Ted Hughes, born in 1930 in Yorkshire, decided early on to reject all the major currents of the civilisation he was born into. His desire was to find and develop another way of being, of relating not just to nature but to the larger, the cosmic world. To pursue this he studied and recommended shamanism, explored the cabbala, used the ouija board, practised hypnotism and certain kinds of meditation, and performed invocations and summonings. He absorbed very fully the work of Jung and The White Goddess by Robert Graves. As poet laureate he thought that the English were a people, possibly a tribe, that would be incomplete without its sacred head, the monarch. In the actual long historical drive of the English and the other parts of Britain towards individuality and democracy he showed no interest at all. In fact he thought all that had been a mistake. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment meant nothing to him. The massive darkness at work in the century he lived in, as expressed in Communism and Nazism, he does not deal with or refer to, though he wrote a considerable amount of prose. He said that what he wanted was the elemental, the non-human, to find ‘a divinity in the darkness’, and he sought means to make such connections. Quite how far he went, what his actual practises were are not, as far as I have seen, fully known or described. But hints and references are everywhere in his poetry and prose, particularly in Birthday Letters.
You could say that, basically, what he wanted to do was magic. Although Hughes himself and his critical supporters say that the point of the shamanic journey is to undergo deep rending change and bring back healing knowledge, Ted Hughes, despite all his recorded agonies, did neither. He did not succeed in his atavistic quest, and there was no chance that he could have. At the heart of his endeavour was a refusal to be a conscious modern person, alive in a complex of potentials, forces and influences that can be investigated and accepted or rejected. Resolutely his whole life, with all the determination of a powerful personality, he pursued a path that doesn’t go anywhere good any more. As a result he got into deep trouble. His poetry expresses the hell of it from his first to his last days.
What makes Hughes worth writing about is the fact that he was in one way a tremendous poet. His capacity to express his inner life and the influences he was subject to in vivid imagery and symbol is phenomenal. The fact that he didn’t understand or that he wrongly interpreted what he was putting down on paper is another issue. The view that he gives into the darkness and the power and forces at work in human life in our time is not available anywhere else that I know of. Another matter of importance is that the meaning of what his poetry actually contains has been recognised by hardly anyone. The reason for that is that the intellectual and literary class of Britain and America is very largely Darwinian, materialist and atheist. It is one of the wonders of our time that they maintain this position while displaying real interest in literature, ideas, and culture generally. How do they reconcile these two things, materialism and the realm of ideas and meaning? Well, they don’t. They do not make that effort. As a result they can’t see or interpret what is before their eyes. That also is an effect of darkness.
The twentieth century saw dark ideologies take over or attempt to take over whole continents. We had Nazism and Marxism, the atavistic eruption of Japan into the world. Those forces were either defeated physically or have now collapsed. The powers that inspired them have not gone away. What I call, for simplicity’s sake, ‘the darkness’ desires to close down the world, to abort the human venture, which cannot proceed except in freedom. The violent revolutionary wing of Islam is now one of the bearers of that force. Their programme and actions proceed from inner nightmare. They are not alone of course. The British and American governments, for example, have also committed blind criminal folly. It’s not my job to recount the daily news, though I will point briefly here at the barrenness of contemporary art, the blood and weirdness in our werewolf, zombie, monster and alien movies. These things and other such are not random. They rise from a certain configuration of being that we are in. This is a specific time in our evolution. Through the work of Hughes and others and selections from my own writing I attempt to characterise some features of it. Bon voyage!
For many people who may only have read some anthology pieces Ted Hughes is probably thought of as a poet of wild nature, of vivid natural life. I bring in some quotations here to show the range of what we are dealing with in his work.
‘Peter Orr asked Hughes: ‘Is there a consistent ‘you’. . . Hughes replied: ‘Not really, no. I tend to suspect that my poems are written by about three different spirits’.’ (1963)
‘From the beginning Hughes is searching for a way of reconciling human vision with the energies, powers, presences, of the non-human cosmos.’
Keith Sagar, The Art Of Ted Hughes, p4,
‘The subject was suggested to Hughes by an Ouija board. ‘The Ouija spirit liked poetry…and one hot day wrote a poem about ‘a cool little spirit that wanted to live in the bottom of icebergs’ ….The second part virtually wrote itself and seemed to Hughes to be the Ouija spirit’s revision of the first part – and very much better.’ Ibid, p39
‘What do I know about truth? As if simple-minded dedication to truth were the final law of existence. I only know more and more clearly what is good for me. It’s my mind that has this contemptible awe for the probably true, and my mind, I know, I prove it every minute, is not me and is by no means sworn to help me….But those others! I relax for a moment….and they are in complete possession. They plunge into me mercilessly, exultantly. There is no question of their intention or of their power….The strength melts from me, my bowels turn to water, my consciousness darkens and shrinks . . . .’
‘Snow’ (story) from Wodwo, ‘67
‘I’m always aware, when I’ve ‘finished’ a piece, of being utterly defeated and excluded — as if I’d been shoved aside by somebody I do not like one bit. Yet it seems to be the only way I can do it.’ (from a letter to editor William Scammell, Nov 1990, Hughes age 60, in Introduction to Winter Pollen, collection of Hughes’ prose)
Hughes quoted: ‘Any form of violence – any form of vehement activity – invokes the bigger energy, the elemental power circuit of the Universe’.
Art TH, p32
‘These were the months when Ted hypnotized her so that she could sleep, months when he made lists of possible subjects for her to write poems about…… ‘(They) were also the months of trying Ted’s exercises: deep-breathing, concentration on objects. Hypnosis was another way of reaching remote layers of consciousness: it was practised by both Ted and Sylvia.
Linda W. Wagner-Martin Simon and Schuster p 165
‘He has said that he thinks of his jaguar poems not only as descriptions of the animal but also as ‘invocations of a jaguar-like body of elemental force, demonic force. It is my belief that symbols of this sort work’ ‘
‘New art awakens our resistance in so far as it proposes changes and inversions, some new order, liberates what has been repressed, lets in too early whiffs of an unwelcome future. But when this incidental novelty has been overtaken or canonised, some other unease remains…..An immanence of something dreadful, almost (if one dare say it) something unhuman. The balm of great art is desirable and might even be necessary, but it seems to be drawn from the depths of an elemental grisliness, a ground of echoless cosmic horror.’ Hughes, Winter Pollen, p91
Now I know I never shall
Be let stir.
The man I fashioned and the god I fashioned
Dare not let me stir.
Prometheus On His Crag’ p285,CP
Hughes, writing to Ann Sexton on the danger of favourable reviews: ‘They separate you from your devil, which hates being observed.’
(from review of Hughes Letters by David Orr, New York Times 16 11 08)
‘…(Ted Hughes) had easy, immediate access to the sources of his inspiration, a permanently open hot line to his unconscious. Over the years, he kept the line open through a weird mishmash of astrology, black magic, Jungian psychology, Celtic myth and pagan superstition, and he encouraged Sylvia to do the same. Her sensibility was different from his – more urban and intellectual, more nerves than instincts – so a belief in shamans, ouija boards and the baleful influence of the stars didn’t come naturally to her.
But she was a fast learner and high achiever; anything he could do, she could do better. She was also determined to break through, as he had done, to the inner demons that would make her write the poems she knew she had in her. But when she did, the ghouls she released were malign. They helped her write great poetry, but they destroyed her marriage, then they destroyed her. (A. Alvarez: Ted, Sylvia and me, Observer, Sunday Jan 4, 2004 – Google it)
We will be dealing throughout the book with the themes introduced above. But for now, at least we know who we have with us on the ship.