What Use was Ted Hughes’ Degree? The Case of Crow

Cambridge Authors did not all study literature at university. Ted Hughes, for example, studied Archaeology and Anthropology. Undergraduate David Lowry's essay asks what difference this part of his education made to Crow, one of his most important collections. The poems often express themselves plainly, but there are some very sharp ideas working below the surface.

During his undergraduate years at Pembroke College, Ted Hughes studied for the . In this article I would like to propose a reading of Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow as anthropological art, that is to say, as a sequence which is motivated by anthropological issues and which approaches them in an anthropological fashion. Anthropology means, literally, the study of humans; anthropologists explore human psychology and culture to explain the characteristics and social phenomena which make us human. In the 1950s, when Hughes was a student, anthropology was undergoing a sea-change. The ideas of French thinkers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes revolutionised the way that anthropology was done, connecting it to ideas about language and philosophy for the first time. Furthermore, the horrors of the Holocaust, in which humans beings proved capable of what seemed a new scale of horrors, demonstrated a need for a radical reassessment of what it meant to be human. These are the problems that Ted Hughes faced as a student and the enduring effect of his Cambridge years was such that Crow is constructed around the same issues.

To say that Crow has an anthropological tone seems wrong. We might hesitate to say that Ulysses is a geographical novel or that The Waste Land has a lot to do with quantum mechanics. However, several stylistic features which pervade the entire sequence do, I believe, add up to a sense in which the poems feel anthropological. As an example, let us consider part of the opening poem from Four Crow Poems ('That Moment'):

And the only face left in the world
Lay broken
Between hands that relaxed, being too late
And the trees closed forever
And the streets closed forever
And the body lay on the gravel
Of the abandoned world
Among abandoned utilities
Exposed to infinity forever
Crow had to start searching for something to eat.

, a primeval cultural phenomenon, is vital to anthropologists. This poem has an overwhelmingly mythic tone, for example in its large number of totalising concepts ('the only face', 'closed forever', 'infinity forever') which give a sense of enormity and eternity fitting to myth. The childlike syntax, with only one long sentence and the use of hypotaxis (the employment of numerous unequal clauses given equal weight by the use of the conjunction 'and'), places the reader in the position of an anthropologist observing a society - someone who sees the world through the eyes of an outsider.

Similarly, the fact that the poem essentially consists of a series of disparate images presented without context means that the reader's task is that of an anthropologist; who has to place cultural phenomena into a framework that makes them comprehensible. The concluding line, with its jarringly prosaic and yet also essentially human mundanity, reminds the reader that the complex myths and other cultural phenomena which seek to explain the universe are often responses to basic human needs such as food. Anthropologists became interested in these underlying primal causes partly because of the work of Sigmund Freud. He analysed mental processes such as dreaming and argued that they were responses to simple unconscious wants such as eating, touching and sex. In 'That Moment', Hughes seeks to establish an anthropological framework within which to read Crow: the tone is mythical; we are alerted to an attempt to alienate the reader and place him or her in the position of the anthropologist; and we see how Crow himself functions in this case as a signifier for basic human needs.

Having established that Crow has an anthropological focus, I would like to turn now to examine how Hughes responds to the revolution that structuralism brought to anthropology in the 1950s. Structuralism as a movement began with the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure's basic thesis was to isolate individual instances of language and show that they could not make sense alone: the structure of the language as a whole is what gives meaning to a word. This idea was taken up by anthropologists who felt that individual artefacts of cultures could only make sense in an overall structure. For example, in his seminal book Structural Anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that anthropological phenomena are to be analysed by placing them in within a broader structure.

This system of thought pervades Crow. In 'Crow Tries the Media', Hughes conveys Crow's frustration with words:

He did not even want words
Waving their long tails in public
With their prostitute's exclamations

Crow is angry with the public nature of language, with the fact that it is part of a shared system, with the fact that their 'long tails' and prostitute-like nature can be taken by anyone and given meaning. However, by using words to explain this hatred of language, Hughes shows that a single instance of thought or feeling can only be given meaning when placed within the shared structure. Indeed, in crafting such a complex and striking metaphor Hughes calls attention quite overtly to our need for language and our need to place individual images into a structure before making sense of the whole. The words are compared first to animals and then to prostitutes, two separate linguistic subsets which are then placed within a newer structure to form the overall comparison.

The need for structural knowledge to interpret a poem is also apparent in 'Lineage', which purports to explain the genealogy of Crow:

In the beginning was Scream
Who begat Blood
Who begat Eye
Who begat Fear
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never Never Never

Who begat Crow

The list recalls the opening of St Matthew's Gospel in the Bible, in which the lineage of Christ is set out in a similar fashion. (The list starts: 'Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judah and his brethren'.) However, there are further literary analogies: the poem's 'Nothing' looks like a reference to Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear in which the king tells his daughter Cordelia that 'nothing will come of nothing'. In an ironic twist, Hughes' 'Nothing' begets 'Never / Never Never Never', which resemble Lear's dying words as he embraces the dead Cordelia. Thus the begetting of Crow is not only associated with the birth of Christ but also with the death of man. The seemingly familiar structure encourages the reader to contemplate the relationships between the images which the genealogy invokes.

The genealogy of Crow is twofold: firstly he resembles Christ, but he also resembles Lear, a glimpse at the worst that humanity can be. As I previously mentioned, the 1950s saw a large amount of anthropological activity surrounding the Holocaust - a necessary attempt to understand what it now meant to be human. One key way in which all cultures have sought to understand themselves is the totem, an anthropological term for a figure believed to watch over a group of people: examples include the ancient Egyptian sun god or the Israelites' Yahweh. In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud had drawn attention to the similarities found in the behaviour of members of aboriginal tribes in Australia and his own neurotic patients, and it became common to view abstract social concepts such as money or sex as modern-day totems. I would like to argue that in Crow Hughes is creating a new form of myth for the modern world, along with a new conception of what it might mean to be human. In the poem 'Carnival', Crow finds himself destroyed:

He saw his eyes in paperback
He saw his guts in Schopenhauer's spectacle case
He saw his blood spattered
Across Beethoven's score
He saw his brains splashed like a custard pie
Jung had lobbed at Freud
He saw his skin still bandaged on the cross
And in fact it was worse there were details

The use of colloquial language ('guts' or 'custard pie', for instance) contrasts with the references to high cultural figures and creates an orgy of pure violence. The great achievements of humanity, such as Beethoven's music, become merely part of a childish fight, and the cross, symbol of Christianity, is mentioned in the same way as a custard pie. In the next stanza even punctuation has broken down: one cannot read the line without wishing to insert a comma or colon. Like humanity, for whom he is a totem, Crow has been ripped apart and we can no longer distinguish between good and evil, just as we cannot separate the horrors of the Holocaust from the beauty of the music of Wagner.

As humanity's totem, Crow often functions metaphorically for human phenomena. In 'Crow's Fall' it is explained the Crow was originally white, but grew angry at the white sun and went to fight it:

But the sun brightened -
It brightened, and Crow returned charred black.
He opened his mouth but what came out was charred black.
'Up there,' he managed,
'Where white is black and black is white, I won.'

The poem is a little akin to the types of stories told to children to explain tigers' stripes, but the stark emphasis on colour difference relates to an ongoing debate in anthropology (and the arts generally) about the structure of thinking, language, and meaning.

In 1929 the German philosopher Ludwig Klages coined the term 'logocentricism' to denote what he felt was a Western phenomenon of locating meaning within a 'logos'. 'Logos' is a Greek word meaning word, reason or spirit; Klages and those who followed him felt that most Western philosophy saw all meaning residing in this concept. Jacques Derrida was one of the best-known inheritors of the idea of 'logocentrism', and he aimed to undermine its results. He and other 'deconstructionists' believed that lots of key ideas related to an implied logos - an assumption that some concept had special inherent meaning. For example, a traditional idea of male sexuality as something present and single and whole, whereas female is hidden and multiple, could be explained by a false reliance on the 'logos' of male sexuality.

For Derrida, terms always come in pairs, such as white and black, with one leaning towards the concept of 'logos', in this case white. (So people are likely to think of white as something, black as the lack of something.) In 'Crow's Fall', Crow ascends to 'where white is black and black is white'; that is to say, he achieved a suspension of logos, and still returned black. Derrida felt that the only way to begin to override the dependence on 'logos' was to begin examining the non-logos side of pairings. In this case Hughes has crafted a poem which does so. Indeed the whole of Crow, with its strange exploration of darkness and the absurd, could be viewed as part of the project envisaged by Derrida to shift human society away from its addiction to logos, which would be a fundamental change in the idea of humanity itself and hence a radical anthropological action.

In this article I have explored some of the ways in which the type of thought Ted Hughes was exposed to during a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology both informs and creates the meaning of Crow. By placing the poems in an intellectual context I think we gain insight to why their strange and alienating, yet familiar and engaging style and content have led them to be ranked amongst not only Hughes' greatest work, but also the greatest poetry of the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth - In this little, readable account of the relationship between humanity and its simplest form of literature, myth, Armstrong combines the role of literary critic and anthropologist in an exciting way.
  • Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo - A little more technical, but definitely one of the most accessible works of Freud. Although his conclusions have now been largely discredited, Freud's method of analysis remains popular as a way of 'reading' people and texts and his insights into the human psyche are nothing if not intriguing.
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses - A collection of numerous Greek and Roman myths themed around change, Ovid presents the back-history of the civilisation to which he belongs in an amusing, human and often startling way, a task comparable to Hughes' in Crow.

Further Thinking

In some ways the poems of Crow are very simple. David Lowry has brought in some complex areas of thought in order to understand them better. Do you think the poems work better like this, or do you think they might also be appreciated for their simpler characteristics?

Can you think of other modern myths and totems?

'Tripos' is the Cambridge word for a course of study, named after the three-legged stool on which students were said to sit during examinations
Myths are typically ancient and often simple stories that seem to underlie a culture and its values. They are usually stories that either describe, or hint at, how the world was created, how societies were formed, how people should behave, etc.
The study of human psychology by means of a process of analysis that aims to uncover the underlying causes of mental problems. Sigmund Freud (born 1856, died 1939) developed many of its core concepts.
Absurdism is a philosophy that believes that it is absurd for us to try to find meaning in life. The philosophers Kierkegaard and Camus are both associated with it. The 'theatre of the absurd' (for example, in the plays of Beckett and Ionesco) puts this philosophy on the stage.
This word can be used to mean something that surpasses reality, but here it means something that (often spuriously) is above the world of experience, somehow elevated above reality.

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