‘Crow Sickened‘ is taken from Hughes’ most celebrated collection Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, which was first published in 1970. Like other poems in the collection, ‘Crow Sickened‘ observes the titular Crow engaging in metaphysical tussles with mortality and faith. Crow himself represents an amalgamation of different elements, some lifted from Christianity, others from pagan belief, and some from Hughes’ observations of his fellow human beings.
‘Crow Sickened‘ depicts the titular Crow as desperate to end his own suffering, yet, as he tries to do so, he becomes painfully aware of what it means to die.
The poem begins by announcing that Crow is suffering from an unnamed illness from which there is no reprieve. As he suffers, he realizes the only escape from his pain is death, but his attempts to end his life become entangled in existential angst. The poem comprises of short, episodic lines with little sense of rhythm or consistency. Like many poems in the collection, ‘Crow Sickened’ possesses clear links to the absurd and resembles the plight of Sisyphus, who is cursed to eternal punishment from which he cannot escape.
You can read the full poem here.
Ted Hughes’ 1970 collection, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, remains his most celebrated contribution to 20th Century poetry. Drawing on mythology, philosophy and theology, as well as Hughes’ own sense of humour, the collection functions as a challenge to Christian belief.
Crow himself is a diverse figure whose moods and wishes vary throughout the collection, although he is most often shown to be a trickster whose actions and motives are not always clear. Hughes wrote the collection between 1966-69, after an unproductive period following the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath. Crow has achieved a level of infamy in poetry since the collection was first published and greatly informed the character of the same name in the 2015 novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter.
His illness was something could not vomit him up.
Unwinding the world like a ball of wool
Found the last end tied round his own finger.
The opening line establishes the poem’s central incongruity; Crow is unwell but his illness seems to transcend any single physical ailment. Hughes metaphorically outlines the fact Crow is unable to “vomit him[self] up” to suggest that he is not attempting to rid himself of some external toxin but instead purge himself of his own identity. This paradoxical metaphor implies Crow believes his own nature is what is making him sick, and yet he cannot be anything else.
The next lines feature a simile that reflects Crow’s process of discovering himself to be the source of his pain. The unwinding wool is a mythic allusion to the story of Theseus, who unwound a ball of yarn so he could lead himself away from danger. In the case of Crow, however, the wool is attached to him, which suggests that he is the danger and cannot be escaped. The simile also links to absurdist thought insofar as it concludes that life is unavoidably painful, yet we elect to continue enduring it.
Decided to get death, but whatever
Was always his own body.
These lines continue the poem’s absurd sense of humor by referring to death as something tangible rather than simply expressing a wish to die. Crow attempts to capture death in a trap but only succeeds in capturing himself, thereby linking back to the wool tied around his finger. The truth he cannot accept is that if he is right in thinking of himself to be the reason for his suffering, then he must commit suicide. However, he is either unaware of this or, more likely, unwilling to accept it.
The use of the word “always” further likens Crow to Sisyphus, who was cursed to push a boulder up a mountain every day, only for it to roll down again so he could do it again. This story was the inspiration for Albert Camus to write The Myth of Sisyphus, which is the foundational text of Absurdism. Like Sisyphus, Crow is engaged in a task that yields nothing, and yet he continues to do it again and again because the alternative frightens him.
Where is this somebody who has me under?
Of hair on end finally met fear.
Line seven is unusual insofar as it is the only line that uses the first person, but it is unclear whether the “me” refers to Crow or some other figure. The rhetorical question serves as a challenge against religion, as it seemingly doubts the existence of a higher power. The use of the pronoun “somebody” creates a sense of ambiguity as it does not refer to a specific deity, and it also undermines the power of the person it refers to by using such ordinary language.
Returning to Crow, the poem offers a list of verbs, perhaps emphasizing Crow’s tireless attempts to find an escape from his suffering. The internal rhyme of “glare” and “hair” offers a hint of clarity, perhaps indicating that Crow may be close to a breakthrough. Like the earlier description of death, line ten ends with Crow encountering a manifestation of fear rather than simply accepting it as something abstract.
His eyes sealed up with shock, refusing to see.
Horrified, he fell.
The final lines reach the poetic climax, where Crow strikes down the figure that he has been pursuing. However, the true revelation is that the figure is Crow and that he has been the source of his own suffering all along. The use of sibilance in lines eleven and twelve imbues the text with a sinister atmosphere to reflect Crow’s growing realization. The poem’s final line, while initially implying Crow has achieved the finality of death, could actually suggest the opposite. The use of the adverb “horrified” indicates that Crow was still capable of reacting to the attack, which, therefore, may not have been fatal. Thus, the poem’s ending is ambiguous, as Crow’s fate remains unclear, and, given the poem’s earlier Sisyphean parallels, it is more likely that he will live to repeat the process again.
The title, ‘Crow Sickened‘ can be interpreted in multiple ways due to Hughes’ decision to name it that, rather than, for example: Crow Grows Sick. This is because the title can be viewed simply as an announcement that Crow has become unwell but also implies that he could be disgusted by something. It is possible that, in addition to his illness, Crow is disgusted by the fact he is the cause of it.
Crow resists singular interpretation, both in ‘Crow Sickened‘ and the collection as a whole. Hughes drew heavily on preexisting connotations of crows, including transformation and intelligence. Crow’s mischievous nature is perhaps his most consistent quality, and this also predated Hughes’ conception as the bird was regarded as a trickster by pagans. Ultimately, Crow’s inability to be reduced to a single metaphor is part of what makes him such a beguiling figure.
Crow’s influence spans far beyond Hughes’ collection, which, even though he regarded it as his masterpiece, has exceeded any expectations he could have had for it. The collection influenced Paul Simon as he worked on his album, Still Crazy After All These Years, and a similar character to Crow appears in Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which also features a Ted Hughes scholar. More broadly, the poet, Peter Porter, claimed that “nobody will be able to read or write verse now without the black shape of Crow falling across the page.”
Over the course of his life, Hughes was influenced by many individuals and ideas. His marriage to fellow poet Sylvia Plath greatly informed his work, most notably his final collection, Birthday Letters, which is principally concerned with their relationship. Hughes also admired the poetry of W.B. Yeats and learned many of his poems by heart. However, the most enduring influence on Hughes was the natural world, which he returned to repeatedly in his poems. Crucially, he was fascinated by the way the world could be understood, which drew him to mythical and pagan stories throughout his life.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Crow Sickened‘ might wish to explore other Ted Hughes poems. For example:
- ‘Crow’s Fall‘ – Taken from the same collection, ‘Crow’s Fall‘ uses the titular trickster to critique orthodox Christianity.
- ‘Hawk Roosting‘ – An earlier poem, narrated by a different species of bird, ‘Hawk Roosting‘ shows the world from the point of view of a seemingly omnipotent Hawk.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather‘ by Sylvia Plath – Written shortly after her marriage to Hughes, the poem’s interest in a similar black bird means it is a fascinating companion piece to ‘Crow Sickened‘ as well as an interesting poem in its own right.
- ‘Crow Song‘ by Margaret Atwood – The poem uses crows as a metaphor for the terrible state humanity finds itself in.