Wolf-Masks: From Hawk to Wolfwatching.

© Ann Skea

First published in Scigaj, L (Ed.), Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, G.K.Hall & Co, New York, 1992


Of all the symbols which Hughes uses, the wolf is almost unique in the lasting power of its attraction for him, in the ambiguity of its nature as he describes it, and in the way in which he extends the scope of its symbolism from personal to universal applicability. Hughes’s wolves embody the contradictory qualities of the natural energies: they have beauty of form, an economical directness of function, the instinctive voracity of appetite for which wolves are renowned, and a predatory cunning which has allowed them to survive in the harshest of environments. It is no surprise, therefore, that Hughes’s latest book of poetry should be called Wolfwatching.

In many ways Wolfwatching sums up the major concerns of Hughes’s artistic career. It deals with the natural energies in all their complexity, and it repeatedly shows the distortion of these energies which humans have brought about both in animals (like the caged wolf and the macaw) and in themselves. Adopting the wolf mask, which has long been one of his shamanic guises, Hughes looks again at the familiar features of his world, and records once more in his poetry the paradoxical combination of beauty and horror which, for him, defines the natural energies.

Appropriately, the 18th century netsuke which adorns the cover of Wolfwatching, conveys just such paradoxical energies. The crafty, falsly humble attitude of the figure, which stands, human-like, on two legs just as fairy-story wolves do, belies the natural predatory instincts of the creature. Both the benign and the predatory aspects of the wolf, however, are described in the title poem, which forms a pivotal node to the book – a sort of wolf-lair from which Hughes makes hunting forays into his world to capture the poem-animals which he once described in Poetry in the Making.1

In the Wolfwatching poems, Hughes, now an old wolf, looks again at the creatures and people that have been so important to him. The distancing effect of time has allowed him to look more closely at members of his family than he has been able to do before and the emotions aroused are often painfully intense, but the clarity of his vision is expressed in the poems with all the knowledge, skill and power of his maturity. His vision extends over a historical panorama which extends from ‘A Sparrow Hawk’, in which he looks again at the hawks of his earliest poetry, to ‘A Dove’, which depicts the turbulent and varied emotions of love that colour the poems throughout this present book.

Hughes’s choice of the wolf as a poetic mask is not new, and it is one which connects Wolfwatching with some of his earliest and most enduring beliefs. Mircea Eliade, in his study of Shamanism2, wrote that “the Shaman is indispensable in any ceremony3 that concerns the experiences of the human soul”, and from Hughes’s own discussions about his poetry it is obvious that he regards poetry as just such a ceremony. Hughes believes that poetry gives access to the world of the spirit, and that certain powerful poetic symbols (like Blake’s Tiger, and Yeats’s “rough beast” in ‘The Second Coming’) have a summoning force which invokes what he calls “the elemental power circuit of the Universe.”4 Using the rhythms of his poetry like a shaman’s magic drum, Hughes, too, uses symbolic creatures to summon these powerful energies. He contains their potentially dangerous powers within the framework of his poems, and “flies” with them to the world of imagination and spirit for the healing that he finds there.5

In the undertaking of these poetic/shamanic journeys, Hughes’s creatures not only have summoning powers, they frequently serve, also, as his shamanic costume. Eliade writes that “the Shaman’s costume tends to give the Shaman a new, magical body in animal form.” 6 It is a “mask” through which the shaman is “transubstantiated… into a superhuman being”7 in order to undertake his journey. In Poetry in the Making, Hughes instructs aspiring young poets to “imagine what you are writing about… Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it.”8, and ‘The Thought Fox’9 was, perhaps, the first of his published poems to demonstrate (and describe) his own use of this masking procedure. It is a technique which Hughes adopts quite frequently, and one animal mask with which he has particular affinities and through which he has sometimes expressed some very personal emotions is that of the wolf.

To Hughes, the instinctive, predatory, wild energies that wolves exemplify are part of our own nature: they are part of the uncivilised prehistoric inheritance which is still present in our instincts and emotions10. Such fecund energies connect us with our roots and feed our imagination, balancing our rationality and our “sophistries” (‘Egg-Head’)11, and so, Hughes believes, they are necessary. But suppressed and denied by our society’s mores, he believes they become threatening and dangerous.

It is wolf-energies such as these which inhabit Hughes’s poem, ‘February’ (Lupercal, 13)12, where a ravening dream-wolf is conjured into his protagonist’s world by a photograph of “the hairless knuckled feet / Of the last wolf killed in Britain.” For Hughes, as for his protagonist, the wolf-energies which inhabit this poem exert a powerful fascination. They may “siege all thought”, and threaten to “choose his head” as their home, but their attraction is such that no mythical or fairy-story wolves will now “suffice” him. So, Hughes, creates his own poetic wolf-masks (such as this poem) through which he can more safely allow expression to the powerful energies which fuel his imagination.

It is typical of the care with which Hughes constructs his poetic masks that the poem’s title, ‘February’, evokes the wintery bleakness into which his wolves are summoned, and also, through its Latin origin, recalls the purifying rituals of the Feralia (the festival of the dead) and the Lupercalia which were held in Rome at this time of year. Thus, through the allusive power of a single word, Hughes conveys the ambivalence which he feels in dealing with the wolf-energies, for the Lupercalia was both a purification ceremony and an invocation of fertility.

In Lupercal, the book of poems in which ‘February’ appears, Hughes undertakes his own celebration of the Lupercalia. All of the poems in this book are, as Hughes told Ekbert Faas, “invocations to writing”13. And although the title poem, ‘Lupercalia’, partly describes the ancient Roman festival, it is, more importantly, a ritual evocation of fecund brute energies and it ends with the poet’s own prayer for renewal: “Maker of the world, / Hurrying the lit ghost of man / Age to age while the body hold, / Touch this frozen one.”

‘February’, and the other poems in Lupercalia, celebrate the sort of wild, primitive energies that Hughes’s dream-wolf represents, but they show them as energies which have been caged, suppressed or modified by our society until they only appear in an indirect, sterile form in “stories” or “pictures”. Just as the wolf-spirit in ‘February’ becomes a dangerous disembodied spirit which searches the world for its vanished head and “for the world/ vanished with the head”, so Hughes believes that our own brute energies, suppressed by the dictates of our society, can only precariously be held in check. Sooner or later they, like the spirit-wolf, will re-emerge with potentially dangerous consequences.

Hughes has used such savage wolf imagery before with similar implications. An earlier poem, ‘A Modest Proposal’(Hawk, 25), was written at a time when many of his poems were inspired by the new, intense relationship between himself and Sylvia Plath. In it, he writes, seemingly autobiographically: “There is no better way to know us / Than as two wolves, come separately to a wood.”14 The desire which these wolves have for each other creates a terrifying atmosphere of danger: it is an all consuming distraction in which each competes against the other for “a mad final satisfaction” which will be achieved by making “the other’s body and the whole wood… its own.”

Although the wolf is a common symbol for the predatory male in the human hunt for a mate, the female, conventionally, is a submissive, unequal partner in the game. In the relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath there was no such inequality. Sylvia wrote to her mother of Ted’s effect on her: “I have never known anything like it. For the first time in my life I can use ALL of my knowing and laughing and force and writing to the hilt all the time, everything… I feel a growing strength. I do not merely idolize, I see right into the core of him.”15 And Hughes’s poetry at this period of his life celebrates the woman who does not “sweeten smiles, peep, cough”, but

… sees straight through bogeyman,
The crammed cafes, the ten thousand
Books packed end to end, even my gross bulk,
To the fiery star coming from the eye itself,
And while she can grabs of them what she can.
                                 (‘Billet-Doux’, Hawk, 24).

The dangers of such an intense relationship as theirs were apparent to both. In ‘Billet-Doux’ Hughes depicts such a relationship between equals not as love, which he describes as “a spoiled appetite for some delicacy”, but as a condition of compulsive “desperation” in which each struggles not only to possess the other, but to avoid the surrender of self. Similarly, the lovers in ‘A Modest Proposal’ are equal in their predatory intent, and the voracious violence of each wolf-like “skirmish” leaves both torn and exhausted.

In the “thicket” of these lovers’ emotions, the wren, the prophetic bird of the English god Bran , “shrieks out” in terror at its glimpsed vision of “the red smelting of hatred” which is so close beneath the surface in these two wolves. Through the bloody “rents” in the animals’ hides and the chinks of their over-bright eyes it sees the uncontrollable passions which threaten to emerge. In the light of this description of his aggressive wolf-self, the “modest proposal” which Hughes makes is an ironic self-effacement, and the link which this title-phrase makes with Jonathan Swift’s appallingly simplistic solution to the Irish famine of 172716, suggests the satirical nature of Hughes final stanzas and, perhaps, of the whole poem. Suggesting that the lovers may avoid disaster by substituting co-operation for competition, Hughes pictures an alternative mode of behaviour which is essentially just another mask for the voracious wolf-instincts:

And there rides by
The great lord from hunting. His embroidered
Coat floats, the tail of his horse pours,
And at his stirrup the two great-eyed greyhounds
That day after day bring down the towering stag
Leap like one, making delighted sounds.

Since Hughes and Plath were both compulsive writers of poetry (it was in a sense their “master”) it is possible to see the “great lord” of this poem as a masculine version of their poetic muse. And the stag, a creature of Cernunnos, the horned Celtic God of Fertility, also figures in some of the earliest pre-Celtic song/poems as a deity responsible for poetic inspiration. Robert Graves, for example, gives a version of the ‘Song of Amergin’ (an encrypted bardic chant which is reputed to date from at least 1268 B.C.) in which the God is both the “stag of seven tines”, and the inspiration of poets.17

The proposal that the lovers’ “wolf” natures may be tamed, controlled, and put to productive use by submission to an artificial but socially acceptable ritual, is conveyed through the formal and ornate language of Hughes’s last stanza and through the romantic and chivalric conventions that underlie the subject and content of his “picture”18. At the same time the word “proposal” hints at one ritual through which this may be achieved – namely, marriage. Hughes and Plath, of course, did marry and work together, and their co-operation was an important element in their individual poetic development and success.

Despite the conventional facade, however, the couple led an unusual and intense life until Sylvia’s suicide in February 1963. And there is little doubt that Sylvia’s death had a stunning impact on Ted Hughes, causing a hiatus in his writing which lasted for three years.

In ‘The Howling of Wolves’19, which was written within a few weeks of Sylvia’s death20, Hughes adopts the wolf-mask again in a poem which is full of bleakness and anguish. The title of the poem comes from one of Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’: “The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.”21 This proverb expresses the incomprehensible nature of the emotions and impulses which cause the anguish in Hughes’s poem.

The initial image of howling wolves “dragging” their “long leashes of sound” “up and out” of themselves into a freezing and silent forest, is cold, mournful and eerie, and the near paranomasia between “world” and “word” in the first line suggests the inexplicable enormity of their pain. The wolves’ instinctive, driven behaviour and their cold “mineral” innocence, is sharply contrasted with the gentle, innocent warmth of the baby’s cries; and the delicacy of the violin’s notes, and the urgency of the wolves’ hunger for such warmth is emphasised by the repetition of the word “running”: “Then crying of a baby, in this forest of starving silences / Brings the wolves running. / Tuning of a violin, in this forest delicate as an owl’s ear, / Brings the wolves running – .”

In the linked antitheses of the lines: the howling which “dissolves” in the silence; the “furred” steel; the small, gentle sounds which bring the wolves running – jaws “clashing and slavering”; and the attribution of innocence to these steely instruments, Hughes suggests the paradoxes of the wolves’ existence. Because he believes that we, too, harbour barely controlled wolf-energies, similar paradoxes are part of the human condition. And in the slight difference between lines 11 and 12 of the poem: “That they must live like this, / That they must live,” Hughes establishes two related but separate questions: that of the nature of this life, and that of the reason for life itself. The isolation of the second of these lines in the poem’s text indicates the relative importance of this latter question for Hughes at this time.

In the second half of the poem, the focus narrows from that of the wolf pack to a view of a single wolf hunched and shivering in the wind. To the observer, the wolf’s howls could equally well be of joy or agony. But this wolf is driven by the “dead weight” of the powerful forces which inhabit its body, and which rely on that body for existence so that the wolf MUST “feed its fur.” As part of the cycles of Nature, “small” but necessary, “comprehending little” and miserably subservient to its compulsions, the wolf survives through momentous events. The picture of the night snowing stars and the sound of the earth’s creaking gives a vivid impression of the workings of all-powerful natural forces, and the unwilling nature of the wolf’s survival is suggested by the “dead weight” of the earth which it bears. It is “living for the earth”, the earth is “under its tongue” and “trying to see through its eyes”, and eventually it will come to nourish the earth through death and decomposition. These images of death, compulsion, pain and bleakness, together with onomatopoeic words like “slavering”, “cracking”, “whimpering” and “howling”, leave the reader with an over-riding impression of misery and helplessness, and this surely must have been Hughes’s own emotions at this time.

Hughes’s use of the wolf as a symbol does not always have this element of self-portraiture about it, but the association which he makes between the wolf and the forces of Nature to which we ourselves are subject is constant. Alongside the predatory aspects of Hughes’s wolves there is, also, their energy and the elements of freedom in their existence which can seem highly desirable in a regulated and restrictive society. In the story ‘Sunday’(Wodwo, 56-70) the child, Michael, escapes from the minister’s sermon and from “situations of constraint in school, in waiting rooms, with visitors,” by shutting his eyes and imagining “a wolf galloping through snow-filled, moonlit forest.”(Wodwo, 56) In this case, imagination succeeds in counteracting repressive forces but, in the Calder Valley as Hughes describes it in Remains of Elmet22, the wolf has become a ghost – a “wraith” amongst the “foundering valleys” and the “graves full of eternal silence.” Driven out of the twentieth century world like the wolf in ‘February’(Lupercal, 13) she “cannot any longer in all these hills / Find her pelt.”

The ambivalent nature of Hughes’s wolves and the mixed feelings of attraction and fear which they arouse, are matched by the role which the wolf plays as a symbol in mythology and folklore, where it has a rich and varied history. As an archetypal symbol, Hughes’s wolves share this history, but specific reference to such sources in his work is unusual. In ‘February’ (Lupercal, 13), he does refer to two well known fairy tales, and to the ancient epic ‘Song of the Nibelungs’, in order to activate his reader’s own fund of wolf-knowledge and to help establish the mood of the poem. In ‘Lupercalia’ (Lupercal, 61-3), too, he makes reference to a specific myth. But one poem in which he uses a particular mythological association more fully is ‘The Green Wolf’ (Wodwo, 40).

The Green Wolf was a central figure in the midsummer ceremonies that took place in Normandy in the early part of the century. During these ceremonies “a man clad all in green, who bore the title of the Green Wolf, was pursued by his comrades, and when they caught him they feigned to fling him upon the midsummer bonfire.”23 Frazer, in The Golden Bough, associates the Green Wolf with vegetation gods which were ritually burned each year to ensure fertility in the coming season24. It is this cyclical aspect of death and rebirth, this ability of Nature to “unmake and remake” the dying man, which is the subject of Hughes’s poem.

The poem is almost certainly based on personal experience. In September 1961 the Hughes family moved to a small village in Devon. The following April, when their neighbour, Percy Key, suffered a stroke, Ted was called on for help by Percy’s wife Rose. The events of the following few months, until Percy’s death in early July, were recorded by Sylvia in journal form and, incidental to these events, is her record of the natural richness of that early spring and summer. On June 7th. she wrote:

Well, Percy Key is dying. That is the verdict. Poor old Perce, says everybody. Rose comes up almost every day. “Te-ed” she calls in her hysterical, throbbing voice. And Ted comes, from the study, the tennis court, the orchard, wherever, to lift the dying man from his armchair to his bed. He is very quiet afterwards. He is a bag of bones, says Ted. I saw him in one “turn” or “do”, lying back on the bed, toothless, all beakiness of nose and chin, eyes sunken as if they were not shuddering and blinking in a fearful way. And all about the world is gold and green, dripping with laburnum and buttercups and the sweet stench of June.25

‘The Green Wolf’ appears to be Ted’s record of this time, and the same abundance of Nature fills the last four stanzas of his poem, carrying with it portents of death. The blood clot which paralyses his neighbour’s body “moves in” through a “dark heaven” with the inevitability with which “the punctual evening star” heralds the night. The evening star is the Star-Son of the Moon-Goddess, who is responsible for birth, fertility and death, and the wolf itself is linked with her because of its habit of howling to the moon, and because it feeds on corpse-flesh. The white masses of hawthorn blossom with their heavy palls of “deathly perfume” are traditionally associated with the Goddesss in her destructive form, and are banned from the house in many parts of England lest they bring bad luck. The bean, too, is her flower, and its “badged” jet markings, “like the ear of a tiger”, suggest dangerous and deathly powers. The Green Wolf, in this poem is the Goddess herself, and these symbols of her dealthy powers also have a fertile warmth and beauty. They “unmake and remake you”, just as the midsummer fires once devoured the Green Wolf in “one smouldering annihilation” to bring renewed fertility to the earth. So, “old brains, old bowels, old bodies,” are devoured to make way for the new in a process which “you cannot fear” because of its natural inevitability. And, despite the powerful presence of death which pervades the summer abundance of this poem, Hughes’s final images are moist, gentle ones which capture the sadness of farewell to a spirit “frozen” in a frail, crude, failing body.

In marked contrast to this poem is one published in Moortown in 1979 as part of ‘Seven Dungeon Songs’(M.123). In 1971, whilst working on Orghast with Peter Brook’s Experimental Theatre Company in Persia, Hughes was asked by Brook to help him find a fresh path into the Prometheus myth, on which the experimental work Orghast was based. Hughes turned for inspiration to Manicheanism (a Persian religion founded by Mani in 3 A.D.) in which the fundamental symbols are derived from the “identification of moral will, order, life and love with Light, evil, chaos and hatred with Darkness”26. This symbolism, which has survived in the Christian teachings of the Western world, also incorporates ideas of “illumination” and emergence from darkness and imprisonment to enlightened freedom. Hughes wrote the experimental language which the actors spoke, and he constructed a mythological framework for the performance. His series of poems, ‘Seven Dungeon Songs’(M.123), draws on this Manichean symbolism to deal with the creation of mankind, with the human struggle against the darkness in and around us, and with our frustrated straining towards the healing power of light.

The first of these “Songs” is a vivid illustration of Hughes’s belief in the wolf-component in human nature. In it, the “gangrenous breath” of a spirit wolf is shown as clouding the “tabula rasa” of human nature from birth. The babe of the poem, in its innocence, is attracted by the wolf and reaches towards it in “soft-brained” ignorance of its own position of danger. And all the time the wolf’s blood drips “On to the babe’s hands”, suggesting, from the first, mankind’s murderous potential.

Behind the images of the last six lines of the poem there lurks the shadow of the mythical she-wolf which suckled Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome and sons of the god, Mars, to whom the wolf was also sacred. The milky tits of Hughes’s wolf also feed and nourish a human babe but, although she can transport this babe from its earthly home and run with it “among the stars”, the journey is perilous with “precipices”. So, Hughes suggests the succour and the danger which derives from the Universal Wolf27 in human nature. And the wolf’s bloody wound, linked as it is with blood on human hands, perhaps results from our own fearful efforts to destroy it, just as the last wolf in Britain was destroyed and just as our society tries to destroy any wild, animal energies in its people. The position of this poem, however, as the first of this sequence dealing with the mankind’s struggle with darkness and light, shows the influence of the wolf to be fundamental and unavoidable.

In keeping with his beliefs in the supernatural powers of poetry, Hughes makes his own attempt to control the power of the wolf by constructing a poetic charm to contain its predatory energies with the poem ‘Amulet’, first published in Moon Bells and other poems28, and reprinted as the prefatory poem in Under the North Star29:

Inside the Wolf’s fang, the mountain of heather.
Inside the mountain of heather, the Wolf’s fur.
Inside the Wolf’s fur, the ragged forest.
Insude the ragged forest, the Wolf’s foot.
… 

The form and rhythm of the poem are those of a magical incantation. By the repetition of of the word “inside”, the physical form of the summoned Wolf spirit with its fang, fur, tongue, blood and eye, is enclosed within its surroundings. And the circularity, which brings the Wolf’s fang into the first and the last lines of the poem, ensures that the Wolf’s power is contained within the poem. Whilst the wolf in this poem is a symbolic representative of wolf-nature everywhere (the word is given a capital letter each time it is used), Hughes has made its surroundings a realistic duplication of the natural wolf habitats which are, also, the natural surroundings of mankind.

In each line of the poem, the associated images have a progression and suitability which is enhanced by visual clues. The purple fang, for example, is linked with the mountain heather which, in turn, suggests the coarse wolf-fur, which is linked with the ragged forest. The Wolf’s foot leads the Wolf along the stony horizon so that its tongue may taste the Doe. And by linking the Wolf’s tongue and the Doe’s tears, Hughes specifies and contains the Wolf’s carnivorous appetites. The Doe’s tears become part of the frozen swamp and of the Wolf’s blood which is chilled by the snow-wind as the Wolf prowls through that wind with gleaming eyes. The final link between the Wolf’s eye and the North Star is the most powerfully magical link of all, tethering the Wolf to the Earth’s axis and completing the encircling magic of the charm.

Symbolic creatures like the wolf, which “tap the elemental power circuit of the Universe”, may not always behave predictably, nor can they always be controlled. In the volume, Earth-Moon, first published in a limited edition in 197630, there are suggestions that Hughes’s use of wolf-masks may not always be entirely voluntary. The poem, ‘Moon-marriage’, describes powerful dream animals whose arrival and “marriage” to the dreamer is “nothing you can arrange,” and whose influence survives into the dreamer’s waking life. “maybe a smiling wolf comes up close / While you doze off, in your chair, and gives you a kiss, / A cold wet doggy kiss,” Hughes writes, describing once again an ambiguous fairy-tale wolf. But the predatory nature of this wolf, too, soon becomes apparent, for the dreamer becomes a captive: “You have been CHOSEN, and it’s no good flailing awake bawling `No!’ / Wherever the wolf is, she just goes on smiling -.” In a ‘Moon-marriage’, the “only offspring” of the involuntary possession of the dreamer by a dream animal “are poems.”, and Hughes’ early poem ‘The Thought Fox’ describes just such a marriage and birth.

The “lunatic” influence of the moon over human imagination, the “madness” and inconsistency of shamanic/poetic flight, the involuntary nature of a shaman/poet’s possession by his or her spirit guides (or familiars), and the wolf’s long association with all these things in myth, folklore and fairy-tales, all come together in ‘Moon-marriage’ and in another Earth-Moon poem called ‘Moon-theatre’. Although the shamanic trance in which the ‘Moon-theatre’ performance is viewed is self-induced (“tap a drum, and fix your eyes in a glassy stare.”), the images which are seen, including that of the captive princess unwillingly coerced into wolfskin so that “She is a wolf, and she must howl and rave”, are uncontrollable. Clearly, the spirit wolf, whether it enters the mind voluntarily or not, must be treated with caution.

Whatever the provenence of the symbolic wolf in Hughes’s earlier poetry, however, his use of the wolf mask in Wolfwatching is not surprising given the very personal nature of many of the poems in the book and his consequent need to protect himself from the strong emotions aroused. It is also hard not to identify Hughes, himself, with the old wolf whose picture he draws for us in the title-poem.

The temptation to make such an identification becomes irresitible when one looks at the photograph of Hughes which was published with his notes on Wolfwatching in The Poetry Society Bulletin of Autumn 198931. There, we can see for ourselves the benign “Woolly-bear white” creature, with “black peepers” “withered in under the white wool,” just as Hughes describes the old wolf in his poem. Other phrases in the poem seem loaded with ambiguity, but they offer a less comforting picture, for this old wolf feels the constraints of his aging body, the fraying, wearying effects of a lifetime of caged energies, and the changed image which “children’s gazings” have effected – converting his predatory power to “a lumpish comfort of woolly play-wolf.”32 His heart is a “cooling stone”, his weight “useless”, and now “All his power is a tangle of old ends, / A jumble of leftover scraps and bits of energy / And bitten-off impulses and dismantled intuitions.”

This pathetic creature yearns for the “anaesthetic” which “has already taken his strength, his beauty / And his life.”, and one is reminded of Hughes’s description in Poetry in the Making of the “special kind of excitement, the slightly mesmerised and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind.”33 Is this the “anaesthetic” for which he waits? Is the power of poetic inspiration the power he has lost? For Hughes, water has always been the interface between this world and the Otherworld of the energies, and many of his poems, especially in River, demonstrate this fact. Is this the reason that “water/ Just might help and ease” the old wolf? And can we really believe that Hughes now lies curled “In a trembling wolf-pelt he no longer / Knows how to live up to.”?

No. If there really is an element of identification between Hughes and the old wolf of his poem, then the poem, itself, belies the self-image that he offers there. Its lines are no “few tottering steps” born of old poetic habits. Through them Hughes’s ability to evoke the wolf-energies, old and young, is demonstrably as strong as ever. And, in the disparate subjects and styles of the poems which make up this volume, there is ample evidence of Hughes continuing skill and power. Clearly, it behoves the reader to keep in mind the deceptive character of benign looking wolves, especially if they walk on two legs like the one on the Wolfwatching volume’s cover. One must remember, too, that a mask for which Hughes has an equally personal attachment34 and which he links closely with imagination and survival is that of the fox, and, unlike the wolf, the artful fox still lives and flourishes in Britain.

In his notes on Wolfwatching, Hughes describes this collection of poems as “a kind of totem-pole”, and certainly each poem can be seen as a carefully crafted representation of wolf-energy in one of its many forms. Many of these forms we have met before: the Macaw; the Sparrow-hawk; members of Hughes’s family; the predatory deep-sea fish. Hughes calls them his “familiars”, and wonders why he should consult “just these familiars at just this time.” It is a question which we cannot answer, but one hopes that it is not just the old-wolf trying “to find again / That warm position he had.” The volume, as a whole, does not have the sustained power and impact of sequences like Cave Birds and River, and probably one should not expect this, but there is a pervasive bleakness to the overall picture that it presents of trapped and thwarted energies, and this reflects the description of the young wolf which makes up the last two-thirds of Hughes’s title-poem.

“And here / Is a young wolf, still intact.” Here, in all its effortless power and beauty is the perfect creature to take up “the iron inheritance / The incredibly rich will” bequeathed to him by his ancestry. But here, too, is the cage, the hopeless “neurotic boredom”, and the keeper bringing his water. He has no compulsive hunger to drive him, and no freedom to practise and perfect his hunting skills. He has lost touch with Nature and, in this city environment, he is doomed to become a cypher like the Hanged Man in the tarot-pack, but without the promise of renewal that this card usually holds.

In the final lines of the poem, Hughes sums up all that he has ever said about the dangers of caging up the wolf-energies and denying them freedom of expression. In whatever form they exist in our world they are our link with Nature: without them our inner and outer worlds will be empty and hopeless, and our eyes, like those of the young wolf in the poem, will be “Like doorframes in a desert / Between nothing and nothing.”

Nevertheless, in a volume where many of the poems seem to demonstrate that such a bleak future is inevitable, Hughes characteristically ends with a poem in which the energies flow with power and freedom, creating for the top of his totem pole a dove of love, and spirit, and hope.

References and Notes

1 Ted Hughes, Poetry in the Making (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 17.

2 Mircea Eliade, Shamanism (USA: Princeton University Press, 1964), 182.

3 Hughes expressed his views at length in an interview with Ekbert Faas published as “Ted Hughes and Crow”, in Vol. X of The London Magazine (January 1971): 5-20.

4 Ibid., 9.

5 Hughes first spoke of the healing energies of poetry in a BBC Broadcast for children on 27 September 1963, since published in Poetry in the Making, op.cit., 51.

6 Eliade, Shamanism, op.cit., 16.

7 Ibid., 168.

8 Hughes, Poetry in the Making, op.cit., 18.

9 Ted Hughes, The Hawk in the Rain (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 14.

10 Cf. Hughes’s discussion of wild landscape, Ibid., 76.

11 The Hawk in the Rain, op. cit., 35.

12 Ted Hughes, Lupercal (London: Faber and Faber, 1960.

13 Egbert Faas, Ted Hughes, The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1980), Appendix II, 209.

14 Stuart Hirschberg identifies these wolves with Hughes and Plath in his note in Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1981), 220: note 111.

15 Aurelia Plath,(Ed.), Sylvia Plath: Letters Home (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), Letter of 4 July 1956.

16 Swift’s satirical tract, A Modest Proposal… presents a serious, detached and plausible argument which treats people (particularly children) like farm animals, to exploited, marketed and consumed.

17 Robert Graves, The White Goddess (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 212.

18 This point is made by Keith Sagar in The Art of Ted Hughes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 22.

19 Ted Hughes, Wodwo (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 178.

20 Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes, op. cit., 61.

21 This proverb is usually identified as no.27 of the “Proverbs of Hell” in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. William Blake, The Poems and Prophecies (London: Dent, 1970), 45.

22 Ted Hughes, Remains of Elmet (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 94.

23 James G. Fraser, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1974), 854.

24 Ibid., 870

25 Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 241.

26 A.C. Smith, Orghast at Persepolis (London: Eyre and Methuen, 1972) 38.

27 Hughes refers to this phrase from Shakespeare’ Troilus and Cressida (I,iii, 121) in his review of Vitus Droscher’s Mysterious Senses, in New Statesman (27 November, 1964).

28 Ted Hughes, Moon Bells and Other Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1978).

29 Ted Hughes, Under The North Star (London: Faber and Faber, 1981).

30 Ted Hughes, Earth-Moon (The Rainbow Press, May 1976). Published in the USA as part of Moon-Whales and other Moon Poems (Viking, November 1976).

31 The Poetry Society Bulletin (London: Poetry Book Society, Autumn 1989), 142:1-3.

32 A great deal of Hughes’s work has always been for, and with, children.

33 Ted Hughes, Poetry in the Making, op.cit., 17.

34 Hughes tells of his early identification with a fox, and of a dreamed fox/man which changed his Cambridge study pattern. (He discussed this most recently in a Thames TV Production, September, 1986).


© Ann Skea 2000. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com



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