Torn Richness – the Poetry of Ted Hughes 2 “Crow Tyrannosaurus”: Exploiting the Gap

Hughes’s earlier books are much possessed by a vision of what he called “the war between vitality and death”. In later books the same sense appears more positively in terms of an acceptance of the interdependence of creation and destruction. His concern with these wider ideas means that the animals in his poems often become symbols, archetypes, and characters of myth. Sometimes this works marvellously. Sometimes it fails, at least for me. For me, failure happens when the symbolic meaning takes over from the reality of the individual animal and when the projection of a “vision of life” becomes blustering, overblown, and melodramatic. At the opposite extreme, there are poems that might not seem symbolic at all – poems of vivid, naturalistic description and factual record. Here Hughes seems to be simply registering and transmitting immediate experience. Larger ideas seem to suggest themselves almost spontaneously. That makes the best of these poems quite marvellous. Many in Moortown Diary are like that. Between the extremes, there are poems that bring together the naturalistic and symbolising sides of Hughes’s imagination, so that the animal or thing he’s describing does seem to be vividly alive in itself at the same time as he makes big symbolic ideas shine through or hover round it. Here, the symbolism seems an extension of the natural perception rather than a contradiction of it. The example I’ll discuss is “October Salmon” from River.

Before that, though, I want to look at “Crow Tyrannosaurus”, a poem in which the gap between naturalistic portrayal and symbolism is itself a reason for success. It’s from a book called Crow, which describes the adventures and misadventures of a creature sometimes vividly imagined in terms of a crow’s body and movements and sometimes in terms of a human mind as it grapples with life, death and the nature of the created universe. The startling impact of these poems, their ability to get under our skins and catch us off balance, often depends on unexpected switches between the two ways of seeing Crow himself. I think the result in “Crow Tyrannosaurus” is both deadly serious and wildly funny. Comedy arises both from the substance of the poem and from the nimbleness with which Hughes switches between different kinds of language. In doing so he buffets us between different ideas and ways of seeing things. The very title seems to me to involve a darkly comical collision of ideas. Following on from that, the first stanza starts out swollen with a parody of hyperbolical gloom. This tone is abruptly punctuated by a cartoonish description of Crow’s nervousness as he hears it:

Creation quaked voices –
It was a cortege
Of mourning and lament
Crow could hear and he looked around fearfully.

What Crow sees is not a cortege – a funeral procession – but a nightmarish world of predatory pain. Language is violently physical. Horror is increased by the way the devoured prey seems alive and in agony in the bellies of the predators:

The swift’s body fled past
With insects
And their anguish, all it had eaten.

The final twist is that though the predators move so energetically they themselves seem to be in hell, the swallow fleeing, the cat writhing and gagging, the dog uttering shapeless cries.

And yet I’ve said this is a funny poem! Return to comedy in the last stanzas comes as a surprising twist, not as escape from the nightmare but as acceptance that there is no escape. Appalled at the cruelty of the world and his own place in it, Crow absurdly wonders whether he should starve himself to become the light – in other words, fly off into some sort of religious purity that is a denial of his very nature.

Naturally, as he’s a crow, instinct takes over. He sees a grub and reacts with the unhesitating suddenness of a mechanical release – “his head, trapsprung, stabbed”. However, he’s still hopelessly divided.

And he heard

Grubs grubs He stabbed he stabbed

Weeping he walked and stabbed

Both the grubs and Crow weep as he slaughters them, and Crow seems at least as much man as crow, not only because of the way his thoughts are voiced but also because “walked” rather than “hopped” suggests a human gait. Altogether, the poem can be seen as a savagely comic satire on our refusal to accept the universe as it is, to face up to our own inherently predatory nature. However, I think it’s also a deeply felt poem about the dilemma of having to live in the world as it is while having capacities for compassion and aspiring to live by moral principles. I think it’s the volatile way different feelings swirl round each other that makes this poem so powerful as it reflects fundamental contradictions in the way we have to live our lives. And I think the comic element is essential to releasing this anarchic swirl.

2 Responses to “Torn Richness – the Poetry of Ted Hughes 2 “Crow Tyrannosaurus”: Exploiting the Gap”

  1. Edmund Prestwich» Blog Archive » Torn Richness – the Poetry of Ted Hughes 3: Seeing animals as individuals said:

    Jul 12, 18 at 4:04 pm

    […] the implied lesson about the necessity of accepting the world as it is may remind us of “Crow Tyrannosaurus” and many of Hughes’s other poems. The difference is the compassionate understanding of how […]

  2. Edmund Prestwich» Blog Archive » Torn Richness: The Poetry of Ted Hughes 5 – “October Salmon” said:

    Jul 14, 18 at 5:14 pm

    […] Referred to in the second of these […]

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