“O Lady”: Hughes and his Muse

© Ann Skea 2016.

“O Lady”, Hughes wrote in his very early poem ‘Song’ (THCP 24–5), “You stood, and your shadow was my place: / You turned, your shadow turned to ice”. So, he gave his heart to the Goddess, knowing already the enthralling wonder of her presence, her fickleness, and the desolation of losing her. She was his Muse, his Moon Goddess, Nature, governor of the wind and the waves and Mistress of the animals, and throughout his work he remained faithful to her.

Heartfelt as this early poem is, Hughes was following a long poetic tradition by dedicating himself and his work to the Goddess. The Greeks had called on the nine Muses to inspire their poetry and drama, often entreating just one of them for help: “Rage – goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,” demanded Homer in the opening lines of the Iliad; and at the beginning of the Odyssey – “Tell me Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven / far journeys1.


Roman poets followed suit, adapting Greek mythology and gods to their own ends. “O Muse!”, cries Virgil at the start of the Aeneid, when he calls on her to relate the causes and crimes which have roused Juno’s “unrelenting hate” of “so brave, so just a man” as Paris, and asks her to help him “sing” his story2.

Then, as Greek and Roman texts began to circulate in Renaissance Europe, the Muses, as Joseph Campbell puts it, became for poets and painters “the openers of the senses to the music of the spheres3.

The Renaissance poets, in their turn, influenced English poetry, and Hughes dated his first introduction to the Goddess to his teenage years when, as he told Drue Heinz, he read “the whole of the The Faerie Queene” as he sat in the woods “muttering through” his poetry books. And “All of Milton4. Edmund Spenser, claiming to be inspired by the “sacred Muse”, began The Faerie Queene by calling on her as “O holy Virgin, chief of nine” to help “Thy weaker Nouice to perform thy will5. And, following the Classical tradition, the opening words of Milton’s Paradise Lost are “Sing heavenly Muse”.

Hughes’ early familiarity with the works of Spenser, Milton, Chaucer, Shelley and Shakespeare, gave him the somewhat romantic and traditional view of the Muse which is evident in ‘Song’. But it is very likely that he also read the Roman poet Lucretius’s De rerum natura (Of the Nature of Things), which had been translated by Milton and from which Spenser had published extracts. This poem, which influenced English poets from the sixteenth century on, is again addressed to Venus, but unlike many poems addressed to the Goddess or the Muses it describes her role in Nature. It is She who provides the “primal germs” from which Nature, Mother Earth, “all creates and multiplies / And fosters all, and wither she resolves / Each in the end when each is overthrown”. She holds the secret power of birth, procreation, death and renewal (all of which became the powers of the Goddess who is central to Hughes’ work) and Lucretius exhorts Memmius, to whom his lessons are addressed, to marvel at Nature’s wonders, as he himself does in some of his most beautiful passages of poetry.

Artemis of Ephasus

Hughes’ early “sacred canon” of poets included Wordsworth and Coleridge, both of whom turned to Nature for inspiration6, and Hughes’ Goddess was always the Goddess of Nature. His early hunting experiences with his older brother had immersed him in her world and he had grown very familiar with it. Animals, he told Drue Heinz, “were there at the beginning. Like parents. Since I spent my first seventeen or eighteen years constantly thinking about them, more or less, they became a language – a symbolic language which is also the language of my whole life7.

Already, when writing ‘Hawk Roosting’ (THCP 68) and ‘Pike’ (THCP 84) Hughes saw elements of the divine in Nature’s creations and used his poems to summon the Goddess’s energies into our world. In response to questions by Faas, he said, “I wanted to focus my natural world – those familiars of my boyhood – in a ‘divine’ dimension. I wanted to express my sense of that… I was trying to express what had been with me from the beginning8. And when questioned by Faas about supposed violence in his two Jaguar poems, he said “I prefer to think of them as first, descriptions of a jaguar, second … invocations of the Goddess9.

All this was tempered by Hughes’ growing familiarity with other Goddesses, “supernatural women” and “underworld women” of which he read in folk–lore and mythologies, especially those of Celtic Ireland and Wales, the Middle East and Egypt. And, until he was given Robert Graves’, The White Goddess, as a school–leaving present, he had, he said, regarded “such arcane” interests as his personal and private territory. “I had a turmoiling sort of baffled constant meditation going on all that”, he wrote to Nick Gammage, “with various tunnels of special effects, Indian, Chinese and Japanese. And I suppose I’d worked out a kind of relationship to it all10. So, when he first “met The White Goddess in September 1951”, he felt resentful that Graves had seemingly taken possession of his “secret patch”. Nevertheless, he recognised that he and Graves “shared an obsession” and he “soaked the book up”. Its effect, however, he believed to be largely shaped by his even earlier absorption of the theory of Jung’s Psychological Types, and he had, he said, “read Graves through Jung” and understood Graves’ analysis of various myths as a description of something which “had its roots in biology11.

Hughes was never convinced that Graves’ own occult, Muse–inspired, poetry did not impose “some kind of witty dry distance… between him and the sacred event”. But he acknowledged that Graves’ book, together with his own early love of Blake and the influence of Jung’s works had “given him the bigger picture fairly early”. And Graves’ extensive knowledge of world mythology and, especially, what he wrote about the traditions of the Celtic Ollave, or master poet, and what he describes as “the constant poetic theme”, clearly influenced Hughes.

This Theme (Graves capitalises it) is “the antique story… of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year”, who fights “a losing battle with the God of the Waning Year for love of the capricious and all–powerful Threefold Goddess, their mother, bride and layer–out”. The poet, wrote Graves, “identifies himself with the God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess” and every true poem “is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright and lust – the female spider or the queen-bee whose embrace is death12. She is Nature, “mistress and governess of all the elements”, “chief of the powers divine” controller of “the planets of the sky, the wholesome winds of the seas, and the lamentable silences of hell13. It is not hard to imagine the attraction of this imaginative description for the young Hughes; and because of his interest in magic and mysticism he would certainly have warmed to Graves’ description of his book as rediscovering “a set of sacred charms of varying antiquity” which pertain to the poet’s relationship with the Muse14.


Hughes also read Graves’ translation of another influential Latin work, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. Not only was Athaneus Kircher’s picture (c.1670) of Apuleius’s Isis – “Magnae Deorum Matris”, “she that is the natural mother of all, mistresse and governess of all the Elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of powers divine” – hung on the wall of his and Sylvia’s London flat, he also chose it for the gold–embossed cover of his Rainbow Press publication, Poems15.

Graves’ detailed and complicated arguments about the Celtic Tree Alphabet find no place in Hughes’ work, but the Goddess is there in her many forms. Present, too, is the Gravesian theme of the warring twins: the battle between the God of the Waxing Year (who is the poet) and his twin, the God of the Waning Year (who is the poet’s rival, “his blood-brother, his other self, his weird16). This inner struggle to be worthy of the love of the capricious and all–powerful Goddess is expressed in Hughes’ early poem ‘Fair Choice’ (THCP 31–2), where it is described as a battle of choice between “rivalling eithers” – twins who are both elements of the one person, so that “The spilt blood be your own” and the “cold murder of one” results in the need to “force–feed / With your remorse the other and protect him / From the vengeful voluble ghost of the dead twin”.

This doppelganger emerges most vividly in Hughes’ poem ‘The Gulkana’ (THCP 665). Hughes wrote that he “pre–dreamed the events which inspired this poem” where, in an ancient, primitive and unstable landscape, he feels the gaze of “A bodiless twin, some disinherited being / And doppelganger other” watching him – “the interloper, / the fool he had always hated17. Appropriately, this poem is part of the River sequence, which traces the whole cycle of Nature through its annual pattern of birth, procreation, death and regeneration18. There, the Goddess herself is mother, bride, hag and layer–out: and the river “is a god, and inviolable / Immortal”, who, “Fallen from heaven, lies across/ The lap of his mother” as in a pieta (‘The River’, THCP 664). In ‘Japanese River Tales’(THCP 641) she enters the river as the “juicy bride” of the river god, seductively “touching /At her hair”, “naked under / Her robe, jewels / In her hair, in her ears, at her bare throat”; but her “kiss” is death, and her “talons” “numb open / The long belly of blood” before she departs “Through the shutter of space and / Out of being”. Her powers and energies are everywhere, in the plants, the birds, the insects and, especially, in the fish, which fill these River poems.

Human beings are incidental in the Goddess’s world. Like the fisherman persona of these poems, Man is an interloper, a watcher, an intruding “man shape” (‘Strangers’, THCP 658) in a dangerously alien realm. The men milking the salmon for eggs and milt in ‘The Morning before Christmas’ (THCP 639–640) are ‘farming’ salmon, helping along a creative process which “in natural times” and “with great luck” would occur without any human intervention. They are as irrelevant to the Goddess’s world as the old Noh dancer performing an ancient, remembered ritual in a fish–less, dying river (‘Eighty, and Still Fishing for Salmon’ (THCP 674). In only one poem, ‘Go fishing’ (THCP 652), is he the poet/shaman wading “in underbeing”, immersing himself in the Goddess’s world where he must “Cease”, and be assumed into the endless “plasma healing” flow before crawling back “new and nameless” to “Heal into time, and other people”.

Discussing his belief in the “medicinal, healing” power of art, Hughes told Drue Heinz, “Prose narrative etcetera, can carry this healing. Poetry does it more intensely. Music maybe most intensely of all19. And, in seeking to use and transmit this healing power, the shamanic aspect of Hughes’ negotiations with the Goddess became an essential part of his work.

He would have come across shamanism and “techniques of moving in a state of ecstasy among various spiritual realms”(WP 56) through his early interest in Yeats’ occult activities and from his own extensive reading of occult material. And he would have learned of shamanism, and of the widespread belief in and worship of the primitive and ancient mother–goddesses, during his anthropology studies at Cambridge University20.

It is very likely, too, that Hughes read Eric Dodds’ book The Greeks and the Irrational, several copies of which are in the Pembroke College library, including a first edition (published in 1951) in which the many passages which discuss poetry, shamanism and divinely–inspired madness are marked with pencilled lines, ticks or brackets. One ticked note refers to the Muse as the revealer of “hidden truths21.

The shamanic flight, as Hughes told Faas, “is the skeleton of thousands of folktales and myths. And of many narrative poems”. And Hughes’ own narrative poetic sequences, Cave Birds, Remains of Elmet, River, Gaudete and even Birthday Letters, can all be seen as shamanic flights to the spirit world – the “underbeing” of ‘Go Fishing’ – to bring back “a cure, an answer, some sort of divine intervention in the community’s affairs22. It was a flight Hughes believed to be necessary because of our increasing alienation from the natural world, and because, as he wrote in ‘The Enviromental Revolution’, Nature “is the mother of all life” and when we lose touch with Nature we enter “an evolutionary dead-end”(WP 128-35).

Hughes’ very early introduction to the work of Carl Jung not only affected the way in which he read Graves’ The White Goddess, it also introduced him to the concept of the unconscious mind – the shadow self – where sensation and intuition function in the human psyche. And it emphasised the need to balance this ‘irrational’ (often called ‘female’) part of our nature with the conscious, rational (so-called ‘male’) part. So, he understood Graves’ arguments about the suppression of the female Goddess by the male God, and his discussions of the warring brothers and their relationship with the poet and his Muse, through Jung’s teachings23. Hughes’ lengthy analysis in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being of the “Tragic Equation” which develops between the jealous Goddess and her lovers, demonstrates the dangerous effects of repressing the unconscious energies24. And, in A Dancer to God, he describes in detail his view that the doppelganger – “this other self”, this “possibly poetic self” – “may represent and may even contain…the true–self, the self at the source, the inmost core of the individual, which the Upanishads call the divine self”, communion with which is “healing, redeems the suffering life and releases joy25.

Jung’s writing about alchemy and about symbols also influenced Hughes’ dealings with his Muse. From Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, Hughes learned the psychological explanations for ‘individuation’, examination of all aspects of ‘self’, the purging of gross elements within that self which cause imbalance, and the harmonious ‘marrying’ of the male and female parts of the psyche. It would have been important to Hughes that the symbolism of alchemy, especially the images drawn in early alchemical texts, derive from Nature, the Goddess who links the Creative Source with our World, and who transmits and controls the universal energies. Important, too, would have been Jung’s ideas about the archetypal meaning of symbols and the psychological power they embody.

Two other major influences are apparent in Hughes’ dealings with the Goddess.

Triple Goddess

One was his discovery in 1973–4 of A.K. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva26, translations of the vacanas (sacred songs) of the Siva–worshipping mystics of Southern India. The other was his growing understanding of the use of Cabbala, by which the female aspect of God, the Shekinah of Hebrew Cabbala who is exiled in our world, is re–united with the male Godhead.

In the vacanas in Ramanujan’s book, Hughes found the same simple, direct, honest speech as that of his own early poem ‘Song’. Their tone, however, was very different. These Indian mystics regarded themselves as married to Siva, and they spoke to him as they would to a beloved but recalcitrant spouse – not only adoring him but castigating, pleading, questioning, gossiping, arguing, and berating him as if he were their conjugal partner. Hughes began to experiment with this brief, concise form of poetry, addressing himself to his Goddess as “Lady of the Hill”, rather than to Lord Siva. Gradually, as he filled a notebook, his poems developed from close copies of particular vacanas into hymns to the Goddess which were completely his own. Some of these poems became part of the Epilogue in Gaudete27, others were published in Orts28, but many are still uncollected29.

In these poems, Hughes’ understanding of his Muse and his way of addressing her are very different to those of the adolescent Hughes of ‘Song’, but she is still the Goddess of Nature. Sometimes, she is cruel as “the eye of a hare” which “Strips the interrogator naked30; at other times he sees her as “An unearthly woman wading shoreward / With me in your arms31. Her devotee despairs of her fickleness, asking “Why did you make me / Support me this long and this far / Just to forget me now?32; and at other times she so annoys him that he feels “stuck in marriage, like a decaying tooth / In an imbecile’s mouth33. He has also come to understand the dangers of giving his heart to her, knowing, too late, that it is “Better, happier to stay clear of the pure / Water of the source34.

Amongst the vacanas in the Gaudete Epilogue, Hughes chose to include, for the first time, poems which refer to particular women in his life, thereby identifying them with the Goddess. Referring to the Reverend Lumb, whose adventures he charted in Gaudete, Hughes told Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts that in the Epilogue poems: “Lumb adds up several women in his life, assuming them, as he does so, into that female in the other world (or hidden in this world). Naturally”, he went on, “I could only lend him people I have known35. The woman in ‘I know well’ (THCP 368), for example, was Sue Alliston, a friend who lived, as Hughes once had, in 18 Rugby Street and who was dying of Hodgkin’s disease36. The poem which begins ‘Once I said lightly’ refers to Sylvia Plath; and ‘Waving goodbye from your banked hospital bed/… ’ refers to his mother37. So, Hughes began the practice which he would later adopt more fully in Capriccio, Howls & Whispers and Birthday Letters where, just as Dante chose Beatrice, Sir Philip Sidney chose Stella, Edmund Spenser chose Queen Elizabeth I , and Shakespeare’s chose his ‘Dark Lady’ as their poetic representatives of the Goddess, Hughes chose Assia Wevill and Sylvia Plath.

Every living woman”, as Hughes wrote in one of his uncollected vacanas, represents a test which the Goddess sets for the human male. Every living woman embodies the Goddess. So, in Hughes’ poetry real women are all representatives of the Goddess, and it is notable that never, even in Birthday Letters, Howls & Whisper and Capriccio (in which Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill are clearly re-created and brought to life in the poems by memory and imagination) are the women named.

Hughes’ adoption of Hebrew Cabbala as a framework for Capriccio, Howls & Whispers and Birthday Letters, represented another stage in his negotiations with the Goddess and in his shamanic endeavor to bring healing energies into our world38. In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, he described the Cabbalistic Tree of Life as a mnemonic device, the symbols of which encompass “all the possibilities of existence”; and he saw it as “the most formidably established and sophisticated, the most awesome in occult reputation, of all memory maps,…operated by techniques of meditation that at the very least [are] like divine prayer whilst at the highest they resemble communion with supernatural beings, if not with the Divine Emanation itself” (SGCB 21). So, through the use of techniques which rely on meditation, memory and imagery, Hughes sought to channel his poetic energies into those sequences. This became his shamanic method of contacting his poetic self, the Other who in his tribute to T.S.Eliot, he described as the “secularized, privatized…keeper of dreams” – the doppelganger which represents the “divine” self (WP 274–5).

In Birthday Letters, his purpose, too, was the same as that which he had ascribed to both Yeats and Eliot: he set out to create “a human endeavor” which is “privately personal at the one extreme and more universally public at the other”(WP 273). By re-membering Sylvia and Assia and examining deeply and alchemically every aspect of his relationship with them he not only identified the human errors and the failure of unconditional love in their mutual relationships, he also created a human and gripping poetic narrative. 20,000 people bought Birthday Letters when it was first published. Not all of them read it simply out of prurient interest. And many who read it right through discovered things which they identified with, and were moved by it – and changed by it. That is shamanic poetic magic at its most powerful.


In Birthday Letters, in the final stage of the Cabbalist journey which the poet/persona began as a child “stupid with confidence, in the playclothes / Of still growing39, he returns to The World (Malkuth), the station on the Cabbalistic Tree from which he began, thus completing the circle which is represented by the symbol for the Goddess, Nature – the Uroborus – the snake eating its tail. Ted as pilgrim/shaman/poet had made this journey many times in many different ways, searching, through alchemy, shamanism, Cabbala, myth and legend, for his Muse’s energies. He found them most truthfully in Nature, but not until Birthday Letters had he been able to bring together enough knowledge, understanding and poetic power to create the healing magic which freed him and made the last months of his life “totally his own40.


1. Homer, The Iliad, Fagles, R (trans.) (U.S.A: Viking Penguin, 1990), p. 77; and The Odyssey of Homer, Lattimore, R. (trans.) (U.S.A: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 27.
2. Virgil, The Aeneid (19 BC), Anonymous volunteers and Widger, D. (trans.) (Gutenberg Project, Ebook), Canto 1.
3. Campbell, J. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (London: Penguin, 1968), p. 80.
4. Hughes T. ‘Ted Hughes: The Art of Poetry No. 71’, Interview with Drue Heinz in The Paris Review, Spring, 1995, No.134, pp. 55-94. 5. Spenser, E. The Faerie Queene, Wauchope, R.A. (ed.) (Gutenberg Ebook), Book 1. Canto 1.
6. Hughes T. The Paris Review, op.cit. By the time I got to university, at twenty–one, my sacred canon was fixed: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot”.
7. Ibid.
8. Faas, E. The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980), p. 202.
9. Ibid. p. 199.
10. Ted Hughes to Nick Gammage, 7 April 1995 in Reid, C. (ed.), The Letters of Ted Hughes (London: Faber, 2007). p. 679.
11. This book belonged to his sister, Olwyn. Later, as he told Ekbert Faas (op.cit. p.37), he read all Jung’s translated volumes. Jung’s works are present in his library at Emory University, Atlanta, USA.
12. Graves, R. The White Goddess (London: Faber 1977), pp. 21–26.
13. Ibid. p. 72.
14. Ibid. p. 25.
15. Graves, R. The Transformation of Lucius: otherwise known as the golden Ass (London: Penguin 1950). Sylvia wrote to her mother of “a lovely engraving of Isis from one of Ted’s astrological books” (SPLH 7 Feb. 1960). Quotation from Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Asse (Addlington’s translation 1566), London: Simpkin Marshall Ltd. 1934) p. 219. Poems: Ted Hughes, Ruth Fainlight, Alan Sillitoe (London: Rainbow Press Limited Edition 1971).
16. Ibid. p. 24.
17. Reid, C. (ed.) op.cit. Note to a letter from Hughes to Nick Gammage, 10 October 1998. p.734.
18. Hughes, T. River (London: Faber, 1983).
19. The Paris Review, op.cit.
20. In a letter to Moelwyn Merchant (29 June 1990) Hughes wrote that he had “discovered the literature of Shamanism” at University. And it is likely that he attended the lectures of Dr Ethel John Lingren, an authority on shamanism in Manchuria, who, as Robert Leighton reveals in ‘What did Ted Learn from Anthropology?’ (a paper he presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute in June 2015), lectured in anthropology at Cambridge University when Ted was an undergraduate there.
21. Dodds, E. The Greeks and the Irrational, University of California Press, Berkley, 1951, p.101, note 121. Dodds was a Classicist and Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford , he had met W.B.Yeats and he had a lifelong interest in mysticism, poetry and psychic research. Hughes was an undergraduate student at Pembroke at the time this book was first published and, since these pencil–marked passages exactly reflect his particular interests and not necessarily those of Classics scholars, it is tempting (but unprovable) to suggest that he made them.
22. Faas, E, op.cit. p. 206.
23. Ted Hughes to Nick Gammage, 7 April 1995. in The Letters of Ted Hughes, op.cit. p. 679. “My sister (my pathfinder) had bought Psychological Types and that was one book I knew backwards – the theory of it – before I went to University. So I read Graves through Jung”.
24. Hughes, T, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (London: Faber, 1992), passim.
25. Hughes, T, A Dancer to God (London: Faber, 1992), p. 27–8. Also published as ‘The Poetic Self: A Centenary Tribute to T.S. Eliot’ (WP 214–7).
26 Ramanujan, A. J, Speaking of Siva (London, Penguin Classics, 1973).
27. Hughes, T. Gaudete (London: Faber, 197), pp. 176–200.
28. Hughes, T. Orts, (Rainbow Press Limited Edition, 1978). Also in Moortown (London: Faber, 1979), pp. 132–149.
29. For a detailed discussion of these poems see Skea, A. ‘Ted Hughes’ Vacanas: The Difficulties of a Bridegroom’ in Ted Hughes : Cambridge to Collected , M. Wormald, N. Roberts, T. Gifford (eds.), (Hampshire: Palgave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 81–95. Also online at http://ann.skea.com/THVacanas.html.
30. ‘The primrose petal’s edge’, THCP 364.
31. ‘The rain comes again’, THCP 362.
32. ‘Your eyes are poor’, THCP 404.
33. ‘Before I was born’, THCP 403.
34. ‘Better, happier to stay clear’, THCP 405.
35. Hughes’ notes to Gifford and Roberts included in a partly unpublished letter to Keith Sagar, 4 Oct. 1979. British Library Add. Mss. 78756.
36. Like Sylvia Plath, Sue Alliston appears in ‘18 Rugby St.’ in Birthday Letters (THCP 1055).
37. Neil Roberts notes that both Rand Brandes and Len Scigaj suggested that both these poems refer to Sylvia Plath (Roberts, N. Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2006), Note. 52, p. 228). William Scammell, in an article in The Poetry Review, op.cit. ‘Burst Open Under Blue–Black Pressure’ also made this claim. Hughes, however, specifically denied that ‘waving goodbye…’ is about Sylvia Plath. In a telephone conversation with me shortly before his death he confirmed that it was about his mother, Edith Farrar Hughes.
38. This framework is examined in detail in ‘Poetry and Magic’ 1 , 2 and 3: (web addresses: Birthday Letters http://ann.skea.com/BLCabala.htm; Howls & Whispers: http://ann.skea.com/HWCabala.htm and Capriccio: http://ann.skea.com/CapriccioHome.htm)
39. ‘Caryatids 2’, THCP 1046.
40. Letter from Carol Hughes to Ann Skea (8 November 1999). The actual publication of Birthday Letters, just ten months before Ted died, finally gave him this feeling of total freedom.

© Ann Skea 4 October 2016. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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