Reviewed by Ann Skea (a...@skea.com).
This is not, nor can it be, a critical review, since my own extensive study of
Ted Hughes' work leaves me very much in agreement with Keith Sagar's
interpretation of Hughes's imaginative purpose, methods and achievement.
Keith Sagar is unique amongst scholarly critics of Ted Hughes' work. Hughes
regarded him as a friend and they met and corresponded with each other for
more than twenty years. Hughes also valued his judgment to the extent that he
reinstated some dropped Cave Birds poems in the sequence at his instigation
and, much later, used him as a sort of "devil's advocate" (Hughes' words) to
refine the theory which lies at the heart of Shakespeare and the Goddess of
Complete Being. The letters which they exchanged are now in the archives of
the British Library.
Sagar was the first to see Hughes's work as part of "the great tradition of
Western Literature". He was the first, too, to see how the underlying purpose
of Hughes' work reflected that of Blake and Lawrence and, in particular,
Jungian concepts of the role of imagination in healing and individuation. And
Sagar's own books, The Art of Ted Hughes and The Achievement of Ted Hughes
(which includes essays by other authors), are still the most readable, most
widely used and most useful works of criticism, analysis and explanation for
school and university students.
The Laughter of Foxes (first published in 2000 and now revised and updated)
builds on this sturdy critical foundation and it is both broader in scope
(covering the whole opus of poetry and plays) and deeper in its analysis of
the underlying patterns which drove and shaped Hughes' work.
Chapter 1, 'The Mythic Imagination', outlines Hughes' abiding concern with the
progressive and devastating alienation of Western Man from Nature. Hughes
described this as our "exile" from nature, and he believed that it cuts us off
from our own inner world as well as from the world around us. Sagar shows how
Hughes' quest for healing through the imaginative powers of myth and poetry
shaped his writing; and how it led him ever deeper into the explorative use of
powerful energies which other artists have called 'duende' and 'mana', or have
dealt with through mythic and religious symbolism and ritual. "We can say of
Hughes", writes Sagar, "what Hughes said of Eliot, that every poem must be
read, chronologically, as part of 'the series which makes up the poet's opus'.
In The Laughter of Foxes, Sagar demonstrates very effectively how such a
reading can be done, especially in Hughes' plays, where his exploration of the
Orphic myth of loss, search and redemption has universal meaning but also had
particular meaning in Hughes' life.
In Chapter 2, 'From Prospero to Orpheus', Sagar deals with the poetic
relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. He outlines the way in which
both were shaped by their "childhood landscape". He examines their
collaborative goals and working methods. And he looks at the way in which
their shared lives influenced their work, and how Plath's death changed
Hughes' perception of his own poetic purpose. An interesting aspect of this
discussion is Sagar's detailed account of the way in which Birthday Letters
reflects Hughes' altered view of his own role in fostering Plath's greatest
achievement, her Ariel poems: how the "birth of the new creative self" for
Sylvia - which they had both regarded as justified "at almost any cost" -
becomes, in these poems, an altogether "darker, more confused and doubtful,
more fatalistic" process.
Chapter 3, 'The Evolution of 'The Dove Came', is rather different to the other
chapters. Here, Sagar challenges the way in which poetry is usually taught,
suggesting that the common practice of "artificially detaching the poem from
the poet, and from the creative process encourages the belief that, as milk
comes from bottles, so poems come from books", and it completely ignores "the
complex and fascinating process by which they came into being and got into
books". His own approach, demonstrated on a poem he chose "almost at random"
from Hughes' opus, offers a superb example of how a poem can and should be
read. Using successive manuscript drafts, Sagar illustrates the way in which
the poem changed and evolved as Hughes strove for a language of utmost
simplicity and truth. And his approach is very like Hughes' own examination of
the evolution of Sylvia Plath's poem, 'Sheep in Fog', which is published in
Winter Pollen (Hughes, Faber & Faber, 1988).
Chapter 4. 'From World of Blood to World of Light', charts the refining of
Hughes' poetic methods, from his early adoption of bloody Orphic ritual (which
was spelled out in Gaudete but which appeared everywhere in the harsh realism
of his depictions of nature) to his later, more sophisticated adoption of
mythic, alchemical and cabbalistic rituals as frameworks for his poems. My own
work on the Cabbalistic aspects of Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers
(http://ann.skea.com/THHome) shows just how deeply Hughes finally immersed
himself in the World of Light, since Cabbala is essentially an ancient
spiritual discipline which emphasizes the rescue and redemption of light from
the darkness in our fallen world. Sagar's analysis demonstrates Hughes'
lifelong progress towards such detailed and disciplined use of visual
imagination and memory, and the beautiful simplicity of language he ultimately
Throughout The Laughter of Foxes, Sagar' quotes extensively from Hughes'
poetry, plays and essays, and from the letters which he and Hughes exchanged.
As an Appendix, he includes 'The Story of Crow'. This is the mythic framework
within which Hughes intended the Crow poems to exist, but which he never
completed. It is brought together here from Hughes' notes and from his
introductions to readings of Crow poems. Crow, too, can be seen as one more
step in Hughes' struggle towards an understanding of the human psyche and
towards healing our rift with Nature.
At the front of the book is a poem, 'The Healer' by Mark Hinchcliff, which
beautifully conveys the influence which Ted Hughes and his work have had on
individuals like Mark, on schoolchildren like those Mark teaches, and on all
the budding writers who attend creative writing courses at Lumb Bank - one of
several centres which Ted Hughes helped to establish in order to foster
poetry. The Laughter of Foxes, with its realistic picture of the sort of
dedication and hard work entailed in creating any serious work of art, is
valuable reading for all such delvers into the world of imagination. It offers
a perceptive, and often inspired, reading of some of Hughes's most important
work and with its informed and convincing account of Hughes' life and work it
is an essential and enlightening resource for scholars at any level.
Disclaimer: Although my Timeline of Ted Hughes' life and work is published at
the front of this book I have received no financial gain from its inclusion
and will receive none from sales of the book.