Towards a Description & Defence of Ted Hughes' Crow
(All page references are to the enlarged second edition of Crow,
published by Faber & Faber, 1972)
The first time I heard the harsh notes of Ted Hughes' Crow was in the small batch of his poems which appeared in the Summer 1970 issue of The Critical Quarterly. Of course, Ted Hughes, noted for his animal poems, had written about birds, including crows, before, but the bird in these new poems was of a very different feather! I didn't quite know what to make of them. In October of the same year, when a whole book of such poems was published, it became clear that Hughes had entered a fresh phase of his poetic career. Reading through the volume for the first time was an exciting experience, full of surprises, but I was still somewhat perplexed. However, the poems were obviously important, so, with heroic determination, like Poe's corvo-phobic persona,
I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore,
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
A useful clue was provided by an article in Critical Quarterly (Spring 1971) called 'Crow and the cartoons'. In it, David Lodge pointed out that Crow, while being deeply traditional, also employs some of the techniques and conventions of the animated and the strip cartoon. I found this way of describing and making sense of the book most revealing.
The second, latest edition (1972) contains seven extra poems, and it is to this that I refer. There's no reason why the volume shouldn't continue to grow, as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal did (Hughes has been influenced by both). It may be very much a work in progress. This needs stressing, because, to my mind, the new poems significantly modify one's impression of Crow.
One of these poems, 'Crow Tries the Media' (p46), sheds light on he book as a whole. Here, I think, its eponymous 'hero', Crow, speaks for Ted Hughes. He confronts the problem of every contemporary poet. Namely, what and how is he going to write? He wants to be the pure lyric poet, all sweetness and light:
'He wanted to sing about her'
'He wanted to sing very clear'
'He wanted to sing to her soul simply'
But he is prevented from doing so, by the pressures of his situation:
'this tank had been parked on his voice
And his throat nipped between the Roman Emperor's finger and thumb'
'His tongue moved like a poisoned estuary
His voice reverberated like the slow millstone of London
Raising a filthy haze,'
The poet inescapably faces things like war, imperialism, capitalism, pollution, and, if he is honest, should respond to them. This is what Hughes is doing in Crow.
'Crow's Account of the Battle' (p26-7) renders the horrors of war as pitiful as Wilfred Owen could (the 1st World War is actually referred to in 'Crow Improvises', p64: 'he took the battle of the Somme in one hand'). There is no wallowing in sadism (which Hughes detractors often fault him with), rather the poem is a protest against it. The poem's undeniable violence is by no means gratuitous. One is meant to recoil. To Hughes, war is no smiling matter: 'nobody smiled'. An even more horrific vision of war is presented in the apocalyptic 'Notes for a Little Play' (p86). The poem may refer to a natural catastrophe, but it also seems to be about the possibility of global 'demolition' by the Bomb. It describes a time when the only living things would be 'Mutations - at home in the nuclear glare'.
'A Disaster' (p33) is an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the environment by pollution ('excreta poisoning seas', 'breath' or toxic fumes 'burning whole lands/ To dusty char') which feeds on the people that create it, till there are 'none left':
'All that remained of it a brittle desert
Dazzling with the bones of earth's people'
Crow is the only survivor of the holocaust. He 'muses' in the aftermath. Alvarez' description of Hughes as a 'survivor-poet' (in the dust-jacket quotation from his review of Crow) is indeed appropriate and revealing.
Hughes is also a 'nature poet'. He can render a natural scene in lucid precise detail:
He saw this shoe, with no sole, rain-sodden,
Lying on a moor.
And there was this garbage can, bottom rusted away,
A playing place for the wind, in a waste of puddles.
(Crow Alights', p21)
Perhaps not a natural scene that Wordsworth would have confronted, but one with which a contemporary reader may be familiar. Hughes is writing about an environment that is being polluted, a world where people damage nature. The heron has to labour clear of 'the Bessemer upglare' ('Crow and the Birds', p37) The Garden of Eden has become a Waste Land.
Hughes is involved in the suffering of the world he describes. In 'A Bedtime Story' (p71-2), the hero sits down 'to write his autobiography', but fails. It is not far-fetched to see Crow as Hughes' attempt to come o terms with his own personal experience. For instance, 'Criminal Ballad' (p38) describes the life of a man that could be Hughes himself. First, there is birth and childhood. Other poems also explore this territory: 'A Kill', 'Crow and Mama', 'Revenge Fable' describe with a good deal of Freudianism the pain of birth, growing up, and leaving the family. Then, there is love, sex and marriage. Hughes's ambivalent attitude to woman is perhaps most explicitly expressed in 'Fragment of an Ancient Tablet' (p85). The sexual act itself can seem nightmarishly aggressive as in "Lovesong' (p88-9), but in 'Notes for a Little Play' (p86) it is shown as a celebration, 'a strange dance'. In 'A Childish Prank" (p19), sex is seen as painful but also a necessary movement towards reintegration and healing (the worm joining again). The 'seven-year honeymoon' referred to in 'Crow Improvises' (p64 - 5) is probably a reference to Hughes' marriage to Sylvia Plath (from 1956-63). Perhaps she is 'the woman of complete pain' in 'Criminal Ballad' (p38-9). Hughes' guilt-feeling about her suicide makes him seem like a murderer: 'His hands covered with blood suddenly'. He is prevented from enjoying even the happy spontaneity of his children playing, by the impingement of outside horrors (like 'machine guns') on his consciousness. (This again stresses why Hughes doesn't write more 'happy' poems.) His reaction is to try to escape, to run away into the symbolic wood (students of Dante note). This motif recurs in several of the poems - see, for instance, 'Crow's First Lesson' (p20, 'Crow flew guiltily off'), 'Crow's Account of St. George' (p31-2, he 'runs dumb-faced from the house') and 'Crow and the Sea' (p82, 'He turned his back and he marched away from the sea'). This retreat from the situation may be a necessary part of artistic detachment, but to remain in good faith the writer must come to terms with it. Hughes doesn't evade issues. The usual, first reaction to the dark, unpleasant side of life is to despair and lament; 'he sat weeping'. But then there may be a movement towards positive defiance, perhaps the rebirth of a desperate hope, perhaps only a defence-reaction: 'he began to laugh'.
After so much weeping, like water, you may have 'no weeping left' (p93), you are 'too exhausted to weep', 'too hurt to weep' (p27). So you may as well laugh instead, this is Hughes' attitude in many of the poems. If you don't laugh, you cry. Weeping and laughter repeatedly occur in conjunction (pps 17, 39, 64, 67, 93). The two may merge and become indistinguishable (especially at the limits of hysteria and ecstasy); 'He bellows laughter till the tears come' ('Crow's Battle Fury', p67). Crow does a lot of laughing (pps 17, 19, 23, 36, 67). But there comes a time when the laughing has to stop. Laughter is
And finally it's had enough - enough!'
('In Laughter', p48-9)
I think Hughes is suggesting that the sane and healthy response to life is a balance of laughter and weeping.
Among the handful of Crow poems first printed in Critical Quarterly, and later conspicuous by it's omission from the book, is one called 'SONG OF WOE'. The poem, though about woe as the title suggests, arrives at a final hardwon optimism:
his woe struggled out of him
With a terrific cry
Staring after the earth
And stood out there in front of him,
His howling transfigured double.
And he was rid of it.
And he wept with relief,
With joy, laughing, he wept*-
And at last, tear by tear,
Something came clear.
[*Here again laughter and weeping together.]
The writing or 'howling' (to use Hughes' own word, redolent of King Lear and Ginsberg) of the Crow poems could thus be seen as a therapeutic process for the artist, and for us if we allow ourselves to identify with him. This is the classic cathartic effect.
After all the woe and weeping, something comes 'clear', at the end of Crow also. In the second of the 'Two Eskimo Songs' (p93), Hughes describes "HOW WATER BEGAN TO PLAY':
It came weeping back it wanted to die
Till it had no weeping left
It lay at the bottom of all things
Utterly worn out utterly clear
The last line reminds me of the final quiet optimism of Samson Agonistes: 'calm of mind, all passion spent'.
Hughes' final optimism isn't brash and frivolous; it has been arrived at with difficulty and is therefore all the more meaningful. To pretend that everything looks rosy is to be guilty of blind optimism, because there are quite obviously 'fleurs du mal' besides, (and what few specimens of rose there are also have thorns0! Hughes, however, acknowledges all the darkness, but ultimately affirms the light. Perhaps he isn't yet sure of it, there are still shadows in his vision.
As if to emphasise this, the last poem in the book is profoundly ambiguous. The jarring, some would say marring, couplet in that beautiful and strangely emotive lyric, 'Littleblood' (p94), is significantly the intrusion of death into the picture:
Grown so wise grown so terrible
Sucking death's mouldy tits.
On closer examination, the idea of death can be seen to be prefigured in many of the words and images, for instance: 'wounded', 'medical', 'carcase'. Death is inherent in life - represented by the harvest-image. Significantly, the harvest is of inanimate things, 'wind' and 'stones'. The ambiguity of blood as a symbol (blood is supporter of life, but its shedding means death) is appropriate for a poem about the death-in-life/ life-in-death paradox. The mother's breasts ('tits') are usually associated with new life, but here they belong to death. Even the final line is equivocal (blood on a finger may be a wound) but I think there is affirmation of life & hope:
Sit on my finger, sing in my ear, O littleblood.
Hughes can still talk of singing. The songs of Crow however harsh to ears accustomed to the skylark are nonetheless songs, proof against conspiring deathly silence.
In 'Crow Tyrannosaurus' (p24-5), Hughes through Crow 'fearfully' sees the world as dukkha. Life involves death:
Creation quaked voices -
It was a cortege
Of mourning and lament
The relativity and interrelatedness of everything and the consequent suffering (from the viewpoint of self-centered subjective isolation) are conveyed by a nightmare escalation in which insects are eaten by a bird which is food for a cat which a dog eats. Man is seen as 'a walking/Abattoir/ Of innocents'. We eat to stay alive, but to eat we have to kill, (and we in turn provide food for worms). Perhaps one should try to 'drop out' of this inevitable cruelty:
To stop eating
And try to become the light?
But it is natural to eat when hungry, almost a reflex action. Suffering and death is a trap which Crow cannot seem to escape (Just as Oedipus cannot escape his fate in 'Song for a Phallus'. P75-7). Crow has to stab the grub, simply because he is Crow. At first, he is aware of the suffering involved: 'he heard weeping', and sympathetically weeps himself. But, paradoxically, this very weeping improves the eyesight that enables him to kill and makes himdeaf to the suffering involved:
Thus came the eye's
Fallen man (Crow, like Man, is fallen, see 'Crow's all', p36) is helplessly trapped in absurdity and duality, till he becomes the light.
Becoming the light is a real possibility. Crow could be considered a type of Pilgrim progressing towards enlightenment. Birth (which, paradoxically, is decribed in 'A Kill', p16) involves a separation from oneness with the universe ('his roots tearing out/ Of the bedrock atom') into separative existence with its egoic sense of subjective isolation and suffering, a fall into duality, black and white. 'Crow's Fall' (p36) tells us that Crow was white once, but black and white are interchangeable opposites. Fighting the white sun, he becomes black, but 'Up there white is black, and black is white'.
In "Crowcolour' (p66), his colour is described as 'like the sun, / Blacker/ than any blindness'. The Fall can be undone, and duality can be transcended, by seeing the opposites as mutually dependent. The darkness of the poems holds an eye of light, as in the figure of yin and yang. Crow will indeed 'become the light'. In 'Crow Hears Fate knock on the Door' (p23), an end to his apartness and egoic isolation is prophesied:
I WILL MEASURE IT ALL AND OWN IT ALL
AND I WILL BE INSIDE IT
AS INSIDE MY OWN LAUGHTER*
AND NOT STARING OUT AT IT THROUGH WALLS
OF MY EYE'S COLD QUARANTINE
[*According to a Zen Master, when people become enlightened, they have a good laugh about it!]
As the Buddhist saying goes, 'the Universe grows I.
But before that happens, ignorance must be exchanged for self-knowledge. Like the black Jonathan Livingstone Seagull he is, Crow certainly learns. In 'Crow's First Lesson' (p20), God tries 'to teach Crow how to talk', in particular how to 'say Love'. The poem reveals how inadequate Crow's understanding of the word "Love' is. For instance, love has been degraded into a synonym for aggressive dominance-related sex: God says love and 'woman's vulva dropped over man's neck and tightened'. Also raised is the problem of how to reconcile a loving God with the apparently senseless cruelty of things like diseases ('bluefly, tsetse, mosquito'). Crow faces this problem more directly in 'Crow's Theology' (p35). Hughes raises an issue similar to Blake when he asks of the tyger 'Did he who made the Lamb make thee' (such comparison is revealing, for the Crow poems could be considered as Hughes' Songs of Experience). At this stage, Crow still cannot see that the answer is yes and that cosmic love seems ruthless from the dualistic viewpoint. He cannot imagine that the same God loves Crow and 'shot-pellets', he cannot say the word 'love' and mean it as God does.
Instead, he flies 'guiltily off'. In 'Crow's Nerve Fails' (p47), his guilt-feeling is further emphasized. Crow feels guilty of murder (for instance, the murder involved in eating, of 'Crow Tyrannosaurus'). He 'tries to remember his crimes', but who knows what the original sin was? Hughes gives at least five versions of the circumstances of the Fall (eg 'A Childish Prank', 'A Horrible Religious Error', 'Crow's Fall', 'Apple Tragedy', 'Snake Hymn'). Crow is his guilt: 'How can he fly away from his feathers?' It is as absurd as Crow looking for the Black Beast (p28), which is none other than himself, or a projection of his guilt. To lose his guilt, he must lose himself, be included in something larger, 'inside it' all, in the words of the prophecy.
In seeking the Black Beast, Crow is trying to be the monster-slaying hero. He gives an account of a real one - St George (p31), but his version of heroism falls far short of the Christian ideal. Like St. George, Crow challenges and fights (for instance, in 'The Battle of Osfrontalis' p34, 'Crow's Fall' p36, 'Crow sickened' p74, 'Truth Kills Everybody' p83). In 'Crow's Fall' (p36), Crow the anti-hero sees himself as hero, in the same way as Milton's Satan does, but he too falls for challenging heaven. (In many myths, the sun is identified with the hero par excellence). Hughes' critique of inadequate versions of heroism is continued in 'Crowego' (p61) with its mention of previous mythological heroes (Ulysses, Hercules, Beowulf). The title is revealing. It is precisely Crow's ego that prevents him from achieving true heroism. At times, Crow seems to be pure ego. He is Max Stirner's anarchist, 'Flying the black flag of himself' (Crow Blacker than ever', p69). Crow has to lose himself to find the true Self.
Crow gets a glimpse of the truth in 'Crow Communes' (p30). The poem, perhaps partly a satire on the idea of the eucharist, catches Crow eating a bit of God and taking on Divine knowledge and power, after asking for instruction. Crow is described as a 'hierophant', and is 'half-illumined' (a continuation of the 'becoming-the-light' image of 'Crow Tyrannosaurus', p24). Crow will realize truth wholly, as the title "Truth Kills Everybody' (p83) indicates. In that poem, Crow suffers a symbolic death when he is 'blasted to nothing' ('symbolic' should be stressed, for in the very next poem, 'Crow and Stone', p84, Crow is described as'he who never has been killed'). The death of the old ego is followed by the rebirth of the new self, Crow 'is only just born'.
In 'Glimpse' (p90), the next and final poem that Crow appears in, he attains full enlightenment. Crow, in lyric mood, is just singing about leaves, when suddenly the word meets the object it denotes, as 'a leaf's edge' touches his throat. This spontaneously accidental instant of pure apprehension of concrete reality is 'the zen moment' for Crow. The poem is ambiguous: he may or may not be actually guillotined and therefore killed. The important point is that he now sees through 'the god's head'. But, as the Tao Te Ching says, he who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak. When Crow was only 'half-illumined' (p30), he became 'speechless', now 'speechles' again he seems silenced for good (a wise not a despairing silence). What more can Hughes say? What more can I say? As They (the Chinese philosopher) say at the end of the cartoons: That's All Folks!
(Written in quill of Crow's feather)
this freely available to one &
all. Share as you like.
If you find this page interesting, entertaining or useful (choose your epithet),
please consider making a donation via