An astonishing poem titled ‘A Disaster’ begins:
There came news of a word
He saw it bulldozing
Whole cities to rubble…
Its excreta poisoning seas
Its breath burning whole lands
To dusty char.
These cataclysmic events are observed by a bird, who records how the ‘word’ ‘drink[s] out all the people/till there were none left’, and laid waste the entire human civilisation. This vision of wasted cities and ruined civilisation, of the earth itself, appeared in an oddly titled volume, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow from Faber and Faber in 1970, by a poet more in the news for the dramatic suicide of his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath. Ted Hughes’ Crow poems, as they are now called, in the 50th anniversary year, are worth revisiting for their layered message in our current times.
Ted Hughes published his first major collection, Hawk in the Rain, in 1957. With brilliantly violent images of animals, the volume announced the arrival of a new voice in English poetry. Lupercal (1960), won the Hawthornden Prize (it includes Hughes’ most famous poem, ‘Hawk Roosting’). After Plath’s suicide in 1963 – that she was driven to it by Hughes is a belief held by many – he did not write poetry for over three years. The situation was rendered even more tragic by the 1969 suicide of Hughes’ lover, Assia Wevill. Letters reveal that Hughes wrote Crow in response to Plath’s death. Originally planned to conclude with the ecological message of the repair of the earth and the world, the deaths meant the Crow sequence remained unfinished.
Critics have traced multiple sources of Crow: in folklore, myth, psychoanalysis and the Bible. They see the Crow not only as an amalgamation of the trickster raven of the Haida and Tlingit tribes (Stuart Hirschberg) but also a shaman and the god of healing (Keith Sagar). It has been termed an ‘epic-folktale’.
Crow and Ecopoetry
Yvonne Reddick’s sustained examination of Hughes’ oeuvre in her Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet (2017) classifies him as an ecopoet, given the wealth of themes and representations of other-life in Hughes work.
First, Hughes presents Crow’s opening moments (in the first cycle before the volume, ‘Four Crow Poems’), in a wasteland, perhaps a post-apocalyptic world:
The abandoned world
Among abandoned utilities
Exposed to infinity forever
Crow had to start searching for something to eat.
His ‘kingdom’, writes Hughes, ‘is empty’ and he can only ‘reign over silence’. In ‘A Disaster’, the devastation is detailed, where the word eats up the world. The ‘word’ represents society and human civilisation.
Hughes’ birds (in Crow but also in the collection, Cavebirds) and animals link the sky and earth but more importantly, they communicate with other lifeforms and non-living matter on the earth as well. The emphasis on the linkages and conversations, the connections and the vast variety of animals in Hughes has led commentator Margaret Dickie to speak of the poetry as embodying ‘the voice of the naturalist cataloguing’.
It attempts a biography of Crow, but gives Crow a voice (this leads many to accuse Hughes of being antihumanist). Some of the poems describe Crow from the outside in the third person, and other poems have Crow as the speaker commenting on the world. Crow is confident and arrogant. He claims he is stronger than even Death in ‘Examination at the Womb-Door’:
Who is stronger than hope? Death.
Who is stronger than the will? Death.
Stronger than love? Death.
Stronger than life? Death.
But who is stronger than Death? Me, evidently.
Crow’s arrogance comes through in ‘Crow and Mama’ as well, where:
When Crow cried his mother’s ear
Scorched to a stump.
When he laughed she wept
Blood her breasts her palms her brow all wept blood.
But at the end of the poem, like any baby, he has to hide under his mother’s protection. Hughes thus gives Crow a character. Hughes’ poetry indexes a ‘biological Fall’, writes David Troupes: “Hughes posits that the emergence of the modern human species effectively exiled us from the perfectly divine reality of our animal existence …”
For critical animal studies, Hughes’ vision evidently offers much, especially when Crow begins to acquire a conscience and a sense of humanity’s history. In ‘Crow’s Nerve Fails’, Crow ‘finds his every feather the fossil of a murderer’. He decides that he is the murderer. The poem concludes with:
He cannot be forgiven.
His prison is the earth.
As the collection progresses, notes Reddick, there are poems about Nature’s survival. In ‘Crow’s Undersong’ Nature is cast, stereotypically, as Mother. But this is the only hope left. Hughes concludes:
If there had been no hope she would not have come
(And there would have been no crying in the city)
The parenthesis is actually a reminder, an alert, to the human race. Part of the poem but also external to it, more like a corrective inserted as a note/footnote, Hughes’ message is clear.
Language of Trauma
Hughes’ language has always been accused of being too violent. Note, for instance, his famous ‘Hawk Roosting’:
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot
Then, moving on, Hughes gives us Hawk’s character in more detail:
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly –
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads –
The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.
We find the above image echoing in a Crow poem, ‘A Horrible Religious Error’:
But Crow only peered.
Then took a step or two forward,
Grabbed this creature by the slackskin nape,
Beat the hell out of it, and ate it.
In the Crow poems, belligerence and attitude is embodied in the language used to describe Crow:
Words came with Life Insurance policies – Crow feigned dead.
Words came with warrants to conscript him – Crow feigned mad.
Words came with blank cheques –
He drew Minnie Mice on them.
(‘The Battle of Osfrontalis’)
But Crow also needs the language of violence, anguish and trauma to describe what he sees. In ‘Crow Alights’, he has to confront ‘the horrors of Creation’. In ‘Crow Sickened’, Crow battles Death and finds:
Walked into his ambush
Was always his own body.
With all his strength he struck. He felt the Blow.
Horrified, he fell.
When Crow sings a ‘Song of Himself’, everything in Creation is the result of God having dealt with Crow in a certain way. When God ‘crushed’ Crow, He made alcohol, when He ‘roasted’ Crow, He made diamonds. So much so that when He buried Crow, God made man, and when He tried to ‘chop Crow in two’, woman was made. God gives up and says ‘you win, Crow’. The poem ends with:
When God went off in despair
Crow stropped his beak and started in on the two thieves.
In ‘Magical Dangers’, anything Crow dreams about or imagines, produces injury. When he thinks of a ‘fast car’, it ‘plucked his spine out’, when he thinks of a soft bed, ‘it blindfolds him with silk’. It ends with: ‘Crow/Never again moved’.
Poems such as these cause Danny O’Connor to propose that the Crow poems are instantiations of a private trauma and severe grief. Later, Crow will develop his own language, although the violence is still immanent:
Reality was giving its lesson,
Its mishmash of scripture and physics,
With here, brains in hands, for example,
And there, legs in a treetop.
Here, Crow has neither empathy nor sympathy with the quantum of human destruction, and implicitly signals Nature’s and the natural world’s indifference to human fate.
Nihilism or Laughter?
Often, however, Hughes’s language blurs the line between violence and the carnivalesque, rendering the former into a kind of excess that is hard to believe or even take seriously. ‘In Laughter’ begins with ‘Cars collide and erupt baggage and babies/In laughter’. When a plane crashes, ‘people’s arms and legs fly off and fly on again/In laughter’. Laughter, says Hughes, ‘scampers around on centipede boots’.
These kinds of images may be disturbing as excessive violence, death, mutilation and suffering are made the subject of Black Humour. But as Patrick Jackson notes, citing Hughes’ own descriptor of Crow as ‘defiant and creative’: “The comic aspects of the poems can certainly produce laughter that means to tear down, but they can also produce laughter that is the seed of joy and healing.”
A dark portrait of human science and experimentation is also made the subject of such an approach. St George undertakes several empirical experience in ‘Crow’s Account of St George’. After the scientist St George has split cells and decimated monsters (by ‘bifurcat[ing] it’), he ‘drops the sword and runs dumb-faced from the house/where his wife and children lie in their blood’: he has killed not monsters, but his family. Crow’s perception is about the rigorous but ultimately futile exercise of the human project to decode the world. Numbers cascade and multiply as St George sets about interpreting them. Crow, who sees St George chase after these ‘truths’ interprets the acts as futile.
Crow remains Ted Hughes’ greatest achievement. Though he published many volumes after this, including the celebrated Birthday Letters – Paul Keegan in the Preface to the Collected Poems (2003) notes that ‘many of Hughes’ poems were written “within hearing” of children’ – essays, stage collaborations, translations and others, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow developed his vision fully, if one can ever claim a poet’s vision is complete. Bringing together ecology, humanity, science, war and the possible destruction of the world as we know it in a brilliant series of poems, Ted Hughes with Crow carved for himself the status of a great poet.
In the face of desolation, despair and interminable emptiness, what does/can one do? Crow gives the answer in the last line of ‘Two Legends’, the opening poem of Crow:
To hatch a crow, a black rainbow
Bent in emptiness
Crow is still flying.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)
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