In my notes on the British Library’s Birthday Letters archive, I discuss, amongst other things, several works which may have prompted Hughes to choose ‘The Sorrows of the Deer’ as his earliest title for Birthday Letters. Namely, Robert Graves’s ‘the Roebuck in the Thicket’ in The White Goddess; Ferenc Juhàsz’s poem ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries out at the Gate of Secrets’; and St Patrick’s Hymn, ‘The Deer’s Cry’ .
Now, a paper by Marianne Kumari, whilst having nothing to do with Hughes’ work, has alerted me to two further, very strong possible influences on Hughes’ choice of title (Kumari, ‘Hamlet’s “stricken deer”: a pointed reference to Gli Eroici Furori and the execution of Giordano Bruno’, Academia.com, 2017).
Kumari discusses the symbol of the “stricken deer” in several of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably in Hamlet, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. She links these references to the life and work of Renaissance philosopher, mathematician, poet and Platonist, Giordano Bruno, in whose Gli Eroici Furori the myth of Actaeon and Diana becomes a metaphor for the passionate search by the heroic lover for Divine Eternal Truth.
Most notable for reference to a stricken deer are the following:
Hamlet (III.ii. 272–4):
Hamlet’s bitterly ironic remark to Horatio when Claudius flees after watching a performance of Hamlet’s play, The Mouse Trap:
Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
So runs the world away—
As You Like It (II.i.34-41):
The First Lord describes to the Duke a wounded stag and Jaques’s identification with the creature. Hughes, in his own lengthy discussion of Jaques (SGCB 101–8), writes of Jaques as “something of a self–portrait [of Shakespeare] (not so much a self–portrait as a way of Shakespeare having self–representation in the ritual [ie the active ritual drama of the play cf. SGCB 107]”:
First Lord The melancholy Jaques grieves at that:
To–day my Lord of Amiens and myself
Did steal behind him as he lay along
Under an oak whose antique root peeps out
Upon the brook that brawls along this wood:
To the which place a poor sequester’d stag
That from the hunter’s aim had ta’en a hurt
Did come to languish; and indeed my lord
The wretched animal heav’d forth such groans
That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat
Almost to bursting; and the big round tears
Cours’d one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase;
Duke: But what said Jaques?
Did he not moralize this spectacle?
First Lord: O, yes, into a thousand similes.
Duke: And did you leave him in this contemplation?
First Lord: We did, my lord, weeping and commenting
Upon the sobbing deer.
And, in particular, from Gli Eroici Furori, Giordano Bruno’s description of Actaeon’s transformation and his comments on its meaning:
To the woods, the mastiffs and the greyhounds young Actaeon leads,
When destiny directs him into the doubtful and neglected way,
Upon the track of savage beasts in forests wild.
And here, between the waters, he sees a bust and face more beautiful than e’er was seen
By mortal or divine, of scarlet, alabaster, and fine gold;
He sees, and the great hunter straight becomes that which he hunts.
The stag, that towards still thicker shades now goes with lighter steps,
His own great dogs swiftly devour.
“Actaeon” writes Bruno, “signifies the intellect, intent on the pursuit of divine wisdom and the comprehension of divine beauty”.… “ So Actaeon with those thoughts – those dogs – which hunted outside themselves for goodness, wisdom, and beauty, thus came into the presence of the same, and ravished out of himself by so much splendour, he became the prey, saw himself converted into that for which he was seeking, and perceived, that of his dogs or thoughts, he himself came to be the longed–for prey” (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19817/19817-h/19817-h.htm#Thirdp.94) .
Hughes was very familiar with all of these works. And Birthday Letters, as I have argued elsewhere, was his own Eroici Furori – a passionate and heroic expression of his search for truth and of his dedication to the Goddess. In that search, as some of the vacanas in which he addresses his Lady of the Hill show, he must often have felt like Actaeon pursued by his/her hounds. See, for example, some of the Epilogue poems in Gaudete ,THCP 357-375.