By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Prominent themes in Hughes’ poetry include: nature, especially the struggle for survival that is inherent within nature, as well as myth (he was a devotee of Robert Graves’ 1948 book The White Goddess, which argued for a mythical basis for poetic inspiration, centred on the triple goddess of maiden-mother-crone) and war (his father’s experience fighting in the First World War left a profound mark on Hughes).
This partly explains why nature, for Hughes, is often treated in warlike terms: if not the greatest nature poet England has ever produced (some would argue that John Clare should take that mantle), Hughes is certainly the greatest nature poet writing about the natural world as a Darwinian theatre of cruelty and brutality. Of course, he also celebrates the power and awe of nature too.
With this in mind, it’s perhaps best to think of Hughes’ work as being about survival, first and foremost. In ‘Snowdrop’ (1960), the flower flourishes even before the winter has given way to spring, and despite the harsh and unpromising surroundings; in Crow (1970), the trickster-figure of Crow is famously ‘stronger than Death’.
After he graduated from Cambridge in 1954, Hughes had held a number of jobs, including rose gardener, night-watchman, dishwasher at the cafeteria in London Zoo, and reader for J. Arthur Rank. Working at London Zoo gave Hughes the opportunity to observe the behaviour and appearance of a wide variety of animals, and this clearly informs his work.
Myth and Religion
But whilst his early work from, say, the publication of The Hawk in the Rain in 1957 until Wodwo in 1967 is primarily focused on nature (with myth and religion being secondary), there is a shift in the late 1960s, while Hughes is working on Crow – a volume which, as Hughes’ biographer Jonathan Bate has shown, Hughes viewed as an ‘anti-Bible’ which replaced Christianity with another belief system, a new myth based on pagan influences, blood, and the wilder aspects of nature.
Crow is also, formally, a very different kind of work from the poems in Hughes’ earlier collections, closer to the free-verse experiments of the modernists, and to the psalm-like structure of Biblical verses, than the traditional stanzas (albeit with Hughes’ trademark use of pararhyme) which we find in Lupercal, for instance.
This interest in religion – and in challenging organised religion by ambitiously trying to come up with a whole mythology of Hughes’ own creation – continued into the 1970s in works like Gaudete, with its emphasis on free love (practised, controversially, by a man of the cloth). Hughes’ later work returns to the form and themes of his earlier career in many ways.
Specifically, it is the individual’s survival that matters the most for Hughes, and this is what we see again and again in his poetry: Crow is an individual, the snowdrop is notably singular in that poem, and the hawk that speaks in ‘Hawk Roosting’ is solitary. Solitariness and individuality are far more common in a Hughes poem than collective or group-belonging.
It’s the individual’s survival, often against the odds, that exercises his imagination. Tellingly, this may also partly go back to his father: William Hughes was shot in the chest during the First World War, and only saved by the paybook in his breast pocket. Nowhere more clearly is this prominent theme seen than in Crow, which is to Hughes’ work what The Waste Land was to Eliot, not because it is necessarily his most accomplished work but because it is nevertheless his ‘masterpiece’, his truest and most powerful statement of his own distinctive vision and style.
To conclude this introduction to the major themes of Ted Hughes’ work, it’s worth echoing the question which Michael Schmidt poses in his brilliant study The Lives Of The Poets: is Ted Hughes a ‘nature’ poet in the traditional sense, or are his images of nature ‘symbolic enactments of human types and aggressions’?
In other words, is nature – whether a flower, a fish, a hawk, a fox, or a crow – ever ‘just’ itself in the work of Ted Hughes, or is it a symbol for something beyond the poem?
There are, after all, key poems which suggest that a fox is not just a fox in a Hughes poem – ‘The Thought-Fox’, for instance, shows this duality of nature in his work right from the beginning. Arguably, Hughes is a great nature poet because he is not ‘merely’ a nature poet – not that nature isn’t a sufficient topic for the purview of a poet, on its own.
But Hughes’ work spans a much vaster world than the theatre of animals and plants: it raises questions about human activity, from industrialisation to war to religion and much, much more besides.