Post-war historical contexts. From modernist subjectivity and aestheticism to positivism and behaviourism. The anti-cosmopolitan social fiction of the “angry young men”. The existentialist breakthrough in drama: Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. The Movement, or Empsonian craftsmanship and Leavisite feedback on the “great tradition”. Philip Larkin, emerging out of the Movement's cloak. Ted Hughes, or the surrealist path from New Criticism to postmodernist deconstruction. Moral psychology: William Golding and Iris Murdoch. Fabulators and Metafiction: John Fowles and Doris Lessing. Postmodernist Gothic, Magic Realism and Cyberpunk. Postcolonial Fiction, or the Empire moving in. Parody, Camp and Postmodernism: Tom Stoppard. Towards a new constructivism?


British literature since 1945 is a chapter defined by a chronological landmark – the end of World War II – rather than by coherent canonical features. The critical appraisals vary widely, sometimes in the case of one and the same author. Even Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate, that “institution” commonly considered to designate the writer “speaking messages from the spirit of the time”, has attracted labels as different as “empirical imagination”, “living consciousness of the physical world” (Terry Whalen, Philip Larkin & English Poetry, Macmillan, 1986), “surrealistic modes”, “Shamanism” and “Disney cartoon movies” (The Achievement of Ted Hughes, edited by Keith Sagar, Keith Sagar, 1983). Harold Pinter's plays are framed as “drama of the mind” but also as “kitchen-sink” realism (George Watson, British Literature since 1945, Macmillan, 1991); Samuel Becket's drama, as “absurdist” but also as a “theatre about theatre”. Given the diversity of points of view on a subject which is still exposed to radical shifts and revaluations, the lack of consensus upon the possible mapping of a territory produced by a recent and unfinished genetic process, our own approach will be of a more tentative nature, an introduction, suggesting a possible ordering rather than an established canon.

The socio-economic and political condition of Britain in the fifties somehow accounts for its non-paradigmatic cultural picture. These are the years of the disintegration of the empire, of England's withdrawal from Europe, and reliance on internal resources. The debacle of Suez in 1956 and the retreat from Cyprus in the late nineteen fifties figure as major crises. It was only later in the sixties, when England had been accepted into the West European Common Market, that the ties with Continental culture, resumed in the late fifties, were multiplied and consolidated.

David Lodge, in Modes of Modern Writing, divides the period into “postmodernist” (the 1940s and the 1950s), characterised by a breaking away from Joyce and Proust, and new postmodernist (from the sixties to the present) – the age of “paper-thin fictional worlds”.

Few literary works published in Britain over this time span can be classified as “postmodernist”, as the term has been constructed in its American and French variants. Apart from this “Frenchified” party which started to emerge towards the end of the fifties (including Samuel Becket, Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles, Doris Lessing, among others), two other distinct groups crop up in the fifties and in the sixties. One is known as the “angry young men” – the social realists whose attack on the dissatisfying state of affairs in England bespeaks the spirit of the revived positivism in philosophy and of behaviourism in psychology: The phrase “Angry Young Men” carries multiple overtones, which might be listed as irreverence, stridency, impatience with tradition, vigour, vulgarity, sulky resentment against the cultivated [1]. The “phrase” had first occurred as the title of a novel about the interwar working class by Leslie Paul (1951), but it was only after the performance of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956) that it became current. The thirties and the forties had not completely rid themselves of Edwardian stuff: the cultural narratives of pastoral and rural Britain, in opposition to the postindustrial present, journalistic realism with a marked tendency towards “paysage moralisé”, an inclination to formally tight narratives and symbolisation, as in Waugh or Huxley, a taste for dystopias like Huxley's Brave New World or Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. No need for elaborate construction is felt in the crude realism, both social and linguistic, of the “angry” fifties. The young novelists react against the Bloomsbury intelligentsia, the chandelier-drawing-room literati – a tradition still continued by Cyril Connoly and his magazine, Horizon. New areas of experience are now being opened up for literature. The typical situation in these novels of a loose, picaresque structure is a hero climbing up or down the social ladder, the upstarts being engaged, like Balzac's Rastignac, in running a race against society. They begin as malcontents, breaking into mutinous rage, but they often adopt the point of view of the moneyed classes, the bougeois values, ending up with a well-paid job and moral surrender: Lucky Jim (1954), by Kingsley Amis, Hurry on Down (1953) by John Wain, Room at the Top (1957) by John Braine. It is only Alan Sillitoe who goes deeper into an exploration of working-class culture and life-styles, taking a consistent, principled and class-conscious stand against the establishment in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959). John Osborne's radical dissent, assuming imprecatory tones (Damn You, England), can be heard both in fiction and in the “kitchen-sink realism” of his plays (Look Back in Anger, 1956).

While this anti-cosmopolitan trend was being established in England, existentialism and absurdism were raving on the Continent. It was through Samuel Becket's Waiting for Godot, 1952, performed in England in 1955, that they finally managed a breakthrough in England as well. Jean Paul Sartre's works – Nausea, 1938, L'Être et le Néant, 1943, L'existentialisme est un humanisme, 1946 – set out from subjectivity, but of a very special sort. The first principle is that existence precedes essence. Man is born into a godless world, which offers him no pre-existing laws, guide for behaviour, inherent values and norms. Man is free but overwhelmed by the enormous responsibility of choosing, creating and asserting values himself, through his individual acts. Life has no a priori sense; man only exists to the extent to which he fulfils his personal project. In L'Existentialisme... Sartre gives a persuasive example: whereas Maggie Tulliver (G. Eliot's The Mill on the Floss) gives up on the man she loves out of consideration for the insignificant woman to whom he had already committed himself, Sanseverina in The Monastery of Parma, by Stendhal, finds that a passionate love relationship is a value superior to that of fidelity in a lukewarm marital relationship, and who should say that she is wrong? Man constructs himself through his acts. Racine, for instance, is the totality of the tragedies he has written. Save for his achieved projects, the individual is only a bundle of unfulfilled promises and vain expectations. There is no such thing as the determining influence of heredity, society, and psychology, much exploited by the naturalistic school of Zola. Man constructs himself in frames of intersubjectivity, in a discourse with others, for man is what the others acknowledge him to be. The bearings of existentialism on the literary discourse can be identified in the neglect of the historical background, of the characters' social status, and in the corresponding emphasis upon the characters' ontology in language, in conversation. There is no stable ground for identity any longer (status, family, profession etc.). It is the intersubjective communication that determines what man is and what the others are. The memory of past selves is often a lacunary one, the individual progressing through chameleonic identities as he engages in various relationships. Reality is erased by succeeding versions of it. In The Erasers (Les Gommes, 1953), Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the leads in the French “nouveau-roman” (a fictional offshoot of existentialism), builds several conflicting versions of the same events. The way in which characters construct reality in language becomes more important than the truth of the events. Lawrence Durrell goes so far as to question the existence of objective reality: What is reality? (in reply to Do you think that reality is an illusion? in a radio interview). In his Alexandria Quartet (Justine, 1957, Balthazar, 1958, Mountolive, 1958, Clea, 1960), he provides several accounts of the same events, the tetralogy giving the impression of a kaleidoscope turning on its own axis. The luxurious sensuousness of the language, mimetically reproducing the atmosphere of an Oriental, lascivious city, even suggests that the characters are the projections of Alexandria, that they might have assumed different identities in another place. From the realist multiplot novel, we have moved into a fictional tissue woven out of multiple points of view, whereby reality is deconstructed and identity destabilized. The choice of genre – the Alexandria is spy fiction, Robbe-Grillet writes detective novels – is symptomatic of the Sartrian view (also upheld by Robbe-Grillet in Towards a New Novel, 1956) that reality is beyond human comprehension, alien, meaningless. Fluidity of identity characterizes the English fictional transcripts of French existentialism: Colin Wilson's The Outsider (1956), and Nigel Dennis's Cards of Identity (1955).

The most innovating field is drama, with its ongoing experiments in the London Fringe theatres, of a non-conventional structure and locale (over a pub, in a basement or train-shed etc.).The paired trampish figures are maybe a replica to the clowns of the silent screen [2] in this age when the boundary between high and popular art become blurred, yet the fable sustaining them is that of the existentialist bracketing of the social-historical background. The tramps of Becket or of Harold Pinter live outside society (in Pinter's The Caretaker, 1960, the tramp even lacks documents to identify himself), being created in conversation, like disembodied voices. In Becket's Play (1963) the three characters enacting the archetypal scheme of adultery are three heads protruding from funeral urns. In Happy Days (1961), by the same author, Winnie is buried to the neck in a sand-pile, yet as long as she is being looked at (by the audience, just like the tramp-like figure in Film, 1965), she may be said to exist. Someone being aware of your existence or of your own playing someone else (Vladimir and Estragon “doing Pozzo and Lucky”) establishes yourself in the frame of intersubjectivity which is the true source of identity, more genuine than possession of land, title, home etc. The pseudo-couples engage in conversation to prove that they exist: Cumulatively, these almost-persons and near-characters go on “making words” together as, in a different kind of play, a couple might make love [3]. According to Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Riffaterre, and their disciples (including the British John Fowles), there is nothing outside the text, and texts signify by reference from words to words not to things. A literature of language acts is being born, foregrounding its own self-generative processes.

A third group, which we choose to call the “Leavisites”, as their traditionalism and formal discipline are a feed back upon what Frank Raymond Leavis (1895-1978) called “the great tradition” in English literature, includes such “new syntheses of old conflicts” [4] as the novels of Angus Wilson, William Golding, Iris Murdock, and the poets of the Movement in the fifties.

It is only now that the reaction to high modernism assumes the form of a poetic manifesto and materializes in a distinctive code, even if the vaguely termed “Movement” is mainly retrospective. Modernist experimentation struck them as an American invention, the poets of the present reaching back to Hulme, Lawrence, and Hardy. The climate of opinion had probably been shaped by the constant efforts of F.R. Leavis as editor of “The Scrutiny” (1932-1953) and in his book, The Great Tradition (1948) to reassess the moral, humanistic and national main stream in literature (Jane Austen, Alexander Pope, George Eliot) against Flaubert's heritage of formal innovations. As the director of English Studies, he used the educational system to disseminate literary knowledge and appreciation, which were meant to develop the individual's moral sensibilities. Leavisism stood at the origin of the cultural studies which appeared in England in the fifties and have recently received a new impetus. Even Doris Lessing is found to speak the language of Leavis in her combination of experimentation and social commitment: Once a writer has a feeling of responsibility, as a human being, for the other human beings he influences, it seems to me he must become a humanist, and must feel himself as an instrument of change for good or for bad... he must see himself, to use the socialist phrase, as an architect of the soul... But if one is going to be an architect, one must have a vision to build towards, and that vision must spring from the nature of the world we live in [5].

The “Movement” was more precise about the point of departure than about what it was heading to. When its members (D.J. Enright, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, John Holloway, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, John Wain, Thom Gunn) got into an anthology (New Lines, Macmillan 1967), they were introduced by Robert Conquest as offsprings of the positivist and behaviourist refusal of abstractions: I believe the most important general point would be that it submits to no great systems of theoretical constructs nor agglomerations of unconscious commands. It is free from both mystical and logical compulsions and – like modern philosophy – is empirical in its attitude to all that comes. The anthology with its diffident rather than blasting manifesto, resorting mainly to negative self-definitions, had been preceded by an anonymous article entitled “In the Movement” published in the Spectator on 1 October 1954, in which the authoritative figures of Dr. Leavis and Professor Empson were called upon to assist the birth of an anti-wet, sceptical, robust, ironic. Movement. Emulating the Augustans' empiricism as well as their metrical norms, these poets impress Alvarez [6] as a group of doctrine-saddled writers forming a definite school complete with programme and rules. Most of them were university teachers, producing academic-administrative verse, polite, knowledgeable, efficient, polished, and, in its quiet way, even intelligent. Keeping a balance between Charles Thomlinson's contemptuous rejection of the Movement as “middle-cum-lowbrainism” and Alvarez' “cum laude” academism, it was Blake Morrison [7] who gave up on a comfortably unified scheme, pointing to the group's basic inconsistencies:

The critic of the Movement is faced, then, with a series of divisions. On the one hand, the Movement enjoys and exploits the sense of belonging to an academic elite; on the other hand, it disapproves of writing aimed at such an elite. On the one hand, it asserts the importance of university teachers and critics; on the other, it questions and satirizes their function. One the one hand, it declares that to write for a larger audience is damaging; on the other, it declares that it is valuable and necessary. On the one hand, its work is dense, allusive, intimate with fellow intellectuals; on the other, its work is simple, “accessible”, intimate with an imagined Common Reader. Previous critics of the Movement have tended to emphasize one side or the other, accusing it of “academism” or of “philistinism”; the truth is that the work of the Movement is characterized by a tension between the two.  

In the absence of an orthodox literary school's symptomatology (salon, manifesto, magazines, mutual influence and collaboration), the Movement poets did display a common impatience with modernism. This is Philip Larkin in an interview with Ian Hamilton („Four Conversations”):

   What I do feel a bit rebellious about is that poetry seems to have got into the hands of a critical industry, which is concerned with culture in the abstract, and this I do rather lay at the door of Eliot and Pound... I think a lot of the “myth-kitty” business has grown out of that, because first of all you have to be terribly educated, you have to read everything to know these things, and secondly you've got somehow to work them in... But to me... the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots but dodges the writer's duty to be original.

The range of the everyday that falls under the detailed observation of this mid-fifty school of poetry is, just like that of the Augustans, a carefully selected one. As far as the oppressive feeling of the age following the holocausts is concerned, Donald Davie prefers to be “dumb”. It had been all right for Donne to be daring, because he had lived in a humanistic age, he had never experienced the “loss of nerve” produced by broadcasted war news, like this “radio-active fall-out” (a splendid pun):

         „Alas, alas, who's injured by my love ?”

         And recent history answers: Half Japan !

         Not love, but hate ? Well, both are versions of

         The feeling that you dare me to. Be dumb !

         Appear concerned only to make it scan !

         How dare we now be anything but dumb ?

                                             („Rejoinder to a Critic”)

John Holloway gives a similar Warning to a Guest: let him not lure his host out for a romantic walk on the shore at night, or for an exploration of the fabulous things/ Of the moon's dark side. The “new-line” poet can only give him a classicist's idea of the good life: wine and conversation, colour and light.

However, in “Modes of Control”, Yale Review, 53, 1964, Thomas Gunn shows a more complex awareness of the poet's post-modernist condition, which no longer allowed of an “immaculate” new start:

   The only assumption shared by the poets who have emerged in the last ten or fifteen years is that they do not want to continue the revolution inaugurated by Pound and finally made respectable by learned commentaries on “The four Quartets”. Yet nobody has pretended that, once the revolution was abandoned, it was possible simply to take up where Hardy left off, as if the experiments of Pound and Eliot had never taken place. Clearly we must, without embodying the revolution, to understand its causes and to study its mistakes.

One gets a pretty good understanding of what it means to deny a revolution in whose aftermath one is unwillingly contained by reading the poem “Beowulf” by Kingsley Amis. The “Eliotian” reinscription of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem is realized in two registers: parodic, expressing a modern impatience with the fabulous and the heroic, and metalinguistic, that is, a commentary on the poem's structure, with a final mise-en-abyme of the Kingsley poem as “Old English harking-back”.

         So, bored with dragons, he lay down to sleep,

         Locking for good his massive hoard of words

         (Discuss and illustrate), forgetting now

         The hope of heathens, muddled thoughts on fate.


         Councils would have to go along without him:

         The peerless prince had taken his last bribe

         (Lif is laene) useless now the byrnie

         Hard and hand-locked, fit for a baseball catcher.


         Only with Grendel was he man-to-man;

         Grendel's dam his only sort of woman

         (Weak conjugation). After they were gone

         How could he stand the bench-din, the yelp-word ?


         Someone has told me this man was a hero.

         Must we then reproduce his paradigms,

         Trace out his rambling recess to his forbears

         (An instance of Old-English harking-back)?

Philip Larkin's destiny was somehow the most typical for the fifties. His first volume, The North Ship (1945), is seized with the “Celtic fever” with which Vernon Watkins, an admirer of W.B. Yeats, had infested him at the “English Club” in Oxford in 1943. He soon outgrows his infatuation with Yeats, the disenchantment being expressed in the very title of his third volume of poems, The Less Deceived, 1955. In going back to another spokesman of romantic disenchantment, Thomas Hardy, Larkin, however, does not lose the visual sensitiveness of the Imagists, which he exploits in an empirically-oriented poetry of the natural, elemental, familiar aspects of the everyday. As well as Thom Gunn, Larkin was well-aware of the impossibility to escape the consequences of the modernist experiment, even if the present generation chose to borrow only the Imagists' “exact delineation of the external world” (Gunn, Ibidem). One of the poems included by Larkin in his second volume – XX Poems (1951), and reproduced in the 1966 reprint of The North Ship as a “coda”, as it “shows the “Celtic fever abated and the patient sleeping soundly”, heaps up images of the immediate, drab background (and even absence of quotations marks) as “objective correlatives” of his feeling of boredom in the morning of an uneventful day: 

         Waiting for breakfast, while she brushed her hair,

         I looked down at the empty hotel yard

         Once meant for coaches. Cobblestones were wet,

         But sent no light back to the loaded sky,

         Sunk as it was with mist down to the roofs.

         Drainpipes and fire-escape, climbed up

         Past rooms still burning their electric light.

         I thought: Featureless morning, featureless night.  

In the second stanza, the chameleonic voice of the poem moves into modes of desire and romantic excitement. It is as if a frozen image were animated through the agency of prosopopoeia and other tropical transformations: 

         Misjudgement: for the stones slept, and the mist

         Wandered absolvingly past all it touched,

         Yet hung like a stayed breath....

Can one think of a more imaginative rendering of the levelling effect of the mist, like the absolution granted by a priest which can wash away sins as if they had never existed? And yet the third stanza effects a new twist (But...) rejecting the tender visiting. The price exacted for the recovery of this “Celtic fever” seems too high. The poet would have to give up on the warm woman in flesh and blood, brushing her hair next to him, and turn part invalid, part baby and part saint – the Pre-Raphaelite sexless male worshipping a dead love, or one sublimated to an ideal presence in his heart.

Terry Whalen's 1986 study in Larkin repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the alertness of mind, the “explorative vision” which accompanies the poet's meticulous observation of reality, and which links him to the modernists’ selectivity of “epiphanic” moments. Parallel readings of The Trees and of Lawrence's Solar, of The Whitsun Weddings (from the homonymous volume, published in 1964) and Lawrence's Tommies in the Train are meant to disclose Larkin's “poetry of reality” as visionary rather than as mere “transcription”: I think that it is with Lawrence's immediacy of wonder that Larkin gives internal coherence to his moment of living relationships. Both writers participate in the innocent chaos and beauty of the festivities [8]. Larkin's refurbishing of precedented discourse is, in our opinion, a distancing rather than an identifying strategy. Lawrence's ontic inquiry in the TommiesWhat are we ? – is changed into a phenomenological one in the Larkin poem, where the travellers no longer fall apart from the real sights hurling behind the train but grow with the meanings they have made of them: loaded with the sum of all they saw. Alongside existentialism, phenomenology was another shaping influence at the time, and Larkin is close here not to Lawrence but to his contemporary, anti-Movement Charles Tomlinson, the author of Four Kantian Lyrics (1963), to whom poetry means a permanent negotiation between subject and object, self and world, and whose “ave atque vale” to the reader is: I leave you to your meaning (Poem). Here is a fragment from Tomlinson's Winter Encounters: 

         House and hollow; village and valley-side:

                     The ceaseless pairings; the interchange

         In which properties are constant... 

In Solar, the sun is seen as a self-sufficient “origin” (maternal womb of being”) on which man depends for his needs hourly whereas The Trees by Larkin is characterized by a doubleness of language. Words marked [+human] emphasize man's difference from, not his link to nature: coming to leaf is only figuratively associated with something... being said; the greenness of the leaves is improperly a kind of grief; trees cannot deliberately play a trick of looking new. To nature, last year is dead, each spring is an indifferent repetition: afresh, afresh, afresh, whereas man has memories of the past. The poem is practically a permanent intimation of man's incompatibility with nature, which lacks speech, emotions, will, memory.

In Wedding Wind, the imagery of violence is common to the wind raging outside and to a bride's wedding night, but the girl also experiences joy, happiness. The poem is built by analogy between the natural and the human element, and the last two lines in which the girl ascribes nature her own feelings (delighted lakes, all-generous waters) is a comment on the poet's rhetorical strategy.

Any reader of So Through that Unripe Day You Bore Your Head is struck by its similarity to Hardy's Neutral Tones. The reason why Larkin appreciated Hardy was mainly („Wanted Good Hardy Critic”, 1964) his being well equipped to perceive the melancholy, the misfortune, the frustrating, the failing elements of life. Sadness is both true to life and an inner incentive to spiritual growth. In Hardy, it is experience of the world that induces a sort of pathetic fallacy in the way in which the past is permanently reshaped in the memory. Unhappy love relationships have projected a negative natural landscape as the background of a past love meeting. In Larkin, there is a progressive degradation and hardening in sense perception (plucked and tasted become cut, gummed), the self's meaning-making being independent of the physical landscape. The memory held in the static past contrasts the cold, rough weather and the flamboyant severed image of the mistress. Contrariwise, in the present, the lovers are safe indoors, but her live charm, like that of everything else in the “provincial winter”, is gone.

Church Going is a remake after Arnold's Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse, the innovation being a dramatic form of poetry, a doubleness of voice, suggesting several personae or centres of consciousness. Terry Whalen is keenly sensitive to its dialogism: It creates a modulation of tone and interplay between two basic personality traits in the poet's work as a whole” the one comic or clever, the other more open and sensitive (...) Where one voice is sceptical and often turns to the caustic, the other is more sensitive and struggles towards praise. Each voice, in fact, represents one of the major impulses in Larkin's poetry: the ironic and the wondrous [9]. The modern sceptic walks incredulously into the church, impassibly observing and making remarks in casual tones about the objects lying around, which to him are emptied of any religious meaning. Faith is deconstructed through disparaging words (some brass and stuff), ambiguous words (dubious women: suspect, indistinct, doubting?), household words for common hobbies (Christmas-addict). The speaker cannot account for his presence inside the Church, but gradually feels drawn to it, as if to a force field (gravitating... to this ground), because man is a meaning being, and the church, even if not visited by the divines, has been traditionally constituted as a place for seriousness, for wise musings on life reduced to its essentials – marriage, birth and death. The language itself grows ceremonious, spelt out in solemn rhythms and formal, fine-sounding diction (uninformed, equably, it pleases me). Larkin's interest in social events, festivities, the rites of modern life – going on week-end, to the sea in summer, weddings – is an expression not of Lawrence's anthropological concern with the “chant of the multitude”, or of Nietzsche's obsession with archaic codes, but of his idea of meaning as collectively produced, in matrices of intersubjectivity.

The next volumes, Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974), show the poet even “less deceived” about the material world of commercial values, of the advertising industry scrupulously exploiting and enhancing the trivial consumptions hungers of his contemporaries. If the “Celtic fever” has subsided, infinitely more horrifying feels the “shopping fever” in The Large Cool Store. The Pre-Raphaelite dream of the separate and unearthly love, our young unreal wishes assume the grotesque shapes of synthetic natureless (...) Bri-Nylon, Baby-Dolls and Shorties as Modes for Night. The vacuous repetition in the title (Going, Going) suggests the dead end humanity has reached in its new worship of commercial, profit-making, selling and spending mythology. The traditional values of the rural countryside, nourished by the communion between the individual and his environment, cannot be carried into the postindustrial town, where man and nature are hygienically sealed apart from each other by tyres and concrete.

TED HUGHES (1930-1998) was somehow speaking pro domo when he defended the escapist aloofness of the Movement poets. It was natural, he declared in an interview, that they should try to forget the horrors of the holocaust and death camps. He, however, chose a different way, the violence and terror of his poetry, teeming with birds and beasts of prey, being the more energetic and therapeutic response to the long shadow cast over people's minds by the recent world cataclysm.

The rhetoric of his early poetry is in keeping with the spirit of the time, displaying a New Critical obsession with language, without the need for a feedback on traditional forms. The poem is an aesthetic object, a new specimen of the life outside your own (a radio talk on writing in the early sixties), which reflects back upon its own making. Capturing animals in the cage of the printed text is, as well as with all formalists and structuralists, a process of defamiliarization, of suggesting how much more vivid is the algebraic replacement of things by symbols, by conventions and modes of signification than the “lifelessness” of the real world. The shift from the romantic subject, which is anterior to the process of writing, to the modern subject which is contemporary to the writing, and only exists in writing (Roland Barthes, To Write, an Intransitive Verb ?) can be seen from the very first volume, The Hawk in the Rain, 1957. The Thought-Fox is progressively constructing the animal within the text, through the ing-forms lengthening out the act of perception, the “whispering, clicking, exploding” consonants, the music of the vowels [10], the compact, monosyllabic words suggesting the immediate impact of a physical presence. The framing of the animal's progress displaces it from reality, inserting it into the space of the blank page which gets finally printed and into the dark hole of the head – the black hole of the semiological space absorbing within its vortex and disintegrating the material world. The use of the present indefinite instead of the continuous shows the writing scene as a timeless one, of general significance. The Poetics of Veronica Forrest-Thomson provides a perfectly adequate method for the poet's early phase, as the elements in the poem engage in complex and meaningful relationships, cohering at all levels: from that of the empirical complex and voice to that of theme. The poem progresses from the darkness of the midnight forest to that inside the skull, from the blank page to the printed page, from the reality out there to the interiority of textuality: 

         I imagine the midnight's moment's forest:

         Something else is alive           

         Beside the clock's loneliness                           

         And the blank page where my fingers move...


         Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox

          It enters the dark hole of the head.

         The window is starless still; the clock ticks,

          The page is printed.        

The title of the book is emblematic of the release of horror and violence, the visions of charnel-houses, massacred armies, vampires, babies born with nails suggestive of claws, the decayed corpses of war casualties, dove breeders changed by frustration into hawk-hunters. The rain reminds of the deluge, with the exception that it is mankind's heritage of carnage that is once more loosed onto the world, epitomized by the perching hawk, presiding over the cosmic dissolution. The poems are structures of contrasted pairs, which are much more effective than the mechanical heaping up of connotative images. This long Soliloquy of a Misanthrope explores with morbid curiosity the mechanism whereby destructive energies gush forth from beneath the orderly, polished surface of civilization. Who can explain the mystery at the heart of that man who, after having spilled a fellow man's brains, bursts into the police station exacting that “justice be done” ? Can mankind take pride in its laws and legality when they only serve to deal a mechanical sort of justice that fails to waken man's consciousness up to the very roots and essence of evil (Law in the Country of the Cats) ? The graceful imagery of the ceremonious medieval hunting (And there rides by/ The great lord from hunting. His embroidered/ Cloak floats, the tail of his horse pours...) is matched with the greed and beastliness of two wolves, competing for supremacy in the wilderness of the woods and only coming to terms with each other when being mutually engaged in preying upon the “great lord”. Post-war man had recently experienced his identification not with civilization but with the wolf world: 

         There is no better way to know us

         Than as two wolves....

In his destructive project, man has descended from worst to worst: from unjust treaties and truces, to mass massacre (Two Wise Generals), from vanity of glory and individual heroism to cowardly holocausts (The Ancient Heroes and the Bomber Pilot). Hughes does not state anything; he merely suggests through the crafty handling of imagery. Here is, for instance, the primitive quality of warfare, rendered by the emphasis on “raw”, by the association between war propaganda (patriotism, jingoism) and the eerily animated and blindly crushing force of the arsenal which is ironically ascribed human attributes („sweating”, “smacking”), while the soldier's chest turns into a destructive volcano, and his arm withers away into the inhuman weapon he is carrying: 

         Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw

         In raw-seamed hot khaki...hearing

         Bullets smacking the belly out of the air –

         He lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm:

         The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye

         Sweating like molten iron from the center of his chest, –

The poet deconstructs the myth of the hero: the soldier is merely an instrument, a cogwheel in an inhuman machinery of cosmic destruction. And yet, it is in blind commitment to some hidden purpose he cannot comprehend that he is turned into a statue of heroism: 

         In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations

         Was he the hand pointing that second ? He was running

         Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs

         Listening between his footfalls for the reason

         Of his still running, and his foot hung like

         Statuary in mid-stride.

The addition of “etcetera” after the slogan-words of jingoism show the dissolution of true patriotic values under the grim reality of slaughter, while the last line fuses the two opposite drives meeting in the fighting soldier: terror channelled into destructive impulse, and the transfer of wrath to the inanimate “dynamite”, suggesting his dehumanization. The soldier's personality has merged into his instruments of destruction: 

         King, honour, human dignity, etcetera

         Dropped like luxuries in a yelling alarm

         To get out of that blue crackling air

         His terror's touchy dynamite.

The deconstruction of a human world is carried forth in the next, 1960 volume, entitled Lupercal, as a hint to the Roman festivities in honour of the God of fauna. Hawk-Roosting is justly celebrated for the economical structure of an animal poem which persuasively communicates the arbitrary force of destructive nature: un-scrupulous, un-mannered, un-reasoning, un-imaginative, un-changing. The poem has been pertinently read off as an anti-genesis and, more topically, as a ban on fascism.

Meeting Sylvia Plath, the glamorous American poetess, whom he married in 1959, changed the poet's absorbing preoccupations with craftsmanship (forcible imagery, a special feel for structure, sound, rhythm) into a spiritualising direction. He began to take an interest in dreams, occult symbolism, exercises in meditation and invocation. The mythical narrative of Robert Graves's The White Goddess (1948) provided him with an alternative to the male-centred mythology of the West, being the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Spirit of the Year, son and lover of the Threefold Goddess. In 1992 Hughes was still drawing on Celtic mythology, projecting it on Shakespeare: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Faber and Faber. The Threefold Goddess, which supposedly provided a rich primer for the genetic tributaries that enrich the bloodstream of Shakespeare's Goddess and hero (p. 458) can be seen as the creative womb of the inchoate waters, gradually refining herself into human form (p. 6). Nature acceding to Spirit, assuming anthropomorphic form and relapsing into the amorphous, creative womb is a familiar myth which we can read between the lines of Song (with the memorable The difficult stars swam for eyes in your face). After his wife's suicide, in 1963, Ted Hughes departed into surrealist modes, seeking promises of the spirit's resurrection in a blend of myths reaching out of the Indo-European matrix (for instance, North-American). Hughes identifies two negative narratives which are responsible for the present alienation of Western man. One of them is the desecration of woman originating in the Calvinist witch-hunt misogyny, which he tries to resist through the revival of the Celtic pre-Christian cult of a Mother Goddess but also through the more personal narrative of the desecrated woman's salvation by an equally disintegrated male (The Wound and Eat Crow, the latter being a dramatic fragment, an attempt at rewriting the Rosicrucian theme of sposus and sposa in the Alchemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, by the seventeenth-century Johann Valentin Andreae). Alchemy (progressing from putrefactio to revelation of lapis) is played off against another mythical body – the shamanistic descent into disintegration as a premise of rebirth. The other negative Western narrative is the story of the mind exiled from nature. Can man discard the alienating rational systems of Western culture and seek a new identification with the cosmic creative energies? In the 29th issue of The Listener (1964), Hughes reviews Mircea Eliade's Shamanism, which forcibly engages his imaginative energies. In shamanism, the aspirant goes through solitary ordeals of fasting and self-mutilation, until a spirit, usually some animal, arrives and becomes henceforth his liaison with the spirit world. His animals of prey receive new connotations, as deposits of cosmic spiritual energy. The self has three possibilities [11]: to reject the energy and live a sort of life in death, to accept it and be destroyed by it or to receive it and turn it to good: the controlled energy of rituals, religion, art. The Second Glance at a Jaguar changes the perspective from the previous poem in Hawk in the Rain (The Jaguar): not the New Critical assumption that reality and our visionary experience of it are discontinuous with each other (consequently the textual version of the jaguar is a new ontology, with its own earth and heaven, and not an ancillary, mimetic portrait, like the indifferent, inoffensive pictures of caged animals in a zoo, worth adorning children's bedrooms) but a jaguar as a shamanistic figure of embodied energy, muttering some mantrah, and going through a ritualistic shedding of the old skin. Wodwo (1967) is the most powerful critique of Western culture with its alienating effects on the individual. Later in the volume, in Wings, Hughes argues that even the advancements of twentieth-century philosophy, literature and science attest to contemporary man's complete alienation from any form of ancestral wisdom, for each man is now hopelessly isolated in his own existential agony (Sartre in section I) in a universe the teleology of which man is incapable of understanding (Kafka in section II) but whose scientific advancements have blasted him to star vapour (Einstein in section III) [12]. In the final portrait, Wodwo refuses to place himself at the centre and become the core of some new unifying spiritual belief, preferring to go on alienating himself in the otherness of the mundane show (looking at rather than being looked at).

A poem published in “Times Literary Supplement” (1970) provides a convenient connection between Wodwo – the emblem of the enslaving mythologies and cultural fortifications of the rational Western self – and Crow (1970), embodying the transforming role of a universal Trickster, drawing on ancient traditions from the Old and New Worlds. It is obvious from this uncollected poem that the origin of Crow was Beelzebub, lord of the flies, the antagonist of God, the usurper of or interfering with God's creation:  

         Fighting for Jerusalem 

         The man who seems to be dead 

         With Buddha in his smile

         With Jesus in his stretched out arms

         With Mahomet in his humbled forehead


         With his feet in hell

         With his hands in heaven

         With his back to the earth


         Is escorted

         To his eternal reward

         By singing legions


         Of what seems to be flies.

Jarold Ramsey in Crow, or the Trickster Transformed (The Achievement of Ted Hughes, Op. cit.) defines Crow (alias Jesus or Coyote with North-American tribes) as Jung's primitive, utterly undifferentiated state of consciousness, that society transcends, mischievous, greedy, selfish, of Protean diversity. He is what Levi-Strauss calls “bricoleur”, the handyman, who, finding God asleep, starts giving shape and order to existing materials. This is a world he pieces together, with no idea of some grand design. But is not the bricoleur the emblem of the postmodernist artist and the apocalypse his favourite trope ?




[1] Kenneth Allsop, The Angry Decade. A Survey of the Cultural Revolt of the Nineteen-Fifties, Peter Owen, 1958, p. 10

[2] Charles Innes, Modern British Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 432

[3] Andrew K. Kennedy, Samuel Becket, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 37.

[4] Randall Stevenson, The British Novel since the Thirties, Institutul European Iasi, 1993.

[5] Apud Jeanette King, Doris Lessing, Edward Arnold, 1989, p. 2.

[6] A, Alvarez, Introduction to The New Poetry, Penguin Books, 1962, p. 23.

[7] Blake Morrison, English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s. The Movement, Methuen, 1986, pp. 134-135.

[8]     Terry Whalen, Philip Larkin and English Poetry, Macmillan 1986, p. 84.

[9]    Ibidem, pp. 14, 15.

[10] Martin Dodsworth, “Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill” in The Pelican Guide to English Literature. The Present, Penguin Books, 1983.

[11] See Michael Sweeting, “Hughes and Shamanism” in The Achievement of Ted Hiughes, Edited by Keith Sagar, Manchester University Press, 1983

[12] Leonard M. Scigaj, “Oriental Mythology in Wodwo”, in The Achievement of Ted Hughes, Op. cit.



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