Notes written by Mr Eric W. White, a committee member of the Arts Council in 1975, and the person responsible for negotiating the sale of the drafts of Cave Birds to University of Exeter Library are kept with the manuscripts at Exeter University. Information about these notes was provided by D. Wyn Evans, Deputy Librarian of the University Library.

White’s notes provide interesting background information for the sequence. They indicate that Cave Birds was commissioned from Hughes by the Ilkley Literature Festival. It was first performed at Ilkley on 30 May 1975, together with Lumb’s Remains, which Hughes described in the Festival Programme as a piece which “constitutes the Epilogue of a longish piece called Gaudete”. White records a later performance of Cave Birds at Poetry International, the Northcote Theatre, Exeter, and a BBC broadcast produced, like the Ilkley performance, by George Macbeth.

The BBC Radio 3 broadcast which is mentioned took place on 23 June 1975, with Harvey Hall, Frances Horowitz, Peter Mainker and Gary Watson as readers, and with Hughes providing a linking commentary. Several of the Exeter drafts indicate that in performance some poems were divided up between readers for dramatic effect. The events in ‘The owl flower’ (CB.58), for instance, are described by two different voices reading alternate stanzas.

There are a few discrepancies between the account of the origin of Cave Birds given in White’s notes, and that given by Keith Sagar in The Art Of Ted Hughes (p.234). Of the two, it would seem that Sagar’s account is probably the more accurate, since most of the nine Baskin etchings accompanying the poems that Sagar cites as the original group are clearly dated 1973. On the other hand, the poems cited as the originals in White’s notes are the ten published by The Scolar Press as a limited edition and, of the Baskin etchings which were published with these, all except one (which is undated) are dated 1974.

White notes that the drafts of Cave Birds consist of some 230 quarto sheets, including “108 ink drafts covering every poem”. He describes the work as presenting “the various characters and various aspects of the central character in a mystery play whose cast is a company of symbolic birds”, and he claims that the drafts reveal “the complete compositional process of this sequence”.

Both Sagar and White identify thirty poems in the, major sequence of Cave Birds (although Sagar quite rightly treats ‘Finale’ as a poem, which makes his actual count thirty one). However, drafts of Hughes‘ own lists of the sequence show that there are, in fact, thirty two poems, plus the ‘Goblin’ finale, Of these, twenty eight are published in the most widely known, Faber, edition of Cave Birds.

Hughes’ notes show that he arranged the thirty poems into two different sequences (called ‘A’ and ‘B’) which differ from each other and from the Faber sequence only by the exclusion or inclusion of certain poems (see Table 2) none of which affect the alchemical nature of the sequences in any significant way.

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