Since Ted Hughes’s poems are persistent with “an ontological need,” as Anthony Rowland suggests (49), they venture in their explorations beyond the scope that the various titles of his poems might imply. They thus appear to be traditionally metaphysical. Indeed, different discourses have been culled in the interpretation of Hughes’s ontological orientation.1 Some critics see it as Hughes’s being directed toward a permanent essence, while others prioritize the notion of unstable existence as more than essence in his ontology. More radically one critic proposes that postmodern concepts—such as the inexpressible real in Lacan’s terms, which serves as a source of trauma — can be applied to Hughes’s works. Combining existence and essence, and drawing on Adorno’s concept of “peep-hole metaphysics,” which involves capturing the ulterior whole through the peep-hole of a parapet, Rowland maintains that, even if there remain some uncertainties, Hughes ultimately attains “humanist salvation” and “transcendental being” through “the [non-humanistic and dark] metaphysics of
Calling attention to the poet’s often ill-tempered use of violence, Geoffrey Thurley already claims that Hughes’s representative poetry collection
This article approaches Hughes from a postmodern sensibility and traces the process by which Hughes becomes inducted in nothingness and mines diverse modes from it. I will locate the point at which an animalistic and sublime power emerges from nothingness, and extends to terrific violence. In addition, I will explicate how this extreme energy is attenuated and transposed into insubstantial spectrality and again how its indefinite spectrality contains the potent ambivalence of fantasy and violence. Finally, I will briefly criticize some inadequacies of Hughes’s perspectives.
1Hughes’ s themes have deep roots in the questions concerning being, nothing, essence, existence, identity and difference. 2In the same vein, Leonard M. Scigaj argues that Hughes, deeply recognizing the limitations of dichotomous and rational Western culture, attempts to escape from the fixed structure and that surpassing logocentrism is to experience “the realization of the fullness of nothingness” that exists before cultural assumptions and cognizance (134). This is partially persuasive but does not effectively explain that for Hughes nothingness does not eradicate instability entirely, instead, rather connoting anxiety and destruction. 3Rowland contends that victims and non-victims in the prisoner’s camp blend in ontological harmony through the music in “Lines about Elias” (53-54). However, it is noticeable, taking the phrases, “music uttered / The dumbness of naked bodies,” “Music poured out of nowhere,” “Strange food,” and “Escaping their humanity,” into consideration, that Hughes’s temporary transcendence includes such traits as otherness, the inhuman, and nothingness.
Preceding Hughes’s prominence of postmodern ideologies, is, of course, his existential sense of immense defeat, preemptive despair, the complete lack of a sense of life itself, and the absence of choice, a sensibility generated particularly by two abominable World Wars. By using the surrealist technique of collage, Hughes describes the ghostly marches of weary military men as holding “their hopelessness / from the millions of the future” in “Scapegoats and Rabies”—a portrayal that exposes and parodies the nonsense of the Great War. In “Heptonstall,” he, in fact, makes a powerful metaphoric reference to the already declining period as “the great geographies / drained to sutures / of cracked windowsills” (
The unremitting impossibility of anchorage emphasizes the notion that there is no egress from the foredoomed despair of the present and the future and that human beings have lost even the smallest foundation on which they were once able to stand. Standing alone in the empty middle of a desert, the self-dejected persona in “Existential Song” shakes his fists at the universe, rejecting his absurd destiny; but he presently recognizes that his arms and legs will fall off, that dogs will tear them apart, and that “life was being lived only by the dogs” (
Acknowledging that all things are capsized, Hughes defines the bright new moon of January as the “sail of death” in “New Moon in January”(
As the capitalized word “Emptiness” suggests, here absence is foregrounded as a sort of essence propping up all existences; so it can provide complacency, though a facet of it is like a “[b]lackbird in wet snow,” retaining melancholia in its innermost being. Hughes’s poem, “Pibroch”— originally a funerailles performed with Scottish bagpipes, but also used as a military march—also represents such dual notions of nullity, a negative agent of protracted depression and a powerful authority controlling individuals’ subsistence. In this poem all things such as the sea, pebbles, wind, and a tree are imprisoned in nothing for an incredibly long time. Furthermore, an old woman, even losing her mind, prolongs her life by embracing the incomprehensible deprivation, not to mention that the tree struggles to create many new leaves:
The speaker eventually declares that, due to its inducing the long melancholy, nothingness is the indispensable and authoritative prime mover, not a negligible or secondary bystander, which stars worship, and which can either deter or nurture everything. Nullity as a decategorizing agency generates waste, and arouses anxiety and melancholia; conversely, it can become the genetic sources that propagate and develop all individual beings, which now acknowledge that coexisting with nothing is not terror, nor “a bad variant.” Chiefly containing dark modalities, the void of nothingness paradoxically becomes the space for originating beings by reversing negativity. The poppy, a symbol of numerous deaths in wars in the poem “Out” is not only “the mouth of the grave,” but also “the mouth of the womb searching” (
The paradoxical productivity of inert and barren nothingness, as if to self-abnegatedly deny or to camouflage its own immobility, can engender even very energetic animals such as crows, wolves, and bears, ensuring maximum potency. Hughes’s animals are so extremely vigorous as to subvert the established order and values, and wage wars, with ease, even against gods, demonstrating the sublime. The nullity, of course, dims and lightens the great capacity of animals again, turning massive dynamics into playful laughs, surface effects, or spectral phenomena without substance. But the weightless, shadowy nonentities can evince more immense effects than an intense reality, as vacuous places sometimes foster an illusion of unidentifiable things looming like specters. Therefore, Hughes’s nothingness abounding in implication displays enormous power through animality, and both its frivolity and puissance as spectrality.
Hughes once said that he invented his crow as “autochthonous without cultural or traditional addition” as if it were created from the entire destruction of all libraries (
Some critics have observed that Hughes concentrates on exploring the inner psychology of animals while excluding human perspectives, to the extent feasible. He portrays animals’ behavior and psychology concretely after being infused into and identified with animals. But strictly speaking, in addition to injection, there is a “meticulously realistic description” (53) or a considerably modern and objective approach in Hughes’s cognition of animals, as Margaret Dickie suggests. Of course, no animal experiments or genetics are detected in his works, but, looking into “Otter,” “Pike,” “Second Glance at a Jaguar,” and “Sheep,” the speakers undertake a more delicately objective examination into animals?an examination associated with faunal survey and ethology. However, in multiple cases, we wonder whether Hughes, projecting himself into them or observing them, approaches animals without any subjective reinterpretation. Scrutinizing such statements as “His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet” (
Hughes’s animals, in fact, often outclass biological and cultural categories; they are instead endowed with cosmic and philosophical concepts. As Bedient points out, the animals of Hughes are represented as “the lords of death and life”(96) or as agents with immeasurab le energy, which includes asymmetrical magnitude compared to human beings, as in the example of a “cosmic dragon” given by Keith Sagar (289). In particular, because Hughes prefers “surrealistic imagery” in his transition from the early poems to
The excessiveness of the sublime animality reaches the self-strangeness or the self-otherness beyond animals themselves, which Derrida defines as a bare animality. Derrida pictures a scene in which an animal suddenly enters his room and inadvertently looks at his nude body before they introduce themselves. This peculiar circumstance leads both the animal and himself to ask a question such as “who,” refusing any conceptualization of each other. Both amount to having “the point of view of the absolute other” (9-11). This nudity provides people and the animal with the opportunity to experience the bottomlessness of an uninterpretable and indefinitive abyss. Humans recognize “the abyssal limit of the human,” or the inhuman that humans are “the apocalypse” itself. Even gods do not know this chasmic otherness, which the naked animality suggests; namely, the gods themselves are stunned at the extrinsic factors in their creatures or inferiors, which expose “the finitude of gods” (17). The emergence of Hughes’s crow, in fact, reflects such an alien sublime, for he survives the World Wars and grows oddly exalted to the surprise of humans, gods, and even the crow himself, then pursues “a renaissance of potential” (Robinson 54) as an origin of a new cosmic world, while retaining his negative image as a “king of carrion” (
Parodying Christian catechism, Hughes makes a parade of death and then posits the crow both as the progeny and as the conqueror of death, one that is his unique response to the demands of postmodern topology. Proclaiming the superiority of the too arrogant crow includes “jeer[ing] at only its own death,” spitting at it, and swallowing it (
Hughes’s sublime animality extends from familiar yet threatening animals to insignificant or tiny animals, that metamorphose uncannily into existence with monstrous energy. Exceedingly small animals, not conscious of their triviality, become amplified and can secure their sublime independent spheres as if to outdo even the universe. The dancing gnats under the shades of trees turn to “their own sun / . . . . / [a]t large in nothing” and are singing in their own brimming over, “not afraid of the sun” or caring about “the cycles of this [u]niverse” (
However, Hughes’s animality is not always successful in exhibiting massive energy because it primarily maintains an apocalyptic mood and its ensuing vulnerability to ineffable terror; depleting surplus energy, it takes the route of descent as well as that of ascent. The sublime in postmodernism is still bequeathed with the depravation of Existentialism on its reverse side, and, as Lyotard asserts, it underscores “the possibility of nothing happening,” which is associated with such anxiety as the thinker faces with a desert of thought (
To elevate animality to the sublime could be considered to validate even the unrestricted resort to violence, as the brutality of the animal world is not subject to any ethical or jurisdictional restrictions. Lyortard asserts that sublime violence is like lightning or a sudden blazing, in which the teleological machine explodes (54-55). Hughes’s sublimated animals tend to relish such an unlimited force beyond a certain level at which humans commonly understand their power—a level that is associated with pagan gods or “demons” (Bedient 96). In particular, Crow is “martial” to the extent that a trivial thing can be a source of tremendous savageness, such that one critic proposes that behind it there might be belligerent Teutonic mythology before Christianity (Witte 38).4 As Lyotard explains that the sublime pleases through “resistance” (149), Hughes’s violence refuses “the terrific magnetic power of the tradition.” Since it follows the pattern by which new streams of ideas arise when the old rituals and dogma have lost creditability, the violence frequently displays a reversal of the established order.
Hughes’s energetic revolt breaches the insurmountable disparity fixed between the two ranks in the hierarchy of the universe with ease; petite things incite a war against gigantic things as thistles and crabs threaten the human world. The weedy plant, thistles, which shove away from earth’s gravity and extend above the crust of the earth, are replete with “a revengeful burst / [o]f resurrection” as they “pike the summer air / [o]r crackle open under a blue-black pressure” in “Thistles.” With only fragmented arms, the small prickly plants dare venture to fight back against “the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing / hands of men” ; and they even descend their hostile intentions to their offspring while they are fading (
Evoking the image of science fiction and fantasy novels, the crabs in an unfounded fit of anger—implied by a series of explosive words, such as “disgorging,” “spill,” and “bubbling”—landslide on the beach at night like ghosts and trespass the space of civilization with great force in order to colonize it; and finally the human species deteriorate to “bacteria” (
Hughes’s dauntless provocation and subversion reach their peak especially when inferior organisms dissent from, scoff at, and rebel against God, the Creator of the universe. By using the technique of the fable, which is considered to be easily read and to exploit personification very effectively, Hughes conjures up certain organisms that exist before the Creator, and taunts and manipulate Him, rewriting theological system. “Theology” as a parody of traditionally dominant religions and of the mythology of human creation in Genesis provides an entirely different milieu:
The poet-speaker disfigures the established network laid down in Genesis and ruptures the accepted hierarchical relationships between man and woman, between creatures, and between God and mortals: in particular, the lowest serpent reverses all of his superiors and, as if above the existing supervisor, even irks the first and last of the system, God, into giving up the management of the whole structure. In “A Childish Prank,” the crow like the serpent divides the worm, God’s only son, into two writhing halves, inserts the tail half into Adam and the head half into Eve, and makes the two persons combine without knowing this fact. During these operations, God, who is asleep, does not notice the disarray perpetrated by this trivial animal, a fact that triggers the crow’s laugh (
Another case in which the Creator’s bafflement is magnified is when His command and education, which are commonly delivered vertically, are relocated. Hughes constructs a scene in which the crow receives a lesson on love from God but continuously misrepresents the schooling as differing from God’s intentions. In “Crow’s First Lesson,” God urges the crow to pronounce the word love correctly to train the bird in His love, but, as soon as the crow opens his mouth, disturbing anomalies—such as the white shark crashing into the sea; the mosquito seeking the pot of meat; and the separate human head without a body appearing—protrude, events that echo Lyotard’s statement that conciliation does not truly erase the difference; it displaces it, and its sign, resistance itself, will reappear “elsewhere” (149):
As if to listen to a foreign language, the crow obstructs the performance of God’s directive and teaching by displacing them into mere noise, in which the disjointed parts of a human organism burst out: human’ heads separate and stick out; man’s eyes swivel; and his mouths murmur gibberish. The gap or hole made when the crow gapes its mouth, multiplies metaphoric differences and breeds the eccentric effects of the abyss, such as nausea.
In addition to the defiance to God’s command, Hughes’s subversive power more specifically targets God’s stringent principle or logos governing the cosmos, the nervous system of the universe, and is executed as attempting the dismantlement of the coherent structure, which Hughes considers as including mathematics, science, law, and words. Asserting that “theorems wrenched men in two” (
The sea in this poem, which elicits traumatic symptoms, is portrayed as a deconstructive agent that continuously spoils old law, word, and truth—namely, the holistic and calculating logos—and shreds them into only partial objects.6 Its status is elevated even to that of God’s mother, who is conjured up as “God’s nightmare” (
4Under the same rubric, Hughes chooses mythology rather than theology, folklore rather than science and reason, and the mean crow, which employs “super-ugly language” (Faas 208), rather than the eagle. 5The White Goddess by Robert Graves provides context for this statement: the book, as Neil Roberts explains, sees Jewish monotheism, Greek rationalism, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution as a patriarchal system that “expels goddesses” (16-17). 6Hughes’s blind ferocity tearing off any sort of attempt at configuring wholeness and consistency tends to result in shattered fragmentations or partial objects. The last part of “Scapegoats and Rabies” is the scenario in which Big Ben, a symbol of the order of time, breaks apart and then its “splinters” fly off (CP 191). As the phrase suggests —“His crown is the last splinters / Of the vessel of life” (CP 209) —pieces or parts of objects, however, are revalued and reconstituted as new factors that, implementing appropriate strategies, present diverse performances for Hughes. Deleuze argues that we live in the age of “partial objects,” which, as pure difference and plurality, are “irreducible” to any kind of unity or harmony without the fundamental or final whole (42). The “bodiless prodigious head” (CP 211), the partial object, in “Crow’s First Lesson,” functions as evidence of the heterogeneous element deviating from the tight language system, or as the resistant agent against the suffocating logical structure. Moreover, the partial objects sometimes take pleasure in free play without any sense of crisis as people’s arms and legs fly off into the air in laughter (CP 233).
Besides demonstrating colossal authority, daring to undermine any establishments, and crossing any fixed borders, condensed violence contains another ulterior aspect for Hughes. The other side of excessively realistic savagery embraces unreal hollowness, which obscures and further enervates the ruthless reality, so that no impact of serious devastation is felt: cars collisions erupt with luggage and babies while laughter scampers around; the nose-diving of an aircraft concluding with a boom occurs in laughter (
The seemingly somber poems of Hughes, surfeit with a dark timber, are dilated and even entirely superficial on the verso. Hughes employs the notion of a phantom or a shadow to convey this thin, unreal, and mercurial dimension of reality. Extreme events are converted to ignorably small shadows or insubstantial ghosts. That is, the sublime and violent animality possesses another facet, spectrality, which Derrida proposes as a significant postmodern trait, and the weightlessness, indeterminacy, repetition, multitudinousness, and intensity of which he explores. Derrida claims that the postmodern spectrality suggests “life as forgetting itself,” the reducing of its weight, the forgetting of its consciousness, the forgetting of the maternal to make the obscure and thin spirit live in oneself (
Hughes imagines the midnight intrusion of crabs on the shore in procession into the human world as the advance of phantoms in “Ghost Crabs”:
These numerous crabs, like specters, multiply9 and venture to do revolutionary work such as invading and conquering human space. However, it is noteworthy that, because their advances seem to take them as harmlessly through the city as flies flit around bulls’ faces, the magnitude of the power that they yield looks rather feeble from another perspective. Their movement appears to overlay their traces in human societies without using tangible physical methods. In a similar vein, the astonishing achievement of a small mouse is only one of the muffled activities of a shadow without volume or mass, in “Song of a Rat”:
Detached from fierce reality, this shadow of the rat, although wielding the bloody power of “hell,” looks to be inflated, probably due to the poem’s repetitious use of the word, “shadow.” Hughes presents this sort of tenuous fictionality particularly by applying the device of a fable narrative, the high readability and distant safeness of which are very efficient for underplaying and stabilizing any large or serious events. When formidable animals are displaced unawares into the hilarious spaces of parables, their energy takes on an aspect of vain, childish power.
However, with no mass, pale spectrality sometimes generates surprise effects no less than reality, or even more than reality, owing to its astoundingly superficial flexibility, its tenuous absence, and its vacant otherness. Nick Bishop claims that, because there is a quality of a shadow in the imagery of Hughes’s crow, the animal can perform things “above and beyond humans,” even if it is technically below them. Although the shadow is inferior to consciousness and selfhood, it can swim without restraint, and resist against and even do harm to the intention of consciousness as “sheer animal unconsciousness” (112-13). What is lightsome becomes heavy, serious, and even terrible again, as the visit of unplaceable and unintelligible phantoms evokes an eerie atmosphere bracing for horror. Derrida contends that the more intimate lives exist here, the heavier “the specter of the other” is. This insubstantial spectrality “intensifies and condensed” itself within our realistic lives; no other thing is more serious than this (
This looming and unconstrained spectral effect again includes two features: attraction and repulsion—or fantasy and violence. Hughes qualifies the fantastical function of spectrality with teeming visual imagery and strong personification in “Ballad from a Fairy Tale,” in which the speaker observes the new moon, appearing to be a white swan, in a Yorkshire valley, and reinterprets it as a dazzling fairy:
This moon was once a melancholic nothingness and made the circulation as death in “New Moon in January” (
The insubstantial spectral shadows, on the other hand, exhibit dreadful forces from tenuous and untraceable spheres, as well as transmit cajoling illusions. In “Crow’s Elephant Totem Song,” Hughes depicts the embodiment of this appalling force by reappropriating from a beast fable: it is when the elephant passes through spectral situations that he eventually acquires the gargantuan energy. At first, the Creator makes the elephant a delicate, small animal, leading the hyenas to yearn for the elephant as a being that can save them from their hellish lives. Therefore, they remain close to the elephant but, after realizing that their metamorphosis is impossible, they tear out his entrails and even swallow the rest. After his miserable death, the elephant, by virtue of the pallid “blue shadow” of the afterlife, revives as a life form with mammoth energy, armed with “toothproof body and bulldozing bones” (
The spectral, inane, yet threatening force is linked to inconceivable reversal, which ignores any discrepancy between lower and higher levels: it is from the shot of its puny shadow, which has no impact upon anything, that the small rat makes the paramount Heaven tremble in “Song of a Rat”:
Central to this poem is the idea that the most trivial thing can penetrate any quality of existence regardless of its magnitude and invisibility. The rat, although it casts only the shadow of “[a] mouthful of screeches,” (
7This superficiality is, on the other hand, reinterpreted as the capacity for metamorphosing things into multiple forms. As Jarold Ramsey maintains, the crow like a trickster, in a sense, plays the diverse roles of devil, human, a medium, Christ, and a practical animal that seeks prey (178). 8Lacan claims that being from the perspective of postmodernism suffers “a fracture” or a splitting between itself and a paper tiger. The paper tiger as a thrown-off being or a mask plays its effects of shrinkage and exaggeration (106-07). 9Derrida argues that specters are “number[s]” that increase themselves because they are everywhere, and that, if we remove “a mob of specters” in a certain place, they still intrude in all places (SM 135). 10Lacan asserts that every picture possesses an “absent field” or the hole of a “screen,” which makes objects either retreat or become foregrounded (107-09). In this poem, like the double functions of a screen, the moon is exceptionally dazzling, because it is too conspicuous, while the other parts in the area recede from it.
In an interview with Ekbert Faas Hughes said that he was conscious of “a complete abolition of everything” in Crow and sought a new foundation in “pure inertia”—not in traditional metaphysics, but in strange animality such as that suggested by a crow (Fass 207). Therefore, in the study of Hughes, to trace the apocalyptic mood and the sense of existence is indispensable for comprehending his primary tenor. As in Philip Larkin’s
However, it is doubtful whether the questions that Hughes proposes are more complex and profound than those presented by William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, or John Ashbery. Before seeing traditional theologies as consolidated logos systems, Hughes should have remarked on the negative theology of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, and reconsidered the locus of nothingness in it. He seems to lack awareness that, even if logos can be included among God’s attributes, irrational states, such as ignorance and vacancy, can play significant roles in negative theology, that a logical system is not always disapproving, and that nothingness sometimes demands or even promotes rationality. In other words, the diverse traits that rational categorizations possess should be examined in greater depth. Also, as a result of allowing in overabundant violence, even to the degree of abusing the sublime, Hughes renders the dignity and sincerity of the sublime itself less useful. Derrida develops the paradoxical logic that in postmodernism the exploitation of violence procreates the restraint of it owing to self-negation. Hughes of course acknowledges the necessity of social rites because the wanton use of excessive violence is always a complex issue in society. However, we still wonder why he does not inscribe peace and justice more profoundly inside postmodernism.