Ted Hughes

Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow

“Crow realized there were two Gods—One of them much bigger than the other. Loving his enemies and having all the weapons.”

The 1970 publication of British poet Ted Hughes’ (August 17, 1930 – October 28, 1998) Crow released an almost unprecedented and unfathomable work upon the world. Dark, sinister at times, annihilistic, and full of subtle bereavement. Poems that introduced a crow as a metaphor for our torn complex selves and an often-absurd universe.

Crow’s Theology

Crow realized God loved him-
Otherwise, he would have dropped dead.
So that was proved.
Crow reclined, marvelling, on his heart-beat.

And he realized that God spoke Crow –
Just existing was His revelation.

But what
Loved the stones and spoke stone?
They seemed to exist too.
And what spoke that strange silence
After his clamour of caws faded?

And what loved the shot-pellets
That dribbled from those strung-up mummifying crows?
What spoke the silence of lead?

Crow realized there were two Gods –

One of them much bigger than the other
Loving his enemies
And having all the weapons.

A crow settles itself on "Physical Energy" a statue in Kensington Gardens by British artist George Frederic Watts.
A crow settles itself on “Physical Energy” a statue in Kensington Gardens by British artist George Frederic Watts. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Crow, appearing in many but not all of the poems in this collection, served as a symbol, a character, and a wild force; simplistic about life, yet observant of its irony and pain. Hughes wrote most of the poems in the empty space and time created by the suicide of his estranged wife, Sylvia Plath, in 1963.

In Crow, themes like the futility of life abound. We will be claimed by death; nevertheless, we’re given a stay of execution. But it’s not forever and not for long and not under our control.

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth? Death
Who owns all of space? Death

Who is stronger than hope? Death
Who is stronger than the will? Death
Stronger than love? Death
Stronger than life? Death
But who is stronger than death? Death
Me, evidently.
Pass, Crow.

From “Examination at the Womb-door”

The idea of our fate (which is, of course, death) being sealed from the moment we exit the womb is chilling. Others (like Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov) have pointed out that the coda of our birth is death, but they don’t drop the words quite as harshly.

Perhaps because Hughes, born and raised in Yorkshire, uses a Yorkshire vernacular that lacks embellishment (also seen in his first published collection of poems The Hawk in the Rain.)

ted hughes crow
“Crow” by Talya Baldwin, a Yorkshire artist and illustrator of birds and other characters.

Throughout the work, there is a force outside of Crow, outside of Hughes. Something bigger, unknowable, yet present and extremely powerful. This unknowable divine, a theme given much attention by German poet Hermann Hesse in his less-known poetry.

Hughes became Poet Laureate of Great Britain from 1984 until his death and is widely regarded as one of the most important poets of the 20th century.1

Crow Frowns

Is he his own strength?
What is its signature?
Or is he a key, cold-feeling
to the fingers of prayer?

He is a prayer-wheel, his heart hums.
His eating is the wind –
Its patient power of appear.
His footprints assail infinity

With signatures: We are here, we are here.
He is the long waiting for something.
To use him for some everything.
Having so carefully made him.

Of nothing.

I came by this particular collection by way of the equally alluring work Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, a prose/poem by the imaginative English writer Max Porter about a crow that moves in with a family following the death of their mother and wife. Like Hughes, Porter uses a crow as a metaphor for post-grief emptiness and the savagery of life.

Accompany Hughes’ collection with the philosophical questions of Albert Camus or the poetry of W. B. Yeats both which illuminate the contradictions in the universe that tormented Hughes.