“Do you know if Ted Hughes was familiar with the work of Jung?”

Yes, Ted was very familiar with Jung’s work. He told me that he read it when he was about eighteen, and in a letter to Ekbert Faas (The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. p. 37), he said: “I met Jung early, and though I think I have read all the translated volumes, I’ve avoided knowing them too well, which no doubt frees me to use them all the more”.

James Barrett, who is a Jungian Psychotherapist who has been researching the relationship between Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being and Jung’s Answer to Job, commented to me that there is so much correspondence between Hughes’ and Jung’s work it would be of benefit to the scholars of each man’s work if they could be more aware of each other. He noted that Jung constantly claimed to be a scientist but in effect was working as a radical artist to transform western culture through a recovery of the religious feminine; and Ted worked poetry as a cultural physician, as a ‘shepherd of being’ as Craig Robinson put it (Robinson, Ted Hughes as Shepherd of Being, Macmillan, 1989). Each also had a phenomenal capacity to absorb and creatively use occult studies.

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“You wrote about myth and religion in the work of Ted Hughes, Robert Graves and William Butler Yeats. In what ways did Graves and Yeats influence Ted Hughes?”

Yeats was an enormous influence on Hughes, not just because of his occult interests but because of the simple, direct ‘voice’ he achieved in his late poems and also to some extent because of Yeat’s fostering of a National literature for Ireland – the way he took on the traditional Bardic role for his people. In 1970, Hughes told Ekbert Faas that he came to Yeats’ poetry through “his other interests, folklore, and magic in particular” (The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. p. 202) and that Yeats had “spellbound” him for about six years. In a letter to Anne-Louise Bujon (LTH 16 Dec. 1992) he described how, after he happened on Yeats’ The Wanderings of Oissin in the school library, he was “swallowed alive by Yeats” and “simply tried to learn the whole of Yeats”. He did learn the Complete Poems.

Graves’s White Goddess was given to Ted by his English master when he left school. It had a seminal influence on his thinking about poetry and the sources of inspiration, but Graves’s poetry was less important to Ted then his ideas and philosophies. Ted’s early poem ‘Song’ (THCP 24) is a typical Gravesian White Goddess poem, and as with Graves, the ‘Goddess’ was incarnated in a living woman (see the other notes about ‘Song’ on these pages under Hawk in the Rain).

Apart from ‘Song’, I find no actual echoes of any Graves poem in either Ted’s or Sylvia’s work. They all shared a belief in some sort of divine inspiration: the ‘divine’ being notionally attributed to the Goddess but, for Hughes and Plath, being an energy which comes from some unknown, creative source.

Hughes and Plath, were both very influenced, too, by Jung’s ideas about the need to balance male and female energies, conscious and unconscious, psyche and reason.

Ted shared Graves’s scorn for social conventions based on conformity to dogma – religious, political, social. Both he and Graves were individualists who believed it was necessary to judge things for themselves and to trust on their judgment and their instincts. Graves’s poem ‘The Cabbage White’ encapsulates his own non-conformity and his own faith in instinct, inspiration and the value of flying crooked. And his poems, ‘Lollocks’ and ‘It was all very Tidy’, give you an idea of what he thought about the deadening restrictions of reason and social convention. These are beliefs Ted shared with him, Sylvia too, and some of their earlier poems (those from the time when they first met) show similar scorn for conventional mores.

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“Ted Hughes, it seems, was absolutely convinced about Graves’ theories about poetry. Does that mean he also believed (in the religious sense of the word) in the White Goddess? Also, do the archetypes you have mentioned in connection with Graves compare at all with Jung’s?”

Graves’ The White Goddess and Frazer’s The Golden Bough, have had huge influence on English literature and both were fundamental texts for Hughes and Plath. Both books look at the many historical beliefs and practices which underly the religions of the world. In The White Goddess, in particular, there is also a great deal about the way in which the early Earth/Mother/Moon Goddess was replaced by the male gods – a process which began when Apollo had usurped the Oracle of the Priestess at Delphi. The later Christian God perpetuated this usurpation and Christians adapted all the mythologies and rituals associated with the Goddess to their own ends. The Virgin Mary takes her place but as a lesser figure than God. The Roman Catholic religion, however, retained much of the mystery and imaginative power of the early religions. Graves claims, and Hughes agreed with this argument, that Protestant and Puritan iconoclasm destroyed the imaginative power of religion and in the process lost something of immense value. Hughes essay in his first Selection of Shakespeare’s Verse (WP 103), spells this out. For Hughes, Aristotle’s scientific methods and the subsequent insistence on objective, scientific methods in education which has evolved from this has continued this devaluation of imagination, instinct and intuition.

Both Graves and Hughes identified imagination, dreams, intuition, the unconscious, with the seemingly magical powers of the Earth/Moon Goddess, just as our earliest ancestors did. And both looked beyond any formal religion to the ancient ideas and beliefs on which they grew, although both also believed strongly in spiritual powers. Formal religion, for both poets, was too immersed in dogma – too concerned with power and money, and too distanced from the world of spirit – but neither rejected the idea of some spiritual power as an essential (but too often hidden or suppressed) part of our lives.

For Graves, particular women became the embodiment of the Goddess’s powers and thus became his muse. Whether he could be said to have worshipped the Goddess depends of ones definition of ‘worship’, but he certainly believed that there were female energies which differed from male energies and which were essential to imaginative creativity, and that those energies were channelled through the male poet. I don’t think he thought much of women as poets – that was not their role: their role as Muse was more important, and the male poet needed to woo them and to take care not to offend them. Hughes believed much the same (although certainly not that female poets were inferior to male) but for him the equal balance of male and female energies in us and in our world was necessary.

Ted was brought up in an area where the Wesley brothers had preached and had made many converts. He comments on the results of this fiercely puritanical religion in, for example, the poem ‘Mount Zion’ (THCP 480), where natural energies (a cricket) are seen as dangerously disruptive and must be driven out and destroyed. But Ted had many serious discussion with friends, some of whom were clergymen, about the spirit and the soul. He was given a simple Church-of -England funeral and a Christian Memorial service in Westminster Abbey, both of which he would have approved for ritual and spiritual reasons.

As to the last part of your question: Ted, valued mythological archetypes for their link with the collective subconscious, and his two essays ‘Myth and Education’ (one is reprinted in Winter Pollen (WP 136-153) are important in this respect.

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“Many critics have said that Ted Hughes was influenced by oriental philosophy. I want to know whether he was influenced by the Upanishads specifically. Has he ever acknowledged his indebtedness to the Upanishads? ”

Ted certainly knew the Upanishads well and there are at least three relevant books in his library, which is now held at Emory University, Atlanta, USA:

Penguin Classics copies of The Upanishads and The Rig Veda.
Hindu Scriptures, T.C. Zauener (selection, translation and Introduction) and Macnicol, N. (Dent, 1966).

Ted’s early interest in the works of W.B.Yeats and C.G. Jung (both of whom made a close study of the Upanishads) would certainly have made him aware of the Upanishads and of the emphasis on the atman, the Self–Soul, as the generator of all that is perceived, and on the interconnectedness of all things. Both these beliefs were fundamental to his work but they are beliefs which came to him from many sources, not specifically from the Upanishads. Hermetic NeoPlatonists, Cabbalists and Alchemists, for example, held very similar beliefs. And the Alchemical teaching – ‘As above, so below’ – although given a different philosophical foundation, expresses the interconnectedness of Macrocosm and Microcosm, Heaven and Earth, ‘that which is above and that which is below’. Alchemy, too, is a spiritual art through which the ‘gross matter’ of Man may be refined to reveal the spiritual gold of the pure Self–Soul. All of this Ted knew and used in his poetry, especially in Cave Birds, Remains of Elmet and River (I explore this in detail in my book Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest).

The precepts of Alchemy were the basis for another area of oriental philosophy explored by Ted: that of Sufism. Ted owned many books on Sufism and he used The Conference of the Birds, by the Persian Sufi poet, Farid ud–Din Attar, as the basis for exercises which he devised for Peter Brook’s theatre company after their performance of Orghast at the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts in 1971. At Brook’s request, Ted used Attar’s poem to create his own bird-characters, situations and bird-language. These became the inspiration for impromptu ‘carpet-plays’ which were performed by Brook’s actors in African villages in December/January 1972-3 (Letter to Aurelia Plath, 7 July 1972, THL p.331). Attar’s twelfth century philosophical/religious poem (which is an allegorical fable of the search for wisdom and understanding; and which ends with the revelation of Self–Soul) was also the basis for Ted’s poetic sequence Cave Birds and, together with Cabbala, for Adam and the Sacred Nine (Letter to Roberts and Gifford, 29 October 1978 THL p. 397 and Adam and the Sacred Nine: A Cabbalistic Drama.

In a prospectus for A Primer of Birds, a Limited Edition book of Ted’s bird poems which was published by Leonard Baskin's Gehenna Press in 1981, Ted wrote that his thirty birds differed from those in Attar’s poem in that they had hardly taken the first steps on the path to enlightenment. Each of his birds, he wrote, was struggling against an invisible thread which tied it to the ornithologist’s handbook. Each, with his help, was trying to fly into the inner world of Bird – into the mythopoeic Bird–Self – which is secreted from human gaze in the plumage, gestures, cry and ritual behavaiour which distinguish bird from bird.

Also, in 1986 Ted wrote A Birthday Masque for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Sixtieth Birthday. Part 6, is titled: ‘Candles for the Cake, (Thirty Birds, Looking for God, Find the Crown)’. In Ted's notes for this poem (THCP p.1218) he wrote: “The final section is based, not too closely, on the Islamic Sufi masterwork, Attar’s Conference of the Birds. In Attar’s account thirty birds set out, led by the Hoopoe, to find the Simurgh – the God of the Birds. After many ordeals…each one then finds that the Simurgh is none other than…his or her own true self, which is the Divine Self, awakened and revealed by the difficulties of the journey. In my piece, the birds of the British Isles…find their true selves (their spiritual selves) by finding the spiritual unity of the Islands, which is ‘the ring of the people’, which is also the Crown…which is the Queen”.

Leonard Scigaj, in The Poetry of Ted Hughes: Form and Imagination, (University of Iowa Press, 1986) sees many links in Ted’s works with the teachings of the Upanishads and he elaborates on them in this book. However, Scigaj (pp. 100-101) makes the same point as I have made above: i.e. that Ted “did not subscribe to a simplistic either/or, Western versus Eastern, position; nor is he a devotee of a particular branch of Oriental orthodoxy. Hughes is entirely eclectic, mainly interested in the survival of the spirit and the integrated psyche, and will use, as he told Ekbert Faas, whatever serves”. Scigaj goes on to say (and I agree with this) that “Hughes is particularly interested in conflating the folklore, myth and ritual patterns of primitive and non–Western cultures in order to comprehend the psychological and spiritual common denominators operative, and to discover what survival potential these kernels may hold for contemporary people”.

In an important interview with Amzed Hossein in 1989, Ted himself said of his interest in mythology, folklore and religious literature, that he began reading texts of religious values and about Shamanism when he was a teenager, that he studied the Bardo Thodol at university, and that his interest in Cabbala had begun "a long time ago". "…it is the thing that interests me more than anything else", he said. "It’s what I want to incorporate and it’s the thing I enjoy working with. It’s the thing which gives me the most access to what I want to express". Later in the interview he said: "One of the great problems that poetry works at is to renew life, renew the poet’s own life and, by implication, renew the life of the people, if they can respond to the way he has done it for himself"; and he commented that "it is the condition of most Westerners that they are no longer in touch with their real self, their own selves, and it is everybody’s task in the West, and I suppose in the world actually,…the business of confronting what really matters with your self". He also expressed the view that "what the West needs is a lot of the spirit of the East...there is an easy acceptance throughout Eastern society that existence is based on spiritual things".

Ted and Peter Brook also shared an interest in Indian texts and beliefs. Ted greatly admired Brook’s production of the Mahabarata, and he certainly knew that story well. He was also familiar with the Vedas; with the ancient Southern Indian vacanas; and with Buddhist and Taoist texts. He had in his library a number of books on oriental philosophy, myth and religion, including The Mysticism of Sound and Music by Inayat Khan; Teachings of Queen Kunti by A.K Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada; Adonis: a Study in Oriental Religion by James Frazer; a number of books about Tamil poetry by A.K. Ramanujan; and many books about Tibet, including The life of Milarepa, Tibet's great Yogi by Gtsan–smyon He–ru–ka.

However, the only ways in which I see all this used directly (rather than as an underlying theme) in Ted’s work is in the text of the Bardo Thodol, which he wrote for the Chinese–American composer, Chou Wen–chung (see Weissbort, D. Ted Hughes: Selected Translations, Faber, 2006); in the vacanas he wrote after reading A.K. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva (see my essay ‘Ted Hughes’ Vacanas: The Difficulties of a Bridegroom’ in Ted Hughes: Cambridge to Collected, (Wormald, Roberts and Gifford (Eds.), Palgrave, 2013), and in one poem in Birthday Letters, – ‘Grand Canyon’. In ‘Grand Canyon’, as I wrote in my analysis of this poem, Ted used the word PAUM in a very specific way to capture the energies of AUM and to incorporate them into his poem.

It seems to me that an exploration of the ways in which the teachings of the Upanishads are reflected in Ted’s work would make a huge and very interesting study.

© Ann Skea 2014. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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