Ted Hughes and mythology

Andy Armitage explains how Ted Hughes used mythology to think and write about vitality and death. In doing so, Hughes drew not only on ancient myths but also on the work of previous writers influenced by mythology, such as Robert Graves, W B Yeats and Carl Jung.

An understanding of Ted Hughes’s preoccupation with myth is crucial for any sympathetic reading of his poetry or prose. By his own admission, Hughes was attracted to myths from an early age: ‘I began reading myths and folklore when I was thirteen or fourteen, and for years, apart from poetry, that was pretty well all I read’.[1] At Cambridge, Hughes switched from English to Anthropology in his second year following a disturbing dream in which he was visited by a burnt fox.[2] He interpreted the dream as a warning that in his literary studies he was neglecting his inner life, which he associated with the imagination, myth and creativity. Throughout his life he claimed the fox as a totemic animal that appeared at critical times to alert him to some crisis.

The Hawk in the Rain by Ted Hughes, Faber edition

The Hawk in the Rain by Ted Hughes, Faber edition

Front cover from the Faber edition of The Hawk in the Rain, Ted Hughes’s first collection of poetry (1957).

View images from this item  (10)

Usage terms Ted Hughes: © The Ted Hughes Estate. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Ted Hughes Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder. © Reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd.

In an article to introduce his first book of poems The Hawk in the Rain (1957), Hughes said: ‘What excites my imagination is the war between vitality and death and my poems may be said to celebrate the exploits of the warriors of either side’.[3] For Hughes, vitality and death were the divine forces in nature that early man had attempted to control and make sense of through myth and ritual. In The White Goddess, which Hughes described as ‘the chief holy book of my poetic consciousness,’[4] Robert Graves argued that the original function of the poet was to write hymns for the archaic matriarchal ‘Triple Goddess’ of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. Archaeologists have found around 30,000 goddess figurines that, in dating as far back as 20,000 BC, represent some of the earliest relics of human art and culture throughout Eastern Europe, Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.[5]

The White Goddess by Robert Graves

The White Goddess by Robert Graves

Ted Hughes learnt of the Goddess myth from Robert Graves's The White Goddess (1948), which he was given a copy of at the age of 18 by John Fisher, a favourite teacher.

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms Robert Graves: © Estate of Robert Graves and Carcanet Press. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Faber & Faber (front cover): © Reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

According to Graves, for our distant ancestors that worshipped her, the ‘Triple Goddess’ was associated with the moon and its three phases of waxing, full and waning, which seemed to correspond with the natural drama of birth, death and rebirth. She was responsible for all acts of generation – physical, spiritual and intellectual – but was creative and destructive by turns, and would exact revenge for betrayals or neglect. Noting the phases of the moon and their connection with the female menstrual cycle, the Goddess was thought to turn blood to life, and her bloodthirsty reputation led to rituals involving animal and human sacrifice.

The first poets’ songs celebrated the sacredness of life and death and the connection between human and divine nature by recounting an episode from the 'Theme’ or the ‘original myth’ of the Goddess and her consort. The Theme is this: the God of the Waxing Year (the Sacred King), who is the Goddess’s consort, is killed at the Summer Solstice and replaced by the God of the Waning Year (the Tanist). At the Winter Solstice, the resurrected Sacred King kills and usurps the God of the Waning Year, and so on. In his songs, the poet identified himself as the Sacred King and consort of the Goddess (hence the origin of the Muse tradition) and the Tanist is his Rival, his brother, his Weird.[6]

Graves believed that for our ancient ancestors the Theme had originally provided a warning that man should keep in harmony with the family of animals among which he lived in obedience to the ‘Lady of the House’. However, the Theme now offered a reminder that we have disregarded this warning through our experiments in philosophy, science and industry, have betrayed the Goddess, and have brought ruin on ourselves and our family.[7]

According to Hughes, the philosophical and intellectual ideals of Western civilisation over the last 300 years had alienated man from his inner life. The distrust and denial of the ‘subjective’ inner life of instinct and feeling had led to the sickness that psychoanalysis had discovered at the turn of the 20th century. By rejecting as ‘untrustworthy’ the subjective element of our experience and relying solely on our objective principles to define our ‘truths’, Hughes believed we were denying ‘the most important part of our experience’.[8] He complained that the ‘human spirit’ was not a ‘mechanical business of nuts and bolts’ and could not evolve into such ‘just because a political or intellectual ideology requires it to’.[9] Like Graves, he believed that since the Bronze Age, poetry had become intellectualised and had gone into decline and decay until the Romantic revivals which attempted to re-establish the connection between man and nature.

Hughes was influenced by the work of Carl Jung, Robert Graves, W B Yeats, Mircea Eliade and Paul Radin, and he employed anthropological and psychological registers interchangeably to describe the creative process. He believed all forms of art were a natural healing process that employed the psychic equivalent of the immune system. At times he described the creative process as a form of Jungian ‘individuation’, through which the contents of the individual’s personal and collective unconscious are made conscious, through the experience of archetypes, providing the psyche with a sense of wholeness, meaning and purpose. At others, he compared the role of the poet to that of the shamanic healer of primitive tribes who descended into the underworld to recover a sick man’s soul, or to perform some task to resolve a crisis afflicting his tribe. Essentially, he understood the poet as performing a quasi-religious function in providing a healing image that reconnected man with his inner self and nature.

Manuscript draft reviews by Ted Hughes, for books on Shamanism and Wilfred Owen

Manuscript draft reviews by Ted Hughes on Shamanism and Wilfred Owen

Ted Hughes compares the poetry of William Shakespeare, John Keats, W B Yeats and T S Eliot to a form of shamanic practice, in a draft of a book review, c. 1963.

View images from this item  (24)

Usage terms © The Ted Hughes Estate. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Ted Hughes Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

Hughes saw myths as enduring visionary narratives which through their archetypal images and drama brought order and balance to the incoherent opposing forces of the inner and outer worlds: ‘A story that engages, say, earth and the underworld … contains not merely the space and in some form or other, the contents of these two places; it reconciles their contradictions in a workable fashion and holds open the way between them’.[10]

In his prose criticism of Keats, Coleridge, Yeats, Eliot, Plath and Shakespeare, Hughes identified a myth in each poet’s writings; each myth, he believed, contained the poet’s ‘fate’ in that it provided an archetypal pattern that magnetised the poet’s psychic life in a particular ‘inevitable’ direction, and, in doing so, helped the poet to resolve a personal spiritual crisis. In healing themselves, these visionaries wrote poetry that also had a healing effect upon their readers.

In his most ambitious critical writing, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), Hughes argued that Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre was a reworking of episodes from the myth of Venus and Adonis (a variant of the original Theme) which he used as a dramatic ‘Equation’ to drive the plays towards a resolution of tragedy (death) or rebirth (redemption):

By constructing his basic Equation out of living myth, [Shakespeare] is able to create dramas which, no matter how secular they seem, or how real in the dimension of external historic event and of psychology, nevertheless embody and communicate a very particular ‘mythic’ dimension…’[11]

Hughes’s preoccupation with the neglected inner life is apparent in his early poems through the observation of animals that embody the, often violent, elemental energies of nature. These animals are often contrasted with human observers who are divorced from their instincts and feelings by their philosophical ideals. In ‘Thrushes’ (THC.82–3), the birds are ‘Terrifying’ to the observer because of the divine vitality they exhibit. They are ‘Triggered to stirrings beyond sense’ and are not plagued by the ‘indolent procrastinations’ and ‘yawning stares’ that distract man. There is a ruthless ‘genius’ in the way the birds intuitively perform their role within the machinery of nature. Similarly, the hawk of ‘Hawk Roosting’ suffers ‘no falsifying dream’ about its predatory role within creation. Its urge to kill and eat is not motivated through conscious reason: (‘there is no sophistry in my body… no arguments assert my right’ (THC.68–9)). In ‘The Jaguar’ the visitors at a zoo are ‘mesmerized’ by the big cat that prowls the floor of its cage refusing the artificial limits imposed upon it: ‘there’s no cage to him / More than the visionary his cell’ (THC.19–20). While the jaguar offers a symbol of the imprisoned inner life, in ‘An Otter’ we encounter an animal that, like the shaman, is able to travel between two worlds. The otter is ‘neither fish nor beast’ and is ‘Of neither water nor land.’ It descends and returns like the visionary poet ‘Seeking / Some world lost when first he dived, that he cannot come at since’ (THC.79). The most important animal in Hughes’s menagerie appears in ‘The Thought-Fox’. In this poem, the poet sits by a starless window, at midnight, with a blank page before him, awaiting inspiration. Gazing out of the window he senses ‘Something else is alive’ that approaches setting ‘neat prints into the snow’ until ‘with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox / It enters the dark hole of the head’ and ‘the page is printed.’ (THC.21) The thought-fox is neither a thought nor an animal; it inhabits and reconciles the contradictions of the inner and outer worlds, it is an embodiment of the substance of true poetry.

The Hawk in the Rain by Ted Hughes, Faber edition

The Hawk in the Rain by Ted Hughes, Faber edition

‘The Thought-Fox’ by Ted Hughes, published in his first poetry collection, The Hawk in the Rain (1957).

View images from this item  (10)

Usage terms Ted Hughes: © The Ted Hughes Estate. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Ted Hughes Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder. © Reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd.

Hughes controlled the unruly energies of his early animal poems through rhyme and meter but by the time of Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970), his poetry had evolved into a loose and stark mythic surrealism. The poems of Crow were based around the tales of Native American trickster folklore, which Hughes subverts, deconstructs and recontextualises with an assortment of myths, folk tales and biblical stories. Hughes never completed the full narrative he originally intended for Crow, but, broadly speaking, the poems describe the various legends of Crow’s birth, his interference with creation and his wanderings as he comes to terms with the appetites and laws that govern his existence. During a reading of Crow, Hughes pointed out that ‘The Crow is another word, of course, for the entrails, lungs, heart, etcetera — everything extracted from a beast when it is gutted. The Crow of a man, in other words, is the essential man only minus his human looking vehicle, his bones and muscles’.[12] With this in mind, Crow can be seen as an image of humanity’s potential stripped of its ego-centred personality. On a personal level, however, Hughes appears to have used Crow as a way to come to terms with his feelings of guilt after Sylvia Plath’s suicide. As the consummate survivor, Crow is ‘stronger than death’ (THC.219) and after enduring the most apocalyptic of disasters, he is typically driven by an instinctual urge to ‘start searching for something to eat’ (THC.209).

Crow by Ted Hughes, with artwork by Leonard Baskin

Crow by Ted Hughes, with artwork by Leonard Baskin

Front cover, featuring a drawing by Leonard Baskin, from the first edition of Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970).

View images from this item  (6)

Usage terms Ted Hughes: © The Ted Hughes Estate. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Ted Hughes Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder. © Reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. Leonard Baskin: © The Estate of Leonard Baskin, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

The major collections of Hughes’s middle-period introduced a mythic narrative of descent and return. Cave Birds (1975) follows a loose narrative in which a male protagonist is ‘accused’, ‘brought to trial’ and ‘executed’ for a crime against a female victim. Neil Roberts has suggested that these poems represent ‘the most complete and unified expression of Hughes’ central myth – which is the crime of modern humanity against nature’. Roberts also points out that, on a personal level, Cave Birds helped Hughes confront the guilt he felt following the deaths of Assia and Shura Wevill, and of his mother, who passed away shortly after hearing of their deaths.[13]

In Gaudete (1977) the narrative’s protagonist, an Anglican clergyman the Reverend Nicholas Lumb, is carried away into the ‘other world’ by elemental spirits and replaced by a ‘changeling’. When the changeling is killed and Lumb returns, he wanders the country composing hymns dedicated to nature and the Goddess, a number of which are collected in Gaudete’s ‘Epilogue’. In a 1977 letter to Ekbert Faas, Hughes confessed that the poems of the Epilogue were ‘little prayers’ that he began writing after suffering a chronically sore throat for around a year and suspecting he might have cancer.[14]

Several months before his death, Hughes published his final major sequence, which he had been writing in secret for over 20 years.[15] Birthday Letters (1998) provides a mythopoeic account of episodes from his relationship with Sylvia Plath and the aftermath of her suicide. Hughes’s mythic treatment of these autobiographical events was criticised by many of his early reviewers who accused him of employing myth as a strategy to avoid responsibility for Plath’s death. In her New York Times review, Katha Pollitt complained that ‘Incident after incident makes the same point… I didn't kill her – poetry, Fate, her obsession with her dead father killed her’.[16] Another reviewer, James Woods, complained that the use of myth simply denied the reader access to the poems’ ‘real, particular’ subjects, Hughes and Plath.[17]

Lynda Bundtzen has observed that in approaching Birthday Letters as autobiography rather than as a work of art, we ignore the poems’ literary value. A more useful approach, she suggests, is to accept the poems’ ‘fictive’ terms and engage with the treatment of the events being recounted.[18] In examining the myths within Birthday Letters Bundtzen notes an ‘implicit analogy between Hughes and Orpheus’ throughout the sequence, and points out that in ‘A Picture of Otto’ Hughes descends into the underworld to ask Otto Plath for the return of his daughter.[19] The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice would have been a compelling myth for Hughes during the composition of Birthday Letters, given the many parallels it offered to the story he wanted to tell.

Orpheus, of course, was the first poet whose songs were said to captivate wild animals. His lover, Eurydice, was killed while fleeing the amorous pursuit of Aristaeus, the beekeeper. The correlation between Aristaeus and Plath’s father, an entomologist with an expertise in bumblebees, must have been startling for Hughes, and, in Birthday Letters, the poetic inspiration that leads Plath’s bee poems is an omen that signals the return of her dead father. Hughes would also have known that the Thracian myth of Orpheus was a variant of the original Theme. By casting himself as Orpheus, Hughes was identifying himself with the Sacred King, Plath with the betrayed and vengeful Goddess, and her resurrected father as the double with whom he must contend to recover her.

The Orphic myth of death and return offered Hughes a healing pattern through which he made sense of his first marriage and his posthumous relationship with Plath’s writings in Birthday Letters. It enabled him to recover his private impressions, celebrate the life and grieve the loss of a version of Plath that we do not necessarily encounter in her writings or in the writings of her biographers. At the close of Birthday Letters, in the sequence’s last poem ‘Red’, Hughes attempts one final act of mythic alchemy by undertaking a descent into the ‘pit of red’ (THC.1170), imagery that pervades Plath’s poetry and returning with a life-affirming aspect of her, in the sequence’s final image of a blue jewel.

THC – Ted Hughes, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 2003).


[1] Letters of Ted Hughes, ed. by Christopher Reid (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p.  679.

[2] See Ted Hughes, ‘The Burnt Fox’ [1993], Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 9.

[3] Claire Brown and Don Paterson, Don't Ask Me What I Mean: Poets in their Own Words (London: Picador, 2003), p. 122.

[4] Letters of Ted Hughes, p. 96.

[5] See Erich Neumann, The Great Mother (1955) trans. by Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).

[6] Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001 [1948]), p. 24.

[7] Ibid. 14.

[8] Ted Hughes, ‘Myth and Education’ [1993], Winter Pollen, p. 144.

[9] Ibid. 149.

[10] Ibid. 1389.

[11] Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 3.

[12] Ted Hughes, Crow (Faber-Penguin Audio Books, 1997).

[13] Neil Roberts, ‘Cave Birds’, The Ted Hughes Society, http://thetedhughessociety.org/cave-birds. [Accessed 30 March 2016.]

[14] Ekbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe, (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980), p. 138.

[15] The poems ‘Chaucer’, ‘You Hated Spain’, ‘The Earthenware Head’, ‘The Tender Place’, ‘Black Coat’, ‘Being Christlike’, ‘The God’ and ‘The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother’ appeared in Hughes’s New Selected Poems (1994) but critics did not appear to pick up on the poems’ significance at this time.

[16] Katha Pollitt, ‘Peering Into the Bell Jar’, The New York Times, 1 March 1998.

[17] James Wood, ‘Muck Funnel: Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes', The New Republic, 30 March, 1998; 218, 13.30.

[18] Lynda Bundtzen, ‘Mourning Eurydice: Ted Hughes as Orpheus in Birthday Letters’, Journal of Modern Literature, 23.3 (2000), 45.

[19] Ibid.

  • Andy Armitage
  • Dr Andy Armitage is editor of The Modern Poetry website, poet and independent scholar living in Leeds, West Yorkshire. He has published poetry in the UK and in New Zealand (where he lived for several years). He is currently working on a study of Ted Hughes’s use of myth in Birthday Letters - ‘The Birthday Letters Myth’.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.