Hughes’s sensibility is pagan in the original sense; and his poetry is as suggestive of the lair as it is of the library. He feels greatly attracted by ancient mythologies, Oriental as well as Western, though he makes use of those ancient myths for his own purpose. He certainly does not believe literally in the ancient myths, but he finds a great value in them and, throughout his poetry, tries to show his readers where the value of these ancient myths lies.
Hughes, Greatly Attracted By the Primitive in the Form of Myths
Hughes as a poet feels greatly fascinated by the primitive in all its manifestations and implications, and with all it suggestions and all interpretations of it. In the words of a critic, Hughes’s very landscape is primeval where “stones cry out and horizons endure,” “where the elements inhabit the mind with a religious force,” where the pebble dreams that “it is the foetus of God”, “where the staring angels go through,” “where all the stars bow down,” “ where, with appropriately pre-Socratic force, water lies at the bottom of all things utterly worn-out, utterly clear.”
The While Goddess; Shamanism; Oedipus; Prometheus
The myth, which has most consistently inspired Hughes, is the one pertaining to the White Goddess who is the Nature-goddess in her three aspects of maiden, mother, and crone. This myth holds, in a single imaginative unity, the total character of reality, both beneficent and destructive. This goddess is implicit in Hughes’s work from the beginning, but becomes increasingly prominent in the mother of several of the Crow poems, in the object of Reverend Lumb’s devotion in Gaudete, and in the hero’s victim and bride in “Cave Birds”. This goddess is not separate from the world of things, and she is present also in the human consciousness, Then Hughes is also attracted very greatly by the myth known as shamanism, by the Oedipus myth, and by the Prometheus myth. In this connection we must remember that Hughes had done the Honours course in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge. He has been making use of the knowledge he acquired there to arrive at certain tentative conclusions about the modern man’s predicament. His interest in shamanism has chiefly been due to his preoccupations with the unconscious mind, with death, and with the animal world. What he ultimately shares with the shaman is a concern for psychic equilibrium.
Hughes’s Concern for Culture
Here we must understand that as a trained anthropologist Hughes feels interested in the primitive not because he rejects culture but because he feels that man badly needs to become cultured in the real sense of the world. Of course, he has rejected much of the modern western culture on the ground that the consciousness encouraged and nourished by this culture rests on a dangerously narrow base. But he has not rejected this culture in favour of any illusory ideal of unaccommodated man. He is interested in the primitive cultures in those areas which particularly deal with the inner life of man and with the natural world. Hughes finds that the modern Western culture, by comparison with primitive cultures, is barbaric, while those primitive cultures possessed an extraordinary sophistication. The modern Western culture, according to him, has given rise to certain monsters who have neither any sense of direction nor any power of self-control but are a chaos of spasmodic impulses and vague emotions. Actually, Hughes is a poet who is deeply concerned with culture, and who believes that the pursuit of material benefits in modern times has led to the neglect and the abuse of both the human spirit and the natural world. He feels, with the psychologist Jung, that the story of the Western man is the story of the human mind banished from Nature. Hughes’s poetry is poetry written for the modern world which, in his opinion, has lost its balance. His poetry vividly portrays the crises of the modern words; and this poetry has a healing power by virtue of its emphasis on the value of ancient myths, on the primitive modes of life and belief, on the holiness of the world of Nature, and on the mystery of the human psyche. It was in this context that Hughes began to explore the spiritual technique known as “shamanism” which emphasizes the need of the restoration of cosmic balance and healing. Hughes regards shamanism as a force for equilibrium because it deals with the control and use of energy expressed through ecstasy. Such energy can revitalize and empower; or it can bring about chaos and destruction. That is the reason why in his poem Second Glance at a Jaguar, the jaguar is “muttering some mantrah, some drum-song of murder,” and is “going like a prayer wheel.” The jaguar is even, like certain South American shamans, “making his skin intolerable; he has to wear his skin out”, enabling its replacement by a magical skin to effect a change in sensibility. But such poems are not only inquiries into the origins and the consequences of elemental energy. They are also invocations of the White-Goddess, and invocations of a jaguar-like elemental force. Hughes regards such poems as having “real summoning force”. The poem Gog also belongs to this category. In the poems of the volume entitled “The Hawk in the Rain”, only instinctive insect and animal life can generate the true elemental energy because man is held back too much by his rationality and by the arbitrary taboos imposed by him on himself. This is the reason why Hughes wants to shift the cultural foundations of the Western man to a new Holy Ground and to a new divinity, replacing Christianity which, he believes, is the worn-out religious machinery of a worn-out culture. Hughes feels that the great need of modern times is to replace the myths of the Christian religion with a new myth. In order to arrive at a new myth and a new divinity. We have to take the help of primitive beliefs and primitive rituals. The old method, he says, is the only effective method. As a poet, Hughes believes that he must make “secret flights” to go back in time in order to be able to probe his own mind through his knowledge of the past consciousness of the human race. He believes that the principal method of making such secret flights is through dreams which provide an insight into the unconscious mind and which have a collective meaning when they have a mythical contents. That is the reason why the dream-like poem entitled Pike is about fishing in a “stilled legendary depth,” which is “as deep as England.” For Hughes, as for Jung, there is a positive effect in just having the dream, particularly in a culture which has exchanged dreaming for aspiration. The poet is like the shaman who, by relating a myth displays his healing power. The poem called Child-Birth looks at birth through mythic spectacles. The method proposed in this poem facilitates child-birth by giving a mythic explanation for the mother’s pain.
The Expulsion of Ego, Demanded By True Culture
As already indicated, Hughes invests his poem with a dream-like quality because dreams reveal the unconscious mind just as the shamanistic procedures do that. The Thought-Fox is a dream-like poem, a reverie on a cold winter’s night. The same is the case with the poem called Relic. The poem called The Bear is a shamanic dream. The first section of the poem Out bears the title “The Dream Time.” In many of the Crow poems, the Buddhist and shamanic strains of thought are united, the aim being to drive out the ego or self-hood from the consciousness of man. The Crow himself refuses to abandon his self-hood; and from the Buddhist point of view this is a tragedy. The Crow has an indestructible desire to live, and he would continue to be subject to rebirth. Only by giving up the desire to live, which is the essence of self-hood, can Crow escape from the wheel of existence. Crow is too egocentric to have faith in anything except himself. In other words, Hughes believes that true culture demands the expulsion of the ego from the human mind; and this view he has tried to illustrate by the Crow’s refusal to give up his self-hood. The Crow is not only the antagonist of God but also of man; and he is therefore a negation of the true values of culture.
Elemental Energies, Essential to Culture
In his subsequent poems, Hughes introduces a new strand into his poetry. He regards suffering as valuable not only in terms of initiation but also for expiation. In the poems of volumes entitled “Promethus on His Crag” and “Cave Birds”, the initiatory and expiatory elements are linked together in terms of shamanic medication. These poems explore the tension between shamanism and Christianity. Shamanism does not deal with guilt, while Christianity claims to deal with both guilt and death, and yet seems to undermine the life of energy which Hughes values very greatly. It is this exploration which establishes an affinity between the poetry of Hughes and the poetry of William Blake. Hughes regards energy, elemental energy, or energies in the plural, as something indispensable to culture; and one reason why in poem after poem he has depicted the fierce energy of animal—the pike, the otter, the hawk, the jaguar, and Esther’s tomcat—is that he wishes to make his readers conscious of the energy which used to exist in human beings but which they have now lost because of the enervating influences of modern culture with its emphasis on materialism and rationalism, and with its denial of the instincts.
Hughes’s Use of His Interest in Primitivism to Promote True Culture
It is not only the energy of the wild animals which is important from the point of view of Hughes’s concept of culture, and it is not only the need to restore the instincts to their rightful place in human life, that is important. Hughes makes an anthropological approach even to plants and to vegetation in general. The poem called Pibroch is an example of this kind of thing. In this poem he attributes life even to a stone. In fact, he uses the stone as a metaphor for a certain form of human consciousness. Here a pebble is imagined as dreaming that it is “the foetus of God”. In the poem called Fern, a shrub is given a human consciousness. The fern is depicted as a warrior returning to his own kingdom after having fought and won battles in foreign countries. In the poem called Thistles, these plants are depicted as growing up from the soil once again, after having been cut down, just as the pirates and fighters of the medieval times used to fight, die, be buried, and were then followed by their sons who repeated the history of their fathers. This anthropological visualization of plants and shrubs is another example of Hughes’s own, peculiar use of his primitive learning because anthropology is the science which relates the history of mankind from primitive times onwards. Hughes has found the study of anthropology to be a source of inspiration to him in his poetry; and he regards this interest in primitivism also as a valuable contribution to the cultural make-up of the new Western man of his conception.
Modern Western Man, a Target of Attack in the Crow Poems
The poems in the volume entitled “Crow” show even more emphatically Hughes’s interest in the primitive. In these poems Hughes has combined together a large number of ancient myths from various regions of the world, Oriental as well as Western. Indeed, in this sequence of poems Hughes has shown himself as a poet with huge powers of myth-making, through the myths created by him have their roots in primitive myths. These poems are an exposure of the modern man’s greed, his self-centredness, his utter lack of compassion, his use of cunning to gain his ends, and his denial of the instincts which are essential for the preservation of the basic virtues of human nature. In fact, the Crow himself, as depicted in his totality in these poems, symbolizes the modern man; and Hughes’s basic concern in the writing of these poems was to promote the aims of true culture as distinguished from the false cultural values which the modern Western man has developed. Hughes makes us both laugh at, and hold in contempt, all that pertains to the modern Western man as symbolized by the trickster and manipulator, Crow. In the poem called Crow’s First Lesson, Crow’s failure to utter the word love evidently symbolizes the modern man’s complete abandonment of the gospel of love as preached by Jesus Christ. In the poem entitled Crow Alights, we are given a most depressing picture of the holocaust caused by a nuclear war. In another poem, we find only one man and one woman left in the world after a nuclear war, and they too kill each other. In the poem called That Moment, a single man, left alone by a nuclear war, commits suicide. These are all very pessimistic poems, though at the same time very entertaining. Taken together, they constitute a monumental satire on the modern man; and the purpose behind this satire is to bring about a regeneration of the culture of the modern Western man.
Hughes’s Treatment of the Prometheus Myth
Hughes’s critics have been him as being merely anti-intellectual anti-rational, and ant-Socratic. But the fact is that he believes the intellect to be no longer a serviceable, or even desirable, means of grasping an ultimate reality. Hughes recommends a moral alertness and vigilance so that the modern man can go forward instead of degenerating and declining still further in a moral and spiritual sense. Hughes finds a new significance even in the ancient myth about Prometheus. This mythical hero represents a superhuman endurance. Torn between eternity and death, between heaven and earth, unable to live and unable to die, Prometheus allows a vulture to keep eating into his heart and causing him a perpetual and painful wound there. Prometneus, in Hughes’s view, embodies self-inquisition, a man’s need to redeem his suffering by understanding it, and to endure his suffering until its meaning becomes imprinted on his mind. We witness the same kind of thing in the volume of poems entitled “Cave Birds” in which the primitive myth about Hercules is interpreted by Hughes as an example of self-immolation, with the protagonist on the pyre, with his mind and consciousness laid bare in the throes of self-recrimination. In these major works, written after the volume entitled “Crow”, Hughes painstakingly creates in different contexts the conditions under which self-confrontation can take place, conditions in which a dominating intellect can see itself broken so that the process of self-purification and ultimately self-forgiveness can be completed. Hughes’s interest in primitivism is thus put by him to a conservative use. Indeed, Hughes is fervently and desperately keen to bring about the advancement of true culture, and to drive out the false and corrupting kind of culture which the Western man is at present pursuing.