“I am a French student and I have to translate the poem ‘Thrushes’(THCP 82) . What is the meaning of ‘attent’ in “attent sleek thrushes”, and ‘hosanna’ in “Orgy and hosanna”?”.

‘Attent’ is an adjective which means ‘paying attention’, ‘alert’: it describes the intense, watchful, listening attitude of the thrushes as they look for food on a lawn. ‘Hosanna!’ is an ecstatic cry of praise or adoration. In this poem, Ted uses it as a verb (meaning ‘to cry hosanna’) in order to describe the uncontrolled and uncontrollable behaviour of the “distracting devils” which plague Mankind, even when we are striving to be most attentive and devout.

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“In your essay ‘Regeneration in Remains of Elmet’ you say that Lupercal begins and ends with poems which symbolically and ritually evoke the creative energies. Could you make this statement clearer? How does the double meaning of the Lupercalia as both fertility and purification rite relate to this statement?”

It seems to me that in the first poem, ‘Things Present’ (THCP 59), Hughes is stating something about what he intends and hopes to achieve in Lupercal, which is to actualize the dreams of a tramp (Hughes’ persona), a person who is closer to nature than his progenitors became after their step-by-step struggle for stout shoes and a roof-tree. I read the first two lines of the poem as a ritual prayer with which Hughes begins his attempt to “embody a now, erect a here”. The poem itself embodies the poet, the tramp and their mutual dream.

Similarly, the final poem embodies the Ancient Roman Lupercalia rituals which were named after the fertility god, Lupercus, and were celebrated every February 15th. The purpose of these rituals was to restore fertility to barren women, but Hughes’s poem ends with his own prayer for purification, and fertile inspiration: “Maker of the world / Hurrying the lit ghost of man / Age to age while the body hold / Touch this frozen one”.

The poems of the book itself reflect the dichotomy of the human states contained in the first poem: i.e. mankind as an integral part of the universal energies and mankind alienated from them by the moral dictates of religious dogma plus the increased emphasis on the rational as the only acceptable form of knowledge. This latter view is expressed in Hughes’ essay on ‘Myth and Education’ (WP 136-153), and in poems like ‘Egg Head’ (THCP 33)). Many of the poems about mankind end with a celebration of natural energy (which is what the Festival of Lupercalia was all about) or a prayer for its survival. Mixed among these poems are others embodying animals and plants. Because of his interest in the occult and in Renaissance magic, Hughes may well have believed that these had symbolic power to evoke the natural energies, and the more realistic the poetic picture (i.e. the more strongly the symbolic creature or plant is evoked in the poem) the greater this power.

Ted always believed that we are part of nature and, so, embody natural creative and destructive energies, but we use our destructive energies in un-natural ways. Look, for example, at the way in which Hughes contrasts death and devouring in nature, with death due to deliberate human intervention: look at ‘Tiger-psalm’ (THCP 577), which is a poem from the Crow sequence, where “The tiger does not kill… it blesses with a fang”.

In summary, I see the whole book as a Lupercalian ritual through which Ted tries to purify the human world of grossness and sterility, and to restore fertile imaginative, creative energies.  The book is, after all, called Lupercal.

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‘The Perfect Forms’ (THCP 82). “Concerning your interpretation of this poem in your book (Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest), what does the comparison between Buddha and Priapus mean in your opinion? What is the meaning of Socrates being born under Pisces?”.

This is a difficult poem and my discussion of it here is tentative.

The Perfect Forms are Platonic Ideas. Plato, who was a pupil of Socrates, believed that we can never know perfection in our world, because our world is merely a reflection or shadow of a perfect, abstract world of Ideas. So, by using ‘The Perfect Forms’ as a title for this poem, Ted suggests either that he is describing such perfect forms or that he is being ironic.

Socrates, who is described as being “born under Pisces”, demonstrates none of the usual character traits associated with Pisceans, as a quick glance at any popular book of astrology will confirm. Pisceans are generally described as malleable, submissive, other-worldly, more likely to adapt their behaviour to that of others than to be a leader. Socrates, as we know him from Plato’s writings, was none of these things, and his exact date of birth is, in any case, unknown. So, the suggestion that this poem is ironic is reinforced in the opening line.

Other sorts of perfection in this poem are similarly ironic. Socrates strove to discover perfect Truth by means of careful, objective, rational and logical argument. Buddha sought perfect Truth by rejecting worldly things and seeking spiritual enlightenment – one-ness with the Divine Source – through asceticism and meditation. Both Socrates and Buddha, as teachers, taught the suppression and denial of parts of human nature (instinct, intuition and sexuality, for example) which, in Hughes’ view (and in that of psychologists like Freud and Jung), is divisive and destructive. In just this way, for example, teaching and religion become dogmatic and cut us off from our natural energies (see ‘Myth and Education’ (WP 136-153) and ‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’ (WP 103-121)).

Priapus, on the other hand, (he is separated in the poem from Socrates and Buddha by the colon in line three) represents perfect (non-rational) animality. Priapus, who was the son of Pan, and a fertility god (like Lupercus), was wholly governed by animal instinct: he had the “tail-swinging” (the phallic imagery suggested by this phrase is very suitable) “stupidity of the donkey”. Yet ironically, as the poem reminds us, Christ chose a donkey to carry him on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Socrates, Buddha, Priapus: all three are different faces of that “monstrous-headed difficult child” which is Man. Not one of them displays Man’s whole nature, in which body, mind and spirit are all present. There is no perfection here. The creator, the “he” (no capital letter is used on ‘he’, so no Biblical God is specified) who fostered us through our evolution from “fish, reptile and tree-leaper” to homo sapiens, has managed to produce only “This six-day abortion of the Absolute” – imperfect, proud, deluded, stupid, human beings. We are his children: and “Such”, ironically, “is the kingdom of heaven” in our world. This phrase, in the Bible (Matthew 19:14: But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for such is the kingdom of heaven) refers unironically to the simple innocence and wholeness of children. This is what we lose if we blindly follow the teachings of such men as Socrates and Buddha, or if we allow only our animal nature to govern all our actions, as did Priapus.

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‘Sunstroke’ (THCP 96). What is the meaning of ‘Sunstroke’ with its hallucinatory quality?’

Read Ted’s story, ‘The Harvesting’, in Wodwo (Faber, 1967) (republished in Difficulties of a Bridegroom (Faber, 1995). There is the same element of shape-shifting in the story and in the poem, both of which were based on actual harvesting scenes which Ted had observed. Both show the man sunstruck and delirious to the extent that his sensibilities become so entangled with those of an animal that he feels he is that animal. Shape-shifting, magic and shamanism are all part of the poetic process – all part of what Ted was doing when he wrote poems; and these were all part of the aim of the Lupercalia festival, which was designed to bring fecund animal energies back to the people who participated in it. The poem is, perhaps, a small shamanic, Lupercalian ritual.

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‘Crag Jack’s Apostasy’ (THCP 84). ‘Familiar’(THCP 691) ‘Who was Crag Jack?’

Crag(g) Jack was Ted Hughes’ grandfather, John Hughes (1856-1898). He was Irish and Catholic. Olwyn Hughes (Ted’s sister) has written that he was “Our Irish grandfather who died young, was a great singer and popular”. Also ,in a letter to me she wrote: “All we know of him is that he was a merry soul, a great drinker and singer and he died when his children were little of Tuberculosis. When on his death bed the local Church of England minister came by and spoke of religion, and the Catholic priest made a visit and left a bottle of whisky, that Jack drank and died”. He lived in Crag Vale, Yorkshire, hence his name.

See, also, Ted’s letter to Keith Sagar, (LTH, 18 July 1988).

‘Crag’ may also refer to the man’s cragginess (as of towering rocky outcrops), toughness and resilience. Ted liked that natural, untamed strength of spirit, which he saw as embodying something precious. You can see this in his poems about tramps; and in his attitude to the “wino”, the drink-sodden “goblin aboriginal” in ‘Here is the Cathedral’ (THCP 542 ) where he lambastes the pious, uncharitable members of the Church.

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‘Nicholas Ferrer’ (THCP 69-70.) "Who was Nicholas Ferrer? What is the meaning of ‘In the Atlantic holes tire-’?’.

“To what does ‘some vigorous souls// That had Englished for Elizabeth’ refer and what does ‘Englished’ mean?

“What does ‘crabbed’ mean in “the tree that crabbed// In Cromwell’s belly as it bloomed in Rome’ ? What does Rome have to do with the context and what is the meaning of ‘as’ here?’

If you put a comma between ‘holes’ and ‘tire’ you will see that tire is a verb. My interpretation is that the Atlantic holes are vast landless spaces, empty places where there is nothing for the birds (symbols of natural energy for Ted) to rest on. Others may interpret this differently.

As the note at the back of Ted Hughes: Collected Poems says, Nicholas Ferrer [the surname is spelt differently in different places] (1592-1637) was a visionary who started a religious community at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, England. The Community was a Protestant community but Nicholas Ferrer had many Catholic friends (dangerous at that time). However, all the worship in the Community was based on the English Prayer Book and on the Bible.

One of the things Nicholas Ferrer did was to produce a book called Gidding Gospel Harmony, a single account compiled, in English, from the four Gospels of the Bible and illustrated with pictures gathered by Nicholas during his continental travels. It seems that this was a sort of concordance, placing related parts of the four Gospels side-by-side. King Charles I visited the community in 1642, borrowed the book, kept it for ages, then said he would only give it back if they made him his own copy. Later he asked them to make a similar Book of Kings and Chronicles (this can only have been done with different translations of the Book of Kings, since there is only one book, unlike the four Gospels).

Nicholas Ferrer’s son, also called Nicholas, produced “a gospel translated into eight languages and a New Testament translated into twenty-four” and, later, a translation of John’s Gospel into twenty-one languages. He died young. His father “conceived of a detailed plan for a second gift to Prince Charles [the King’s son] comprising the five books of Moses…together with a harmony of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus”. Two sisters, members of the Community, brought this plan to fruition.

King Charles visited the Community several times but the last time was when he was fleeing to the north to escape Cromwell’s troops. He sought sanctuary there, but was persuaded not to stay. All this can be found in a booklet called The King at Little Gidding (ISBN 1 870633 05 9) which is possibly still available from Little Gidding, Huntingdon, PE17 5RJ. The church and the Community are still there, but not the manor house, which burned down in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

Poet, George Herbert (1593-1633), was a close friend of Nicholas Ferrer and had a living in a nearby church, although he did not live in that village. Richard Crashaw (1613-1649) also wrote poems about the Community. T.S.Eliot(1888-1965) also wrote about Little Gidding in Four Quartets.

The phrase “Englished for Elizabeth” refers to a time before Nicholas Ferrer’s arrival at Little Gidding. The manor house to which he came had not belonged to the Ferrers but to some family of similar standing, who would have been staunchly English and would have asserted their loyalty to Queen Elizabethan I (as opposed to Catholic Mary Queen of Scots).

Colonization, too, was a way of ‘Englishing’ for Elizabeth. Nicholas Ferrer’s father was a founder of the Virginia Company, set up to colonize the New World, and Nicholas, too, had been very active in his father’s business for that Company.

‘Englished’ is a verb Ted may have made up, or it may be a dialect usage which is not common. Ted may also have had in mind the way in which the Community worshipped, using a book specifically designed to allow ordinary English people, who did not read or understand Latin or Hebrew, to worship as a family at home or in he parish church.

Nicholas Ferrer was also related to Bishop Farrar of St. David’s who was burned at the stake in 1555 for his unbending Protestant opposition to Queen Mary. Ted’s poem, ‘The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar’ (THCP 48) is about this. This partly explains the line in ‘Nicholas Ferrer’ about “housekeeping in the fire of martyrs”, but one of Nicholas’s favourite books, also used by the Community, was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Ted’s and Sylvia’s son is named Nicholas Farrar Hughes, because Ted’s mother’s maiden name was Farrar and because Ted was aware that there was probably a family connection with Nicholas Ferrer somewhere amongst his ancestors.

The tree that crabbed in Cromwell’s belly as it bloomed in Rome” is almost certainly a reference to the strict iconoclasm of Protestant Cromwell and his New Model Army. The Roundheads destroyed much of the beauty of the churches and the spirit of worship, especially those things related to the Virgin Mary and (in Ted’s terms) the Goddess. Ted wrote about this ongoing religious war between the Roman church and the English church in his preface to A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse (cf. WP 103-121). He wrote that Catholicism preserved the richness and spirit of the Goddess mythologies far better than the various forms of religion which replaced it in England.

During the English Civil War, anything which hinted of Catholicism was rooted out and destroyed, and even Little Gidding suffered: their font and lectern were thrown into the pond by Cromwell’s soldiers and their church partly wrecked, all because of false accusations made against them.

In ‘Nicholas Ferrer’, the bleak landscape from which the birds migrate at the start of the poem also suggests to me a parallel between the birds’ need for the life-giving warmth of the sun and the human need for spiritual sustenance, plus a desire for the warmth and beauty of the old forms of religion which were being suppressed in England at the time Nicholas Ferrer began his work at Little Gidding.

There is a tree which grows in English hedgerows called the ‘Crab-apple Tree’. It has very small, very sour apples, from which country people make a sweet, jam-like preserve called ‘Crab-apple Jelly’. Because of the sourness of the apples, eating them raw can give you stomach-ache. So, the descriptive term ‘crabby’ came into being. If you feel crabby you feel bad-tempered and sour. Your views can also be crabbed, so Ted’s choice of ‘crabbed’ as a verb is very apt and descriptive. It suggests, too, the shrunken nature of the tree of religion in England at that time, compared with the richness of it in Rome.

* * * * * * * *

‘The Retired Colonel’ (THCP 77). Notes.

Much of what I say about Hughes’ celebration of the natural energies in my paper,‘Wolf Masks’, is relevant to this poem. Especially in early poems, like ‘The Retired Colonel’, Ted wrote time and again about the fierce violent energies in Nature (and also in us) which survive against great odds (see ‘Thistles’ (THCP 147), for example). The Colonel embodies energies which are, perhaps, essential to the survival of our species – determination, fight, a refusal to give in. He also represents, however horrible and autocratic he seems, an English strength – the vision and energy which once made the English administrators of a great Empire. However much we may now decry colonialism and its effects, we should remember that the English, in India at least, were mostly benign colonizers who set up an administrative system which helped India to become independent.

Hughes makes the point that his colonel is a caricature. So perhaps we should ask ourselves if we now see such energies as something to deride or eradicated (like wolves), and whether that is a good thing. Do you like the colonel? Does Hughes like the colonel, or only those energies he represents?

Of course, you need to deal with the structure of the poem, the choice of words and images, and the way in which Hughes gets his message across, if you think he does: or why he fails to do this, if you think this is the case.

* * * * * * * *

‘Hawk Roosting’ (THCP 68). Notes.

In an interview with Ekbert Faas (The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. p.199), Ted was asked about the accusation of violence and Fascist sentiments in ‘Hawk Roosting’. He replied that what he had in mind “was that in this hawk Nature is thinking. Simply Nature… ’.

Introducing a reading of the poem in 1996, he said: “Once, when I was in my teens, I used to shoot a lot, and my friend and I shot a Sparrow-Hawk, wounded it, and once we wounded it and found it, of course all we could think about was how to keep it alive and make it better. So we nursed it for a while but it died. So I was thinking of writing about that and as I began to focus on it, as usually happens, another idea arrived and this is what I wrote. And the idea is the Hawk is sitting in the top of the wood, and the poem is the bird’s soliloquy or rather the soliloquy of the bird’s genetic voice. The voice that keeps a Hawk a Hawk. And my idea was that this was the Hawk God, Horus, within the Hawk, telling the Hawk to keep on being a Hawk. Just the circulation of its blood was some sort of tape playing this over and over.

Ted’s Hawk is similar in spirit and tone to that in the chapter entitled ‘Of Making the Translation into a Hawk of Gold’ in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Part of this chapter, (in the translation by Egyptologist, A.E.Wallis Budge) reads: “I have taken my seat among the great gods, [the children of] Nut. I have settled myself, the Sekhet-hetepet (the Field of Offerings) is before me. I eat therein, I become a Spirit-soul therein, I am supplied with food in abundance therein, as much as I desire. The Grain-god (Nepra) hath given unto me food for my throat, and I am master over myself and over the attributes of my head.’).

In Normandi Ellis’s translation of the Egyptian text the similarity is even closer: “I rise above the crescent moon to the seven stars, beyond the history of men, beyond numbers and words that bind us. From earth I rise like a falcon of gold released from a blue egg. I fly above and below the great worlds.… I come from ligth and to light I return.… This is what I was born to: to live, to love, to know, to change and embace the infinite.” (Awakening Osiris, Phanes Press, Grand Rapids, 1988).

Ted’s detailed discussion of accusations of violence in his poetry can be found in ‘Poetry and Violence’ (WP 251-67).

In the poem ‘Daffodils’ (THCP 711) Hughes described his early life as “a raid’ in which “the earth was booty’. And he plundered Nature’s treasures in order to enrich and enliven his work. But in his poetry, he was also practicing a magical technique in order to contact and channel the natural energies through his words, images and symbols. Hawk was a powerful symbol and, as he told Faas, it was his “belief that symbols of this sort work. And the more concrete and electrically charged and fully operational the symbol, the more powerfully it works on the mind that meets it.’

The imaginative creation of a symbol of this kind is akin to the magician’s practice of taking on a ‘Magical Being’, which is essential for magical (or, indeed, shamanic) work. This practice is described in several of the books of magic which Ted had read. In Alister Crowley’s words: “You can always use the body inhabited by an elemental, such as an eagle, hare, wolf, or any convenient animal, by making a very simple compact. You take over responsibility for the animal, thus building it up into your own magical hierarchy’ (Crowley, Magick, Castle Books, 1991. Ch.XI). All of these animals are in Ted’s own hierarchy.

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

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