“I have difficulty understanding ‘The Rain Horse’ (Wodwo pp.45-55; also published in Difficulties of a Bridegroom (1995)). What do you suggest?”

Just remember that Ted Hughes believed in the great power of the natural energies. Like William Blake’s tiger, these energies are both dangerous and beautiful. They are also part of us, although we like to try and set ourselves apart from the animals and deny our animal nature. The horse in this poem is driven by those energies, whilst the man, initially, responds to reason and tries to ignore his intuitions and feelings.

The poem begins with the man, “too far” from the ‘tamed’ world which he remembers and with which he was once familiar. Now, in the rain and mud, he is exposed to raw Nature and has the “transfiguring experience” which he had half hoped for: but it is not the pleasant meaningful sensation he expected. He struggles to overcome his fear and his intuitions of danger by will-power and reason, but the encounter with the horse becomes a battle in which he finally resorts to violence.

Long ago, the horse was worshipped as a symbol of the Goddess Epona, who was a Nature Goddess and a shape-changer. There is a suggestion of shape-changing in the story, which in some ways is rather like the story ‘The Harvesting’ (Wodwo 82), where the trapped hare and the sun-struck man briefly become one. In ‘The Rain Horse’, the man’s intuitive empathy with the powerful animal suggests that they share similar energies; and his fear of it is instinctive, rather than rational. Once this horse was wild and untamed, like its primitive ancestors and the man feels this wildness, knows that he has no control over it, and, in the end, he shares it. He loses control, feels his own “savage energy”, and resorts to wild and primitive methods of self-protection.

* * * * * * * *

‘Karma’ (THCP 167), refers to a number of historical events which I cannot make out. In particular, the lines concerning Victoria and the Chou emperors. Can you help? And how about the millions of Zion? And the Irish?”

Queen Victoria refused the blame / For the Emperors of Chou herding their rubbish / Into battle roped together”. Prior to the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) between the British and the Chinese, the Chinese scholar and official, Lin Zexu, pleaded with Queen Victoria to stop exporting opium to China (it had been banned by the Quing Emperor, but the British fostered the trade in order to pay for tea). He warned her that although she had not been officially notified of this trade and might, therefore, plead ignorance of Chinese laws and of the harm opium wreaked amongst the Chinese people, he intended to cut off the trade forever.

The so-called ‘Opium Wars’, which followed, eventually led to the bloody Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) which was largely responsible for the eventual fall of the Quing Dynasty in 1911.

The much earlier Chou Dynasty (1050-256 B.C.) was a time which had huge influence on China. The concept of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, which gave rulers supreme power, was decreed. Strict and harsh laws were established. All the most important philosophies became established, Confucianism, the ideas of Lao Tzu, Taoism, Legalism etc. Because the country was still divided into numerous small city-states, the attempt to consolidated these into larger units caused great bloody wars, especially during the Warring States Period (475–221 B.C.). Feudal lords conscripted the peasants, and criminals were sent into the front line (roped together, as Ted describes), as was probably still the case during the Boxer Rebellion.

“The seven lamented millions of Zion: Psalm 137 is the clue. And The Second Book of Kings in the Bible. The phrase refers to the Fall of Jerusalem and the first exile of the Jews from Israel. The King of Assyria brought people from Babylon and other parts of his kingdom and settled them in Samaria to replace the Israelites. In the Second Book of Kings, chapter 24, Verse 16, there is reference to “all of the men of might, even seven thousand, and craftsmen and smiths a thousand, all that were strong and apt for war, even them the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon”. Ted’s millions may well include all of the Jews killed throughout their history, but the original exile was probably familiar to him from the Psalms and from childhood Bible Studies classes.

The bones of the Irish”, too, must be a reference to the long history of wars, death and persecution which the Irish have suffered.

The whole poem covers that “hundred and fifty million years of hunger” when killing was “grateful as breathing”, because Mankind, like every other creature, had to kill to eat. So, killing meant survival, life, renewed energy and fresh blood in the heart and veins. Killing was a natural, basic instinct, which we have suppressed, but which, when all restraints are stripped away, creeps “up the jugular” to the “cortex” and surfaces in wars and other bloody territorial disputes. Ours, in the end, is literally a “world made of blood” and the whole cyclical process of birth, killing, eating, reproducing and death is amoral, and seemingly meaningless. Certainly, the seamless sand of the sea, eaten bare by the predators which live there, explains nothing. Just as the mirror-like surface of the sea explains nothing, and peering into the mirror of our subconscious will explain nothing to us about our own existence. It’s a nihilistic, realistic, bleak vision. But, like the Wodwo, we keep “following a faint stain to the river’s edge”, keep asking “What am I?”, and perhaps our only hope lies in our curiosity, so “I’ll go on looking”.

Incidentally, the “haddock’s thumb”, may be a reference to the black ‘thumbprint’ on the haddock’s side. Saint Peter is said to have picked it up and left his thumbprint on it. But there is also a common English saying about being ‘under someone’s thumb’, which means that you are in their power. The phrase “Under the haddock’s tongue” in ‘Karma’ reminds me of the Lupercal poem ‘Relic’ (THCP 78), where “time in the sea eats its tail”, and “Nothing touches but, clutching, devours”.

* * * * * * * *

“I do not understand Ted’s idea that all the pieces of Wodwo were designed to stand together as part of a single work. What am I missing?”

I think what Ted meant was not so much that they formed a coherent story but that they were all part of his negotiations with the Goddess (Isis, Nature, Minerva, Hecate, Epona) in all her forms). In a way, they were magical exercises in taking on different forms – shape-shifting, if you like. As the Goddess does.

The last poem in each book was always especially significant for Ted. So ‘Wodwo’ (THCP 183) sums up what the book is about. Wodwo’s question, ‘What am I?’, was Ted’s and it is ours. Like Wodwo, we are part human, part wild creature of nature, able to slip through the liquid interface to our subconscious and reflect on ourselves, we, too, examine our “roots, roots, roots, roots”.

Ted’s early work was very much an exploration of the natural energies as they appear in Nature – in wind, grass, horses etc., and in the fragile strength, regeneration and survival of plants and animals. He wanted to find the place of humans in all this. Generally in Ted’s poetry Nature outlasts the humans, in spite of human arrogance about our superiority and our belief in our ability to control it all.

On a deeper level, Ted told his friend Ben Sonnenberg that Wodwo was an exercise in magic: a “perpetual mental cure” from which he himself had benefited. He said that it was about the death of one life, an invitation to and refusal of another life, and the suffering inflicted when that new life was refused (Letter: 10 Aug. 1967. Ted Hughes Archive, Emory University, Atlanta, USA). This suggests that Ted saw himelf as a shamanic poet who had refused the Goddess’s call and urgently needed to make amends. As he told Ekber Faas in 1970, if the shaman refuses the call “he dies… or someone near him dies.” (The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. p.206).

* * * * * * * *

“I am looking for some help with a deconstructive and feminist analysis of the poem ‘Theology’ (THCP 161). It would be very helpful if you could point me in the right direction. I am also looking for the date of this poem as I have been unable to trace it”.

‘Theology’ appeared in Wodwo, which was published in 1967, but many of the pieces in this book date from the early 1960’s. ‘The Rain Horse’, for example, was broadcast on the BBC in May 1960. ‘Theology’ was published in The London Magazine, March, 1961, pp.19-22, along with several other poems from a group called ‘Dully Gumption’s College Courses’. These other poems were ’semantics’ (THCP 98), ‘Political Science’ (THCP 98), ‘Theology’ (THCP 98 and 161), and ‘Humanities’ (THCP 99 and 140). The whole group are an ironic perversion of the academic approach to knowledge and teaching.

SnakeAs to ‘Theology’ itself, I think you have to read it with Robert Graves’ The White Goddess very much in mind, and in the light of Hughes’ own interest in alchemy (which I deal with in great detail in my book Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest). Ted’s interest in alchemy was apparent in 1958 when he knew Leonard Baskin in Boston, but it began even earlier with his interest in Yeats’ magical preoccupations. The accepted theological interpretation of the Bible is made from a male perspective but the stories, allegedly, come from a much older mythologies where female goddesses were powerful and where the Mother Goddess was sometimes know as ‘The Old Sow who eats her Farrow’. In alchemical terms these goddesses were only part of the whole male/female UNITY which was Nature, symbolized by the Uroborus – the snake eating its tail.

* * * * * * * *

‘Out’ (THCP 165) and ‘Last of the 1st/5th Lancashire Fusiliers’ (THCP 950). Notes.

Introducing ‘Out’ at a poetry reading in February 1996, Hughes said: “I spent my earliest years contemplating my Father’s, sort of, survival I suppose, of the First World War. He didn’t talk of it at all but it was a big presence on our lives in the Thirties, and he’d had the full scale of the war and had all kinds of relics and one thing and another. So this piece is about the attempt to get away from it, to get away from the whole world of that war and, I suppose, the world of my parents, to some extent, to get out and away from under it. So this was written much later.
Oh, its in three parts, ‘The Dream Time’, about him, and the second is nearly about a woman having a baby but not quite, and the third is about Rememberance Day, Poppy Day

The poem ‘Last of the 1st/5th Lancashire Fusiliers’ (THCP 850), is also about Hughes’ father. At the same 1996 poetry reading, Hughes said: “He was in the Gallipoli landings and came back and went through the rest of the war and he must have been one of the last survivors of his particular division of the Lancashire Fusiliers and anyway, this is just a piece about him when he was an old man and I’m watching him through the kitchen window with my brother, we were watching him out in a cobbled yard in winter”.

* * * * * * * *

“Is ‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’ (THCP 151) related to the poem ‘The Jaguar’ (THCP 19) in any ways?”

‘The Jaguar’ was written when Hughes had just graduated from Cambridge University and whilst he was doing a temporary job at The London Zoo. It was first published in 1954. ‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’ was written much later and first published in 1966. Both poems are about the natural energies, and about the caging and restriction of those natural energies. Hughes told Ekber Faas, in an interview (Faas, E. The Unaccommadated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980), that the Jaguar was first of all a descriptipon of a jaguar, secondly it was an invocation of the Goddess, and that symbols of that kind do have real summoning power. He was talking of the Goddess of Nature and of her power in our world and in our lives (and, of course, her power to inspire him). He said "the more conceret and electrically charged and fully operational the symbol, the more powerfully it works on the mind that meets it". Notice that both jaguars are caged and are murderous because of that. If they represent the Goddess of Nature, then in our present world, where nature is not respected, they have every reason to be angry.

Also notice the beauty of the animals – the same "terrible beauty" as that of William Blake’s Tiger in his poem of that name. ‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’ is a very clear description of a jaguar pacing its cage, and of its contained energy, but notice the glowing beauty of the "brazier of spilled embers" and the suggestion of vulnerability in the "belly like a butterfly" (a Tortoiseshell butterfly, perhaps, which has the same colours but is so fragile). Notice, too, the last line: here is the spirit animal, pacing the underworld and pacing our subconscious. ‘The Jaguar’ has a different style and offers a less delicate picture but the people are still drawn to this untamed energy, perhaps because they recognize that same caged energy within themselves.

© Ann Skea 2008. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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