Eating Crow: Analyzing Biblical Imagery in the Life and Songs of Ted Hughes’s Crow Poems

Ted Hughes’s book, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, is a collection of 67 disturbingly dark poems that explore the evil aspects of life, and human tendency towards violence. The book, dedicated to Hughes’s dead second wife Assia Wevill and his daughter Shura, was published in 1972, three years after their deaths. While many of the poems have no mention of Crow, most of them are stories about Crow’s life told from an omniscient perspective. The question of Crow’s actual identity is an open debate among literary critics. He has been labeled a trickster figure, a preternatural, god-like being, and even Satan himself. While none of these definitions can entirely sum up the essence of Crow, they each offer an insight into his complex personality. He is portrayed as God’s pupil (“Crow’s First Lesson”; 11), God’s equal (“Crow Hears Fate Knock on the Door”; 14), and even as God’s superior (“Crow Blacker than Ever”; 63). Since the timeline of Crow runs from the events in the book of Genesis to a post-apocalyptic mating-scene (“Notes for a Little Play”; 81), there are numerous references to divinity and spirituality. The source for these references is sometimes Shamanism (which Hughes practiced), or the writings of ancient philosophers. But Hughes most often appropriates Biblical mythology to set the background for his tales.Many of the Crow poems are set in the Garden of Eden. In “A Childish Prank” (Hughes, 10), for instance, Hughes sets up a comical backdrop in the Garden with Adam and Eve lying, seemingly brain-dead and spiritless, on the ground while God sleeps nearby. God cannot figure out how to bring these “dully gaping” and “inert” bodies to life, and the problem vexes him to sleep. Enter Crow, the trickster, who bites “the Worm” in half and shoves one end in each person, forcing them to life and to sex, because the separation of the two halves of the Worm is unbearable. While this poem follows the characteristic extravagance of a cartoon, but also raises very profound spiritual questions. When Hughes says that Crow “bit the Worm, God’s only son”, is he trying to say that Satan, manifested in the book of Genesis as a serpent (also known as a worm), was actually God’s first and, at that time, only son? This notion of a father-son reltionship between God and the devil is similar to Milton’s portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost, where Satan, originally one of the most beautiful angels, is cast down from Heaven. The need of the man and the woman to “join up quickly” with each other to reconnect the two ends of the Worm is a poke that Hughes makes at sex and its relationship with religion, as it is “God’s only son” that meakes them come together.Another major Crow poem that takes place in the Garden of Eden is “Apple Tragedy” (Hughes, 73). Incorporating, once again, stylistically cartoonish elements, Hughes sets a quick pace of action to this poem with violence and comedy interspersed. It is the seventh day of creation, the day of God’s rest, and God feeds cider to the Serpent, Adam, and Eve. Eve seduces the Serpent and God tells Adam. When Adam tries to hang himself, Eve protests that the Serpent tried to rape her. Because of this, says the poem, whenever a woman sees a snake she will call for help, and man will “smash a chair on its head”, God will declare the he is “well pleased” and “everything [will] go to hell.” While not being as theologically profound as “A Childish Prank”, “Apple Tragedy” is an irreverent re-telling of the fall of man, from the thrid book of Genesis. Instead of the Fall being the work of Satan (the Serpent) or Adam and Eve, “Apple Tragedy” puts the blame at the feet of God, insisting that it was he who caused all of this to happen. This is another example of Hughes’s reinvention of mythology, how he takes a novel approach to old stories.Another common setting for the Crow poems is at Calvary, the location of Christ’s crucifixion. “The Contender” tells the story of a man, “the strongest of the strong”, who crucifies himself (Hughes, 35). John 19 tells of the attendance of Mother Mary at Christ’s crucifixion, while in “The Contender” “all the women in the world” come to the cross, but cannot move the man. A very moving poem, Hughes decides to close it in his characteristically unorthodox manner, calling the crucifixion a “senseless trial of strength”. This line of disparagement follows in many other poems, such as “Crow’s First Lesson” and “A Disaster,” where Hughes attacks Christianity for hurting, rather than saving, the world (Hughes 25, 11). “Crow’s Song of Himself” is about how Crow became Christ through God’s attempts to destroy him. These poems can be read as saying that no matter how much we (or God) try to suppress the darkness within us, it will always find a way to resurface. The “twist” of this poem is that instead of forgiving the thieves crucified with him (as Crist does in the Bible), Crow “strop[s] his beak and start[s] in on the two thieves.” Instead of the goodness of God being shown on the cross, the darkness within comes out and exacts vengeance on the taunting thief and his accomplice (Luke 23). Other allusions to Biblical mythology are found in “Lineage”, “Crow’s Account of the Battle”, “A Disaster”, and “Crow Blacker than Ever”. “Lineage” is a perverse take on the Old Testament practice of keeping track of genealogy in the famously monotonous style of “John begat Jacob, Jacob begat Isaac.” In “Lineage”, however, Hughes alludes to Genesis 1’s “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” with “In the beginning was Scream” (Hughes, 4). Then Hughes sets out to chronicle the history of man, passing through Adam, Mary, God (Jesus, born of Mary), but ends in “never never never/ Who begat Crow” to offer a very dark view of the future of humanity. Daniel Hoffman suggests that Hughes chooses to begin his book this way because it offers a “violent, primitive energy and [a] furious assault upon despair” that persists through the rest of the book (Hoffman, 1).”Crow’s Account of the Battle” is an obvious reference to the book of Revelation in the Bible (Hughes, 17). In it, Hughes uses the Apocalypse as the setting for his battle in which the “noise was as much/ As the limits of possible noise could take.” The most compelling and unique portion of the text, however, is not Hughes’ descriptions of the battle itself, but rather the reason for the battle:”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 to easily/ Bones were too like lath and twigs/ Blood was too like water/ Cries were too like silence.”Hughes makes the argument that the nature of man is so violent as to make the end of war incomprehensible: “shooting somebody through the midriff/ Was too like striking a match,” that is to say it was natural, easy, human. This is a damning conviction, not for human society, but for human nature itself. Hughes’s most vicious attack against Christianity is found in “A Disaster” (Hughes, 25). The Gospel of John, from the New Testament, begins with the words:”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning (John 1:1-2.”The use of the word “Word” in these verses is in reference to Jesus, saying that the Christian messiah existed before even the book of Genesis. Hughes slyly alludes to this in his poem “A Disaster,” which attacks God, accusing Him of creating a world of hurt. It begins, “There came news of a word/ Crow saw it killing men. He ate well.” Since Crow is a carrion bird, we can assume that the deaths caused by this “word” were actually working towards an evil purpose (feeding Crow). Hughes describes how the word “bulldozes/ Whole cities to rubble/ […] drinking out all the people/ Till there were none left” as it ravages the earth and pollutes it. The scenarios illustrates Hughes’s belief that the Christianity has spread violence and war more than peace and forgiveness. After a long period of “sucking the [world]/ Like the nipples of a sow”, the tidal wave of Christianity will begin to subside and recede, eventually becoming “a drying salty lake” whose “era [is] over” attended only by Crow, where he “walks and muses” (Hughes, 26). Paul Bently argues that this poem is simply a further instance of Crow’s aversion to the spoken word (Bentley, 2), but fails to properly acknowledge Hughes’s conscious appropriation of Biblical language as well. Hughes realized the power behind the term “word” and used it’s ambiguity to open the poem for multiple interpretations. The most intriguing and provocative of the Crow poems is, however, “Crow’s First Lesson”. Crow’s first lesson is a classic scene reminiscent of God’s dialogue with Satan in the book of Job. The basic premise behind the scene is God’s attempt to teach Crow to speak; instead of repeating the word “love”, as God asks Crow to do, Crow “gapes” and vomits out something terrible. The images are linked only in the primal essence that each evokes the first stanza Crow gapes and “the white shark crashed into the sea/ And went rolling downwards, discovering its own depth” (Hughes, 11). In the next stanza, Crow vomits out “a bluefly, a tsetse” and a mosquito all disease carrying insects who then “zoom out and down/ To their sundry flesh-pots.” Crow then produces “man’s bodiless prodigious head… jabbering protest” followed quickly by a vulva, which “drop[s] over man’s neck and tighten[s].” In this poem Hughes takes an unorthodox look at Creation examining different creations of God and their power for harm, such as the monstrous violence of a great white shark, or the disease-carrying insects. The commentary Hughes offers is that while God is trying to produce a certain idea of love, Crow produces reality before vomiting out another creation, Crow “gapes”, a play on God’s word for love agape. Agape is the Greek word for spiritual, non-sexual love, understood as the selfless love Jesus practiced for other people. Besides the setting of God and Crow interacting, Hughes alludes to the Creation story found in Genesis for his images: the image of the shark “discovering its own depth” in the ocean coincides with Genesis 1:6, where God creates an “expanse between the waters to separate water from water” (Genesis 1:6). This is the first cycle of Creation found in “Crow’s First Lesson”, but is followed quickly by God making “the water teem with living creatures” manifested in Crow’s producing of the mosquito, bluefly and tsetse (Genesis 1:20). These disease-carrying insects are also part of God’s creation, Hughes points out, and they represent his second cycle of Creation. “Man’s bodiless prodigious head” is Hughes’s image for the creation of Man: “Let us make man in our image,” God declared, “and in our likeness.” The final image, of woman’s vulva strangling Man comes from the creation of woman: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called “woman”, for she was taken out of man,” declares Adam, and Woman was made. Woman, the final cycle of Creation, is the tightening vulva in “Crow’s First Lesson”. John Michael Crafton, a professor at the University of Tennesse, has pointed out another joke hidden here by Hughes regarding the bizarre image of the vulva strangling man’s head:The joke here is that since love is impossible without strife, attraction meaningless without repulsion, and since the sentimental goal of love is unity, Crow provides the logical extension of that goal, love and strife bound together in immobile suffocation (Crafton, 33).Crafton’s analysis of the imagery is both interesting and humourous, but the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles also has a say in the matter: Empedocles is known today for his “unified view of the universe” in which he separated all ethereal objects into four categories: the water element (manifested here by the shark and the ocean), the element of air (the flies), the element of earth (man), and the element of fire (“the vulva corona around man’s head”) (Crafton, 33). This interpretation works well with the Creationist theory, that Hughes wrote the poem to follow the order of the Creation story. Hughes was not only a talented wordsmith, but also a scholar of ancient mythology, both Biblical and pagan. His interest and devotion to Shamanism has informed much of his poetry as well; reading his work without a background in these areas can leave the reader a little perplexed at missing many of the allusions. Hughes’s interest in the Biblical story had a tremendous impact on the content of his poetry, and knowing the references will help open up the Crow poems to the reader.BibliographyBently, Paul. “Depression and Ted Hughes’s Crow, or Through the Looking Glass and what Crow Found There.” 1997. Twentieth Century Literature. Vol. 43. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 1999. 27.The Bible : New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002.Crafton, John Michael. “Hugh’s Crow’s First Lesson.” Explicator. Vol. 46, Issue 2 (1998): 32. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Capilano Coll. Lib., North Vancouver. 8 Nov. 2004. Keywords: Crow’s First Lesson.Hoffman, Daniel. “A review of Crow.” 1971. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 119. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 1999. 258-260.Hughes, Ted. Crow. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.Hughes, Ted. New and Selected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.McFay, Donald F. “Animal Music: Ted Hughes’s Progress in Speech and Song.” 1981. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 119. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 1999. 263-267.Witte, John C. “Wotan and Ted Hughes’s Crow.” 1980. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 119. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 1999. 260-263.

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