[Major Ted Hughes scholar, Australia,]




In 1984 I was puzzling over Ted’s description of Cave Birds as An Alchemical Cave Drama and I spent several weeks studying alchemical manuscripts in the British Library. I had only my meagre Latin, a brief early apprenticeship in pharmacy, and a copy of Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy to guide me, but it was enough for me to see that Cave Birds was a perfect alchemical text. There was the poetic, symbolic story-telling level: although the exotic peacocks, salamanders, doves and toads of the early alchemists had been replaced by Baskin’s barnyard cockerels, owls, swifts, eagles and corvids – all (apart from the vulture of “The Interrogator”) familiar birds of Ted’s English-Celtic homeland. There, built into the working and reworking of the poems and in the structure of the sequence itself, was the practical, painstaking, step-by-step procedure of the alchemical synthesis. And underlying it all was the theme of spiritual cleansing and rebirth.

In its performance at the Ilkley Festival in Yorkshire in May 1975, Cave Birds must have seemed very like an old morality tale or one of the York Mystery Plays, a version of which Ted’s sister, Olwyn, remembers seeing performed in a town near their home when they were children. Indeed, Ted’s notes for the accompanying Ilkley Festival programme described it as “a mystery play of sorts.”

I was so impressed by the alchemical synthesis Ted had achieved in Cave Birds that I did something I had never done before. I wrote to Ted, whom I had never met and who was not yet Poet Laureate, expressing my admiration for this work. He wrote back (in November 1984) a long letter in which he said very little about alchemy, but a great deal about “the two parallel stories” in Cave Birds [1]. One story, he said, described the judgment of Socrates, his “accusation, defence, conviction for murder, execution after expiatory sacrifice (the cockerel), passage to the underworld” and “resurrection as a Falcon.” The other, was “a human scenario,” in which a man and a woman represented phases of a male-female relationship.

The death of Socrates in Athens “as a sceptical philosopher, the patron saint of irony and dialectic reason” was, Ted wrote, his starting point. And Socrates’s crime was “the murder of the Mediterranean Goddess (as Mother and Bride).”

He also mentioned the Bardo Thodol and the journey to the underworld.
Socrates? Interpersonal relationships? The Bardo Thodol? As I got to know Ted better, I realized that this seeming obfuscation of the serious alchemical nature of his work by offering a number of different explanations for its origins was characteristic of his response to questions which touched on his deeper occult interests. It was not that he denied them. Nor that these other threads of inspiration and meaning were not also part of his work. It was more that like any serious worker with Alchemy, Cabbala, or any other so-called ‘magic’, he needed to judge the seriousness of the question, and the purpose and the state of understanding of the questioner.


Alchemy, Ted wrote to me later, when he knew me better, was “a little outside current English Studies in England…In fact to the orthodoxy it is a kind of anathema – tabu”. And in 1993, after reading more of what I had written about his use of Alchemy in Cave Birds, Remains of Elmet and River[2], he wrote, “your approach is like mine. Our only difficulty is – who else shares out approach?” Back in 1984, however, Ted’s response to my letter, and especially his comments about Socrates and the crime against the Mediterranean Goddess, puzzled me and made me read his work again from a different perspective.

Socrates, I found, had appeared in Ted’s work before. In ‘The Perfect Forms’ in Lupercal, Ted’s scorn for him is patent. Socrates, the great teacher who might have helped Man towards wholeness and understanding, instead demonstrated “the undying tail-swinging/ Stupidity of the donkey/ That carried Christ.” So obsessed was he with our superior rational powers, that he taught that the instinctive, intuitive side of human nature must be rejected as a source of knowledge. Only rational, analytical debate could reveal Absolute Truth. In an essay which was published in 1976, Ted wrote that Socrates’s way of leading his pupils to Truth through logical, step-by-step methods had resulted in “the Platonic system of ideas – a system which has in one way or another dominated the mental life of the Western world ever since.”[3] This, in Ted’s view, was Socrates’s “crime.” And this division of our nature into rational/irrational, objective/subjective, with the rejection of everything intuitive and instinctive (all those natural energies traditionally associated with the Goddess and the female) was something which Ted believed to be responsible for most human ills. “When something abandons Nature,” he wrote in a review in 1970, “it has lost touch with its creator, and is called an evolutionary dead-end.”[4]

No wonder Ted found it necessary to arraign Socrates for his seminal part in this process, to call him forth for judgment, and to subject him to a death and rebirth which would remake him “as the child and spouse of the Goddess.” And through our imaginative participation in the poetic-alchemical ritual of this drama, he sought to heal and remake us, too.

Puzzling over Ted’s reference to Socrates’s crime led me, also, to William Blake, whose work I already knew to be deeply woven into Ted’s being. Blake, too, had lambasted Socrates for forging the chains of reason which led to ‘Analytics’ and ‘Science’, ‘Priests and Philosophers’, and, ultimately, to the division of Body from Soul. Blake, too, had used poetic and occult rituals in an attempt to heal this division. And, as I re-read Blake, it became clear to me that Ted’s Cave Birds was in many ways similar to Blake’s most alchemical work, the sequence of annotated illustrations of The Book of Job. I traced these similarities with fascination, not knowing, until Olwyn Hughes told me later, that Ted had once hung copies of Blake’s Job etchings above his desk.

I knew that Ted had told Ekbert Faas that Blake (and Beethoven) could be found as the deepest traces “at the bottom of my strata.” And he identified Yeats, too, as an early guide, saying that he had come to Yeats’s poetry through his “other interests, folklore and magic.”[5] Like both Blake and Yeats, Ted had explored the spiritual heritage which was to be found in the literature of other cultures and earlier times, and had espoused beliefs and practices which were regarded with suspicion and derision by his contemporaries. And both Blake and Yeats were, in Ted’s terms, shamanic poets who had been summoned by a spirit, had accepted the call, and had flown to the Source in order to come back with healing or prophetic energies. Ted, too, has been recognized as a shamanic poet, but his methods and his kinship with Blake and Yeats in magical belief and practice is less widely accepted.

Magic, for Ted was a deeply serious subject which included Hermetic lore, Alchemy, Cabbala and much else. Like Yeats’s magic, as Ted described it in a letter to Keith Sagar, it encompassed “the whole of Eastern mystical philosophy, the whole tradition of Hermetic Magic (which is a good part of Jewish Mystical philosophy, not to speak of the mystical philosophy of the Renaissance), the whole historical exploration into spirit life at every level of consciousness, the whole deposit of earlier and other religion, myth, vision, traditional wisdom and story in folk belief.”[6] And for Ted, magic had always been the work of poets and the purpose of poetry. “Magic,” he once said, “is one way of making things happen the way you want them to happen”; and he noted that from the earliest “one-line chants of nonsense syllables in accompaniment to a stamping dance”, poems had been power-charms, tools, “practical agents in the business of gaining desired ends.”[7]

Ted was, and was not, open about his use of magic. His interest in astrology was well known, but it was regarded either as ‘dotty’ or (as I read most recently) as an “endearingly bonkers obsession.”[8] To friends, he talked quite freely about occult energies. On my first visit to Devon, he told me of a friend who had become a healer and how this had helped him live with a painful, crippling disease. And he described the way a dowser had used a map and a pendulum to chart (accurately, as it turned out) the course of three streams which met under the kitchen floor at Court Green. He urged me to try dowsing, and told me how to make wire dowsing rods and how to use them. “You can even do it with a bottle of water balanced on your hand,” he said. “Lots of people can do it. But I’m no good at it.”

Yet, when asked by Ekbert Faas about the sources of the meditation and invocation exercises that Sylvia had said he devised for her, he was dismissive: “The whole body of magical literature which anybody can look up. I’d prefer not to talk about it.”[9]

To his close friend, Lucas Myers, he sent (in 1962) a copy of the magician Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics: a course of instructions of magical theory and practice. He also sent another friend a copy in about 1976, which suggests the lasting importance the exercises in this book had for him. But he and I talked only briefly about his use of Alchemy and never, directly, about Cabbala. I knew that Ted was superstitious. I understood, too, that he took very seriously the requirement that those who actively use magical techniques should obey the maxim: know, will, dare, and be silent. Silence was self-protection. Ted, having written about the fates of Occult NeoPlatonists like Giordano Bruno and John Dee, knew the dangers of breaking it. So, there was a tacit agreement between us that I would not probe him about certain subjects. However, I saw enough evidence in Ted’s work (poetry and prose), in his references to books he had read and considered important, and, in oblique ways, in our conversations, to confirm my belief that poetry and magic (in its serious, sacred form) were inseparable in Ted’s work.

When Birthday Letters was published, on the first of the two dates Ted had told me earlier that he had chosen according to the stars, I read it with Alchemy and Magic in mind. I saw it, initially, as Ted’s eroica furor – an inspired sequence of love poems, such as the Renaissance Magus, Giordano Bruno, had created at the height of his powers, and embodying the same Hermetic NeoPlatonic healing purpose. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Cabbala, other than what I had read in Ted’s essays on Shakespeare, and in Frances Yates’s scholarly and fascinating books which I had once discussed briefly with Ted. Only later, after Ted’s death, did a chance question about the number of poems in the published sequence lead me to think Cabbala might be involved.

I began, very sceptically, to lay out the poems as if they represented a Cabbalistic journey. Then, with Ted’s poems as my guide, I began to learn about Cabbala.[10] The journey took me six years to complete, and I published each step of my examination of the poems on my web-site as I went. At every step, I expected to come to a poem which had no Cabbalistic significance at all or was in completely the wrong place on the journey. Slowly, however, I came to accept that if there were things about a poem that I did not understand; or if Ted had seemingly got the facts of an event wrong or put them in the wrong chronological order, then there was some Cabbalistic insight or truth which I had not yet learned. Invariably, after I had done some further reading in books like Gershom Scholem’s On Kabbalah and its Symbolism, or in Colin Low’s Notes On Kabbala on his WebPages[11], or in a few other Cabbalistic texts, Ted’s intentions became absolutely clear. I came to see that nothing about this sequence of poems was accidental: that as well as relying on his poetic intuition and his highly developed visual imagination, Ted had chosen every aspect of every poem with the utmost care and precision.

I was aware, constantly, of two dangers. Firstly, that in looking for patterns which fitted a Cabbalistic framework I might impose that pattern where it did not exist. Secondly, after being contacted by a Jewish man who had read the first steps of my journey on my web-site and who wrote accusing me of trespassing on sacred Jewish territory, I realized that my research into Cabbala might offend specific religious sensibilities.

The first danger, I discovered, was less likely than it seemed. Cabbala is a difficult and complex subject, yet it has such a precise framework that to fit a specific poem from Birthday Letters to a particular Path requires a great deal of knowledge, skill, hard work and ingenuity. To make every aspect of every poem fit a Path in the correct sequence would certainly be beyond my limited Cabbalistic knowledge and abilities. And I eventually concluded that to label such continuous and specific correspondence as I found to exist as coincidence, defied common sense.
The danger of offending Jewish sensibilities, too, suggested territorial boundaries which should never exist amongst those who are seriously seeking spiritual enlightenment. Certainly Cabbala can be, and is, debased by those who teach it or follow it as a cult which requires conformity to arbitrary rituals, particular dress-codes, and group practices. But Ted’s use of Cabbala was never like this. For him, it was “the most formidably established and sophisticated, the most awesome in occult reputation, of all memory maps,...operated by techniques of meditation that at the very least [are] like divine prayer whilst at the highest they resemble communication with supernatural beings, if not with the Divine Emanation itself.”[12]

Cabbala, in any case, cannot be taught. Each person must make the journey for themselves, and each person is different. So, there is no single, correct way of making the Cabbalistic journey. Guides may help and symbolic maps, such as that of the Cabbalistic Tree, may help, but each journeyer must make their own judgments and choices, must make their own mistakes and be prepared to learn from them, and will proceed as little or as far as they are able.

In Ted’s essays on Shakespeare, he describes the Hermetic Cabbalistic Tree as “a pattern of ten ascending stations (Sephiroth – Angelic Powers) positioned on and between the pillars of Justice and Mercy, mounting from the lowest Hells to the Divine Source.” This is precise and correct. It also demonstrates Ted’s familiarity with the occultist’s Temple of Solomon, the entrance to which is flanked by the pillars of Justice and Mercy.

More generally, The Cabbalistic Tree (or Sephirothic Tree), can be described as a figurative Tree of Life. It is a valuable map for charting life’s journey, because it functions as a mnemonic which, in Ted’s words, “encompasses all the possibilities of existence.” This was the map Ted used as a framework for Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers, in both of which memory plays such an important part. And it was this map that I, too, learned to use as I followed Ted’s footsteps along its Paths.[13]

On the Cabbalistic Tree, the universal energies, which had been Ted’s subject since he began writing poetry, are represented as manifesting at ten points (called Sephiroth) in ten different, often contradictory, ways. The title traditionally ascribed to each Sephira suggests something of the nature of its energies. The number of each Sephira also has special symbolic meaning. There are, as well, four overlapping Cabbalistic Worlds, each with its own Tree and each more distant from the energies of the Unmanifest Divine Source. Of these, the Atziluthic World is a world of archetypes, and the Briatic World is a world of abstract, fluid patterns. In the Yetziritic World these patterns are given shape, and in the World of Assiah energies become fixed, fragmented and hollow. Ted journeyed through all of these Worlds in Birthday Letters. And, since the Sephiroth of each Tree are connect to each other by 22 Paths, there is a total of 88 Paths in the four overlapping Worlds: and there are 88 poems in the published sequence of Birthday Letters.

Each Path is designated by one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and each letter has a spiritual meaning which illuminates its Path. Each of the 22 cards of the Major Arcana of the Tarot pack is also associated with a Path, and Ted used the symbols, myths and numbers associated with each card as important mnemonic aids for his journeys on this Tree of Life.

Traditionally, there are two ways of making the Cabbalistic journey. The first, called ‘The Path of the Snake’, is the natural evolutionary journey of the species and the individual. It takes us from the unselfconscious, earthy state in which we are born (represented by Malkuth (10) - ‘The World’ - at the foot of the Tree), upwards from Sephira to Sephira towards the fully conscious wholeness of Kether (1) – ‘The Crown’ at the Tree’s apex. We all begin this journey but between the topmost Sephiroth, 1, 2 and 3 (the so-called ‘Supernal Triangle’), and those of the lower part of the Tree lies a gulf which few will cross. To do so, requires the ability and the will to unite and harmonize all the energies we encounter on the lower part of the Tree. This was the framework Ted used for the eleven poems in Howls & Whispers. For Birthday Letters, he used the second route around the Tree which is known as ‘The Path of Wisdom’.

‘The Path of Wisdom’ starts at the crown of the Tree, Kether (1), in the Atziluthic World and the first steps are taken along Path 1, Aleph, the Path of the Tarot Fool, to Chokmah (2). It then continues along the twenty-two paths in numerical order, returning, finally, to Kether, then progressing in the same fashion through the other three Worlds. Not everyone will attempt this journey. Those who do will each make it in their own, individual, way. Some will complete it: some will not. A few will make this journey several times in a lifetime in different ways, each time with growing understanding. It begins with our first conscious desire for an understanding of our place in the world.

On each Path, the powerful energies of two different Sephira must be understood and balanced within the journeyer and in his or her life. Such balance requires the utmost attention and care as well as honesty, courage and willpower. It also requires a willingness to fail, and to acknowledge failure and learn from it.

Critical to this whole endeavour are will, imagination and memory. Will is necessary for the constant pursuit of any goal, especially one which is difficult and, potentially, dangerous. Imagination is necessary in order to see (or visualize) every possible aspect of any given situation: only then, can one discern and understand past errors and truths, and create new patterns for the future. Memory is essential, because it allows us to rediscover fragments of our past (and of our world’s past). Memory and imagination, too, allow us to bring those fragments together, as if gathering up parts of a dismembered body, to re-member them and, if we wish, use our imagination and our will to recreate the whole.

Ted undertook the journey along The Path of Wisdom in order to remember and recreate his past, to heal his psyche, and, through his poetry, to channel healing energies into our world. In Howls & Whispers, he undertook the journey on the Path of the Serpent in an attempt to understand his own, and Sylvia’s, shared quest for wholeness through their lives and their work.

In spite of the doubts Ted expressed to me and to other friends about publishing these poetic sequences, he said he felt “renewed” once that was done. And, in the months before he died, he spoke of having gained “a sense of inner liberation, a huge sudden possibility of new inner experience. Quite strange.” Clearly, the Cabbalistic ritual he enacted in writing these poems and in shaping these sequences worked its healing magic for him. But it was equally important to him that they be published so that others might read them, be moved by them and, perhaps, stirred to remember fragments of their own lives and share some of their healing energies.

Having made my own Cabbalistic journey as I followed Ted’s footsteps through Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers, I have learned that scepticism, judgment, discernment and discretion are necessary at every step of the way. So, I remain sceptical about magic. I do not yet share Ted’s faith in the efficacy of its rituals. But I keep well in mind the limits of my own understanding and, especially, Blake’s question: “How do you know but eve’ry Bird that cuts the airy way / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” I also heed Blake’s warning that “The man [or woman, I would add] who never alters his opinion is like standing water and breeds reptiles of the mind.” [14]


1. This letter, and others quoted from here, are now held in the collection, Add 74257, at the British Library.
2. Ann Skea, The Poetic Quest (Armidale, N.S.W., Aust.: University of New England Press, 1994).
3. “ Myth and Education,” republished in Winter Pollen, (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 136.
4. “The Environmental Revolution,” ibid., 129.
5. Ekbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara, Calif: Black Sparrow, 1980).
6. Ted Hughes to Keith Sagar, 30 August 1979, reprinted in The Laughter of Foxes (Liverpool, Eng.: Liverpool University Press, 2000), 4.
7. Interview with Peter Orr, 1963.
8. A. Wilson, “Testing Ted,” Literary Review, July 2004.
9. Ekbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe. 210.
10. Cabbala is an ancient, complex, deeply serious and coherent system of spiritual study and development. For Jews, it is a sacred discipline. It became part of the studies of Hermetic Neoplatonists at the time of the Renaissance, and was used by them within the framework of their Christian beliefs.
11. These are freely available on Colin Low’s WebPages, because he believes that “no person can control a thing when it is freely available to others.”
12. Shakespeare and Occult NeoPlatonism,’ Winter Pollen, 295-6.
13. The steps of both of Ted’s poetic-Cabbalistic journeys are traced in detail in Poetry and Magic and Howls & Whispers on my web-pages at
14. William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in D. Erdman, ed., The Illuminated Blake (New York: Anchor Books, 1974), 114, 116.




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