The Perfectibility of Man

Hughes’ experience with Orghast not only influenced the structure and development of the poetic sequence, Cave Birds, which was soon to follow, it also brought new life to ideas Hughes had begun work on earlier but had, for various reasons, abandoned.

The first of these works to be completed was Season Songs – a sequence of poems based on Autumn Songs for Children’s Voices, five poems which were written for the Harvest Festival at Little Missenden in 1968. Season Songs CoverAdditional poems for this sequence were written during the same period as Gaudete and Cave Birds, and in 1974 it appeared as a Rainbow Press limited edition entitled, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. In it, with the cyclical destructive/re–creative energies of Nature as his theme, Hughes again attempted to communicate his unifying vision simply and directly to his readers. Introducing a reading from it on the BBC, Hughes said:

My only concern was to stay close to simple observation, directing my reader’s attention to things which had interested me and keeping myself within hearing of children 1.

His intention was that the poems should be accessible to children but able to speak to adults, too. The result, as Gifford and Roberts noted, reflected “far more concentrated attention and imaginative activity” than is apparent in any of his previous work for children, and that the “freedom and expansiveness” of Hughes’ tone was apparent, also, in the other work he was producing at that time2. Looking at Season Songs in relation to Hughes’ other work, Keith Cushman noted Hughes’ “renewed vision of life’s sacredness and harmony”, which he described as “a path back towards life and wholeness of being” from the “nihilistic impasse” to which Crow and Prometheus on His Crag appeared to lead 3.

A second work to which Hughes returned at this time, was the story of the Reverend Lumb, which he had first written as a film script for a Swedish director between 1962 and 1964. In 1971, prompted by a series of “dreams connected with the mythopoeic narrative behind Crow4. Hughes began to rewrite Lumb’s story. The result was Gaudete and, in reply to a query from Faas, Hughes wrote:

Gaudete obviously is connected to Crow, Crow in full, with big developments, would be the yolk, and Gaudete would be the shell. I projected the life of Lumb in the underworld, and it became entangled with Crow, and the episodes became like real events of which the Gaudete events are the shadow on the wall in the cave5.

The link between Gaudete and Crow, and the theme of the mythical, transforming journey through the Underworld, show the persistence of Hughes’ poetic attempts to examine and to heal the divisions in our world. His theatrical experiences with Orghast, meanwhile, had brought increased vividness and focus to this work, thereby enhancing its cinematic qualities and producing “pictures and soundtrack” which so powerfully disturbed some critics that they vehemently attacked Hughes for excessive bloodiness and violence, altogether missing the balancing harmony and beauty of the final scenes and poems6.

Unfortunately, few readers understood what Hughes was attempting in Gaudete, and even those critics who were favourably disposed towards him found the sequence difficult and perplexing. Julian Symons, reviewer for The Sunday Times, described Gaudete as “a very strange work indeed”. Having explained some of his puzzlement, he wrote:

It is a pity that the poem should be so obscure, not passage by passage, but in its ultimate meaning…. But whatever the poem finally means, its eloquence, passion and power are unmistakable. It is the most impressive single work produced by an English poet in this decade7.

This prompted another reviewer, Edwin Brock, to accuse him pithily of contradicting himself. Brock, apparently, had no difficulty in understanding what Gaudete was about. For him, it was simply the story of “the Reverend Nicholas Lumb fucking his parishioners”. He chose to deal with only part of the text and to ignore the Epigraphs and Hughes’ Argument, Prologue and Epilogue: he conceded that a lot of the text was “beautifully written”; but he concluded that “Gaudete could well find a place in English Literature as a monument to the misuse of talent8. Unfortunately, he was not alone in this assessment.

Other reviewers suggested that Gaudete was an “attempt to discover the point where good and evil meet9; that it was a “religious polemic” in “Yorkshire Gothic” manner 10(13); and that it was a story “of the Polanski type11.

It was left to those who had made a close study of Hughes’ work over a number of years (Sagar, Hirschberg, and Gifford and Roberts, for example) to elucidate the underlying themes of reconciliation with the Goddess; of the poet’s negotiations with his own inner world which, as Hughes had written elsewhere, is the “dehumanised”; inner world of modern Man – “elemental, chaotic, continually more primitive and beyond our control … a place of demons” (ME-2.90); and of his shamanic attempt to re–establish communication between our dislocated inner and outer worlds. Belatedly, John Bayley, in an obituary essay for Hughes in The Times Literary Supplement (13 Nov. 1998), wrote that he found Gaudetenot only an astonishingly vivid mystical drama, but an outburst of manic happiness which reminded [him] of Christopher Smart and his Song of David”.

Those who still object to the inner vision which Hughes presents in Gaudete (and few readers find it altogether acceptable) are behaving just as he once predicted when he wrote:

If we do manage to catch a glimpse of our inner selves, we recognise it with horror – it is an animal crawling and decomposing in a hell. We refuse to own it (ME-2.90).

However, despite the careful analyses of Sagar, Hirschberg, and Gifford and Roberts, the perplexities which so troubled the critics still prevail. Gifford and Roberts remarked that even “the most generous reading cannot evade the judgement that certain crucial weaknesses obscure the meaning of the narrative itself”. And Hughes, himself, was far from regarding Gaudete as completely satisfactory. By August 1977, shortly after the Platform Performance readings of Gaudete at the National Theatre in London, he had, apparently, come to feel that “the entire venture had turned into a deja vu experience pointing backwards rather than towards a conclusion12.

Nonetheless, his progress in Gaudete was noted. Faas saw Gaudete as “an unprecedented new stage in Hughes’ artistic development13, and J.M. Newton, wrote that “in all the compellingness of Gaudete there is an extraordinary freedom” as if “something has come free in [Hughes]” 14(17). Newton found, too, a “terrific equanimity” in the sequence – “the impression that everything in the world of the tale is at once terrible and beautiful and all of it, in the end, one” – words which echo Hughes’ own comments on “the ‘horror’ within the created ‘glory’ … as our common humanity undergoes it”, and the healing ability of mana which, like music, connects, “as it seems, everything to everything, and everything to the source of itself15.

Gaudete, in terms of Hughes’ own poetic quest, represented his first lengthy foray into the perilous woods of the human subconscious; his first prolonged confrontation with the most powerful natural energies; and his own vicarious journey through the bloody trials, the degradation and the ultimate death and spiritual rebirth to which the reverend Lumb is subjected. Lumb, like Hughes’ other Everyman heroes, exists at first in a state of complacency and blindness. He “has no idea where he is going” (G.11:3) but he is confident that he will find “ and decision” (G.11:9) within himself. Such, is normal human arrogance and folly. But the bloody nature of Lumb’s story, the cinematographic distancing devices which Hughes employed to control its energies, the actions of Lumb’s changeling double, and the complex structure of myth and fantasy which Hughes wove, prevent us from understanding and identifying with his hero. And because we see no link between his experiences and our own, we cannot learn from them. In the end, despite Lumb’s sacred, healing journey to the underworld, despite the supernatural events which surround his eventual return and the beauty of the hymns and prayers he brings with him, Lumb, for the reader, fails to achieve heroic status.

The third. and perhaps the most carefully structured, dramatically balanced, and emotionally satisfying work to follow Orghast, was Cave Birds. In it, Hughes dealt again with the perennial dualism of human nature in a dramatic and imaginative way. The sequence represents one more “raid on the inarticulate”, and it is a further expression of Hughes’ faith in the magical power of poetry “to make things happen the way you want them to happen16.

In the notes Hughes wrote for the Ilkley Festival performance of Cave Birds, he called it “ A mystery play, of sorts17. Building on his earlier experiences with Orghast, and drawing on the great tradition of mystery and morality plays which still exists in his native Yorkshire, he combined musical and dramatic effects in a story which tells of the spiritual transformation of a protagonist who shares many of the qualities of Lumb, Prometheus and Crow. This protagonist is arrogant, egocentric and destructive. He defies the gods and suffers in consequence of this, and he is blind to his own condition. Yet, through the god–like component of his nature, he is capable of redemption. Above all, he is a familiar hero with human characteristics; a figure with which both Hughes and his readers can identify and whose adventures we can imaginatively share.

The first tentative steps towards the Cave Birds journey can be traced in the twenty–one poems of ‘Prometheus on his Crag’ (THCP.285–296) which were written at the time of Hughes’ involvement with Orghast. Prometheus, as Nietzsche pointed out, is a scapegoat18. PrometheusCover He dares, whilst in human form, to challenge the Gods on Man’s behalf and he suffers the inevitable punishment for his deeds. Prometheus is also a Trickster – an amoral being whose actions are governed by impulse and who is both “creator and destroyer giver and negator, … who dupes others and is always duped himself19.

As such, Prometheus is directly related to Crow. Yet, although he shares many of Crow’s brash, daring, anti–authoritarian characteristics he, unlike Crow, has the human potential to understand and evaluate the causes and results of his actions.

Because Prometheus is related to the Titans, who were born of the mating of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Heaven), he embodies the whole range of human and godlike qualities, good and bad. For Hughes, this made him an ideal figure with which to attempt to reconcile instinct with intellect and, thereby, to achieve understanding and wholeness. In a poetic recreation of Prometheus’ plight, Hughes reiterated the ancient wisdom of many major religions, wisdom which is paralleled by the basic tenets of twentieth century Jungian psychology: in order to achieve release from his suffering, Prometheus must undergo a spiritual/psychic journey of self–examination, understanding and acceptance. Half human, “slung between heaven and earth”, he is, (as Smith wrote, paraphrasing Hughes’ own summary of the mythology behind Orghast) , “fractured. He is the crossroads of eternal light and ecstasy, and temporal doom, pain, change and death. Conscious in eternity he has to live in time20. Poem by poem, Hughes’ Prometheus progresses stage–by–stage from pride (“Am I an eagle?” – “he exults – like and eagle, and through suffering, until he begins to recognise and accept the vulture as his own daemon, his own dark energies, called in to being by his own “world’s end shout”.

He ponders this bird, questioning its meaning: was it his tormentor, his punishment for his theft of fire? Was it “the earth’s enlightenment – / Was he an uninitiated infant / Mutilated towards alignment?” Or was it “his anti–self”? Only when he sees that it may be “the Helper / coming again to pick at the crucial knot / of all his bonds”(THCP.296), does he begin to understand and “the mother”, Earth, relents. In a poem filled with imagery which presages that of ‘The Owl Flower’ in Cave Birds, Hughes describes the moment of illumination as one of glorious release:

And Prometheus eases free.
He sways to his stature
And balances. And treads
On the dusty peacock film where the world floats (THCP.296).

The image of the peacock is an alchemical image of change and rebirth. And it is Prometheus’s new stature and balance which are essential to the process of enlightenment. Through his suffering, Prometheus finally achieves an understanding which allows him to surmount his Earthly pride; and in this sequence Hughes again undertook a questing journey which was essentially one of painful self–discovery.

There is little that one can add to Keith Sagar’s analysis of the Prometheus poems21, except to emphasise that Hughes shows cleverness, pride and complacency as being the cause of the torment suffered by both Prometheus and Mankind. The theft of fire from Zeus is achieved by Prometheus through trickery and cunning and with an arrogant disregard for the vulnerability of his own human form. It is this misuse of his knowledge and abilities which brings about his suffering, just as the misuse by Mankind of religion, spiritual energy (holy fire) and knowledge causes the chaos which Hughes captures in the surreal images of poem 6:

Below, among car-bumpers and shopping baskets
A monkey of voice, shuffling Tarot
For corpses and embryos, quotes Ecclesiastes

To the clock that talks backward

Other experiences, besides Orghast, were to influence the development of Cave Birds. During the year which followed the performances of Orghast at Persepolis, Hughes continued to write for Brook‘s experimental theatre group. Working from his home in Devon. away from the mainstream of Brook‘s experimentation at the group‘s Paris centre, Hughes wrote over a hundred poems on which Brook‘s actors drew for inspiration in their exercises and improvisations22.

Brook’s work at this time was beginning to reflect his idea of the theatre as an empty space which could be magically brought to life by the actors. His aim was to achieve maximum impact with the utmost simplicity of form and imagery. To this end, a year after the Shiraz Festival Brook took his group on a tour through Africa where, utilising natural open spaces or a square of carpet, the actors improvised performances for village audiences. Nothing about the performances was planned, nothing had been prepared. The only shared frame of reference between the actors was the experience of Orghast and a year’s work with the poems which Hughes provided 23.

Conference of the Birds

The twelfth century Sufi fable on which Hughes’ poems were based was The Conference of the Birds, by the Persian poet, Farid ud–Din Attar. As an allegorical tale of a symbolic journey in search of wisdom and understanding, this fable was a felicitous choice for a group of actors embarked on a similar, though less symbolic, quest.For Hughes, the fable was important because the journey which the birds undertake in search of the Simurgh, the Great Bird – a symbol of God – is a shamanic journey. It is the heroic quest which Hughes believed to be “one of the main regenerating dramas of the human psyche: the fundamental poetic event24.

As such, it is the story of Prometheus in another form. And the allegorical theme and the story–telling pattern of the poem link it closely with both ‘Prometheus on his Crag’ and Cave Birds. Like all Sufi poetry, the story of The Conference of the Birds is full of hidden meanings. On one level it is simply the tale of the birds’ search for a king: on another (as Attar makes clear) it is a guide for Man in his quest for spiritual truth. In the invocation which precedes the poem, Attar writes:

My friends! We are neighbours of one another: I wish to repeat my discourse to you day and night, so that you should not cease for a moment to long to set out in quest of Truth25.

The heroic quest, however, is never easy and Attar‘s warnings of the difficulties of such a task are very clear. The invocation contains a caution for himself and his readers:

O my heart, if you wish to arrive at the beginning of understanding, walk carefully. To each atom there is a different door, and for each atom there is a different way which leads to the mysterious Being of whom I speak 26.

And, with reference to the trials of such Biblical figures as Adam, Noah, Job and Christ, he writes:

After this, do you think it will be easy to arrive at a knowledge of spiritual things? It means no less than to die to everything…. O Holy Creator! Vivify my spirit! Believers and unbelievers are equally plunged in blood, and my head turns as the heavens 27.

For most of the birds in Attar’s fable, the quest ends literally in death. Those few who do reach the sublime place, led by the Hoopoe who is “a messenger of the world invisible28, have learned to put aside all worldly concerns and have achieved complete humility. For them, finally, “a hundred curtains are drawn aside” and an amazing truth is revealed:

At last, in state of contemplation, they realised that they were the Simurgh and that the Simurgh was the thirty birds … that they and the Simurgh were one and the same being29

This is the paradox which lies at the heart of mystical teaching. It is essentially a belief in the perfectibility of Man, and it is what Eliot described in Four Quartets when he wrote that “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive were we started / And know the place for the first time”30(32.

The belief that all creatures carry God and the seeds of enlightenment within them is the fundamental tenet of Sufism, as it is of Hermeticism, and it is a belief which is essential to an understanding of the theme in Hughes’ Cave Birds. Attar expresses this belief when he writes that “God is all, and things have only a nominal value; the world visible and the world invisible are only Himself31.

Since Man is part of the world, we, too, are an expression of God. We, however, are more complex than other creatures, for we are capable of knowing the divine element within ourselves. Using allegory in the Sufi manner, Attar explains:

When the soul was joined to the body it was part of the all: never has there been so marvellous a talisman. The soul had a share of that which is high, and the body a share of that which is low; it was formed of a mixture of heavy clay and pure spirit. By this mixing, Man became the most astonishing of mysteries. We do not know nor do we understand so much as a little of our spirit … Many know the surface of the ocean, but they understand nothing of the depths; and the visible world is the talisman which protects it. But this talisman of bodily obstacles will be broken at last. You will find the treasure when the talisman disappears: the soul will manifest itself when the body is laid aside. But your soul is another talisman; it is … another substance …. In this vast ocean the world is an atom and the atom a world. Who knows which is of more value here, the cornelian or the pebble? 32.

There is much in Sufi philosophy which chimed with Hughes’ own views about our position in the natural world. He always depicted human beings as part of that world, and his questioning of our assumption of superiority due to our rational abilities grew naturally from such a view. Hughes’ graphic descriptions of the emergence of animal appetites in humans as well as in other creatures, were, for him no more than a factual depiction of Nature. It is such descriptions which have been responsible for much of the criticism of violence which has been levelled against Hughes, yet to deny the existence of violence in ourselves (or in nature) he regarded as foolish and hypocritical – as a denial and suppression of the natural energies.

Despite the relevance of Sufi thought to Hughes’ own concerns and the obvious links between Attar’s poem and Hughes’ Cave Birds, it was not specifically a Sufi framework within which Hughes chose to construct his bird–drama. Instead, Hughes turned to an art which has many things in common with Sufism but which has, in addition, a history which made it particularly suitable for Hughes’ purposes at that time. That art was Alchemy.

Just as Sufi philosophy emphasises the essential indivisibility of body and spirit, so Alchemy in its original and ancient form maintains the truth of the same belief. The first of the precepts of Alchemy engraved on the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus (who is acknowledged as the founder of the art in Ancient Egypt) states:

In truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing 33.

The earliest known record of this Hermetic Tabula Smaragdina appears in an eighth century Arabic text which is ascribed to a famous alchemist, Jabbir–ibn–Hayyan34. The principle that ‘All things proceed from one and all are one’ is constantly reiterated in alchemical writings, and Alchemy, like Sufism, contains a body of mystical teaching based on this precept.

Mercury urges silence

Traditionally, both Alchemy and Sufism have been regarded as secret doctrines. This is partly because both disciplines regard direct contact between a master and a pupil as the only valid way of passing on their knowledge, and partly due to the allegorical nature of their teaching methods. Both doctrines veil their knowledge in symbolism and metaphor, regarding it as physically and spiritually dangerous if misused. Both, at times, have been the object of religious bigotry and persecution, which has reinforced the clandestine nature of their study. Alchemy, in particular, has successfully hidden its mystical intent behind a secular facade which represents it as a practical and materialistic art. Paradoxically, this has not only done much to discredit the alchemical art, but has also ensured its survival.

Hughes’ handling of the spiritual energies in Cave Birds owes much to both Sufi and alchemical traditions. The theme is presented in the characteristic Sufi manner through poetic metaphor and symbol, a method which Robert Graves, in his ‘Introduction’ to The Sufis, by Idris Shah, likens to the techniques of the medieval master poets of Ireland. “Under the poet’s tongue lies the key to the treasury”, wrote the Persian Sufi, Nizami, and, as Graves points out, such encrypted presentation provides a form of protection for the mystical secrets35. At the same time, this method allows the poet to assume the role of mystical teacher, a role which fits well into Hughes’ ideas of the poet as a shaman/priest.

Hughes does not hide the mystical nature of the Cave Bird poems but presents his story, like that of The Conference of the Birds, so that it may be understood on several levels. In programme notes for a reading of the Cave Birds poems at the Ilkley Literature Festival in May 1975, where the poems were read whilst Baskin’s drawings were projected onto an overhead screen, Hughes presented a brief outline of the story and no special understanding of Hughes’ philosophies would have been required to appreciate the poetic sequence.

Hughes’ notes explain that on the surface Cave Birds is the fable of a bird–being who “is to be imagined leading his earthly life, until one day he wakes to the fact that Higher Powers have become interested in him”. These Higher Powers, appearing in the form of bird spirits, accuse and judge the protagonist for Earthly crimes, and “The sequence begins in this world, passes into an underworld, returns to this world36. From his initial appearance as a cockerel, the protagonist undergoes progressive transformations until he enters the heaven of the eagles and is reborn as a falcon.

As an accompaniment to the original typescript of the Cave Birds sequence, Hughes developed this story as a poem–by–poem commentary which would have been sufficient for a general understanding of his bird–drama. At a deeper, more important, level, he described it as ‘The Death of Socrates and his Resurrection in Egypt’37(ED) and, as such, it was

a critique of sorts of the Socratic abstraction and its consequences through Christianity to us. His resurrection in Egypt,in that case, would imply his correction, his re–absorption into the magical–religious archaic source of intellectual life in the East Mediterranean, and his re–emergence as a Horus – beloved child and spouse of the Goddess38.

Hughes expanded on this aspect of the story in a letter which he wrote to me in November 1984:

The plot consists of two parallel ‘stories’. In the one, the dramatis personae are birds. In the other, a man and a woman. My starting point was the death of Socrates. The crime for which he is judged, and which he expiates, in the sequence, is not the crime of which the Athenians accused him – rather the one for which (from one point of view) history holds him responsible, namely, the murder of the Mediterranean Goddess (as Mother and Bride).

His soul becomes a bird and is judged by birds. Throughout the stages of this judgement, projections are made, into the ‘human world’, where the man and woman enact (in static tableaux sure enough) the phase of the relationship, between male and female, which is being dealt with, at that point, in the judgement of the birds.

This judgement follows a simple course: accusation, defence, conviction for the murder, execution after an expiatory sacrifice (the cockerel), passage to the underworld. In the underworld, a different order of judgement takes place – as in the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book Of The Dead), the soul is confronted by everything which, in the upper world, he had rejected. He is confronted, that is, by the Goddess in various forms: if he rejects again, he would be annihilated. If he accepts, he will be resurrected. So through this phase he does accept, with difficulty. Going through the ordeals of acceptance, he is transformed. When he achieves total acceptance he is resurrected. He was accused, and executed as one of the corvidae. He is judged in the underworld by the raptors, and becoming one of them is resurrected as a Falcon. Dying in Athens as a sceptical philosopher, the patron saint of irony and dialectical reason, he is resurrected in Egypt as Horus, child and spouse of the Goddess. The human scenario of the first half presents the disintegration of the female and the anaesthetised alienation of the male, and the second half the reconstitution of the female and the reunion of the female and male. So that is my view of it. The ‘alchemy’ of the process operates in bringing the most debased raw materials of de–spiritualised entropy, in the matter of human relationship, to a perfect spiritualised wholeness.

That was my intent, at least, my guiding image39.

Hughes’ distaste for Socrates appeared very early in his work. ‘The Perfect Forms’ in Lupercal depicts Socrates as

Smiling, complacent as a phallus,
Or Buddha, whose one thought fills immensity:

Visage of Priapus: the undying tail-swinging
Stupidity of the donkey
That carries Christ
(THCP 82)

Here, is a searing description of the perverted, blind stupidity of a great teacher who could have helped Man towards understanding, since, like the donkey, he ‘carries Christ’. Instead, his obsession with the superiority of Man as a rational being led him to teach the suppression of the instinctive, subjective side of human nature in favour of his objective, rational and ‘scientific’ abilities. Hughes’ use of the Biblical quotation in the final line of the poem effectively demonstrates the distortion which the Socratic view creates: to Socrates (and those who later adopted his teachings) the childlike innocence fostered by Nature throughout the process of evolution is seen as “Godforsaken darkness”, and Man as a “six–day abortion of the Absolute”, a “monstrous-headed difficult child!”.

These attitudes presaged the development of the restrictive, moralising religions which Hughes believed “divide nature, and especially love, the creative force of nature, into abstract good and physical evil40. And in the poem they powerfully convey the dreadful irony of Socrates’ careful ‘nursing’ of Mankind.

Ultimately, Hughes believed that “Socrates’ teachings about the Absolute led to the Platonic system of ideas — a system which has in one way or another dominated the mental life of the Western world ever since” (ME-2.77). And this mental life, as Hughes describes it, is one in which “our imagination has been immobilised” by the “scientific attitude, which is the crystallisation of the rational attitude” (ME-1.56).

With such views in mind, and with Hughes’ acknowledged belief in the magical powers of poetry, it can be seen how, by identifying Socrates with the protagonist in Cave Birds, Hughes intended to carry out the ritual cleansing through which the suppressed energies of the pre–Socratic world might be reborn.

The similarity, here, with Blake’s ideas on the artificial division which Man has made between rational and natural energies, and with Blake’s belief in the cyclical pattern of the conflict, death and re–birth of these energies, is very apparent. In Blake’s work the “Two Contraries” in the “Sons of Albion” are named Good and Evil, from which is made “Reasoning Power / An Abstract objecting power that Negatives everything41. His divided Man is symbolised by two god–like figures, Orc and Urizen, which are the “two contrary states of the soul42. Orc represents the bound “human imagination43 and Urizen represents “mental uniformity44 based on reason and moral law. Unlike Hughes, however, who used Egypt as a symbol of pre–Socratic, pre–Christian, magical and mythical fecundity, Blake, working within his own idiosyncratic interpretation of Christian thought, adopted Christian symbolism and used Egypt to represent a place (or state) of enslavement. By analogy with the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt which freed the Israelites from spiritual bondage, Blake interpreted Egypt as the Urizenic state of man from which Ore is released45.

Hughes’ Egypt is the place in which Alchemy began. The powerful and magical gods of its cosmology provided the earliest stories and poetry of the Mediterranean area, some of which survived in ancient writings and were eventually incorporated in the Old Testament46. Blake’s Egypt, on the other hand, is derived from the Christian interpretation of these Old Testament stories. This disparity between Hughes’ and Blake’s symbolic use of Egypt reflects their very different attitudes to Christian belief and Biblical interpretation, yet the purpose of their usage is identical: both are attempting to achieve an imaginative re–integration of Man’s divided nature.

A similar disparity can be found between the symbols and metaphors of early alchemical texts of Islamic, Ancient Greek and early Christian origin. In such texts, common alchemical procedures are described in terms which reflect the religious and philosophical beliefs of their authors, yet, underlying all, there is the essential Hermetic belief in the “oneness of existence47. Faith in the presence of the spiritual within each physical thing validates all the Alchemists’ work towards the enlightenment of Man. So, too, did Blake proclaim that “every thing that lives is Holy” (MHH.“Chorus’).

Socrates, in Blake’s writings, too, was linked with the sort of “;abstract Law48 which distorts human life, although Blake seems to have had some ambivalence towards him due to the fact that his teaching are only known through Plato’s works. About the pernicious influence of Greek writing in general, however, he had no doubts:

The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid, Plato & Cicero, which all Men ought to condemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible;…. We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live forever in Jesus out Lord49. (Milton. ‘Preface’).

According to Blake, it was not Jesus but “The Heathen Deities”, Plato and Cicero, who wrote the “Moral Virtues great and small” on which the Christian teaching of his own time was based50. And, having dismissed the Gods of Greece and Egypt as “Mathematical Diagrams”, he inscribed on his ‘Laocoon Plate’ the ironic comment: “If Morality was Christianity, Socrates was the Saviour”.

That the protagonist in Cave Birds is (as Hughes said) also Socrates, is apparent in the poems only in the emphasis on his divided state and in his reliance on rationality and moral conventions. However, directly related to a trial and rebirth in Egypt are the elements of Egyptian mythology, especially The Egyptian Book of the Dead (the Bardo Thodol), which appear in Cave Birds and which Hirschberg has described51.

Hughes, himself, pointed out the influence of the Bardo Thodol in his depiction of the underworld where “the soul is confronted by everything which, in the upper world, he had rejected … that is, by the Goddess in various forms52. There is an obvious relationship between some of the bird–beings in Cave Birds and certain wrathful, blood–eating deities of the bardo such as the vulture–headed Grdhramukha, the hawk–headed Kankamukha the raven-headed Kakamukha, and the owl–headed Ulumukha. Apart from this, the importance of the relationship between the two works seems to lie mainly in the concept that all the manifestations originate within the person who experiences them. Constantly re–iterated in the Bardo Thodol is the advice that the visions “will emerge from your own brain and appear before you. Do not be afraid of them. Recognise whatever appears as the play of your own mind, your own projections53.

The key to progression through the bardo state, which is a state said to be experienced by all souls between death and re–birth, is the recognition and acceptance of these beings as a part of the self. Similarly, in Cave Birds, the bird–beings teach the protagonist that he must recognise and accept his own true nature before he can achieve enlightenment and wholeness.

Blake, too, declared that “All deities reside in the human breast”. His Urizenic man, however, is “Self–clos’d”(U.1:3), and his “Book of eternal Brass” in which peace, love, unity, pity compassion and forgiveness are governed by “one Law”(U.I:43–8), leave Los, the fallen human, “in chains of the mind lock’d up”(U.IV:25), able to see only “small portions of the eternal world” (Eu.“Prophecy’: 4) “thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern55. Hughes, by calling the Cave Birds sequence An Alchemical Cave Drama, suggests the similarly ‘cavern’d’ state of his protagonist. Both views are reminiscent of the Platonic allegory of human life as being lived in a cave where reality appears only as distorted shadows reflected upon the wall.

Hughes’ subtitle for Cave Birds has other meanings, too, for in many cultures, including those of Egypt and Ancient Greece, the cave is an important symbol, frequently used to represent an entrance to the underworld. The relevance of this to Hughes’ cave drama and to the metempsychosis of his protagonist can be seen in the words of Greek scholar, Peter Gorman, who describes the cave as representing

a potent mystical vehicle through which enigmatic truths could be conveyed…. [in Greek philosophy it was] the elements of air, fire and water which acted upon the ‘pentekosmos’ or ‘pentemychos’, the five primeval caverns which completed the creation [of the world]…. For the ancient Greeks the cave was sacred to many gods…. Mystical rites were conducted in them, and they were regarded as the focal points of cosmic energies and for the reception of metempsychosing psyches returning and leaving the earth56.

From the first mention of the sun on the nursery wall in the opening lines of the Cave Birds, the light and shadows of the Platonic cave, the suggestions of mystical rites, and the illusion/dream/nightmare imagery occur constantly throughout the sequence. There is Manichean symbolism, too, as the flickering light of reality grows progressively stronger until the illumination of ‘cavern’d man’ is finally achieved by passage through the cleansing fire of the gods.

Despite these links with Platonic and Manichean philosophy, however, the fire and light imagery in Cave Birds derives essentially from the alchemical nature of Hughes’ drama which, after the bird–drama fable and the exorcism of Socratic rationalism, comprises the third and deepest level of meaning in the poems. It is Alchemy which provides the underlying fabric into which the numerous philosophical and mythological strands are woven to create the rich and complex tapestry of Hughes’ allegorical picture.

As has already been suggested, Alchemy, itself, can be understood on several levels. There is a concrete surface level derived from its association in ancient Egypt with the crafts of dyeing, metallurgy, brewing and perfume making. Over the centuries the technical skills involved in these arts were refined and condensed, forming the basis of a body of knowledge from which grew the science of Chemistry. Along the way, the magical. spiritual and imaginative aspects, which were once an essential part of these ancient crafts, came to be regarded as subjective, irrational and ‘unscientific’ and, consequently, unimportant. Allied to this view of Alchemy as a body of technological knowledge, is its reputation for embodying a secret method of turning base material into gold. Those who have pursued this secret have found the alchemical texts incomplete, contradictory and confusing, being couched, as they are, in language full of metaphor and symbolism; but avarice and dreams of power have spurred them on, and magic and superstition have accompanied them. It is this level of Alchemy which has fostered allegations of witchcraft and occult power and which has brought the art into disrepute.

At yet another level, Alchemy is an esoteric mystical doctrine in which the practical techniques of the alchemical art are an allegory for spiritual transubstantiation – a mnemonic for the stages by which spiritual truth might be approached. At this level the alchemical process, the magnum opus (often described allegorically as a journey) is a process by which the divine spirit (the soul) is gradually freed from the chaos of the human body (the ‘Raw Stuff’) and is purified and finally reunited with it so that a state of enlightenment and wholeness may be achieved.

The Alchemy in Cave Birds works at all these levels. Yet, despite Hughes’ interest in magic, there might seem to be little point in him adopting such a confusing, complex and easily misunderstood framework for his poems. He could, instead, have built his sequence around the shamanic journey, especially since his views on its relationship to mythology and the mystical quest have been so clearly stated. Alchemy, however, was more than just a suitable framework for Hughes’ bird–drama: it was also a magical process and a symbol. The perversion of Alchemy, from a mystical discipline to a scientific dead–end with questionable occult associations, provided Hughes with a perfect paradigm for the perversion of Man’s nature as a result of Socratic thought. Thus, it is entirely suitable that through the imaginative Alchemy of Cave Birds this situation should be reversed; that Alchemy as a spiritual art should be redeemed, and Man in his post–Socratic divided state should be restored to wholeness.

Unlike the Shaman, the Alchemist does not merely journey to and from the Otherworld for healing energies, he is himself changed and transmuted by the alchemical process. His work, as Jung explains, has “a magically effective action which, like the [alchemical] substance itself, impart[s] magical qualities57 (MC.532).

Because of such magical effects, Alchemy is not simply an allegory or metaphor for the spiritual journey, it is, for those who participate in the process, the journey itself. In Cave Birds, therefore, Hughes not only adopted the symbolic and mystical traditions of Alchemy, he took on the role of Alchemist and subjected both himself and his readers to the purifying processes of transmutation.

In addition to the different ways in which Hughes used the alchemical process, one needs to be aware of the alchemical power which he ascribes to the human mind in relation to myths and language. Words, as Hughes once wrote, “are meaningless hieroglyphs, unless the stories behind the words are known”(ME–2.81). However,

If [a] story is learned well, so that all its parts can be seen at a glance, as if we looked through a window into it, then that story has become like the complicated hinterland of a single word. It has become a word. Any fragment of the story serves as the ‘word’ by which the whole story’s electrical circuit is switched into consciousness, and all its light and power brought to bear. As a rather extreme example, take the story of Christ. No matter what point of that story we touch, the whole story hits us. If we mention the Nativity, or the miracle of the loaves and fishes, or Lazarus, or the Crucifixion, the voltage and inner brightness of the whole story is instantly there. A single word of reference is enough – just as you need to touch a power–line with only the tip of your finger (ME–2.80).

Throughout Cave Birds, Hughes used this magical power of words to re–activate in his audience’s imagination some of the great mythological and mystical stories of the world. Thus, just as the Alchemist uses skill and energy (fire) to extract the spiritual, ‘alchemical’ gold from the primal chaos of his original mixture, so Hughes used his poetic powers to activate the reader’s imaginative energy and to ‘crystallise’ understanding from the ‘chaos’ of the human mind.

Thus, the ‘alchemical cave drama’ of Cave Birds was designed by Hughes to enlighten and transform his protagonist, his readers and himself. Yet, despite Hughes’ adoption of an alchemical framework within which to tell his story, the Cave Birds protagonist comes from a tradition which is closer to us than that of alchemy, or that of the heroes of Greek epic poetry, or of the shamans or medicine men whose transforming journeys share a common purpose and pattern.

As Hughes himself has suggested, the Cave Birds protagonist comes, recognisably, from the tradition of the medieval English morality plays. These were, like Cave Birds, vernacular verse dramas that dealt in an allegorical way with inner conflicts common to human experience: they dealt, too, with the difficulties of attaining spiritual enlightenment and salvation. Morality plays were performed by and for the ordinary townspeople, and they were the earliest form of secular English theatre, being entertaining, humorous, often vulgar and farcical, and extremely popular.

The characters in morality plays personify familiar abstract concepts such as Pride, Wisdom, Fellowship, Virtue and Death. And the path to spiritual salvation is commonly represented in them as a hazardous journey on which the hero (and through him the audience) learns to test his beliefs and values, and to let go of temporal concerns as a prelude to spiritual rebirth. The dramatic conventions, the characters, and the content and purpose of these plays influenced English theatre well into the Shakespearean period and beyond. They are reflected, for example, in aspects of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV (part 1), and King Lear: their influence is also to be found in English poetry, especially in the work of the Metaphysical poets, such as Donne, Herbert and Marvell, and in that of Milton and of Blake.

The morality play to which Cave Birds bears a most striking resemblance is the fifteenth century English drama, The Summoning of Everyman. Hughes’ protagonist, like Everyman, is summoned to his reckoning by higher powers. He, too, prevaricates and argues with his summoner, displaying foolishness, evasion and self–aggrandisement as he does so. Like Everyman, he quickly learns that Friends, Kindred and Worldly Goods cannot be relied on. And like Everyman, who is shown the female, Good Deeds, sickened almost to death by his way of life, the Cave Birds protagonist learns the effects of his own actions on a female aspect of himself that is essential to his salvation. Both protagonists are guided on their journey by innate, intuitive Knowledge, and both lose Strength, Beauty, Discretion and their Five Wits at the grave. Eventually, through penance, contrition. humility and love, the female aspects of the protagonists’ personalities (Good Deeds and her sister, Knowledge) are strengthened and restored, and the dramas end with glorious spiritual rebirth.

In broad outline, the similarities between Everyman and Cave Birds are very clear. However, in imaginative power, in visual imagery, and in its idiosyncratic view of human failings, Hughes’ alchemical cave drama bears a much closer resemblance to Blake’s interpretation of the Everyman story in his Illustrations of the Book Of Job58. This resemblance will be shown in greater detail as the poems of Cave Birds are examined further. Suffice it to say, here, that whilst both Blake’s version of the story of Job and Cave Birds are allegories which follow the common pattern of a spiritual pilgrimage, they differ from other such allegories in that they express, and attempt practically to apply, each poet’s strongly held personal views on the nature and purpose of human life, creative art and, in particular, imagination.

In his own adaptation of the biblical story, Blake shows Job relinquishing the Book of Law, by which he had lived his life, and being enlightened and transformed through his imagination. And Blake constantly used his art and his poetry as a vehicle for his own imagination and as a means of transmitting his prophetic visions to others, thereby attempting to change his contemporary world.

Similarly, Cave Birds is designed by Hughes to enlighten and transform his protagonist, his readers and himself. Through the alchemy of imagination, Hughes seeks the healing mana – the transmuting ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ of the Alchemists – which will end the divisions between our inner and outer worlds and re–unite us with the Universal Energies which are the Source of all.

* * * * * * * *

Cave Birds is such a complex and carefully structured version of the epic journey that the sequence has frequently been misunderstood: its alchemical aspects have also been regarded as relatively trivial59. A close examination of the detailed and knowledgeable way in which Hughes has used alchemy in the structure and fabric of these poems is, therefore, warranted.

Alchemy, always, is a painstaking and delicate process each step of which depends on what has gone before. And a successful alchemical synthesis, despite the cyclical repetitions which occur in many of its stages, progresses steadily and systematically towards its climax. So, because Cave Birds is essentially an alchemical synthesis, and each poem represents a part of that synthesis, an examination of the poems’ alchemy needs to proceed in sequential order.

Any attempt to analyse Hughes’ poems, however, especially one which relies on such an ordered approach to such a careful interweaving of secular, mythological and spiritual themes, carries with it a very real danger that the imaginative energies of the work will be destroyed, and all Hughes’ alchemical efforts will be negated. With this in mind, my discussion of the poems in Cave Birds will take a somewhat unusual form.

To begin with, by reference to old alchemical texts, their ideas and their common symbols, a brief overview of the whole alchemical process will be given. A similar description will then preface each of the four main stages of the alchemical process as they are reflected in the sequence, making broad reference to the poems which appear to constitute each stage.

Then, each poem will be introduced by Hughes’ own story–telling commentary for that poem, and alternative titles for the poem or for the accompanying Baskin drawing will be given, since these often serve as a gloss on the poem’s text. The reader may choose to read these headings separately, or to ignore them altogether and concentrate on the discussion of the alchemical/spiritual aspects of the poems which will immediately follow them.

Throughout the discussion, the similarities and echoes which exist between Hughes’ treatment of the spiritual journey and that of various other well known mythologies, religious texts and stories will be suggested. In particular, the close correspondences which exist between the ideas, text and illustrations of Cave Birds and Blake’s graphic interpretation of the story of Job will be examined.

By all these means, it is hoped that the background knowledge which the reader brings to the Cave Birds poems will be expanded so as to illuminate the text and foster, rather than destroy, the imaginative, alchemical changes which Hughes sought to bring about. It is hoped, also, that Hughes’ increasing ability to integrate form, content and purpose in his work will become clear.

© Ann Skea 2021

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

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