Sophie Pollard: "The Oedipus Myth in Ted Hughes's Crow"

Crow: from the life and songs of the Crow (1972) is Ted Hughes's epic myth poem, which began as a series of poems to accompany Leonard Baskin's anthropomorphic etchings of Crows. Originally intended as children's literature, the collection soon developed into a wider exploration of the human psyche that encompasses themes of birth, death and rebirth. These themes are manifested in several poems from the collection such as 'Song for a Phallus', 'Oedipus Crow', 'Crow and Mama' and 'Crow Sickened' which borrow from, and refer to Seneca's depiction of Oedipus.

Hughes was familiar with the Oedipus myth; in 1968, two years after he began to write the Crow poems, he adapted a version of Seneca's Oedipus for the stage. Under the direction of Peter Brook, the idea was to release the power of the narrative in its 'plainest, bluntest form'.[1] Hughes says that the moral world that Sophocles created is not present within the text, and he suggests that Seneca's imagination quietly produces 'something else – a series of epic descriptions that contain the raw dream of Oedipus, the basic, poetic, mythical substance of the fable' (Seneca's Oedipus, p. 8). It is the thematic structure of the 'raw dream' that this essay will identify in Crow. By critically analysing 'Song for a Phallus',[2] this essay will identify Hughes's playful intertextual usage of the Oedipus myth, and argue that the complex figure of Crow encompasses qualities of Oedipus, man and writer. 

The tile of 'Song for a Phallus' nods to Freud, by referring to the 'Phallic stage' of psychosexual development which Freud borrowed from the Oedipus myth itself.[3] The title cleverly identifies Freud's role in the modern understanding of theOedipus myth, but it is mocking in tone which sets the mood for the rest of the poem. The title also indicates the form that the poem will take as a 'Song', and it follows the conventions of the Ballad in terms of its metre.[4] 'Song for a Phallus' is one of the metrical poems within Crow, as Hughes doesn't always conform to traditional poetic forms throughout the collection. Hughes says that,

The very sound of metre calls up the ghosts of the past and it is difficult to sing one's own tune against that choir. It is easier to speak a language that raises no ghosts.[5]

It could be argued that through 'Song for a Phallus' Hughes uses the traditional balladic metre to 'call up' the ghost of Oedipus. However, this doesn't mean that he will simply recreate the Oedipus myth verbatim from Sophocles, Seneca or Freud despite his borrowing from each. Hughes outlines his intentions when creating Crow in an interview with Keith Sagar as:

My main concern was to produce something with the minimum cultural accretions of the museum sort – something autochthonous and complete in itself, as it might be invented after the holocaust and demolition of all the libraries, where essential things spring again.[6]

As 'Song for a Phallus' is a satire of the Oedipus myth, Dennis Walder disagrees with Hughes that he can totally divorce himself from a cultural context which is dependent on 'something [which] is still held sacred, in which the myths, ritual and religions of the past are not entirely forgotten and unfamiliar'.[7] Admittedly Hughes's desire to create a post-Holocaust landscape within Crow is not totally autochthonous as 'Song for a Phallus' sees a construct of cultural references about the Oedipus myth recorded as song legend. The significance of this being that, if as Hughes states, this collection could have been invented after the demolition of all the libraries, the oral tradition of story telling would recreate past narratives. As a ballad 'Song for a Phallus' would form a part of this recreation through the oral tradition.

The literary style of Crow is very distinctive, and in an interview with Ekbert Faas, Hughes reveals his stylistic decisions when writing Crow:

The idea was originally just to write his songs, the songs that a Crow would sing. In other words songs with no music whatsoever, in a super simple and a super ugly language which would in a way shed everything except just what he wanted to say without any other consideration and that's the basis of the style of the whole thing. (Faas, p. 208)

The 'super ugly' and 'super simple' language that Hughes creates is evident within 'Song for a Phallus'. The language within the poem is both simplistic and colloquial as is evident in lexis such as 'fella', 'belly', 'brat', 'Mammy' and 'turd' ('Song for a Phallus', p. 69). Punctuation is sparse throughout 'Song for a Phallus', as it also is within Hughes's version of Seneca's Oedipus, which creates a fast pace with run on sentences drawing the reader through the sixteen quatrains. Hughes maintains a rapid, jovial pace throughout the poem through the use of alternative rhyming couplets such as, 'Dickybird/Turd' and 'out/shout' ('Song for a Phallus', p. 69). Paul Bentley believes that Hughes's 'super simple' language and imagery represent a type of regression.[8]

[Click here to read Part II]

 

Notes:

[1] Ted Hughes, Seneca's Oedipus, adapted by Ted Hughes (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), p. 8. Further references to this book are given as Seneca's Oedipus in the text.

[2] Ted Hughes, 'Song for a Phallus', Crow: from the life and songs of the Crow, (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 69

[3] 'You all know the Greek legend of King Oedipus, who was destined by fate to kill his father and take his mother to wife, who did everything possible to escape the oracle's decree and punished himself by blinding when he learned that he had none the less unwittingly committed both these crimes' Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. (London: Hogarth, 1953), p. 74

[4] David Mikics defines the 'Ballad stanza' as: 'a four-line stanza that rhymes the second and fourth lines, but not the first and third. The first and third lines have four beats, the second and fourth lines, three beats.' Quoted from A new handbook of literary terms (Yale: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 33

[5] Ted Hughes quoted in Ekbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980), p.  208

[6] Keith Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes, 2nd edn, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 107

[7] Dennis Walder, Ted Hughes, (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987), p. 69

[8] Bentley goes on to discuss that this regression can be theoretically mapped to the Lacanian 'mirror stage' of childhood development. Paul Bentley, 'Depression and Ted Hughes's Crow, or through the looking glass and what Crow found there', Twentieth Century Literature, 43:1, (1997), 22–40 (p. 28)

About the Author

Sophie Pollard is a postgraduate at the University of Bristol. Her main research interests are: Twentieth Century British poetry, and the relationship between poetry and art (painting, sculpture, photography).

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