Literary modernism, or modernist literature, has its origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly in Europe and North America. Modernism is characterized by a self-conscious break with traditional styles of poetry and verse. Modernists experimented with literary form and expression, adhering to Ezra Pound’s maxim to “Make it new. ” The modernist literary movement was driven by a conscious desire to overturn traditional modes of representation and express the new sensibilities of their time.
The horrors of the First World War saw the prevailing assumptions about society reassessed such as Sigmund Freud questioned the rationality of mankind. Edward James “Ted” Hughes, OM (17 August 1930 – 28 October 1998) was an English poet and children’s writer. Critics routinely rank him as one of the best poets of his generation. Hughes was British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death. Hughes was married to American poet Sylvia Plath, from 1956 until her suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. His part in the relationship became controversial to some feminists and (particularly) American admirers of Plath.
His last poetic work, Birthday Letters (1998), explored their complex relationship. These poems make reference to Plath’s suicide, but none of them addresses directly the circumstances of her death. A poem discovered in October 2010, Last letter, describes what happened during the three days leading up to Plath’s suicide. In 2008 Hughes was ranked fourth on the list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. 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. Examples can be seen in the poems “Hawk Roosting” and “Jaguar”. The West Riding dialect of Hughes’ childhood remained a staple of his poetry, his lexicon lending a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical yet powerful. The manner of speech renders the hard facts of things and wards off self-indulgence.
Hughes’ later work is deeply reliant upon myth and the British bardic tradition, heavily inflected with a modernist, Jungian and ecological viewpoint. He re-worked classical and archetypal myth working with a conception of the dark sub-conscious. Poem Analysis of The Owl It’s a complex poem, inevitably, because it’s primarily about Ted’s relationship with Sylvia Plath, which you can’t really reduce to a few sentences. You have at least to take into account the complexity of any really intimate relationship, when it’s about a meeting of minds as well as a meeting of bodies.
You start to see the world through the other person’s eyes. To give a trivial example, I met my wife in Aberdeen, her home town, where my Yorkshire accent was an oddity and she was at home in a linguistic world made up of Scots and Gaelic. The first time she visited my home, I vividly remember her panic in Leeds, suddenly surrounded for the first time in her life by Yorkshire accents – suddenly she was the odd one out in a big city, her voice was the strange voice. Now imagine that sort of thing in every aspect of life.
Then add another huge layer of complexity because Plath was not just another person, she was also one of the most gifted poets in English of the last century. She saw the world strangely, but with incredible acuity (as an owl’s eyes are sensitive to even very low levels of light, if you like). But Hughes isn’t just seeing the world now through Plath’s astonishing eyes – he’s seeing it through her children’s eyes, Frieda and Nick, and Sylvia is dead. And in an appalling repeat, so is Assia Wevill, who was Ted’s lover in the period shortly after Sylvia died.
Assia, like Sylvia, killed herself, but she also killed her daughter, Shura, at the same time (Ted himself believed that Shura was his child). So there are layers of tragedy in these different layers of perception that Ted talks about in the poem with his references to ‘your children’s eyes’. Now add to those layers of complexity the fact that Hughes is also seeing the world through the owl’s eyes (in much the same way that in Hawk, Roosting he sees the world through the hawk’s eyes – owls are birds of prey, remember, like hawks).
Few people have really attempted this getting inside an animal’s head like Hughes did – one rare other person is Les Murray, in Translations from the Natural World, which would give you a point of reference away from Hughes or Plath. And of course Sylvia herself was also a great nature poet, with her own specialised knowledge of natural history (her father was an expert beekeeper). So there’s no way to reduce this to a handful of formulae, I’m afraid.
There’s much more in the poem than I’ve touched on, and you really need to have a basic grasp of Ted and Sylvia’s relationship, and how Ted responded to her death (especially in Birthday Letters, and in the poem that surfaced late last year specifically about the night of her suicide – it got blanket coverage in the British media when Melvyn Bragg unearthed it. ) It’s also pretty much impossible to address all these issues without addressing the continuing debate over Ted’s responsibility for and response to Sylvia’s death. And the tragedy continues, as Nick committed suicide just a few years after Ted’s death.
Crow: From the Life and Songs of Crow Hughes describes Crow as wandering around the universe in search of his female Creator. In the second developed episode he meets a hag by a river. He has to carry the hag across the river while trying to answer questions that she puts to him, mostly about love. Hughes describes several of the poems, particularly ‘Lovesong’, ‘The Lovepet’ and ‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days’ (part of Cave Birds but included in Hughes’s recording of Crow) as Crow’s attempts to answer these questions.
When he reaches the other side of the river the hag turns into a beautiful girl. For some critics, notably Keith Sagar, Crow is the abortion of a great work, and has been misinterpreted, mainly because, as the first edition stated, The Life and Songs of the Crow covers only the first two thirds of Crow’s journey, bringing him to his lowest point, whereas the narrative had been designed to conclude with Crow’s triumphant marriage to his Creator (Sagar, Laughter, xii). However, it is arguable that the published book owes much of its success to its unfinished, undecidable and provocative character.
The jacket of early editions of Crow was illustrated by a striking drawing by Hughes’s friend, the American artist Leonard Baskin. Seeing Baskin’s drawings of crows had inspired Hughes to embark on the sequence but, in contrast to later books such as Cave Birds and Under the North Star, Baskin was not involved in the development of the project. The most important influence on Crow is Trickster mythology. Paul Radin says of the Trickster, ‘he became and remained everything to every man—god, animal, human being, ero, buffoon, he who was before good and evil, denier, affirmer, destroyer and creator’ (Radin, The Trickster, 169). This captures perfectly Crow’s own ambivalent identity. You can see his Trickster character in a poem such as ‘A Childish Prank’, where he remedies God’s failure to animate man and woman by biting the Worm in two: He stuffed into man the tail half With the wounded end hanging out He stuffed the had half headfirst into woman And it crept in deeper and up To peer out through her eyes… Is Crow’s invention of sexuality clever and resourceful, or crass and foolish?
The shock that poems like this caused when first published was intensified by the style, epitomised by phrases like ‘stuffed into man the tail half’, which Hughes at the time described as a ‘super-simple, super-ugly language’. He seemed to be assaulting religion and poetry simultaneously. By adopting this narrative style Hughes implicitly identifies himself with his protagonist. At the core of Crow is a group of poems, including this one, which re-accent the story of the Creation, the Fall (‘Apple Tragedy’), the Crucifixion (‘Crow Blacker than Ever’).
But the book is not merely an attack on Christianity. The figure and style of Crow gave Hughes a means of ranging widely across Western civilisation within a loosely unified sequence. He placed himself explicitly in a tradition of primitive literature especially through his use of Trickster mythology, but also by drawing of a wide range of folktales and oral devices such as repetition. But Crow is not merely a primitive pastiche: like much of the greatest modernist art, primitive motifs are combined with a vivid contemporaneity, often to powerful emotional effect.