Hughes is a poet who has developed from an early reliance on external Nature to a greater metaphysical assurance and the creation of a distinctive imaginative world. The passage of time has made such early poems as Pike, Wind, and View of a Pig seem greater achievements than they seemed at their first appearance. The poetic growth of Hughes from this early work to the best poems in his successive volumes of poetry has indeed been most remarkable. The volumes entitled “Wodwo,” “Crow,” and “Cave Birds” are particularly noteworthy in this connection.
Hughes’s Remarkable Development as a Poet
As Gifford and Roberts point out in their brilliant book on the subject, Ted Hughes is a prolific poet, and a great poet. According to these critics, Hughes’s characteristic virtues can be seen in a remarkably large proportion of his work, while his failures are usually matters of excess and seldom of paucity.
As a Poet of Violence
Hughes has written a large number of poems which depict violence, violence chiefly of savage animals, but violence also in human nature. Indeed, violence is one of the dominant themes in Hughes’s poetry; and for this reason he has often been regarded as a poet of violence. However, those who describe him primarily as “a poet of violence” do not intend this label as a tribute to him. They regard violence as a theme in his poetry as something abnormal and undesirable. But Hughes himself equated the word “violence” with what he called “vehement activity” or with what he also called “energy”. In an interview with a magazine editor, he is reported to have said:
Any form of violence—any form of vehement activity—invokes the bigger energy, the elemental power-circuit of the universe. Once the contact has been made, it becomes difficult to control. If you refuse the energy, you are living a kind of death. If you accept the energy, it destroys you. What is the alternative? To accept the energy, and find methods of turning it to good, of keeping it under control—rituals, the machinery of religion. The old method is the only one.
In another interview, he said: “My poems are not about violence but vitality. Animals are not violent, they’re so much more completely controlled than men.” But, without indulging in any kind of hair-splitting, we must acknowledge the fact that Hughes does depict violence in many of his poems, and he does so in its most brutal and naked shape. Poems like The Jaguar, Esther’s Tomcat, View of a Pig, An Otter, Thrushes, Pike and Second Glance at a Jaguar depict animal violence; while poems like Bayonet Charge, Six Young Men and The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar depict human violence. Nor is there any need to offer any apology on Hughes’s behalf for the writing of such poems. Everything under the sky in this universe is fit material for poetry if the poet has the required technical skill and if he can arouse the reader’s curiosity and interest, or if he can thrill or delight or instruct or elevate the reader by his poems. These poems of violence by Hughes are certainly genuine poetry; and we certainly enjoy reading them. And it is not only the sadistic persons among us who would appreciate these poems. Even the normal reader can find a certain degree of pleasure in them, especially because they are perfectly realistic, and very vivid, in their depiction of brutality and cruelty.
A Poet of the Animal World
As may have become evident from the foregoing paragraph, Hughes shows great interest in the animal world. A number of poems named above are about animals and about the savagery and ferocity of those animals. But there is also a poem entitled The Horses which depicts the passivity and gentleness of a group of ten horses at a particular moment in their existence. Hughes’s interest in the animal world dates back to the days of his boyhood which he spent in Yorkshire amid rural scenes. The company of his brother, who was a hunter of foxes and other animals, greatly encouraged his interest in animals. He has no prejudice against animals who are fierce and bloodthirsty by nature; and he often relates animal cruelty to the life of human beings, though he does so in a disguised and symbolic manner rather than explicitly.
His Primitivism and His Use of Ancient Myths
Hughes also shows a deep interest in primitive beliefs and superstitions; and, in writing many of his poems, he draws upon ancient myths and legends. In his portrayal of the Crow in the poems of the volume which bears that title, Hughes gives us clear evidence of this interest. The protagonist in this volume of poems is the Crow; and this protagonist is a curious and intriguing blend of ancient myths and legends, apart from the significance with which Hughes himself has endowed this bird. Hughes took from Leonard Baskin’s drawings the concept of Crow-Man, gave him features from Eskimo, Red Indian, and Celtic folklore, then launched him into our world, with the task of trying to understand it and his own place in it. But Hughes shows his interest in primitive beliefs and superstitions in the bulk of his other poetry also. One of the myths, which always inspired Hughes, relates to “the white goddess” (or the Nature-goddess) in her three aspects of maiden, mother, and crone, (or Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate). This goddess is both beneficent and destructive; and the myth about her helps Hughes to widen Wordsworth’s view of Nature so as to include all that is terrifying and predatory, in addition to what is comforting and consoling, in Nature. This dual approach to Nature is implicit in Hughes’s poetry from the beginning, but it 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 the volume of poems entitled “Cave Birds”. The goddess not only represents all Nature but is also present in the human mind, in the unconscious layers of the human mind, accessible to individuals in a state of profound meditation, in a state of ecstasy, and in moods of extreme anguish. But Hughes’s major poetry is primarily concerned with the relationship between the human mind and the forces which govern man’s material existence. And this explains Hughes’s interest in shamanism. The word “shaman” is a term used by anthropologists for a sorcerer or a witch-doctor. The shaman in older times was valued for his direct experience of “other” worlds which the ordinary man knows of only through myth and ritual. This experience was believed to enable him to cure the sick. The shaman’s ritual involved singing, dancing, and recitation, often in a special poetic vocabulary. Now, it is impossible for a modern scientific individual to believe in shamanism. Nor does Hughes express any belief in shamanistic rituals. But Hughes’s preoccupations with the unconscious mind, with death, with the animal world, and with ancient myths do show his affinity with shamanism. What Hughes really shares with a shaman of the old times is a concern for mental or psychic equilibrium. Gifford and Roberts in this context affirm that Hughes’s interest in the primitive beliefs is not a rejection of culture but a concern for culture. Hughes does, indeed, reject much of the Western culture on the ground that the consciousness, which it fosters, rests on a dangerously narrow base; but he does not reject it in favour of an illusory ideal of man. He is interested in the sophistication of primitive cultures in areas where the modern Western culture is barbaric, those areas being chiefly the inner life and the natural world. Hughes’s interest in Wodwo also shows his interest in primitive beliefs. The term “Wodwo” means a mythical satyr (half-man, half-animal). And some of Hughes’s best poems are to be found in the volume which bears the title “Wodwo”, there being also in this volume a poem which itself has the title “Wodwo”.
The Crow Poems
The poems in the volume entitled “Crow”, though seemingly about the bird known as the Crow, actually have a deeply philosophical significance. The poems in this volume cannot merely be classified as animal poems, though the bird Crow certainly belongs to the animal world. These poems are much more than animal poems; and they have much wider and deeper implications. Taken collectively, and in most cases even if considered individually, these poems are a satire on the prevailing religious beliefs of the people and more particularly on the Biblical doctrines regarding the Creation of man,” and man’s fall from grace. They are also a satire on Christianity and the Christian beliefs. In other words, these poems are anti-Biblical and anti-traditional. They show Hughes’s satirical talent, and his ability to wield the weapons of irony and sarcasm. As Keith points out, these poems are mainly about Crow’s mistakes, his mutually destructive encounters with the “Energies,” his ego-death, his first perceptions of conscience, his initial steps towards re-constituting himself and re-interpreting the world. The Crow poems are highly entertaining, while they are also profoundly instructive. However, the orthodox Christian and, in fact, an orthodox man belonging to any religion, would find these poems shocking because the traditional beliefs of religion have here been assailed and debunked. In any case, these poems are the most famous part of Hughes’s work as a poet.
Meditations on War
It is impossible for any modern poet to remain unaffected by the destructiveness caused by the two World Wars which were the most conspicuous historical events of the twentieth century. World War I evoked considerable poetry which bemoaned the destruction caused by it; and World War II likewise moved poets to write about its calamitous and disastrous effects. Ted Hughes had a personal reason to bemoan war because his own father had fought in World War I and had barely survived it. In the poem entitled Out, Hughes meditates upon his father’s terrible experience of war; but he has written other war poems too. Of these, the more important ones are Bayonet Charge and Six Young Men. These are all deeply moving and poignant poems. Indeed, war too may be regarded as a leading theme in Hughes’s poetry.
Qualities of Style
Ted Hughes, commenting upon the style of writing of a fellow-poet, had thus commented on it: “It is a language for the whole mind, at its most wakeful, and in all situations.” In fact, this comment is perfectly valid in respect of Hughes’s own style of writing poetry. Hughes’s most characteristic style is a language for the whole mind, at its most wakeful. According to Gifford and Roberts, this style is not a symptom either of obsession or of intellectual surrender. This style combines, to a remarkable degree, receptiveness and control. Actually Gifford and Roberts have devoted their whole book on Ted Hughes to an analysis of Hughes’s poetic style, illustrating each point with extensive examples from Hughes’s wok. Of course, Hughes’s style of writing kept on changing as he wrote one volume of poems after another, as these critics have pointed out. There is a development in his style in the course of his writing of these successive volumes, as there was bound to be. No poet ever comes forward with a fully developed style. But, taking a bird’s eye-view of Hughes’s entire poetic work, we can point out the most prominent qualities of his poetic style. A skilful use of words and rhythm, an abundant and bold use of metaphor, vivid imagery and factual description, the use of sound effects, condensation, colloquial words and phrases, the capacity to express elusive or shadowy thoughts, a frequent use of conceits and hyperbole, a narrative element, dramatic effects, a use of humour, especially of ironical humour— these are some of the qualities of Hughes’s style which is one of the most original in the whole range of modern poetry. Of course, there have been influences which moulded this style, but its originality, despite those influences and even some borrowings, is unquestionable.
Although at each stage in his poetic development, Hughes has provided ample evidence of his originality, yet there have also been certain influences some of which he has himself acknowledged. As Gifford and Roberts have pointed out, Hughes’s poetry is steeped in tradition. His early work shows the influence of G.M. Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Deeper and more enduring influences were those of Greek tragedy, medieval alliterative poetry, Shakespeare, and the English Romantics, particularly Blake and Wordsworth. Then there was the mutual influence of Hughes and his wife Sylvia; and this contributed greatly to the development of both of them. It seems likely that the greater rhythmical freedom, compression, and elliptical language of Hughes’s poetry from “Wodwo” onwards owes something to the example of Sylvia’s later work. His collaborations with artists in other fields, notably with Leonard Baskin, are a significant feature of his career. In the case of “Crow” and “Cave Birds”, his creative relationship with Leonard Baskin is almost symbiotic.
Hughes is a philosophical, metaphysical, and psychological poet, as well as a poet of Nature and of the animal world. He has interpreted modern life and modern man in terms of myth and symbol, and has indicated the paths along which mankind should strive to go forward in order to attain the mental tranquillity and poise so woefully lacking in the present state of chaos and disequilibrium in the world. No wonder that his poetry, like the poetry of every modern poet, is a tough nut to crack, because the modern poet tends to be more subtle and more elusive in the expression of his ideas than the traditional poet (like Thomas Hardy). But otherwise too, poets are the seers, sages, philosophers, and Magi of the world, and their techniques of expression, like their modes of thought, are often complex, involved, intricate, and sometimes even baffling and bewildering. In any case, Hughes’s work has considerably enriched English poetry and enlarged its scope and its bounds.