“Do you know when Ted Hughes first became interested in Cabbala?”

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. This is how Ted would first have discovered Cabbala, since Yeats, as an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (an influential occult group in the nineteenth and twentieth century), had studied traditional symbolism, Cabbala and ritual magic. MacGregor Mathers, who was Yeats’ mentor in the Order, wrote much of the Golden Dawn material based on his extensive research into ancient Egyptian, Graeco-Egyptian, and Jewish magical texts. He also incorporating medieval grimoires, Tarot and Eastern mysticism; and he managed to fuse all of this material into a coherent system. Other notable members of the Golden Dawn included Wynn Westcott (the founder), Israel Regardie, A.E. Watts and Aleister Crowley, all of whom wrote texts which Ted read at the University of Cambridge Library, or purchased from his favourite ‘occult’ bookshop, Watkins, just off the Charing Cross Road.

In an interview with Eilat Negev on October 8, 1996, Ted said “I think whatever works is good. These are different approaches to the one Great Mystery and you must use them all… I am interested in ancient rituals… I have studied Kabbala, the Jewish mystic wisdom. In my twenties and thirties I started reading it”. (Daily Telegraph, Monday Nov. 2. 1998)

Lucas Myers writes that “In the sixties, Ted was already studying the Cabbala in a detailed way”. (e-mail LM to AS, 16 Feb 2001)

Ted’s continuing interest in the occult is clear from his work. By 1963 Hughes had written Difficulties of a Bridegroom, a play based on the early Rosicrucian, alchemical text , The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz (1459). He used Alchemy as a framework for Cave Birds (1978), Remains of Elmet (1979) and River (1983), as I have shown in my book Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest.

Adam and the Sacred Nine, published in 1979, was, as I have suggested in my analysis on this website, Ted’s first use of Cabbala as a framework for a sequence of poems.

In his Introduction to Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992) he describes Cabbala in terms which suggest his intimate knowledge of the subject. And in 1973, he wrote to Hana and Yehuda Amichai (LTH 12 Nov. 1973) that he had “Started learning Hebrew, tentatively”, which suggests that he was, like the Renaissance NeoPlatonists, wanting to read some of the Cabbalistic texts in their original language. He went on to use Cabbala extensively as a framework in Birthday Letters, and Howls & Whispers and Capriccio, as I have shown in detail in my papers on this website.

Ted’s interest in the occult had nothing to do with cults, the wearing of special robes and chanting in circles. He was interested, as he said Yeats was, in “the whole of Eastern mystical and religious philosophy, the whole tradition of Hermetic Magic (which is a good part of Jewish Mystical philosophy, not to speak of the mystical philosophy of the Renaissance), 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 belief” (letter to Keith Sagar: LTH 30 August 1979). And he used what he discerned as valuable from all of these sources in his own work.

See also my comments on atheism, religion and Sufism under Crow and Birthday Letters.

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“You comment in your book (Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest) about the power of mythology in Ted Hughes’ work. Can you suggest other works on mysticism, myth and religion which would help when approaching Hughes’ work?”

Ted’s own reading was extensive and very diverse. He collected folk-tales and myths from around the world, and he read scientific books, academic books, poetry, plays and novels, and books of general interest. After his death in 1998, his library was bought by Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.

Here is a sample list of books which provide useful background to Ted Hughes’ work. Many of the books listed are available in libraries or have been published in paperback editions by a variety of publishers.

Robert Graves, The White Goddess.
Rober Graves (Ed), New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology.
Robert Graves, Greek Myths.
James Frazer, The Golden Bough.
Lady Charlotte Guest, The Mabinogion.
Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God.
Francis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.
Francis Yates, The Art of Memory.
Francis Yates, Theatre of the World.
Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy.
Carl Jung, Man and his Symbols.
Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy.
Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism.
Z’ev be Shimon Halevi, Adam and the Kabbalistic Tree.
Z’ev be Shimon Halevi, A Kabbalistic Universe.
Idries Shah, The Sufis.
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism.
John Halifax, Shaman: The Wounded Healer (Thames & Hudson, 1982).
Alexander Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism (Taschen, 1997): This is a magnificent pictorial collection of ancient mystical illustrations with a good commentary.

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“Do you know of any other theories that relate writing and magic/mysticism together in a scholarly and critically accepted fashion?”

There is a long Classical tradition which links so-called magic and mysticism with the power of the word. This power is evident in the Bible story of creation but it applies, also, to the written word. My essay on Ted Hughes and the British Occult Tradition explains this link in detail.

Because of the mystical and magical significance of the Hebrew Alphabet, there are Jewish texts which explain this link. I found this particular on-line source very useful:

Gershom Scholem’s, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, touches on the matter and his book provides valuable background to it.
Francis Yates’, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, discusses the way in which Renaissance NeoPlatonists used Hermetic magic in their poetry.
An academic analysis of the use of Hermetic number magic in poetry can be found in Alastair Fowler’s, Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1970
And Philip Beitchman’s, Alchemy of the Word: Cabala of the Renaissance, State University of New York, 1998, has an interesting discussion of the subject and a very useful bibliography.

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Shamanism and Cabbala: Notes.

An auction of books which belonged to Ted Hughes, advertised by Bonhams, London (lot 373. 21 March 21018), includes the following:

Bardon, F. The Key to the True Quabbalah
Butler, W. Magic and the Qabalah
Knight, G. A Practical Guide of Qabalistic Symbolism
Lethbridge, T. Witches. Investigating and Ancient Religion
Scholem, G. On Kabbalah and its Symbolism
Sturzaker, J. Kabbalistic Aphorisms
Evans, C, The New Waite's Compendium of Natal Astrology (with ephemeris for 1880-1980 and universal table of houses) (2 copies)
The I Ching or Book of Changes

The following books on Cabbala are held in the Ted Hughes’ Library archive at Emory University, which also holds some of his books on astrology, shamanism, and magic. The catalogue is available on line.
Butler, W: Magic and Qabalah
Baccana, W.B.Yeats and occultism: a study of his works in relation to Indian lore, the Cabbala, Swedenborg, Boehm and theosophy.
Fortune, D. The Mystical Qabala
Gikatilla, J. Gates of Light = Sha'are orah
Harper, G.M. Yeats and the Occult
Harper, G.M. Yeats and the Golden Dawn
Saurés, C. Genesis rejuvenated Yates, F. The occult philosophy in the Elizabethan Age

Many people are suspicious about Cabbala and treat it as they do other new-age cults. This is why Ted’s interest in it was labelled ‘dotty’ or (patronizingly) an ‘endearing obsession’. Cabbala, however, is an ancient and highly rational method of looking at every aspect of our world in order to see what is true and valuable and what is just dogma, delusions of grandeur, power-hunger and general distortion. In other words, Cabbala is a tool. It is a method, and a framework within which to work, but is not The Truth. Those who believe in it to the extent that they treat it as some sort of religion are (to paraphrase Aleister Crowley) one sort of fool: those who disbelieve in it are another sort of fool.

Ted certainly did not use Cabbala or Alchemy to circumvent the rational intellect. He had read widely in Renaissance texts which had been translated from early Hebrew, Arabic, Greek and Roman manuscripts, and he used them as a way of balancing intellect with imagination and instinct. This is just what he constantly told us we must do if we are to avoid the wars and the destruction of our world that we seem to be hell-bent on achieving. His rational intellect was extremely powerful, and he would never have subverted it, especially because it is an essential part of the necessary balance a Cabbalist hopes to achieve. The Cabbalistic framework of Birthday Letters, Howls & Whispers , and Capriccio, was a rational way of controlling the emotional energies which could have derailed the whole project if they had got out of hand. Ted was, after all, remembering and vividly re-creating the people and events of his past and re-living them (just as psychologists would have urged him to do) and delving into one’s past is a very emotional, unpredictable process.

The poems in the Birthday Letters, Howls & Whispers , and Capriccio sequences are also structured with painstaking use of some of the more questionable (for rationalists) Cabbalistic techniques but, on-the-whole, an examination of Ted’s use of Cabbala reveals the meaning of his poems very clearly and often it clears up seeming confusion or provides the reason for chronological discrepancies.

There is another aspect to Cabbala, too, which is an important part of Ted’s reason for publishing these sequences. Out of concern for his wife, Carol’s, feelings, he did not publish them straight away, but eventually, he said, he just had to do it. His decision had much to do with the attainment of wholeness and completion which is part of the Cabbalists purpose, but it can also be seen in shamanic terms. It is widely accepted that Ted was a shamanic poet, just like the shamanic poets he described in his interview with Ekbert Faas (The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980). And there is no point in the shaman going through the difficult and dangerous journeying to the underworld for healing energies, if he does nothing with them on his return. To be effective these energies must be given to the society which needs them. Certainly, Ted’s purpose was to heal himself, but he also wanted to heal our society (as many scholars acknowledge and as many of his letters show). His poetry, his children’s books, his plays, his teaching, all these were part of his attempt to bring healing imaginative energies to others: they were not just for himself. So, Birthday Letters and the other Cabbalistic sequences had to be published.

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Sufism: Notes

There are many copies of books on Sufism by Idris Shah in Ted Hughes Library Archive (now held by Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia), including The Sufis, which has an introduction by Robert Graves. Clearly, Hughes was very interested in Sufism and in Shah’s work, and there is much in common between his own beliefs and practices and those of the Sufis. In particular, this applies to the belief in a common spiritual Truth underlying all religions, the concept of ‘remembering’, the practice of teaching through poetry and fable, and an emphasis on the value of intuition and feeling as opposed to a total reliance on reason.

Interestingly, in his introduction to Shah’s book, Robert Graves writes of the Sufi practice of interpreting the supernatural traditions of the Koran, including the description of Paradise, as metaphysical and he defines the word ‘houris’ as ‘creatures of light’. Whether this is one possible translation of the Arabic word or just an interpretation of it by Graves I do not know, but it does suggest that there may be specific mystical connotations to Ted’s own use of ‘creatures of light’ in his poem ‘That Morning’ (THCP 663). Graves also refers to the Sufic writings of Alchemist and mystic, Raymond Lully (1232?-1315), whose work Ted certainly knew; and to “the Jewish Sufic sage Solomon ben Gabriol (1021-1058)”. Solomon ben Gabriol was a poet whose work is still part of the Jewish prayer services.

Ted was an admired of Solomon ben Gabriol’s poetry and he spoke and wrote to friends about it, encouraging them to read it. Daniel Weissbort remembers Ted’s comment that Gabriol’s poetry would “Take the top of your head off!”; he also believes that Ted (with Assia Wevill’s help) translated some of Gabriol’s poems from the original Hebrew, and that there may be a few pages of these translations in the Ted Hughes Archive at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Another Sufi poet whose work was important to Ted was Farid ud Din Attar (‘The Perfumer’)(1142?-1220?) whose book, The Conference of the Birds, provided the mystical theme of the quest for enlightenment which underlies Ted’s poems in Cave Birds.

For comments on Idris Shah’s work in relation to Ted’s use of the Cabbalistic Tree in Birthday Letters, Howls & Whispers and Capriccio, see my notes on this page under Birthday Letters

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

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