Monday, March 28, 2011

Crow, explicated

This is from a reading Hughes gave at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, in 1976. None of this was ever committed to the page, though he talked of it publicly many times. I think it's safe to say that the story is as remarkable as the poems themselves.

Ted Hughes, at Adelaide (part one):
"I'll read some poems from a long children's story that I wrote which concerns a character who I called 'Crow'. These are just poems from along the way of the story.

"The story begins in heaven, where God is having a nightmare. The nightmare appears to God as a hand. And this hand, in his nightmare, is also a voice - so it is a voice-hand or a hand-voice. And this thing comes the moment he falls asleep. This thing arrives and grabs him round the throat, and throttles him and lifts him out of his heaven and rushes him through his universe and pushes him beyond his stars and then ploughs up the Earth with his face and throws him back into heaven. And...whenever he drowses off and falls asleep, this hand arrives and the whole thing happens again.

"God cannot understand what there can be in his creation which - (after all he is responsible for every atom in it) - he can't understand what there can be so strange to him and can be so hostile to him. So there's a long, long episode in heaven where he tries to get this nightmare to divulge its secret. Eventually, the voice which is the hand speaks. And the speech of the voice which is the hand is a terrible mockery of God's creation, particularly of the crown of his creation, which is Man.

"So this begins a great debate in heaven between God and his nightmare - about Man. And God is very defensive of Man. Man is a very good invention and a successful invention and, given the materials and the situation, he's quite adequate. The voice just continues with its mocking that Man is absolutely hopeless.

"It so happens, that while the debate has been going on, and even before, while God was continually absorbed in his nightmare, Man, on the Earth, had sent up a representative to the Gates of Heaven. This representative had been knocking on the marble gates and God had been so preoccupied with his nightmare that he hadn't heard him. So this little figure was sitting in the Gate of Heaven waiting for God to hear him. And now the voice which is a hand, as the absolute last, triumphant point of his argument, asks this little figure to speak - this little representative of Man. And it so happens that Man has sent this little figure up to ask God to take life back because men are fed up with it. God is enraged that Man has let him down in this way infront of the demon, so he challenges the voice to do better - given the materials and the whole set up - just to do better - produce something better than Man.

"This is what the voice has been negotiating for. So, with a great howl of delight, he plunges down into matter and God turns Man round and pushes him back down into the World. Then God is very curious to see what the production will be when this voice has produced whatever it is he wants to produce. Anyway, the voice begins to ferment and gestate in matter, and the little thing begins to develop - a little nucleus of something or other - a little embryo begins. But before it can get born, it has to go through all manner of adventures, which it goes through and, finally, it gets to the point of being born. Then, just before it can get born, there's an examination.

"This is his examination at the womb door - and it's a sort of vocal examination. So, I give you the question and the answer. And because of all the adventures he's been through, he's a very canny embryo - little figure now. So his answers are circumspect. And the first question in the examination is, 'Who owns these scrawny little feet?'. And he thinks - and thinks he's going to be outflanked in some way - so he thinks long thoughts, short thoughts, and he answers - 'Death':"

(Examination at the Womb-Door)

Who owns those scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.
Who owns these questionable brains? Death.
All this messy blood? Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.
This wicked little tongue? Death.
This occasional wakefulness? Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?

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?
Me, evidently.
Pass, Crow.


  1. It's been documented that crows have funerals. Where there is a newly fallen crow, other crows show up spontaneously. They sit for a moment in eerie silence and then fly away.

  2. If Crow is at a funeral, he is either hungry, or making a joke.