Alas, January 2013 proved to be the first month without any postings since this blog’s inception in December 2011, so I hasten to write this now, before the January snows melt from memory entirely.
The turning of the year provoked thoughts of cyclic renewal and alchemical transmutation, familiar themes here on the Shoreline. Related to this, I had for some time been attempting (and mostly failing) to photograph the crows that frequent the clifftop at Saltdean, because the crow has always been linked with the beginnings of the psychonautical seascape adventure of which this blog is the ongoing document.
Before I began this project, I had been through a period of immense personal upheaval, and in its aftermath I entered a phase where nothing seemed to hold meaning or value: music, art, science, books… all were dead to me, and I only began to emerge from this when I came across Ted Hughes’ ‘Crow’ poems, which I had never previously read.
Black was the without eye
Black the within tongue
Black was the heart
Black the liver, black the lungs
Unable to suck in light
Black the blood in its loud tunnel
Black the bowels packed in furnace
Black too the muscles
Striving to pull out into the light
Black the nerves, black the brain
With its tombed visions
Black also the soul, the huge stammer
Of the cry that, welling, could not
Pronounce its sun.
Thus begins “Two Legends”, the opening poem of the Crow sequence.
Here was an elemental darkness to which I could relate. In the messy, malevolent figure of Crow, with his grotesque yet comically futile acts of defiance against higher powers, I found a pulse, and through this, I slowly began to sense my own again.
For a while, this slim black volume became something of a talisman, carried in the jacket pocket and consulted whenever circumstances allowed, a stimulus and sounding-board for my own tombed visions of that period.
Hughes’ ‘Crow’ cycle seems to be widely regarded as his foremost literary achievement – for some overview and context, go here and here, and I also want to mention Ann Skea, a Hughes scholar based in Sydney, whose website is a fascinating resource- I particularly recommend a reading of this piece, where Hughes’ mythopoesis in ‘Crow’ is linked to alchemical symbolism and Trickster folklore via Jungian analytic symbology. Indeed all those linked articles discuss ‘Crow’ in terms of the mythic, suggesting that Hughes was engaged in a kind of English shamanism: a psychic cave-diving expedition, with the figure of Crow as an unruly and unreliable totemic guide.
Best of all, go here to listen to Hughes himself reading some of the ‘Crow’ poems, his incantatory delivery underscoring the magical, shamanic aspects of the writing (in fact, if you only ever click one link on this blog, click that one – here it is again).
In alchemy, the crow (sometimes raven) is a frequent symbol of the nigredo, or ‘blackening’, the first stage of the alchemical transubstantiation. It represents the decay and putrefaction of the base matter, prima materia, which is the necessary beginning of the alchemical process. In time it is followed by the albedo (whitening) and rubedo (reddening). The albedo represents the stage of purification, resulting in the formation of two opposing aspects of the materia. These opposites will fuse in the next stage, rubedo, to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, the culmination of the alchemical process. The illustration at the top of this post depicts this tripartite process, or for a more recent representation, consider this work by the wonderful alchemico-surrealist artist Leonora Carrington:
When first reading ‘Crow’, I did not consider this alchemical significance of the central figure – only later, once I had embarked on the Shoreline project and begun to see it as a form of alchemical process in itself, did I see the obvious relevance of the nigredo to my own situation at that time. This, of course, begged the question of whether the other stages of the process, albedo and rubedo, might, in due course, become apparent.
During the recent snowfalls, I walked to my familiar stomping ground, Saltdean beach, to enjoy (and document) the snow-covered Shoreline. It struck me that this literal whitening of the beach suited my alchemically-informed Shoreline mythos rather well – perhaps this was the albedo for which I had been waiting.
After drinking in the atmosphere and taking some pictures, with snow still falling I ascended to the clifftop to begin my walk home, and there I came across this solitary jackdaw, standing sentinel on a fencepost:
Jackdaws and crows are close relatives (both members of the corvid family) and appear almost interchangeably in some strands of avian myth and folklore. I stood and watched as the black bird became progressively flecked with snow… as it underwent whitening. Here, surely, was the symbolic announcement of the Haunted Shoreline’s albedo.
It is said that the time between nigredo and albedo is generally much longer than that between albedo and rubedo, and as I finally turned away from the Shoreline to make my way home, the setting sun was hinting that the time of reddening may not be so far away. More news on that soon.. perhaps.