Shamanic Traces in 20th Century Poetry : Ted Hughes and Kenneth White

  Ted Hughes and Kenneth White present remarkable similarities as much in their socio-cultural context as in their approach to nature and to the function of poetry. In open rebellion against the cultural scene in which they found themselves, they tackle it with similar criteria and diagnoses, but they respond to the epistemological needs of our time with radically different metaphysical attitudes. It is their double-track response which we will attempt to trace here in its convergences and divergences, with particular reference to the shamanistic strain in their poetics.

 Coming from the margins of Great Britain, Anglo-Irish for Hughes, Scottish for White, both are attracted by a North which is as cultural-literary and imaginative as it is geographical. Both are from working-class backgrounds — Hughes the son of a craftsman turned tobacconist, White the son of a railway signalman —  and both benefited from the cultural advantages which the Welfare State offered to youngsters of brilliant intelligence, pursuing their studies at the University of Cambridge (Hughes) and the University of Glasgow for White who also gained bursaries to study in the universities of Munich and Paris. These social opportunities were complemented by those of an open childhood and adolescence, for Hughes in the countryside of the Yorkshire moors and dales, for White on the Atlantic shore and in the back country of Ayrshire, which allowed them to forge intimate links between their thought and poetry and the elemental worlds of the countryside or seashore of their youth. They were to find the content, themes, and symbolism, their poetic aesthetic, in these familiar landscapes, even though White, later, was to be inspired in the geological and cultural landscapes encountered in numerous travels, and Hughes in the human scenarios of the Bible and the everyday lives or historical events of humanity. The shore, the tree, are more often present and significant in White, rain and strong winds in Hughes; in both, a mineral world of mountains or islands predominates, as well as a predilection for birds. Long-awaited inspiration falls onto Hughes’ white page like a fox in the night walking into its territory : (« The Thought-Fox », SP,3). For White, in an almost identical fashion but in an opposite direction, directed outwards towards the world, « a thought leaped out like a hare » (ETC, « Poem of the White Hare », 84-5). Fishing, by line or by net, offers each a metaphor, not unexpected admittedly, for the creative process . Both have devoted a long poem to the crow : for Hughes in Crow the bird becomes a monstrous incarnation of horror and evil, an epitome of the tyranny and pathology of the world, including the Oedipus complex. White’s  poem, « Crow Meditation Text» (BP, 106), is a kind of serious and humourous ars poetica in which he takes a worldwide outlook at traditional cultures, from Amerindian to Japanese.

  For one as for the other, and in a curiously similar manner, adolescence witnessed a period when they passed spontaneously and naturally from collecting natural objects — shells or animals –to the writing of the poem, like a painless cut, a spontaneous translation from the material to the mental world. Here is Hughes:

There are all sorts of ways of capturing animals and birds and fish. I spent most of my time, up to the age of fifteen or so, trying out many of these ways and when my enthousiasm began to wane, as it did gradually, I started to write poems.

You might not think these two interests, capturing animals and writing poems, have much in common . But the more I think back, the more sure I am that with me the two interests have been one interest. My pursuit of mice at threshing time when I was a boy, snatching them from under the sheaves as the sheaves were lifted away out of the stack and popping them into my pocket till I had thirty or forty crawling around in the lining of my coat, that and my present pursuit of poems seem to me to be different stages of the same fever. In a way, I suppose I think of poems as a sort of animal(…) (PiM, 15)

As for White

Before trying to write the slightest poem, I collected things. Birds’eggs : thrush, blackbird, swallow, ptarmigan…Shells and stones from the shore, beautiful in form and colour ; from the shore also, crab-backs of all shapes and tints. From the woods, in Autumn, I gathered in deep-coloured leaves and pinned them on sheets of white cardboard all round my room. I also had a collection of small bird and animal skeletons, very delicate in their proportions, a delight to look on and feel. If my poems have any concrete beauty at all, it’s undoubtedly because of those objects. All I’ve ever read with pleasure and excitement in literature has been little more than the confirmation of what I’d been taught by things and by the elementary creativity evident in them. (ETC, 60)

        The unity of man and world begins with the molecules and the body : for White, « we belong biologically to the earth. » And « the poet is human, but he is something more than human – he has cosmic affinities. When these affinities are contradicted, he can become inhuman ; violent or mad. » (ETC, 67) Hughes enlarges the context from the family to the universe — in implicit agreement with that scientific thinking which he elsewhere denounces :

                          Those stars are the fleshed forebears

                          Of those dark hills, bowed like labourers,


                          And of my blood.    (SP, 30)

Hughes and White stress the elemental energy at work as much in the physical world as in the human body and psyche. In several instances Hughes insists on the determination of our apparently inexplicable attraction towards nature, by the biological unity but also by the conditions of life of our ancestors :

And this is what makes landscapes so valuable to us : not simply the presence of the elements, but the encounter between the elemental things and the living, preferably the human.(PiM, 78)

 White reveals himself more imperative, more enterprising :

The sooner we recover a little of our forest- nature, the better. We are dying of superficiality and lack of substance – the enfeebling of the intellect.We must return to the materia prima. (ETC, 34)

The poem then, reveals itself as a go-between, acting between man and the cosmos and on the same level/ground of ontological reality as them . For both poets, poetry’s capacity for exploring intimate reality is superior to that of philosophical rhetoric. For Hughes,

Poetry is not made of thought or casual fancies. It is made out of experiences    which change our bodies and spirits, momentarily or for good. (PiM, 32)

          For White :

Poetry is not literary but anthropological, cosmological. Things like rhythm and language are in fact cosmological long before they are literary. When poetry loses awareness of the original sources, it becomes merely literature, which, as far as I am concerned, I can do without.   (ETC, 65)

They felt little affinity with the cultural scene of the ‘fifties’ or the ‘sixties’ dominated in Great Britain by a neo-classicist « Movement » and a ‘pop’ current, both centred in the everyday matters of the town and suburbia at the expense of the first ground of the human condition, the relationship with the cosmos. In contrast with their contemporaries who timidly confined themselves within the thematic and cultural limits of « little England », they allied themselves, even though with some reservations, with the « last romantics » of the previous decades — Eliot, Lawrence, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, with the medieval poetry of Britain (Nordic for Hughes, Celtic for White who takes pleasure in exalting the naturalist spirituality of the Welsh poets of Strathclyde such as Taliesin); they turn their creative eyes towards the US and towards the European continent and its various brands of Surrealism, and, more distant in time, space and metaphysics, towards the Buddhist Orient and the Amerindian territories of North America.

           Deeply Nietzschean, both poets feel it necessary to leave the state of ideological and existential confusion to which, according to them, Modernity has finally brought Western civilisation. White’s refusal: « we are in the middle of a nightmare. And we have been for a long time » (FD,30), finds its echo in Hughes’ discourse : « the story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western man. It is the story of his progressively more desperate search for the mechanical and rational and symbolical securities, which will substitute for the spirit-confidence of the Nature he has lost (…) » (« The Environmental Revolution », WP, 130)

     Even more than against the poetry and art of their time, they react against the dualist metaphysics of the West already contested in an earlier century by the German and Anglo-Saxon Romantics and above all by Nietzsche. Hughes and White are together in attributing to political and economic disorder and individual disequilibrium, a structural cause of a metaphysical nature. Both challenge the epistemological narrowness of a scientific rationality which has mutilated the psyche and reduced our perception of the real. Hughes’ « Strawberry Hill » offers an allegory of irrationality and violence finally attacking and destroying the narrow rationality which believed it had conquered it:

                                   Strawberry Hill

                        A stoat danced on the lawn here

                        To the music of the maskers ;

                        Drinking the staring hare dry, bit

                        Through grammar and corset. They nailed to a door

                        The stoat with the sun in its belly,

                        But its red unmanageable life

                        Has licked the stylist out of their skulls

                        Has sucked that age like an egg and gone off

                        Along ditches where flies and leaves

                        Overpower our tongues, got into some grave –

                        Not a dog to follow it down-

Emerges, thirsting, in far Asia, in Brixton.   (SP, 26)

For White also,  the responsibility for this dichotomy lies with the mutilation of the human psyche by the narrow rationality of previous centuries which, among other things, has laid the ground for wayward nervous (neurotic) irrationalities and the monstrous ideological errors of our century. Already, in 1965, in a set of pamplhlets he brought out in Glasgow, Jargon Papers (an essay he took up again in 1998 in the French volume Une Stratégie Paradoxale), he proclaimed that

Whenever the full nature of men is not realised, there will be dualisms of this kind. It is when these dualisms reach extreme points that the end of an era comes. This is what is happening to-day.

It is more than ever necessary to insist on real culture, which now defined, means the expresssion of man’s total nature. It is more than ever necessary to provoke a complete change in mentality, not merely add another technique with the same stereotyped thinking behind it, not merely substitute one set of slogans for another of the same nature, but create a fundamental change in the psyche. This may not only be the condition of a full life, it may be the condition of survival. For what I have referred to as one half of a divided life can produce mammoth technical machines which the other morbid half may well use, at any time. The apparently harmless, dedicated atomic technician and a Hitler are not far apart.

 To both poets not only dualistic metaphysics initiated by Socrates (Hughes) and Plato (White) but the dualist attitude of the Christian religion to soul and body are responsible for the final  deadend of our civilisation and culture. Hughes attributes it principally to a religion which, from Moses to Calvin, has mutilated the human psyche more and more profoundly in pushing back its sensibility towards a « mental disintegration and spiritual emptiness, under the super-ego of Moses, in its original or in some Totalitarian form, and the self-anaesthetising schizophrenia of St. Paul », a situation aggravated in Shakespeare’s time by the Protestant reformation: « the subtly apotheosised mysogyny of Reformed Christianity is proportionate to the fanatic rejection of Nature ; and the result has been to exile Man from Mother Naturefrom both inner and outer nature ». («The Environmental Revolution », WP,129) He reproaches the « neurotic-making dynamics of Christianity » for an over-rational approach: « Christianity is from both inner and outer nature suppressing the devil, in fact is suppressing imagination and suppressses vital natural life. » ( « Myth and Education », WP, 151)

          Seemingly more relaxed, White presented himself, at the start, as « a Protestant protesting against Protestantism », and will refer, in passing, usually with humour, to religious practices and conceptions he considers absurd. But he is mainly engaged on a path leading him, across many fields, to a space beyond religion, mythology, and metaphysics. Just as he most determinedly opposes Plato’s metaphysics of an Ideal world not virtually present in Nature he rejects Saint Augustine’s emphasis on original sin and puts himself at the side of Pelagius the « heretic », for whom nature is a necessary basis, to be worked at and with, without appeal to divine Grace.

 In contrast to Christianity which, according to them, has cut man off from the cosmos, and to some extent from himself, shamanism, with its archetypal figure of the poet-priest-medicine man, offers both Hughes and White the image of an inalienable relationship between the human and the physical world: White says he was marked by Eliade’s book, Shamanism :the Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy : « As I read through that book, I came across more and more correspondences between what he was laying out and my own early experience. In other words, I realised I had stumbled on to shamanism,  had practised a kind of home-made shamanism(…)» (OSG, 37). Commenting on the same book in 1964, Hughes declared: « The shamans seem to undergo at will and with practical results, one of the main regenerating dramas of the human psyche : the fundamental poetic event .» (« Regenerations », WP, 58)

Both poets affirm the perennial nature of the shamanic function from ancient Greek civilisation and the Celtic world across the centuries as far as our own days, in opposition to the hollow values carried by our culture. In direct descent from the shaman’s chants, poetic language has a healing power. A number of the greatest poets in Great Britain alone are gathered under the title shaman by Hughes, in his latest books Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, and A dancer to God : Tributes to T.S.Eliot, beginning with Shakespeare who, it seems to him, brings together in his art the two major shamanic categories — the « messianic » and the « revolutionary »  — and in our era, Eliot and Yeats.

 White also follows the tracks of the shaman in European art and literature: in Robert Burns (whose ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, itself inspired from the medieval poem « Thomas the Rhymer », revives an ancient shamanic narrative, White claims in an essay of On Scottish Ground), through Borrow, MacDiarmid, John Cowper Powys, the German artist Joseph Beuys and the French painter Jean Atlan, going so far as to describe Nietzsche as « philosopher-shaman » and Antonin Artaud as « a shaman without a tribe ».

However it is in the heart of their approach to shamanism that the radical difference between the cosmologies of White and Hughes becomes apparent. In his Dreaming with Open Eyes, the Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Art and culture (Aquarian and Harper, San Francisco, 1980)Michael Tucker considers Hughes and White as major figures in the current shamanistic trend at work to-day in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Concerning Hughes, he quotes him as speaking of « new Holy Ground, a new divinity ». With regard to White, he uses less religious-ridden vocabulary speaking rather of « uplifiting breadth and lucidity of vision ». There already are the resemblances and the differences.

 In the phenomenology of shamanism which he proposes in taking account of the works devoted to ancient cultures, Hughes insists on the irrational character of that function (intervention of spirits from the «other world »), and on the unhealthy, abnormal constitution of the psychopomp, who has to undergo

a magical death, then dismemberment, by a demon or equivalent powers, with all possible variants of boiling, devouring,burning, stripping to the bone.From this nadir, the shaman is resurrected, with new insides, a new body created for him by the spirits (…)

The results, when the shaman returns to the living, are some display of healing power, or a clairvoyant piece of information. The cathartic effect on the audience, and the refreshing of their religious feeling, must be profound. («Regenerations », WP, 57)

  White deliberately eliminates the spiritualist, even irrational presupposition from shamanism, and presents the ascesis he practiced at Gourgounel (a small village in th Cevennes where he used to spend his summers) as, essentially, a solitary re-sourcing in an elemental natural context. In « A shaman dancing on the glacier », a lecture given at Glasgow in 1990, devoted essentially to the work of the German plastician Beuys (later taken up as an essay in On Scottish Ground), he defines this function’s energetic, individually and socially rejuvenating character as follows:

It must never be forgotten that if the shaman is a « medicine man », concerned with individual sickness and collective problems in the tribe, he also practices simply « for joy ». What the shaman or the « dawn-man » as the Ojibwa call him, is out for, is an ecstasy (getting outside one’s self as well as outside history), and a de-conditioning. Starting out from a reduction (reduction of social identity, etc.) the shaman achieves a transcendence, a capacity for experiencing  (and also expressing) total life. By separating himself, at least temporarily, from the community, (and to a certain extent he always remains outside), the shaman comes to know an identity larger than the one coded in the community, and it is precisely this which enables him to do the greatest good to the community, by giving it breathing space (…)

What I see in him [Beuys] is something I evoked with regard to my own experience : the connection with an archaic tradition,allied to an anarchic use of it — let us say an abstract shamanism, away outside any antiquarian reproduction (…) (OSG, 38 and 45)

In The Blue Road, White’s travels in Quebec and Labrador where little islands of the archaic culture survive, become a shamanic journey :

When Jean-Baptiste beats his drum, he’s no longer Jean-Baptiste Mackenzie. He’s outside himself, moving in a land that teems with trout and salmon, and on the immense tundra where bands of grunting caribou, thousands of them, migrate from place to place, horns carried high, hooves kicking up the snow or grinding the ice to a fine powder. He sees it all…

He speaks of the caribou and he speaks of the leaves in the forest (…)

He speaks of the birds (…)

And not only does he speak of them, he actually flies with them, flies with them, all the way to their home in the Arctic (…) (BR, 87-88)

 Hughes’ approach to shamanism stresses its dramatic dimension just as he emphasizes the dramatic aspect of human life (even though he seems in the end to have achieved a more restful, more detached outlook) :

The great shaman is the one who, as if involuntarily, lives a martyrdom to the defeated cause. (SGCB, 90)

                                                 I died those million deaths. Yet each one bled

                                                 Back into me, who live in their stead,

                                                 A dusty blossom of the British dead (…)

I only know what ghosts breathe in my breath

The shiver of their battles my Shibboleth

                                               (Rain-charm for the Duchy, 33)

For Hughes our ancestors succeeded in channelling and disarming human manifestations of the cosmic energy thanks to religious rituals and to myths :

The real problem comes from the fact that outer world and inner world are interdependent at every moment. We are simply the locus of their collision. Two worlds, with mutually contradictory laws, or laws which seem to be so, colliding every second, struggling for peaceful coexistence. And whether we like it or not our life is what we are able to make of that collision and struggle.

So what we need, evidently, is a faculty that embraces both worlds simultaneously (…)

 This really is imagination. This is the faculty we mean when we talk about the imagination of great artists. The character of great works is exactly this : that in them the full presence of the inner world combines with and is reconciled to the full presence of the outer world (…) (« Myth and Education », WP, 150)

Poems become « bulletins from the battleground within » (KS, 38). « Poetry is nothing if not that, the record of just how the forces of the universe try to redress some balance disturbed by human error.(Faas, 198). But « How can a poet become a medicine man and fly to the source and come back and heal and pronounce oracles ? Everything among us is against it .» (WP, 152) Gaudete signals the failure to reconcile the pastor who is powerless to heal and the uncontrolled messenger from the underworld. Prometheus sees his liver devoured each morning by the vulture as the modern man is tormented by the irrational which he represses. The verdict, be it individual or collective, seems without appeal as far as the failure of modern culture is concerned.

    White believes in the possibility for us nowadays, through the poet, of channelling forces which are to-day scattered subsequent to the nihilistic disintegration of values which he himself has gone beyond thanks to his « supernihilistic » ascesis. He also speaks of the necessity of a central image or concept to maintain cohesion between the members of social groups, but, « Reading beyond the legends » (« Broken Ode to White Brittany », BP, 206), he refuses to turn back to the ancient or medieval myths and ritualswhich proves him to be nearer to American writers like Thoreau than to the British neoplatonic Romantic tradition of the imagination. Referring mainly to Heidegger and to such German Romantic poets as Novalis and Hölderlin, White proposes a return to the initial, primordial stage, more ontological than historical, of an « original thinking« , a pre-conceptual poetics still embedded in sensation and implying the totality of being ; it is for the poet, in the wake of Chinese ideogrammatic writing and the Japanese haiku, Amerindian and Eskimo poetry but also figures such as D.H.Lawrence, Whitman and a number of French rebel authors, to develop a « physical », joyous language — a thinking, a language which certain Presocratic poet-thinkers already had practised:

Xenophanes of Kolophon

Poet and philosopher.

When the Persians invaded Asia Minor

he moved to Sicily

walking around the shore of that island

he wrote :

even if you stumble

on some rocks of the truth

you’ll never know it all

he spoke of sea,wind, earth

clouds and rivers

and said that god was round        (HDC, 81)

In accordance with existential and phenomenologist thinkers who also reject the scission between the human mind and cosmic order, near also to the new post-quantic « cosmology of energy » which he reterms « chaoticism », White suggests for our civilisation and culture the conceptual image of our earth as a diverse and dynamic reality in which we all share, leading to the existential and intellectual fullness of a « world ». The poet’s task is to suggest and inspire this existential plenitude in which man feels himself co-existing peacefully with that « world » of which he is a natural part. After a free « shamanic » ascesis (« I am my own guru« ), though inspired strongly by tantric practices, White succeeded in leaving his historical situation of nation and family, to rediscover a spatial and cosmic dimension of being, generally ignored in the West : this he eventually achieved on the island of Skye not far from his birthplace :

A big question, origins. The primal concern :gods, ancestors, homelands. And a vexed problem, identity – who am I ? That’s been my koan, as it were- the insoluble question. But when you’ve worked at it long enough, there comes a kind of solution. I’ve worked at it for a long time, if not long enough. Looking for the real space, the real self (…) (TDD, 132-3)

 In spite of some illuminated moments particularly in his later volume the River, (« So we stood, alive in the river of light/ Among the creatures of light, creatures of light » – « That Morning »), Hughes seems to have remained a prisoner — a victim and a prey — not only to his personal ego but to his family and to the untoward history of our civilisation :

My father sat in his chair, recovering

from the four-year mastication by gun-fire and mud

                     Body buffeted wordless, estranged by long soaking

   In the colours of mutilation (…)

While I,small and four

Lay on the carpet as his luckless double (…) (SP, 72)

  Two poems,devoted by each poet to the same object (in this case a thistle), reveal at one and the same time, the differnces in mentality and in poetic expression, between the two poets.

Here is Hughes’s, in a guttural, sombre atmosphere of war and decay :


Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men

Thistles spike the summer air

Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst

Of resurrection, a grasped fistful

Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.

They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.

Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey, like men.

Mown down, it is a feud.Their sons appear,

Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground. (SP, 55)

And here is White’s, with his more limpid  style and « supernihilistic » humour that characterizes him :

Blue Thistle Sermon


Blue thistle on the dunes

                               blue burning thistle on the dunes

                               its roots in sand

                               but sturdy as hell

                               the sun beats

                               on me and the blue thistle

                               this long afternoon

                               I contemplate the blue thistle

                               and the blue thistle contemplates damn all  ( BP, 162)

 The works of both poets develop accordingly physical and mental landscapes, beginning from nearly similar premises, but to the extent we have underlined, differing in their realisations as a result of their contradictory perceptions of the relationship of man with the cosmos. This contradiction is projected onto their physical landscapes and the forces which are revealed in them.

 In Hughes’poetic universe violence reigns. Just a few instances a    mong many others :

            The sea’s ogreish outcry and convulsions (C,40);

   A frightened lake (C,176);

   The Sun is hunting/The horizons are ravenous (SP,153)

His cosmology comes across as an immense, total, worked out affair achieved by a cosmic, alchemic digestion swallowing a space – and a history – spoiled by man : like the Humber estuary transformed into an immense sewer : « The unkillable North Sea swallows it all » ( « Mayday on Holderness », SP, 35)

Nothing touches but, clutching, devours (…)

Time in the sea eats its tail,.thrives (…) (SP, 29)

That star/ will make the earth melt (SP, 204)

War, death, and even artistic creation (the fox swallowed by its earth) respond to this gnostic dynamic of dissolution for a new, more eligible, alchemical rebirth.

For White a living order is to be found in the immanence of the multiple, in an unceasing dynamic with « chaos » (in the modern scientific, and also taoist, sense of that term) according to the equation « eros plus logos equals cosmos« , or better still, « chaosmos« . A fundamental intellectual tenet of the « geopoetic » movement which White has initiated is that physical life and psychic life, landscape and mindscape, correspond with each other. The landscape revealed to the perception « cleansed » by ascesis, where the poet reaches psychic and cosmic plenitude, is « The Region of Identity » (BP, 97-100) :

       This morning

       the coast is transparent

       and the highest reaches

       of the mind

are in their element

(« Cape Breton Uplight », BP, 96)

Violence, rare in his landscape, reveals itself as creative:

                        the violence of poetry

                                   is still

                                                and goes deep

     to the bone

                                      to the white   (BP, 96) –

If the cosmologies of Hughes and White differ, so also do their relationships with writing. For Hughes :

Words are tools, learned late and laboriously and easily forgotten, with which to give some part of our experience a more or less permanent shape outside ourselves. They are unnatural, in a way, and far from ideal for their job (…) (PiM,119)

Just like his cosmology, White’s aesthetic, « firmly grounded yet winged »(BP 114), reconciles contraries. For him, language is adequate for thought and for the real, the « outside » which he undertakes to explore and to express « immediately » in eschewing metaphors:

                                   Many images blur the mind

                                               the highest poetry

                                                                       is stricken

           with poverty of image

                                                            (« Cape Breton Uplight », BP, 95-97)

 Of course, all languages are incomplete and to remedy this he is not averse to borrowing from foreign languages Eastern and Western (particularly Gaelic or old Norse) or to forging compound or portmanteau words to take into account the new, complex reality ; he will also insist on the etymological, presocratic dynamic strength of conceptual words now for long static and stale, in order to render his concepts more concrete. He exploits language in a way not only logically or syntactically linear, but makes words « radiate », effacing the epistemological gap between sound and content:

The branches of my brain

are alive to wind and rain

my forest mind

    is in tune with the wind

there is reason in my resin…

( « Interpretations of a Twisted Pine » BP, 81)

 To enhance this immediacy and completeness, he takes pleasure in introducing visual elements and all sorts of sonorous onomatopoeia, beginning with cries, faithfully translated, of various birds, above all the « tantric » invocations of gulls which are part of his   « Chaoticist Manifesto » :

       keeya !keeya ! /  keeya !keeya !  (PB, 224)

For Hughes also, in the domain of language, the birds display their superiority :


Cries from birds, language perfect

And from the awkward gullets of beasts

That will not chill into syntax     (G, 176)

But he does not introduce this language into his poems. With Orghast, he creates an even more artificial and universal language than did Joyce in Finnegans Wake, rational in its own way and technically close to Wagnerian leitmotiv.

In conclusion, Ted Hughes and Kenneth White both face and denounce the same cultural predicament for the West. With regard to the function devoted to the Poet in primitive civilisations they will endeavour to re-establish ontological links with the cosmos through their poems. But to Hughes the task nowadays is all but impossible. Like the Greek dramatists in a pre-Christian age, his poems seem to aim at an Aristotelician catharsis by exposing the violence, elemental, animal and human and the stoïc acceptance of suffering.

 For White, whose attitude is also non Christian the world and Man need no transcendental redemption. The solution might be, in Buddhist terms, for men to emerge from their « Avidya », or ignorance due to their « psycho-social ego », to an awareness of their true, cosmic (and biological) nature, their « cosmic conscience », side by side with their social, individual, appurtenance. To this true, original nature he aims to arouse and awaken his readers through his poems, narratives, essays and other forms of action, which convey an intimate, direct feeling of the harmony of a full, natural life also experienced and rendered by the great poets and Books of Wisdom of traditional cultures of East and West.

 In his Dreaming with Open Eyes, The Shamanic Spirit in twentieth Art and Culture, mentioned earlier, Michael Tucker presented Hughes as « an important figure in this context » and White as « the greatest shaman of twentieth century poetry along with Rilke and Gunnar Ekelöf ».


SP : New Selected Poems, 1957-1994,  Faber, 1995

C : Crow :From the Life and Songs of Crow, Faber, 1970

DG : A Dancer to God : Tributes to T.S.Eliot, New York,  Farrar Strauss, 1992

G : Gaudete : Faber,1977

M : Moorton,Faber,1979

PiM : Poetry in the Making, Faber,1967

SGCB : Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Faber, 1992

TfO : Tales from Ovid, Faber, 1996

WP: Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose, Faber, 1994

F : An interview of Hughes in Faas,  Ted Hughes, The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow, Santa Barbara,1980

KS : Keith Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes, Cambridge U P 1975.


BP : The Bird Path, Collected Longer Poems 1964-1988, Mainstream Edinburgh 1989 and Penguin 1990

BR : The Blue Road, Mainstream, 1990

ETC : En Toute Candeur, Mercure de France, Paris, 1964 (not yet available in English)

HDD : Handbook for the Diamond Country Collected Shorter Poems 1960-1990

Mainstream, 1990

OSG : On Scottish Ground, Selected Essays, Polygon, Edinburgh, 1998

TDD : Travels in the Drifting Dawn , Mainstream, 1989 and Penguin 1990

Bibliographie française succincte :

Sur Ted Hughes :

J.Moulin : Ted Hughed, La Langue rémunérée, l’Harmattan, 1999, et plusieurs essais parus dans Etudes Anglaises.

A.Haberer : « Bêtes mythiques dans la poésie de Ted Hughes », in Etudes Anglaises, oct 1991.

Sur Kenneth White :

O.Delbard : les Lieux de Kenneth White, L’Harmattan, 1998 .

Le Monde ouvert de Kenneth White, P U Bordeaux, 1995

Autour de Kenneth White, Espace, Pensée, Poétique, P U Dijon, 1996

Contrairement aux poèmes de Ted Hughes pour lesquels il n’existe pas de version française disponible actuellement, la quasi-totalité des ouvrages de Kenneth White ont été publiés en France, les poèmes en édition bilingue.


Deux approches chamaniques dans la poésie contemporaine : Ted Hughes et Kenneth White

Poètes et essayistes, Ted Hughes (1930-1998) et Kenneth White (né en 1936) partent tous les deux en guerre contre l’esthétique des années 50 et 60 en Grande-Bretagne, mais dénoncent plus en profondeur la métaphysique dualiste (l’idéalisme platonicien pour White, le rationalisme et le protestantisme pour Hughes) qui en Occident a coupé la pensée de la terre. Tous deux marqués par une expérience personnelle et par l’essai de Mircea Eliade sur le chamanisme, ils découvrent dans cette pratique un remède potentiel au mal-être qui affecte notre culture. Mais, jusque dans leur cosmologie, leur anthropologie et leur esthétique, ils s’opposent sur les moyens (retour au mythe pour Hughes, White développe une pensée-sensation) et sur la possibilité aujourd’hui de réinsérer l’homme dans un contexte cosmique

Cet essai a été publié dans Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines,  revue de la Société d’Etudes Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC) de l’ Université de Montpellier III (directeur Alain Blayac) dans le numéro 20 de Juin 2001.


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