TED HUGHES AND HISTORY
“My project is to examine the influence of history in the work of Ted Hughes; and how this might influence us.
Would you consider Cabbala as ‘history which influenced Hughes’ poems’?”
There are several ways in which history influenced Hughes’ poems. He wrote a number of ‘war’ poems reflecting the effects of war on the part of Yorkshire in which he grew up and, because his father was a survivor of the Gallipoli landings, he wrote of the effects of this on his father and on the rest of the family. e.g. ‘Dust As We Are’ (THCP 753) and ‘For the Duration’ (THCP 760). His early poem, ‘Wilfred Owen’s Photographs’ (THCP 78), is a description of an historic occasion on which the production of physical evidence of atrocities (like the horrors so vividly depicted in Wilfred Owen’s war poems) influenced Parliament in one specific instance.
The whole of the Remains of Elmet sequence is steeped in history, from references to prehistoric standing stones:‘Bridestones’ (THCP 473); to the effects which the earliest Viking marauders had on the character of Yorkshire people: ‘For Billy Holt’ (THCP 483) (in the original edition, this poem was accompanied by a photograph of three elderly Yorkshire men, notoriously taciturn and ‘stony’ characters). There are poems which suggest the way in which the landed gentry owned and used the land: ‘Grouse Butts’ (THCP 699) (which are where the gentry came to hunt game-birds); and the way in which the Industrial Revolution in England changed the lives of the people in that area and, later, the effects of the closing of the mills which had brought prosperity and work: ‘Lumb Walls’ (THCP 456), ‘Walls’ (THCP 462), ‘First, Mills’ (THCP 462) and ‘Mill Ruins’ (THCP 464). There are poems, too, which deal with the effects on the lives and character of Hughes’ fellow Yorkshire–folk of the strict Methodist religion which was first brought to the area in the mid 1700s by the Wesley brothers: ‘Mount Zion’ (THCP 480).
Hughes’ own personal history is, of course, the basis for the Birthday Letters poems, in which he remembers incidents in his own and Sylvia Path’s past and tries to re–create them as clearly and objectively as possible. That clear, imaginary re–envisioning of memories is an essential part of the power of the poems to stir the reader’s own imagination.
Cabbala has a very ancient history going back to Assyrian myths and religion, which date from about 2,500 BC. For most Jewish people, Cabbala is a sacred method of interpreting the history of the world, as reflected in the Hebrew scriptures. Hughes was well aware of this, and his own use of Cabbala also reflects the historical use made of it by poets such as John Donne, Philip Sidney, Milton, Spencer and Shakespeare, all of whom used Cabbalistic numerology and Renaissance NeoPlatonic Hermeticism (as Hughes sometimes did) in the structure of their poems.
Hughes certainly believed that history, and especially our earliest histories as reflected in folk–lore and mythology, can influence us today. His essay, ‘Myth and Education’ in Winter Pollen (Scammell (Ed. ) Faber, 1994. pp136-53) emphasises how important mythology can be in stimulating and training the imagination, and in allowing us to put the present into perspective. He also believed very strongly in the healing power of the word. He spoke of this in relation to his own fable, The Iron Man, in an interview with Blake Morrison (‘Man of Mettle’, Independent on Sunday, 5 Sept. 1993. p.32). And he spoke, at other times, of his extensive reading of the work of Carl Jung and of the power of symbols and music (especially in poetry) to release suppressed energies. Poetry, Hughes once said, “is one way of making things happen the way you want them to happen” ( Critical Forum, Norwich Tapes, 1978). He was well aware that historically a belief in the power of the word has been present in the rituals and literature of people from the very earliest times, and that it is still an essential part of many religions, linking man and God, and channeling God’s powers into our world.
The power of words and ritual was an essential part of the Greek Mysteries, in which powerful drama was believed to bring about catharsis and mystical transformation. It is of immense importance in Hebrew scriptures and rituals, where the shape of the Hebrew letters symbolize and also transmit Divine power, and the spoken word channels that power. The same is true of Christian liturgy and ritual, and of the poetic rhythms of the written word in the Bible and in the prayer books. It is notable that the rhythms and sounds of the King James version of the Bible are frequently present in Hughes’ own work.
There are many books in Hughes’ library, now at Emory University in Atlanta, which deal with history, with mysticism, and with the magical power of myth, ritual and poetry. There are books of Renaissance history and philosophy; of Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Japanese, African, Arab and other mythologies; of Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, Hebrew and Christian literature and beliefs; and books about Hermeticism, shamanism, astrology and magical training and techniques.
A few titles chosen at random from the library catalogue of his books give only a hint of the extensive range of topics in which Hughes was interested:
Lorca, Frazer, J. The Golden Bough; Karadzic,V.S. Red Knight: Serbian Women’s Song; Yates, F. Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age; Sonders, N.K. Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia; Merchant, M. Preaching the Word; Sheard, J.A. The Words We Use; Lemesurier, P. The Healing of the Gods: the magic of symbols and the practice of theotherapy; Jung, C.G. Man and His Symbols; Meyouhaus, J. Bible Tales in Arab Folk-lore; Raleigh, W.A. Shakespeare’s England: an account of the life & manners of his age; Eysenck, E. Astrology: science or superstition?; Khan, I. The Mysticism of Sound and Music; Waite, A,E. The Book of Ceremonial Magic; Harrison, R.K. Biblical Hebrew; etc.
© Ann Skea 2015. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at email@example.com