Poetry by Ted Hughes

Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow (London: Faber and Faber, 1970)

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) introduces Ted Hughes's 'masterpiece'. 

Crow holds a uniquely important place in Hughes oeuvre.  It heralds the ambitious second phase of his work, lasting roughly from the late sixties to the late seventies, when he turned from direct engagement with the natural world to unified mythical narratives and sequences. It was his most controversial work: a stylistic experiment which abandoned many of the attractive features of his earlier work, and an ideological challenge to both Christianity and humanism. Hughes wrote Crow, mostly between 1966 and 1969, after a barren period following the death of Sylvia Plath. He looked back on the years of work on Crow as a time of imaginative freedom and creative energy, which he felt that he never subsequently recovered. He describedCrow as his masterpiece (Hughes, BL 10200). This creative period was brought to an end by another tragedy: the deaths of Assia Wevill and her daughter Shura in March 1969.

While he was working on Crow Hughes’s conception of the project was much larger than the eventually published book. He was trying to write what he called an epic folk-tale, a prose narrative with interspersed verses. When, after the deaths of Assia and Shura, he was unable to complete the project, he published a selection of the poems with the title Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow in 1970. This was the book that was received as Crow by its first readers, and that was more hotly debated than any other book of Hughes’s till Birthday Letters. But over the years it became clear that Crow was not a clearly-defined text like Hughes’s other books. In 1972 it was reprinted with seven additional poems. The following year a limited edition was published with three more poems. As late as 1997 he recorded a version that included several poems that had been published in other collections, and omitted several that had been published in Crow.

This recording includes brief narrative links. Whenever he gave a public reading fromCrow Hughes would provide a narrative context, and several times he expressed a desire to complete the work as originally conceived. However, the narrative context that Hughes made public is itself fragmentary and mostly desultory. There are only two fully developed episodes. One, which Hughes titled in draft ‘The Quarrel in Heaven’, is the beginning of the story. After completing his Creation God had a nightmare in the form of a Hand and a Voice. The nightmare mocks His Creation, especially God’s masterpiece Man. At the same time, an emissary comes from the world begging God to take life back, because it is unbearable. God’s response is to challenge the nightmare to do better, and the consequence is that the nightmare creates Crow, who becomes God’s companion, often trying unsuccessfully to improve on His Creation.

Hughes describes Crow as wandering around the universe in search of his female Creator. In the second developed episode he meets a hag by a river. He has to carry the hag across the river while trying to answer questions that she puts to him, mostly about love. Hughes describes several of the poems, particularly ‘Lovesong’, ‘The Lovepet’ and ‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days’ (part of Cave Birds  but included in Hughes’s recording of Crowas Crow’s attempts to answer these questions. When he reaches the other side of the river the hag turns into a beautiful girl.

For some critics, notably Keith Sagar, Crow is the abortion of a great work, and has been misinterpreted, mainly because, as the first edition stated, The Life and Songs of the Crow covers only the first two thirds of Crow’s journey, bringing him to his lowest point, whereas the narrative had been designed to conclude with Crow’s triumphant marriage to his Creator (Sagar, Laughter, xii). However, it is arguable that the published book owes much of its success to its unfinished, undecidable and provocative character.

The jacket of early editions of Crow was illustrated by a striking drawing by Hughes’s friend, the American artist Leonard Baskin. Seeing Baskin’s drawings of crows had inspired Hughes to embark on the sequence but, in contrast to later books such asCave Birds and Under the North Star, Baskin was not involved in the development of the project. The most important influence on Crow is Trickster mythology. Paul Radin says of the Trickster, ‘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’ (Radin, The Trickster, 169). This captures perfectly Crow’s own ambivalent identity. You can see his Trickster character in a poem such as ‘A Childish Prank’, where he remedies God’s failure to animate man and woman by biting the Worm in two:

He stuffed into man the tail half

With the wounded end hanging out

 

He stuffed the had half headfirst into woman

And it crept in deeper and up

To peer out through her eyes…

Is Crow’s invention of sexuality clever and resourceful, or crass and foolish? The shock that poems like this caused when first published was intensified by the style, epitomised by phrases like ‘stuffed into man the tail half’, which Hughes at the time described as a ‘super-simple, super-ugly language’ (Faas, Universe, 208). He seemed to be assaulting religion and poetry simultaneously. By adopting this narrative style Hughes implicitly identifies himself with his protagonist.

At the core of Crow is a group of poems, including this one, which re-accent the story of the Creation, the Fall (‘Apple Tragedy’), the Crucifixion (‘Crow Blacker than Ever’). But the book is not merely an attack on Christianity. The figure and style of Crow gave Hughes a means of ranging widely across Western civilisation within a loosely unified sequence. He placed himself explicitly in a tradition of primitive literature (Hughes, Letters, 296) especially through his use of Trickster mythology, but also by drawing of a wide range of folktales and oral devices such as repetition. But Crow is not merely a primitive pastiche: like much of the greatest modernist art, primitive motifs are combined with a vivid contemporaneity, often to powerful emotional effect:

And mouths cried ‘Mamma’

From sudden traps of calculus,

Theorems wrenched men in two,

Shock-severed eyes watched blood

Squandering as if from a drainpipe… (‘Crow’s Account of the Battle’)

The other influence that Hughes acknowledged was that of contemporary Eastern European poetry, such as that of Miroslav Holub, Zbigniew Herbert, Janos Pilinszky and above all Vasko Popa, and its witness of the atrocities that defined much of the twentieth century. In Hughes’s own words these poets ‘managed to grow up to a view of the unaccommodated universe’ with ‘all their sympathies intact’ and ‘the simple animal courage of accepting the odds’ (Hughes, Winter Pollen, 222). In measuring himself by writers such as these he made his most important claim to be considered not merely a national but a European and even world poet.

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

Faas, Ekbert. Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980.

Hughes, Ted. ‘To Leonard Baskin’, 16 July 1969, BL (British Library) 10200.

---. ‘Vasko Popa’, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose. ed. William Scammel. London: Faber & Faber, 1995.

---. ‘To Gerald Hughes and family’, 27 October 1969. Letters of Ted Hughes. ed. Christopher Reid. London: Faber & Faber, 2007.

Radin, Paul. The Trickster. London: Routledge, 1956.

Sagar, Keith. The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes. Liverpool: LiverpoolUniversity Press, 2000.