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Crow & Hawk: the Bird Spirit Poetry of Ted Hughes
Poets and prophets from Aesop to Isaiah to Blake have traditionally used animal figures to convey a criticism of existing culture, endowing the natural with metaphoric import. In most preliterate cultures, animals were equally endowed with metaphoric importance more immediately interpreted into mythologies and shamanistic rituals that enabled people to address and interact with their world. In the modern British and Irish context, it is common to use such animal characters to analyze or criticize society and moreover to redirect human attention to natural qualities within the human soul that in our civilization we have overlooked or purposefully disrespected. So when Ted Hughes focuses significant poetic attention on birds, one is not surprised by the parallels he draws between these winged creatures and the evolution of the soul. What may seem surprising is the degree to which he subverts modern symbolic understandings of particular bird types by reverting to more arcane symbolisms and understandings both of the animal and human world.
From looking at poems such as Poe's "The Raven" and the nearly omnipresent appearance of these black birds as harbingers of death, destruction, war and evil in the literature of the last thousand years, one understands that crows are symbolically loaded animals with very negative connotations. Certainly some of this stems from the role of crows in Biblical prophetic texts as emblems of the fall of Israel and the aftermath of battles. Crows, which scavenge much of their food from the corpses of the dead, are very much out of favor in our modern antiseptic culture. So it is inherently shocking to the self-image to see Hughes slowly shape The Crow into a sort of prototype for evolved humanity representing both our worst and best traits.
In Hughes work, Crow serves as a sort of metaphor for humanity. He is explained as being that thing God created allowed to be created by his own nightmares after humans rejected life, but his experience in Hughes work appears to be that of a human being as experienced through the life of a raven-bird. He is a fallen creature, a trickster, and a graveyard for the body of all those he eats, "his every feather the fossil of a murder." (Hughes, "Crows Nerve Fails") . Yet he is also a survivor, a dreamer and creator of words, and a theologian obsessed with discovering the truth of art (such as Oedipus), sexuality, and life.
As sort of a foil to the self-congratulating and self-flaggellating Crow, Hughes also describes the hawk. This hawk, far from being the noble and somehow sympathetic creature that romantic symbolism would try to make of him, is a cruel and willful tyrant who nonetheless has a sort of appeal about him that is very telling. It is Hawk who holds the whole world in stasis while Crow tries to change it, and Hawk who enforces death while Crow seeks alternately to transcend it, becoming it, and escape it. Hawk too seems symbolic of the modern human mind, in its relentless push for power and control -- but of course Hawk is less conflicted and less perverted in his unhypocritical brutality.
Enough of introductions and suggestions without evidence -- it is time to suggest the three main points of the discussion at hand. First, that as a prefiguring of post-apocalyptic man, Crow may be designed to embrace the essentially human qualities that mankind has tried to deny. Secondly, that the universe of Crow and Hawk reflects a sort of Schonpenhaueresque vision of a dirty will and a dirtier sublimity, which is heightened and explicated by their animal forms. Finally, that Crow and Hawk may yet offer a possibility for salvation for humankind among the deep bleakness they survey, if mankind can also learn to embrace its nonhuman and noncivilized inner nature.
Crow is, according to Hughes, a somewhat post-apocalyptic and one might even say post-human figure. He is created after man has come and asked God "to take life back because men are fed up with it. So God is enraged that man has let him down - so he challenges [his nightmare] voice to do better: given the materials and the whole setup, to produce something better than Man." (Hughes, in: Skea) So to a large degree, in trying to be better than humankind, it seems that the voice which creates Crow forms something which draws from all human characteristics in excess, including those which modern humans consider fearful or barbaric or strange. It also draws from features which are particularly modern in a post-holocaustal sense. The Crow becomes a kind of Jungian shadow self, it seems, and this is made painfully obvious in poems such as Hughes' "Crow's Nerve Fails."
Crow, feeling his brain slip,
Finds his every feather the fossil of a murder.
Who murdered all these?
He cannot be forgiven.
His prison is the earth. Clothed in his conviction,
Trying to remember his crimes
Heavily he flies.
One sees two entirely human traits in this poem -- first the sense of world-guilt, in which crimes committed by an entire race or people come to bear on the shoulders of a single individual, and secondly the entirely human sense that one's body may become a graveyard. Schopenhauer, who was admittedly a heavy influence on Ted Hughes, was also at times a committed vegetarian whose discussions of the graveyard a body becomes when it eats meat had some influence on many of his readers. This kind of guiltiness over things eaten and crimes uncommitted is, it seems, uniquely human and seeing it here shows the Crow up for the kind of ultra-human scapegoat which he may become in some interpretations.
Other human attributes which we may be repulsed at or turn away from are also present in Crow, such as the ability to kill and torture even one's own kind out of curiosity or senseless religious fervor:
'Crow crucified a frog under a microscope, he peered into the brain of a dogfish.
Where is the Black Beast?
Crow killed his brother and turned him inside out to stare at his color."
(Hughes, "the Black Beast")
It is in this poem in particular that one understands how the Crow might be seen as the shadow-self of human kind. He destroys everything around him in an attempt to destroy the "Black Beast" that the reader at least is becoming aware is the Crow himself. It is quite possible that humanity is the only species which is its own worst enemy and predator. The greatest threats to humankind come from our own people, as the World Wars would have blatantly shown to Hughes. Over and over again in the Crow poems, the bird looks at itself and its works in horror and sorrow. One can take examples from "The Black Beast" in which Crow hunts himself unknowingly in hunting the enemy, or from "Crow's Nerve Fails" in which he fully realizes the weight of murders that hang about his shoulders. Yet these are not the only examples. One also sees that Crow's self-hatred develops into a kind of religious experience, and he uses his own human agony to attempt in an almost gluttonous attempt to force his way through suffering to a Christian-like redemption. In "Crow Blacker Than Ever," the bird attempts to form some sort of union between God and Man in an expiatory crucifixion he seems to hope will save himself, or perhaps the whole world.
So man cried, but with God's voice.
And God bled, but with man's blood.
The agony did not diminish.
Man could not be man nor God.
Crying: "This is my Creation,"
Flying the black flag of himself.
As is obvious from this selection, Crow attempts to heal the world through religion, and instead only succeeds in making it less bearable. In the end Crow cannot find salvation in God or Man, nor in any junction of the two, but only in his own black flag-self. In trying to find morality and salvation elsewhere, he only creates more pain and suffering. For like the humanity he apes, Crow is capable both of creating religion and morality and of quietly destroying it:
Crow, the hierophant, humped, impenetrable.
(Appalled.) ? (Hughes, "Crow Communes")
Yet if Crow embodies the darkest of our human side, there is a degree to which he also encompasses our greatest aspirations. The Shadow self is, of course, not unrelated to the Freudian Id which is both repressed and necessary for the continuation of life. So Crow which is so destructive and thus arguably worthy of human rejection is also that being which causes humanity to have its reproductive and animal life.
In "A Childish Prank," it is Crow which forces the religious soul into the human body and simultaneously creates an uncontrollable and absolute sexual drive and connection between Adam and Eve. A sex drive which transcends the need for reproduction and the cycles of…[continue]
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