled eyes, Carrying a basket, and adjusting her skirt, And dusting herself down. The Reverend Nicholas Lumb Materializes out of the darkness behind her. Mrs Holroyd, at twenty-seven, is a fresh-faced abundant woman With an easy laugh. Estridge treasures her among his collection of ideals – She reminds him of the country love of his youth, who never appeared. Gaudete. p. 47. 7

Davis, p. 73.

Chapter Four


Mrs Holroyd is Estridge's slave, one among his ‘collection of ideals’. It is characteristic that in Gaudete, female characters become objects of the male gaze. For the protagonists, in order to attain visionary imagination, it is necessary to reject the misogyny that, in Hughes' view, Reformed Christianity has bequeathed to the 20th century. According to Davis, Hughes translates the romantic vision into gender relations: ‘Femininity is a metaphor for that which lies beyond ordinary perception’.8 The protagonist of Cave Birds regains his lost vision when he is united with the bride. Lumb attains the fourfold vision when he can see beauty and unity in the formerly disintegrated face of the baboon woman: The rain striking across the mud face washes it. It is a woman's face, A face as if sewn together from several faces. A baboon beauty face, A crudely stitched patchwork of faces, (...) He crawls, He frees his hands and face of blood - clotted roping tissues. He sees light. He sees her face undeformed and perfect. Gaudete. p. 106.

Lumb, from the Prologue, could not appreciate the beauty of the baboon woman. He felt helpless and incompetent. Now he gives birth to her in order to be reborn of her. Davis says: At first, as he [Lumb] gazes with astonishment at the surreal landscape of crushed and shattered human forms, ‘no explanation occurs to him /They are all there is to it’, but then ‘he hears a sharp crying. He looks for it, as for a clue... /It is the head of a woman /Who has been buried alive to the neck! The woman's presence here, like the earlier reference to an enigmatic piece of ‘sodden paper’ that disintegrates in his hands, is inexplicable to Lumb. Like Hagen observing his wife at the opening of the narrative, Lumb's gaze sees the woman as an object he cannot fully comprehend. He remains trapped within a limited mode of perception, one that has no real mastery over its object. Lumb's bafflement is made strikingly apparent in the way in which the woman's face refuses to stabilise in his sight. (...) This stupified, patchwork vision is a covert criticism of the male gaze, the partriachal form of objective perception. When individuated, Lumb's vision


Ibid., p. 87.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


of the baboon woman will be able to see this female face in a manner that totalises the several faces into one.9

The male gaze is no longer enslaving in the face of its object.

Reverend Lumb as Shaman Reverend Lumb is a priest and therefore destined to be a healer, restoring his community to the health and well-being they have lost. Shamanistic totemic animals function as the shaman's guides, helping to preserve the shaman's sanity which is constantly endangered by his need to balance between ordinary reality and the supernatural realm. Lumb has his otter as a totemic guide. But, first of all, he has his double, a duplicate changeling with whom he literally changes places. Lumb is a priest but he is also a poet, and the initiation of soaking in blood is like a gift from the White Goddess, granting him inspiration from Nature: The ‘frozen’, sterile Reverend Lumb literally needs an infusion of bull's blood to make him live.10

As a shaman, Lumb fails. He undergoes stage A of the shamanistic flight; he suffers a personal crisis and a breakdown. He enters the spirit world, having been flogged and dismembered (changeling) before his shamanistic flight. Thus he has experienced a symbolic death, a necessary stage leading to resurrection. But stage B, that of shamanistic, mythological instruction given by a guide, is missing from the poem. The changeling Lumb produces a distorted version of human love and although he himself is transformed and arrives at some illumination (the unified vision of Nature seen as the baboon woman, the poetry he creates after his return), society does not profit from his shamanistic flight: Jennifer commits suicide, Felicity is murdered, Maud stabs herself with Lumb's ritual dagger. The shaman has lost control and cannot execute his responsibilities. Gifford and Roberts comment: All we can confidently say about the episode is that Lumb, by his dishonesty, his attempt to use sex as an escape from an awkward situation, and his handing Felicity over to Maud, abandons even ordinary human 9

Ibid., p. 81. Hirschberg, p. 26.


Chapter Four


responsibility. Still less does he seem capable of meeting the difficult and dangerous social responsibilities of a shaman. Our sense that he has lost control is confirmed.11

Bishop sees the reason of Lumb's loss of control in the absence of initiation which constitutes stage B of the shamanistic crisis: it is clear that the second stage which in shamanistic practice involves the spiritual instruction of the Initiate is absent in Lumb's case. The terribly powerful psychological energies released are not supported or controlled by the moral-social order and its forms, and thus turned to good - just as they were given no validation, their release into the ‘outer’ world is inevitably destructive. In view of the split condition of Gaudete's ‘narrative psyche’, Lumb's triumph in the inner region is qualified by his failure in the ‘outer’ sphere.12

Lumb has his animal familiar, and he has renewed friendship with the natural world, but that is his own change of sensibility, his own individual purgation. Lumb fails to heal the community but is himself healed or transformed by his journey to the underworld.

Hades and Dionysos are One In the poem, Hughes alludes to another myth, that of Dionysos and Hades. In his motto, the poet quotes Heraclitus, stating that Hades and Dionysos are one. It is important to explain how the Dionysian myth applies to Gaudete. Pentheus and Angelo are what Jung, following Nietzsche, calls ‘Apollinian’ types. Apollo signifies measure, number, limitation and the subordination of everything wild or animalistic. Reverend Lumb is an Apollinian type and throughout the narrative he slowly disintegrates into his Dionysian changeling double. Gifford and Roberts interpret Gaudete as: a more complex, distorted version of Eurypides' The Bacchae. in which King Pentheus rigidly and violently opposes Dionysos but, like Shakespeare's Angelo, fatally susceptible to that which he suppresses, and

11 12

Gifford and Roberts, p. 178. Bishop, p. 163.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


is seduced by the god into spying on the Bacchae, as a consequence of which he is tom to pieces by his own mother.13

It is Hagen who annihilates the hopefully Dionysian oak-version of Lumb, and the reborn Lumb is again made whole: the two opposed parts of his personality, the Appolinian and the Dionysian, have been reconciled. And those two categories correspond to the masculine and the feminine.14 Lumb is not the only male character who undergoes a Dionysian event - a death of his Apollinian, scientific, or objective self and a birth of the Dionysian self, understood as the feminine, non-judgemental, wild and chaotic. The dichotomy of Apollinian and Dionysian reflects the duality of man’s personality; Apollo, the sun-god, stands for light, clarity and form, while Dionysos, the wine-god, represents drunkenness and ecstasy. Estridge and Hagen also change, and their change is accentuated by the ritual destruction of the ‘objective’ lens, whether the telescope or binoculars.15 Hagen confronts the Dionysian energies in the person of his wife. In killing his dog, he behaves like St. George from Crow, who by destroying the demon was hoping to annihilate the natural or the Dionysian in himself: Now Hagen Swerves the full momentum of his rage on to the dog. He lifts a chair. This dog is going to account for everything. Fangs splinter wood and wood shatters. Only exhaustion will stop him. Till at last he stands, trembling, Like somebody pulled from an accident. He drops the broken stump of his weapon. He kneels Besides the stilled heap of loyal pet Hands huge with baffled gentleness As if he had just failed to save it. He lifts its slack head. His horror is as dry As volcanic rock. Gaudete, p. 35.


Gifford and Roberts, p. 141. Edward Larissy, 'Ted Hughes, the feminine and Gaudete' in: Critical Quarterly 25 ii, summer 1983, p.p. 33-41. 15 Bishop, p. 152. 14


Chapter Four

In the poem, Major Hagen is looking at his wife without his binoculars: His words seem to scald and corrupt his lips. An insane voltage, a blue crackling entity Is leaping around the kitchen As if it had crashed in through the window.

All of a sudden he turns his frustration and aggression onto his pet dog; he wants to destroy it in an irrational, violent act which is untypical of his usual, detached self. And then he feels a feminine, irrational compassion and sympathy for the dog. In a way, he is like Lumb, re-discovering the baboon woman who symbolizes the feminine and therefore the Dionysian in the poem. Estridge encounters the Dionysian energies in his daughters. He tries to understand the suicide of his elder daughter Janet, reported by her younger sister Jennifer, by putting on his spectacles. But they cannot help. Like Lumb and Hagen before him, has to give in to the chaotic and irrational, overwhelming energies: Till a scream Amplifies over his head's pain - A repeated approaching scream, then a silence. His younger daughter has left her piano. She is running between the shrubs towards him. He puts on his spectacles. He quickly tries to think what could be the worst possible. He finds only helpless fear. His daughter is screaming something at him As if in perfect silence. Gaudete, p. 48.

As Hughes says in his motto, Hades and Dionysos are one. Lumb had to die a symbolic death by flogging in order for his Dionysian double to be born. It took the death of his pet labrador for Major Hagen to attain the maternal, feminine instinct of tenderness and compassion. It took the death of his daughter for Estridge to realize that his spectacles were of no use. Death brings about regeneration and spiritual rebirth, says Hughes in Gaudete, and the idea has re-emerged in his poetry since Hawk in the Rain.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


The Dionysian impulse means giving vent to passion and sexual desire. Lumb submits to the Dionysian annihilation of control and becomes: ‘a fertility spirit, wood demon’.16 Bishop says: Lumb's double is nothing less than a paraphrase of Crow himself, identifiable by his completely unfettered instinctual life, his tendency to explode the arbitrarily defined margins of the ‘isolated ego’ and his potential as mediator of the Jung divide between the animal and divine natures, and the central dramatic climax of Gaudete is at once specifically Dionysian and exploitation of Crow's most explicit feature, his sexuality.17

Gaudete should be positioned in relation to Crow. Lumb's sexuality is more explicit than Crow's. After all, the Reverend indulges in sexual acts with virtually all his female parishioners. He is moved by instinct and intuition, which brings disaster to his community and, at the same time, precipitates his own spiritual rebirth.

Parzival and His Brother The story of Parzival is another version of the Dionysian myth. The Grail Castle can only be conquered by a passive hero, who is left defenseless at the mercy of his double when his blade breaks, and he loses confidence in his powers. Parzival is in conflict with his Moslem brother, who symbolizes a ‘black’ side of his own dualistic self. Only when he gives in to the dark energies can he heal the maimed King Anfortas, the way Lumb can eventually cure the wounded baboon woman in Gaudete.18 Sweeting comments: The greater visual emphasis more clearly presents the goal of the Gaudete narrative, which is to heal the awful figure, the mutilated Gea Genetrix. Like the hero of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and Peredur in the Mabinogion Lumb is unable to respond from his humanity when confronted with the suffering ruler. He too is dominated by a system based upon denial. He is the veteran of negatives.19


Law, p. 45. Bishop, p. 140. 18 Bishop, p. 143. 19 Sweeting, p. 86. 17


Chapter Four

Lumb has to fight with his double, with his own dualistic nature, in the episode when he and Felicity go fishing in the lake. It is difficult to interpret their fight. After all, it is Lumb the changeling who represents the instinctive and the Dionysian. It is possible, however, that his dark brother, with whom he changed places in the Prologue, reminds him that he should not try to destroy the Dionysian in himself by contemplating a possibility of running away with Felicity. Running away in his situation would mean betraying the Dionysian and giving priority to the Apollinian, to the reasonable. Rationally speaking, Lumb and Felicity should have escaped from the village if they wanted to save their lives: Lumb brings his down in the shallows and the two wrestle in knee-deep water. On the painful irregular rocks. And now Lumb realizes That his antagonist is his own double And that he is horribly strong. As they roll together in the water Felicity gets to her feet and lifts an oar out of the boat. The two separate and Lumb scrambles to dry land. His opponent comes close after him and kicks his feet from under him. Rolling on to his back and looking up, Lumb sees the other standing under him. His raised arms are poising aloft a rock the size of a baby. Gaudete, p. 81.

The encounter with the double, the reminder of Lumb's Dionysian nature, failed to prevent the tragedy. Lumb wants to escape and that is why he loses Felicity, killed by Maud in a fit of envious anger.

The Myth of Gaudete It seems that in Gaudete, Hughes re-enacts his familiar myth, that of an attempt at reconciliation with the White Goddess. Lumb has to restore her to health in the body of the baboon woman by recognizing the beauty of her scarred face. Skea says that Gaudete is an account: of the poet's negotiations with his own inner world which, as he has written elsewhere, is the ‘dehumanized’ inner world of modern Man - ‘elemental, chaotic, continually more primitive and beyond our control’ - a place of

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


demons, and of his shamanic attempt to reestablish communication between our dislocated inner and outer worlds.20

The inner world has always been interpreted by religion and mythology, and Hughes is trying to show the inner and outer worlds ‘with mutually contradictory laws, or laws that seem to us to be so, colliding afresh every second, struggling for peaceful coexistence .21 Hughes succeeded in presenting the two colliding worlds. But Reverend Lumb failed, or rather he triumphed in the ‘inner’ region only to fail in the ‘outer’ one. The narrative is based on a split, and the two Lumbs can never coexist. There is a marked contrast between the resurrected and the changeling Lumb. Sagar comments: The human world is a waste land, a world of ‘polished modernity, the positioned furniture, in ultra colour,... like the demortalised organs of a body’, of ‘stuffed wild life’, cactus windowsills, hall- chimes, souvenir ashtrays. It cannot possibly accommodate Lumb. It cannot even accommodate its domestic animals (...). The village is a trap for Lumb as well as for his inmates. His powers, compromised by the straightjacket of Lumb's merely human identity, cannot prevent him from being profaned, reduced to a helpless plaything of frustrated and jealous women and the victim of perverted and jealous men.22

While the reader knows what happened to Lumb the changeling, he has very little knowledge of the real Lumb's adventures in the underworld. He emerges as a poet, singing praise of the White Goddess in the Epilogue of Gaudete: She rides the earth On an ass, on a lion. She rides the heavens On a great white bull. She is an apple. Whoever plucks her Nails his heart To the leafless tree. Gaudete, p. 184.


Skea, p. 34. Gifford & Roberts, p. 173. 22 Sagar, Ted Hughes..., p . 48. 21


Chapter Four

It is possible that the Reverend's journey to the underworld resembles that of Crow. After all, like Crow, he made a journey through enlightenment and in the process, he learnt about the Goddess and himself. The world of Crow is a mythic world and Nicholas Lumb entered the same world in search of the White Goddess. Cave Birds resembles Gaudete in that in both poems the male characters are redeemed through the female principle. Objective perception has to be rejected so that a female object can be perceived fully and appreciated. The three poems develop both inwards - each of them has its own structure and myth, and outwards - when read together they complete and comment on each other. Hughes said about the poetry of W. B. Yeats what could be equally well said about his own work: ‘His mythology is history, pretty well, and his history is as he said ‘the story of the soul’.23 While Crow and Cave Birds have been enthusiastically welcomed by both critics and readers of Hughes, Gaudete achieved a less unanimous approval. Reviewers either ridicule the story of Lumb, calling it ‘a Hollywood orgy in an English parish’24 or claim that Gaudete remains Hughes’ best volume to date!25 Others choose their words carefully, voicing their reservations towards the Main Narrative while, at the same time, acknowledging the poetic beauty of the Epilogue.26 Indeed, even an enthusiast of Hughes may find some parts and motives of the poem difficult to account for within the framework of Gaudete. The myth of birth and rebirth, so seminal to Hughes, and so successfully presented both in Crow. Cave Birds and his early work, undergoes a kind of parodic distortion in Gaudete. Even the readers who have accepted the Doppelgänger pattern of Lumb 1 and Lumb 2 will frown over the most famous (or, as some claim, ‘infamous’) scene of the poem, when Lumb, the would-be-father of the new Messiah, having impregnated as many as half of the women of his parish, is himself made to act the part of a woman in childbirth. His child is a woman, the new Saviour, the White Goddess Messiah. True, Ted Hughes cautioned the reader against interpreting the rebirth motif in Gaudete seriously,27 explaining that it was his intention that we should see the women in Gaudete put together in a 23

Bishop, p. 203. Skea, p.p. 32-35. 25 Robinson, p. 94. 26 Leonard M. Scigaj, Ted Hughes (Boston: Boston Twayne Publishers, 1991), p. 95. 27 Faas 2, p. 214. 24

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


mistaken, wrong and limited way.28 It is also true, however, that readers do not want to hear from the author what he wanted to say; they rather hope to read what is there, and what is there in Gaudete does not prepare the reader for the irony. Not until the Epilogue does the reader begin to understand that while the Main Narrative shows what went wrong with Lumb, the Epilogue poems present how to worship the Goddess and the feminine. Scigaj puts it in the following way: Lumb’s erotic designs limit his vision of the feminine to disfigured, distorted versions in the central narrative. The deformed rebirth repeats the rebirth motif in a minor key and foreshadows the successful rebirth of the revitalized Lumb in The ‘Epilogue’29

The irony and distortion that do not read like an obvious parody may temporarily, until the Epilogue, give the reader a feeling of Hughes using his words and concepts all too freely and generously; to put it crudely, Gaudete may read like a work of low artistic quality, resembling some ‘B’ or ‘C’ products of Amber Fiction. Even by Amber’s standards, it may seem difficult to accept. The complex mythological allusions discussed earlier in the chapter, including ones which were not presented for the lack of space – like the Celtic myth of Hairy Hands and Cerridwen, and the ancient Thoth baboon of the Nile – make the work inaccessible to those who are not very well read in classical and Celtic literatures. It is difficult to grasp the meaning of Gaudete without studying mythological references. The reader will be baffled by the intricacies of the ‘Hollywood’ plot itself. To give an example, at one point of the Main Narrative, Maud, who is walking in the graveyard, is being followed by a mysterious woman whose tombstone carries the inscription ‘Gaudete.’ Who is the woman? The narrative leaves the question unanswered. Lumb is a scapegoat on whom society projects its frustrations ultimately directed towards the stranger, who somehow, unintentionally, brings about all the worst in the community. René Girard thus comments on the communal will to expel the outsider: Each member’s hostility, caused by clashing against others, becomes converted from an individual feeling to a communal force unanimously directed against a single individual. The slightest hint, the most groundless accusation, can circulate with vertiginous speed and is transformed into irrefutable proof. The corporate sense of conviction snowballs, each 28 29

Ibid. Scigaj, p. 94.

Chapter Four


member taking confidence from his neighbour by a rapid process of mimesis. The firm conviction of the group is based on no other evidence than the unshakable unanimity of its own illogic.30

Summing up, in Gaudete, Hughes rejects the idea of tribal rebirth, claiming that regeneration can be achieved only on an individual basis. The old values are gone, both for the women and the men of Reverend Lumb’s parish. Unfortunately, the deaths of Lumb, Maud and Felicity are meaningless and will not lead to regeneration: society has not been reinvigorated. The only hope is in individual rebirth, as it is presented in the Epilogue. The reborn Lumb is like the Ancient Mariner who can tell his story to individual listeners and not to societies. His message, like that of the Ancient Mariner, is ultimately religious. Robinson concludes: The ‘Epilogue’ begins with a picture of the returned Lumb on the west coast of Ireland , like the Wandering Jew or the Ancient Mariner henceforth condemned or blessed to carry the burden of his experience on the fringes of society. He is the most important of Hughes’ tramp figures, both casualty and survivor, leaving his message to strike sparks where it may. The poems which embody his struggle towards recovery are hymns and prayers of extraordinary spiritual honesty and intensity. Taken alone or as a group they are remarkable enough; as part of the complete structure of Gaudete they represent Hughes’ furthest penetrations as religious poet.31

Gaudete shows Hughes’ dissatisfaction with the concept of a society which can be healed. Instead, it seems he offers himself as a shamanistic guide for individuals, asking them to look for rebirth in their inner lives, spiritual and religious. The idea was successfully rendered in Cave Birds, where, in addition to their individual spiritual growth, the characters achieve a union in terms of gender. While Cave Birds is considered to be Hughes’ most optimistic creation, it is Crow that has won him the most enthusiastic readers. This may well be because Crow seems to be very well balanced between the positive vision of Cave Birds and the painfully earned rejection of tribal rebirth of Gaudete. Scigaj comments: Crow is Hughes’ most well-known work, probably because its originality of conception and faith in survival balance its deep pathos and awareness

30 31

Faas, p. 138. Robinson, p. 86.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


of the cosmic loneliness of the human condition. The optimism of Trickster is tempered in the flames of struggle and risk.32

Crow is every one of us, and his humour and wit can spare the reader a confrontation with the scorching anguish of the cockerel and the nightmare of Lumb: the reader, who laughs from the more knowing perspective that the built-in dramatic irony generously allows, learns to cry a little too, for Crow is every human being cheerly stumbling through life, looking for direction from the roadmaps of a bogus, exhausted culture. But occasionally flying.33

32 33

Scigaj, p. 84. Ibid.


Two decades after his death, critics continue to look at the poetic vision of Ted Hughes, resorting to the concepts of ‘new animism’, ‘ecocentricity’, ‘environmental justice’ and ‘post humanism’. The poet is positioned as a guide to rebirth and regeneration, the process which is paralleled in the course of nature. As Xerri aptly observed, ‘Humanity finds its reflection in nature and the state of health of either one is a sure indicator of that of the other’.1 The aim of the study was to demonstrate the shamanistic vision of Hughes, starting from the animal guides of his early poetry, progressing through the Trickster world of Crow, and heading towards dissolution and rebirth with Cave Birds and Gaudete. Ted Hughes saw himself as a descendant of the British Bardic tradition, with his shamanic diction acting as a Master Bard in the service of the tribe: Ted Hughes, who also believes in the magical power of poetry to make things happen the way that you want them to happen tells us that tradition dwells on the paranormal, clairvoyant, somewhat magical power of the Bards and that the fili was the curator and re-animator of the inner life which held the people together and made them what they were.2

Hughes’ nomination as Poet Laureate startled both the critics and the reading public, by whom he was dubbed a pagan and an anarchist, “the celebrator of everything in nature that threatens the decorousness of human arrangements”3. However, many also thought that with such an anti-establishment figure, the office of Poet Laureate would regain dignity and visionary spirit:


Daniel Xerri, Ted Hughes’ Art of Healing (Palo Alto: Academica Press, 2010), p. 258. 2 Skea, The Poetic Quest... 3 Neil Roberts, ‘Hughes, the Laureateship and National Identity’, Q/W/E/R/T/Y: Littératures et Civilisations des Pays Anglophones, Université de Pau, October 1999, p.p. 203-209.


Conclusion With his jeremiads about how England has lost its soul to the “spiritless materialism” of industrial civilization, Hughes fits comfortably within the tradition of radical Protestantism, encompassing earlier literary prophets such as Blake, the Brontes and D.H. Lawrence4.

By appointing Ted Hughes to the office of Poet Laureate, Queen Elizabeth II marked Ted Hughes as her ‘fili’, which in Irish Celtic language meant ‘seer’, ‘prophet’ and ‘magician’. In their shamanic alphabets, the ancient bards wrote orations for tribal chiefs and used satire against their enemies. Skea comments: Perhaps the most obvious way in which Hughes is linked to the Bardic tradition of Britain is through his appointment by the leader of the tribe – Queen Elizabeth II – as Poet Laureate. Although the title was only bestowed for the first time in the reign of King Charles II, on John Dryden, the honorary nature of the position, the fact that the appointment is made by the reigning monarch and that the Laureate’s duties are to celebrate royal occasions, all show it to be similar to the role of Master Bard.5

As Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes reinvented the national myth; he celebrated the link between the Crown and God or the Church of England, thus ‘giving a mythic expression to an idea of national identity’.6 Ted Hughes believed that there was a close connection between the role of the poet and the symbolic role of royalty and of the symbolism of nationhood ‘that was inserted in the natural life of the land that had always been his subject’7. Ted Hughes was clearly right-wing, or at least conservative, though he tried to remain aloof and discreet about his political opinions.8 Professor Smith openly called him ‘Thatcher’s Laureate’. 9


Elaine Feinstein, Ted Hughes. The Life of a Poet (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001), p. 218. 5 Ibid. 6 Giles, in: Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism, eds James Acheson and Romana Huk (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 168. 7 Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 64. 8 Joanny Moulin, ‘Ted Hughes & Laurens van der Post’, The Ted Hughes Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1, p. 55. 9 Stan Smith, ‘Crow rides again: Thatcher’s Laureate’. Cencrastus: Scottish and International Literature, Art and Affairs (Edinburgh, 20, 1985).

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


As Laureate, the poet identified himself with England’s victories and failures. A Masque of Three Voices, written for the Queen Mother’s ninetieth birthday (1990), reads like a shamanic chant and declaration: Being British is the mystery. Can you see That it is you or you or me? I do not understand how this can be. When Britain wins, I feel that I have won. Whatever Britain does, I feel I have done. I know my life comes somehow from the sun. (Rain-Charm for the Duchy, 30)

It is interesting that a rebel like Hughes should prove his patriotism by supporting the institution of the monarchy. The Queen of secular democracy is head of the Church of England, which must have inspired Hughes, the worshipper of the White Goddess. To Hughes, Elizabeth is the Shamaness and the Crown is the ring, embracing the multi-cultural society: This term, ‘the ring of the people’ occurs in the memoir by the great Sioux Shaman Black Elk, who saw ‘the ring’ of his people ‘broken’ in a prophetic vision of the disintegration of the Sioux nation as an independent moral unity. Yet his visionary concept of ‘the ring of the people’ embraced, finally, all the different peoples of the earth, not only his own tribesmen’.10

The Queen, according to Hughes, is seen as an ancient Goddess of Nature, presiding over her people, whose nature is both human, natural and divine. Ted Hughes the Laureate acted as a spokesman for his ‘ring of people’, choosing the form of a patriotic vision rather than that of an explicit moral lesson adopting a public voice in order to reprimand England lest she lost her soul.




Poetry by Ted Hughes Birthday Letters, London: Faber, 2002. Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama with drawings by Leonard Baskin, London: Faber, 1978. Collected Animal Poems, London: Faber, 1995. Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, London: Faber, 1970, 1972. Gaudete, London: Faber, 1977. Lupercal, London: Faber, 1960. New Selected Poems 1957-1994, London: Faber, 1995. Rain-Charm for the Duchy and other Laureate Poems, London: Faber, 1992. Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence with photographs by Fay Godwin, London: Faber, 1979. River with photographs by Peter Keen, London: Faber, 1983. Selected Poems 1957-1981, London: Faber, 1982. The Hawk in the Rain, London: Faber, 1957. Three Books, Faber, 1993. Wodwo, London: Faber, 1967.

By Ted Hughes non-fictional prose, interviews and recordings Introduction to Sommerfield, Geoffrey (ed.) Worlds Seven Modern Pack, Penguin Education: Hammondsworth, Middlesex, 1974. Introduction to Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, London: Faber and Faber, 1981. Introduction to The Collected Prints of Leonard Baskin, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1984. Introduction to Vasko Popa, Selected Poems, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1969. ‘Myth and Education in Children’s Literature’ in: Literature in Education, vol. 1, 1970, pp. 55-70.


Selected Bibliography

‘Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath's Poems’ in: TriQuarterly, vol. 7, 1966. Poetry in the Making: An Anthology of Poems and Programmes from ‘Listening and Writing’, London: Faber, 1967. Review of The Environmental Revolution by Max Nicholson in: Spectator, 21 March, 1970. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, London: Faber, 1992. ‘Ted Hughes and Crow’, Interview with Ted Hughes, by Ekbert Faas, London Magazine vol. 10 no. 10, January 1971, pp. 5-20. ‘Ted Hughes and Gaudete’, Interview with Ted Hughes, in: Ekbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe, Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1980. ‘Ted Hughes’s Crow’, The Listener, vol. 84, 30 July 1970, p. 149. ‘The Rock’, The Listener, vol. 70, 19 September 1963, pp. 421-423. Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose (ed.) William Scammell, London: Faber, 1994. Contains the following essays: Hughes, Ted. ‘Myth and Education’. Hughes, Ted. ‘The Poetic Self’. Hughes, Ted. ‘Notes on Shakespeare’. Hughes, Ted. ‘Keith Douglas’. Hughes, Ted. ‘Janos Pilinszky’. Hughes, Ted. ‘The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly’. Hughes, Ted. ‘Keats on the Difference between the Dreamer and the Poet’. Hughes, Ted. ‘Regenerations’.

Criticism on Hughes Abram, David The Spell of the Sensuous, Now York: Random House, 1996, p. 256. Bedient, Calvin Ted Hughes, in: Eight contemporary poets, pp. 95-118. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974. First appeared in The Critical Quarterly, Summer 1972. Bentley, Paul The Poetry of Ted Hughes. Language, Illusion and Beyond, London: Longman, 1998. Bishop, Nicholas Poetry and Grace. The Dynamics of the Self in Ted Hughes Adult Poetry, W J R Nicholas Bishop, Ph. D., University of Exeter, 1998. Bishop, Nicholas Re-making Poetry: Ted Hughes and a new critical psychology, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Bradshaw, Graham Ted Hughes' Crow as trickster-hero in: Williams, P. V. A. (ed.), The fool and the trickster, pp. 83-108. Cambridge and Totowa, N.J., D. S. Brewer/Rowman and Littlefield, 1979. Bradshaw, Graham The cult of irrationality: Ted Hughes and his critics, Encounter, June 1982, pp. 71-81. Brandes, Rand The antropologist’s uses of myth in: The Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes, edited by Terry Gifford, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.p.67-80. Butler, Robert Ted Hughes and the Stage in: The Independent on Sunday Culture, 1 November, 1998. Davie, Donald ‘Ferocious Banter’: Clarke and Hughes. Bunting, Tomlinson and Hughes. Poet’s Prose: Hughes and Hill. Hughes as Laureate in: Under Briggflatts: a history of poetry in Great Britain 1960-1988, pp. 74-9, 127-31, 164-6, 223-8. Manchester, Carcanet, 1989. Davis, Alexander Romanticism, existentialism, patriarchy; Hughes and the visionary imagination in Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Challenge of Ted Hughes London: Macmillan/St Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 72-73. Dickie, M. Ted Hughes: the double voice. Contemporary Literature (23:51-65), Spring 1983. Dunn, D. ‘For the Love of Lumb’ in: Books and Writers, Vol. 10, 1977, p. 17. Dyson, A. E. (ed.) Three contemporary poets: Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes and R. S. Thomas. Macmillan Casebook Series. Macmillan, 1990. Dyson, A. E. Ted Hughes in: Martin, C. and P. N. Furbank (eds.), Twentieth century poetry, pp. 423-31. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1975. First appeared in: The Critical Quarterly, Autumn 1959. Faas, Ekbert Ted Hughes: The Unacommodated Universe, Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980. Gammage, Nick Casualties of war: Ted Hughes' war poetry, Acumen (Brixham, Devon) (15;40-5), 1992. Gammage, Nick (ed.) The Epic Poise, London: Faber and Faber, 1999. Contains the following essays: Enright, D. J. Crow: A Reading. Heaney, Seamus. Omen and Amen: on Littleblood. Morpurgo, Michael. Ted Hughes: Children's Champion. Reid, Christopher. Ted Hughes as Reader. Gervais, David Ted Hughes and England beneath England, English (42 172:45-73), 1993. Gifford, Terry and Neil, Roberts Ted Hughes: A Critical Study, London: Faber, 1981.


Selected Bibliography

Gifford, Terry Laureate of nature: the poetry of Ted Hughes in: his Green voices: understanding contemporary nature poetry, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press/St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Gifford, Terry and Neil, Roberts Ritual and goblin: Cave Birds by Ted Hughes, Pacific Quarterly (VI i: 17-25), 1981. Hadley, Edward The Elegies of Ted Hughes, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Heaney, Seamus The New Poet Laureate in: Leonard M. Scigaj (ed ), Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Heaney, Seamus Englands of the mind in: Preoccupations, pp. 150-69. London, Faber and Faber, 1980. First appeared in Critical Inquiry, Summer 1977, as ‘Now and in England’. Heaney, Seamus The New Poet Laureate, Belfast Review (10:6), March/April/May 1985. Hirschberg, Stuart Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes, New York: Totowa, Barmes and Noble, 1981. Hirschberg, Stuart Myth and anti-myth in Ted Hughes, Crow, Contemporary Poetry (a:i), 1975. Hirschberg, Stuart An encounter with the irrational in Ted Hughes' ‘Pike’, Contemporary Poetry (9:63-4), 1976. Holbrook, David Ted Hughes’s Crow and the longing for non-being in: Abbs, P. (ed.), The black rainbow, p.p. 32-54. London: Heinemann, 1975. Holbrook, David From ‘vitalism’ to a dead crow: Ted Hughes’s failure of confidence in: Lost bearings in English poetry, p.p. 101-63. London: Vision Press, 1977. Holbrook, David The cult of Hughes and Gunn, Poetry Review (LIV: 167-83), Summer 1963. Holbrook, David The Crow of Avon? Shakespeare, Sex and Ted Hughes, Cambridge Quarterly (15:1-12), 1986. Hughes, Geoffrey Crow: myth or trickster?, Theoria (48:25-36), 1977. Hughes, Gerald Ted and I, p. XII-XII, London: The Robson Press, 2012. Larrisy, Edward Ted Hughes in: Reading twentieth-century poetry: the language of gender and objects, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990. Larrisy, Edward Ted Hughes, the feminine, and Gaudete. Critical Quarterly (25 ii:33-41), Summer 1983. Law, Pamela Poetry as ritual: Ted Hughes, Sydney Studies in English (2:72-82), 1976. Lodge, David Crow and the cartoons in: Robson, J. (ed.), Poetry dimension I, pp. 30-9, London: Robson Books Ltd., 1973, First appeared in: Ihe Critical Quarterly, Spring 1971.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


McKay, Don Animal music: Ted Hughes’s progress in speech and song, English Studies in Canada, 7, Spring 1981. Mollema, A. Mythical elements in the poetry of Ted Hughes, Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters (2:2-14), 1972. Moulin, Joanny Ted Hughes & Laurens van der Post, The Ted Hughes Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1, p.55. Moyle, Geraldine Hughes' Gaudete a poem subverted by its plot, Parnassus (6:199-204), 1978. Porter, David Beasts/Shamans/Baskin: the contemporary aesthetics of Ted Hughes, Boston University Journal (XXII: 13-25), Fall 1974. Ramsey, Jarold Crow: or the trickster transformed, Massachusetts Review (19:111-27), Spring 1978. Rawson, C. J. Ted Hughes and violence, Essays in Criticism (XVI: 1249), January 1966 [A rejoinder to J108]. Reichel-Dolmatoff G. The Shaman and the Jaguar, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1975. Raid, Christopher Ted Hughes as Reader in: Nick Gommage (ed.) The Epic Poise, London: Faber, 1999. Roberts, Neil Ted Hughes: encounters with death, Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo- American Letters (8:2-17), 1978. Roberts, Neil Ted Hughes and the Laureateship, Critical Quarterly (27 ii:3-5), Summer 1985. Robert, Neil Ted Hughes, citing an interview with Hughes, Times Literary Supplement 1, October 1971. Roberts, Neil Ted Hughes: A Literary Life, London: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2006. Robinson, Craig Ted Hughes as Shepherd of Being, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989. Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Achievement of Ted Hughes, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983. Contains the following essays: Bradshaw, Graham. Hughes and Shakespeare. Bradshaw, Graham. Creative mythology in Cave Birds. Cushman, Keith. Hughes' poetry for children. Faas, Ekbert. Chapters of a shared mythology: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Gifford, Terry and Neil, Roberts Hughes and two contemporaries: Peter Redgrove and Seamus Heaney. Jacobs, Fred Rue. Hughes and drama. Parker, Michael. Hughes and the poets of Eastern Europe. Robinson, Craig. The good shepherd: Moortown Elegies.


Selected Bibliography

Sagar, Keith. Fourfold vision in Hughes. Schofield, Annie. Hughes and the Movement. Schofield, Annie. The Oedipus theme in Hughes. Scigaj, Leonard M. Oriental Mythology in Wodwo. Sweeting, Michael. Hughes and shamanism. Sagar, Keith (ed.) The Challenge of Ted Hughes, London and New York: Macmillan/St.Martin s Press, 1994. Anderson, Nathalie. Ted Hughes and the challenge of gender. Bishop, Nicholas. Ted Hughes and the death of poetry. Brandes, Rand. Hughes, history and the world in which we live. Sagar, Keith and Stephen Tabor Ted Hughes: a bibliography 19461980, London: Mansell, 1983. Sagar, Keith The Art Of Ted Hughes second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Sagar, Keith The last inheritance: Ted Hughes and his last landscape, Poetry Wales (15:61- 77), Winter 1979/80. Scammell William A Tribute to Ted Hughes in: The Independent on Sunday Culture, 1 November 1998, p. 3. Scigaj, Leonard M. (ed.) Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Contains the following previously unpublished essays: Sagar, Keith. ‘The poetry does not matter’. Scigaj, Leonard M. Introduction [a survey of criticism of Hughes]. Skea, Ann. Wolf-masks: from Hawk to Wolfwatching. Scigaj, Leonard M. Ted Hughes, Boston: Boston Twayne Publishers, 1991. Scigaj, Leonard M. The Poetry of Ted Hughes: Form and Imagination, Iowa: Iowa University Press, 1986. Scigaj, Leonard Genetic memory and the three traditions of Crow, Perspectives on Contemporary Literature, 9, 1983. Schmitz, Götz Local myth in the poetry of Ted Hughes,. Sewanee Review, 1994, pp. 470-83. Skea, Ann Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest, Armidale, New South Wales: University of New England Press, 1994. Skea, Ann Ted Hughes and the British Bardic Tradition, Symposium Paper, University of Cairo, December 1994. Smith, Stan Night is always close: Gunn and Hughes in: Inviolable voice: history and twentieth-century poetry, pp. 150-69, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1982. Smith, Stan Wolf masks: the early poetry of Ted Hughes, New Blackfriars (56:414-26), September 1975. Reprinted in J71.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Smith, Stan Crow rides again: Thatcher’s Laureate, Concrastus: Scottish and International Literature, Edinburgh: Art and Affairs, 1985. SprusiĔski, Michaá NajoczywiĞciej ja: niezdarnie opierzony czáowiek. [Of course it's I: an awkwardly feathered man ] TwórczoĞü (32:92102), 1976. Stigen-Drangsholt, Janne Ted Hughes and Romanticism, A Poetry of Desolation and Difference, Cercles 12, 2005. Stoppard, Tom Orghast. Times Literary Supplement, 1 October 1971. Sweeting, Michael Hughes and Shamanism in: Sagar, Keith (ed ), The Achievement of Ted Hughes Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983. Thurley, Geoffrey The Ironic Harvest: English Poetry in the Twentieth Century, London: Arnold, 1974. Walder, Dennis Ted Hughes, Open guides to literature, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987. Webster, Richard The Thought-Fox and the poetry of Ted Hughes, Critical Quarterly (26 iv:35-45), Winter 1984. West, Thomas Ted Hughes, Contemporary writers, London: Methuen, 1985. Whiting, Alan Ted Hughes’s ‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’, Envoi, 108, June 1994. Winterson, Jeanette in: The Guardian, March, 2008. Xerri, Daniel Ted Hughes’ Art of Healing, Palo Alto: Academica Press, 2010.

Other Works Cited and Consulted Encyclopedia of World Mythology, Peerage Books, 1975. Interview with Mike Erwin and Jed Rasula Hudson Review, vol. 8, No 3, autumn 1975. Interview with Anthony Bailey, Quest, Jan/Feb, 1978. The Bible, Authorised Version, The British and Foreign Bible Society, Oxford University Press, 1960. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, (ed.) W. Y. Evans-Wentz, With Psychological Commentary by Dr. C. G. Jung, London: Oxford University Press, 1960. Attar ud-Din, Farid The Conference of the Birds trans, Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, Harmondsworth Penguin, 1984. Blake, William The Complete Poems, Penguin Harmondsworth, 1977. Blake, William Selected Poems, London: Penguin Books, 1996.


Selected Bibliography

Campbell, Joseph The Hero with a Thousand Faces, New York: Pantheon, 1949. Campbell, Joseph The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, London: Seeker and Warburg, 1968. Campbell, Joseph The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Castaneda, Carlos The Teachings of Don Juan, Penguin Harmondsworth, 1970. Conquest, Robert (ed.) New Lines: An Anthology, London: Macmillan, 1956. Cuddon, J. A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms, London: Penguin Books, 1982. Eliade, Mircea Patterns of Comparative Religion, London: Sheed and Ward, 1958. Eliade, Mircea Shamanism, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1964. Eliade, Mircea Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, New York: Princeton University Press, 1972. Eliade, Mircea The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959. Eliot, T.S. Four Quartets, London: Faber and Faber, 1972. Fraser, J.G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, London: Macmillan, 1974. Frye, N. Fearfid Symmetry, London: Beacon Press, 1965. Frye, N. Anatomy of Criticism, New York: Princeton University Press, 1956. Girard Rene Violence and the Sacred trans. P. Gregory, Baltimore, 1977. Graves, Robert The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth amended edition, London: Faber, 1961. Holub, Miroslav The Lesson in: Selected Poems trans. Ian Milner and George Theiner, London: Harmondsworth, 1967. Jung, C. G. On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure, in: Radin, Paul The Trickster. A Study in American Indian Mythology, New York: Schocken, 1972. Jung, C. G. Mysterium Coniunctionis, Collected Works, vol. 14, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1963. Jung, C. G. Psychology and Alchemy revised edition, London: Routledge, 1968. Jung, C. G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Works, vol. 9 (I), London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1959. Jung, C. G. The Undiscovered Self, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1958.

Shamanic Elements in the Poetry of Ted Hughes


Jung, C. G. Modern Man in Search of a Soul, London: Ark Routledge Kegan Paul, 1933. Kristeva, Julia Black Sim: Depression and Melancholia trans. Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Kupferschmidt-Neugeborn, Dorothea Heal into Time and Other People, Universität Mannheim, 1995. Lacan, Jacques The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (ed.) Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin, 1977. Lacan, Jacques Ecrits: A Selection trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Travistock/Routledge, 1977. Lawrence, D. H. Women in Love, Penguin Harmondsworth, 1982. Lévi-Strauss, Claude Structural Anthropology trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, London: Penguin, 1963. Me Kenna, Dennis & Mc Kenna, T. K. The Invisible Landscape, New York: The Seabury Press, 1975. Malinowski, Bronislaw Myth in Primitive Psychology, New York: Anchor Books paperback, 1954. Popa, Vasko Selected Poems, Penguin Harmondsworth, 1969. Radin, Paul The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, New York: Schocken, 1972. Sartre, Jean-Paul Nausea, London: Penguin Harmondsworth, 1965. Shah, Idries The Way of the Sufi, London: Penguin Harmondsworth, 1974. Shah, Idries The Sufis, London: Octagon Press, 1964. Spender, Stephen The Struggle of the Modern, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1963. Strauss Levi, Claude Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, London: Penguin, 1963. Wilde, Oscar The Picture of Dorian Gray, New York: Penguin Books, 1981.