Creatures of Light

This paper was presented at Emory University, Atlanta, USA. Oct. 2005.

© Ann Skea

photostomias etching

Ted Hughes’s belief in the role of the poet as shamanic healer, one who is summoned to the spirit world in order “to get something badly needed, a cure, an answer, some sort of divine intervention in the community’s affairs1, has been widely discussed. What has not been examined is the way in which he practiced this healing role in his own poetry. But when I say that this paper is about magic, I can guarantee that some readers will think that I am (as the Australians would say) “Away with the fairies”; or that I am about to utter heresies for which I would, in earlier times, have been burned at the stake. A few might read on in the hope of learning that Ted Hughes indulged in Hell-fire orgies. Others will conclude that I am about to present a lot of rubbish with no serious academic relevance.

Yet poets have always been wielders of magic. The poet “commeth unto you”, as Sir Philip Sidney said in his Defence of Poesie in 1583, “with words sent in delightful proportion… and with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner2.

This was the magic wielded by the Icelandic scop, whose sagas held his piratical Viking brothers enthralled. It was by this magical power that he maintained his honoured position as priest, dream-sayer and dynastic chronicler of his people.

The Celtic master-poets, too, were revered for the magical power of their verses. They, too, were regarded as priests and prophets, and they used their poetry to protect the King and his people from harm. They could, after all, throw a ‘madman’s wisp’ in the face of any assailant and drive him insane. And their deadly satires were once so feared that they were forbidden to utter them3.

The poet, as Sidney said, was always the creator of “Charmes” or musical incantations having sacred or magical power. And the “exquisite observing of number and measure in words” was as “proper” to him as his “high flying liberty of conceit”. For these skills, the Greeks first called him ‘Poet’ (from ‘Poiein’, “which is to make”); and the Romans called him ‘Vates’, meaning “Divine, Fore-seer, or Prophet4.

Magic is everywhere in our world: whether we describe it in poetic terms as creative inspiration; or in religious terms as God-given miracles; or seek, as scientists do, to pin it down in complex mathematical formulae, strange particles, dark matter and ‘phantom’ energies5.

So when did a belief in magic become unacceptable? When, even for poets, did it become, as Auden put it “an embarrassment6?

Sir Philip Sidney provided part of the answer. His Defence of Poesie was, perhaps, a response to Puritan accusations that poetry and poetic imagination fostered lewdness and social abuse, and that poets should be classed alongside “Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters and such like Caterpillars of a Commonwealth7. It was certainly, also, a response to Plato’s challenge in The Republic that lovers of poetry should “publish a prose defence on her behalf, showing that she is not only pleasant but also useful for political constitutions and for human life”. Otherwise, said Plato, “we should expel poetry from the city8, because she is a dangerous and seductive opponent of reason and law, and a corrupter of public morality.

Plato, however, was a poet. And although he apparently condemned poetry as irrational, untruthful and useless, and accused poets of arousing our emotions and sympathies in order to sway our judgement, he was quite prepared to use the poetic magic of drama and story-telling himself to hold our attention and to persuade us to accept his point of view. In fact, he practiced this art so successfully that his arguments have had long-lasting effect.

His first theatrical device in The Republic was, as Ted Hughes wrote in 1976, to treat “his interlocutors as children and by small, simple, logical, stealthy questions [to] gradually draw out of them some part of the Platonic system of ideas – a system which has in one way or another dominated the mental life of the Western world ever since9. And, as Hughes noted, Plato really had no doubt about the importance of our imagination, for he advocated the most imaginative Greek myths and tales as the most appropriate material for the education of children.

Nevertheless, Plato’s presentation of Socrates’ arguments for determining truth and law by rational means, and his demonstration of the Socratic method of step-by-step, logical investigation, was so powerful that, as Hughes said, it “evolved, finally into the scientific method itself”. And because we are taught this objective, rational method of assessing truth so thoroughly from childhood onwards, we become like Hughes’ “Egg-head10: adept at constructing “lucid sophistries” to support our ego-centric view of the world and to cut us off from any possible hint of our own smallness and helplessness in the “hurtling endlessness” of Nature.

From the time we first became self-conscious and began puzzling over the sort of questions Wodwo11 asked – “What am I?”, “What am I doing here?”, Where “do I fit” in this world? – we began to invent stories as explanations and to construct rational arguments to support these explanations. Eventually, the stories became dogma, and the dogma spawned laws and rules by which we began to live our lives, until we forgot that we had invented the stories in the first place and started to accept them as the essential truth about our world. Myth, religion, science – all are, or have been, such stories.

Eventually, we lose touch with our natural, imaginative, subjective selves, and “[t]he exclusiveness of our objective eye, the very strength and brilliance of our objective intelligence, suddenly turns into stupidity – of the most suicidal kind12. For when we cut ourselves off from that natural, subjective, subconscious part of ourselves we are in danger, Hughes believed, of becoming “an evolutionary dead-end13.

Time and again in his poems and prose, Hughes returned to this wound we have given ourselves by overvaluing the rational, objective side of human nature. For him, what Plato and Socrates began, the Puritan form of Christianity, with its fear of idolatry, confirmed. So, by the sixteenth Century, the Puritan “conception of Truth” had become “radically purged…of any taint of subjectivity”, and “the pictographic imagery of [the old and valued] memory systems – and the divine faculty of the Occult Neoplatonist, imagination itself – became anathema… superstition… and was pushed so deep into Hell (with the witches) that sensible men soon feared to be associated with it14.

No wonder Hughes found it necessary, in the “Alchemical Cave Drama” of Cave Birds, to arraign Socrates for his seminal part in this crime, to call him forth for judgment, and to subject him to a death and rebirth which would remake him, whole, “as child and spouse of the Goddess15. And, through our imaginative participation in this drama, Hughes sought to heal and remake us, too.

Such healing was, for Hughes, the true purpose of poetry. And Cave Birds was just one of his many attempts to use both poetry and magic for this purpose. Magic, he defined as: “one way of making things happen the way you want them to happen”. But he came to understand it as more than the sort of direct, divine inspiration which Robert Graves said you will recognize in a poem if it makes your hair stand on end16. Rather, Hughes thought of magic as “a system of practical techniques invented spontaneously by Mankind from the earliest ages right down to our own”. Like poetry, it requires a lifetime of learning, self-discipline and practice in order to develop the techniques, the necessary will power and (most importantly) the visual imagination17. It requires, also, an underlying faith in the existence of some universal divine energy in Nature: a belief that we, like all other living things, and however deeply we are immersed in our own darkness, are fundamentally creatures of light.

Yeats was Hughes’ first guide to magic. In 1970, Hughes told Ekbert Faas that Yeats’s interest in folk-lore and magic had, at first, attracted his attention even more than his poetry18. And in 1998, speaking about the shamanic nature of the poetic self, he noted that Yeats “never really abandoned his resolution to make poetry his first concern, the work of magic his second”. “For him”, he went on (and he might have been describing the “principles” that he had told Faas Yeats had very early on “stamped19 into him), “the methodical work of magic had the kind of importance that accurate nuclear physics had for the makers of the Bomb: it was the path, as he saw it, towards the effective, practical fulfilment of his purpose20.

How we react to this, depends very much on our view of magic. But for Hughes, as for Yeats, the study of magic entailed “the whole historical exploration into spirit life at every level of consciousness, the whole deposit of earlier and other religion, myth, vision, traditional wisdom and story in folk belief21. Are we, like Auden, to dismiss such serious and practical exploration of our own spiritual heritage as “embarrassing nonsense”? Or should we, as Hughes did, examine it for ourselves and (as Cabbala teaches) use every means at our disposal not only to learn to discriminate between truth and what only appears to be true but also to find, reveal and foster whatever light we can find in our world in order to balance the darkness which also undoubtedly exists here?

Hughes, like Yeats, experimented with all the magician’s tools. He studied, as he told Faas, “the whole body of magical literature which anybody can look up22. But he began, in the traditional time-honoured method of poets like Homer, Milton, the Elizabethan Poets of Sidney’s circle and, of course, Robert Graves, by invoking the Muse:

O lady”, he wrote in ‘Song’23,“ You stood and your shadow was my place.”//“O lady, when the wind kissed you/ You made him music for you were a shaped shell./ I follow the waters and the wind still”.

And, in Crow: “O littleblood… / Sit on my finger, sing in my ear24.

The poems in Lupercal, he told Faas, were “invocations of the Goddess25; and his Hawk and Pike he described as “angels”, “composed of the glowing substances of the law” and “a way of focussing my natural world – these familiars of my boyhood – in a ‘divine’ dimension26.

At this time, too, he and Sylvia Plath clearly experimented with common folk-magic. But the summoning of spirits with the Ouija board left them, Hughes remembered later, with “… a befouled/ Feeling of jeopardy, a sense that days/ Would be needed now to cleanse us/ Of the pollution.27, and he came to reject such rough, uninformed dabbling as a debased and dangerous form of magic.

Hughes read the Bardo Thodol whilst he was at Cambridge. His reading, and a chance encounter at Yaddo Artists’ Colony in 1959, led him to explore the Buddhist Bardo in poems, plays like The Wound, stories and a libretto. At the same time, Alchemical texts, like Andreas’s fifteenth century work, The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, began to preoccupy him. But, turning back to the earliest Greek poets, he experimented with Orphic ritual in Gaudete before immersing himself in the Alchemy of Cave Birds.

Gaudete, when it was eventually published in 1977, included an Epilogue which was very different to the body of the play and which, together with the poems in Orts a year later, showed the influenced of the Indian religious lyrics, called vacanas. In vacanas, the poet, in a sort of concentrated meditation, attempts to communicate directly with the divine. Some of Hughes’ poems at this time encapsulated, in the simple, direct speech of vacanas, the way in which he sought the Truth in Nature; and this plain, pared-down, direct style of communication had lasting effect on his work.

The Sanitary InspectorLooking always for light in our world’s darkness, he also began deliberately to choose the most unlovely of creatures in which to find a terrible beauty. The fly, in ‘Fly Inspects’28, does all the things we regard as disgusting about flies. It wades “in the drains / Under the cow’s tails, in the pig’s eye corners” to “hoover up the rot, the stink and the goo”. But that’s its “job”. That is the fly’s function in the natural order of the world. And “Once he’s cleaned up, he’s a gem/ A freshly barbered Sultan, royally armoured/ In dusky rainbow metals./ A knight on a dark horse”.

The most primitive, most ancient, ugliest of fishes, the Photostomias29 (which have the Latin name Ultimostomias mirabilis, because of the miraculous bioluminescent light they bear), also embody a delicate natural balance which allows them to survive in the darkest and most inhospitable of places. These creatures, which are all predator, all jaws, nothing but “an illumination of fangs”, are quite literally creatures of light. Their magical glow in the darkest depths of the Gulf reminded Hughes of “the tiger/ In his robe of flames”. They, too, have a place and a function in the world of Nature; and they demonstrate a natural balance of darkness and light which seemed to Hughes to represent a promise, “a decalogue/ a rainbow”, a sign that if we can regain own balance, and learn to live in harmony with Nature, we too can survive.

Considering his own place in Nature at this time, however, he was less optimistic: “The swallow – rebuilding –/ Collects the lot/ From the sow’s wallow// But what I did only shifted the dust about/ And what crossed my mind/ Crossed into outer space.30.

The more Hughes came to see his role as that of a shamanic poet, however, the more he turned to serious spiritual disciplines such as Alchemy and Cabbala to achieve his magical poetic purpose. The language of both is the natural language of poets – symbol and metaphor. And in both, imagination, memory, and the ability to direct the will constantly and consistently towards the ultimate goal of spiritual wholeness is regarded as essential.

Cabbala, in particular, appealed to Hughes because 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 itself31.

Cabbala, like Alchemy, however, leads us along a formidably difficult spiritual path. Not all of us have the courage and determination to follow it, as Hughes did: nor can everyone be a poet, shaman or magus, as he was. Nevertheless, each one of us can learn to use the magic of our will-power, our imagination and our memory to counteract the darkness within and around us.

We may begin, as Hughes suggested in his Introduction to By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember, by re-learning the old imaginative memory systems. But remembering, if we do it properly, is an awesome and terrifying experience, because it is, precisely, re-membering – retrieving and putting back together the fragmented and scattered parts of a body in order to make it whole again.

This is what Isis did when she re-membered Osiris. And, as a goddess, she had the divine power to bring him back to life. We have only our imagination, but for Cabbalists (as for Plato) this is what links us with the divine, and if we have learned to use our visual imagination well, we can use it to re-create, re-vivify and re-animate the remembered body of our past. Psychologists recommend a similar practice for dealing with mental trauma, but for Cabbalists the most important reason for such remembering is to search, even in the darkest places, for the fragments of light which lie buried there. We need every glimmer of light in order to see more clearly, to understand our selves and our world more fully, and to regain that balance in Nature which is essential for our future.

This is what Hughes did when he brought together everything he knew about poetry and magic in Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers and Capriccio. In each of these sequences, he used every technique he knew, and every aid to his visual imagination, to remember the past; remember those who had shared it with him, and to bring everything and everyone vividly to life again in his poems. He unearthed every fragment of memory from even the darkest, most deeply buried, most emotionally harrowing of places, and retrieved every remaining spark of light. He confronted the demons which haunted that darkness and acknowledged them, and understood their presence more fully. And he recreated the past in his poems in such a way that it lives now, for us in his poems, more whole and more balanced in every way.

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. This is shamanic poetic magic at its most powerful. But Hughes certainly knew that if you believe in the power of magic, as he did, and acknowledge that belief in public, “You will be laughed at for your superstitions”.

Yet magic, or superstition, (whichever you choose to call it) has been an essential part of our imagination and an integral part of the stories we have created about our world ever since God created Adam. It is that part of our ancestral memory which links us most closely with the inexplicable wonders of Creation and with the whole “machinery of heaven32”. And “Re-membering it”, as Hughes well knew by the end of his journey through the past in Birthday Letters,

will make your palms sweat
The skin lift blistering, both your life-lines bleed


1. Hughes’s description, from an interview with Ekbert Faas. Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. p. 206.

2. Watson (Ed.) Sir Philip Sidney, Defence of Poesie, Dent Everyman, London, 1997. p.101.

3. Graves, R. The White Goddess, Faber & Faber, London, 1961. p.22.

4. Sidney, Op.cit. p. 86-7.

5. There has recently been much discussion in the New Scientist magazine of a newly hypothesized entity called ‘phantom energy’. Such energies, it is suggested, will explain certain unexpected anomalies in the theory of Black Holes. cf. New Scientist, 24 Sept. 2005.

6. Auden used this phrase in an article about Yeats which was published in the Kenyon Review. Hughes’s reference to this in a letter to Keith Sagar (30 Aug. 1979) is quoted in Sagar’s, The Laughter of Foxes, Liverpool UP, 2000. p.4.

7. This is part of the title of a pamphlet by Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, to which Sidney is thought to have responded. Sidney, Op.cit, ‘Introduction’ by Watson. p. xliv.

8. Plato, Republic, edition by H. Stephens, 1578, p. 607.

9. Hughes, ‘Myth and Education’, Winter Pollen (WP), Faber, London, 1994. p. 136.

10. ‘Egg-Head’. Hughes, Collected Poems (CP), Faber, London, 2003. p. 33.

11. ‘Wodwo’, CP 183.

12. ‘Myth and Education’, WP 146.

13. Hughes, ‘The Environmental Revolution’, WP 129.

14. ‘Shakespeare and Occult Neoplatonism’, WP 306.

15. Hughes explained this underlying purpose of Cave Birds in a detailed letter to Ann Skea in November 1984. The letter is published in part in Skea, Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest, University of New England Press, Armidale, 1994. pp. 41-2.

16. What Graves actually said in The White Goddess was that “the hair stands on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine” (op. cit. p. 24); which is more generaly applicable than Houseman’s test: “does the hair on one’s chin bristle if one repeats it silently whilst shaving?” (Graves, Op.cit. p. 21).

17. In 1968, Hughes sent Lucas Myers a copy of magician Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics: a course of instruction of magical theory and practice ( Ruggeberg, Wuppertal, Germany, 1962). He inscribed it “To Lucas from the Crow. 13th Feb. 1968”: (e-mail, L.Myers to A.Skea, 16 Feb. 2001). He also sent a copy to Emma Tennant in about 1976 (Walsh, J. The Independent, Saturday 17 April 1999), which suggests the lasting importance the exercises in this book had for him.

18. Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. p.202.

19. Ibid. p. 202.

20. ‘The Poetic Self’, WP 270.

21. Sagar, Op.cit. p.4.

22. Faas, Op.cit. p.210.

23. CP 24.

24. CP 258.

25. Faas, Op.cit. p.199.

26. ‘Poetry and Violence’, WP 261-2.

27. ‘Ouija’ CP 1076.

28. ‘Fly Inspects’, CP 632-3.

29. ‘Photostomias’, CP 549-550. Photostomias (‘deepsea loosejaws') are small, bioluminescent fish which belong to the Stomiidae family of Marine Vertebrates.

30. “I saw the swallow”, CP 365

31. ‘Shakespeare and occult Neoplatonism’, WP 295-6.

32. ‘October Salmon’ CP 677-9. In ‘Karlsbad Caverns’ (CP 1106-9), too, where the bats are part of “the sun’s machinery” and “the unfailing logic of the earth”.

33. ‘Superstitions’, CP 1184. As usual, Hughes chose the images he used here with utmost care. The palms of the hands are, traditionally, the part of the human body through which divine spiritual and healing energies are channelled. And in the traditions of palmistry, the life-line on our left hand shows the potential we inherit from our parents and our earliest ancestors, whilst that on our right hand shows our personal and unique life-history. And the process of remembering did cause periodic outbreaks of eczema on Hughes’s hands which did, at times, bleed.

Text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2006. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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