Poetry by Ted Hughes

Cave Birds (London: Faber and Faber, 1975)

Neil Roberts (Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield and Special Professor of D.H. Lawrence Studies at the University of Nottingham) considers Hughes's 'Alchemic Cave Drama'

Cave Birds is Hughes’s most intense collaboration with the American artist Leonard Baskin, whose drawings had inspired Crow. Along with Remains of Elmet it is his most important collaboration with a visual artist. Whereas Baskin had little influence on the composition of Crow after the first impulse, the majority of the poems in Cave Birds are directly inspired by his images. It is not merely a book of illustrated poems, but a joint work in which Baskin’s contribution is as important as Hughes’s. Even more than with Remains of Elmet, the poems are diminished by being separated from their visual partners. In some cases, such as ‘The Owl Flower’, the poems are virtually incomprehensible without reference to the images that inspired them.

It is therefore especially unfortunate that, for the past twenty years, Cave Birds has been most easily accessible in texts that are stripped of the drawings, first in Three Books (1993) and most decisively in Collected Poems. For most readers it has become a virtually invisible text, difficult to recognise as one of Hughes’s most important works.

The history of its composition is curious and complicated, and sometimes Hughes gives the impression of having been forced reluctantly to write it. It was written during a period, 1973-76, when to an observer Hughes seems to have been astonishingly productive, bringing to completion Gaudete, Season Songs andMoortownas well as Cave Birds. Yet, looking back on this period, he described it as a time when he lost concentration and failed to write what he should have been writing. This is partly a nostalgia for the creative ease and artistic directness of theCrow period, which is when he felt most creatively fulfilled. The poems in Cave Birds are more complex, richly-textured and occasionally obscure than Crow, which might explain why Hughes thought they were too ‘studied’. [1]

In 1974 Baskin sent Hughes nine drawings, around which he wrote a sequence of poems constituting a loose narrative in which a male protagonist is accused, brought to trial and executed for a crime against a female victim, and finally brought back to life and redeemed. Each drawing is of a fantastic bird, and in Hughes’s sequence these birds become actors in the drama: the guilty protagonist, his accuser, the judge, the executioner, his reborn self and so on. This original sequence of poems was: ‘The Summoner’, ‘The Advocate’, ‘The Interrogator’, ‘The Judge’, ‘The Plaintiff’, ‘The Executioner’, ‘The Accused’, ‘The Risen’ and ‘Finale’. ‘The Advocate’ was never collected, but can be read in Keith Sagar, ed., The Achievement of Ted Hughes, p346. Hughes considered this to be a complete sequence, but then Baskin sent him a further ten drawings, and Hughes worked on with a slightly resentful sense of obligation, requiring him not only to produce more poems but to integrate them into his narrative. These new poems were ‘The Knight’, ‘The Gatekeeper’, ‘A Flayed Crow in the Hall of Judgement’, ‘The Baptist’, ‘The Green Mother’, ‘A Riddle’, ‘The Scapegoat’, ‘The Guide’, ‘Walking Bare ‘ and ‘The Owl Flower’.

His solution to the problem of narrative coherence was to cast all these poems as aspects of the protagonist’s experience in the underworld, between his execution and rebirth. This greatly enriches the sequences, and some of the new poems, especially ‘The Knight’, responding to a drawing of a bird’s decayed carcase with poignantly ironic chivalric language, are among Hughes’s very best. But his unease about the sequence only increased, and for ‘relief and contrast’, as he put it, he wrote twelve more poems that dispense with bird symbolism, and parallel the symbolic drama in more directly human terms.[2] Perhaps confusingly, Baskin then made more drawings of birds to accompany this third sequence.

As my summary of the narrative suggests, Cave Birds  is one expression, perhaps the most complete and unified, of Hughes’s central myth, in which the crime of modern humanity (symbolically male) against nature (symbolically female) is superimposed on his personal guilt about the deaths of women he had loved. The sequence was written when he was struggling to come to terms with the deaths of AssiaWevill, their daughter Shura, and soon afterwards his own mother, which he thought was provoked by shock at the fates of Assia and Shura. In the poem ‘A Riddle’ the victim identifies herself to the protagonist as his daughter, wife and mother.

Even with access to the drawings Cave Birds is a difficult sequence, but it is less esoteric than its subtitle ‘An Alchemical Cave Drama’ makes it seem. In some cases, notably ‘The Interrogator’, ‘The Executioner’ and ‘The Knight’, the poems and drawings stunningly complement each other, in tones ranging from macabre wit (‘Some angered righteous questions/ Agitate her craw’ in ‘The Interrogator’, who is a vulture); sepulchral menace (‘The tap drips darkness darkness/ Sticks to the soles of your feet’ in ‘The Executioner’, a raven whose dark blot almost fills the page); and elegiac poignancy (‘His sacrifice is perfect. He reserves nothing.// Skylines tug him apart, winds drink him,/ Earth itself unravels him from beneath’ in ‘The Knight’). Hughes’s own unease about the sequence might seem to support readers who have dismissed Cave Birds as ‘tediously abstract and esoteric’, [3] but this is a case in which, in the words of D.H. Lawrence, we should trust the tale not the artist.

Neil Roberts is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield and Special Professor of D.H. Lawrence Studies at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and co-author of Ted Hughes: A Critical Study (Faber, 1981). He has recently completed a biography of Peter Redgrove, to be published by Cape in January 2012. 

Notes

1. TH to Keith Sagar, 20 March 1975, BL Add.Mss. 78756

2. TH to Keith Sagar, nd (late 1977), BL Add. Mss.78757

3. Diane Middlebrook, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—A MarriageNew York, Viking, 2003, p242