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Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes by Anser Shah


by Anser Shah

‘When I began to sing’ said the Shaman Semyonnov Semyon, ‘my sickness usually disappeared’

We live in a society dominated by empirical thinking or ‘logos’, one in which myth has been dismissed as ‘fantasy’. However, rather like logos myth helped people live effectively in a confusing world, relating stories about gods and centering on the more abstruse and tragic aspects of the human condition that lay outside the remit of logos. Deemed a primitive form of psychology, myth attributes to helping people negotiate hermetic regions of the psyche, otherwise obfuscated, but which deeply influence thought and behaviour; for people had to enter the labyrinth of their minds and fight personal demons. Both Freud and Jung, when conducting their scientific search for the soul, instinctively turned to ancient myths for material illustrative of basic human instincts, conflicts and yearnings. Put into practice myth could reveal deep truths about humanity, teaching us to live life more intensely, cope with our mortality and survive the suffering of the flesh. The following paper will explore the curative use of myth in the poems of Ted Hughes.

Concomitant to Freud and Jung, Hughes’s interest in primitive beliefs and superstitions drew upon ancient archetypes and personal myths as a method of excavating the workings of the unconscious. His anthropomorphic use of the violence and savagery of animals indicates what he sees as the bestial side of Man. By probing into the primal aspects of nature, he exorcises the instinctual energy that lies latent within human beings, producing a cathartic form of healing. Freud believed that it is poets who have the power to evoke remnants of the mythical past which lies buried in the human unconscious, a view Hughes endorses:

‘ it is only out there … the ancient instincts … feelings in which most of our bodies live … can feel at home on their own ground …

prehistoric feelings … we are hardly aware of … like a blood transfusion … in wild surroundings they … surface to … refresh … renew us’.

Hughes’s poetry is informed by his studies in Anthropology at Cambridge, and the atavistic Yorkshire landscape of his childhood in Mytholmroyd. He was also influenced amongst many other works by Robert Graves’s The White Goddess and Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Hughes’s perception of the poet’s calling was sacramental; identifying the poet’s destiny as that of a shaman in a primitive culture, one chosen by a spirit ‘usually some animal [who] becomes his liaison with the spirit world.’ Shamans undergo the regenerating dramas of the human psyche. Pike and Hawk Roosting are examples of messengers from the spirit world, bringing the poet ‘a clairvoyant piece of information, a display of healing power’.

Hughes began writing poetry in the ‘50s and ‘60s in a period of reflection on the diminishing expectations of post war Britain, such as we find in the poems of Larkin, for instance. Hughes’ own response was to write poetry that expressed the intractable savagery of man. He found a correlation between man’s irrational nature and that of Nature’s creatures. By exploring animal energies and instincts, Hughes attempted to seek a re-alignment with the unknown forces governing the universe. His poems are for PR King:

‘a journey beyond the rational and primitive depths of experience to liberate the self. The emphasis on violence death and brutality is a ritual submission to the inevitable death of the old self that must precede the liberation and emergence of an authentic self, to gain access to the power habitually held in check by society’.

The post-war world was one in which people felt alienated from vital sources. The repression of their inner psychic world under the burden of scientific logos required works of the mythopoeic imagination to make man aware of his primeval reality. Hughes’s concentration on animals is his attempt to clarify his feelings on the human condition:

‘the mythic imagination works as the healing power in the face of the violence and brutality of the post-holocaust period … it serves as a healing relief to the secret mental emotions.

We can see this in The Ghost Crabs in Wodwo, which creates a sense of ‘weird phantasmagoria’ where the crabs are symbolic representations of the destructive forces that lurk in our subconscious:

‘Coming out at night when the sea darkens’, they manifest a repressed psyche, roaming freely about, ‘our walls, our bodies, are no problem to them. Their hungers are homing elsewhere. We cannot see them or turn our minds from them’.

They are too strong to be repressed because they are the powers of this world. For King, they belong to the subterranean world of Pike, with slow, powerful advance, invading the land and moving towards the sleeping town. They hunt and breed in Man’s mind, connecting him to the non-human world which he prefers to deny. They represent the ‘turmoil of history, the convulsion in the roots of blood in the cycle of concurrence’, embedded in the subconscious, ever ready to emerge. The animals reveal the darkest recesses of man’s being and his questioning of the structures of the universe, a point illustrated in Crow. The Crow poems ordain endless and needless suffering. Hughes’s approach is naked and direct. Crow is the gospel according to Darwinism, older than humanity the crow transforms our century through his trickster vision of frightening intensity. Published in 1970, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow is a sequence of folktales in which Hughes rewrites the Christian Creation and creates his own personal myth, employing quest as a theme and pattern for his own poetic growth. Crow’s world is the perpetual warfare of ‘tooth and claw’ and God is his adversary. Crow ‘cannot be forgiven, /His prison is the earth’. Love is a word in God’s mouth but the world cannot pronounce it. With no Christ to redeem him, Crow’s only satisfaction is that he is God’s nightmare, that he survives and is moved by the life force itself. Certainly, for the American edition, ‘Crow was perhaps a more plausible explanation of the World than the Christian sequence’. Pike from Lupercal is an example of Hughes appropriating archetypal myth from the Indian epic Mahabharata but is also a picture of the malevolence of the universe. Hughes describes the fish ‘three inches long … killers from the egg’ and the fisherman casts his line ‘as deep as England’ fearful of what he may bring to the surface. Hughes’s language is that of a man describing what he sees and feels but these ‘killers from the egg’, ‘stunned

by their own grandeur’ have a hard certainty and majesty. In Poetry in the Making, Hughes describes the poet’s necessary act of bringing to conscious expression his submerged instinctual life, ‘Our minds lie in us like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish’.

His poetic commitment to theme reflects less on morality than on an essential energy which is not ‘considered speech’, but what Schmidt considers ‘authentic speech…the language of Heathcliff ’. In an interview with Egbert Faas, he said that his animal poems ‘were written in an effort to create an absolutely still language’. It was Hughes’s interest in the link between left and right hemispheres of the brain, and their correspondence with mythos and logos as different modes of language or speech that fuelled such poetry. Certainly, to read Hughes’s poems with an appreciation of the the idea of two contrasting selves in the brain’s hemispheres illuminates his use of metaphor and anthropomorphism, as epistemological points of departure in relation to the quest for poetic truth . In his book Literature and the Crime against Nature, Sagar suggests that the crime against nature is the usurpation of the right hemisphere, which grounds us in nature, by the left, which alienates us from it. Previously, Jung valued the symbol as providing the necessary third ground on which the otherwise polarized halves of the psyche could meet. For Hughes:

‘The story of the mind exiled from nature is the story of western Man … his … desperate search for mechanical … rational … symbolic securities, which … substitute for the spirit … confidence in Nature he has lost … suppressing the right … removes the individual from the “inner life” of the right … producing the sensation of living removed from oneself ’.

In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being he contextualises this point:

‘the left side processes verbal language, abstract concepts … the right, is virtually wordless, processes of sensuous imagery … intuitive ideas … special patterns of wholeness and simultaneity … [which] ally the deep subjective life of the animal with the right, and subjective self- control with the left.’

The dominance of logos has resulted in the right becoming almost extinct, removing the individual from the inner life and from the real world. It is at this point that Hughes feels poetry becomes integral: ‘Metaphor is a sudden flinging open of the door into the world of the right side…where animal is not separated from either the spirit or the real world of itself ’. A point McGilchrist’s study of the brain confirms:

‘only the right … understand[s] metaphor … can reach outside the system of signs … the existence of a system of thought dependent on language … devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language … it is only whatever can ‘leap’ beyond the world of language and reason that can break the imprisoning hall of mirrors … reconnec[ting] us with the real world’.

This aligns with Hughes’s own methods. Still influenced by mythology, Hughes created Orghast, a play largely based on the Prometheus legend with dialogue in an invented language to illustrate the theory that sound alone could express very complex human emotions. He continued this theme with his next work Prometheus on His Crag from 1973. His poetry functions as a manifestation of the kind of writing that points to a truth that is to be found in a space beyond language as simply name. For Hughes:

‘the inner world separated from the outer … is a place of demons … the outer world separated from the inner … is a place of meaningless objects … the faculty that makes the human being out of these two worlds is called divine … it is the faculty without which humanity cannot … exist. It can be called religious, visionary … but essentially … the imagination which embraces both inner and outer worlds in creative spirit’.

Hughes returns to the myth-evoking and myth-making figure of the shaman, and the concept of the self as the visionary creator of all that is perceived. His belief in bridging the gap between ‘object and mind, man and nature’ in which man must seek assurance from within his own self is attendant to non-Western thought , and is manifest in several poems of Wodwo. In The Bear for example, the ‘gleam in the pupil’ of the ‘atman’ within the self is a gleam of the Buddhist eye of trans-phenomenal wisdom. In Karma Scigaj asserts:

‘the poet’s meditation upon the sufferings and carnage created by man in his hundred and fifty million years of civilization, is the Buddhist retracing of time and karmic bondage to suffering in order to absorb it and arrive at the timeless, the point before temporal duration where liberation is possible.’

The decline of mythical thinking in an industrialized world has resulted in a loss of a sense of transcendence and the value of human life. In thinking through the catastrophe of the last century, Hughes’s recourse to mythical poetry provides a cure for the spiritual impotence of the modern age. The sequence of his poems was a deliberate choice, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts; generating process, preventing a unified identity but ensuring a continuous movement and opening towards ‘being’; a mystical process of becoming one with God, or a divine creative source, which enriches the minds of all that read him. In The Anthropologist’s Uses of Myth, Ray Brandes says that as a mythic poet, Hughes wrote to liberate and heal the soul, body, community and world. As a shaman his mythic quest served as the sacred script for the poet as healer and liberator. Thus it is that in his poem, ‘The Prophet,’ God speaks to Pushkin:

Be my witness. Go / Through all seas and lands. With the word / Burn the hearts of the people.

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