Ted Hughes and Schopenhauer: The Poetry of the Will

By Eddins, Dwight | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Ted Hughes and Schopenhauer: The Poetry of the Will


Eddins, Dwight, Twentieth Century Literature


Tennyson's scarifying glimpse of nature in In Memoriam as a scene of primordial violence revisits a weltanschauung as old as philosophy itself - an outlook famously summed up in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes when he asserted that the "natural" condition of humanity is "warre . . . of every man, against every man" and that life in a state of nature is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (88-89). Ironically, Hobbes's own century would see the emergence of natural theology, with its emphasis on nature as an incarnation of the highest ethical ideal, summed up by the third Earl of Shaftesbury as "morality, justice, piety, and natural religion" (Cooper 1: 301-02). It was this view that would dominate English nature poetry well into the Romantic era, when - as the next installment of irony - the Hobbesian strain would resurface with singular vigor and trenchancy in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, Tennyson's older contemporary.

The affinity between the poet's fleeting visions of animal savagery and the philosopher's sustained ruminations on it is salient. Tennyson considers the awful possibility that mankind is linked, as an even more degenerate "monster," with "Dragons of the prime, / That tare each other in their slime" (56.22-23). And here is Schopenhauer on "the observable life of animals":

we see only momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium, everything a hunter and everything hunted, pressure, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling, and this goes on in saecula seculorum, or until once again the crust of the planet breaks. (World 2: 254)

Tennyson, of course, would recant in favor of a revised natural theology by poem's end, but the outlook so mercilessly articulated by Schopenhauer would become more compelling as modernist perspectives gradually impinged on the Victorian intellectual milieu. Both Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, the inheritors and elaborators - in their very different ways - of Tennyson's primordial vision, would admit to basic affinities with the German philosopher's thought.(1)

This thought finds its fullest poetic realization, however, in our own time, in the verse of Ted Hughes. His menagerie - the hawk, the jaguar, the shark, and their ilk - fits even better than Lawrence's birds, beasts, and flowers into Schopenhauer's "bellum omnium" of predation. A paradigm case is the cannibalistic pike, driven by appetites and killer instincts so fierce that the poet is able to find two of them, "six pounds each, over two feet long, / High and dry and dead in the willow-herb - / One jammed past its gills down the other's gullet" ("Pike," Lupercal). The human animal figures prominently in this company of killers. In "Mayday on Holderness," for instance, a "pierced helmet" and "Cordite oozings of Gallipoli" explicitly evoke "The expressionless gaze of the leopard / The coils of the sleeping anaconda / The nightlong frenzy of shrews" (Lupercal).

But the affinity between Schopenhauer and Hughes runs much deeper than their mutual obsession with animal savagery. From his first principle of der Wille - the will - which he sees as generating not only the phenomenon of hunter and hunted but all the other phenomena of existence, Schopenhauer articulates a complex ontology and epistemology that parallel in illuminating ways the poet's instinctual assumptions about what nature fundamentally is and how we perceive it.(2) When Michael Bell speaks of the language philosophy of Ernst Cassirer as providing an "explicatory parallel" or an "appropriate conceptual analogy" to the work of Lawrence, he is describing the interpretive dynamic I am assuming here - the outlining of a sort of philosophical force-field that brings out the "internal cogency and complexity" of the given author's conceptions (3-4). The aspects of Hughes's work that I wish to examine in this regard are his fabulation of a fierce feminine presence as the presiding deity of the natural order, his projection of some sort of consciousness onto the vegetable and mineral realms, his esoteric renditions of sheer dynamic process, and his stylistic evolution from explicit interpretive frameworks to implicit ones. …

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