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Tolstoy appears in one of Ted Hughes' Crow poems, called Revenge Fable.

Here is the first half of the poem (bolded, full text here):

Revenge Fable

There was a person
Could not get rid of his mother
As if he were her topmost twig.
So he pounded and hacked at her
With numbers and equations and laws
Which he invented and called truth.
He invesigated, incriminated
And penalized her, like Tolstoy,
Forbidding, screaming and condemning
[...]

How do these actions relate to Tolstoy?

The poem's title seems to be a hint, as it's similar to the epigraph of Anna Karenina (citing from Romans 12:19):

Vengeance is mine; I will repay

In Anna Karenina, after her growing self-doubts and jealousy towards Count Vronsky takes over her, she takes on god's role to avenge Vronsky - by killing herself.

However, I think it's really a stretch to see similiarity here, because in Revenge Fable:

  • There's a focus on a relationship with a mother (i.e. not with a lover).
  • That relationship is charactrized by hurting the mother (kind of an opposite Oedipal complex, a common theme in Crow) - and not the self.

I feel like Hughes' intention was to allude to the character of Tolstoy himself, as a person (he was a Christian pacifict), or as a writer - but can't tell what would that be.

So in what way does the poem's protagonist acts "like Tolstoy"?

1
  • You could try to ask this question in russian language group, the translation of this poem is available in the Internet. In russian it is "Тед Хьюз", the poem "Басня о мести", the line "наказал её, как Толстой".
    – Andra
    Apr 4, 2023 at 14:51

1 Answer 1

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[Self-answering after doing some digging.]

It's a criticism of Tolstoy's Christian beliefs, which he commited to in a late stage of his life, after experiencing an existential crisis, detailed in his book Confession (published in 1882).

In 1890, Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata was published (see its publication history). As described in Wikipedia:

The work is an argument for the ideal of sexual abstinence and an in-depth first-person description of jealous rage. The main character, Pozdnyshev, relates the events leading up to his killing of his wife: in his analysis, the root causes for the deed were the "animal excesses" and "swinish connection" governing the relation between the sexes.

On that same year, Tolstoy published an "epilogue" explaining his novel, following requests from readers. An excerpt (source):

[F]alling in love and connection [...] never facilitate, but always impede, the attainment of any aim worthy of man.

  • The epilogue cited in Wikipedia cites the same sentence (it's the last one over there), but uses a different translation (this one).

In 1963, after reading Tolstoy's novel, Hughes had written a poem of the same name. This is its final stanza:

Rest in peace, Tolstoy!
It must have taken supernatural greed
To need to corner all the meat in the world,
Even from your own hunger.

In Ted Hughes As A Shepherd Of Being, the author sees it as an attack on Tolstoy's puritanism (source):

In Kreuzer Sonata, the you addressed is both Tolstoy and Pozdnushev, his puppet. It is [...] an attack upon Tolstoy's ultra-puritanism and its consequences.
[...]
No evidence is brought forward in Tolstoy's story that adultery has been committed. For neither Pozdnyshev nor his author does this matter. The murder is justified [...] on moral grounds.
[...]
[T]he murder is also self-murder [...] since her death marks a final intensification and crystallisation of the death-in-life which his extreme puritanism imposes on him. After his acquittal, Pozdnyshev refuses to have anything whatever to do with sex. He is in fact dead, and Hughes in the final stanza transfers this death to Tolstoy himself.

That same criticism is expressed in Revenge Fable, attacking Tolstoy for holding values that forbids and condemns love, and by extension - life itself, whose vital forces are described as the Mother in this poem (and others).

Appendix

  • What got me off to begin with was that Tolstoy held an anarcho-Christian beliefs and opposed the church (which led to his excommunication in 1901) - so I figured, by mistake, that Hughes and him were "on the same side" against the institutional Christianity.

  • An early assault on Tolstoy's ideas was expressed by DH Lawrence (see in length in D. H. Lawrence's response to Russian literature), in his "Study of Thomas Hardy" (published in 1914, partial text here), and later in his 1925 essay "The Novel" (published in 1968 in Phoenix II, which is later to Hughes' Kreuzer Sonata).

    • It should be noted that DH Lawrence attacks Tolstoy's writing as a whole, and is not concerend with the three stages he went through (pre-conversion, conversion, post-conversion).

    The following excerpt is from "The Novel" essay:

    [...] Tolstoi, in his metaphysic, renounced the flesh altogether [...] But above all things, Tolstoi was a child of the Law, he belonged to the Father. He had a marvellous sensuous understanding, and very little clarity of mind.

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