Stage Three of the Alchemical Synthesis

Solution and Distillation: Sulphur

The alchemical procedures undertaken so far have achieved the reunification of prima materia with the element Earth. In order to recreate the perfect unity of matter the mixture must now be washed with cleansing and revivifying Water, then Fire and Air must be added.

Water is essential at this stage for, as Ripley explained:

Without thine earth with water revived be
Our true congelation shalt thou never see

After the stages of death and dissolution. it is water which ‘thingis mortified causith to revive2.

Using a specially shaped retort called a ‘Pelican’, the Alchemist now adds ‘Our Water’ (which may have been any one of a number of different solvents) to the dry mixture and commences a slow process of circulation, distillation and sublimation3.

The Pelican retort has metaphorical, as well as practical, significance, being known to Alchemists as a vessel of transformation. It was named for its shape, which resembles that of a pelican pecking its breast, and the significance of this supposed resemblance is as described by Jung in Mysterium Coniunctionis:

it is said that the pelican so loves her young that she puts them to death with her claws. But on the third day for grief, she wounds herself, and letting the blood from her body drip upon the fledglings she raises them from the dead. The pelican signifies the Lord who so loved the world that he gave his only–begotten son whom on the third day he raised up, victor over death, and exalted above every name (MC.13f).

The washing procedures which take place in the pelican retort are regarded, therefore, as bringing about the physical and spiritual resurrection and purification of the subject matter. In the metaphors by which the Alchemists describe their work, ‘Our Water’ is ‘divine rain’4 or ‘celestial dew’5 which moistens the mixture and causes germination and growth. It is also written of as ‘baptismal water’ which washes away the last profane impurities from the nascent soul(MC.III:5).


In terms of the essential involvement of Mercury and Sulphur throughout the alchemical synthesis, the washing procedure which takes place in the pelican retort demonstrates the healing side of Mercury’s dual nature (MC.13), and the substance which is healed and revived is Sulphur. So, whilst the earlier stage of Leukosis (Stage II) dealt with the perfection of Mercury or the ‘White Female’, the whole of this third stage of the transformation deals with the perfection of Sulphur, the ‘red stone’ or the ‘Red Male’6.

Thei seide with-in centris of incomplete white
Was oure red stone of most delight;
Which may be with strength & kind of fyre
Made to apere right as we desire.

That is to say, if you take hede thereto,
Then is the faire white woman
Mariede to the rodie mane;

In Cave Birds, ‘The baptist’ parallels the initial washing operations of the third alchemical stage, and one of Hughes’ alternative titles for the poem is ‘A Pelican’(ED). The protagonist, at this stage, is recreated, but not yet re–born. In common with descriptions of the mixture found in alchemical allegories, his situation is likened to that of an embryo being nourished within its shell or a foetus within the womb8.

Hughes’ protagonist now undergoes a period of trials and tests, just as the alchemical mixture is now subjected to repeated purifying sublimation within the flask to prepare it for the final stage of the whole process. As a soul newly released from physical constraints, the protagonist’s final form is yet to be fixed and, like the soul wandering in the Bardo state of Buddhist belief, he meets a number of manifestations which offer him different kinds of rebirth into different ‘heavens’.

The imagery of the poems from ‘The baptist’ to ‘After there was nothing’ moves between Heaven and Earth, but it is predominantly Earthbound. In this respect it parallels the sequence of events which occurs in repeated sublimation, where solids separate from the body of the mixture rise upwards and are precipitated on the walls of the flask before falling back into the mixture. The Alchemists frequently describe this repeated process of ‘solve et coagula’ in terms of the spirit ascending and falling back, being digested, and having its poisons “spued out9.

Conjunction and Separation

Hughes’ notes to the two poems which were published in the Faber edition as ‘A riddle’ and ‘The scapegoat’ describe a similar purifying digestion: the ‘Monkey–Eating Eagle’ ‘marries’ its own substance to that of the protagonist, thus creating a confusion of identities (“Just as you are my father / I am your bride” (‘A riddle’ (CB.44)). From this, the cockerel scapegoat is ‘driven out’(ED).

The protagonist’s lack of singularity is expressed again in Hughes’ notes for ‘After there was nothing’, and ‘His legs ran about’:

After there was nothing
At moments it seems as if he were increasingly human, but somehow as if unborn, as if he were in the womb of some woman who is herself of dubious reality.

His legs ran about
he is no longer entirely unborn, though not completely born either, with consequent contusions (ED).

This uncertainty and confusion is easily explained in an alchemical context because the process of repeated sublimation involves a mingling of the properties and characteristics of the substances involved. Alchemical metaphor describes the process as being undertaken in order ‘to make the body spiritual’, and the soul ‘corporeal’ and ‘co–substantial’ with the body: it entails cleansing of the body and the combination of the opposing principles – body/soul, male/female, Mercury/Sulphur:

And Sublimations we make for causes three,
The first cause is, to make the bodie spiritual
The second is, that the spirit may corporeall bee,
And become fixt with it, and cosubstantiall;
The third cause is, that from his filthie originall
He may be cleansed, and his saltnes sulphuriousv
May be minimised in him, which is infectious

Alchemically, the Sulphur which predominates in Stage III of the process is earthy, non combustible and fixed (as opposed to volatile). It is described in the texts as being oily, coagulating and red11, and it is called ‘red–earth’, the ‘red–male’ and “the great dragon blaze, the secret fire”12. Like Mercury, it is an essential part of ‘Adamic’ earth, the ‘Prime Matter’ of Mankind, and it is associated with Earthly passions13. Although it is symbolised by the Sun, it has a lunar form in which it a white woman, or a white dove, and is associated with fertility and birth (MC.130–131; 69). Mercury is “the male seed from which all metals are created” and the fire of Sulphur “is the woman that brings forth fruit14. Appropriately, the Cave Birds poems which represent this stage are full of images of plants, animals and earthy fecundity, and they could be described as dealing, mostly, with Earth–bound desires and pleasures. In particular, the poem ‘A green mother’ exemplifies this earthy, sulphurous stage: an early version of the poem contains references to “a sulphur glare” and describes the protagonist as a “molten dove”, a “trophy” which is lifted “slow and charred from the furnace, in red–oiled strength”. Such specifically alchemical imagery does not survive in the final, published version of the poem, but the earthy, blissful and ecstatic mood does, and this is carried on into the next poem in the sequence – ‘As I came, I saw a wood’.

The more specifically sexual associations of Sulphur are suitably symbolised in the sequence by the lust–driven “stud cockerel”(ED) of ‘The scapegoat” and in the woman of ‘After there was nothing …’, who exists for, and is obsessed by, her reproductive functions. These two poems present the essential Adam and Eve who, in alchemical texts, are often called the ‘Red Male’ and the ‘White Woman’ or ’solar‘ and ‘lunar’ Sulphur(MC.131; 230; Ch.V), and which represent opposites which must be reconciled before physical and spiritual reintegration of the raw material can be achieved15.

The end of Stage III of the alchemical transmutation is indicated by the appearance, once again, of a dazzling whiteness which indicates the end of the ‘Sublimation’. As Ripley puts it in his Compound of Alchemy(1591), where he describes Sublimation as the eighth of twelve ‘Gates’ to completion of the process :

Then when they thus together depured be
They will sublime up whiter than the snowe;
That light will greatly comfort thee:
For then, anon, perfectly thou shalt knowe
The Spirits shall so adowne ythrow,
That this eight Gate shall be to thee unlocked
Out of which many be shut and mocked,

Similar snow and light imagery appears in Hughes’ poem, ‘The guide’, which marks the end of the protagonist’s spiritual testing and the end of the third alchemical stage in the Cave Birds sequence.

The hero’s passage through the underworld has been completed. Now, a guide comes to help him on the next stage of his journey, lifting him from the snowy whiteness and flying with him into a fiery wind. That this guide is another manifestation of Mercury/Hermes is suggested by the alchemical writing of Bonus of Ferrara, who describes Mercury, at this stage, as “a pure, heavenly and glorious water” which “is sometimes referred to as a flying bird”. This bird is depicted in Ripley’s illustrated alchemical scroll, where he writes:

The Bird of Hermes is my name,
Eating my wings to make me tame.

In the Sea withouten lesse,
Standeth the Bird of Hermes:
Eating his Wings variable,
And thereby maketh himself more stable;
When all his Fethers be agon,
He standeth still there as a stone;
Here is now both White and Red,
And also the Stone to quicken the dead,

Bonus writes, also, of the vulnerability of the newly made alchemical substance, likening it to newly hatched “little creatures“ which need the assistance and guidance of some more powerful being18: for the Alchemist, Mercury in its healing form is always this assistant or guide.

Bird of Hermes

‘The baptist’

‘The Maze Pelican ’(ED)
‘A Pelican’(ED)
‘The False Guide to Unending Mazes’19
‘The Pontiff’(EU)20
‘A Hermetic Pelican’(EU)
But first he has to be washed in the waters of the source.

Water is universally associated in mythology with birth and with initiation, both of which entail the crossing of thresholds. It represents the remnants of the chaotic waters of primordial creation which became the salt–sea of the Earth; it is a symbol for the amniotic waters of birth and the purifying waters of spiritual initiation; and it is “the vehicle of the goddess21, who is the Mother.

Using images and words which evoke the cool, soothing and nurturing properties of water, Hughes brings his protagonist to the threshold of rebirth. This baptism, however, is more than a ritual washing–away of the old self or a cleansing of the sinner, as in a Christian baptism. By the use of words such as “enfolds” and “balm”, and by the long, soothing vowel–sounds of each line, Hughes suggests the gentle healing process in which his protagonist is a helpless participant. Bandaged. blindfold and gagged, like an Egyptian mummy, the hero undergoes a slow dissolution in which the “body‘s puckering hurts” and the soul’s “hard–cornered grief” slowly melt to a fluid state such as is paralleled in Nature by the cellular chaos which precedes metamorphosis.

The helplessness of the protagonist and his enclosure within the “winding waters”of the baptismal sea suggest his surrender to a state of consciousness such as Jung describes when he refers to baptism as immersion in the seas of the collective subconscious(MC.199). For Jung, it is the “sinful and impure” personal subconscious which is washed away by the baptismal waters: the remaining collective subconscious contains the “constructive and destructive powers of the unconscious”(MC.201) which are shared by all human beings. Jung believes that the collective subconscious is expressed

in the mythological teachings, characteristic of most mystery religions, which reveal the secret knowledge concerning the origin of all things and the way to salvation. (MC. 190-200)

Discussing the Christian and the Alchemical views of baptism, Jung concludes that both doctrines see it as a ritual in which those who are adequately purified, prepared and guided, cross a spiritual threshold (MC.199–200; 235–239). The Cave Birds protagonist has been brought to a condition in which he now fulfils these requirements, but beyond this point are still further tests and puzzles.

Despite the baptist’s soothing and healing powers, the bird–being which appears in Cave Birds at this point is not, as Baskin suggests in the title to his picture, completely trustworthy. Baskin’s pelican is a curious bird. Its beak appears to be stuck together with tar, its serpentine neck is filled with bandage–like strips, and its feet are those of a raptor not an aquatic bird. It is a confusing mixture which indicates the confusing nature of a bird whose false guidance leads to “unending mazes”: mazes which are, perhaps, the mazes of the subconscious mind. Certainly, true guidance and true wholeness have yet to be achieved.

A completely different poem exists among the papers at Emory University. Its title ‘The pontiff’ suggests that the guide assumes airs of infallibility and it confirms the suggestion that this guide is not to be trusted. The poem is structured in two columns the first of which proclaims that this pelican offers “revelation”, “renewal”, “strength” and beauty. It claims to be to be able to bring the protagonist hope and joy, and to be able to show him the “road to life”. The second column is full of images of the after–death dissolution of the body, the “spoor of phosphorescence”, the stripped bone where the “fly of enquiry” hovers and the worm “blooms”.

The first column instructs the protagonist not to turn right and ends with the word ‘Yes’; the second tells him not to turn left, and ends with ‘No’. This ‘pontiff’ promises, in the first column, to bring him to the world, but in the second column warns him that he will have his “head twisted backwards”, as if still looking at his past rather than striving towards his future. This is a ‘maze’ the protagonist must negotiate – the first of a number of tests which must still be passed. And it reflects the alchemical process in which there are still repeated purifications to be undergone before the pure ‘gold’ can be achieved.

‘Only a little sleep, a little slumber ’

Reduced to total dependency on the mercy (help) of (the) eagles, he begins to feel first stirrings. (of humanity again).

This poem was one which was added to the sequence at a late stage, and for which Baskin subsequently provided a drawing. It appears only in the A sequence, but it was read at the Ilkley Festival, and the version published in the Faber edition was included in the BBC broadcast.

In the broadcast, all but the last line of the poem were read chorally, the final statement being made by the hero’s voice alone so that it was obvious that it was he to whom the earlier lines were addressed. Such an identification of the poem’s voices is only suggested in the published versions of the poem by the enclosure of the final line in inverted commas. It was not indicated at all in earlier versions which, in any case, are very different, and in which a definite duality in the protagonist’s nature is still apparent, the subject of the poem’s action being alternately ‘I’ and ‘you’. Despite this, it seems most likely that such duality is intended in the final version of the poem, since the ultimate aim of the whole cleansing and healing process is to achieve a balanced unity, not to destroy one aspect of the personality in favour of any other.

When read to oneself from the printed page, the poem has a meditative tone which suggests the protagonist’s own tentative probing of this new aspect of himself, this new experience. Such tentativeness is in keeping, too, with the description of the new creature, its shyness and silence, and its relationship to the being from which it has emerged (it is part of his brain, and its “nest” is among his bones). It is the tiny spark of humanity which is all that is left of the former personality, and it is fragile and vulnerable, like the fledgling in Baskin’s illustration.

In describing the separation of this being from the remnants of the old arrogant and selfish one, Hughes’ imagery captures, exactly, the ambiguous relationship between the two. What remains of the old is “a polyp”, something which is either a malign growth to be “snipped off” and discarded, or a tiny aquatic animal from which whole colonies may grow. It is, also, “a crumb of fungus / A pulp of mouldy tinder”, unpleasant sounding things which nevertheless have great generative power: fungus reproducing with ease, and tinder kindling fires which then consume it. Thus,in his imagery, Hughes captures the paradox of the phoenix, which is born from its parent’s ashes and which, in Alchemy, is the symbol of the newly risen soul. And, in the final line of the poem – “I am the last of my kind” – he concisely conveys both the rarity of this ‘bird’ and its fledgling vulnerability.

‘A green mother’

‘A Loyal Mother ’(ED)
‘A Sunrise Owl’(SP)
‘Kindly father of lies and forgiveness ’ 22
He is offered an easy option, by the eagle–owl.

At this stage in the Cave Birds sequence, Hughes’ acknowledged debt to the Buddhist Bardo Thodol becomes most apparent. Having been separated from its material body, his new creature now wanders in a strange world like a soul wandering in the Bardo.

Just as the Bardo–wandering soul is offered re–birth of various kinds by manifested deities, so Hughes’ fledgling is shown different ‘heavens’ from which he may choose. The purpose of the Bardo Thedol is to prepare the soul to recognise and to avoid re–birth into the lower planes of existence which are governed by Earthly passions and obsessions: the soul is taught to choose, instead, a liberated buddha state. Similarly, Hughes’ protagonist must recognise that his struggles are not yet over, and that he must reject the easily achieved heavens of Earthly bliss and Paradisal ecstasy if he is to reach the heaven of the eagles.

Despite the fact that Hughes’ introductions for this poem refer to an eagle–owl and Baskin’s illustration title calls the bird a father of forgiveness, the bird–being which now appears is female, motherly and benign. She is, again, Blodeuwedd the flower goddess who is also an owl, and her “busy hive of heavens” is that of the Earth Goddess, Mother Earth, whose “grave is her breast” and whose “angels” are of the trees and flowers. She offers the almost total acceptance and care of a mother; a return to the security of childhood; a continual dreamlike existence of careless bliss. Yet, there is an underlying irony in this offer – an irony which is exemplified by the worm, “A forgiving God”, which is more usually recognised as a corpse–gnawer. In the worm’s heaven, certainly, “little of you will be rejected” but, as in other Earthly heavens, you will share the “everliving bliss” of the flowers, having “endless life” in the continuous recycling processes of Nature. This is just such a state, on the lower planes of existence, from which the Bardo Thodol seeks to provide release. It is a blind, vegetative state on the wheel of life from which there can be no progress and no hope of enlightenment.

Closely linked in the poem with these natural heavens are “the heavens of your persuasion”, the heavens of “The city of religions”. This connection is important, for it indicates strongly Hughes’ own views on the organised religions of the world. From the beginning, this poem parodies the kind of forgiveness, acceptance, comfort and promises of everlasting life which are fundamental to these religions, and to Christianity in particular. Like hotels in a “holiday city”, Mankind’s religions can offer comforting havens from the harsh realities of life and death, and rituals and dogma which obviate the need to think and decide for oneself. They, like the heavens offered in the poem, promise riches in the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ which will be the “aftertaste of death”.

The words and pattern of the second line of the poem provide the first hint of Hughes’ parody, recalling the biblical quotation, “In my father’s house are many mansions23. In the fifth and sixth stanzas, however, the connection is made more specific. By using the word ‘candle’ as an adjective linked to ‘prayers’ Hughes suggests the ethereal, illuminating quality of prayer, but he immediately destroys this spiritual felicity with the word ’congealed‘. The “angel, a star” which could have soared with the prayers, congeals and falls, as if Earthbound by the formal rituals of rule–bound, rationally ordained, worldly prayer.

The Goddess, like the fatherly gods of the world’s major religions, has a cruel, retributive side to her nature, but, although her association with death is made clear in the poem, only her motherly, loving aspect is revealed. Baskin’s drawing shows her as an owl, a plump, benign looking, dark eyed bird of the night, whose raptorial claws are well hidden beneath her fluffed–out feathers. Her eagle nature is concealed, but other factors may also have modified this bird’s appearance. Comparison of this drawing with the drawings for two earlier poems, ‘The plaintiff’ and (especially) ‘The gatekeeper’, shows the softening which has occurred in the eagle–owl’s appearance as the protagonist has progressed on his journey. In the teachings of the Bardo Thodol, where the manifestations which appear to the wandering soul are its own projections, such a softening would reflect the protagonist’s increasing acceptance of the female aspects of his nature and a merging of the dichotomies which characterised his world.

‘As I came, I saw a wood’

Much as he would like to take this beautiful option, he cannot.

As with several of the poems which were added to the original Cave Birds sequence, this poem allows us to observe the current situation through the protagonist’s eyes and to share his reactions. So, we see with him the kind of heavens which the green mother is offering.

Like many questing knights, the protagonist comes to a dark wood, unknown territory which is traditionally fraught with danger and the risk of enchantment. It is significant that what attracts his attention first is the trees. Unlike the mythical Tree of Life which connects the realms of the Underworld, the Middle World and Heaven, these trees merely clutch at the heavens and their starkness reminds the protagonist of “savages”, unenlightened people “clutching at the sky”. In his newly aware state (the phrase “I could see” is emphasised by repetition and by the isolation of the lines in which it occurs) he sees the self absorption of the dancers and the superficial signs of their sanctity and obedience – the “glow” of their fur and their “holy steps”. He sees, also, the festive, ritual nature of the dancers’ religious ecstasy, and his own position of choice at the “crossroads of all the heavens”.

The timelessness of this experience, its dreamlike quality and the degree to which the protagonist is absorbed by it, is suggested in the poem by the sibilant sounds, the sinuous, continuous rhythm of the protagonist’s account, and the almost total lack of end stops to the printed lines. At the moment of choice, the rhythm is halted by the hard consonants which imitate the jarring ‘voice’ of the bell, breaking the hypnotic spell and recalling the protagonist to the realities of his present journey. To achieve wholeness and enlightenment he must reject this beautiful option and, in Eliot’s words, “go by the way in which there is no ecstasy24.

The final two lines of the poem restate the spiritual nature of the protagonist’s quest. In many religions, as in Alchemy, ‘flesh and blood’ correspond to the ‘inward and hidden fire’(MC.15f) of the god or goddess which is ritually and (usually) symbolically ingested by the worshippers in order to absorb the holy spirit. So, the path to which the protagonist is summoned by the bell is the difficult one of selfless communion with the deity, rather than that of self–absorbed ecstasy from which there is no escape or progress.

The animals, as the protagonist observed, were absorbed in a dance that “never stopped / Or left anything old or reached any new thing”. They will remain, physically and spiritually, in the dark wood. Such a fate is represented with graphic symbolism in Baskin’s illustration for this poem, where only the heads of the dancing birds are visible and their bodies remain hidden in the engulfing blackness.

‘ A riddle ’

‘A Monkey Eating Eagle’(SP)
‘ Incomparable marriage ’(ED)
‘ Mother of Inevitables ’(ED)
‘Mother of judgment – the tongue of truth gives’ 25
The Monkey–Eating Eagle claims to be his daughter in the heaven of eagles. Whether he likes it or not, he now has to marry her. (and) His fate, it seems, is to become the child in her womb.

Once again the protagonist has arrived at the threshold between death and life; at the interface between the Underworld and the natural world “Of wind and of sun, of rock and water”. Again, he must pass the threshold guardian’s test before he may proceed. Like the two headed gatekeeper which was encountered earlier, the Monkey–Eating Eagle of this poem has a double nature, but its duality is expressed in the paradoxes of its riddle rather than by its physical appearance.

Using a style which resembles the traditional riddle form of Old English verse. Hughes presents the paradox of the eagle’s nature in two line stanzas each of which embodies an opposition. These brief statements, following the peremptory bluntness of the opening question, convey the primitive, arresting power of the eagle. The pattern of its riddle brings to an end the fluid, dreamlike mood of the previous poems which had already faltered at the notes of the summoning bell. The question and the questioner, whose clues to the riddle compound the enigma, block the protagonist’s progress as effectively as Baskin’s eagle fills the frame of its picture.

Both the situation and the question have well known parallels in Greek mythology, as they do, also, in the Book of Job. Oedipus, on the borders of his birth place is confronted by the man–eating sphinx and her riddle; Ulysses, trapped in the dark womb–like cave of cannibalistic Polyphemos, gains egress by a careful answer to its question; and Job, before his release from torment (a re–creation which Blake depicts in Plate 14) is confronted by God with a long series of rhetorical questions26. Even the questing birds in Attar’s allegorical poem must answer the noble chamberlain’s questions before the door to the Simurgh is opened for them. In each case the questions concern the nature, purpose and importance of Man. They resemble those questions which Hughes’ Wodwo asks itself (THCP.183): “What am I?”, “What am I doing here …?”, “what shall I be called…?”. And the answers require a self–knowledge which, in the spiritual context, is a necessary prerequisite for knowledge of God. Common to all spiritual quests is the necessity to ‘Know thyself’, for, as Mohammed wrote, “He who knows himself knows the Lord27.

An essential part of self–knowledge is the recognition of the physical mortality and spiritual endurance which comprise the dual, mortal and immortal, aspects of human existence. Oedipus recognises the enigma of the sphinx as physically mutable and mortal Man; Ulysses’ answer to Polyphemos’ question, although presented in the story as a trick, involves humility and a denial of his physical self – he is ‘Nobody’; Job must reject his pride and selfhood and, as Blake’s illustration implies, must “humbly recognise God’s supremacy and acknowledge that he is in God’s image, not contrariwise, as before28. Attar’s birds, also, come to recognise their own non–existence apart from the Simurgh29. In all these stories self–knowledge is essential before the heroes can complete their journeys.

Job Plate 14

The answer to the riddle which now tests the Cave Birds protagonist demands a similar recognition of his own duality and his relationship to the questioner. The content of the riddle retraces the protagonist’s journey, which the questioner has shared, although her experience of it has been very different. The very nature of this female bird’s participation, however, demonstrates that she and he are complementary halves of a unit (as in the earlier poem, ‘Actaeon’): and the changing balance between male and female is restated. It is clear that this she–eagle has been both victim (like the Plaintiff) and then victor (like the Vulture in ‘She seemed so considerate’): and her riddle is solved only by the recognition that she is the essential female element in the protagonist’s life, representative of the Goddess, and inextricably linked to him as his daughter, his bride and, now, his mother. As she tells him in the version of the poem published by Scolar Press, she is his “creator”; and in a draft version:

I am what you have brought, neither more nor less.
I am what you are worth …
I am the collection of your parts

As an eagle, symbol of the sun, the questioner is as much ‘a bird of light’ as was the owl in ‘The plaintiff’, but the light which she now brings to the protagonist’s darkness has grown stronger. She is to be his “saviour mother”(SP) whose love will “cast out the love evil / That gorged only itself”(SP. And by devouring this mischievous and primitive ‘monkey’ – this proud, trickster of a man – she will marry his being to hers and accomplish his rebirth.

From such an ‘incomparable marriage’ will come the resolution of this complex riddle, and a whole, new being will be born. Yet, whilst the world which this being enters will be “changed” by his new awareness, the she–eagle promises to deliver him into the fundamentally “unchangeable world” of the elements, wind (air), sun (fire), rock (earth) and water, “to cry”. Not only is this the natural response of all newborn creatures, but, because the protagonist has been chosen by the bird–beings to undertake this journey of enlightenment, it may also suggest that these bird–beings intend him to pass on to others the knowledge and experience which he thus gains.

Hughes’ alternative title for the she–eagle which is his, and his protagonist’s, creation is ‘Mother of Inevitables’. This not only conveys the inexorable nature of the she–eagle’s will, but it also echoes the title of the Siberian Yakut people’s magical, iron–feathered she–eagle, the ‘Mother of Animals’. Significantly, this creature is the mother of the Yakut shamans who mediate between the spirit world and the natural world of their communities30. And it is worth noting, too, that Hughes’ Monkey–Eating Eagle has appeared before in his work in shamanic guise. In a nightmarish story, The Threshold (published 1979 in a limited edition), the threshold guardian is an enigmatic old man, “grey and huddled and hairy and filthy” like Hughes’ various tramps31. The old man’s nose is “hooked, hawklike”, and his eye is “like an alert owl’s”, or like that of “a monkey–eating eagle”: but he appears, also, in a shamanic ritual as “a shaggy half-human figure, like a wolf on its hind–legs standing on a high conical hill, beating a drum and turning in a slow circle singing32. So, like the eagle–owl/protagonist of ‘A riddle’, this threshold guardian also combines animal and human qualities, and he, too, has the shamanic power of moving between the material world and the Otherworld of the spirit.

‘ The scapegoat ’

‘The Sacrifice ’
‘ The Scapegoat Culprit ’(ED)
‘ A Stud Cockerel Hunted in a Desert ’(ED)
‘ The Culprit’(SP)
‘Scapegoat vanities and earthly Illusions ’ 33.
His marriage, the opposite of a physical marriage, is celebrated by driving out of him a Cockerel as a scapegoat, a sacrifice to Eagles.

In this poem and the next (‘After there was nothing there was a woman’) Hughes depicts the biological essence of man and of woman. At the same time he presents two vivid pictures of the kind of exclusive and divisive self–absorption of which the protagonist has been accused.

As Baskin’s etching shows, the scapegoat or culprit of the first poem is the same proud cockerel, “lord of middens”, whose “imbecile” pride was demonstrated in ‘The accused’. He is, also, the “love creature that gorges only itself“ (a phrase which appears in almost every version of the poem except the one published in the Faber edition) and it is this selfhood which the Monkey–Eating Eagle intends to drive out.

Once again, there is a parallel in Blake’s illustrations for story of Job. Plate 16 is embellished with the texts, “The Prince of this World shall be cast out” and “Even devils are subject to Us thro’ thy Name”, and it shows God casting Satan into the flames. Blake’s unique interpretation of the biblical text shows two smaller ‘devils’ also being cast down, and these have been identified as “the obstructive self hoods of Job and his wife34. God’s judgment condemns the self–righteous to Hell and, in explanatory notes for a lost picture of ‘The Last Judgment’, Blake wrote: “In Hell all is Self Righteousness”, and “Whenever any Individual Rejects Error & embraces Truth, a Last Judgment passes on that Individual35. Outside the sacrificial fires, Job and his wife watch this spectacle fearlessly, their position and attitudes demonstrating their new-found awareness and spiritual strength.

Blake Plate 16

A scapegoat is a traditional sacrifice required by the gods, and Hughes’ scapegoat /cockerel will take with it all the selfish appetites of the flesh, the vanities and the earthly illusions which must be cast out of the protagonist before he can make a new spiritual beginning. This cockerel, although helplessly driven by lust, greed, superstition and foolish pride, is yet a “beautiful thing”. His “wealth” is his seed. his “sweetnesses” the “hot weakness” of sexual passion, and his opalescent beauty is but skin deep, yet he embodies energies which are essential to life. “Posterity”, which inherits his debts, can exist only because of the biological urges which rule his life. He embodies the paradox which Blake summed up in two of his ‘Proverbs of Hell’:

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God
(MHH. 8:4–5).

Hughes’ cockerel is “The joker” in the “confederate pack”. Like The Fool in Tarot card readings he is a symbol of human folly, frivolity, rashness and naivety, and of the Dionysian elements in Man36. However, just as the Tarot Fool is linked by Cabbalists with ‘aleph’ (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and “the beginning of all37, so the scapegoat is responsible for new life, both biologically and symbolically.

The complexity of Hughes’ imagery in this poem is a reflection of the complexity of human beings. Through it, he manages to convey not only the powerful sensual pleasures of sexual desire and the barely contained tangle of superstitions and false beliefs which lie beneath the “panoply” of skin, but also the intricate workings of heredity by which Man’s ‘sins’ may be visited on his children – “An I.O.U. signed by posterity” which includes, perhaps, Mankind’s inheritance of the original sin of the biblical parents, Adam and Eve.

Ultimately, in this poem Hughes mocks the belief that immortality can be ensured by succumbing to the dictates of the body and its sexuality. Such a course is profligate spending of valuable energy, “A slaking of thistles”, and as false and full of irony as Hughes’ description of this cockerel as “the lord of immortality”.

So, despite his beauty, the cockerel is predominantly a creature of darkness. In Baskin’s etching, the voluptuous and exotic bird stands just on the edge of the light. In the poem, too, the sunlight touches him only in “chill draughts” and, having gambled his body and lost, he finally becomes nothing but “a smear on the light”. This is the small obstacle to the life–giving energies of the sun which the Monkey–Eating Eagle now removes.

‘After there was nothing there was a woman ’

At moments is seems (?) as if he were increasingly human, but somehow as if unborn, as if he were still inside the womb of some woman (female) who is herself of dubious reality.

In many ways this poem is complementary to the previous one, constituting the second half of a pair which deals with similarities and opposites. Instead of a comically active male who foolishly squanders his sexual energies, we are shown a passive female basking in her natural reproductive function. The cockerel is an empty carcase, “frilled” and bejewelled, and linked with the sun: the woman is naked, full of new life, and linked with nature, the sea and (by association) the moon. In their self–absorption, however, the two are alike: as they are, also, in the instrumental roles which they play in the protagonist’s rebirth. If the cockerel is a foolish and sinful Adam, then this woman is a sensuous and feminine Eve.

The woman, like the cockerel, is a beautiful creature. Her delight in the “winding and unwinding” rhythms of Nature which she finds within her, her glowing acceptance of her function, and her gentle incomprehension and “soldierly bearing” in the face of events over which she has no control, all mitigate the vanity and self–love which are apparent in her urge to caress and decorate her body.

The mood which pervades the poem conveys not only the woman’s reverential attitude to her body, but also the awesome wonder and complexity of the creative process of which she is (“but only just”) a part. Another of Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’ – “The nakedness of woman is the work of God” (MHH 8:7) – seems very apt: and Hughes, too, makes a connection between this woman and some higher powers. The predominance of natural imagery in the poem and the description of the woman’s origin, suggest her relationship to the Mother Goddess, vulture headed Hathor, and to Hecate, the Moon Goddess whose symbol is a dog. In addition, the “vulture’s gullet”, the “droppings of the wild dog”, and the “long toil of earthworms” are all part of the regenerative pattern of Nature, the cycle of life and death which has provided Hughes with a consistent and unifying metaphor for the Cave Birds protagonist’s spiritual transformation.

The woman’s connection with the Monkey–Eating Eagle is established in the introductory note to the poem, and the protagonist’s feeling that she is ‘of dubious reality’ is consistent with the strange ‘marriage’ of identities which is taking place. It is a marriage in which the cockerel, the woman, the eagle and the protagonist all take part and by which, as is explicitly stated in some early drafts of the poem, the protagonist is “stripped … of his clay”, his “soils”(ED), and is reborn in a purified state.

Baskin’s etching of the woman conveys well the mingling of identities which takes place in the transforming marriage. Her head, feet and feathers are those of a bird, but her full belly and breasts are made very obvious, emphasising the tiny, “ant–like head and soldierly bearing” of a gravid woman.

‘ The guide ’

‘A Scarecrow Swift’(SP)
‘ The Guide ’(SP)
‘The (One) Guide’(ED)
‘The True Guide ’ 38.
At the same time (And it seems as if) his journey (progress advance) through the heaven of eagles is (were) only just beginning.

Stripped of its earthy soils, the hero’s spirit re–emerges into the world like a new creature (the Scolar Press version begins: “The Chick ruptures its shell then stops dazzled”). From this newborn state it can grow to achieve great things, yet it needs guidance and protection. So, a new bird–being appears. It starts where the new creature stops, in the dazzling light of its new world; it comes “from what is left”(ED); and it comes to change the protagonist’s Earth–bound state and to guide him through “the heaven of eagles”.

In folklore, the swift (like the swallow) is a sacred bird connected with the soul39. For Hughes, it has always been a symbol of freedom and energy, an expression of primitive forces, a “goblin savage”(SS.28) – herald of the summer. This association with summer and the sun gives it sacred significance. Hughes calls it “my little Apollo”(SS.28) and, in ‘The Swift comes the swift’(M.164), it becomes a symbol for a fallen creature which, in resurrection,

Casts aside the two-arm two-leg article–
The pain instrument
Flesh and soft entrails and nerves, and is off

It is a bird which joins Heaven and Earth, shearing “between life and death”, like a meteorite “puncturing the veils of worlds”.

In ‘The guide’, the speed and energy of the swift is less violently evoked than in Hughes’ other poems, but it is suggested by the “Tumbling worlds” over which the bird flies, by the scouring winds which empty the clinging protagonist, and in the sense of movement and release which the imagery of the poem generates. Most apparent, however, is the swift’s link with the spiritual world to which it is ‘the true guide’ (Baskin’s title). It is like a “Magnetic” needle, pointing the way to the Northern realms where lie the world axis and Mankind’s earliest mythical Heaven, and which are also the home of the Sun–Eagle, the mythological mother of the Yakut shamans.

The need for a true guide is acknowledged in both shamanic and gnostic beliefs. Shamanic guides teach the necessary skill of flight between Heaven and Earth so that the shaman can intercede between gods and humans: gnostic guides, such as Mohammed and Christ, show man the path, ’The Way‘ to Heaven: Blake, too, at this stage in the story of Job, depicts in Plate 17 a spiritual guide. This illustration shows God blessing Job and his wife, but Blake has filled the lower borders of his picture with Christ’s words proclaiming the identity of God and Christ, and His guidance towards Man’s union with both:

I and my Father are one.
If you had known me ye would have known my Father also …

He that loveth me shall be loved of my Father and | will love him and manifest myself to him. And my Father will love him and we will come unto him and make our abode in him.
Job Plate 17

In Hughes’ poem, as in these other cases, the guide’s help is effective only after Man has attained a certain degree of spiritual freedom. Now that the Earthly and physical restraints have been thrown off, the protagonist’s spirit can soar free. It is guided through winds which, like Pentecostal fires or the fearsome tornado of Karma described in the Bardo Thodol40, cleanse, scour and empty him so that the creator’s re–vivifying breath may flow gently in. The true guide, like Mercury, leads his followers to enlightenment and resurrection: and the wind is the alchemical wind which carries the “one thing”, the pure alchemical gold, “in its belly41.

Still, in this poem, the unifying metaphor of Nature’s birth/death cycles is present. The scarecrow, mentioned in the Scolar Press title, was once an image of the crucified fertility god42 , and its cross–shape symbolises the death and resurrection of the god who gives all natural things life (just as the Christian cross symbolises the death of Christ who is known as ‘Our Saviour’). The cross, however, is also an alchemical symbol representing the combination of the four element – air, fire, earth and water; the four qualities – hot, dry, wet and cold: and the four directions – north, south, east and west.

Baskin’s swift is symbolically cross–shaped, its wings are spread for flight and its firm stance suggests strength and reliability. Its form is also strongly reminiscent of the many winged gods of mythology who are symbolised by the Ansate cross in which the extremities are split like the legs of birds or humans. The most notable of these gods, in relation to Hughes’ poem, are Isis, whose wing–beats “transmitted the breath of life to the dead Osiris43, and the ancient Persian sun–god, Ahura Mazda.

Ahura Mazda

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

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