chapter  10
7 Pages

Ted Hughes’s Anti-Mythic Method

In fact, the difference between Eliot and Hughes in this respect rests on a conceptual bind. For the word myth does not mean exactly the same thing for the two of them. And this is mostly because they speak on the two sides of a major transformation in the history of ideas. In 1923, T.S.Eliot wrote that “Psychology (such as it is, and whether our reaction to it be comic or serious), ethnology, and The Golden Bough have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a

few years ago” (178). But, in the 1950s, Jungian psychology and Sir John Frazer would be part of the staple reading of a Cambridge student in English and social anthropology like Ted Hughes. Still, they did agree at least on one word to qualify myth-it is the word dodge. Eliot, while criticizing Adlington’s criticism of Ulysses, expressed what would then become a widespread opinion concerning Joyce’s “parallel to the Odyssey” saying that “it has been treated as an amusing dodge, or scaffolding erected by the author to the purpose of disposing his realistic tale, of no interest in the completed structure” (175). As T.S.Eliot saw it, myth was still very much a tool to be used in a method, that is to say as a means to an end. Eliot’s “mythic method” can be read as an extension and a variant of the “objective correlative.” There is only a difference of degree between “finding the formula of that particular emotion” (48) and using myth as “a way of giving a shape and a significance to” something else (177). Now it first seems that Ted Hughes is saying the same thing when he writes that “mythologies are dodgy things,” which for him are “nothing more than the picture language that we invent” to express “the deeper shared understandings which keep us intact as a group” (WP 310). But he is speaking of “mythologies” and, in his vocabulary, “myths” are more precisely defined as those “deeper shared understandings.” The difference is extremely important, yet it remains evasive and unclear, as nearly all the concepts Hughes makes use of are “dodgy,” provisional scaffoldings. Yet, very graphically, he goes on using the word “mythologies” between inverted commas, saying: “one ‘mythology’ that I found ready to hand was the natural world-all the various creatures of the world, and their doings, in their places or out of them” (312). Hughes’s definition of myth is very close to that of the referent, that is to say an extra-linguistic fact, of which a given group of people may have a common experience, or mytholoy. A set of such given references, which amounts to the common “picture language” of a poet and his readers, is what Hughes calls “mythos.”