TED HUGHES AND RELIGION


“I am interested Ted Hughes’ religious background and in his use of religion and religious imagery in his poems, especially as inspiration for such poems as ‘Theology’.”


Ted Hughes grew up in a part of Yorkshire in which Methodist forms of Christianity were common and where most children attended either a Wesleyan or Calvinist chapel. In 1990, Ted wrote that as a child he had “always dreaded Sunday as a day of psychological torment” and that “the whole business of Sunday in the Calder Valley (Fanatical blend of Methodism and Chartism) had always seemed to [be] a performance at the expense of the real thing”. (29 July 1990. TLH 579).

The Mount Zion chapel overlooked the Hughes’ family home in Mytholmroyd and in his story ‘Sunday’ (Wodwo, Faber 1971. pp.604–6) you get some idea of Ted’s own experience of attending Sunday Chapel service there. In his poem, ‘Mount Zion’ (THCP 480–1), he again describes the oppression and bleakness of that experience, and he contrasts the enforced conformity of this Methodist religion with the natural energies of a cricket which has “rigged up its music / In a crack in Mount Zion wall” and which is attacked by the church–people with exaggerated fear and ferocity.

Similarly, in ‘Heptonstall Old Church’ (THCP 490) he describes the ruins of the St. Thomas á Becket church in Heptonstall, Yorkshire, as the remains of an earlier religion in the Calder Valley: one in which the natural energies brought an awareness of the divine to the people and put music and light in the valleys.

From an early age, Ted held strong views about any form of organized religion and the religious dogma associated with it. Writing to Sylvia Plath in 1956 (29 Nov. 1989. THL p.570), he expressed contempt for what he called the “dogmatic egotist” philosophers of the “post–Christian school” and for the “avarice, greed, cruelty and tyranny” which has marked and marred religion. “Read Blake”, he advised, “as an antidote”. Many years later he expressed the view that “Christian teachings, especially Reformation puritan–based Christian teachings, [could] be blamed for attitudes to women and the natural world which have been destructive” (29 Nov. 1989. THL 570).

Ted’s views were not formed in a religious vacuum. He once wrote to his sister that the Bible was his “favourite book” (THL 100); and he kept his mother’s small bible with him, together with Shakespeare’s plays, whilst he was serving as a National Service conscript in the Royal Air Force. He read widely in the areas of mysticism and was knowledgeable about many different religions. He discussed the Catholic and Puritan conflicts in Elizabethan England in his ‘Introduction’ to A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse (Faber, 1991). In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being he referred to the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas and outlined the basis of Hebrew Cabbala and its adoption in Renaissance Christian Neoplatonism. He wrote a libretto for the Buddhist Book of the Dead; based Cave Birds on the Sufi fable of the Conference of the Birds; and discussed Gnosticism and, especially, Shamanism in interviews and letters.

Ted’s belief in some supreme creative force was most frequently expressed in his work as reverence for the powers of Nature, especially as represented in the mythologies of the world by a goddess or goddesses who control the natural cycles of birth, procreation and death. He expressed these cyclical creative/destructive powers of Nature in many ways.

Sometimes, as in his Lupercal poems, it seemed to him (as he told his sister Owlyn) that “God, the Creator”, was not “protective love, but simply absolute power – the irrefutable authority of the need to devour to live” (1959, THL 148). But he never lost the belief expressed by William Blake that “everything that lives is holy” (that the divine is expressed in all of nature) and this was most clearly stated in his children’s fable What is the Truth.

God, in that fable, as in Ted’s other stories for children and, especially, in Crow, is like Blake’s Old Nobodaddy – a fallible, story–book figure who frequently gets things wrong.

‘Theology’, which was first published in 1961 as part of a group of poems called ‘Dully Gumption’s College Courses’, provides an early example of this ineffectual God. The poem offers an ironic recreation of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in which our world is depicted as “the dark intestine” – a place where the need to devour to live is paramount. The serpent (which like the uroborus – a snake eating its tail – represents Nature) has supreme power. These are “the facts” of life in our world where eating, sex, temptation and sin are all a natural part of human existence, and God, in this theology, is helpless to change that.

One of the most comprehensive of Ted’s own descriptions of his spiritual beliefs was written in 1990 to the Anglican priest, academic, poet, and sculptor, Moelwyn Merchant (29 June 1990. THL 579–81). In it, he wrote that “the processes of creation & created life are ‘divine’” and that the animals, “live a divine life in a divine world”. Humans, however, in the evolutionary process have developed “ego–consciousness” and have become alienated from that “animal/spiritual nature”: through our “ability to manipulate abstract ideas & direct our behaviour against instinct, we have lost the divine world, and internal identity with the divine self”. He expressed a similar view in his early poem ‘Egg Head’ (THCP 33–4) where he wrote: “Brain in deft opacities, / Walled in translucencies, shuts out the world’s knocking”. In his letter to Merchant, he went on to say that Shamans – “Holy Men, Prophets, Healers and spiritual leaders” – have the ability to contact that divine world and to help heal that division. And, as he told Ekbert Faas, all true poets are Shamans (The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow, 1980. p.206).

Hughes’ own poetry expresses both the divinity and the (often harsh) reality of the natural world. His fables may poke fun at and question religious teachings about the infallibility of God, but his lifelong goal was, through his work, to explore the divine within and around us and to mitigate our alienation from it.

In 1994, in a long letter to Nicholas Hager (THL 663–8), Ted outlined his views about our alienation from the divine and he described his attempts to use his poetry to by–pass abstract, rational ‘understanding’ in order to convey, “by direct experience”, the “true nature of reality”. Creating the perfect poetic metaphor for his work as a poet/shaman, and using pure water as a symbol of spiritual essence, he wrote: “I found my own little trickle, and tried to make little earthenware bottles of it for whoever came by and felt thirsty enough to pick up what I had set by the roadside”.

Ted Hughes’ funeral service was held on 3 November 1998 at St Peter’s Anglican Church in North Tawton, Devon. A memorial service was held for him in Westminster Abbey, London, on 13 May 1999; and on 6 December 2011 his memorial stone was unveiled in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.


© Ann Skea 2013. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com


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