Stage Two of the Alchemical Synthesis

The Leukosis
Putrefaction extends and continues even unto whiteness1.

The processes of ‘Mortification’ and ‘Putrefaction’ are accomplished, by the practical Alchemist, in a hermetically sealed flask called a ‘Bottle of Hermes’’ or a ‘Philosophers’ Egg’. This flask is symbolically womb–shaped or heart–shaped, and it is heated in an oven called the ‘Athanor’ which, as Burckhardt notes, as far as the ‘Great Work’ was concerned – was none other than the human body, and thus also a simplified image of the cosmos2.

During this careful heating, a flux occurs and, in the hermetic flask, “One can watch the vapour rising up the neck of the flask and condensing down the sides” until the “dry blackness” of the nigredo supervenes3.

Peacock Tail The second stage of the alchemical synthesis, known as the Leukosis, now begins. Further careful heating of the black mixture causes rapidly changing colours to appear in the flask, a state descriptively know as ‘The Peacock’s Tail’. Next, the colours subside and the flask may look as if it is entirely covered with gold, but this fades and eventually a state of perfect, dazzling whiteness “like … glittering marble4 obtains. This state, the Albedo, marks the end of the Leukosis.

Symbolically, the progressive purification and mixing of elements within an enclosed vessel represents the union of male and female principles within the cosmic womb from which the pure Spirit will be born. The metaphors used by Alchemists for this stage, therefore, frequently describe the return of the physical and spiritual elements of the body to Mother Earth for re–creation.

The Leukosis, in Cave Birds, covers the poems from ‘The accused’, to ‘A flayed crow in the hall of judgement’. The protagonist’s body and soul are stripped of every last vestige of his earlier state, he acknowledges and relinquishes his masks and illusions, and reaches, at last, a state of ultimate nakedness and humility. Committing his body to the earth, he comes to the gate of the Underworld where he awaits release from his dark, hermetic egg in order to begin the next stage of his journey.

As well as using metaphors of death and rebirth, Alchemists describe the union of opposites and the re–creation of primal spiritual matter in terms of conjugation, insemination, fertilisation, gestation and birth. Arnold de Villa Nova’s commentary is typical:

when the blackness appears then the marriage or the matrimonie is made betwixt the male and the female, and then begotten is the spirit which is the dilator of the [path (?)] of the soule through the body5.

Despite these earthly analogies, the first alchemical stages represent a human being’s initial steps along the spiritual path. Symbolically, they tell of an inner journey in which the soul is examined and purged of its profane and temporal attachments – a journey which is frequently likened to a descent into the Underworld6. The motive force and the guide for this spiritual journey is the divine spirit within the human creature, which the Alchemists identify with Mercury. So, having begun the process of transmutation, Mercury now appears in alchemical texts as the “metallic volatile himidity [sic] which is Mercury the wise7, the guide who will accompany the pilgrim on this difficult path. This stage in Cave Birds is marked by the re–appearance of the accused as the “bedaubed, begauded / Eagle–dancer”(CB.24), whose mercurial temperament and ‘Peacock’s Tail’ colours make his embodiment of Mercury apparent even if the protagonist’s inner ‘wisdom’ has yet to be heeded.

Mercury dominates the Leukosis. Its silver–white, lunar light is initially tempered by the quicksilver volatility and colours of the ‘Peacock’s Tail’. Ultimately, however, it becomes ‘fixed’ in the dry, white bones of the skeleton, which is all that remains of the physical body when the profane and temporal elements have been relinquished.

Just as the Mercurial spirit enjoys only a brief period of freedom before an intensification of heat dries, coagulates and then sublimes it to a “supreme grade of whiteness8, so the Cave Birds cockerel protagonist soon submits himself to the sun’s annealing fires. A transformation from cockerel to crow begins9 and, in ‘The knight’, we see the slow disintegration of the bird’s body until only the white bones of the ‘Death Stone Bird’(ED) remain.

Alchemists, at this stage, talk of “bones on the distilled and whitened field10; and in alchemical manuscripts it is ‘Our Stone’, ‘crystalline snow’, ‘white tincture’, ‘elixir’, ‘virgin’s milk’ or a ‘White Queen’. The form of the matter varies from one text to another but Canon 95 of Benedictus Figulus expresses a common consensus:

Matter when brought to Whiteness, refuses to be corrupted or destroyed11.

Thus, whiteness can be seen to indicate the presence of a substance which has “acquired sufficient strength to resist the ardours of fire12; a substance which can be tempered by the literal, spiritual and metaphorical fires to which it must still be subjected before the true alchemical ‘Gold’ can be revealed. The exposed white bones of the Cave Birds knight suggest that Hughes’ protagonist has reached this stage.

‘The accused’

‘Socrates’ Cock’(ED)
‘A Tumbled Socratic Cock’13.
The physical life of the cockerel is offered up to the Creator, the Sun-being, who, in respect of Judgement, is a Raven.

Having been confronted so forcefully with evidence of his guilt and having been offered a form of atonement by the vulture, the protagonist’s view of himself begins to change. He has reached the stage which was designated by Blake as ‘Jehovah’, the sixth eye of God, the perception of evil. Blake’s Job at this stage recognises his sins with horror, and his body is shown as if on a stone altar surrounded by flames as his “wrought image” (Plate 11) is consumed. Hughes’ protagonist, too, acknowledges and confesses his sins, heaping them up to be consumed “on a flame–horned mountain–stone” in the furnace of the sun.

Job Plate 11

Each part of the cockerel’s “mudded body” has some “blood aberration” from which it must be cleansed. His brain is “the sacred assassin” which has sought to destroy the elements of enlightenment within him by rational argument (he is, after all, a ‘Socratic cock’14). “The gripful of daggers”, which is his body, has physically driven him to compromise his own integrity and satisfy his desires at the expense of others. His skin and plumage, like that of the “bedaubed, begauded / Eagle–dancer” who impersonates the supernatural Eagle in Pueblo Indian rituals, has bolstered his delusions of grandeur and allowed him to strut and crow in a decaying world – to be “lord of middens”.

The appetites of his body, he confesses, have ruled him: his heart, stuffed with selfhood instead of love; his stomach demanding that he play god with living things to feed it; and “his hard life–lust”, the phallic “Swan of insemination”, driving him to “the blind” satisfaction of his needs.

In alchemy, the swan is “the white elixir, the arsenic of the philosophers. It spews a milky fluid into the pure silver sea”. This milky fluid in the “mercurial fluid”, poisonous and destructive, but an essential part of the alchemical process14a. Mention of the swan of insemination , however, also, brings to mind the mythological story of Zeus and Leda, and each confession that the protagonist makes suggests the god–like powers – all of them destructive – which he has arrogated to himself. He has been “The soul-stuffed despot”, “The corpse–eating god” and “the sacred assassin”.

His confession completed, the protagonist commits his body (which is also the symbol of his pride) to the cleansing fires of the gods he has so profanely imitated. He becomes ‘Socrates’ cock’ of Hughes’ alternative title, the traditional sacrifice which the dying Socrates acknowledged that he owed to Aeschulapius, the son of Apollo and god of healing, medicine and resurrection of the dead15. Thus, Hughes’ protagonist makes of himself a sacrificial offering to ensure his own re–birth in the afterlife: and, at the same time, the impurities of “His mudded body” are burned away to leave the natural “ore” from which the spiritual gold will be made.

In Baskin’s drawing the cockerel is tumbled but still crowing. His gaudy tail curls towards his body like the tongues of flame to which he will soon consign himself.

The destruction of the corporeal body in the sun’s purifying flames will reveal the true colours of the protagonist: beneath the profane mask is the rainbowed essence of his soul. Suggesting this, Hughes ends his poem with biblical images of hope and blessing – the rainbow and a beatitude.

‘First, the doubtful charts of skin’

So Sentenced, and swallowed by the Raven, the protagonist (hero) finds himself on a journey which leads him not to death (to extinction), but to the start of a new adventure.

In this poem, the rituals of a shamanic journey are strongly present in the inner journey which the protagonist makes and which Hughes presents as a literal excursion through the physical body. Beginning with an awareness of his skin against the hard rocks, the protagonist moves on to an awareness of limbs, intestines and veins, his skull and, finally, his bones.

This progressively deeper exploration of the body is a process which Eliade describes as essential in Shamanic rites; a process known as “contemplating one’s own skeleton16. To describe it Eliade quotes the explorer, Rasmussen, who had “interrogated” many Eskimo shamans:

Though no shaman can explain to himself how or why, he can, … as it were by thought alone, divest his body of its flesh and blood, so that nothing remains but his bones. And he must then name all the parts of his body, mentioning every single bone by name; and in so doing, he must not use ordinary human speech, but only the special and sacred shaman’s language which he has learned from his instructor 17.

Eliade further comments that “reduction to the skeleton indicates a passing beyond the profane human condition and, hence, a deliverance from it”: that, for example, to hunters and herdsmen

bone represents the very source of life…. To reduce oneself to the skeleton condition is equivalent to re–entering the womb of this primordial life, that is, to a complete renewal, a mystical rebirth18.

Hughes’ protagonist does not name every bone in his body but he does name each part of his body in Hughes’ own shaman/poet’s tongue until he comes “to loose bones”. Hughes’ ‘sacred shaman’s language’ is his poetic voice and, as an integral part of his language, he uses mythology to enlarge the imaginative scope of his words.

In this poem, Hughes draws on events and situations which are common to the many mythological hero–stories which he believed recount shamanic journeys19. In particular, the story of Odysseus is evoked.

Like Odysseus, the protagonist’s predicament has been caused by the anger of the gods. He, too, has been in the power of the goddess, Athena/Diana, who has acted as both protector and tormentor. In the Odyssey, it is Athena who sends the messenger Hermes/Mercury to arrange Odysseus’ freedom and homecoming, yet she allows delays in his journey which cause him much suffering. In Cave Birds, the female principle in Nature (the Goddess/Diana) is responsible for the protagonist’s summons, trial and sentence, but she is also his protector.

Like Odysseus (and like most of humanity) the protagonist’s early journeying through life has contained “irrelevant marvels” and “much boredom”. Now, however, powerful god–like forces have caused him to be wrecked: he has, as it were, been stripped of his pretensions and brought (in colloquial terms) ‘down to earth’ – an earth which he experiences directly as sharp and rocky.

The “wet cave” of the intestines which gives Hughes’ protagonist “pause” finds parallels in the several caves in which Odysseus was detained before his homecoming: the cave of the Cyclops, Polyphemos, was one temporary prison; that of the nymph, Kalypso, another.

Hughes’ image of the protagonist “hung” in a “web of veins”, however, has no parallel in the Odyssey: it recalls, instead, the spiders web imagery of ‘The judge’. It suggests, also, that Hughes had in mind Baskin’s woodcut of ‘The Hanged Man’ which he considers to be central to the meaning of Baskin’s artistic endeavours, and of which he has written in at least two commentaries on Baskin’s art20. Baskin’s woodcut delineates the hanged man’s body by the web of veins and nerves within it so that the figure seems literally to hang in this network which both supports life and limits it. The suggestion is of the paradox of the physical constraints on human potential: the biological reality which defines the human condition; the combination of beauty and horror which is Man. Hughes’ commentary on this figure describes it as symbolising one pole of the regenerative theme which underlies all Baskin’s art (as it does his own); he sees it as depicting “the archetype victim of the Mother Earth Goddess … as a Death Goddess21; and he writes of it:

… this figure insists it is a Prometheus, a Job. And if it could speak, or more likely sing, we would hear the full balanced chord of epic22.

It is, in other words, another form of the epic hero who makes the shamanic journey, and it is understandable that it should have been in his mind as he worked on Cave Birds.

Having suffered the initiatory torments of the hanged man/ Prometheus/Job, Hughes’ protagonist moves on. Like Odysseus, he visits “the islands of women” (there seems to be no bodily analogy for this); and the land of the dead which, for him, is represented by his skull – a hill–shaped bone container for his visions and his mental battles. Finally, he comes to his skeleton – “loose bones / On a heathery moor”.

The similarities which exist between Homer’s Odyssey and Hughes’ poem, however, are mostly the result of a common theme, and there are important differences. Whilst Odysseus journeys in the geographical environment of the Mediterranean, for example, the Cave Birds hero exists in a Celtic world. The earth on which his bones come to rest is part of a Northern, Celtic landscape of windy moors, heather, decaying churches and ancient standing stones. It is a landscape very like that of Hughes’ own Yorkshire background – the landscape which Fay Godwin’s photographs capture in Remains of Elmet.

In the imagery of the poem, especially from line 11 onwards, there are strong echoes of Norse and Celtic epics, myths and legends. The “skull–hill of visions” hints at gruesome Viking practices and also, perhaps, recalls the prophetic skull of the Celtic god, Bran, which was buried in the White Hill of Britain23. The “battle in the valley of screams”, too, suggests the perilous valley where the chapel of doom is found in the Grail Jegends24 and, as if to reinforce this, there is an echo of the “empty chapel”, the “tumbled grave” and the “dry bones” of the bleak landscape of Eliot’s The Waste Land25.

Eliot’s landscape is one in which decay, desolation, horror and death prevail. But in Hughes’ vivid picture, the wild horses standing among the graves bring a breath of life and energy to temper the bleakness. And the leaning menhir, on which the protagonist finds his name and epitaph, adds a magical significance to the stone and bone which are all that will soon remain of the former man. Here, having completed the examination of his own skeleton, the protagonist is ready to return his body to the earth.

Sketched into the dark background of the Baskin etching for which this poem was written is a figure which seems to combine the sun and the moon. It is as if these celestial bodies have been re–united and returned to earth’s primaeval darkness, just as the elements of Mercury and Sulphur are continually purified in an alchemical synthesis and returned to the solution26. The bird itself, the protagonist, is entering that same darkness. Its head and neck are already skeletal but its body, which is still in the light, is still feathered. Around the bird’s skull is a wreath of evergreen laurel, a symbol of immortality and fecundity, sacred to Diana and to Apollo27.

‘The knight’

‘Death Stone Bird ’(ED)
‘A Death Stone Crow of Carrion’(SP)28
‘The Stone of Death’(SP)
There is no longer anything of a cockerel about him. Possession by Raven has transformed him to something crow–like, for the new trials in the underworld.
As a knight, a warrior, he dedicates himself to whatever shall be required of him in this afterlife.

The various titles of this poem continue the imagery of the previous episode in the drama. Now, the stone and bone which are the essential elements of the protagonist are seen as elements of the Grail knight whose quest embodies the paradoxes of the mystical journey. To conquer he must surrender everything, physical and mental, and his victory will be his own defeat. In order to be re–born he first must die, submitting himself totally to the supreme universal powers and relinquishing all selfhood and striving. With infinite patience and infinite acceptance he must enter what Eliot described as “the world of perpetual solitude” which entails

Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit:

He must enter the grave, returning himself to Nature, which was his mother, so that he may be re–created.

The knight’s “sacrifice is perfect”. The “spoils” which he has gained from Nature he returns. On the altar of earth he exposes his body to the elements; and the insects, like Nature’s priests, “officiate” at the ritual dismemberment.

All around the knight there is movement as Nature partakes of the sacrifice, squabbling over his body, tugging, drinking and unravelling it. In contrast, the slow, measured lines which describe his kneeling, his offering, his “perfect” sacrifice, his “flawless” submission and his “vast” patience, impart a religious solemnity to the poem.

The knight’s Earthly religion, too, “crumbles” and disintegrates. His ragged banner, the standard which proclaims his allegiance, is his own disintegrating body; and in the chapel of his skull, where the sacred texts of his self–worship have been learned, stored and glorified, his dead eyes set to a bold stare. With a characteristic intertwining of metaphoric and literal meaning, Hughes combines the imagery of chivalric self–sacrifice with a realistic description of the slow physical processes of death and dissolution.

Baskin’s drawing shows the bird – the knight – as completely skeletal. The “Blades” of his wing bones, the “shafts” of his leg–bones and the “unstrung bows” of his ribs are “Wrapped in the rags of his banner”. He is now totally immersed in darkness. In an early version of Hughes’ poem this same darkness was present when (using the personal pronoun) he wrote:

Now I learn everything, I become everything
But alone, in emptiness of stone, temple of sandgrains, ruined and abandoned
An evolving twilight, a total sea of stars …

The published version, however, ends with the knight’s bones hardening and whitening in the glare of sunlight. Hughes’ final image captures, with beautiful precision, the sun’s strength, its persistence through time and its powers of “revelation”. The final couplet suggests not only that the white bones (the alchemical symbol of the albedo) will be fully revealed, but also that some further, more metaphysical disclosure is to come. So, “hour by hour”, the expectancy grows.

‘Something was happening’

Whilst the (protagonist) hero undergoes his vigil, a helper begins to work for him, calling on the Eagles.

This poem appears in the ‘A’ sequence and also in the Faber publication. It was read at the Ilkley Festival and it was included in the BBC broadcast. Despite this, it was one of the last poems to be added to the sequence and, as Sagar comments, most of these later poems seem to be “quite outside the bird-drama30.

The one of Hughes’ projections of the Cave Birds story into the ‘human world’. Positioned as it is, however, directly after the scene of the hero’s complete submission to Nature, it does not fit into the established pattern of events. It depicts a still unresolved alienation between the human male and female of Hughes’ “parallel story31: and this reversion to a state of affairs which existed earlier in the sequence but which has, on the bird–drama level, just been resolved, is confusing. So, too, is the fact that now it is the female who is sacrificed, thus reversing the situation described in ‘The knight’ where the female element – Earth – endures. Yet, this death reinforces the earlier theme of the unity of male and female elements within the human creature, and it depicts, in contrasting tone, the ‘female’ death which must inevitably accompany the male hero’s sacrifice.

In this poem the “anaesthetised32, unfeeling state of the human male is again apparent. It is demonstrated in the contrast between the man’s trivial actions and the horrifying death of the woman: he saunters and munches whilst she suffers and burns. Because the man and the woman and their contrasting situations are linked so closely in the poem, the man’s heartless complacency seems unforgivable. There is, however, a suggestion of helplessness in his thoughts: when, “in April”, the green hints of Nature’s revival appear, he is dismayed. He seems to foresee the repetition of a cycle of events which he cannot control and which, like the annual cycle of Nature, entails death. Whilst his own world of inanimate objects “Registered nothing”, the world of Nature, “The earth”, rejects him totally.

The man’s helplessness and his feelings of guilty involvement in the woman’s death emerge more strongly in earlier versions of the poem. In one, he thinks “about Hamlet/looking at Ophelia’s corpse”, as if he feels himself to be similarly constrained by circumstances to deny his feelings, thereby causing the woman’s death. In another, everything around him seems to reflect “the laughter of the gods”(ED).

In this human male/human female story, the relevance of the final image in the poem is unclear. The “eagle–hunter” would seem, from Hughes’ introductory note, to be the man’s helper. Possibly he is intended to be a guide like those which accompany a shaman through the underworld, but this does not emerge from the poem. Whoever he is, his song apparently exerts power over the eagle–gods which torment the protagonist. He sings, however, “Two, three, four thousand years off key”, a time span which may represent the period of human existence on earth; or the lapse of time since Nature dominated all religion and, thus, the length of time during which man and woman have become alienated from the natural energies.

Baskin’s drawing for this poem offers no further illumination of its puzzles. His soaring eagle, with its huge and vicious claws, seems poised to stoop on its prey.

Blake Fall of Man

‘The gatekeeper’

‘A Sphynx. A Two Headed One’ / ‘Death’s Doorkeeper ’(ED)
‘ The Signpost Eagle’(ED)
‘A Double Osprey ’(SP)
‘A Fierce Osprey ’(SP)
‘Death's Doorway Guard ’(SP)
The eagles have agreed to weight [sic] him in their balance(A)

In almost all mythologies, at the interface between life and death, heaven and hell, there stands an enigmatic creature which represents a union of opposites. Invariably this creature sets the journeyer some test which must be passed before further progress can be made.

The gatekeeper of Hughes’ Cave Birds drama is another such creature. It is a “sphinx”, a double creature combining human and animal, and female and male features. It is “two–headed” like the door god, Janus, who is etymologically identified with Diana, the Great Goddess33. This linking of a god and goddess of light is suggested, also, in Baskin’s bird, whose shadowy head and mixture of feathers appear to combine both the eagle and the owl – the birds of Janus and Diana, respectively. Such a suggested combination of features is more apparent if the picture is compared with that accompanying ‘A green mother’ later in the poem sequence.

The variety of titles for this poem reflect the several very different versions of the poem which exist. One early draft deals solely with the nature of “Death’s Doorkeeper” who combines “the two in one … The death of darkness and the death of brightness”, “the left hand and the right hand”, “unbeing” and “ever being”. In every version, however, the protagonist is presented with a choice which “is no choice”(ED); a paradoxical situation in which his fate has already been determined by his own nature. This is the traditional, initiatory “paradoxical passage” to heaven which Eliade describes. It is a passage which can only be negotiated successfully by one who has already been well prepared and who “has transcended the human condition”: “by one who is spirit34.

The Cave Birds hero is now to be judged, weighed in the balance like the Egyptian dead, to see if his soul is pure enough to enter the world of the gods. It is a terrifying experience, and the published versions of this poem concentrate on the protagonist’s reactions – his “sweatings and grinnings”, his “fear” and his “Remorse”. In describing the protagonist, Hughes again chooses images of terror which are also those of death and decomposition, thus reiterating the analogy between spiritual trials and physical death which he has made in the previous poems. Such reiteration parallels the repetitions of the alchemical process but, in addition, the blunt and ugly words (“sweating”, “oozes”, “Blurting”, “orifice”) and the grossness of the imagery in this poem create a mood of ugliness and terror which contrasts sharply with the calm, the solemnity and the beauty that Hughes created in ‘The knight’. Through such repetition and contrast Hughes emphasises the physical/spiritual duality of human beings.

One draft version of the poem, which concentrated on the protagonist’s dilemma, was less realistically evocative and more consistent with the solemnity of mood Hughes had established in ‘The knight’. In it, Hughes made an interesting identification between the protagonist and the eagle. It reads, in part:

And the terror is the revelation
Of yourself for what you are: too late, too late, too late.

The terror: too late (to) remake its path
And promises are futile.

Your history
Here your own history, like an eagle,
Picks up you body’s
[? Illegible]

Picks you up (ED).

Here, there is no doubt about the protagonist’s responsibility for his own situation and his own fate. The published version, however, whilst conveying the protagonist’s feelings more dramatically, suggests that he is still the pawn of eagle–gods who can “drop you into a bog or carry you to eagles”.

The marked differences between the several versions of this poem demonstrate Hughes’ efforts to present his complex theme on two levels, one of which embodies common (but extremely esoteric) spiritual beliefs, whilst the other sets out to tell a comparatively simple story. In ‘The gatekeeper’, as published in the Faber edition, the poem succeeds on the story–telling level but it creates some problems of consistency in the spiritual order of events. In contrast, Hughes’ next poem combines both levels with grace and beauty.

‘A flayed crow in the hall of judgement’

‘ Waiting for the 1st Judgement’(ED)
‘A (Jonah) Flayed Crow: The Hall of Judgement’(SP)
‘Awaiting Judgement in the Afterlife’(SP)
They allow him a new chance in their world

In this poem, for the first time in the Cave Birds sequence, the alchemical imagery predominates. The protagonist describes himself in terms of matter which is being continuously distilled and condensed: he floats “As mist–balls float, and as stars”; and he is condensed into “A globe of blot, a drop of unbeing”, “a distillation in which [he] no longer finds anything recognisable”(ED). His body has dissolved and, from this primordial mixture of elements. he is being re–created. The pun in Hughes’ phrase – “This yoke of afterlife” – suggests the generative, yolk–like nature of the mixture within which the protagonist exists like “the self of some spore”. Yet, his choice of ‘yoke’, rather than ‘yolk’, defines well the involuntary participation of the protagonist in the process: it prompts. too, the idea of a burden, the awesome and paradoxical nature of which is embodied in the protagonist’s description of the great weight which rests on him “as a feather on a hand”. Rising, falling and floating, like an embryo inside an egg, like a foetus in a womb35, he waits for his future with total acceptance, only wondering what this future will be:

What feathers shall I have? What is my weakness for?

His questions are Wodwo–like but his humility is perfect. Soul–naked, he offers the very skin of his soul as “A mat” for his judges.

Baskin’s drawing shows the embryo crow within “this white of death blackness” which is the egg. His feathers are undefined and he is bowed beneath the frail but tough white of the egg–shell which protects and restrains him, resting on him just as “A great fear” rests feather–like on Hughes’ protagonist: it contains and delineates his world as Baskin’s line does in this picture.

In Hughes’ poem, the re–creation of the protagonist is presented as an alchemical process and no mention is made of any controlling creative force. The suggestion of some infinitely terrifying but infinitely gentle power, however, is contained in Hughes’ simile:

A great fear rests
On the thing I am, as a feather on a hand.

Such a paradoxical situation finds an interesting parallel in Blake’s illustrations for the story of Job (Plate 14) which, like Hughes’ poem, deals with a re–creation or genesis. Blake pictures Job, his wife and his friends, enclosed in an egg–shaped cavern on which God, the supreme being of infinite wrath and love, kneels. God is the creator. In cloud–shells beneath His outstretched arms are His creations of light, Apollo and Diana36, the sun and the moon. Surrounding the picture are egg–shaped miniatures depicting texts from Genesis. This whole plate illustrates, as does Baskin’s drawing and Hughes’ poem, the hero’s spiritual re–creation and the beginning of the period of gestation which precedes re–birth. It is a fine example, too, of the similarity of ideas and imagery used by all three artists in their treatment of this theme of spiritual enlightenment.

Job Plate 14

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

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