Use of Myth in Ted Hughes’s Poetry

Definition of Myth
Before discussing the use of myth in the poetry of Ted Hughes it is necessary to have an idea of what myth is and what it means when used in the context of modern poetry. This is how Malinowski defines myth:

Myth as it exists in a savage community, that is, in its living primitive form, is not merely a story told but a reality lived. It is not of the nature of fiction, such as we read today in a novel but it is a living reality, believed to have once happened in primeval times, and continuing ever since to influence the world and human destinies.
The stories live not by idle interest, not as fictions or even as true narratives; but are to the natives a statement of a primeval, greater, and more relevant reality, but which the present life, fates, and activities of mankind are determined.
In other words, a myth is a tissue of symbolism worked through a story of poem so as to reveal” a primeval, greater, and more relevant reality,” the reality which is not accessible to rational and objective modes of thought because they leave out what is emotional and intuitive.
Ted Hughes’ Fascination for Myth
Apart from Ted Hughes’ readings in anthropology and mythology, what attracted him to the use of myth in poetry was the feeling that the civilized world left out much that was intuitive and psychic, despite loud claims by psychologists. In “Myth and Education II,” Ted Hughes wrote,
Objective imagination, in the light of science, rejected religion as charlatanism, and the inner world as a bundle of fairy tales, a relic of primeval superstition. ……Religious negotiations had formerly embraced and humanized the archaic energies of instinct and feeling. They had conversed in simple but profound terms with the forces struggling inside people, and had civilized them, or attempted to. Without religion, those powers have become dehumanized. The whole inner world has become elemental, chaotic, continually more primitive and beyond our control.
Though some of the assertions made in this passage are clearly debatable, the passage on the whole gives an idea of what Hughes thought myth could do for the modern, rational and scientific world; it could provide an access to that inner world which had become discontinuous, fragmented, and chaotic. Myth would provide a psychic cure and suggest ways of taming the hitherto repressed energies which belong to the inner world. As he wrote in “Myth and Education, I,” in1970,
A mentally sick person is sick, says (Freud’s) theory, because there is something in his mind which he refuses to face, which he has by some means or other cut himself off from and which he represses into the cellars of his mind, down into the nervous system where it plays havoc. And this devil of suppressed life stops making trouble the moment he is acknowledged, the moment he is welcomed into conscious life and given some shape where he can play out his energy in an active part of the personality. The best way to welcome him and to release him, it is reckoned, is within the framework of a fantasy. Once the fantasy has made connection with the demon and given him a role, the person feels cured.
Commenting on Hughes’ opinion about this process of psychic healing through expression of the inner devil in the form of a poetic fantasy, Thomas West observes, “Myth, then, is the objectified story of a psychic healing, a taming of the dragon, a coming-to-terms with drama. As tragedy, myth aims to expel or accommodate some evil: the curse of Thebes, centred upon the riddle of the Sphinx, the alienation of mind and body, the state of Nature, or as in the ever-popular space film, some enemy from another planet—some new monster for a Saint George. The poet, according to Hughes, is the healer of the community as well as of himself, a medicine man, a manabout, a shaman.”
Ted Hughes’s interest in mythology and anthropology led him to study ancient myths of various cultures in detail. His knowledge of myths is not restricted to Christianity and Greek paganism but extends as far as North America, Asia, Africa and Australia. His very concept of the poet as a kind of shaman, a mystic witch-doctor or sourcerer, is derived from India and China. This shows Hughes’ great interest in and fascination for ancient myths.
Use of Myth in Hughes’s Poetry: Application
What is even more important than Hughes’s interest in ancient myths is what he makes of them. His mythopoeic imagination tries to understand the essence of each myth he adapts and fits into the modern context. The nightmarish world of the post-War period, people’s feeling of alienation from their vital sources and the repression of the inner, psychic world under the influence of a modern rational and scientific approach, all call for a mythopoeic imagination to make man aware of his primeval, reality, and that is what Hughes tries to achieve through the use of myth in his various poems. An early story written for children, The Iron Man, is a case in point. The story can be summarized as follows:
An Iron Man appears in the human world. Men try to destroy him, but a little boy suggests that rather than fight him they should try to provide him with means of subsistence. So he is provided with a scrapyard since he eats nothing but metal. Thus the people make peace with the Iron Man. Later, a space-monster threatens the world. The Iron Man fights with him and engages him in a series of tricky tests. Finally the monster is tamed and turned into a spirit of harmony, flying around the earth and making the music of the spheres. In this way the second threat is also averted.
This is what Ted Hughes himself says about the old myth he has reshaped in the Iron Man:
If I had been concerned to write an ordinary monster story, I would have had my little boy destroy the Iron Man, maybe, in the first episode. ….. In psychological terms, for there are no others that you can really use, he enters into a sort of neurotic condition. In other words, a terror has arrived and the only way he can deal with the terror is by pushing it underground.
But that, according to Hughes, would be a crime both against the Iron Man and humanity itself. Hughes’ point is to accept the outside, mysterious energy as a reality and then accept and accommodate it so as to harness it for useful purposes. As Thomas West comments, “Alien world and self, inferior and superior selves—all join as we are led to accept the monstrous power from ‘outer space,’ or indeed, inner space. As the angel part of the dragon’s name suggests, the new power will ultimately become the very source of a deeper, cosmic unity—that music of space, the energetic principle of harmony which exerts its full force in the apotheosis at the end of The Iron Man.
Hughes’ use of the old story about giant or its modern variant about the intrusion of an external power from the outer space in The Iron Man provides a key to his use of myths in poems written during the last twenty-five years. The Hawk in the Rain, earlier entitled “The Hawk in the Storm” has a brooding eye. “The Ghost Crabs” in Wodow is a remarkable example of expressing the unconscious nightmare lurking within the human mind. As Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts comment on the use of a mythopoeic imagination in this poem, “The narrative is a journey into the imagination, or the unconscious. It moves from a realistic sea at nightfall, through the dissolving ambiguous processes of metaphor, to the assertion of a mythic other reality. The writing suggests that discoveries are being made line by line…….A fearful intuition, aroused by nightfall and the depths of the sea, has found its representation, which then becomes an instrument for crystallizing half—conscious terrors, as the narrative sets the crabs in motion. Similarly, myth operates in “thistles,” “Sugar Loaf,” “The Bear,” “Gog,” and “Wodow.” “Reveille” and “Theology” anticipate the reinterpretation of the biblical myths in Crow. This is how “Theology” reinterprets the creation myth:
No, the serpent did not
Seduce Eve to the apple,
All that’s simply
Corruption of the facts.
Adam ate the apple.
Eve ate Adam.
The serpent ate Eve.
This is the dark intestine.
The serpent, meanwhile,
Sleeps his meal off in
Similing to hear
God’s querulous calling.
In his early poetry collected in The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal, Hughes recognizes the power of the irrational and the animal in man and believes that it is possible to harness them to a creative use. His mythology, in these poems, therefore strikes an affirmative note. As Leonard M. Scigaj has pointed out, “The majority of the protagonists in Hawk were heroic, action-oriented figures from England’s past, lovers or assertive rural types; they either wrestled, like ‘The Dove-Breeder,’ with experiences and invasions of the libidinal energies from the unconscious, or were satirized, like ‘Egghead,’ for failing to do so. In Lupercal the accomplishments of Dick Straightup, Nicholas Ferrer, Thomas Browne and the Retired colonel were saluted as admirable, each remained self-assured in life, comfortable in articulating his historical age, and fulfilled in death. The persona of ‘Historian’ hoped for ‘a live brain’s/Envying to master and last’ the cultural gains such accomplishments produced.”
But in the Wodow period, which was characterizes by personal tragedy and grief, Hughes seems to have lost his confidence in man’s historical enterprises. The focus is on a disillusionment with the Western culture. In poems such as “Thistles,” “Her Husband,” “Ghost Crabs,” “Scapegoat and Rabies,” “Second Glance at a Jaguar,” Hughes emphasizes man’s alienation from his universe and the consequent nightmarish atmosphere. The psychotic states of personality and total withdrawal characterize poems like “Cadenza,” “The Rescue,” and “Stations.” As Scigaj notes, “Nightmarish images of anonymous dead soldiers obtrude in a garish, surrealistic montage in the first section of ‘Scapegoat and Rabies.’ Both heredity and nature provided by Western culture combine as causes: stares from old women, trembling chins from old men, bow-legs from toddlers, facelessness, from the ‘mouldering/Of letters and citations/On rubbish dumps.’ The funeral parade is endless, for the repetition-compulsion ‘drumming/Of their boots’ is ‘concentrating/Toward a repeat performance’ in future generations. The men are ‘Helplessness/From the millions of the future/Marching in their boots.” The reason for this alienation, points out Hughes, is that “The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of the Western man. It is the story of his progressively more desperate search for mechanical and rational and symbolic securities, which will substitute for the spirit-confidence of the Nature he has lost.”
The way out of his impasse and alienation, Hughes thought, was by turning to all that the Western culture had tried to suppress: the inner world of impulse, emotion, imagination and, more significantly, the world of the spirit. This is what made him turn to the oriental mythology, particularly the Oriental concept of the self as the creator of all that is perceived. Hughes felt that the modern man must heal the gulf between the subject and the object, between the mind of the man and Nature, and he must seek assurance from within his own self. This is something quite close to the oriental thought. And this thought reflects itself in several poems of Wodow. In “The Bear,” for example, the “gleam in the pupil” of the atman within the self is a gleam of Buddhist eye of transphenomenal wisdom. In “Gnat-psalms” there is a total fusion of the persona and the environment. In “Full Moon and Little Frieda,” The child is considered a mirror who gazes at the moon. In the concluding poem, “Wodow” which gives the collection its title, the Wodow discovers itself as it discovers the environment into which it is placed. And in “Karma,” notes Scigaj, “the poet’s meditation upon the sufferings and carnage, created by man in his ‘hundred and fifty million years of civilisation, 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 poems published in Crow draw their myths from several sources. Crow, who gives the title to the whole collection is itself mythical. This is how Ted Hughes explained the origin of the symbolic and mythic crow:
After having created the world God has a nightmare in the form of a Voice and a Hand which ridicules the creation and particularly God’s masterpiece, Man. God claims that his creation has been a complete success and a debate ensues which is interrupted by a message from the world that Man wants God to take life back. God challenges the Nightmare to do better and the Nightmare’s response is to create Crow God, who regards Crow as a poor competitor for his creation, shows him round the universe and sets him various challenges and ordeals, in the course of which Crow becomes more intelligent and resourceful. The universe is one in which all history is happening simultaneously, so Crow is able to move freely from one era to another, and is occasionally implicated in various aspects of the Creation. During his adventures he begins to wonder who his own creator is and he encounters various female figures who are the avatars of his creator, but he never recognizes her and always bungles the situation.
The Crow resembles the primitive myths in several countries and is close to the traditional Trickster figure. What applies to the Trickster applies to the Crow as well, once note what Rodin said about the Trickster:
The symbol which Trickster embodies is not a static one. It contains within itself the promise of differentiation the promise of god and man. For this reason every generation occupies itself with interpreting Trickster anew. No generation understands him fully but no generation can do without him. Each had to include him in all its theologies, in all its cosmogonies, despite the fact that it realized that he did not fit properly into any of them, for he represents not only the undifferentiated and distant past, but likewise the undifferentiated present within every individual. This constitutes his universal and persistent attraction. And so he became and remained everything to every man—god, animal, human being, hero, buffoon, he who was before good and evil, denier, affirmer, destroyer and creator. If we laugh at him, he grins at us. What happens to him happens to us.
The sixty poems collected in Crow deal progressively with the Crow’s alighting from the deep spaces on to the earth and shows his reactions to what he sees. The world that the Crow sees is a fragmented, discontinuous, disjointed and alienated world. “Apple Tragedy” has its roots in both Genesis and the Pelesgian creation myth. In “Crow Alights” the Crow is an observer from outside the earth and is horrified at what he sees. In “Crow’s Last Stand,” Crow himself is primeval, present and ever-lasting reality. But in “Crow and the Sea” he is a helpless observer of the greater reality that lies outside him:
He tried ignoring the sea
But it was bigger than death, just it was bigger than life.
Ted Hughes referred to Christianity as “just another provisional myth of man’s relationship with the creator and the world of spirit.” This is how he treats Christian mythology in poems like “Apple Tragedy” and “A Childish Prank.” But, as Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts warn, “we are not to suppose that in Crow he is aspiring to replace a provisional or false myth with a permanent and true one. His cavalier handling of Biblical and classical stories, his use of what Robert Graves calls “iconotropy’….. imply an invitation to treat Crow in the same way.” “Secondly, the poems in Crow stand by themselves: whatever mythic material they use is obvious enough, and one doest not have to go back to the original myths and stories in order to get at their significance.”
In Gaudete, where Hughes returns to mythic material again, the focus is on the psychological, the inner world. Gaudete, like many myths and stories about changelings, deals with a puritan priest, Nicholas Lumb. He is taken by the spirits for a purpose of their own, but a duplicate is left behind. This duplicate, as Hughes says in the Argument, “proceeds to interpret the job of ministering the Gospel of love in his own log-like way. He organizes the women of his parish into a coven, a love-society. And the purpose of this society, evidently, is the birth of a Messiah to be fathered by Lumb.” The changeling, says Keith Sagar, “misinterprets everything, woodenly, in accordance with his own essential nature as fertility spirit. He feels compelled to copulate as often as possible and with as many women as possible. Soon he has all the women in the village in his harem. Those who need a religious sanction he tells that one of them is to be the mother of a god. Meetings of the Women’s Institute become occasions for fertility rites. Suicidal and murderous passions are released, first in the women, then in their husbands. The changeling is hunted down and shot and burned, together with the bodies of two of his brides, in a parody of Beltone bonfire.” It is in the Epilogue that the real Lumb returns to the world.
Though the poem is a combination of several myths, including Christian, its main thrust is on the way the repressed energies in the subconscious assert themselves. Nicholas Lumb, a puritan priest, is most probably a celebrate who has all his life repressed his carnal appetites which find outlet in this fantasy. But the whole story is so handled that, as Keith Sagar observes in The Art of Ted Hughes, Gaudete “has a quality common in all genuine myths: it can be interpreted equally well as applying to a supernatural cosmos of spirits and powers, to the natural world, or to the psychic world. It is at its richest if we can apprehend its relevance to all three at once; when it forces us to recognize the crassness of the distinction. And the power of Hughes’ writing ensures that this is so. The reader is taken by the throat on the first page and held till the last, with the certainty that the most incredible events are indeed happening, because we see them and experience them.”
And this may well be said of Ted Hughes’ overall handling of the mythic material in his poetry. The myths provide a symbolism which is expressive of Hughes’ various interpretations of human experiences, the questions about life and death that confront most intelligent men at one period of their life or another. Hughes’ mythopoeic imagination weaves these questions into a narrative fabric which becomes polysignificant and therefore rich poetry.

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