Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama

Seeing he that readeth without understanding doth see many things but hath no relish to them he is rightly compared to the shadow on the wall, and is more miserable than one that is wholly blind, who not seeing doth understand1.

Fundamental to the alchemical process is a belief in the essential unity of all things and in the transmutability of matter. As in Ancient Greek philosophy, matter is thought to be composed of the four elements, Air, Fire, Earth and Water, which are related to each other by four qualities – Hot, Cold, Moist and Dry. Each element possesses two qualities and is linked to two other elements by the quality held in common. So, as can be seen from the diagram, Water possesses cold and moist qualities and is linked to Earth by its cold quality, whilst Earth is linked to Fire by their common quality of dryness, and so on

… all four elements renounce their own nature and, by rotation, transform themselves into one another…. Just as in the beginning there was One, so also in this work everything comes from One and returns to One. This is what is meant by the re-transformation of the elements… 2.

The Elements

The common axis around which the rotation of the elements takes place (see diagram) represents the perfect balance of the elements. This is The Centre. The Source, from which all things have come and to which they must return. This is the force which maintains the essential unity of the cosmos; the power at “the still point of the turning world3. It is, also, the quintessence, or the spiritual centre, towards which the alchemical process leads; the alchemical gold (‘Our Gold’) towards which the work is directed, and “the divine breath, the central and universal fire, which vivifies all things that exist4.

On Earth, the original harmony of the elements has been disturbed and matter is in an impure, chaotic state. It retains, however, some germ of quintessential, spiritual energy through which, by the alchemical interaction of elements and qualities, unity and balance may be restored. This flux of matter and the unbalanced chaotic state of our own world is something which is readily apparent in Hughes’ work. He depicts it in the cyclical processes of growth and decay in the world of Elmet, where earth, now, is “the only future” (THCP. 456-6), equivalent to the ‘Raw Stuff’ from which the alchemical process begins. And, in Cave Birds, he wrestles with the microcosm of chaotic elements in human nature, presenting his Everyman protagonist, in ‘The accused’, as “ as “lord of middens” (THCP.425): the self–aggrandised, self–deluded master of base matter.

The quintessential energy is there in Hughes’ work, too, and the continual flux of the universal energies, which underlies his portrayal of Nature, holds the promise of regeneration and of a new, if temporary, balance being achieved. Alchemists identify this quintessential energy with mercury (both the naturally occurring element, mercury, and Mercury/Hermes the divine messenger), and they attempt to aid elemental interaction by means of a series of hierarchical procedures using mercury as a catalyst. But sulphur, too, plays an important part in the alchemical process, its heavier, coagulating nature providing the balance to the mobile, volatile qualities of mercury. The coalescent and cleansing powers of both elements are necessary for the progressive purification of the base matter with which the alchemist begins this lengthy task. And, like the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, each element contains, always, a germ of the other from which change and readjustment can begin.

Mercury is, by its nature, the most active and volatile of the two elements. It is regarded as the Feminine force but, like the Goddess, it has a double nature, being ‘the water of life’, airy, cooling and nurturing but, also, ‘‘the devouring dragon’, fiery and destructive. It is the vital Spirit, ‘the divine breath’, and it contains the alchemical gold – “the germ of the sun5 – in volatile form. Mercury is the dissolving and animating element.

Sulphur is the Soul6, the Masculine force. It is hot, dry and coagulating, and it contains the alchemical gold in a fixed, unproductive, form. Sulphur, in its common chemical form is impure and separable – “the cause of the imperfection of metals” – but the “Inner Sulphur” is the pure, inseparable Soul7. Sulphur is the coagulating and fixing element.

In Nature, the chemical elements mercury and sulphur are found in perfect union in ‘Cinnabar’. Alchemists call this red mercury/sulphur compound, ‘the red stone’, and from it they obtain metallic ‘quicksilver’ which is essential for turning Base Matter into Gold.

Because Mercury is the most active of the two generative elements, it is mentioned more frequently than Sulphur in alchemical texts. In humankind, its generative force is present “in blood and semen, … in the heart and in the breath.”8, so, it is represented in the texts as bodily organs and essences, but also, symbolically, as the ‘wind of Hermes’, a white bird, ‘dew of heaven’ and ‘celestial milk’. In its destructive form, it appears as poison, ‘the serpent’, and ‘the devouring dragon’9.


Often, the dual generative and devouring nature of Mercury is represented by the tail–eating dragon, Uroborus, which Jung called the “world creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter10. This common alchemical symbol represents the capacity of matter to devour itself, release its own spirit, and be regenerated by that spirit when it returns to the body. It is a symbol of timeless continuity, of destruction and re-creation in perfect balance; it is “Universal Nature in her latent condition11.


And Nature is of particular importance in Alchemy where, in its dynamic condition, it is represented by two serpents (Mercury and Sulphur) coiled around the caduceus of the messenger, Mercury/Hermes12. As the early Alchemist, Janus Lacinius Therapus wrote: “The rhythms and cycles of Nature contain the code and root of our handiwork13.

For similar reasons, Nature is of particular importance in Hughes’ work, being the source of cyclical change and renewal. It is not surprising, therefore, that the dragon which links Mercury and Nature, should be regarded by Hughes, also, as a symbol for the Universal Energies. Discussing these with Faas in 1971, Hughes talked of the way in which they emerged as the “dragon of Revelations” in his poem, ‘Gog’:

“Gog”… started as a description of the German assault through the Ardennes and it turned into the dragon of Revelations. It alarmed me so much I wrote a poem about the Red Cross Knight just to set against it with the idea of keeping it under control … keeping its effects under control14.

The dragon in the Book of Revelation is “the great dragon … that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth” after a war in heaven15. Its parallel in early Greek cosmologies is the “Subtle Spirit, Nature, which drew the Divine Light down into the dark Abyss16, and it is clearly related to the alchemical Mercurial dragon of the Aurelia Occulta, which is “The old Dragon found everywhere on the globe of the earth17.

Speaking of the dragon of Revelations, Hughes called it “an eruption, from the deeper resources, of enraged energy - energy that for some reason or other has become enraged18.

Yet, despite its destructive power, Hughes felt able, through his poetry, to use this energy for creative and healing purposes.

In Cave Birds, as in ‘Gog’, the enraged energies erupt into the world. Under Hughes’ poetic control, however, they will destroy and then re–create the chaotic, impure matter of the protagonist from whom they come, just as the Mercurial dragon destroys and re–creates the physical and spiritual substance of Base Matter in the alchemical process.

Physically and metaphorically, an alchemical synthesis entails the progressive purification of a substance in conditions of carefully regulated heat. The process begins with base, chaotic matter which, through repeated distillation and condensation (‘Solve et Coagula’ is the phrase used in alchemical texts) is gradually cleansed of its impurities until the pure essence (the alchemical gold) is revealed. Always, Sulphur and Mercury are necessary in the procedures, one or other predominating at any particular time although they may not always be clearly distinguished. And “just as in the beginning there was One, so also everything comes from One and returns to One19 , and the patterns of the synthesis, like the patterns of Nature, are circular. Each procedure may be repeated many times, and the pure essence which is eventually obtained is re–immersed in base matter to act as a catalyst for further transmutation. So, the released spirit in the final poem of Cave Birds must return to Earth where Mankind continually seeks to capture and control it. And so, too, the process of change and the potential for renewal is constant and infinite.

Although the process and the procedures of the alchemical work are cyclical, and although the number of stages and operations in the synthesis varies between texts, it is generally agreed that there are four stages and seven operations through which the original material must pass. The four stages begin with Base Matter (‘Raw Stuff’), progress through stages dominated by Mercury, and by Sulphur, and culminate in the synthesis of alchemical gold (or Lapis, the Philosophers’ Stone). The seven operations, which may be repeated many times, are often symbolised by the seven planets and seven metals:

Calcination    Putrefaction    Solution    Distillation
Saturn        Jupiter         Mars         Venus
 Lead            Tin           Iron         Copper

   Conjunction         Sublimation        Congelation
Mercury             Moon                Sun
Quicksilver         Silver              Gold

Described in terms of four stages and seven processes, the alchemical synthesis appears to be fairly straightforward. Alchemical texts, however, are notoriously obscure. They rarely detail, or agree on, the exact methods the Alchemist should employ, and they are often deliberately ambiguous and misleading. The language of the texts, too, is one of rich poetic metaphor and symbolism rather than factual statement, and the interpretation of such texts is notoriously difficult, even for an experienced alchemist.

An alchemical synthesis, for example, may be described in terms of a perilous journey, and materials and processes are associated with astrological signs and are represented in the text by colours, animals, and sigils. So, Mercury may appear in the texts as whiteness, a white bird, an eagle, a snowy swan, a dragon, divine rain or dew, a small child, or as its astrological sign (☿), any of which symbols may indicate the metallic quicksilver, or the planet Mercury, or Mercurius (the mythological winged messenger), or the divine spirit within the human being. Understanding an alchemical text, consequently, is like solving a riddle, and its meaning may vary according to the interpretations made.

For whatever reason, whether it be for self–protection, from the need to keep spiritual knowledge from misuse, or simply because of greed, alchemists have always demanded application and special perception in their followers. As one mediaeval alchemist wrote:

One must not explain this art in obscure words only: on the other hand, one must not explain it so clearly that all can understand it. I therefore teach it in such a way that nothing will remain hidden to the wise man, even though it may strike mediocre minds as quite obscure; the foolish and the ignorant, for their part, will understand none of it at all… 20.

This particular statement, as well as the cryptic alchemical practices discussed, is certainly relevant to an understanding of Cave Birds, since it, too, is a text in which important and complex knowledge is embedded in a seemingly simple story.

It is important to remember, too, that authors of alchemical texts always speak of the material process and the spiritual process together, so that every action and event has both a material and a spiritual meaning. In the ‘alchemical cave drama’ of Cave Birds, therefore, it is to be expected that the imaginative fable of judgement, death and rebirth which Hughes presents may be understood on a number of different levels, one of which is spiritual.

In spiritual terms, the difficulties of the circular path which the Alchemist must travel lie in its paradoxical nature. Over–riding all else is the paradox of the death of self which is necessary for enlightenment and re–birth. In T.S.Eliot’s words:

In order to possess what you do not possess You must go by the way of dispossession21.

This is the paradoxical pattern which is common to most spiritual teaching. And this is the spiritual pattern which parallels the Cave Birds fable.

Table I (below), which is based on a summary of the alchemical stages and procedures made by Ad de Vries22, suggests the way in which these may be related to the structure of Cave Birds. For a fuller understanding of this structure the individual poems of Hughes’ bird drama must be examined and, to provide the essential alchemical background for this examination, a general summary of the main alchemical parallels is given at the beginning of each ‘Stage’.

Table 1

Alchemical texts differ in their descriptions of stages and processes, and each operation may be repeated several times. Consequently, this chart is a guide to the general pattern of the synthesis, not a definitive analysis. Since the stages of the alchemical process merge gradually into each other, certain poems (identified in green)may be regarded as transitional.

Alchemical Stages

Cave Birds Title

Alchemical Operation ‘Solve et Coagule’.

STAGE 1: RAW STUFF ‘Prime Matter’.
Black. Death of the profane.
Copper turned into black oxide ‘killing it’.

The elementary organisation of inherent possibilities; the unconscious; the instincts; the soul in its original condition; latent force, guilt.

The scream
The summoner
After the first fright
The interrogator

She seemed so considerate
The judge
The plaintiff
In these fading moments

1. CALCINATION: ‘Death of the Profane’. Heating of the Raw Stuff.

2. PUTREFACTION: ‘Separation, Mortification, Putrefaction’
‘The Black Sun’ Nigredo
‘The Raven’s Head’

STAGE 2: MERCURY: White (a silver–coloured alloy with mercury and arsenic): lunar, feminine, the first purification, imagination, feeling, the ‘minor work’.

The Executioner
The accused
First the doubtful charts
The knight

Something was happening
The gatekeeper
A flayed crow

The baptist
Only a little sleep

3. SOLUTION: ‘purification ’.

The Leukosis
‘The Peacock’s Tail’ Albedo
‘The White Queen’

4. DISTILLATION: ‘‘rain’ of purified matter = the elements of salvation ’
Cibation, ‘Wetting with Dew’, Sublimation, ‘The Red King’.


STAGE 3: SULPHUR: Red: Solar and masculine, deeper purification:
reason, intuition, passion.


STAGE 4: LAPIS: Gold: Absolute synthesis (Jung’s individuation: transcendence, ‘the greater work’.

A green mother
As I came
A riddle
The scapegoat
After there was nothing
The guide
His legs ran about

Walking bare
Bride and groom

The owl flower

5. CONJUNCTION: ‘joining of opposites’.

‘The Chemical Marriage’

6. SUBLIMATION: ‘detachment from the world + dedication to spiritual striving = ascension of the Volatile. (= spiritual principle)’. Prometheus, angel, ‘The Phoenix’


The risen

7. (PHILOSOPHIC) CONGELATION: ‘binding of the fixed (= male) with the volatile (= female) = ‘saved’ variable principles:’
Projection. Exaltation.

For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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