Cave Birds

Why is ‘The guide’ in the Scolar Press edition of Cave Birds called ‘A Scarecrow Swift’? How is this related to the alchemical pocess and the symbol of the cross which represents the four elements – air, earth, fire and water and the four qualities – hot, dry, wet and cold? Is it a representation of the purification of the soul?

In the context of the alchemical process, the scarecrow swift is related to the death and rebirth of the Soul – a stage of purification and of complete change and renewal which brings together all the alchemical elements. As in the Christian symbol of the cross on which Christ died, it is a symbol of death and rebirth from which the spirit (or Soul) flies free.

A scarecrow is usually a straw–stuffed figure, looking like a man, which stands in a field to scare off the birds when new seeds have been planted, and the post on which it is hung is cross–shaped so that the arms stand out from its sides. There is no particular reason for the cross–shaped frame on which it is hung, it is just a support for the stuffed figure. Baskin’s image, for Hughes in this poem, however, was clearly that of a sacrificed man.

Why did Hughes see Baskin’s swift as a scarecrow? Partly because of its shape in Baskin’s drawing; partly because it represents the death–rebirth of the Soul in the alchemical process; but also, I think, because he knew (and would often have seen) that gamekeepers and farmers often hang dead birds (mostly crows which they have shot) from the fences around fields to scare other birds (often crows) from their newly planted crops. Like these dead birds, the swift in Hughes’ poem has been sacrificed: as in Hughes’ Moortown poem, ‘The Swift comes the swift’, it has “Cast aside the two–armed, two–legged article – / The pain instrument” (which is a symbol of the human body) so that the new Soul can flourish. So, in ‘The Guide’, “when everything that can fall has fallen / Something rises” . The cross–shape is symbolic but Baskin’s bird also looks rather as if it is has been stuffed with straw, like a scarecrow.

the guide

'The guide' (Cave Birds, Faber, 1978)

Just as Christians see Christ as their guide, and the figure of Christ on the cross as a sign of sacrifice made for the redemption of their Souls, so Baskin’s swift is the alchemical guide to the Cave Birds protagonist who will take him through the final purifying processes by which he may achieve the spiritual gold of wholeness.

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

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