Ted Hughes, Gaudete, Cave Birds, and the 1975 Ilkley Literature Festival.

In memory of Keith Sagar, who died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack on Tuesday 15th October 2013.
Keith was to have given this talk at the Ilkely Literature Festival on Saturday 20th. My thanks to Melissa Sagar for permission to publish it here.

© Estate of Keith Sagar.

In 1967 Philip Larkin wrote a poem called ‘Annus Mirabilis’, which begins:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

A strangely puritanical culture had somehow survived the war, and lasted until the advent of the ‘permissive society’ of the sixties (which was rather late for me too). One particularly sensational manifestation of it was the spate of cases in the late fifties where ministers were exposed as having secret covens of their female parishioners, where both witchcraft and venery were practiced. The News of the World made hay.

Ted Hughes had a different interest in them. He was fascinated by the psychology of the ministers, the women, and their husbands, and in 1964 began to sketch out a film–script (an early version of Gaudete, which still shows some of the characteristics of a film script). He soon dropped the venture, but returned to it in 1971. Hughes said that for a while he had thought of Gaudete as ‘just being the story of English Maytime’, in which ‘all the forms of natural life’, including ‘the actual bodies of the people’ [Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe (1980), p.215], are emissaries from the underworld, the world of natural energies underneath the concrete and pebble–dash, energies which erupt at last, bringing chaos.

Gaudete is the story of Nicholas Lumb, an Anglican minister in a Devon village, who is abducted by spirits and taken to the underworld, where he is asked to heal a beautiful, half-animal woman, who seems to be dying. (It later transpires that she is the goddess, Nature herself, so that saving her would also mean saving a blighted world.) But Lumb is helpless, out of his depth. ‘He is not a doctor. He can only pray.

Meanwhile, so that Lumb will not be missed in his parish, a changeling is sent to replace him during his sojourn in the underworld. Hughes’ original idea was that half the story would be about Lumb’s trials in the underworld, and half about the disastrous impact of a rampant nature spirit in his village. In the event he decided to focus the narrative on the changeling, and handle Lumb’s confused experiences not with any sequential narrative at all, but with his phantasmagoric memories, and prayers to the goddess, conveyed in an epilogue of 44 short poems, after his return to this world. These poems he called Lumb’s Remains.

Lumb returns to the upper world much changed, not to his parish, but as a hermit in the West of Ireland. Now, apparently, like the Ancient Mariner, a slightly crazy outcast, he is able not only to write remarkable poems, but to call an otter out of the lough, and inspire three young girls with a sense of miracle. The girls rush to tell their priest, who had been seeking inspiration from the anchorite St. Ignatius, who had written ‘We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things’. To Hughes indifference to created things is spiritual death, and a manifestation of sacrilegious hubris. This world of teeming miracles, of growth and decay, of birth and death, is not good enough for man, who demands immortality. The spark passes from the girls to the priest. He is granted a sudden glimpse of the ‘untouched joy’ which Lumb has let in again to a once ‘horrible world’ [Gaudete, Faber (1977), p.194].

READING: ‘And as he spoke...’. [Gaudete, p.175.]

It is an instantaneous, vicarious, and wholly joyful replay of what has slowly and painfully happened to Lumb himself during his sojourn in the underworld, whence he emerges as a shaman. The experience is parallel, in Hughes’ words, to that of the ancient mariner’s ‘revelation of the divine glory of the total creation’ which ‘renews his spiritual being’.

Some time in 1973–4, Hughes had come across A. K. Ramanujan’s book, Speaking of Siva, and the vacanas of the Siva–worshipping mystics of Southern India. Although they are part of the mystical process of becoming one with a god or with a divine Creative Source, the vacanas were written in a very naked, direct, personal and colloquial style, which Hughes immediately began to imitate, gradually making it his own. The Gaudete epilogue poems are virtually Hughes’ vacanas:

The poems I wrote in and around that time, as vacanas (an Indian form of prayer poem, specifically Tamil, I think). Again I wrote them as an attempt to reach a more direct, flexible, simpler expression of things that would be compromised by a more studied or ‘literary’ form. Each one jumps out of its own impulse, then shapes itself, extempore fashion, as it goes along – as you shape your remarks when you feel you have to get something over to somebody in a quarrel, or when you’re trying to explain why you did something incomprehensible, or when you’re pleading with somebody to do something. [Letters of Ted Hughes, (ed.)Reid, C., Faber (2007), pp.634-5.]

Hughes’ vacanas are obviously, in one sense, simpler than his earlier poems, but also more concentrated, making considerable demands on the reader. Like the originals, they span, or rather concentrate, a vast range of feeling. It is the perfect form for holding the precarious balance of ‘terror and exultation’ which was Hughes’ response to the goddess in the early seventies.

READING: ‘The coffin, spurred by its screws...’. [Gaudete, p.189.]

The title, Gaudete, (meaning ‘rejoice’ in Latin) came by chance. Hughes heard a remarkable sound from his daughter’s room, and rushed to ask her what it was. It was the Steeleye Span version of ‘Gaudete’ from the Piae Cantiones of 1582, which the previous Christmas, 1973, had reached number 14 in the UK charts. The singer was Maddy Prior, whom Hughes described as ‘the most thrilling singer I ever heard’. In May 1976 he wrote to his publisher:

Yes, the title has exercised me, from the point of view of the customer in the shop who doesn’t want to feel even very slightly a fool. Even when you have a pronunciation, there’s still something odd about it. But it’s stuck, as far as I’m concerned. The subtitle has always been ‘An English Idyll’ – but the irony of that seemed a bit precious.

The title did make fools of American customers and critics, who pronounced and even spelled it Gaudette, with a double t.

In the spring of 1977 Ted sent me an advance copy of Gaudete (inscribed ‘The head is older than the book’). I wanted to share my excitement, so I organized free weekly meetings at my home for friends and adult students I knew to be interested in Hughes. All that summer several of us went through the book page by page. My chapter on Gaudete in the second edition of The Art of Ted Hughes grew out of those meetings. Not only was I bowled over by the book in its own terms, it also had the dramatic and immediate effect of fertilizing my own imagination (an effect Ted’s poems had on many others, including Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage). I wrote more and much better poems in 1977 than any other year. I sent the best of my poems to Ted, and his response was so encouraging that I asked him if he would expand his comments a little to form an introduction to my poems in a series called ‘Proem Pamphlets’ being published by the Yorkshire Arts Association – another of Michael Dawson’s innovations. The idea was that in each a selection of a new poet’s work would be introduced by an established poet. To my delight and surprise, Ted came up with an essay on the virtues of simplicity in poetry. Surprise, because, as we shall see later, I had long been nagging Ted that some of his poems were too obscure. At the end of the essay he wrote:

Keith Sagar’s verse is manifestly plain. when I first met these pieces, I could not put my finger on just what it is in them that rings so true, and that kept bringing me back to look at them again, and that gave me such a definite pleasure when I did. I could recognise in them, everywhere, his special brand of humour (serious) and the way it blends into the fascinated attention ? a very special quality in itself that he brings to whatever interests him. I could also sense and enjoy his very original and private relationship to the natural world. I felt there was a real person in these poems, to whom things happened in a real way, and interestingly. I like his attitude of affectionate, unsentimental, workmanlike practicality towards small things ? very like his use of language in the poems. And I appreciated his quiet skill the deft and solid simplicity of his patterns. Again and again, with the baldest economy, he seemed to me to get it just right.

You can imagine how encouraging that was to someone hardly any of whose poems had previously been published. In spite of that weighty recommendation, I had to wait until 2004 to get my one and only book of poems, Mola, published. Ted’s essay is reprinted in Poet and Critic [Faber (2012)] (which includes all 147 of Ted’s letters to me).


During his stay in Massachusetts in 1957–8, Hughes had met and befriended the great American artist, sculptor, engraver and publisher, Leonard Baskin. Baskin was obsessed by crows and raptors. Hughes shared this interest. He had already written ‘The Hawk in the Rain’, and probably wrote ‘Hawk Roosting’ during his American sojourn.

After the death of Sylvia Plath in 1963, Baskin sent Ted some crow drawings, with the suggestion that he write some poems to accompany them. The Baskin drawings from 1964 show that Baskin at that time was depicting crows not as creatures from the natural world, but, like Goya‘s owls, as nightmare emanations from the human mind. Like his thought–fox and most of his other animals, Hughes’ crow is simultaneously a real crow, a crow as depicted in world folklore, and a part of himself – the dark side.

In 1964 Hughes wrote Eat Crow, in which one of the characters says:

The crow is composed of terrible black voice. … He looks this way and that. The forms of the stones, the fractures of heavenly accident, the resolute quality of light, hold the crow anaesthetized, every hour in more skilled patience, resigned to the superior stamina of the empty horizon, limber and watchful.

Hughes embarked on a huge project in which his crow character would be the protagonist of an ‘epic folk-tale’ (in prose, but studded with hundreds of poems, most of them the harsh songs of the crow). Hughes’ mythic imagination recognized the manifold mythic and folkloristic potentialities of this character, as trickster, quest hero, and embodiment of almost all the themes which were most urgent to him at that time.

In the first two–thirds of the story, Crow makes almost all the mistakes man has ever made, particularly in his relationship with the female, the female, that is, in all its manifestations – mother, bride, and Nature herself. Then, with the guidance of an Eskimo shaman, he begins to learn. Towards the end, Crow needs to cross a river to get to the Happy Land on the other side. But an Ogress (the ugly, threatening face he has himself projected onto the female) bars his way, and insists that he carry her across. His answers to the seven dilemma questions she asks him as he stumbles across recapitulate the whole history of his mistaken dealings with the female. As Hughes described it in 1970, the year of the publication of Crow:

His answers move from one pole of total disaster in the relationship between him and the female to the opposite pole of totally successful, blissful union. And meanwhile, this Ogress on his back turns into a beauty, before she escapes into the oak forest on the other side of the river. And there are many more episodes in this happy land until the Ogress eventually becomes his bride.

But this happy ending, this resolution of most of the dilemmas, was never written. At the very point where Crow meets the Eskimo shaman, and his real progress was to have begun, Hughes was silenced by another personal tragedy, in March 1969, a tragedy almost as deep as the suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath six years earlier. Though Hughes believed in ‘upbeat’ endings in his works for children, he could not write for adults what he had not validated in his own life.

Thus Crow was published as only a selection of the poems from the first two–thirds of the story, and, since that story was then unknown, it was widely read as totally nihilistic. As he gradually recovered in the early seventies, Hughes tried to take up the Crow story again, but could never get back onto that imaginative plane. But the extent to which Cave Birds is also ‘continued Crow’ is obvious in such poems as ‘Bride and Groom’, where Crow, now become fully human, achieves at last ‘totally successful, blissful union’ with the female (his former victim and demonized Ogress).

READING: ‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days’. [Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, (ed.) Keegan,P. Faber (2003,) p.437-8, Gaudete, p.189.]


In 1974 Leonard Baskin sent Hughes a set of nine bird drawings to see if he would be interested in writing poems to accompany them. Hughes saw these drawings as an opportunity for what he called ‘continued Crow’, a bird–drama in which Crow would be brought to trial for his crimes (of which he is totally ignorant) against the female. Crow himself became a cockerel, a traditional image for pride of life, cocksureness. Baskin’s ‘Hercules–in–the–Underworld Bird’, a raptor with huge multiple spurs, became the Summoner; a vulturess the interrogator; a bloated bird, all buttocks, became the Judge; the Plaintiff, an amalgam of all Crow’s victims, was a vast owl, whose every feather Hughes saw as a wound, and also as a mouth accusing Crow. A dense black raven (which Baskin had called a ‘Raven of Ravens’) became his executioner. Finally Crow was resurrected as Baskin’s ‘Ghostly Falcon’.

Thus Hughes, not suspecting that there might be more drawings to come, wrote what he thought of as a complete cycle. But when Baskin read these poems, he was inspired to produce another ten drawings (the ten which appeared in the Scolar Press edition of Cave Birds to coincide with the 1975 Ilkley festival). These were drawings of a very high order, but they obliged Hughes to complicate his drama by inventing many intermediate stages. It was complicated further by incorporating a shadow–theme – the death and resurrection of Socrates – and a great deal of imagery drawn from Alchemy.

Most people think of alchemy as the attempt to transmute base metals into gold. But that was a cul–de–sac. Alchemy was a combination of philosophy and what later became chemistry. It arose from the theory that all things decayed and died only because they were impure. If the impurities could be removed, by filtration, heat, and many more esoteric methods, decay and death could be defeated. Alchemists were highly secretive. They expressed their knowledge in a symbolic jargon which could be understood only by initiates.

Hughes was extremely knowledgeable, not only in areas of general knowledge and areas an educated poetry–lover might be expected to frequent, but also in folklore and mythology, and such esoteric areas as Alchemy, Tarot, Rosicrucianism, Shamanism, Cabbala, Sufism and Astrology. In his determination to load every rift with ore, he had drawn on all of these in both the plot and the symbolism of his bird drama. He had an altogether unrealistic notion of what level of knowledge he could assume in his readership. What Hughes regarded as his essential shared mythos with his readers included much more than a thorough knowledge of English flora and fauna. It included the whole of classical, Celtic and Nordic mythologies, ‘the whole tradition [in his own words] of Hermetic Magic (which is a good part of Jewish Mystical philosophy, not to speak of the mystical philosophy of the Renaissance), the whole historical exploration into spirit life at every level of consciousness, the whole deposit of earlier and other religion, myth, vision, traditional wisdom and story in folk belief, on which Yeats based all his work’.

When Ted sent me the first draft of ‘The Snake in the Oak’, the second of his two essays on Coleridge, in 1993, he asked me to provide a list of the places where I thought clarifying notes were needed: ‘My sense of what is necessary, in that line, is defective‘, he wrote. He was shocked that I did not know what he meant by the ‘Keeper of the Threshold’. He regarded all such stories from myth and folklore as ‘standard features’ which he could take for granted as common ground with his readers. He was surprised to find that his copy–editor did not know what Samadhi were. Neither did I. Neither, I was sure, did the vast majority of his potential readers. Given the intractable problems of communication he had bewailed in the first Coleridge essay, it was incomprehensible to me that in the second he should have indulged in so many esoteric and exclusive references. ‘The goblins of the sangsara on a Tibetan tanka’, for example, have never been part of any Western mythos. In 1984 Hughes had read Phoenix, Lawrence’s posthumous prose, and described it as ‘straight oxygen’. The pity of it, it seemed to me, was that Hughes was perfectly capable of writing prose of similarly energizing directness and lucidity.

My correspondence with Hughes over thirty years is peppered with my complaints about the unintelligibility of some of his poems, not only to the general reader, but even to professional critics.

Hughes was well aware of how dense the bird–drama had now become. In compensation, he added twelve poems outside the bird drama. He wrote to me that parallel to the alchemical cave drama ‘goes a more human progress of correspondences, which are free & loose, contrast to the studied formality of the bird–pieces’. But Baskin later produced eight more drawings to go with the new poems. Hughes thought these drawings were inferior to the earlier ones, and did not really want bird drawings for poems which stood outside the bird drama, but did not want to upset Baskin by excluding them. The trade edition was published by Faber in 1978. Hughes later came to feel that working in harness with artists and photographers, even when they were as congenial as Fay Godwin and Leonard Baskin, was like running in a three–legged race, and persuaded Faber to publish Three Books, in which he produced new versions of Cave Birds, Remains of Elmet and River, without those constraints.


1974–5 was possibly the most productive year of Hughes’ entire poetic career. He wrote many of the farming poems published in Moortown, and most of both Cave Birds and Gaudete.

Michael Dawson, the director of the Yorkshire Arts Association and the Ilkley Literature Festival, decided to make Hughes the main theme of the 1975 festival, the second. I don’t know how Michael knew that Hughes had just completed Gaudete and Cave Birds, or that the Cambridge University Press was about to publish my book, The Art of Ted Hughes, the first full–length critical study of Hughes. Perhaps he will tell us in his talk tomorrow. Anyway, he contacted me, and invited me to direct an extra–mural course on Hughes during the festival. He then accepted my offer to mount the first Ted Hughes exhibition as part of the festival.

Penguin had just published Worlds, an anthology of poems by seven contemporary poets, each selection accompanied by photographs of that poet’s ‘world’. The section on Ted featured thirteen photographs of the Calder Valley by Fay Godwin. I invited Fay to submit some of her photographs for the exhibition. To my delight she sent me thirty large prints. I was just beginning to take these down on the Sunday morning after the end of the festival, when Ted came in to look at them. He was most impressed. They stimulated him to take up a vague idea he had briefly discussed with Fay in 1970, and the result was Remains of Elmet. Fay gave me some of the prints, and I bought others from her.

Long after the publication of Remains of Elmet, I went for a walk at Hardcastle Crags, near Hebden Bridge. I was about to go down a steep, narrow path towards Gibson’s Mill when I saw someone just beginning to ascend it, someone burdened with photographic equipment, and waited.

When she drew level I saw it was Fay. I asked if she was planning to publish something else on that area, but she said, no, Since she had discovered it, through Ted, she couldn’t keep away, it was so photogenic.

Michael Dawson arranged for the publication of a huge and magnificent edition of Cave Birds by the Scolar Press in Ilkley. The edition (limited to 125 copies) consisted of ten of the poems, each accompanied by a facsimile of a draft of that poem and a large print of the Baskin drawing. He persuaded Hughes to give a reading, which he shared with James Kirkup and Vernon Scannell, on the final evening. But the highlight of the Festival was the previous evening, a performance arranged with the BBC, when four actors, Harvey Hall, Frances Horovitz, Peter Marinker and Gary Watson, directed by George MacBeth, gave a semi–dramatized reading of the latest version of Cave Birds, linked by a brief recorded commentary by Hughes, and of Lumb’s Remains, a selection of poems from the Epilogue of Gaudete, read by Ted himself.

The reading of Cave Birds was accompanied by Baskin’s drawings projected on a screen. During the reading of ‘His Legs Ran About’ a strange caterwauling gradually swelled near the back of the auditorium, and I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye some people helping a woman out. I had dinner with Ted and Leonard the next evening, but I didn’t mention the incident, because I didn’t discover until a few days later that the woman had been one of my own adult students, to whom I had recommended the reading. She told me that the involuntary howling had come upon her gradually, and that it was more the Baskin drawing than the poem which had finally released it. She was able to laugh about it afterwards.

The next time I saw Ted I told him about it. He smiled and said ‘We poets have to be tough’. This incident greatly increased the press coverage of the event.

This reading was repeated in London on 26 May, where it was recorded by the BBC, to be broadcast on 23 June on radio 3.


In his letter accompanying the Ilkley version of Cave Birds, Hughes had said that parallel to the alchemical bird drama ‘goes a more human progress of correspondences, which are free & loose, contrast to the studied formality of the bird–pieces’.

Two years later Hughes sent me a much–revised version of Cave Birds which he had prepared for publication. I was appalled to find that five of my favourite poems from this ‘more human progress’, ‘After the first fright’, ‘She seemed so considerate’, ‘Something was happening’, ‘Only a little sleep’ and ‘A Loyal Mother’, had gone, thus tipping the whole work towards even greater artificiality. I wrote to him in dismay. He replied (10 June 1977):

Thank you for your remarks about Cave Birds, because they made me dig out those pieces I’d deleted, and so it comes about that I rediscover their rough virtues, so much better than what I tried to replace them with, as you so rightly complain, and I think probably better than the main sequence, certainly better than many of them. In fact now I look at them I realise they were the beginning of an attempt to open myself in a different direction; a very necessary direction for me, the only real direction, and I’m aghast at the time and density of folly that has passed since I lost sight of it.

All five of these poems were restored in the published version.

I like to think that this, my first presumptuous intervention, not only led to a better Cave Birds, but helped Hughes to move forward in a ‘necessary direction’. Two years later Hughes wrote to Gifford and Roberts:

After the First Fright is crude – at one point I replaced it – but I put it back. Keith Sagar urged me not to drop it, and he’s right, it has a kind of intactness – it states its case in a way I haven’t been able to improve. Gifford,T. and Roberts,N. Ted Hughes: A Critical Study, Faber (1981), p.259.

It seemed to me that the two halves of the Ilkley reading – Cave Birds followed by Lumb’s Remains, represented two extremes of Hughes’ work to date, Cave Birds being at the extreme of artifice, complexity and obscurity (which undoubtedly delivered its own riches); and Lumb’s Remains being at the extreme of stripped–down nakedness, directness and artlessness. I felt very strongly that the second was the direction in which Hughes should be going.


Finally, an amusing footnote. Shortly after meeting Ted, Sylvia wrote to her mother:

Ted is the first man who really has a love of food...[He] just lay groaning by the hearth after the meal with utter delight, like a huge Goliath. [Sylvia Plath: Letters Home, (ed.)Plath, A., Faber (1978), p.244]

Having lived for my first 25 years in Bradford, I was familiar with the Box Tree Restaurant in Ilkley, which of course is still going strong. I invited Ted and Carol to have dinner with me there after Ted’s reading on the Saturday evening. They accepted, and brought with them Leonard and Lisa Baskin, and David and Tina Pease (David being the director of the Arvon Foundation, with which Ted was heavily involved).

All four of the men ordered t–bone steaks. They were the largest I had ever seen. Only Ted managed to finish his. The rest of us managed about half. Ted turned to Leonard: ‘Are you not going to eat that, Leonard?’ ‘No’. ‘Pass it over’. Ted devoured it, then did the same with David’s leavings and mine. I was reminded of a favourite saying of Ted’s: ‘The lady’s leavings are the dog’s dainties’.

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