Roger Elkin: "Ted Hughes and 'A Separate Little Self'" (part vi)

Dully And A Little Learning (ctd.)

The conflict in both poems echoes Hughes's ideas in "Shakespeare's Poem" of the struggle between the energies of the pre-Celtic Goddess, who, like Cleopatra, was "the old Mediterranean serpent goddess",[49] and Cromwell, "the young Puritan Jehovah"[50] who ridding religion of its Marist dominance was largely responsible for the schism between man and Nature, and man from his own inner world. Hughes, cognizant of Octavius Caesar's contribution as Emperor Augustus to the Roman acceptance of Christianity as a weapon in its imperial and economic schemes, presents his politics as resulting in the schism in mankind between Formalists and Romantics. In keeping with Hughes's comments on the mythological nature of Christianity, he presents Christ, traditionally the God of love, as a "vengeful" combatant "multiplying Pentecost" "like an amoeba", and concludes that for mankind generally the result of the struggle between commercialistic-imperialism (Caesar's "money-mould") and sensitivity (Christ's "effeminate soul") has been that

ever since we've had to take sides and everybody's lost
By half.

In these opening stanzas the concept of the split in man between the Romantic and the Rationalist is a development of Graves's thesis of the replacement of the White Goddess of instinct and creativity by the Apollonian God Of Logos, of intellect and reason:

The result of envisaging this god of pure meditation, The Universal Mind still premised by the most reputable modern philosophers, and enthroning him above Nature as essential Truth and Goodness was not an altogether happy one … The new God claimed to be as dominant as Alpha and Omega, The Beginning and the End, pure Holiness, pure Good, pure Logic, able to exist without the aid of woman … The outcome was a philosophical dualism with all the tragicomic woes attendant on spiritual dichotomy. If the True God, the God of Logos, was pure thought, pure good, whence came evil and error? Two separate creations had to be assumed: the true spiritual Creation and the false material Creation.[51]

It also echoes Jung's concept of the divided nature of man. In both instances, man has suffered: through the resulting conflict, he is in half, and lacking unity with self. As Jung states,

It is … rather a futile undertaking to disinfect Olympus with rational enlightenment. The gods are not there; they are ensconced in the shadows of the unconscious … Rationalism is certainly called for in many pursuits, but as soon as it leaves the scientific laboratory to trespass in the domains of life it always expects the things that never happen. Reason has never ruled life.[52]

It is also possible that the "effeminate soul" is a reference to Sophia, Holy Wisdom, the eternal wisdom of God or the Logos. Jung makes several references to Sophia or Sophia-Sapienta, either as "Wisdom and the Mother of Christ"[53] or the "Gnostic interpretation of the Holy Ghost as the feminine and motherly"[54]; or as a "Mother type – 'the Mother of God, the Virgin, and Sophia'".[55] In the latter example, the female Holy Trinity counterbalances the patriarchal triple God, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Hughes seems to be suggesting that the usurpation of Marist and maternal belief has led to the replacement of the "effeminate soul" by an aggressive, "vengeful", masculine force, when

The archaic reign of the Great Goddess was being put down finally and decisively, by a pragmatic, skeptical, moralizing, desacralizing spirit … of the ascendant, Puritan God of the individual conscience, the Age of Reason cloaked in the Reformation.[56]

In the central couplets, mankind's loss is depicted as the dominance of imperialistic militancy over slave mentality and morality, here presented in the form of Sonia, a composite figure drawn from several countries and cultures, and representative of the subjugated female Goddess overthrown by masculine rigidity. Initially, Hughes probably has in mind another Sophia, Sophia Semenova, who as Sonia is the heroine of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the action of which is located in St. Petersburg, which is also mentioned in Hughes's poem. A prostitute by circumstance, and a devout Christian, Sonia selflessly supports and shelters the murderer Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov's ideas concerning the two distinct types of mankind coincide markedly with Hughes's delineation in "The Tiger's Bones" and "Humanities", and have similarity with the ideas expressed by Plath in the final paragraph of her Cambridge thesis, "The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky's Novels", where she employs Jungian terminology to point her argument:

Although the figure of the Double has become a harbinger of danger and destruction, taking form as it does from the darkest of human fears and representations, Dostoevsky implies that recognition of our various mirror images and reconciliation with them will save us from disintegration. This reconciliation does not mean a simple or monolithic resolution of conflict, but rather a creative acknowledgement of the fundamental duality of man; it involves a constant courageous acceptance of the eternal paradoxes within the universe and within ourselves.[57]

In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov is not concerned with the duality of man, but with man as divided into two distinct categories. Justifying his actions, he argues that,

Nature divides man into two categories: the first, an inferior one, comprising ordinary men … whose function is to reproduce specimens like themselves; the other a superior one, comprising men who have the gift or power to make a new word, thought or deed felt .., men who break the law, strive, according to their capacity or power to do so. Their crimes are naturally relative ones, and of varied gravity. Most of these insist upon the destruction of what exists in the name of what ought to exist.[58]

As a special example of the second class of men, Raskolnikov cites Napoleon:

The real ruler – the man who dares all, bombards Toulon, massacres in Paris, abandons an army in Egypt, gets rids of half a million men on his Moscow campaign, and gets off scot-free at Vilna … When he is dead and gone, people put up statues for him; everything seems allowable in his case.[59]

Hughes, however, reverses Raskolnikov's deification. He has little sympathy with such militancy, and so belittles Napoleon's Russian campaign by describing his imperial ambition as "beating out wretched Sonia's life".

In the following couplet Hughes transfers his empathy with the ordinary man's loss from Czarist-dominated serfs and the Emperor's soldiers to the subject-race of the Mississippi negroes. In a powerfully-evocative passage Hughes describes how their loss of freedom and their later drive for emancipation were channelled into an adoption and adaptation of Christianity fired by their racial memories of primitive drumming and song:

Blue-black Sonia rising from the Mississippi, stamping a drum
Uttering mind-darkening cries and fetching black blood up
and calling on her kingdom come.

The conflict between western theological thought and their innate songs of freedom, Hughes suggests, compounds their slavery by adding a spiritual bondage to their political, physical and racial subjugation. In aping the white man, religion might bring solace initially, and inspire political freedom and racial equality later, but simultaneously increases their imprisonment.

In the final four couplets Hughes identifies the slave mentality with the oppressor rather than with the oppressed. Sonia is pictured as representative of the inter-war German society, slowly, but steadily and relentlessly, adopting the policies of Adolf Hitler:

Sonia growing a small neat moustache
And flinging first Germany then all Europe
into her furnace –

Half to pig-iron, half to ashes
Which blew into all the books and films as dumb girls
with flower faces.

The lines economically convey the rise of Fascism; the industrial rebirth of Germany; the racialist ideologies; the extermination of subject races; and the public, decent face of a young nation, here represented as the new art form of films, where Sonia appears as bland, unquestioning ("dumb") girls, whose "flower faces" lure men into loss of reason.

The subject matter of the final two couplets connects "Humanities" with Hughes's reworking of the St. George myths as developed in The Iron Man (1968), and the poems, "Gog", "Crow's Account of St. George" and "Revenge Fable" (CP, pp. 225 and 244). In "Myth and Education" (1970) Hughes is critical of that element in western mentality which when faced with the unknown, the supranormal, the extra-human, turns against it, tries to suppress or destroy it, or, at best, ignore it. He suggests that the reason for this response lies in the "prohibition of imagination the breakdown of all negotiations between our scientific mental attitude and our inner life".[60]As part of the process of restoration, Hughes encourages modern educationalists to use myth and folklore to reinstate imagination "in the most vital activity of all … understanding ourselves".[61]

Arguing that "imaginative literature is therapeutic and does have a magical effect on people's minds and on their ultimate behaviour", he warns that while some literary works are "hospitals where we heal" others are "battle-fields where we get injured".[62] As example of the two sorts he contrasts his own story, The Iron Man, with the St. George myths which gave Christian support to the suppressive element.

If I were trying to bring it [The Iron Man] back into ordinary, traditional terms, as in the St. George story, my little boy and his iron man would be like St. George in his armour … this innocent, virginal being inside this mechanized protective, aggressive, defensive case. And he'd destroy the monster or send it rolling back into space. But the story of St. George is one example of the sort of story you do not tell to children … It records in fact and it sets up as an ideal pattern for any dealing with unpleasant and irrational experience, the complete suppression of terror. In other words it is the symbolic story of creating a neurosis, and it's the key to the neurotic-making dynamics of Christianity. Christianity in suppressing the devil, in fact suppresses imagination and suppresses vital natural life.[63]

Although the complete text of the three-sectioned "Gog" did not appear until 1967, the reference to Germany and St. George clearly form a link with "Humanities". This is confirmed by the fact that "Gog – I" is contemporaneous with "Dully Gumption's College Courses". Hughes states that "Gog"

actually started as a description of the German assault through the Ardennes and turned into the dragon in Revelation. It alarmed me so much I wrote a poem about the Red Cross Knight just to set against it with the idea of keeping it under control.[64]

Hughes's Red Cross Knight in "Gog – III" is a "hooded horseman of iron". He is a composite figure drawn from English myth; the Red cross Knight of Book I of Edmund Spencer's "Faerie Queene"; Revelation; and Hughes's interpretation, after Graves, of the schism in Shakespearian England between "the nature Goddess" and the masculine, Puritan, Jehovah figure. Drawing on Spencer's model of the Faerie Queene as Queen Elizabeth, and the Red Cross Knight's symbolic value as the true religion (i.e. Anglicanism), Hughes's horseman is a complex symbol. In Shakespeare's Poem Hughes suggests that the Puritan Jehovah figure merely displaced the pagan Goddess; and posits that the conflict between their representative forces has persisted throughout history:

When this suppressed nature goddess erupts, possessing the man who denied her, and creating the king-killing man of chaos, Shakespeare has conducted what is essentially an erotic poetry into an all-inclusive body of political action – especially that action in which a rightful ruler is supplanted by a half-crazed figure who bears in some form the mark of the beast.[65]

The application of these ideas in "Gog" and "Humanities" is complicated by the fact that in both cases the Nature Goddess appears as a threatening monster both controlling and controlled by a male-dominated world. In "Gog – III" Hughes's "half-crazed figure", the knight, sets out relentlessly to kill the dragon, Gog. Depicted as being born out of the "wound-gash in the earth", "Out of the blood-dark womb" (symbolic of the nurturing powers of the creative/destructive Goddess) the knight, the "Holy Warrior" of the patriarchal God of Reason, comes across the Dragon wearing the holy grail as a helmet:

Through slits of iron, his eyes have found the helm of the enemy, the grail,
The womb-wall of the dream that crouches there, greedier than a foetus,
Suckling at the root-blood of the origins, the salt-milk drug of the mothers. (CP, p. 163)

Thus, paralleling Spencer's Red Cross Knight, the iron horseman's quest, which is to lead to self-identification and the liberty of the individual from its past, includes the destruction of the monstrous mother-figure who has created him.

In "Humanities" the Red Cross Knight features as St. George, symbolic of a self-righteous, pre-Puritanical knight of light on the one hand; and, on the other, as the patron saint of England, valiantly and independently waging a war against the dragon of Germany. St. George's quest is the freedom of the subjugated female, Sonia, imprisoned by Prussian militarism and Hitler's half-crazed bestiality. Hitler's period of dictatorship, a new "dark ages", is marked by its efficient armour, both industrially and militaristically ("pig-iron" and "helmed with a modern capital") against which St. George as symbol of English military crusading spirit wages a campaign which because of its persistence and historically-cyclic nature, "as a flower" (see "Thistles", CP, p. 147) is equally as relentless, and perhaps as mindless, as that of the enemy:

Under which flower again there rages
The whorish dragon of the dark ages

Helmed with a modern capital and devouring
Virginal St. George as a flower.

As with several poems of the period "Humanities" occupies a transitional position in Hughes's clarification of theme and idea. "Crow's Account of St. George", in keeping with the general scenario of reversal of myth that informs the complete cycle, locates St. George firmly in the twentieth century. This time he is not a war-mongering knight, but a scientist, purified by the kind of zealous intellectualizing which Hughes attacks in "Myth and Education", and "The Tiger's Bones". Under the banner of education, and armed with rationality and fact, this knight of science has cut himself off from the world of Nature. He wars against ignorance, destroying the dragon of Nature by calculated, mathematical and scientific formulae:

He sees everything in the Universe
Is a track of numbers racing towards answer …
                        He makes a silence.

He refrigerates an emptiness,
Decreates all to outer space,
Then unpicks numbers …
With the faintest breath
He melts cephalopods and sorts raw numbers
Out of their dregs. With tweezers of numbers
He picks the gluey heart out of an inaudibly squeaking cell –

With a knife-edge of numbers
He cuts the heart cleanly in two. (CP, p. 225)

Like Gog, Crow discovers that his quest for truth is destructive of self, and "everybody's lost, By half"; for Crow's dragon turns out to be his own loved ones:

Drops the sword and runs dumb-faced from the house
Where his wife and children lie in their blood.

A similarly-direct attack on scientific materialism and its destruction of the life-affirming qualities of Mother Nature forms the argument of "Revenge Fable":

There was a person
Could not get rid of his mother …
So he pounded and hacked at her
With numbers and equations and laws
Which he invented and called truth.
He investigated, incriminated
And penalized her …
Going for her with a knife,
Obliterating her with disgusts
Bulldozers and detergents …
With all her babies in her arms, in ghostly weepings,
She died. (CP, p. 244)

In destroying Nature, Hughes warns, man might be destroying self.

Similar ideas pervade the Recklings poems "Poltergeist" and Fishing At Dawn which while not included in "Dully Gumption's College Courses" share a similar genesis. "Poltergeist" extends the historical survey offered in "Humanities" to such an extent that it might well have been part of Hughes's initial concept of offering a pocket-guide to University curricula. The content, drawn mainly from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, fills the time vacuum initiated in "Semantics" and developed in "Humanities". Like the latter, the poem deals in the main with men of half-crazed persuasion at conflict with the natural energies of the whole man. The poltergeist of the title is the ghost of the forces of "natural law and love" which is identified with nineteenth century Romanticism and which threatens to overthrow the male supremacy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the periods of religious and cultural restraint and rationality. The product of the conflict is the re-awakening whether of the earth-goddess jealous of the male-dominated Wesleyan Methodism, or of "spirits and ghouls" that taunt the rationalist's attempts to contain Nature in a formal strait-jacket. Hughes's account is so telescoped and terse in expression, and wide-ranging in its allusions that the poem viewed in isolation is opaque in meaning. Hughes demands much of the reader as can be seen by the information that lies behind just one of the unrhymed couplets which, like the rest, is epigrammatic in form, direct in attack, and mordant in image:

Napoleon mounted on Robespierre
Rode up through the hole in Louis' shoulders.

Hughes condenses the history of the French Revolution and its aftermath into two lines. Robespierre, the legal expert and leader of the extreme revolutionaries, and fired by a fanatical pursuit of the ideal of a perfect republic based on virtue and terror, became the instrument which allowed Napoleon's rise to power. Via the enforcement of law and order along rational and scientific principles, Napoleon was able to muzzle the destructive energies inside France, channel them externally into the conquest of Europe, and embark upon an extension of Empire until his title of Emperor and his autonomy were to equal, if not supersede, the monarchy the revolution had replaced. Here (as in "Dully Gumption's College Courses") the possession of such specific knowledge seems at odds with the humility and ordinariness that the name of the central persona suggests.

"Fishing At Dawn" (CP, p. 126) exhibits similar properties of thought-association and contraction, partly conveyed by the use of irregular stanzas and the reliance on a mixed pattern of pure-, half- and inverted rhymes (night-fog, wart-hog, smoked hag, maggot; blood, neighbourhood; ploughed-in, mastodon; roundheads, deadness, dull head; herbage, virginity). The title is misleading, for the poem is not concerned with a detailed fishing experience similar in kind to the Recklings "Stealing Trout on a May Morning" (CP, p. 137) and subsequently included in River (1983); nor is it concerned primarily with the insubstantial, shifting nature of the "night-fog" which the irregular verse-patterning and apparently unconnected ideas of this rather sinister poem seem to intuit. The first two stanzas extend the ides of "Thistles" to suggest that the night-fog hanging over "the black water" is the "Much-buried root-eaten blood" of "Now ploughed-in roundheads" who have been reduced to the level of extinct creatures, the prehistoric "mastodon", and the "warthog" victim of English hunting in more recent times. The third stanza links them with Hughes's preoccupation with the creative-destructive earth goddess at conflict with Puritan zeal. Hughes's attack is on the unnaturalness of Puritan propriety here wittily delineated in the term "deadness". This is confirmed by his insistence on the temporal process of man in relation to Nature: for the herbage, low in the scale of being, now possesses those who could talk. The strident masculinity of Cromwellian Protestantism has been subdued by the more persistent forces of Mother nature. Having possessed the roundheads by their deaths, the goddess transforms their rotting matter into mists, which in the form of taunting seductresses, continue her presence in the face of man's attempts to rationalize both the natural and the inner worlds:

Captured by dumb orders of herbage,
Much buried root-eaten blood
Is exhaled in part as night-fog.

Free, but not from their deadness,
Now ploughed-in roundheads
Conform with mastodon and warthog.

Girls in plenty – risen virginity
Of many a tough, smoked hag
That wearied the neighbourhood.

The rest of the poem hints at Hughes's formulation of a new mythology which underlines the poetic argument of such Recklings poems as "Logos" and "Fallen Eve" (CP, p.130) and anticipates the reversal of traditional Biblical viewpoints that form the thematic thread running through Crow. In the face of such a powerful mythological presences from the past, God, the God of Logos, Light and Reason, has been reduced to a lower level and become a bored, exhausted figure, little larger than man. This is emphasized by the departure from the pattern of the three-lined stanzas so that attention focuses on the spatially-isolated line,

God yawns onto the black water –

and is resolved in the final unrhymed couplet. The yawning behaviour of God symbolizes the immorality and insensitivity of the rationalist mind detached from sympathy with Nature. Hughes at the moment of early morning fishing is aware of his relationship with the mysteries of life and creation, and becomes involved with the genesis of a new, personalized myth to counteract that which has been shouldered on to him by his education and upbringing. He, as a disciple of the Goddess, can identify with the suffering of the hooked maggot; God can only yawn:

There aches through my dull head
The bellowing of the maggot.

These last two lines, partially through the reference to "my dull head" and more particularly in the image of the maggot, especially coupled with the earlier roundhead references, link the poem directly with the poem immediately following it in Recklings, "Dully Gumption's Addendum".

[read on here]


[49] Shakespeare's Poem, p. 7.

[50] Ibid, p. 8.

[51] The White Goddess, p. 465.

[52] C.G. Jung, The Integration of the Personality, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1940), p. 23.

[53] C.G. Jung, The Archetypes And The Collective Unconscious, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959), p. 45.

[54] Ibid, p. 64.

[55] Ibid, p. 81.

[56] Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, (Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 85.

[57] See Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method And Madness, (Seabury Press, New York, 1976), p. 159.

[58] F. Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, (Heron Books), p. 194.

[59] Ibid, p. 207.

[60] "Myth and Education", p. 60.

[61] Ibid, p. 57.

[62] Ibid, p. 67.

[63] Ibid, pp. 65–66.

[64] "Ted Hughes and Crow", p. 9.

[65] Shakespeare's Poem, pp. 15–16.

About the Author
Roger Elkin

Roger Elkin contributed the essays "Hidden Influences in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes" and "Ted Hughes and 'A Separate Little Self'" to this site.

His contribution "Breaking Ground: The Uncollected Recklings Poems" was published in Lire Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems 1957-1994 and his "Neglected Auguries in Recklings" was published in The Challenge of Ted Hughes.

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