“The struggle truly to possess his own experience, in other words to regain his genuine self, has been Man’s principal occupation, wherever he could find leisure for it, ever since he first grew this enormous surplus of brain. Men have invented religion to do this for others. But to do it for themselves, they have invented art – music, painting, dancing, sculpture, and the activity that includes all these, which is poetry.” (PIM 124).

Ted Hughes was a poet of unusual dedication. Not only was poetry his profession for most of his adult life, but during this time he repeatedly and consistently expressed his beliefs in what poetry is, what it does, and what it means to be a poet. Clearly, he believed that poetry has a purpose, and he pursued that purpose with the discipline and persistence that is more usually the mark of those inspired with religious fervour. Nor is this analogy particularly false, for Hughes himself described the writing of poetry as a quest “for self-knowledge and perhaps, in one form or another, [for] grace” (PIM 12).

In discussing this aspect of Hughes’ work, Keith Sagar said that a great poet, to effect changes in his reader, needs first “to save himself, cure himself, in the role of Everyman1. This is done not simply by imagining the process of self–examination and re–creation, but by living through the process and using imagination and poetry as tools by which to achieve his ends. The opus of Hughes’ work demonstrates just such poetic purpose, and it demonstrates, too, his more traditional use of an Everyman figure as a persona through which each of us can share this imaginative, healing journey.

That there is an altruistic aspect to Hughes’ purpose is apparent from his work. He wrote and spoke frequently about the distortions and divisions caused in individuals and in our society by our unbalanced reliance on scientific, rational and objective perception. To this, and to the consequent suppression of everything which cannot be scientifically analysed – feelings, intuition, imagination and religious belief – he attributed our unrealistically detached attitude towards nature, the consequent neuroses of our society, and the perilous state of the world in which we live. His desire to change this situation, and to counteract “the state of mind, which … will watch the whole world disintegrate without lifting a finger, without offering a single alternative plan” (ME–1 60) is apparent in much of his early prose writing and it became an integral part of his longer poetic works. It was essentially bound up with his faith in the transforming power of the imagination, because, as he once said, “what affects a person’s imagination affects their whole life” (ME–1 61). And it was a task which was as important to him as is his own, more personal, quest.

The scope of Hughes’ work, and of the beliefs from which it stems, is broad, but underlying the main body of his work is Wodwo’s question “What am I?” (W.183). Continually, Hughes explored its ramifications, drawing on his own experiences and life to do so but working, always, in a manner and within a context which extends their relevance from the personal to the universal. “Poem by poem, book by book2 one can trace his exploration of the nature of Mankind, of his own and our place in the world, and of the relationship between Mankind and Nature, mind and matter, rational thought and imagination. One can see, too, Hughes’ concern with the relationship between the human and the divine, the transient and the eternal, and the particular importance of his preoccupation with the relationship between the creative arts, the artist, and the Universal Energies which he regarded as the source of all. This complex of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and goals was the ultimate source of Hughes’ inspiration and, in a cyclical fashion which become fundamental to his work, it shaped it and was shaped by it. So, by continually working through the process of self-examination, Hughes formulated answers which were presented in his poetry with increasing certainty, authority and skill.

In his poetic sequences, Cave Birds, Remains of Elmet, and River, Hughes created deliberate parallels between his own journey towards enlightenment and the journeys of questing Everyman figures in myth and epic. Like the Everyman hero, the paths which Hughes took in his quest were often decided by events and experiences in his own life. There is also a common pattern of struggle, pain and sacrifice through which the quester achieves enlightenment and healing. This pattern, Hughes believed, is universally present in Nature and has been reflected in the literature and lore of Mankind throughout history. Through is work, Hughes deliberately sought to involve his readers in a process of enlightenment and change.

The beliefs and ideas which underlie Hughes’ work are complex. This discussion, therefore, begins by presenting, as far as possible in his own words, Hughes’ view of poetry as a product of the poet’s inner world; his belief in its communicative power; and his faith in it as a vehicle through which suppressed energies may be released so that wholeness and harmony may be restored to our world. It deals, also, with Hughes’ concept of Universal Energies and their presence in Nature, and with their relevance to his poetic purpose.

Whilst each of Hughes’ sequences of poetry represents a further stage in his dealings with the Universal Energies and a new exploration of the communicative and shaping power of poetry and myth, his involvement with Orghast gave him a unique opportunity to test the validity of his beliefs. The practical and immediate nature of the work on Orghast provided Hughes with an experimental situation within which to assess the power and the limitations of language, music, drama and myth, and his experiences with Peter Brook’s drama company confirmed and strengthened his beliefs and strongly influenced the subsequent direction of his poetry. In particular, Hughes’ use of myth as an aid to imaginative communication in Orghast, and his work with the Sufi fable, The Conference of The Birds, can be seen as two important formative influences which shaped the Cave Birds sequence. At this time, too, Hughes wrote the short sequences of poems, ‘Prometheus on His Crag’ (THCP 285–296) and ‘Adam and the Sacred Nine’ (THCP 443–451), both of which have close thematic links with Cave Birds and Remains of Elmet.

Orghast, I believe, began an intensive and prolonged attempt by Hughes to link human and elemental energies, using myth as a means of enhancing communication and as a protective controlling structure within which to work. Cave Birds and Remains of Elmet show thei development of this endeavour in poetic sequences which thematically parallel Hughes’ own quest for the source of healing energies – for mana. River, in this schema, describes the culmination of Hughes’ quest, and it presents the enlightenment, the ‘Truth’ which Hughes gained by his journey, in a work which is both a representation of, and a vehicle for, the universal energies of The Source itself.

In Cave Birds, Hughes’ quest for truth and enlightenment is expressed in the shape, the theme, and the content of the sequence, and in the creative, imaginative process through which he and his readers share the experiences of the protagonist. Hughes’ choice of Alchemy as a framework within which to develop the Cave Birds theme is particularly apt, but to appreciate this it is necessary to know something about the alchemical process and the various levels on which it can be understood. Since Alchemy is a complex and confusing subject, I have tried to simplify my explanation of it enough for its relevance to Cave Birds to be apparent to the reader whose interest is in Hughes’ poetry rather than in Alchemy per se. Those who desire a deeper knowledge of Alchemy must necessarily undertake the research for themselves, since this is the essential nature of the alchemical art.

In Remains of Elmet, Hughes continued to pursue his poetic purpose, building on the experience of Cave Birds and adopting, in a manner similar to that of Blake, a prophetic role in his attempt to effect change and healing in our world. This sequence shows his increasing ability to immerse himself deeply in the creative/re-creative process using, now, his own personal heritage as a source of inspiration. Hughes’ Yorkshire–Celtic–Norse heritage is but one strand of the twined thematic threads on which these poems are strung: other strands carry the Hermetic theme of the imprisonment and release of divine light, with its related religious/mythical belief in the spiritual fall and salvation of Mankind; and the theme of the war between Man and Nature, as exemplified by the history of the Calder Valley.

The third poetic sequence which I discuss is River. Because of the complex, holistic nature of this sequence, I have dealt with it in a broader fashion, attempting to show the way in which it continues to demonstrate Hughes’ struggle for union with the energies of the Source and his overall re–creative, healing, sacralising purpose. River, I believe, shows the extent of the development which has taken place in Hughes’ personal beliefs through his work with Cave Birds and Remains of Elmet. It presents the ‘Truth’, as Hughes sees it: and it exemplifies the great skill with which Hughes handles the creative energies and unites the many conflicting and contrary elements of our world in a realistic, but imaginatively conceived whole. It shows the ways in which Hughes constantly tried to put his beliefs into practice in his work: how his personal heritage and experiences were again generalised through the use of an Everyman figure; and how myth and epic had become, for him, an essential part of the creative/re–creative process.

© Ann Skea 2021

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