Poetry by Ted Hughes

Wodwo (London: Faber and Faber, 1967)

Laura Webb (PhD student at the University of Sheffield) examines one of Hughes's most cryptic collections of verse. 

Wodwo, Hughes’s fourth collection, was published in 1967. It differs in form to Hughes’s other main works, comprising as it does three sections; the first of poems, the second of short stories, and the third of more poems. Explaining this organization, Hughes suggested, for some readers problematically, the book be read as a ‘single adventure’[1], or one narrative, with the first section representing matters before an ‘event’, the stories constituting this ‘event’, and the third section describing the aftermath of this event[2]. The book’s material was not composed chronologically and the ‘single adventure’ was laid over the poems retrospectively[3], influenced by the shamanic texts and stories Hughes became fascinated by during the early 1960’s[4].

Hughes’s first wife, Sylvia Plath, had committed suicide in 1963 and, as Hughes’s first collection since this tragedy, as Neil Roberts has observed, there is a temptation to assume that the poems narrate this event, when in fact only one poem ‘Ballad from a Fairy Tale’, directly does so[5]. The two poems Hughes composed in the aftermath of Plath’s death, (other than these, Hughes wrote little poetry for several years afterwards) ‘Song of a Rat’ and ‘The Howling of Wolves’, give an indication of the emotional distress he experienced at this time:

The rat hears the wind saying something in the straw

And the night-fields that have come up to the fence, leaning their silence,

The widowed land


With its trees that know how to cry[6] 

In Wodwo, Hughes returns to familiar themes and readdresses them, and we witness a shifting in the perspective, a realignment of the eye-view, as in ‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’, where the jaguar, in dialogue with ‘The Jaguar’ of The Hawk in the Rain, though still fierce, is now vulnerable: ‘His head/ Is like the worn down stump of another whole jaguar, / His body is just the engine shoving it forward’[ 7]. In ‘Out’, Hughes returns to the topic of war, this time more personally addressing the theme, through his father William Hughes’s experience as an infantryman during World War One.

The collection’s stories (and play) narrate, then, the ‘event’, comparable to the fundamental shamanic event. That is, simply put, that a shaman is chosen, and must undergo ritual dismemberment and reconstitution, as well as a thorough initiation with the spirit world- both of which are often conducted by an animal guide- in order to be able to offer healing and guidance for his or her community. Once the shaman hears the call, in Hughes’s words, he ‘must shamanize or die’[8]. The first story, ‘The Rain Horse’, in which a man out walking and pursued by a horse reacts with violence and fear, and which narrates the danger of refusing such a call, is followed by ‘The Harvesting’, in which a farmer, shooting a hare, becomes himself that wounded, dying animal. By far the longest piece is Hughes’s radio-play ‘The Wound’, which details the mental journey of a soldier who has been shot in the war.  The play resonates with the notion of an irreconcilable separation between body and mind, caused by the brutality of battle. The surreal juxtaposition of the mundane and the grotesque accounts for much of the horror:

 "... Joe Moss was smashing tops off beer bottles against a brick. ... Wait a minute, wait a minute, get it right. Joe Moss had just had his hand blown off and the blood shot like pop out of a bottle and the rain was hosing down"[9] 

As a unit, these stories and the ‘event’ they narrate address in depth the shamanistic themes of accepting the call, undergoing the trials set in order to cultivate thereafter a distinguished world-view, and, crucially, cultivating harmony between the body and the mind, despite onslaught from the potentially hostile world around them; what Hughes would have called the harmony of our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds.

Significantly, in Wodwo we witness the birth of the stark, journalistic style that was to come to full and controversial fruition in Crow, in the poems ‘Reveille’ and ‘Logos’ in section one, and ‘Theology’ in section two. This style and tone was to enable Hughes to embark upon what he perceived as the most creatively potent period of his life, with the collection Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow.

Closing the final section, ‘Wodwo’, the title poem of the collection, is unique in Hughes’s poetry for its absence of punctuation, and lower-case first letters opening each line. This ‘wodwo’ is related to the wodwo of the book’s epigraph, and explores his own consciousness and environment with curiousness and naivety. The poem ends, optimistically, ‘I’ll go on looking’[10], a positive statement of intent, and a promise Hughes himself did not break, as he embarked upon his most visceral and fragile poetry to date, in his 1970 collection Crow

Laura Webb is currently studying for a PhD focussing on Ted Hughes’s animal poetry at the University of Sheffield, supervised by Professor Neil Roberts. Amongst other places, she has recently had work, creative or critical, published in The Manchester Review, Poetry Ireland Review, the New Welsh Review, and Transverse, the online journal of the University of Toronto. In 2009 and 2010 she was shortlisted for an Eric Gregory award. She teaches on undergraduate Literature modules at the University of Sheffield.  


[1] Ted Hughes. Wodwo. London: Faber and Faber, 1967. Authors note.

[2] Neil Roberts. Ted Hughes: A Literary Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996. Pp. 57-58.

[3] Roberts. Ted Hughes. P. 58.

[4] For more information, see Mircea Eliade. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. London: Arkana (Penguin), 1989.

[5] Roberts. Ted Hughes. P. 57.

[6] Ted Hughes. Collected Poems: Paul Keegan (ed.) London: Faber and Faber, 2003. P. 169.

[7] Hughes. Collected Poems. P. 152.

[8] Ted Hughes. Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose: William Scammell (ed.) London: Faber and Faber, 1994. P. 58.

[9] Ted Hughes. Wodwo. P. 110.

[10]Hughes. Collected Poems. P. 183.