Ted Hughes (1930 – 1998) was a children’s writer who’s work I grew up with and as such, is very evocative to me and hold a firm place in my heart. As well as this, he served as poet laureate from 1984 to his death.
Hughes’ earlier poetic work is rooted in nature and, in particular, the innocent savagery of animals, an interest from an early age. He wrote frequently of the mixture of beauty and violence in the natural world. Animals serve as a metaphor for his view on life: animals live out a struggle for the survival of the fittest in the same way that humans strive for ascendancy and success. He often anthropomorphises birds – projecting human characteristics onto them – and draws parallels between their nature and our own. A consistent theme of this however, is that the animals are innocent of their brutality; humans however are not, as we are aware of our actions and have the capacity to realise the implications and effects of these while not changing our conduct.
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.
The convenience of the high trees!
The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.
My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot
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 allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:
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.
…I love this poem. Hughes places the reader inside the hawk’s head, granting access the hawk’s innermost thoughts. It is unashamedly brutal and graphic and does not shy away from being arrogant – why would it? The hawk is the boss; the culmination of all of “creation” and the dominant power that can “kill where I please because it is all mine”.
What is curious is that there seems to be no trace of contention from Hughes as to the hawk’s way of life or the arrogance that comes so naturally or rather, is a very part of the hawk’s psyche. The hawk is innocent of it’s mindset as it is an animal – transfer this poem to be delivered from a human and you have a detestable individual. But this mindset can be projected onto many individuals. The combination of this relatively supreme power, arrogance and self-righteousness lends itself to the mindset of a dictator, a corrupt CEO or banker.
Another ‘bird-based’ series of Hughes poems is “Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow”. Written shortly after the suicide of his wife and fellow poet Sylvia Plath, these poems are filled with vitriol and venom. Hughes uses the character of Crow as an embodiment of his own twisted emotions, torn between grief and self loathing. Crow himself is a pitiful and desperate character, cursed with an innate detestability that makes all of his attempts at acceptance futile.
Crow realized God loved him-
Otherwise, he would have dropped dead.
So that was proved.
Crow reclined, marvelling, on his heart-beat.
And he realized that God spoke Crow-
Just existing was His revelation.
But what Loved the stones and spoke stone?
They seemed to exist too.
And what spoke that strange silence
After his clamour of caws faded?
And what loved the shot-pellets
That dribbled from those strung-up mummifying crows?
What spoke the silence of lead?
Crow realized there were two Gods-
One of them much bigger than the other
Loving his enemies
And having all the weapons.
For me, Crow is apathy. A self-aware and self-loathing being that knows of it’s own grotesqueness and is constantly shunned by all. Sometimes, Crow seeks acceptance; sometimes Crow doesn’t care. Crow is large and ferocious – a capable hunter – yet prefers to rely on scavenging and carrion. It is also undeniably intelligent but all the while inherently disgusting. Crow is the radical minority, the Nick Griffin. And every so often, under the correct conditions, Crow can find himself become the Hawk…