Ted Hughes and David Hockney's Alphabet

© Ann Skea 2017.

Published in the Ted Hughes Society Journal. Vol.5, Issue 1, 2016.

In 1991, to raise money for the AIDS Crisis Trust, David Hockney created 26 pictures of individual letters of the alphabet. Stephen Spender, on behalf of that charity then sent one letter to each of twenty–six well–known British and American writers inviting them to contribute original text in response to their particular letter.

The results were edited by Spender and compiled into a book which was first published by Faber and Faber in a limited edition of 300 copies, each signed by Hockney, Spender and each of the contributors1.

Amongst those contacted by Spender were Paul Theroux, Seamus Heaney, Susan Sontag, Julian Barnes, Erica Jong, Douglas Adams, Iris Murdoch and Ted Hughes. Valerie Eliot provided a letter from T.S. Eliot to a young aspiring writer; and Lord Northwich found a 19th–century alphabet poem by C.C. Banborough. Both of these were included in the book.

Norman Mailer, who was given the letter ‘F’, declined to make a contribution on the grounds that he was working on a novel which, he said, “Insists on being a wife”, “a most possessive matrimonial partner” who will not “let him out of her sight for even two days to have some fun with the letter F”. “You poets”, he wrote, “don’t know how lucky you are with your one–night stands”.

Spender thought this letter “such a good model of polite rejection” that he included it as Mailer’s contribution.

Ted Hughes was given the letter ‘S’ which, as Spender wrote in his Introduction to the book, sent him “on a winding journey, beginning with eel and traversing a lifetime of surreal associations until it returns, eel-like, to wireworm”.

So what did Ted see when he looked at this picture?

Hockney’s letter S, like a great fat serpent, rears up to fill the page. It is completely surrounded by line after line of small cursive s’s which look very like those which might be written for practice in a child’s school book. These are written with a soft red pencil. Each has a faint yellow shadow on its curved side and there are incomplete blue lines running beneath them, like those in an exercise book.

Hockney S

The top end of the great serpentine S is rectangular and flared, like the mouth of a loud–speaker, and it balances on a similarly flared ‘tail’. Its perimeter is formed by one continuous, fine, ink line with random dots along it, as if it were a dot–to–dot puzzle which has been completed. Two larger dots look as if Hockney’s pen had blotted as he drew the outline.

Ted would, of course, have seen the letter ‘S’ in various forms, each of which represent a sound – a magical vibration of air which has the power, in our world, to communicate something: “Ssss!” and “Shhhh”, for example.

It gives shape, meaning, emotive and motivating power to words like ‘susurration’, ‘secrecy’, ’sea‘ and ‘‘snake’. And it can radically change the meaning of a word by its presence, as in ‘top’ and ‘STOP!’.

These airy vibrations, and this power of letters and words, are associated in religion with the breath of the Creator. In the Bible (John 1:1-2) we are told: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. And in Genesis (1:3): “God said Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness”.

In Hebrew Cabbala, too, the Creator’s breath brought about the first manifestation and the first division of Divine energy into all we know in the material world. And in the Hebrew alphabet the letter ‘Shin’, which is equivalent to our ‘S’, represents The Eternal Flame and has its own particular symbolic shape which incorporates the light from the Infinite Source with the Infinite within which all is contained2. Ted would have known this from his exploration of Renaissance Christian Cabbala, which was the basis of Yeats’ magic, and from his own study of Hebrew.

Ted’s interest in the deep, non rational, magical (Ted’s word) and communicative power of sound, was apparent in the work he did with Peter Brook, when he created the language of Orghast3.

And it is significant, too, that when he taught poetry to groups of bankers and accountants at the Liechtenstein Global Trust Academy in 1997 and 1998, the title which he chose for his course was “The Power of Words”.

In ancient Greece, the magical vibrations of sound led Pythagoras to deduce the mathematical mysteries of ratio and number from the different tones he heard from hammers in a forge. He realised that there was a quantitative relationship between the tones, and that each tone was related to the others in an ordered way which could be given a numerical value. The whole world, according to his theory, consists of Harmony and Number and our musical scales reflect this.

In myth, too, sound and the secret of letters, words and writing are associated with the gods. Thoth gave us the hieroglyphs (literally meaning ‘sacred symbols’) from which our alphabet derives. And Mercury/Hermes brought us the gods’ messages and also gave us music and poetry.

In Celtic myth, the flight of the Crane, which is sacred to the Goddess, embodies all the letters of the alphabet; and Manannan’s crane–skin bag holds the inspiration and the words of the poets.

To get a little more abstruse, these vibrations of sound are, as Ted knew, powerful in magic. Not just in the magic of poetry where rhyme and rhythm, sibilance and assonance are vital to the life of the poem, but to magicians who vibrate the words of invocations and spells, and to priests and holy communities which chant and sing their liturgies and readings.

The magician, Franz Bardon, one of whose books Ted had in his library and recommended to friends, wrote that the S vibration has “all permeating power and all encompassing power” in which the “primordial divine fire” is present4.

For all these reasons, and especially because of Ted’s interest in language and in the roots of language, and the experiments which he did with the Peter Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research, every letter would have had particular meaning for him and ‘S’, perhaps, was the most important.

But what else would Ted have seen in this picture?

He would have seen the serpentine shape of the letter, and the ocean of cursive ‘s’s which surround it. That serpentine shape and the spots which mark it may well have reminded him of the charm the fairies sing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to protect Titania from “Ye spotted snakes with double tongue”, and from “newts and blind worms”, “worm” and “snail”5.

He certainly saw, and describerd in his poem, something serpent–like which “lubricates the shape of air”; something hermaphrodite, like an eel, but which, here, is female. He saw a “sea-worm”; “an eel/ of strangest flesh”; something “nor snake nor fish”. And he also saw the Goddess in her serpentine form – “the wordless eye/ of end and beginning” which “slid /out of her hole / in purest soul”.

The serpent as a symbol is probably the oldest, most widespread and most potent in the world. It seems to inhabit every mythology and like the entwined snakes on Mercury’s caduceus, it can be either deadly or benign.

In an interview in 1970, Ted told Ekbert Faas of his belief that powerful symbols have “real summoning force” and that he once wrote about a Red Cross Knight in order to control the possible effects of his “Jaguarish poem called ‘Gog’”. The symbol, he said, “opens up the readers own nature, and the way it works depends on the mind that meets it – on the nature of that mind”6.

For Ted, the serpent appears to have had a very personal meaning. Not only because it is a symbol of the Goddess, but also because Ted, whose interest in astrology is well known, knew it as part of the constellation of Ophiuchos. Ophiuchos, “the serpent bearer”, is pictured as a man wrestling with the serpent and for the Greeks it represented the god Apollo wrestling with the huge snake that guarded the Oracle of Delphi. For some astrologers it is also the 13th sign of the zodiac.

In 1973 Ted wrote to Keith Sagar: “Your book made me regret the months and even years I’ve yielded to the serpent Ophiuchon – who always appeared to the day, when I had at last managed to take a real step. But he wasn’t always ugly”7. And in 1993, he wrote to William Scammell: “I’ve noticed, the closer you get to the real thing in any bout of writing, the more formidable are the perverse interruptions, the deflection, tempting diversions and sheer obstacular accidents. The Alchemists were so familiar with it, they gave it a name – Ophiucos i.e. the Great Snake (no less!)”8.

Ted’s poem, ‘Ophiuchos’, written between 1973 and 1974, was published in the Rainbow Press limited edition entitled ‘Orts’9. (a dialect word meaning 'leavings'). It is a poem of threat and suffering; of “Soul torn from body”; and of “fire inexhaustible” which nevertheless, as in an alchemical process, is “fining” or purifying, the metal of a man.

And he referred to this alchemical snake again when he told Keith Sagar that “the whole drift” of the poems collected in the trade edition of Moortown was “the alchemizing of a phoenix out of a serpent. An awakening of life out of the unawakened”10. In this book, the poems are book–ended, so–to–speak, by Baskin’s images of a snake and a phoenix. Moortown Cover The fanged, double–tailed snake, which is also on the cover of the book, rears up ominously on a page before the first poem ‘Rain’, which is a poem of watery desolation in which “The fox corpses lie beaten to their bare bones”. At the end of the book, Baskin’s great phoenix, with its head haloed by a sun or a moon, rises from its flames opposite ‘The Sole of the Foot’, Moortown Cover a poem in which Adam stands firmly on the newly created earth, “the first host”, knowing that this is where he truly belongs.

It is apparent that the great sky–serpent Ophiuchos is double natured. And the constellation is also associated with Asclepius, god of healing, whose staff with its entwined snakes (like Mercury’s caduceus) has become a symbol of the medical profession, where poisons which may be lethal or healing are carefully controlled.

For all these reasons, in Ted’s eyes, Hockney’s serpentine letter ‘S’ would have been particularly powerful.

You can see that Ted captures the doubleness of Hockney’s picture in his poem. He captures the letter ‘S’ in the sibilance of the words; he hints at its shape in the “Swan of vision”; he captures the way we make the sound and its purpose as “the slug of speech” which “lubricates the shapes of air”. And he captures this strange, lithe, ambiguous creature in his imagery.

But I believe he was doing more than this. Because Hockney’s picture incorporates a letter and a symbol, both of which had huge meaning for Ted, I believe that with this poem Ted was creating a protective charm, to invoke, contain and balance the energies he saw there.

Letter S

This is what Ted’s poem looks like on the page directly opposite Hockney’s image. Unfortunately, for copyright reasons I cannot make the text legible here but the shape of the poem can be seen and the complete poems is reproduced in theTed Hughes Society Journal. Vol.5, Issue 1, 2016.

Perhaps the first thing you notice about this poem is its cross–shape. Just as Ted created his Red Cross Knight to control the power he felt he had summoned in ‘Gog’, so he here placed a protective cross opposite the symbol of the snake. But the poem also looks rather like a mathematical division sign, with a unit of verse above and below the dividing lines of prose. It is a divided unity which exactly reflects the alchemical teaching of Hermes Trismegistus that “whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to reflect the miracle of the one thing” – the ‘one thing’ being the alchemical gold of harmony, balance and spiritual wholeness.

Hermes Trismegistus, who is also Mercury/Thoth, is everywhere in Ted’s poem. He is there in the live, lithe hermaphrodite creature which is neither snake for fish. He is there in the doubleness which reflects the entwined snakes on his caduceus. He is also there in the spiral and the corkscrew, and in the sashaying, squirming mercurial eel. And he is there linking the heavens – the spirit of “purest soul” and the ghostly absence – with the material world of the surfaced sea-worm, with its pursed lips and its human sigh.

In Geomancy (which is serious Hebrew Cabbalistic numerology, not the debased numerology of popular culture) Mercury is given the number 8. The upper circle represents the heavens and the lower circle, connected to it but separated from it by the cross–over, represents the material world. Mercury links heaven and earth and the continuous line which forms the numeral 8 represents eternal continuity. Like the Uroborus – the snake biting its tail, which represents the continuity of Nature – the numeral 8 seamlessly joins beginning and end.

Similarly Ted’s poem and the continuous outline of Hockney’s serpentine ‘S’ join the beginning and the end.

But Mercury/Hermes himself is of double nature. He is both Psychopomp, the guide of souls, escorting the dead to the Otherworld, and Trickster. So Teds serpentine sea-worm, “Depth charged” and surviving destruction is tricky – it opens its “purse/of lips for a kiss/with a human sigh” (you might interpret Hockney’s image this way) only to “rear its hiss”.

And there is trickery and deception in some of Ted’s other images, too. “L’onde s’enfle dessous” is a suitably sibilant line which translates as ‘the waves swelled beneath’ and it beautifully describes the cursive sea of S’s which surround Hockley large letter. It comes from Pierre Corneille’s 17th–century French play based on the 12th century Castilian Lay of the Cid11. And it comes from that part where Roderigo Diaz (El Cid) describes how he defeated the Moors by tricking them into an ambush.

Duplicity, deception and trickery are there in the Lusitania, too. There is a serpentine hiss at the heart of her name and, like an interloper in the Goddess’s world, she began to dominate ocean crossings when, in 1907, as ‘The Greyhound of the Seas’, she became the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic. Her powerful engines, however, were so poorly configured and disturbed the waters so badly, that the ship was plagued by bad vibrations.

Such disrespect for the realm of the “great and malignant female”, the “Mother of the sea–creatures, Spirit of the sea, Goddess of life and death”, could, as Ted wrote in his essay on Coleridge, be very dangerous12. She is, after all, the Ancient Mariner’s “Nightmare Life-in-Death…/ Who thicks man’s blood with cold”13.

Then, in May 1915, the Lusitania took on a double life. In defiance of international war–time laws, she was registered as a passenger–carrying Merchant Navy vessel but was secretly carrying a large cargo of munitions. Vibrations gave away her position to the German U–boat which torpedoed her. And vibrations, in the form of radio waves, also failed her when the two Royal Navy destroyers which had been deployed to protect her were unable to reach her. Although they could contact the captain by Wireless Telegraph, the encryption codes of the Royal Navy differed from those used by the Merchant Navy, and the captain would not give them his position in uncoded transmission. So, they did not know her exact position.

This strikes me as a particularly Mercurial trick, since Mercury who is, of course, the God of communications and the icon of the telecommunication industry, made a childhood promise to his father, Zeus, that he would always tell the truth - but not necessarily the whole truth14.

Whether or not these things were in Ted’s mind when he included the reference to the Lusitania and his quotation from El Cid in this poem, is of course speculation. They are puzzling inclusions – part of what Spender called Ted’s “winding journey” through a “lifetime of surreal associations”. Such obscurities, however, do not make for a good poem.

This poem has none of the simple clarity of Ted’s best work but it does capture the essence of Hockney’s picture and it does balance past and present, history and myth, spirit and body, the beginning and the end. It is, I think, a fine example of Ted’s use of the power of words to create a magical, protective charm.


1. Spender, S.(Ed.), Hockney’s Alphabet, Faber, 1991.

2. The Mystical Significance of Hebrew Letters. The written form of Shin comprises three linked vavs (representing the descending power from the Eternal Source) each topped with a yud (representing the Infinite).

3. Interview with Peter Wilson : .//Persepolis%20Orghast%20interview.html

4. Bardon, F. The Key to the True Kabbalah, Merker Publishing Inc. 1996. p 144.

5. Shakespeare, W. A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene III, Lines 9-22.

6. Faas, E. The Unaccommodated Universe, Back Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980, pp.199-200.

7 Reid, C. Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber, 2007, p.338.

8 Reid op.cit. p. 648-9.

9. THCP 574.

10. Sagar, K. Poet and Critic, (British Library, 2012), TH to KS, 22 April 1980. pp. 88-91.

11. Corneille, P. Le Cid, Act IV, Scene III. First performed in Paris in 1637.

12. 'The Snake in the Oak', Winter Pollen, Faber, 1994, p.429.

13. Coleridge, S. The Ancient Mariner, Part III, lines 51-2.

14. Graves, R. Greek Mythology, Cassell Ltd. 1981, p. 24.

© Ann Skea 4 October 2017. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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