Ted Hughes' Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow

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Social Issues and Creation Stories in Ted Hughes' Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow

    There are many mythological stories that exist in this age.  Within these different myths, there are many answers to how our world was created.  Yet, one must become open-minded to other myths that do not necessarily discuss creation; Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow can be seen to fall into this category.  This collection of Ted Hughes' poetry is intertwined with social issues and creation stories.  Throughout this collection, the poems not only involve Classical and Christian related ideas they also include several twentieth century advancements.

      The myths that Hughes creates have the central character as the crow.  In the book Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes, Hirschberg gives a brief statement of how crows are viewed in different mythologies, "In folk mythology the crow is an animal figure predominantly associated with the twin motifs of death and guilt, a stark figure who embodies boldness, intelligence, adaptability to change and a twisted vitality" (126).  This description is widely evident throughout Ted Hughes' collection.  Crow goes through many phases and meditations.  Among the topics found in Crow  are views of religion, human actions, and destruction.

      Throughout Crow, there are many references to Christianity.  Yet, in each poem that includes this topic, the original stories are altered to give a new style of myth.  "A Childish Prank" is one of the poems that Hughes begins altering the original biblical references.

      "A Childish Prank" is a poem about a malicious trick that Crow plays on Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  This poem is about Adam and Eve lying in Eden without souls.  God, however,  is presented as indecisive, sleepy, and incompetent, since the problem of giving them a soul was so great  that (from the poem) "it dragged him asleep" (line 5).  Seeing that God was asleep, Crow laughs and decides to play a trick on Adam, Eve, and God, not knowing that it could cause harm.  For the trick, Crow gives Adam and Eve an animal lust, which Crow finds humorous, yet God is not awakened by this "prank."  Still, as Hirschberg mentions,  this poem gives a new perspective on God:  "God in 'A Childish Prank' is portrayed as he will be in most of the Crow poems... [He is seen as] a naïve bumpkin, erring and unaware" (76).

      Another poem that directly focuses on Crow's 'relationship' with God is "Crow Communes."  Crow, being curious, desires to speak with God about his existence.  Of course, when Crow arrives, God is asleep;  Crow, continues to ask questions but "God lay, agape, a great carcase" (line 1).  Crow then takes a bite of God's shoulder hoping that it will give him the answers to his questions by giving him more wisdom.  Yet, Crow does not become enlightened by it, instead he becomes  "Half-illumined."   One reason that this can be explained is by Hirschberg:  "God is described [by Hughes] as

a snoring mountain and it's hardly surprising that Crow should become less illumined through the ingestion of such a bovine divinity"(84).

      Yet, God is not the only part of the Christian religion distorted in Crow ; Hughes also gives a new perspective on Jesus Christ.  The main poem about Christ is "The Contender."  The main aspect of this poem is that instead of a self-sacrificing Christ, Crow sees a self-centered, stubborn hero.  This idea is further explained:  "... [Christ's] purpose in Crow's account in coming to the world was not, despite Old Testament literature, to move mountains and free the Jewish people.  This poem instead presents Christ as an adamant, self-contained entity who ignores the very people who considered him their saviour"  (Hirschberg 92).  Although Christ suffers tremendously, nothing truly positive for people comes from it.  It appears as though Christ merely suffers great pain in order to convince himself of his own strength.

      Besides religion, Hughes also addresses society in Crow.   In the poem "A Disaster," Hughes relates both society and religion with the power of words.  In this poem, Hughes relates words with a type of disease that spreads like wildfire across the land.  It slowly destroys humans, cities, and the environment.  One occurence of this is as follows:

            The word oozed its way, all mouth,

            Earless, eyeless.

            He saw it sucking the cities

            Like the nipples of a sow

            Drinking out all the people

            Till there were none left,

            All digested by the word. (lines 1-7)

This excerpt is a prime example of how religious doctrines or political propaganda is used against people.  The last line of the excerpt is the most easily understood.  It shows that people do not 'take-in' the word, instead, the word swallows them and 'collects' them into its message.  Some examples of how this has happened in the past are the Crusades (religion) and Nazi Germany (political propaganda).  In the Crusades, people followed the word of God (through priests).  In Nazi Germany, people followed the word out of nationalism and fear.

      In Crow, Hughes also concentrates on inner-turmoil which exists between Crow and humans.  "Oedipus Crow" and "Crowego" are two poems realating to this conflict involving issues of pride, ego, fear, and violence.

      In "Oedipus Crow,"  the message to Crow is that of warning him not to forget his origins.  Hirschberg describes the concept of the poem in the following:  " 'Oedipus Crow' is a cautionary tale which alerts Crow to the tendency within himself from which Oedipus suffered:  Pride" (94).  He continues by describing why Death toys with him during the warning, "One after another he [Crow] rejects the forces which guides his life as soon as he perceives them to be threatening to his freedom" (94).  The examples of this can be seen throughout the poem; with every time constraint thrown at him, Crow finds some way of evading it.  A few things he does to avoid being constrained include biting off his own leg (line 4) and flying away from his mother (line 7).

      This poem also relates to the human struggle for freedom.  Throughout life, humans wish to be free and not to have a set fate they cannot escape.  Yet, however a person tries, he/she cannot escape forever and death always seems to give warnings when humanity becomes too sure of itself.

      The other poem that concentrates heavily on Crow and man's egocentricities is  "Crowego." In this poem, though, Crow feeds on man's ego projections in order to strengthen his own ego.  Crow decides to gorge himself with heroes when they are no longer heroic.  In the poem, Crow steps in (like the scavenger he is), catches the heroes, and "devours them after they have failed to answer the culture's demands for which they were created to satisfy (e.g. Ulysses was the last hero from the heroic age of Greece; Beowulf was the last pre-Christian culture hero).  Heroes represent the collective ego of mankind and man will always need these heroic projections" (Hirschberg 104).  In this poem, Crow notices that society is overwhelmed with myths.   If humankind wishes to gain self-identity, he/she should not focus on modeling themselves on ancient heroes.  This is seen in that Crow feels he does not need to model himself on others; he is his own hero.  Still, since Crow is his own hero, he feels he has no fear--  until he comes face to face with himself.

      The poem in which Crow comes face to face with himself is entitled "Crow Sickened."  In this poem Crow becomes fearful of something he does not know.  This causes him to begin feeling ill and to start searching for the source.  the second stanza shows what Crow discovers:  "Unwinding the world like a ball of wool / [He] Found the last end tied around his own finger" (lines 7-8).  Not understanding this, Crow continues to search.  In the end however, he finds out that his greatest enemy is himself.

      The fear that he acknowledges is similar to humans.  Although we may fear some people, our greatest enemy is found within ourselves.  The freedom from fear cannot occur when fear is yourself; so, like Crow, humanity is imprisoned by themselves.


      There are many fears found in man, and these fears often lead to violence.  Violence is very common in Crow  and there are several poems that relate to this action.  Within the realms of violence, there are many levels.  In Crow, two violence-related poems are "Crow's Account of the Battle" and  "In Laughter."


      "Crow's Account of the Battle" is about war, the most violent thing that can occur.  In this poem, Crow describes what he sees, and the descriptions show all of the pain war causes.  Crow sees the battles and within the following lines sums up what war is--pure violence:


            Then everybody wept,

            Or sat, too exhausted to weep,

            Or lay too hurt to weep.

            And when the smoke cleared, it became clear

            This had happened too often before

            And was going to happen too often in the future

            And happened too easily.  (lines 11-17)


This poem also tells how science interferes with civilization during war.  Science makes people unemotional and this poem includes examples of this.  In stanza two, an example of this can be seen:  "From sudden traps of calculus, / Theorems wrenched men in two."  Hirschberg further describes this as "the ability to repress feelings that might arise at the death of others [which] means that man  can kill through Science, dissociate himself from the act of murder and in the process transform war into a merely haphazard concommitant of existence" (81). 


      Within humans, there is one emotion that is unique--pleasure.  This emotion is strange because it can happen in several ways; "In Laughter" is a poem about a more sadistic form of the action which relates to violence.  The point of this poem is the human ability to laugh (an expression related to pleasure) at other peoples' tragedies with fascination instead of sorrow.  This poem gives some examples of how sadistic humans can be.  Among the examples Hughes utilizes are car wrecks, airplane crashes, and people being hurt.   Hughes' examples show that humans use laughter to deal with stressful situations.  Hirschberg also reaffirms this:  "What we find funny is that towards which we are at least partly sadistic.  Even though we know it's terrible to find such and ultimately even violence becomes tiring and provokes our indifference" (97).  There is an old saying which relates to mankind's experience with violence--  "violence begets violence."  Of course this saying is true, but when violence continues it can lead to destruction.  In Crow, there are several poems that relate to destruction and the apocalypse; two of these poems are "Revenge Fable" and "Notes for a Little Play."


      In "Revenge Fable," Crow is again an observer of human stupidity.  This poem focuses on the destruction of the  environment.  This poem tells the story about a man who, through science and numbers, destroys Mother Earth.  He does this by exploiting (through greed) natural resources that were given to us by Mother Earth.  This poem gives a new twist to myths by incorporating twentieth century inventions into the story.  It also brings to light environmental problems we have today.  Humankind continues to take advantage of Nature's gifts until they are depleted.  Yet with this, humanity runs into a problem; Hirschberg describes this idea by stating, "In the process of exploiting the earth for her material wealth and beating her into submission man has undermined and poisoned his own existence.  Unwittingly, he has cut his own throat" (110).  Humankind has "poisoned" itself because existence is intertwined with that of the earth, and in the last line of the poem he (Crow representing humans)is punished by having "His head [fall] off like a leaf."


      "Notes for a Little Play" is another poem which brings twentieth century inventions into a mythological setting.  This time, Hughes uses the nuclear bomb to show how humankind may destroy itself, but with "Notes for a Little Play," Hughes goes back to storytelling.  After the Nuclear War, all of humanity is destroyed and the only things that remain are Crow and "Mutations-- at home in the nuclear glare" (line 12).  This poem shows that humanity can destroy itself through science and craving for power, which is what ends up happening.  The main point of this poem is the end of the world for humanity as the nuclear blasts destroy it, but there is more to the poem:   "The most significant aspect of the poem is that two mutations survive and mate to start the cycle [creation] over again while existing in absolute suffering, without God, or the possibility of redemption" (Hirshberg 122).


      Through Crow, Hughes creates a unique mythology with a scavenger as the main character.  The reader can see Crow as a description of themselves at times.  Humans have always thought of themselves as free, but with introspection (and the reading of this collection), we see that we are also trapped by something; whether it is fate, society, or ourselves--we are trapped.  Still, like Crow, we see the world as limited; yet, we still wish to be individualistic in our ways, hoping that we can escape the monotony of the world.

      Many authors try to tell what Ted Hughes is trying to say through his collection.  Of course, they do not truly know what he is trying to do; for that, we must go to Hughes himself.  In the book The Poetry of Ted Hughes : Form and Imagination, Leonard M. Scigaj includes an interview with Hughes:

In a BBC broadcast of 24 June 1970, just three and a half months before the first Faber edition (12 October 1970), Hughes states that Crow is the shadow of man.  He's a man to correct man, but of course he's not a man, he's a Crow, ... he never does quite become a man.  For most of the adventure, having been created he's put through various adventures, and disasters and trials and ordeals, and the effect of these is to alter him not at all, than alter him a great deal, completely transform him, tear him to bits, put him together again, and produce him a little bit changed.  And maybe his ambition is to become a man, which he never quite manages.  (157)

Yet, even though we hear ideas from different sources, we must still make our own interpretations. Crow is a great mythology that has unique parallels with society and human struggles.  A mythology is meant to relate to people, and give them warnings and answers.  Through looking at the religious, emotional, and destructive implications in the collection, we see that it is a mythology; thus, if we are open-minded enough to study and accept other mythologies, why not accept the life, songs, and philosophy of Crow as well?

Works Cited

Hirschberg, Stuart.  Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes: A guide to the poems .  Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1981.

Hughes, Ted.  Crow:  From the Life and Songs of the Crow.  New York:  Harper and Row, 1971.

Scigaj, Leonard M.  The Poetry of Ted Hughes:  Form and Imagination.  Iowa City, Iowa: U of Iowa P, 1986.

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