Hughes’ quest for wholeness and renewal, which is reflected in his work, lasted his whole life. The Universal Energies, as they are manifested in Nature, were the constant source of his inspiration: and Nature, whose eternal rhythms and cycles link the finite and the infinite, was always his guide and his teacher. Through his dealings with her and, in particular, through his imaginative investigation of her powers and his openness to these powers, Hughes made the same epic journey towards enlightenment and wholeness as is made by the questing hero.

In the development of Hughes’ poetry over the years, it is possible to trace the traditional route to enlightenment taken by the Everyman/Hero figure which Hughes adopted as a persona in Cave Birds, Remains of Elmet and River. The early poems often display an egocentricity and arrogance akin to that of the Hawk in ‘Hawk Roosting’ (THCP.68). Gradually, however, the poet and the poetry become less complacent, more self–conscious and aware; and the pattern moves through the puzzled questioning of ‘Wodwo’ (THCP.183), into the darkness, chaos and horror of the surreal world of Crow and the Goddess–dominated torment of Gaudete, and on to the Mercurial spiritual guidance afforded in Cave Birds. The love and concern exhibited in Remains of Elmet suggests the return of a shaman to the sick world with his healing energies; and the beauty and the celebratory tone of the poems in River reflect the unity, harmony, and understanding, which are the goal of the questing soul. Appropriately, Flowers and Insects, the first published collection of poems to follow River, is a paean to Nature’s infinite and omnipotent powers; a celebration of the presence of mana on Earth; and a meditation on the ephemeral embodiment of energy, spirit and light in all living things.

Since childhood, Hughes had been drawn to the natural world, and through it he was early aware of some transcendental power. Unlike the ‘Romantic’ poets, however, his awareness was uncompromisingly realistic, encompassing both the beauty and the horror. Yet, Hughes’ earliest work reflects a lack of real involvement with the Energies and he plundered Nature’s treasures to enrich and enliven his work, much as his protagonist does in the opening lines of ‘Things Present’ (THCP.59) in Lupercal:

All things being done or undone
As my hands adore or abandon –

Recalling his early attitude to nature in the poem ‘Daffodils’ (THCP.711), Hughes wrote:

I was still a nomad.
My life was still a raid.
The earth was booty.

Earth’s ‘gifts’, at that time, like the daffodils which he plucked from his garden and sold, were used for his own profit, without any understanding of the link between their ephemeral lives and his own. In retrospect (in this poem) Hughes saw such exploitation of nature as a cruel desecration, almost a rape, of innocent but enticing creatures. But although disturbing dreams had caused him some guilt for his physical actions, he still did not relate this to his artistic pursuits.

Often, in Hughes’ early poems, we do glimpse some deeper level of communication with the Energies, some indication that the poet’s work is the result of more than just an awareness of the manifestation of these energies in Nature and the imaginative ability to convey this to his reader. Such glimpses constitute an imaginative re–creation of the poet’s personal involvement with the Energies, and they occur when, as in ‘The Thought–Fox’ (THCP.21), the poem forges a link between his inner and outer worlds, so that he submits to the flow of the Energies and re–creates the experience in his poem, rather than simply describing it.

Events in Hughes’ life brought him intimate knowledge of the destructive power of the natural energies. Like Prometheus, like Job, and like his own Cave Birds protagonist, he was made aware of his own subjection to more powerful forces and, in his poetry, his voice became less arrogant and controlled, and he began to use his poetry to explore and to attempt to resolve situations in which he found himself. He used it, in effect, as a ‘biological healing process’1 – a way to achieve renewed balance and harmony. Poetry became Hughes’ means of putting himself through a process which entailed personal change and growth. It was also his way of making the sacrifices necessary for a return to the Source and the attainment of mana.

Hughes’ endeavours, in this respect, reflect the teaching of all gnostic texts. All maintain the importance of re–union with the Source for healing and renewal. All confirm that there is no easy way that this can be achieved: the only way is through repeated sacrifice, suffering, humility and love. This is the path that the epic heroes tread: and this is the path Hughes chose for himself. However, despite the clear influence of Eastern philosophies in some of Hughes’ poetry, his path was not the Eastern mystic’s path of retreat inwards, away from reality, but the very Western path of confrontation with the Energies: a confrontation which is, however, presented in Hughes’ poetry as an inward journey.

Each of the poetic sequences dealt with in this book can be seen as a single, completed epic journey; but it is in Hughes’ poetry as a whole that we see the process of change he underwent in his personal journey to the Source. In particular, the poetic sequences which have been examined here show the increasing freedom with which Hughes immersed himself in the flux of Energies, and the diminishing degree to which he relied on protective devices in order to do this. From the careful immersion in a traditional ritual such as Alchemy, which is seen in Cave Birds, Hughes’ use of myth and ritual become progressively more flexible and less prescriptive, until, in River, it was no longer a framework which was independent of the cycles of Nature.

Only when he began to dig deeply into his own life for Capriccio, Howls & Whispers and Birthday Letters, did he feel again the need for a protective ritual, because, as he told Faas, when you are “dealing with the power circuit of the Universe” ritual is a “means of turning it into good, of keeping it under control. The old method is the only one2.

Another important aspect of Hughes’ adoption of an Everyman/Hero protagonist or persona in his work, is the relevance of this figure to Hughes’ belief in epic poetry as a shamanic journey. In Cave Birds, for the first time, the poet/protagonist hears the shamanic call, and experiences the trials and terrors of the journey to the otherworld. Seeing the epic hero as a shamanic archetype, able to fly to the Source to bring back healing energies, Hughes adopted the shamanic role in his work in order to fulfil altruistic, as well as purely personal, goals. Poetry, as he told Faas, is “the record of just how the forces of the Universe try to redress some balance disturbed by human error3: his stated intention, therefore, was to use his poetry as a means of negotiating with the Energies, and of channelling them into our world in order to bring us healing and enlightenment.

Orghast marked a change towards a more direct, less rationally organised, communication of Energies and ideas to his audience through their imaginative involvement in a shared, epic experience. Thus, they become participants in Hughes’ rituals. However, despite the evocative power of the poetic works through which we share Hughes’ shamanic journeys, one fundamental truth of the ancient teachings bars our way: each of us, in the end, must make this journey for ourselves. Hughes may have known the path and may act as our guide, but the trials we encounter, the suffering we must endure and the choices we must make along the way are, and must essentially be, our own. Meanwhile, the imaginative power of Hughes’ work can create momentary links which bring healing light and music into our darkened world.

For Hughes, like others who have undertaken this quest, the end of each stage of his journey was a return to where he began: to his belief in the immediacy and actuality of the energies of the Source in Nature and a clearer understanding of his own participation in the flux. Always, as he told Faas, “we go on writing poems because one poem never gets the whole account right. There is always something missed. At the end of the ritual up comes a goblin4.

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