My copy of Scarlet Imprint’s Mandragora arrived last week. I’ll post a full response to it presently, once I’ve been able to more fully acquaint myself with the contents, but needless to say it’s a high quality publication. The paperback version is now in stock, with the digital version to follow at the end of June.
One of the essays contained in Mandragora is Peter Grey’s A Spell to Awaken England, an enlightened survey of the magical and shamanic aspects of Ted Hughes’ work. I’ll have more to say about this and the other essays later, but while I ruminate here are some informal reflections on Hughes’ Heptonstall that I wrote last winter. Photographs by Layla.
After reading Ted Hughes’ Remains of Elmet and being inspired by Fay Godwin’s beautiful photograph of the Hepstonstall Old Church, radiant amidst sun and mist, we decided that we had to see it for ourselves. Having walked up through Hebden Bridge, past the Hell Hole, the ruddy iron-flecked crags and a towering wall of gritstone seemingly forced up from the bowels of the earth, we found it, just beyond an estate of new housing on top of the ridge.
Prior to entering the church grounds, curiosity took us to Sylvia Plath’s grave in the adjoining churchyard. Biros and pencils are to be found in prodigious quantities. Ritual offerings to a chthonic muse, perhaps?
Walking round the perimeter of the new church I remarked how some of the carved figures looked as though they were dragging themselves out from the fabric of the building. It was later, having returned home, that I noted a similar image in Ted Hughes’ poem Heptonstall Old Church:
A great bird landed here.
Its song drew men out of rock,
Living men out of bog and heather.
Recently in Northern Earth (Issue 123), Brian Taylor wrote a piece about Ted Hughes’ poetry and the relation between poetic imagination and shamanism. While writing this I have just discovered Ann Skea‘s amazing resource on Ted Hughes, magic, cabala, tarot and the bardic tradition. Skea associates the bird with the illuminating spiritual song of the earth. That which once “put a light in the valley” and is now forgotten:
The valleys went out.
The moorland broke loose.
In Heptonstall Churchyard Hughes connects his own lineage with feathers upon the “giant beating wing” of the moors – “a family of dark swans.” Perhaps the great bird in question is an expression of the genius of the landscape, forgotten as a consequence of mankind’s relationship with the land:
Its giant bones
Blackened and became a mystery.
The crystal in men’s heads
Blackened and fell to pieces.
The crystal alluded to here may be a reference to the works of Mircea Eliade whose writings on shamanism Hughes was familiar with. Eliade tells of the Wiradjuri Aborigines, the supreme god of whom – Baiame – apparently initiates shamans by singing a quartz crystal into their foreheads.
Within the Old Church itself the dwelling of the genius would have to be found not at the altar (still consecrated and used on occasion), but within the peculiar medieval sculpture of a lion’s head to its immediate left. Not blackened, but green from the tincture of time, the beast gazes across nave and transept, a silent guardian. Here is a place of green lions, dark swans, angels of smoking snow: players in a shamanic, alchemical and imaginative drama…