In order to analyse the use of myth by poets after the Second World War it is first necessary to briefly discuss what myth is. Although the word has its root in the Greek word ‘mythos’, which basically translates into ‘story’, there is no precise definition of what it entails (William, 2004 : 12). Wagner and Lundeen’s (1998, p. 3) argue that ‘deep narratives derived from their culture’ inform back and shape our collective psyche and its cultural manifestations, such as religion and ancient tales. Literature, such as the ancient Homeric epics and the plays of Shakespeare, also qualify for mythopoeic status, as the line between myth and literature is blurred at best, one being the extension of the other (Gadd, 1997: 2). It is in the nature of myth to serve as rich symbolism at a social level. For example, mentioning of a serpent and an apple quickly brings to the western mind the notion of temptation and humankind’s inherent sinfulness; while mentioning Hercules invokes superhuman effort and humanity’s limitless possibilities. These myths work at subconscious levels to bring meaning to complex metaphysical concepts.
In a series of posts I will analyse three very different uses of myth by three very different poets: Ted Hughes and the Crow (1972) sequence of poems, Seamus Heaney and his concern with the goddess and Vikings in North (1975), and Phillip Larkin and his denial of mythical meaning.
Ted Hughes uses myth as a means of exploring the self and society. Myth to him is more than simple symbols of socially construed meaning: they are a link to our inner selves, connecting us to the alienated parts of our psyche. Thus myth is both real and imaginary (Faas, 1980, p. 49), Mythopoeic writing for Hughes serves a healing function much like Shamanism and its biological inevitability (Hughes, as found in Bentley, 1998: 7), by addressing the divide between man and nature (p. 16), reason and emotion, conscious and subconscious. While by far not representative of his complete works, his Crow sequence has nonetheless much to offer in terms of mythical allusions and Hughes’ implementation of such material.
The Crow, as a character, should be read, or so the author tells us, as a Trickster (Bentley, 1998, p. 40) is first presented to us in the poem ‘Two Legends’ where he is yet to be born from,
An egg of blackness/ Where sun and moon alternate their weather/ To hatch a crow, a black rainbow/ Bent in emptiness. Over emptiness/ But flying
The crow is to be born in a world of blackness, bent in emptiness and over emptiness, but still the poem ends with an image of flight, an image laden with positive implications. Here we see the positive nature of the Trickster as opposed to Black Comedy as described by Ted Hughes (in Bentley, 1998. p. 40): both deal with a world void of meaning and utterly damaged and ridiculous. While Black Comedy has a negative defeatist and bitter point of view, the Trickster is positive, filled with vitality despite all odds. ‘Examination at the Womb-door’, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead makes a better example of Crow’s nature as both sequence and character: all belongs to death, it is all powerful, ‘But who is stronger then death?’ ‘Me, evidently’ says Crow. His dogged persistence of life despite death, his intent on flying into the sun and calling it a victory (‘Crow’s Fall’) are exemplary of his immortal underdog status, his victory in attempt. Crow is energy itself, ‘the unkillable urge to keep trying’ (Sagar, 1978, p. 109). He is also a developing character (p. 110) since he is first born in the sequence from nothingness and no possibility in ‘Lineage’ and from there he embarks on his non-linear quest to attempt to understand ‘the horrors of creation’ (‘Crow Alights’).
Hughes systematically uses myth in order to achieve his desired effect of questioning the established concepts, to debunk reality and show it for its horrifying wasteland of meaning. Crow is therefore steeped in mythology (Sagar, 1978, p. 105) as he approaches the Judeo-Christian creational myth in ‘A Childish Prank’. Here it is Crow, not God, that breathes life into humankind and he does so in an utterly debasing manner, taking away any sanctity from human existence. It is gloriously vulgar and even funny in a humiliating way with the pun on ‘coming’, but life nonetheless. The next poem of the sequence ‘Crow’s First Lesson’ has God attempting to teach Crow the word love. In his first attempt Crow unleashes a white shark into the sea, in his second a blue fly, a tsetse and a mosquito, in his third and final attempt he has a man’s head become stuck in a woman’s vulva at which ‘God struggled to part them, cursed, wept–’. The omnipotent God of love of Christianity is represented as a weak, incompetent being out of touch with the starkness of existence which Crow, in this poem, represents. God in Crow represents mankind’s idealised misconception of reality, and only by partaking of his dead flesh and coming to terms with the dreadful ‘truth’ can one become stronger, ‘half-illumined’ (‘Crow Communes’). God is not the only figure that is conjured only to be subverted; ‘Crow’s Account of St George’ invokes the slayer of dragons only to represent him as a mathematical madman that kills his own family by imagining them as monsters. While Oedipus is also invoked to be used as a warning against the inevitability and all encompassing power of death (‘Oedipus Crow’), Ulysses and Hercules are each but nourishment and a minuscule part of Crow respectively, while Beowulf’s hide is used for protection (‘Crowego’) in the same way a cloak would be.
God, Adam, Eve, The Serpent, St George, Oedipus, Ulysses, Hercules, Beowulf are all present in order to guide the reader into the mythic subconscious, present at the very root of our psyche (Sagar, 1978, p. 2), and once there rip out its dark underbelly of meaning making, so as to bring its inner workings to the light of consciousness. Under this light one is brought to understand that meaning, be it mythical or linguistic, is a construct having no ‘concrete’ basis in ‘reality’ and can thus be dislodged and manipulated. Its power and effect, however, are more then real, as they directly affect our perception of existence, which is all individuals have since the ‘real’ is forever doomed to be distorted by our looking glasses. Hughes thus does not take language or reality at face value, and neither should the reader (Bentley, 1998, p. 4). Crow is a character that shows a great divide of meaning, a schism between reality and its representation by human language. His own symbolic meaning is fluid representing at times creative force, humankind, or an abstract embodiment of irony and chaos. He is a paradox in his own right, his existence is absolutely destructive and at the same time deeply creative. Making him quite the nightmare to analyse, his very nature being prone to fly off if one attempts to nail him down to a specific meaning, this creates the effect of keeping readers of the sequence ever adapting and changing their symbolical understanding of him and thus aware of the unreliability, and danger, of a single all encompassing interpretation.
That is not to say that Crow is the only sequence that is enriched by mythological material. It can be said that all of Hughes’ poetry benefits from mythical imagination in some way or another, Crow is in many ways an evolution for Hughes (Faas, 1980, p. 18) as it has its sources in previous sequences, such as the biblical creation myth poems ‘Theology’ and ‘Logos’ present in Wodwo (1967). God and the serpent are not the only mythical symbols that make reappearances in Crow as such is the case of the Goddess, also know as mother or more simply as nature. While most Crow poems deal with the consciousness (Gifford and Roberts, 1981, p. 112), the Goddess figure is a fully rounded symbol. It is nature and a natural state in all levels, be it psychological, social or historical, ‘positive’ such as nurturing and life generating, or ‘negative’ such as violence and death. The first appearance of the White Goddess figure in Crow is in the poem ‘Crow’s Undersong’, and it is also its first reappearance since The Hawk in the Rain (1957) (Faas, 1980, p. 109), although later editions of Crow include other poems such as ‘Crow Tries the Media’ which also can be said to address the Goddess figure. Arguably so does the poem ‘Crow and Mama’ which Faas does not account for, here the mythical mother earth figure is represented as being made to bleed by Crow who also cannot escape her. He stands in this poem for mankind’s inherent destructiveness and creativity. In ‘Crow Tries the Media’ the Goddess is a Muse that cannot be reached due to the distancing of the poet/singer of her through the blunting of his natural sensibilities by civilization. In the aforementioned ‘Crow’s Undersong’, Crow sings an elegy for the Gaia figure who ‘cannot count’ and ‘cannot last’. The poem is not without positive notes however as ‘if there had been no hope she would not have come.’ It recognizes not only her powerlessness but her power as well since without her, ‘there would have been no city’.
In Hughes, the mythical Goddess figure represents a nostalgic and Romantic loss of touch with innocence, which becomes a tragic sacrifice as experience and development progress, but it also becomes revered, idolized and forever out of touch. It is the poet’s job to reach out to her despite his jaded sensibilities in order to perform his shamanic duty and heal his people. Yet hers is also the realm of death and completion as she is paradoxically powerless and powerful. Myth is used in ‘Crow’ as a means of approaching the depths of the human psyche (Bentley, 1998, p. 6) and from there its sacramental foundation role is constantly demolished (p. 42) so as to take the reader in a flight beyond the crashing down of meaning and he consequential wasteland of despair.
- Bentley, P. 1998: The Poetry of Ted Hughes. Hurlow: Addison Wesley Longman
- Faas, E. (1980) Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press.
- Gadd, M. (1997) Myth. London: Routledge
- Hughes, T. (1972) Crow From the Life and Songs of the Crow. London: Faber and Faber.
- Hughes, T. (1995) New Selected Poems 1957 – 1994. London: Faber and Faber.
- Sagar, K. (1978) The Art of Ted Hughes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- William, G. D. (2004) Myth: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.