Ted Hughes and Crow

© Ann Skea

“Mythic poets,” Hughes wrote in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being1, “… seem to be a distinct biological type”. In their work, beneath the “surface glitter of the plot”, there lies a deep “mythic plane” where, as for the Occult Neoplatonists of Shakespeare’s time, “all archaic mythological figures and events are available as a thesaurus of glyphs or token symbols”2. For such poets, myth is part of the essence of their poetry rather than something on which they draw from time-to-time.

Hughes, himself, was just such a mythic poet. Through myth he had access to all the intensity and drama of life and death; to universally recognisable patterns of human behaviour; to the powerful energies of gods and devils; and to ritual frameworks which have been used for centuries to contain such powerful energies and emotions. Yet, for him, myth was more than a thesaurus, it was also a divining-rod, a tool for channelling and controlling the energies he worked with, whether they were conscious or subconscious energies, sacred or profane, good or bad.

This is not just my own opinion. There is ample evidence of Hughes’ intentions and of his belief in the power of myth in his prose writing (some of which is collected in Winter Pollen3) and, especially, in his discussion of Shakespeare’s work in Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Being. There is evidence in an important early interview between Hughes and Ekbert Faas4. There is also very persuasive evidence in the patterns which can be discerned in his poetry and which are traced in detail in my own book Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest5, and in the work of Sagar, Scigaj, Hirschberg, Faas, Gifford and Roberts6.

Hughes was interested in Occult Neoplatonism, in Cabbalah, and in Alchemy and he was knowledgable about all these arts. This is not to say that he devoted himself to the practice of all or any of them. But he did believe in occult (or hidden) powers and he believed, as did the Neoplatonists, that poetry is a discipline, a mnemonic tool, and that it can be used to bring healing, creative energies into a world which is sorely in need of them. “Poetry”, he once said, “is magical… ; is one way of making things happen the way you want them to happen”7. In 1989, in an interview with Amzed Hossein, he said “One of the great problems that poetry works at is to renew life, renew the poet’s own life, and, by implication, renew the life of the people, if they respond to the way he has done it for himself”8.

Hughes’ first published poems, in The Hawk in the Rain9, are examples of his use of small poetic charms which contain powerful animal energies. They were “written in an effort to create an absolutely still language”,10 he told Ekbert Faas. Yet these small, self-contained symbolic creatures are full of energy, not at all the “graven images” that one critic thought them to be11. In Lupercal12, Hughes turned to myth as a magical ritual: “Almost all the poems in Lupercal were written as invocations to writing”, he told Faas. Like the Lupercalia as it was celebrated in Ancient Rome, these poems enact a cathartic rite, and Hughes completed it with a prayer:

        … Maker of the world,
        Hurrying the lit ghost of man
        Age to age while the body hold,
        Touch this frozen one.

In broadcast plays, and in other writing and reading in these early years, Hughes continued to develop his knowledge of occult and spiritual disciplines and to experiment with mythic patterns in his work. Between 1959 and 1965, he was writing The Bacchae (“based on the Euripides play”13); an oratorio based on the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead); using his own dreams as creative inspiration (The Wound14); beginning to write Gaudete15, with its Dionysian rites; reading about Shamanism, Sufism and Alchemy; and writing a verse play based on an ancient alchemical text, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz16. Hughes’ Foreword to Difficulties of a Bridegroom17 shows just how much he believed that this particular alchemical text influenced his work.

Crow18, however, was the first sequence of poems in which Hughes began to create an extensive folk-mythology of his own, complete with a fallible God (reminiscent of Blake’s, Nobodaddy,) and with a questing hero who, in the end, turns out to be inadequate for the task which he, and Hughes, have set themselves. The origin of Crow is well documented. In an article written in 198519, Hughes explained:

        Crow grew out of an invitation by Leonard Baskin to make a
        book with him simply about crows. He wanted an occasion to
        add more crows to all the crows that flock through his
        sculpture, drawings, and engravings in their various
        transformations. As the protagonist of a book, a crow
        would become symbolic in any author’s hands. And a
        symbolic crow lives a legendary life. That is how Crow
        took off.

The first Crow poems appeared on broadsides and in limited edition books. In 1970, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, was published by Faber and Faber, and it has since been reprinted several times, sometimes with additional poems. It does not contain any of the various fragments of explanatory commentary which Hughes added whenever he read the poems in public or on tape. There are Crow poems published in other of Hughes’ poetic sequences, and some of these he only identified as part of the Crow story long after their first appearance in print (‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden… ’ in Cave Birds20, for example). The complete Crow story has never been published, but the second edition of Ted Hughes: A Bibliography21 has probably the most comprehensive list of Crow poems together with their various locations.

What follows below, is an unpublished extract from the dissertation which I wrote for my M.Litt. degree in 1981. As such, it now represents old knowledge about Crow, but it includes some of Hughes’ stated intentions, some of the Crow story, comments on the influence of the Trickster figure of North American Indian folk-lore, and the place of the Crow story in Hughes’ use of the Quest as a theme and as a pattern for his own poetic development.


The poem, ‘Theology’(Wodwo p.l49), introduces into Hughes’ published poetry his own interpretation of the Biblical God. This imperfect, “fatherly” figure, however, had appeared already in How the Whale Became and other Stories22, a book of children’s fables somewhat similar to Kipling’s Just So Stories23. There, Hughes depicted God as a friendly character who manufactured the creatures of the earth out of clay which was then baked in the ovens of the sun (‘How the Tortoise Became’, HWB p.53). Yet this God is not responsible for all creation. The whale, for example, grows quite of its own accord in God’s “little back garden” (‘How the Whale became’, HWB p.23). Also, unknown to God, a demon with creative powers of its own lives in the middle of the earth where it manufactures the bee and tricks God into breathing life into it (‘How the Bee became’, HWB p.60). From these children’s stories, came the God of the poem ‘Logos’ in Wodwo24, who is also the fallible, almost human God of the Crow poems which Hughes had begun writing in 1966.

In Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Hughes, for the first time, wrote a sequence of poems within a framework which took the form of a folk-mythology of his own construction. Through the quasi-human figure of Crow, he continued his own journey of exploration into the human psyche and, at the same time, his handling of the death/rebirth theme in his poetry began to be more complex. It took on the aspect of a quest, a Shamanic journey to the underworld, which Hughes believed to be the basic theme in many folktales, myths and narrative poems25.

The poems included in Crow are part of a large number of poems which make up a “vast folk epic”26 which tells the story of Crow. Hughes began this story at the suggestion of American artist, Leonard Baskin, who wanted an accompanying text for some of his anthropomorphic bird engravings. Amazingly, Hughes once said that he began Crow as children’s story27: but the eventual development of Crow’s character, the sardonic, sometimes gruesome humour of the poems, and Hughes’ sophisticated and heretical manipulation of Biblical stories, has made Crow very much a bird for adults. Speaking on the BBC before the publication of Crow Hughes explained something of the Crow story and the nature of Crow:

        Nobody knows quite how he was created or how he appeared.
        He was created by God’s nightmare. What exactly that is I
        tried to define through the length of the poem, or the
        succession of poems28.

More details of the Crow story were given by Hughes at his poetry reading at the Adelaide Festival in 197629:

        God is having a nightmare. This hand/voice – this thing -
        arrives at the moment he falls asleep and grabs him round
        the throat, rushes him through the Universe, pushes him
        beyond the stars and ploughs up the earth with his face
        and throws him back into heaven. The moment he dozes off
        this hand arrives and it all happens again, and he can’t
        understand what there can be in his creation which is so
        hostile… Eventually this voice/hand speaks.

An argument develops between God and his Nightmare about the adequacy of Man as a creation. “God is very defensive of Man. Man is a very good and successful invention and given the materials and situation he’s quite adequate”. But whilst God is arguing with his nightmare, Man has

        sent up a representative to the gates of Heaven… to ask
        God to take life back because men are fed up with it. So
        God is enraged that man has let him down – so he
        challenges the voice to do better: given the materials and
        the whole set-up, to produce something better than Man.

The Nightmare plunges back to “ferment and gestate in matter” and a little embryo begins. That is how Crow was created. As a creation which is better than Man, Crow is a failure, for Hughes also said that “maybe [Crow’s] ambition is to become a man”. However, Hughes made it clear that the actual Crow story is “not really relevant to the poems as they stand: … I think they have a life a little aside from it. The story brought me to the poems … (it) was a sort of machine that assembled them”.30 He went on to say:

        The first idea of Crow was really an idea of style. In
        folktales the prince going on the adventure comes to the
        stable full of beautiful horses and he needs a horse for the
        next stage and the King’s daughter advises him to take
        none of the beautiful horses that he’ll be offered but to
        choose the dirty, scabby little foal. You see, I throw out
        the eagles and choose Crow. The idea was originally just
        to write his songs, the songs that a Crow would sing. In
        other words songs with no music whatsoever, in a super
        simple and a super ugly language which would in a way shed
        everything except just what he wanted to say without any
        other consideration and that’s the basis of the style of
        the whole thing.

This allegory of the folktale prince and his choice of horse is an interesting one, for it shows Hughes deliberately adopting the “wretched, black, horrible, little nothing”31 (which is Crow as God sees him when he first appears), as his vehicle and ‘mask’ for his new poetic journey.

Crow comes complete with all the mythological and folk-loric accretions which crows have gathered through their long existence, and, of course, all the natural characteristics of the crow species. Some of these attributes Hughes adverted to in his BBC talk when he said:

        The Crow is the most intelligent of birds. He lives in
        just about every piece of land on earth and there’s a
        great body of folk lore about crows, of course. No carrion
        will kill a crow. The crow is the indestructible bird who
        suffers everything, suffers nothing… 32.

In a letter to A1an Bold33, he also wrote:

        Crow is the bird of Bran, is the oldest and highest totem
        creature of Britain …  England pretends to a lion – but
        that is a late fake import. England’s autochthonous Totem
        is the Crow. Whatever the colour of Englishman you scratch
        you come to some sort of crow.

Hughes, therefore, makes it clear that Crow has many characteristics in common with Man. Also, given the cheeky, interfering, amoral, destructive and sometimes constructive personality which emerges through the medium of Crow’s “life and songs”, plus Hughes’ own predilection for mythological archetypes, the comparison of Crow with the Trickster figure common in many mythologies is natural34.

Paul Radin, an authority on the Trickster Cycles of the North American Indians, describes Trickster as being:

        … at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver
        and negator, he who dupes others and is always duped
        himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is
        constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which
        he has no control. He knows neither good or evil yet he is
        responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or
        social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet
        through his actions all values come into being …
        Laughter, humour and irony permeate everything Trickster
        does …  he is primarily an inchoate being of undetermined
        proportions, a figure foreshadowing the shape of man35.

Here is the counterpart of Hughes’ Crow, who, laughing, singing and eating, displays his supreme egotism by “Flying the black flag of himself” (‘Crow Blacker than Ever’, C p.69) through the havoc and horror which he has helped to create.

Trickster has never been restricted to one society. In European countries he appears in the guise of Jester or Fool, and his roots in the human psyche are deep. Alan Garner has collected Trickster stories from many countries in his book The Guizer and he writes:

        If we take the elements from which our emotions are built
        and give them separate names such as Mother, Hero, Father,
        King, Child, Queen, the element that I think marks most of
        us is that of the Fool. It is where our humanity lies. For
        the Fool is the advocate of uncertainty: he is at once
        creator and destroyer, bringer of help and harm. He draws
        a boundary for chaos, so that we can make sense of the
        rest. He is the shadow that shapes the light. Psychology
        calls him Trickster. I have called him Guizer.
        Guizer is the proper word for an actor in a mumming play.
        He is comical, grotesque, stupid, cunning, ambiguous. He
        is sometimes part animal, and always part something else.
        The something else is what is so special. He is the
        dawning godhead in Man36.

In these quotations from Radin and Garner we can see the characteristics of Hughes’ Crow and his connection with Man, but the psychological implications of Crow’s character are broader still. Radin writes that the Trickster cycle “represents our efforts to deal with the problem of growing up”: that it is a “speculum mentis wherein is depicted man’s struggle with himself and with a world into which he had been thrust without his volition and consent … an attempt by man to solve his problems inward and outward”37.

On a similar psychological level, C. J. Jung’s commentary on Radin’s collection of Trickster Cycles equates the trickster figure with “all the inferior traits of character in individuals”, and he accounts for its persistence in man’s stories by the explanation that “since the individual shadow is never absent as a Component of personality, the collective figure can construct itself out of it continually”38. Crow, it appears was in many ways just such a self constructing figure, because Hughes has said that the poems:

        … were usually something of a shock to write. Mostly they
        wrote themselves quite rapidly …  and several of them
        that seem quite ordinary now arrived with a sense of
        having done something …  tabu39.

By adopting and developing this trickster figure Hughes was, therefore, extending his exploration into his own mind and (if Jung is correct in his interpretation of Trickster)into the human mind in general. In so doing, Hughes extended the death/rebirth theme of his poetry to include the idea of spiritual growth and rebirth for Man, which is a most important part of the Trickster Cycle. This pattern has been traced in detail in the Crow poems by Sagar40 and Hirschberg41.

In Crow, Hughes not only redefined God, he adopted Biblical language and style, recreated the Biblical Genesis story, perverted the message of the supreme power of God’s love and cast Crow in the role of “crucified” and reborn hero(‘Crow and the Sea’, C p.82) and survivor of the Apocalypse. Crow was subjected to teaching and to tests, he was meant to learn humanity and wholeness, to develop a soul, but only in poems published in a later poetic sequence (Cave Birds) did he achieve real progress on his quest. As Sagar noted, “Crow is Everyman who will not acknowledge that everything he most hates and fears – The Black Beast – is within him”42.

Crow’s interference in God’s work begins with ‘A Childish Prank’(C p.l9). God, Hughes explained in his story43, is at first “rather indulgent” towards Crow. “He tends to show it the beauties and let it look on while he shows the marvels of the beginning”. Having made Adam and Eve, however, God has problems getting their souls into their bodies. “The problem was so great, it dragged him asleep”. Crow intervenes, and in so doing invents sex as an urge which man and woman cannot control or understand. Meanwhile:

        God went on sleeping
        Crow went on laughing

The Trickster element in Crow’s behaviour is obvious, but Hughes, too, is breaking tabus.

God tries to teach Crow human skills and human emotions - tries to change his amoral, selfish nature. In ‘Crow’s First Lesson’(C p.20), God attempts to teach Crow how to talk, but his efforts to teach him the word ‘Love’ result only in the creation of horror. Crow gapes, and vomits up his own devouring versions of love – “the white shark”; “a bluefly, a tsetse, a mosquito”; and man’s bodiless head with woman’s vulva dropped over it and tightening around his neck. God, defeated, goes back to sleeping, leaving Crow to his own devices and Crow takes advantage of God’s slumber by inventing his own ‘communion’. This is a devastating parody of the Christian rite, in which Crow literally partakes of God’s body (‘Crow Communes’, C p.30). Nor is this all. Crow next invents his own Theology (‘Crow’s Theology’, C p.35) which includes a God who is

        … much bigger than the other
        Loving his enemies
        And having all the weapons.

This sacrilegious reconstruction of Biblical lore, which is responsible for the stunning impact of some of the poems, is a clear indication of the way in which Crow resembles the Trickster Cycles, for Trickster is traditionally a “breaker of taboos and destroyer of the holy-of-holies”44. It also illustrates the extent to which Hughes has adopted the Crow ‘mask’ in these poems, and how he takes on himself the role of Trickster. In Crow, Hughes is doing just what Jung describes when he says that “there is something of the Trickster in the character of the shaman and medicine-man, for he, too, often plays malicious jokes on people”45

Crow may well seem to some like a malicious joke, and those critics who were convinced that Hughes enjoyed wallowing in violence and “the eager pursuit of blood and thunder46” certainly felt vindicated when Crow was published. Crow, however, is a very modern version of the Trickster Cycle fitting well with the surrealist and absurd sentiments of other twentieth century writers such as Kafka; of artists such as Francis Bacon; and of some of the Eastern European Poets whose works Hughes has helped to make available in translation. In it he succeeds, as Calvin Bedient commented, in joining “the twin nihilistic themes of the century – the Id and the Void – with witty and enormous invention”47.

Hughes himself, however, seemed to feel that the Trickster Cycle had, in a way, taken him too far, too fast. He described the writing of the Crow poems to Faas as being like “putting [himself] through a process”, and when asked by Faas if he felt the process had come to a kind of completion, he said:

        In a way I think I projected too far into the future. I’d
        like to get the rest of it. But maybe it will take a
        different form.48

Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow ends with Hughes’ invocation to the creative/destructive energies of Nature which brought him Crow: “Sit on my finger, sing in my ear, O littleblood”. Subsequently, he returned to the theme of the quest and of spiritual rebirth in Cave Birds and Gaudete, where he examined it again in two forms which are as different from each other as they are from Crow.

1 Hughes,T. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, London, Faber, 1992, p.39
2 op.cit. pp.32-3
3 Hughes,T., Winter Pollen, London, Faber, 1994.
4 Faas,E., ‘Ted Hughes’s Crow’, London Magazine, January 1971, p.17. Reprinted in Ted Hughes: the unaccommodated universe, California, Black Sparrow, 1980.
5 Skea,A., Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest, Armidale, UNE Press, 1994
6 Sagar,K., The Art of Ted Hughes, Manchester, MUP,1978. Scigaj,L., The Poetry of Ted Hughes, Iowa, UIP, 1986, Hirschberg,S., Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes, Dublin, Wolfhound, 1981. Gifford,T. and Roberts,N., Ted Hughes, a Critical Study, London, Faber, 1981.
7 Hughes,T., Review of Bowra,C.M. Primitive Song, The Listener, 3 May 1962.
8This is from one of two interviews conducted in 1989 by Dr Amzed Hossein at the Asia Poetry Festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where Ted Hughes was a Special Guest.
9 Hughes,T. The Hawk in the Rain, London, Faber, 1957.
10 Faas, Ted Hughes: the unaccommodated universe, op.cit. Appendix II, pp. 208-9
11 James,G.I., ‘The Animal Poems of Ted Hughes: A devaluation’, Southern Review, Vol.II No.3, University of Adelaide, 1967, p.200.
12 Hughes,T. Lupercal, London, Faber, 1960.
13 Plath,A.(Ed.) Sylvia Plath: Letters Home, N.Y., Harper and Row. 1975, 7 October 1959.
14 A play broadcast 1 February 1962, collected in Wodwo.
15 Hughes, T. Gaudete, London, Faber, 1977.
16 Andreae,J.V. (Trans. Foxcroft, E. 1690), The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, London, Minerva.
17 Hughes,T. Difficulties of a Bridegroom, London, Faber, 1995.
18 Hughes,T. Crow: From the Life and Songs of a Crow, London, Faber, 1970
19 Hughes,T., ‘Crow on the Beach’ reprinted in Winter Pollen, op.cit. p.243.
20 Hughes,T., Cave Birds, London, Faber, 1975.
21 Sagar,K. & Tabor,S., Ted Hughes: A Bibliography (2nd.Edition), London, Mansell, 1998.
22 Hughes,T., How The Whale Became, London, Faber, 1963.
23 Kipling,R., Just So Stories, London, Macmillan, 1960.
24 Hughes,T., Wodwo, London, Faber, 1967.
25 Faas, London Magazine, op.cit. p.17.
26 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, tape recording of Hughes reading Crow poems at The Adelaide Festival, March 1976.
27 ibid.
28 ‘Ted Hughes’s Crow’, The Listener, 30 July 1970. Includes quotations from BBC Radio 3 broadcast, Poetry Now, 6 July 1970.
29 ABC tape, op.cit.
30 Faas, op.cit. p.18.
31 ABC tape, op.cit.
32 The Listener, op.cit
33 Bold,A.(Ed), The Cambridge Book of English Verse, London, CUP, 1976. Quoted in a note on ‘A Childish Prank’, p.234.
34 Sagar,K., The Art of Ted Hughes, op.cit. p.10.
35 Radin,P., The Trickster, NY, Greenwood, 1969, pp.ix-x.
36 Garner,A., The Guizer: A Book of Fools, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975, p.9.
37 Radin, op.cit. p.xi.
38 Jung,G.J., commentary on the Trickster Cycles in Radin, op.cit. p.206.
39 Faas, op.cit. p.18.
40 Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes, op.cit.
41 Hirschberg, op.cit.
42 Sagar,K., Ted Hughes: Writers and Their Work no. 27, London, Longman, 1972.
43 ABC tape, op.cit.
44 Radin, op.cit. p.152.
45 Jung, op.cit. p.196.
46 Hamilton,I., ‘A Mouthful of Blood’, Crow, TLS, 8 January 1971.
47 Bedient,C., New York Times Book Review, 13 January 1974.
48 Faas, London Magazine, op.cit. p.18.

© Ann Skea 2015. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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