The Poet as a Myth-Maker
According to a critic, John West, a myth may be regarded as “archaic superstition.” Every poet, says this critic, is a myth-maker or a person who renames the world by re-ordering familiar words or making new ones. By putting words, words with new meanings, together, a poet may articulate mythic utterances in his poems. For instance, in the poem The Hawk in the Rain, Hughes has brought together the extraordinary experience of the hawk’s eye and the man struggling through mud in the plough-land.
The poet here performs a mythic task in the sense that, through this poem, he seeks to bridge Nature’s tremendous power and the human weakness of a man plodding through mud. In this way, both mythic naming and mythic narrative aim to join man and experience, and to challenge, accommodate, or heal, the sense of exclusion provoked by the hawk’s eye.
Hughes’s Reasons for Making Use of Myths in His Poetry
Hughes has himself tried to throw some light on the reason why he has had recourse to myths in his poetry. He has said that the human mind has been rejecting religion as a fraud because of the advances made by scientific knowledge, and that the human mind has in modern times, been discarding the inner world of man as a bundle of fairy tales and as a relic of primeval superstitions. Without religion, the energies of instinct and feeling in man have become dehumanized, and the whole inner world has become elemental, chaotic, more primitive, beyond our control. The result of all this, according to Hughes, is a culture out of touch with Nature, or in touch with Nature in only a very narrow way. Thus Nature becomes, beyond this narrow conception, elemental, chaotic, and dangerous. In a sense, this is how Nature appears through the hawk’s eye. Freudian psychology, says Hughes, cures mentally sick persons by bringing into their conscious minds what had been repressed by them and what had, therefore, travelled down into their subconscious minds where it works havoc. The best way to bring the submerged feelings, thoughts, or desires into the conscious mind is to give them some shape so that they can become a part of their conscious lives and play an active part in their personalities. This can be done by means of a fantasy, that is, by means of stories and poems. In other words, by telling stories or writing poems which are a form of fantasizing, the devil dwelling in the subconscious minds can be tamed. In Hughes’s poem, the hawk’s eye represents that devil. Myth is thus the objectified story of a psychic healing, or a taming of the devil. The use of myth aims at either expelling or accommodating some evil, such as the alienation of mind and body, or the cruel stare of Nature. The poet, according to Hughes, is the heater of the community as well as himself. The poet is a medicine-man, or a “shaman,” using myths to accomplish his mission of healing or of dispelling fear or a sense of danger or a feeling of insecurity from the minds of human beings. And the poet restores not only others to mental health and not only enables others to achieve mental equilibrium and tranquility, but helps himself also to do the same.
Myth-Making in Animal Poems
Many of the animal poems written by Hughes are not merely poems about animals, in the sense of depicting particular traits of those animals, especially the violent and fierce nature of most animals. In some of these animal poems, we find Hughes’s mythopoeic or myth-making imagination at work. The poem entitled The Horses is apparently a description of the stillness of the horses in the midst of the intensity of cold early in the morning. The stillness of the horses indicates the power of endurance of these animals in the face of the savagery of Nature in the form of intense cold. But the poem may also be interpreted as a kind of myth to convey an idea which is more important than the mere spirit of endurance of the horses. We may regard this poem as having been written in the apocalyptic mode. The speaker in the poem is depicted as emerging from the evil air and from a frost-making stillness to a vision of the sudden dawn which is the objective correlative of his own anarchic feelings. In other words, Hughes has here created a myth of his own in order to give vent to his chaotic feelings and thus to achieve, if possible, a mental and emotional equilibrium. In some of the animal poems, Hughes creates myths in order to emphasize the undesirability of crushing the instincts. In The Jaguar and Esther’s Tomcat, and in other poems depicting caged or semi-domesticated carnivores in his bestiary, Hughes offers images of a lost world of the instincts which he associates with a primordial ethos of cruelty, superstition, and barbarous grandeur of speech and gesture. In Pike, An Otter, and February, the self is drawn in fascination to this world, and yet at the same time struggles to preserve the poise exemplified in a poem like To Paint a Water Lily. One way of maintaining a balance and averting the return of emotional repression is the distancing irony which allows Hughes to dissociate himself from the pretensions, for example, of the hawk in the poem Hawk Roosting. The hawk here is a creature whose smugness is acutely caught in the boast with which the poem ends:
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.
The Purpose of the Myth in the Poem The Hawk in the Rain
Turning to The Hawk in the Rain once again, we note that this poem is one sustained and uncomfortable encounter between a revealed force, made evident in the hawk’s “still eye,” and a mere human eye which recognizes, and feels intimidated by, the force which has been brought into a momentary focus. We note also how the stillness of the hawk’s eye is related to the man’s complex feeling of fascination or mental captivity rather than to his tranquility or natural equilibrium. The man in the poem is at once attracted and repelled by the hawk’s still eye, and imagines himself as the terrified victim of the hawk. In the last stanza, however, the future destruction of the hawk himself is described, so that the man in the poem emerges as the hawk’s equal, if not his superior. This means that the man’s reaction in the last stanza serves as an attempt to reverse and usurp the threatening stare of the natural world by imaginative means. Thus this poem, in which a myth about a hawk has been created, serves to give a struggling and scared human being a feeling of comfort and stability against the evil forces of Nature.
A Myth in the Poem, The Jaguar
The Jaguar is another poem in which a myth has been created to serve a similar purpose. The jaguar is here depicted as a wild and uncontrollable beast who completely disregards his captivity in a cage, and behaves as if his imprisonment were no imprisonment at all. The jaguar is depicted here as, above all, an energetic being whose eyes are “drills” and whose body chases the bars of his cage like a flame. The jaguar’s stare is a refusal to acknowledge or to be fettered by the external world. His eye is satisfied “to be blind in fire.” Then in the last stanza the jaguar is depicted as spinning the earth under his feet like a ball or a prayer wheel. The total effect of the poem is to make us acutely conscious of the jaguar’s terrific power. In fact, the whole poem is a dramatization of the power and force of this beast. But the psychological effect of the poem also is to liberate us from what is unnatural and unreal within ourselves. As we go through the poem, we feel that an encounter is taking place between ourselves, civilized as we are, and a fierce beast who seems to be superior to us in power and force but who, in fact, represents the power and the force which used to belong to us, and which still continues to exist outside us in the jaguar. Here then is a myth through which we become conscious of our own original strength and power by looking at a wild beast imprisoned in a cage. Such interpretations of the animal poems of Hughes may seem to be far-fetched; but there is enough basis for such interpretations, though we have to know a lot of psychology, especially the working of the conscious and the subconscious minds, to appreciate such interpretations.
A Complex Body of Mythological Material in “Cave Birds”
After “Crow,” Hughes’s volumes of poems entitled “Cave Birds” further illustrates his interest in myth. In this work Hughes manipulates a complex body of mythological material. The Oedipus myth figures prominently in the poems of this volume. The theme of the Oedipus myth is the mother-son love, that is, the reconciliation of opposites; spirit and matter, male and female, the conscious and the unconscious. It also implies the creation of a self from the divided halves of a psyche. This realization of a self is, at the same time, a realization of the totality of the nature of Godhead. Hughes himself said that the story of the mind exiled from nature (both inner and outer nature) is the story of the Western man, the story of his progressively more desperate search for mechanical and rational and symbolic props which will serve as a substitute for the spirit-confidence which he has lost. The basic myth for the ideal Westerner’s life, according to Hughes, is the quest for a marriage in the soul or a physical re-conquest because the lost life must somehow be recaptured. In the poem of “Cave Birds”, when the” honourable Platonist” has been disabused of all that civilization has collected in the way of hypotheses, the male and the female, formerly dead to each other, find and begin to recreate each other. And it is at this point that Hughes creates his images of an integrate psyche.
The Influence of Shamanism
The influence of shamanism on Hughes’s poetry also shows that Hughes has made use of ancient myths to suit his own purpose and to express his own ideas. As indicated at the very beginning, Hughes believed in the poet’s mission as a witch-doctor or a medicine-man. This belief of his was derived from the ancient practice of shamanism. The shaman was believed to be a man who, through a prolonged process of penance and rigorous self-control, sometimes including self-mutilation, gained the power to converse with the spirits of the dead. The shaman could then use his skill to cure those living persons who were physically or mentally sick and ailing. Hughes felt that a poet could emulate the example of the ancient shamans by writing his poems in such a way as to exercise morbid and unwholesome feelings from the hearts and minds of his readers. Thus Hughes regards shamanism as a force for equilibrium because it deals with the control and utilization of energy. It is, therefore, not surprising that 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,” But poems like this one, though expressions of elemental energy, are also invocations of the White Goddess (Nature-Goddess), invocations of a jaguar-like elemental force. Hughes regards such poems as having the power to summon and mobilize the energies of the reader. The poem Gog also belongs to this category. The shaman sometimes saw dreams in which he could understand mysteries that puzzled other people. Hughes also employs dreams or dream-like states in his poems in an effort to arrive at the truth. The poem Out is a prominent example of this sort of thing. Hughes is of the view that the great need of the times is to replace the myths of the Christian religion with a new myth; and, in order to achieve the new myth, one has to go back in time, and to make “secret flights” to antiquity and into one’s own mind. The further one probes one’s own mind, the closer one comes to the racial consciousness of the past ages. For the poet a major way of making the secret flight is through dreams. Pike is a dream-like poem about fishing in a “stilled legendary depth, as deep as England.” For Hughes, a positive result can be achieved even by merely having the dream, particularly in the modern cultural milieu in which people have given up dreams and replaced them with aspirations. The narrative poet according to Hughes, is like the shaman whose relating of a myth results in some display of healing power or a magical piece of information. The mythic incantation is central to the shamanic healer, and a mythic poem is central to a poet of Hughes’s type. Hughes’s poem entitled Childbirth (in the volume entitled “The Hawk in the Rain”) looks at birth through mythic spectacles. Hughes invests his poems with a dream-like quality, and these poems are often a product of a kind of reverie. Such a reverie on a cold winter’s night led to Hughes’s writing the poem The Thought-Fox. Other poems of the same kind include A Woman Unconscious and Relic. The poem called The Bear is a shamanic dream, as is the earlier long poem about a bear, The Brother’s Dream. Eskimo shamans often dreamed of bears during their search for knowledge. The first section of the poem called Out has even been given the title “The Dream Time.”