Ted Hughes and the British Bardic Tradition

Symposium Paper, University of Cairo, December, 1994.
© Ann Skea

The British Bardic tradition is extremely old. The earliest historical records of it were made by the Romans who invaded Britain just over 2000 years ago, but the British Celtic culture which they describe, and within which the Bards assumed great importance, was at that time already ancient.

The Celts originated in Central Europe in the early Bronze Age. Long before they or the Romans arrived in Britain, Celtic society had become rich and well organised and its people renowned as warriors and horsemen, and also as skilful artists and orators. It was the orators, or Bards, who were responsible for the oral preservation and transmission of the language, history, genealogies and spiritual wisdom of each Celtic tribe. Embodied in the myths and legends which they recounted was the accumulated knowledge of the Celtic race, and it is some of these myths and legends which still survive in the native literature of the oldest Celtic parts of the British Isles – Ireland and Wales. These were the areas, along with a few other isolated parts such as Cornwall and West Yorkshire, to which the Celts retreated during the Roman invasion, and it was from here that the Celtic revival spread throughout the country when the Romans left.

This native Bardic literature was first written down during early Christian times in Britain, some 1400 years ago. Robert Graves, in the first chapter of The White Goddess(Graves 1977), describes the ways in which the stories were changed in order to conform to Christian orthodoxies and sensitivities, and the way in which pagan Bardic traditions survived thereafter amongst the wandering minstrels whose poetry was not subject to the Church’s strictures. Recent work by Welsh scholar, John Matthews(1991), however, shows that even the Church-influenced Celtic writings still retain a valuable core of information about pre-Christian Celtic beliefs and, especially, about the Bards who created them. In particular, Matthews’ study of the surviving works of Taliesin, ‘Primary Chief Bard of the Island of Britain’, provides us with details of the special knowledge and powers of the early Bards and allows us to see just how closely the present Poet Laureate of Great Britain, Ted Hughes, follows in their Bardic footsteps.

In the earliest Celtic tribes, the Bards were chosen from amongst the ruling aristocracy. They were part of the learned class of priests, teachers and judges who were known as ‘Druids’, and their training as Master Bards was long and arduous. Roman historians write of Bardic schools where the ‘singers and poets’ undertook up to twenty years of training(Matthews 1991, 120-3). Ted Hughes, introducing a poetry reading in 19881, spoke of these schools for poets as “the first colleges in the British Isles, for centuries the only colleges” and he described them as “Druidic or religious colleges” from which the graduating Bard, or fili (this Irish Celtic word means ‘seer’) emerged “second in rank only to the king” and, ideally, carrying “the whole culture of the people”.

Irish filid(pl.) are known to have studied for twelve years, learning by heart at least 300 poetic metres, 250 primary stories and 100 secondary stories(Matthews 1991, 78-80, 128). By the end of this period, a fili also understood the secret bardic alphabets; he was knowledgable about the stars and about nature; he was expected to compose orations for the tribal chief extolling his deeds and virtues, and he was held in awe because of his power to use satires against his enemies and thereby to inflict loss of reputation, sickness or even death. The satires which are usually quoted as having been effective often sound more like thorough cursings. The Bard Nede, for example, is reputed to haveunjustly satirised King Caier with these words:

            Evil, death and a short life to Caier
            May spears of battle slay Caier
            The rejected of the land and the earth is Caier
            Beneath the mounds and the rocks be Caier.

Whereupon, Caier developed three colourful blisters on his face – a crimson one called ‘disgrace’, a green one called ‘blemish’ and a white one called ‘defect’. Because a Celtic King had to be blemish–free, Caier was forced into exile where he eventually died of shame2.

Understandably, there were complicated rules and rituals which had to be observed before a satire could be pronounced. Prohibitions against the use of satires or lampoons were eventually enforced and these existed in Britain until about 600 years ago, but the magical power of the Bard as a “weaver of spells” whose words influenced those who heard them has always been widely acknowledged.

Ted Hughes, who also believes in the “magical” power of poetry to “make things happen the way that you want them to happen”3, tells us that “tradition dwells on the paranormal, clairvoyant, somewhat magical powers” of the Bards, and that the fili was “the curator and re-animator of the inner life which held the people together and made them what they were”. In Taliesin’s own words we hear, “I am gifted with a perceptive spirit”, “Clearly shall I prophecy”4, “I am a guide, I am a judge”5, “I am a wise man of the primal knowledge”6 and “I received the muse/ From Ceridwen’s cauldron”7. Ceridwen, the Celtic Goddess of Inspiration and Poetry was the source of Awen, or divine inspiration. Through this, like the Shaman in many tribal cultures, the inspired Bard had access to inner wisdom and truth:

            Be silent, unwise bards
            Who speak only in rhyme,
            Who cannot judge
            Between truth and falsehood.
            If you are primary bards
            Formed in the Land of Promise
            Tell your king his fate.
            It is I, who am a diviner
            And an inspired bard,
            Who will do so.8

Thus proclaimed Taliesin. We know that Taliesin would have worn the Master Bard’s crimson cloak of birds’ feathers which was very like a shaman’s cape. And we know that he, like the shaman who journeys to the Otherworld in animal form or accompanied by animal guides, could also take on many shapes and could journey through time. “I have been a sow”, he tells us, “I have been a cat with a speckled head on three trees”, “I shall be until the day of doom on the face of the earth/Nor is it known if my body is flesh or fish”9, and, “Whoever shall hear my bardic books/Shall find sanctuary in the Otherworld”10.

John Matthews, makes a very strong case in his book for the shamanic nature of the Celtic Bards’ calling, and it is this shamanic role which is the most important aspect of Ted Hughes’ inheritance of the British Bardic tradition. Hughes has spoken and written often of the access to the inner world of the spirit which shaman and poets share. He has called the shamanic flight “one of the main regeneration dramas of the human psyche: the fundamental poetic event”11, and it is the regenerative power of the shaman/poet’s flight which is of utmost importance to him, being the means by which he has consistently sought to counter the divisions and the sterility which he sees in our world and to restore it to wholeness.

In Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (Skea 1994), I have examined the way in which Hughes has pursued this shamanic, healing purpose over the years and how this is fundamental to his three major poetic sequences, Cave Birds, Remains of Elmet, and River(Hughes 1978, 1979, 1983), which have recently been republished in paperback by Faber and Faber as Three Books. Here, I will discuss only Remains of Elmet and River, because these exemplify not only the regenerative purpose of Hughes’ work, but also many other ways in which Hughes carries on the British Bardic tradition.

Ted Hughes was born in a part of the British Isles which “for centuries”, as he tells us, “was considered a more or less uninhabited wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hideout for refugees”(Hughes 1979, ROE.Preface). This was the ancient Celtic kingdom of Elmet in West Yorkshire – the “Badlands where outcast and outlaw/ Fortified the hill–knowle’s long outlook”(ROE.p.90) and where, because of the wild landscape and harsh weather, the warrior Celts continued to flourish whilst Romans, Picts, Scots, Angles, Saxons and Teutons fought over the rest of Britain. Eventually the Brigante tribe of this area was subdued by the Angles, and later the Viking “longships got this far”(ROE.90), but few invaders settled here and Celtic influence remained strong. Commenting on this region, Hughes has said that the “peculiar conditions and history, had its Darwinian effects on the natives”(Hughes 1993, 182), and he believes that nature and history have shaped the character of the people of this area in a unique way. This is Hughes’ own heritage, and the language of this area – the oral heritage embodied in the distinctive dialect of West Yorkshire – has influenced him especially. In an interview in 1970, he told Ekbert Faas:

            Whatever other speech you grow up into, presumably your dialect
            stays alive in a sort of inner freedom, a separate little self.
            It makes some things more difficult… since it’s your childhood
            self there inside the dialect and that is possibly you real self
            or the core of it.  Some things it makes easier.  Without it,
            I doubt if I would ever have written verse.(Faas 1980, 202)

So, Hughes was born into a culture with strong Celtic ties and whose chief local deity happened to be Brigid, the Goddess of Poetry. She, like Robert Graves’ White Goddess, was also a nature goddess who embodied the triple roles of wife, mother and layer–out of the dead. And Hughes invokes her, and the mother elements – air, fire, earth and water – in the first poem of Remains of Elmet, ‘Where the mothers’(ROE.10), to establish the atmosphere of primal chaos from which the soul of Elmet may yet be reborn.

Whatever other purpose Hughes had for writing Remains of Elmet, it is also his Bardic record of the tribal history of Elmet. His prefatory poem tells of the “archaeology of the mouth”, the “last inheritance” of the tribal dream which is brought to him by his elderly uncle’s reminiscences, but on such “a frayed, fraying hair–fineness” of breath that

            Any moment now, a last kick
            And the dark river will fold it away.(ROE.Preface)

The tribal dreams come to him, too, from the “indigenous memories”(ROE.89) of the old people— “singers of a lost kingdom”, whose “yarning” in “the authentic tones/The reverberations of their fathers”, makes “mesmerising music”.

Yet this is not a linear history. The cyclical patterns of nature pervade the sequence. The moors of Elmet are but a “stage for the performance of heaven”(ROE.19), a place where Brigid’s magical “witch-brew boiling in the sky-vat” still “spins electric terrors/In the eyes of sheep”, and where human history is “incidental”. Wars, religion and industry repeat themselves in the poems just as they have been repeated in time so that this becomes a poetic recreation of the interwoven energies which have made the area and its people what they are. The cycles of history and nature are universal, but the failure of Elmet’s people to grow beyond the materialistic focus of their lives, or to see themselves as part of the natural world which they plunder and destroy, is shown by Hughes to have been their downfall. Remains of Elmet, in this way, becomes a parable through which Hughes, like a bardic “wise man of the primal knowledge” attempts to teach us our place in the natural world and to warn us of the dangers of arrogantly assuming (as the people of Elmet did) that we can control it.

River, the illustrated poetic sequence which followed Remains of Elmet, is probably the most rich, complex and (in Hughes’ terms) successful of all his poetic sequences. It embodies the accumulated knowledge and experience of his lifelong poetic/Shamanic quest for interaction with the source energies, and the imaginative power of its poetry channels these energies into our world in a controlled and creative way. It is also the poetic sequence in which Hughes makes the most extensive use of his Celtic heritage.

As well as being the Goddess of Poetry, Brigid was always widely associated with healing and fertile waters in rivers and wells. She is present throughout River where, like all nature goddesses, she is seen as both fickle and subtle, sensuous and evil, young and old: two-faced like her description in the Celtic stories where “one side of her face was ugly, but the other side was very comely”(Gregory 1970, 28). Personified in the river she is “a juicy bride”, “a beautiful idle woman” dreaming of a “love-potion” to seduce her lover to “copulation and death”(R.p.88), or else she is an evil witch creating “blood-dark”, “sick-bed darkness” with her “hemlock and nettle and alder and oak”(R.76). She is a “brown musically-moving beauty”, a lithe daughter “remorselessly” fleeing her bleeding Earth-father(R.106), or a welcoming “grandmotherly” spirit whose reassuring presence nevertheless exudes “a fishy nostalgia” for a sultry exotic past(R.102). She is also the mother earth whose breasts are the hills which “nurse the river’s plumpness”(R.30), and whose son, like a sacrificed god “fallen from heaven, lies across” her lap(R.74) as in a pieta.

The Goddess is embodied, too, in the plants and in many of the river creatures. But the river creatures, more than anything else, act as Shamanic guides for Hughes, drawing him through the sliding “water mirror” meniscus of the river’s surface into the deep, fluid Otherworld of imagination. Salmon, in particular, serve this function in River, and salmon were always regarded with special reverence by the Celts as being the source of wisdom and inspiration. One story tells of the Irish Celtic Goddess Boand (also one of the Patronesses of Poetry) who is blinded by the light of Inspiration when she looks into Nechtan’s Well. Because of her blindness the well overflows and becomes the River Boyne in which the salmon swim, so, the salmon imbibe Inspiration. Another story tells of the Nine Hazels of Poetic Wisdom which overhang a well into which their nuts drop to be eaten by the salmon. For the Celts, the brink of water where the Salmon of Wisdom might be caught became a place where poetry was revealed, and eating the flesh of the Salmon or “the trout who stand in for the Salmon of Wisdom”(Matthews 1991, 190-1) was the way in which many Celtic heroes gained their special knowledge.

In River, Hughes clearly shares the Celtic reverence for these fish, describing them as “imperishable fish”, “king[s] of infinite liberty”, “the holy ones”; and the October Salmon, in the “epic poise” of its final vigil, is a “death-patched hero”(R.110-4). Whilst the river’s water is “the source”, “the generator”, “the power line”, “a chrism of birth”, “the medicinal mercury creature”(R.16), and Hughes soaks up its energies “through every membrane/As if the whole body were a craving mouth”(R.56), it is through his encounters with the fish that he enters the Otherworld. In ‘Go Fishing’(R.42), Hughes not only gives us a clear description of a Shamanic journey, he also directs us imaginatively through the process step-by-step:

            Go Fishing
            Join water, wade into underbeing
            Let brain mist into moist earth
            Ghost loosen downstream
            Gulp river and gravity
            Loose words

By the time we reach the end of the poem, ready to “Heal into time and other people”, we have been taught how to undertake this magical, ritual transformation for ourselves.

Other creatures of Celtic myth inhabit the river banks. A heron, like “a parasol broken/Tumbles up into the sky”(R.20), an otter “sheds” its “pad–clusters on mud margins”(R.116), a fox, a wren and two owls make brief appearances. And spreading their heady perfumes throughout this river epic are the Goddess’s plants – the witches’ Hemlock, the Honeysuckle, Foxglove and Dogrose, the “ nightfall pall of balsam”(R.96), and the Hawthorn, “hiding its thorns/With too much and too fleshy perfume”(R.20). The Hawthorn, in particular, is the Goddess’s plant and it has always had strong associations in British folklore with female sexuality and death. Even as little as thirty years ago, my own grandmother would not allow “unlucky” Hawthorn blossoms in her house.

Not only does the content of the River poems draw on ancient Celtic myth, but the shape of the sequence itself also shows this influence. One of the most important roles of the ancient Celtic Bard was to use his knowledge of astronomy to determine the times at which the major annual events of the Celtic calendar should take place. The Celtic year, like ours, was divided into four seasons, each of which had its own associated rituals, myths and festivals. As Hughes’ River poems follow the river through its annual cycles, he, too, undertakes the rituals, tells the myths and celebrates the appropriate festivals.

The opening poem of the original British publication of River (‘That Morning Before Christmas’), for example, describes a modern fertility ritual, the milking of salmon for eggs and sperm, which exactly parallels primitive rituals designed to ensure the renewal of life after the deathly cold of winter. ‘Japanese River Tales’(R.14) and ‘Creation of Fishes’(R.54) are beautiful myths for the winter season of Samhain and the summer season of Beltain. In ‘Milesian Encounter of the Sligachan’ and in ‘Gulkana’, Hughes re-enacts the mythical hero’s encounter with the primitive forces of darkness in eerie confrontations with “a Medusa”, “Some Boggart”(R.48), his “doppleganger other”(R.80). And in ‘Night Arrival of Sea Trout’(R.68), just at the season when the Celts would have celebrated the harvest festival of Lughnasad, Hughes evokes the horned Celtic god, Cocidius, who erupts from the dark, “upside-down buried heaven” of the river into “the hard corn… Running and leaping/With a bat in his drum”.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which Hughes is linked to the Bardic tradition of Britain is through his appointment by the leader of the tribe – Queen Elizabeth II – as Poet Laureate. Although this title was only bestowed for the first time in the reign of King Charles II, on John Dryden, the honorary nature of the position, the fact that the appointment is made by the reigning monarch and that the Laureate’s duties are to celebrate royal occasions, all show it to be similar to the role of Master Bard.

Hughes certainly takes his duties seriously. His Laureate poems, collected in Rain-charm for the Duchy(Hughes 1992), show him weaving Celtic British myth into the historical and geographical matrix of the British Isles in such a way as to link the present Monarchy with the earliest mythical rulers of the land. In his notes to these poems, Hughes describes the Queen as “head of the English Church...exactly as the kings and queens of the earlier world were the earthly representatives of whatever god or goddess represented the spiritual unity of whatever religion then prevailed”. He links her, too, with Shakespeare’s King Lear, “the only King of British legendary history who was originally a god – the [Celtic] Welsh sea–god Llyr”(Hughes 1992, 54). And it is clear from these notes that Hughes purpose in making such links is wholly Shamanic, for the link between the Crown and God has always been essential to the spiritual health of the people. As Hughes puts it:

            A Soul is a wheel
            A Nation’s a Soul
            With a Crown at the hub
            To keep it whole.

Hughes uses all his poetic powers in the Laureate poems to promote this wholeness.

Hughes, of course, was not born into a Celtic aristocracy, for one no longer exists. Nor are there any Bardic colleges, apart from the Arvon Foundation which Hughes helped to set up as a “school for poets” in 197112. Nevertheless, Hughes’ extensive and wide–ranging reading, his years of practical experience and his constant quest for wholeness – for integration of the spiritual and material aspects of human nature – have given him an exceptionally deep understanding of his art. He knows well the techniques and intricacies of poetic music, as his recently published essay on ‘sprung rhythm’ in the work of Hopkins and Coleridge clearly shows(Hughes 1994, 310-465). And he has very many of the other attributes which were once required of a Celtic Master Bard.

Were Taliesin to return and to challenge Hughes, as he once challenged the bards at the court of Maelgwn Gwynedd(Matthews 1991, 18, 289-91), setting them verse riddles and bidding them “be silent” unless they knew “the names of verse-forms” and “the distinction between truth and falsehood”13, I think Hughes would be well equipped for the contest. And he, like Taliesin, may well be able to trace his Bardic lineage back to the Morfran, Black-Crow(Matthews 1991, 24-30), son of Ceridwen, the Goddess of Inspiration.


1. “The Song of Songs in the Valley of Bones”, Introduction to a reading of The Waste Land at the Palace Theatre, London, 25th. Sept. 1988. (Hughes 1992, 12).

2. The full story of Caire’s cursing is told by Matthews (1991, 140-1).

3. This was said by Hughes in a tape recording made for The Critical Forum Series (1978).

4. Taliesin’s poem ‘Cad Goddeau’. (Matthews 1991, 300).

5. ‘Taliesin’s Bardic Lore’. (Matthews 1991, 303).

6. Taliesin’s poem ‘The Hostile Confederacy’. (Matthews 1991, 102).

7. Taliesin’s poem ‘Primary Chief Bard am I’. (Matthews 1991, 285).

8. Taliesin’s poem ‘The Rebuke of the Bards’. (Matthews 1991, 111).

9. Quotations from various poems by Taliesin (Matthews 1991, 42).

10. ‘Taliesin’s Bardic Lore’. (Matthews 1991, 304).

11. From Hughes’ 1964 Listener review of Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism (Eliade 1964), now reprinted in Winter Pollen (Hughes 1994, 58).

12. The Arvon Foundation was the invention of John Fairfax and John Moat who approached Hughes for support. Some fourteen apprentice writers live and work for a week with two well-known, published authors, gaining help and inspiration from such interaction. Its courses take place at Lumb bank, a mill-owner’s house in Hebden bridge, Yorkshire and at Totleigh Barnes, a cottage in Devon.

13. Taliesin’s poem ‘The Rebuke of the Bards’. (Matthews 1991, 290).


Faas, E. (1980). The Unaccommodated Universe. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press.

Graves, R. (1977). The White Goddess, London: Faber and Faber.

Gregory, Lady. (1970). Gods and Fighting Men. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe.

Hughes, T. (1992). “The Song of Songs in the Valley of Bones.” A Dancer to God: Tributes to T.S. Eliot. London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes, T. (1978). Tape Recording. The Critical Forum Series: Norwich Tapes Ltd.

Hughes, T. (1994). “Regenerations.” Winter Pollen. London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes, T. (1978). Cave Birds. London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes, T. (1979). Remains of Elmet. London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes, T. (1983). River. London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes, T. (1993). Three Books.London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes, T. (1992). Rain-charm for a Duchy. London: Faber and Faber.

Matthews, J. (1991). Taliesin, London: The Aquarian Press.

Skea, A. (1994).Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest. Armidale NSW: University of New England Press.

© Ann Skea, 2001. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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