Ted Hughes and ‘The Zodiac in the Shape of a Crown’

© Ann Skea.

Sylvia Plath famously described Ted Hughes to her mother as wearing always the same black jacket, its pockets ‘full of poems, fresh trout and horoscopes1. The casting of horoscopes was a shared interest amongst Ted’s friends at Cambridge, and whilst for most of them it was a curiosity, something they might impress the girls with, for Ted it was more serious. He regarded astrology as an art, rather than a science, but he investigated it thoroughly and became expert in it, and he was fascinated by the mythology in which it is steeped2. Whether or not he believed in it absolutely is hard to tell, but he was superstitious and his letters show how often he urged his editors to ensure that his books were published on dates when the stars were propitious. Now, a poem discovered in a collection of rare books recently donated to Hughes Hall College, Cambridge, suggests that he may well have contemplated taking on the mantle of John Dee as astrologer to the Royal Family.

Writing to his Aunt Hilda, in February 1985, Ted said that he had been asked by The Sunday Times to write a christening poem for Prince William3. The poem, ‘A Zodiac in the Shape of a Crown: What the Starry Heavens Sang to His Royal Highness Prince William On 21st July 1982’, was written some months before Ted became Poet Laureate and Ted decided not to publish it whilst John Betjeman was alive. It eventually appeared in 1987, in Four Poets for St. Magnus, edited by George Mackay Brown and published by Breckness Press, Stromness, Orkney, as a limited edition of 100 books. Only 85 of these books were for sale. The poem was not included amongst the Laureate poems in Raincharm for a Duchy, nor does it appear in Ted Hughes: Collected Poems.

Like at least three of the poems Ted wrote for the Royal Family, ‘The Zodiac in the Shape of a Crown’, takes the form of a Court Masque. And whilst other Laureate poems refer simply to astrological birth signs in the Royal birth-charts, this poem describes the Prince’s horoscope in detail. It also conjures the gods of the Zodiac to appear and gives them voice. Just as Prospero calls forth Ceres, Iris and Juno ‘from their confines to enact [his] present fancies’ (The Tempest IV: 1) and to bless the union of Miranda and Ferdinand by their presence, so Ted commands

Sun and Moon and all their family stand
Around an
[sic] new-born babe, in England.
One by one the Sun and Moon and Planets appear, speak their parts and present the gifts they bring ‘For one born to be King’.

The whole poem is a masterpiece of compression, dealing with Prince William’s horoscope in such a way that any competent astrology can reconstruct it. It also makes comparisons with the birth-charts of several other Royals, from Queen Elizabeth I to the present Queen, in a way which makes it clear that Ted had detailed knowledge of these charts. Above all, it is a wonderfully vivid, amusing and lyrical drama, which is played out around the Prince’s cradle as each of his ‘high godparents’ speaks according to his or her particular character, and offers gifts and advice according to their own mythological and astrological strengths and weaknesses.

First to appear is the Sun. He is Lord of Light and Life, and together with the Moon he is the most important of the celestial spheres. Speaking from his position in the sign of Cancer, in triplets full of light, beauty and authority, he describes the Cancerian moon-energies which will govern the Prince’s life, bringing imagination, secret storms and calms, and empathy and sorrow for the suffering of others. And he calls on the Moon to guard and crown the Prince’s Spirit in such a way that ‘the jewel of England’s dream’ may be lifted out of darkness into light.

Cancer, in the earliest mythologies, was known a ‘The Gate of Man’, the threshold to incarnation of the human soul. As in Ted’s poem, it is associated with the ‘Cosmic Ocean’ and is, therefore linked to the Moon and to the Primordial Mother. In Greek mythology, it is the brave, perhaps foolhardy, Crab which bit Heracles’s toe and hindered him in his battle with the Lernaean Hydra. Hera, the Great Mother Goddess (one form of the Primoridal Goddess who in Ted’s poem is ‘half mother, half coils / The Serpent of Enigma’ which guards the ‘Spirit’s birth’) is so pleased by the Crab’s defence of her serpent-headed creature that she rewards it with immortality amongst the Zodiac stars.

At home in sea and sky, brave but also vulnerable, secreting itself in its shell for protection and also to conserve its power, the Crab demonstrates all the Cancerian energies which imbue the Prince’s horoscope. All this, the Sun describes as blessing and warning.

Then, ‘with solemn, heavenly clang’, the planets Neptune, Ouranos and ‘old Pluto’ sing a dour, heavy and cynical chorus, which punctuates the rest of the poem like a comic interlude. As the last and most distant planets to be discovered, these three are often left out of astrological charts and, since astrology developed before their known existence, their significance is disputed. Ted captures their slow-moving, ponderous voices as they sing of ‘sceptical English folk’ and ‘Astrologues’, and wish that these doubters find, respectively, greater faith and more certainty ‘about us’.

Next to appear is the Moon. Her voice, as she speaks as ‘throned Queen’ from the Sun’s side in Cancer, is lyrical and full of love. She is the most gentle ‘mother of mothers’ as she speaks of the Prince’s own mother ‘who bear’s my name’. She speaks, too, of Queen Victoria, who, like both Princess Diana and the Prince, shared her ‘crescent of promise’ in their horoscopes. But she is also firm and motherly in her advice to the Prince. ‘I am the sea in your heart’, she tells the sleeping baby, but also, ‘Mother of all the blood’s unbroken horses’. To be truly powerful and successful, she tells him, you must ‘mount the throne of yourself’, yoke these wild horses and put them to work.

Following another ponderous appearance of the three-planet heavenly chorus, Mercury arrives at the Prince’s cradle. Mercury, mythological messenger of the gods, guide of the soul, trickster and joker, has, in Ted’s poem, the ‘humorous quick eye of Charles the Second’. Charles, winking and smiling, speaks with avuncular humour, and his sharp-witted advice is both literate and riddling. He predicts ‘a gymnast’s wit’ for the Prince, ‘supersensitive’ senses and intuitive ability; and he ends by offering ‘Stoat’s Tails and the Salmon of the Dee’ as a necessary restorative when the exercising of these abilities leave the Prince ‘feeling whacked’. Stoat’s Tails might suggest the swift, mercurial, disappearance of a stoat down a rabbit hole, or, perhaps, the black tails on the stoat’s snowy winter coat which, worn as ermine, symbolizes royalty and justice. Salmon-fishing enthusiasts, however, will recognize Stoat’s Tails as a very beautiful fishing fly which, according to one authority, has the sort of ‘piss-em-off’ patterns that will tempt even the most reluctant salmon to bite4: a perfect example of mercurial trickery.

Yet, there is more to Charles the Second’s appearance as Mercury in this poem than his mercurial humour. The planet Mercury, in the Prince’s birth-chart, is in the astrological sign of Gemini, The Twins, which is also the star-sign under which Charles the Second was born. Who better, then, to advise the Prince of the influence which Gemini might exert in his life, than this royal ancestor?

The gymnastic wit with which Charles blesses the Prince, is the skill of the mythological Gemini twin, Polydeuces (Pollux), who is described in the Iliad as ‘the hardy boxer’ (Iliad 3:283). But the gift which Charles brings from the second twin is not that of the Greek, Castor, but of the much older Assyrian/Babylonian twin god, Nebo (or Nabu), who, like Mercury, was patron of artists and scribes, and god of communication. It is Nebo who can give the Prince the skill of the ‘exact word’, and the intuitive ability to ‘pick up the lunar inkling’ (‘inkling’ having an appropriate echo of the inky world of the god of scribes). Nebo, too, as son of the Fish Goddess, Nina (Nana), probably knew a great deal about fishing lures; and about penetrating the mercurial meniscus of water to reach the hidden treasure, an occupation which is closely linked to creativity, intuition and exploration of the subconscious in Ted’s River poem, ‘Go Fishing’5.

The planet, Venus, is next to offer her gifts but she is the only god in this poem who does not speak. In mythology, she is the Goddess Venus – Aphrodite – Ishtar – Innana, the Goddess of Love and Fertility. The Mysteries, which were always associated with her, are suggested in the poem by a reference to her ‘sacred books’. Now, she bows down from her position in the constellation of Taurus, where she is situated, so Ted tells us, in exactly the same position as she was at the birth of Prince William’s mother. The odds against this, he notes, are ‘three five nine to one’. Venus is the brightest star in the sky and, astrologically, the position she occupied at the Prince’s birth is considered exceptionally lucky. So, ‘Our Royal Lad’ is smothered with ‘Luck from the moment he starts’. As ‘Queen of Hearts, and of Art’ and ‘Queen of the May’, Venus offers exceptional bounty, good fortune and good looks, but the dangers of such an excess of luck are hinted at in the poem, too. The Prince may have ‘the Luck of the Devil’, but a certain amount of games-playing is suggested in this phrase as well as a connection with the Devil who, in mythology, symbolizes the most basic a-moral instincts. So, the Prince must be careful to use his luck wisely. Only ‘lit with Her grace’ will he ‘grow’ to the potential the Goddess promises in her sacred books.

Mars’s gifts are more straightforward. His voice is military and direct. He growls that ‘strength is forged in conflict’ and offers ‘some ding-dong’ to strengthen the Prince’s character. Impatient with the ‘supercharged’ excess of Venus’s ‘mother’s love’, he intends, he says, to ‘cross that wiring’ by giving the Prince ‘sheer, bodily energy’. Such balance is appropriate and possible here, because Mars is positioned in the constellation of Libra in the Prince’s horoscope. For astrologers, however, such a position suggests some discord and a weakening of Mars’s energies. Mars commands the Prince to ‘Resolve those discords’ and warns of the ‘hard riddles’ they will pose. But he promises that, ‘in time’, balance will be achieved and ‘all shall witness / Great strength of self-knowledge, great sweetness’.

Next to speak by the Prince’s cradle is Saturn. He, too, was situated in Libra at the Prince’s birth, but for him this is a powerful position. In spite of this, he seems to feel the need to dignify himself, perhaps because in his own Golden Age the gods were know and honoured, whilst now, in our scientific Age of Iron, they are derided or forgotten. Perhaps, too, because of the gross indignities he suffered in antiquity, when he was dethroned by his son, Jupiter, and allegedly castrated by him, too. So, demonstrating that he has kept up to date with technology, he refers to ‘computer research’ and to ‘that Frenchman, Ganquelin’. Michael Ganquelin (1928-91) spent a lifetime doing extensive statistical analyses of the horoscopes of people in particular professions, and his research showed a significant correlation between the planets present at birth and the life-choices these people had made6. According to these modern statistics, says Saturn, ‘under my rule’ ‘the boy’ will be a scientist. At the same time, he wryly points out that it doesn’t take statistics to prove the he, Saturn, ‘evidently does exist’.

Saturn is the oldest of the gods and Ted calls him ‘grave Saturn’, suggesting his weighty, serious nature and also his connection with time, mortality and death. Now, like the father-figure he is, Saturn sombrely reviews the gifts the other gods have given to the Prince and, noting that ‘it goes without saying that he’ll fight and learn from his scars’, he provides him with ‘a firm seat in the saddle – a judgment seat’ from which to rule all these disparate energies. Balance, Saturn states firmly, is the ‘true dance’ of the Solar System. And he ends his speech with the very Libran image of the Prince balancing ‘all contrary forces / Easy as the fulcrum on a pair of scales’.

Another chorus from the outer planets follows Saturn’s speech. Then Jupiter takes his place beside the cradle. His first words are aimed at Saturn, showing that the old enmity between them still exists. He is dismissive of the findings of ‘Frenchman and computer’, and arrogantly boasts of his old victory over Saturn by declaring himself ‘Lord of the Winning Game’. Lord, too, he claims, of ‘Abundance and Magnificence’, ‘Nobility, Good Cheer and Good Fame’. He, Jupiter, now occupies ‘Heaven’s own throne’ in the most powerful position in Midheaven on ‘the Cusp of the Scorpion’. He was there, too, he says, for the birth of ‘the first renowned Elizabeth’, for King George the Sixth and for the ‘Great Victoria’. He concludes, therefore, that he crowns a ‘Zodiac of coincidence’ in which he holds the Fixed Stars in submission and is blessed by the ‘conjunct Sun and Moon’. Carried away by his own importance, he deigns to acknowledge the support of ‘wise-father’ Saturn, whose presence, he concedes, crowns the horoscope of our present queen.

Arrogant as Jupiter is, his exact position in the Prince’s horoscope is regarded by astrologers as extremely propitious. Appropriately, Ted separates the final line of Jupiter’s speech from the boastful excesses of his claims and lets it stand alone so that his propitious energies, together with those of the other gods, who do indeed support him in this horoscope, can ‘Blaze’ unhindered ‘above this cradle of Succession’.

Now, their gifts given and their advice offered, the gods gather together ‘as one’ and gaze in delight at each other, ‘Hardly able to credit what they have done’. And, with a final ‘echoing clang’, Neptune, Ouranos and Pluto sing their closing chorus and repeat for the last time their magical incantation:

Let all sceptic English folk this night
                        Cease to doubt us
Let all Astrologues be almost right
                        About us.

So ends Ted’s poetic blessing of Prince William. It is clear that he enjoyed creating an entertaining drama suitable for a Royal occasion, and equally clear that his study of astrology and his expertise in it was extensive. What remains to be seen, is whether the gifts which astrologers believe the heavens bestowed on Prince William at his birth have shaped his character and will shape his life.

NOTE: Both the facsimile manuscript and the printed version of the poem in Four Poets for St. Magnus give the birth date of His Highness Prince William as 21st July 1982. This is incorrect. The astrological information in the poem, however, is correct for the actual date and time of his birth, which was 21st June 1982 at 9.03 pm. Prince William was Christened on 4th August.

I am grateful to Neil Spencer, author of True as the Stars Above, for his expert advice on the astrology in this poem. I would also like to thank the President and the Librarian at Hughes Hall for allowing me access to material which is, as yet, uncatalogued.


1. Plath, S. Letters Home, Faber, 1999. p.243.
2. In his review of Louis MacNeice’s Astrology in 1964, Ted wrote that “it doesn’t matter” whether astrology is an intuitive art or a science “so long as it works” (Winter Pollen, Faber, 1994. p.51).
3. Reid, C. (Ed.). Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber, 2007. p.497.
4. Craig Moore, The Fly Fishing Shop, Morden, Surrey, England. 5. Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, Faber, 2003. p 652.
6. Neil Spencer discussed Ganquelin’s work in True as the Stars Above, Victor Gollancz, London, 2000. pp.94-6.

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

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