The Poems of Ted Hughes
Between Nature and Earth: A Comparison of “The Long Tunnel Ceiling” and “The Burnt-Out Spa”
“As a species, we are most animated when our days and nights on Earth are touched by the natural world” – Richard Louv
Plath and Hughes seem to have different relationships with nature; in The Long Tunnel Ceiling Hughes, Hughes seems to gain a grounding and sense of vibrancy when in a natural environment whereas Plath presents an image of decay and disintegration when surrounded by the natural world. Whilst Hughes observes the natural world in order to gain pleasure and grounding from its beauty, might and ferocity, Plath uses nature in an effort to understand herself and gain answers to the questioned that followed her throughout her life, most notably the reasons for and causes of her mental illness. In Burnt out spa Plath sees an image of herself in the water which contrast to Hughes who sees a trout ‘crash; from the water. This symbolises how Plath doesn’t appear animated by nature, instead, as a confessional poet she uses it to further her exploration of her internal thoughts. Whereas Hughes appears to have more of an affinity with nature and gains a sense of salvation from the industrialisation of the world when faced with the natural world. Indeed, in horses Hughes uses the memory of the ‘Megalith- still’ environment to ground him whilst in bustling man made environments.
For Hughes, the emphasis and purpose of his poetry was to convey the beauty of nature; he teaches us understand how the outside world can be experienced. Growing up in the countryside he believed that nature offered a ‘thin glitter’ that could be found ‘amongst mean gritstone’ which could nurture and give one beauty in our lives. This is compounded because ‘glitter’ has connotations of celebration and festivity. Furthermore, Hughes gives the directly tangible image of nature offering ‘the wild god now flowering’ by turning the noun ‘flower’, which is usually a property of nature, into a present participle verb Hughes lends power to nature and shows it as an active force. Hughes appreciation of nature and how it animates us is enhanced as he refers to nature as a ‘god’ this alludes to how he worshiped and saw nature as the leading power in his life. This is a stark contrast to Plath’s Burnt out Spa, which far from being about salvation though nature, is used as a vehicle to convey her inner world to enhance understanding about herself, hence the use of the firth person pronoun ‘I’, this differs to Hughes who only uses one first person pronoun, ‘ignoring me’ however, this is only employed to give the trout higher status by portraying it as superior and unaffected by Hughes, (man’s) presence. Plath’s poetry further refers to herself as it reflects her own ‘toneless’ mind hence there are barely any active verbs. Instead they tend to refer to destruction; ‘ended’, ‘smelted’, ‘spoils’ therefore this seems to deny the idea that we are most animated when touched by nature.
The Burnt-Out Spa seems to present nature offering a possibility of salvation for Plath which is conveyed through the image of water as ‘it flows off’ and becomes ‘toneless water’ this conveys an image of progression and cycle of life. However, Plath rejects this development as instead she is ‘seated beneath’ the water. This is an image of contradictions with Plath inactive and stationary against the natural flow of water. The notion of Plath’s rejection to become animated by the water is conveyed through the regularity of the quatrains, encased by one line stanzas at the beginning and end of the poem which draws a distinction from Hughes free verse and lack for regular structure in his stanzas. These quatrains portray a methodical clinical way of looking at nature “like a doctor or archaeologist” Thus suggesting she is not enthused by nature but is animated into a structured analysis. This is augmented by the simile “like a doctor or archaeologist” as the connotations of the occupations are people who regard nature in a form of scientific analysis. This further shows the rigidity of Plath and her mind; she is not prepared for change. image of water is replicated by the presence of the canal in The Long Tunnel Ceiling, Initially, this water mirrors the ugliness of the industrial surrounding through the long vowel sounds in ‘long gleam-ponderous’ which create a languorous effect that is compounded by the consonant sounds of ‘l’ and ‘g’. However, transforms this dull, passive image though exclamatory onomatopoeic sentences like ‘Suddenly a crash!’ though which nature emerges in the form of a trout. This reference to nature is deemed a ‘Holy of holies! A treasure!’ The exclamation marks and alliteration of ‘ho’ enhances this excitement at the trout’s presence which can be deemed synonymous with animated. This contrasts to Plath’s morbid final line ‘Neither nourishes nor heals.’ The combination of the two negatives ‘neither’ and ‘nor’ with the plosive consonance of ‘n’ gives a pessimistic outlook on the effect of nature. Alternatively, it could be argued that the imagery of the ‘toppled stones’ is just a metaphor for the spa and therefore the pessimistic tone is not a reflection of the impact of nature but a damning indictment of institution that claim to heal. Context gives further weight to this notion as Plath had unsuccessful experiences from repeated admissions into mental health clinics. Thus the ‘old beast ended’ could refer to herself being sinisterly worn to the ‘bones’ by the ‘soft suede tongues’ that represent doctors’ hands. The sibilance here has a sinister effect and justifies Plath’s rejection of this image.
Plath wrote because she desperately needed to reveal her inner secrets: Hughes said ‘You can’t overestimate her compulsion to write like that. She had to write those things—even against her most vital interests. She had to tell everybody.’ This conveys that her poetry is about an introverted self-discovery, nature is not featured in her poetry to show the external worlds effect on her but rather Plath’s inner struggle to accept the world she lived in. Indeed, in ‘Sheep in the Fog’ she employs colours represented in nature to show the darkening of her mind as she journeys to death: the purity of ‘whiteness’ changes to ‘rust’ which connotes disintegration, before her world is seen as ‘blackening’ to ‘dark water’. Plath is working with binaries; with the opposites of white and black to show the darkness that has enveloped her. The plosive ‘b’ in blackening combined with the suffix ‘ing’ shows the aggression and is a stark contrast to the usual connotations of ‘Morning’. By focusing on the darkness, Plath rejects natures chance of a new dawn and thus new opportunities. This theme of destruction through nature is emulated in the Burnt out spa, in fact through the similar imagery of water, which in both poems shows images of drowning and stagnancy.
This contrast to Hughes who uses nature to show the possibilities of creation. In the thought-fox the night itself is symbolic of the depths of imagination; ‘this midnight moment’s forest’ midnight represents being on the tip of something new, this is an image that Hughes latches oppose to Plath who shuns the idea of a new day. The short vowel sounds create a sense of apprehension, and notion of dormant genius about to spur into action. Hughes is able to animate a blank canvas that is metaphorically represented through the image of the ‘snow’ and ‘darkness’ of the night. The materialisation of ‘a fox’s nose touches twig’ breaks this emptiness, the dentil consonance of ‘t’ creates an illusion of Hughes’s excitement at the emergence of the fox. Ted Hughes writes with a pace that heightens the anticipation. At the start, only the fox’s nose is visible. Then two eyes. The choppy punctuation shows the hesitancy of the fox/idea, the delicate way that Ted Hughes writes about the fox leaving prints in the snow is further emphasized by the sharp, short phrase ‘sets neat prints in the snow’. One interpretation of this poem would be that it chronologically describes an image of a fox ‘entering the loneliness’ of the night, this shows Hughes an animated by the presence of nature particularly through the positive active verbs ‘widening deepening’ that are introduced when the fox is present. Alternatively, it is an extended metaphor for Hughes grasping an idea to stimulate his writing. This is shown through the progression from ‘blank page’ to the fox gradually emerging until the sibilance ‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’, shows that the poet has reached the peak of his musing. The fox is suddenly visible, the idea is suddenly within the poet’s mind, and has been immortalized on the page. Whichever interpretation is maintained, they both show Hughes as animated when touched by nature, indeed in this last reading the poem, which was Hughes livelihood, and the fox exist as one entity. This is compounded by Hughes himself who stated that ‘every time anyone reads it the fox will get up somewhere out of the darkness and come walking towards them’. This compounds the idea stressed in The Long Tunnel Ceiling that nature acts as a ‘god’ capable of creation that animates mankind.
Therefore, Plath does not use her poetry to convey man as most animated when touched by nature because her primary concern to write about herself and her relationship with the world. She shows that she is crushed by her surrounding hence ‘the far fields melt my heart’ in Sheep in Fog; her core and organ responsible for life is disintegrated by the external world. Instead she is animated by the allure of death which is shown through the imperative employed in ‘let me through to heaven’ which shows her almost begging for death and again through her scrutiny and obsession that is implied as she ‘picks and pry’s’ through bones in Burnt out spa. On the other hand, Hughes’s poetry agrees with Richard Louv that nature animates man. He is able to transform the ugly ‘bushy mask’ of an industrial town, Hughes de-‘masks’ the town to reveal the beauty that nature can provide. Hughes seems to have a clear vision of his role as a poet to share the potential for grounding and animation that nature can provide but has mainly remained ‘masked’, he aspires to impel society to explore the natural world.
Ted Hughes’ Presentation of Animals
Hughes is well-known for his nature poetry and use of animal symbolism. In both “The Jaguar” and “Hawk Roosting”, the animals symbolize different human characteristics while remaining, on the surface, an in-depth, fantastic poem about the animal itself.
“The Jaguar” is written on a literal level about a trip to the zoo. The point of view is third person, seemingly from the eyes of a visitor at the zoo. However, on a deeper level, the poem is a statement on man’s modern state of existence, where the cages at the zoo are like our compartmentalized lives and the trapped animals are representing humankind. “The apes yawn and adore their fleas”: the animals have left their instinctive wild nature and become not only docile, but rather lethargic as well. The immense boredom of the animals is emphasized by the use of assonance. The repeat of the “a” sound is rather like a yawn, which helps portray the sluggishness of the animals. “The boa-constrictor is a fossil”: it is as if a living creature has become embedded and stone. The power and majesty of the animal has been taken away. This could also be pointing towards the fact that the animals are caged, trapped and cannot escape. The animals look fit to “be painted on a nursery wall.” The lions and the tigers, snakes and the apes, all incredibly powerful and threatening animals have been reduced to entertain and look pretty on a child’s wall.
A nursery wall is thought to be cute and tame- which goes against the very essence of the animal’s former nature. However, in the third stanza, the poem’s tone completely changes. The rhyme scheme is broken and this is a method used by the author to change the attitude of the poem to give it a more alive, more mysterious, more dominant persona. The jaguar is introduced as an animal whose “stride is wildernesses of freedom.” He is the anomaly, the rebel, the revolutionary. “There’s no cage to him”: this statement is ironic because the jaguar, similar to all the other animals, is in a zoo cage. However, he has not let the bars trap him and dim down his true magnificence. His “eye satisfied to be blind in fire” because what he sees is beyond, is greater than anything that can be presented to him in the cage. His world is inside his head; and no matter how many physical constraints are put on him, he cannot be caged. The jaguar is a symbol of rebellion: signifying all those individuals in society who do not conform to the invisible iron cage put around them. He signifies all the artists and poets and thinkers, possibly even being a symbol for the poet himself. Even though the jaguar and other animals are in the same depressing situation, they’ve reacted in very different ways: and only the jaguar has managed to survive the imprisonment and not let the lack of physical freedom constrain his mind and his vision.
Similar to the character of the jaguar, in “Hawk Roosting”, the hawk has been portrayed as completely free, individualistic and powerful. However, the difference is that just as the jaguar was seen to positively make use of his mental freedom, using it to protect his dignity from degradation by those around him, the hawk shows the readers the negative side of this complete lack of regard for anyone else and/or social constraints. The hawk embodies the characteristic of arrogance and pride. He is the living definition of Hubris; which is what the Greeks described as a “fatal pride”. Contrary to “The Jaguar”, the poem is in first person from the point of view of the hawk himself. This further emphasizes the control and independence of the hawk, who speaks for himself, does as he wants, when he wants. “The earth’s face turned upward for my inspection”: the hawk is under the impression the he runs the world, that it is his job to keep an eye on things because he is the ultimate being. He claims that he has “no falsifying dream”, however throughout the poem his delusions are prominently shown by the poet.
In his individuality, the hawk has manipulated his own perception to the point of sheer illusions, where he only sees what fits his narrow-minded perspective of the world. He recognizes that he was created by “creation” and then goes on to claim that “I hold creation in my foot”. This is a clear reference to his self-importance which seems to be continually increasing as the poem moves forward. He claims to “revolve it all slowly”, referring to the earth, and quite literally states that he is the one in charge of making the world go around. He ends the poem by claiming “my eye has permitted to change” and “I am going to keep things like this”. This is an ironic statement because he has previously taken into account the notion of being created and death being a reality. There is no way that he can live forever, and even if he could, the hawk is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But to him, his “eye” will permit no change. This could refer to his perception, or the inner eye, that the way he perceives the world will never change and he will continue to live in his bubble of conceit and self-love. His extreme egotism is portrayed throughout the poem through the repetition of the word “I” and “my”. This poem, through the symbolic dramatic monologue of the hawk, gives us an insight into the mindset of a human driven by vanity to the point of a state of insanity, tyranny, aggression and evil. It is an animal poem, and yet comments on the violence, brutality and self-centeredness of humankind. Such as the hawk proudly claims “My manners are tearing off heads” and describes his flight path “through the bones of the living”, it can be a reference towards war and genocide where individuals are reduced to “heads” and “bones” as dehumanization is a requirement to be able to commit such large-scale atrocities.
Besides the diction, symbolism and imagery, the structure of both the poems support the themes discussed as well. In “Hawk Roosting”, the tightly controlled structure of the poem with end-stopped lines and uniform length stanzas adds to the overall effect of the determination and control of the hawk. Comparatively in “The Jaguar”, until the introduction of the jaguar himself, the lines run-on, giving an overall feeling of laziness and weariness. Mid-poem, the lines start becoming more end-stopped and tighter, once again giving off an aura of control. Both poems use enactment, the third stanza of “The Jaguar” connects the two distinct halves of the poem and enacts the crowd at the zoo running from the cages of the animals who have given hope, to the jaguar whose spirit is undying.
In “Hawk Roosting”, the looseness of the lines: “the air’s buoyancy and the sun’s rays are of advantage to me” enacts the hawk flying in the air, the air and the sun supporting him and cheering him on. Both poems, however, do have a very literal side to them as well. Hughes also comments on the animals as animals rather than purely symbols. In “The Jaguar”, the poet gives readers an insight into the absolutely appalling condition of zoo animals where: “cage after cage seems empty, or stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw.” Not only are the cages incredibly filthy, which can be contrasted with the cleanliness and freshness of natural habitats, but they also lack any sign of life, despite the fact that nature’s most magnificent creatures are within them. Animals are objectified by humans, and just as the apes adore the fleas, the humans adore the apes: man has been reduced to nothing but someone looking for entertainment, staring at creatures through the bars of the cages which are keeping the animals away from their true nature and freedom. The visitors at the zoo are most interested in the jaguar since he is the only animal who has not yet broken his spirit. This is laced with irony because it is obvious that the other animals too would be lively and energetic had humans not trapped them in these metal prisons and taken away their spark. The jaguar too is under threat of losing the fire that burns within him, and when that happens, the crowd will look for the next source of entertainment. This presents to readers the relationship between man and nature in the modern world.
In “Hawk Roosting”, despite the negative attributes and delusions of the hawk, the poet writes about the creature with admiration and fondness. He comments on the beauty and precision with which the hawk was created as the perfect killing machine: “it took the whole of creation to produce my foot, my each feather”, “there is no sophistry in my body.” The language of the poem is simple, yet the presence of difficult vocabulary such as “buoyancy” and “sophistry” point towards the intelligence of the hawk. The hawk really is made to perfection in terms of killing and eating with his “hooked head and hooked feet”. One could look at the hawk not as a symbol of arrogance but rather as a creature who is doing exactly what he was created to do, and perfected the art of the kill by constant practice and dedication: which is something worth admiring rather than looking down upon for the hawk has done nothing which goes against his nature, but rather used his strengths, both mental and physical, to the best of his abilities.
Conclusively, Hughes’ use of animals in his poetry not only presents them as impeccable creatures of nature but also as symbols for the modern world and humankind. He manages to raise awareness about the treatment of animals in society and the state of humanity while at the same time giving readers an insight about the literal nature of animals and reminds us of their place in our world. Both “The Jaguar” and “Hawk Roosting” leave the readers with a realization, making them think over their own existence as well as the existence of the creatures they share their planet with, yet often disregard.
The Menacing Nature of Wind
Throughout the poem “Wind”, by Ted Hughes, there are two significant symbols. In the poem, the house (and its surroundings) is one of the main subjects and symbolizes a relationship between the writer and another person. The second symbol in the poem is the “menacing wind” which appears to represent the other person in the relationship. This is done in a way that portrays the wind as an abuser and the house as the victim; the poem “Wind” as a whole appears to symbolize Hughes’ desire to leave a decaying relationship but the other partner not wanting him to leave.
Hughes opens up the first stanza with the phrase “this house has been far out at sea all night,” illustrating a house, similar to a boat, stranded in the middle of a dark sea. This phrase has a rather negative connotation, suggesting distance within the relationship of Hughes and the other individual thus setting the tone of the stanza, and the rest of the poem, as rather dark, depressing, and inevitably dooming. The wind is described “stampeding the fields” perhaps in attempt to barricade Hughes within the house – he cannot leave if the weather is hazardous. This is one of Hughes first descriptions of the menacing wind and this particular descriptor informs the readers that this wind is a potent force.
The second stanza takes place the morning after the long night of the “menacing” wind’s attack and depicts the aftermath. One of the lines in the second stanza says that “the hills had new places, and wind wielded,” creating the idea that the wind had cut new openings and crevices into the hills, almost wounding the hills. This potentially symbolizes a fight between the writer and an individual; this fight was so horrific and intense that it reached newfound areas of hurt – it had created permanent scars in their relationship just as the hills permanently “had new places” because of the wind.
Taking place at noon, Hughes discusses his experience with the wind as he “scaled along the house-side.” The word “scaled” suggests that Hughes is trying to escape from something yet this wind seems to be hunting him in attempt to trap him in the house. Hughes describes how he “dared once to look up,” again suggesting fear – if he were not in any sense of danger or urgency, looking up wouldn’t be considered daring. As Hughes looks up, he claims that a “brunt wind” “dented the balls” of his eyes, supporting the theory that the wind intends to be an obstacle in his escape – the more of a fight Hughes puts up the angrier and more maleficent the wind becomes.
The fourth stanza seems to be extending the scene established in the third stanza; the wind is wreaking havoc on the surroundings of the house almost as a punishment for Hughes trying to escape. The fields are “quivering” and the skyline wears a “grimace” as if they know what is about to come next; Hughes gave these subjects of nature human-like qualities to show how they too are afraid of the wind. To further illustrate the idea that the wind is outraged, it is mentioned how “the wind flung a magpie,” portraying the wind as being so evil that it does not care at all about who it is hurting – it takes its vengeance out on an innocent bird.
The final two stanzas take place within the house. The wind still is raging causing the house to “ring” and at “any second” the wind would “shatter” the house. The third and fourth line of the fifth stanza, “in front of the great fire, we grip our hearts,” is where the poem explicitly involves another individual. These lines depict Hughes and the other individual sitting in front of a fire “gripping” their hearts as if they have been wounded and tightly grasping them is the only thing to keep them from failing. It is described how Hughes and the other individual no longer can “entertain” one another suggesting the idea that they have grown apart and they both know so. Hughes and the other individual are described as rather calm considering the turbulent weather that is occurring right outside of their house and even as they “feel the roots of the house move” they simply “sit on.” This seems to be saying that Hughes and the other individual are emotionally dead and their relationship is tumbling inescapably downhill and that they have accepted this fate. The wind has attempted so many times to trap Hughes within this house that he has almost become immune to its evil ways and that it no longer affects him just as the possibility of the house buckling in at any moment has no effect on Hughes and the other individual inside the house.
All throughout “Wind,” Ted Hughes has depicted the wind as this monstrous force that is preventing him from leaving this house and takes violent strikes at the house and all that surrounds it whenever Hughes attempts to leave. This attribution of malicious behavior to the wind and the symbolism of the wind itself is how Ted Hughes powerfully conveys the menacing nature of the wind.
The Power of Imagination in “The Thought-Fox”
In ‘The Thought-Fox’, Ted Hughes explores the transformative power of the imagination through the extended image of an imagined ‘fox’’ roaming through foliage post-midnight. Indeed, the poem might be read as an ode to beasts through putting a tender and gentle spin on descriptions of a ‘fox’- an animal generally perceived as beastly and intensely violent. Nonetheless, upon further examination the poem reads as a testament to the power and creativity of the imagination which is able to conceive of vivid images that are, in fact, faux.
Throughout ‘The Thought-Fox’, Hughes challenges perceptions of animals as primitive and aggressive through the extended description of a ‘fox’ which is described with a tone of both beauty and tenderness. Such is immediately demonstrated through the simile ‘delicately as the dark snow/ A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf’, with the plosive alliteration of ‘delicately’ and ‘dark’ mirroring the careful and lithe movements of the fox. Furthermore, the brief syndetic list of ‘twig, leaf’ conveys the onlooker’s perspective of rapidly trying to digest the wondrous sight from his window. Indeed, alliteration links much of the language throughout from ‘sets’ and ‘snow, to ‘midnight’ and ‘moment’, to ‘body’ and ‘bold’, which echoes the fox’s actions of gently padding through the forest, whilst also conveying the speaker’s desire to remember such a moment through articulating it so concisely. Highlighting this is the declarative that ‘warily a lame/ Shadow lags by stump’ with the metaphor of a ‘shadow’ when reinforced through weakening adjective ‘lame’ erasing any connotations of danger of fear that might have been associated with the fox; through implications that it is as harmless as a shadow.
Indeed, the even number of six stanzas paired with the even number of four lines within each stanza suggests that the actions of the fox are logical, are tentative therefore it should not cause any harm. Nonetheless, it could be argued that the dynamic line which begins the final stanza, describing ‘a sudden sharp hot stink of fox’; breaks from such tranquility with the triple use of dynamic adjectives and sibilance. Furthermore the diction ‘hot’ most notably holds connotations of violence and passion, perhaps undermining the speaker’s previous descriptions of the fox as tentative and gentle. Yet, we can understand the point being made by the poet that passion and gentility do not have to be mutually exclusive characteristics and are both contained within the fox; thus encouraging an audience to challenge their steadfast beliefs condemning foxes as terrifying creatures. Further sympathy is evoked for the animal through adjective ‘Cold,’ which is distinguished from the remainder of the line by a caesura to suggest that the fox has been stripped of its aggressive power and is now both meek and mild.
Additionally, the poem might be read as an ode to the capacity of the imagination to create beauty and awe in a setting in which there is none. Indeed, the poet’s frequent use of free-verse paired with the lack of fixed rhyme scheme throughout highlights the fact that the imagination can always surprise both the poet, and the reader alike. Reinforcing this is the gradual build up of the descriptions of the fox, who we gain an image of from a number of synecdoches including the ‘fox’s nose’, ‘two eyes’ and then ‘prints’, until we finally gain a sight of ‘a body’. That we gain merely snatches of the fox heightens the sense of wonder as the fox remains somewhat elusive, and can only be perceived wholly in the imagination. This is mirrored structurally; with the poet’s decision to begin and end on descriptions of a ‘page’ suggesting that the image of the fox cannot truly enter into reality, and must remain trapped within verse. The speaker’s desperation to retain the image of a fox reaches a climax midway through the stanzas through the asyndetic listing of ‘And again, now, and now, and now’ with the repeated temporal diction placing emphasis on the existence of the fox in the current moment. Thus, reality is diminished in comparison to the wonders of the present.
Furthermore, the epiphoric patterning of ‘now’ as closing the final two lines additionally convey’s the speaker’s disappointment with his knowledge that the moment will eventually pass. This is demonstrated by the monologue form of the poem and use of personal pronoun to begin the poem- ‘I’- suggesting that despite his efforts to conjure an animalistic companion, the speaker remains painfully alone. Nonetheless, the power of the imagination is shown to shatter such feelings of isolation and replace them with a sense of wonder as demonstrated by the catalogue of adverbs used to describe the fox’ eyes, from ‘widening’ to ‘deepening’, and then the adjectives ‘brilliantly’ and ‘concentratedly’ to suggest that the speaker’s imagination is growing in its power to conceive of the fox. Furthermore, we are not generally allowed to see what a fox’ eyes look like, and so Hughes here considers the capacity of the imagination to allow for the impossible to become true. Indeed, that the two adverbs are separated by the caesura of a comma implies that the speaker is savouring each glimpse of the fox and is extending the time in which he can view it. The frequent use of enjambment throughout further conveys the speaker’s unbridled excitement in his imaginative image of a fox, and additionally represents his action of struggling to write all the words down before the animal vanishes. Nonetheless, the poem ends on a tone of satisfaction conveyed by the dual declarative as use of comma and end stop which break from the enjambments as ‘The window is starless still’ and ‘The page is printed’, suggesting that the speaker feels satisfied in this mission to find a topic to write about. Indeed, use of end-stop and plosive alliteration of ‘page’ and ‘printed’ further heightens the sense of finale as if he has returned from a joyous adventure. Nonetheless, the personification of the clock in the line ‘the clock’s loneliness’ perhaps suggests that the speaker’s adventure into the wonders of his imagination has not reached a close, as even mundane objects can be imagined with a degree of magic through being considered to have human characteristics.
In ‘The Thought-Fox’, Ted Hughes challenges the idea of animals as violent and inhumane through the imagine of a gentle and tender fox that moves through the forest. Hughes’ poem might also be read as a testament to the wonders of the imagination. In this poem, and in the conditions of life that it addresses, it is possible to create beauty out of surrounding darkness.
Humanizing Hughes’ Bestiary
Ted Hughes is a significant modern poet. His poems about animals are among his best. He once revealed: “…my interest in animals began when I began.”1 The landscape of Yorkshire moor where Hughes spent most receptive years of his youth, and where he used to hunt small game with his brother, turned him an avid observer of the natural world. In his picture of natural life wild animals and birds have unusual importance and prominence. They appear frequently throughout his work as deity, metaphor, persona and icon. The first volume of his poetry contains poems like-“The Hawk in the Rain”, “The Thought Fox”, “The Jaguar” and in the second volume we have “Hawk Roosting”, “Thrushes”, “An Otter”. In these poems he stresses the vitality and vehemence of the animals. The animals possess the natural sufficiency denied to men. Hughes’s hawk, in “Hawk Roosting”, for instance, retains all its predatory qualities and symbolizes the Darwinian aspect of Nature, which is Nature “red in tooth and claw”2.In “Pike”, Hughes describes the physical structure and the violent nature of the pike fish. He describes the fish as ‘perfect’. The word ‘perfect’, at least in the corporeal shape, best suits human beings. “Hawk in the Rain” reflects Hughes’s primary ideals. The supremacy of animals over man because of their inability to understand death, just like J.M. Coetzee mentions in his essay “The Lives of Animals”3, how man and animals treat the idea of death differently, since they reason differently. The section ‘Poets and Animals’, in the essay bodies forth the jaguar in Hughes’s “The Jaguar” where the protagonist, Elizabeth Costello says- “Hughes shows us that we too can embody animals – by the process called poetic invention that mingles breath and sense in a way that no one has explained and no one ever will.” The horses,in the poem ‘The Horses’ have been described as patient and passive,while the wolves in ‘The Howling of Wolves’ are depicted as victims of human cruelty.The figure of the animal has interested Hughes greatly in almost all of the poetry he produced. This has been commented on by many critics, including foremost Hong Chen, Terry Gifford, Keith Sagar and Leonard M. Scigaj . Hughes’s interest in non-human animals that he recognizes as entities that are curious, sensitive, vulnerable, predatory, terrifying and huge as humans – supports the post humanist argument that humans are essentially more significant, distinct, refined or knowledgeable than other species. With regard to the belief that human intelligence can be clearly separated out from non-human intelligence, Hughes uses sight, which has a long history in Western philosophy as a metaphor for pure, objective or unbiased perspective,according to Iris Ralph.Hughes’s sustained and profound interest in the subject of the animal invites an approach informed by animal studies. Initially a “smattering of work in various fields on human-animal relations and their representation 5” within both the arts and sciences, animal studies are now a disciplinary area in its own right. Critical Animal Studies, in order to differentiate it from the older term and area of study known simply as ‘animal studies’ , it is deeply politicizing human practices involving animals. The use of animals for sports and entertainment, trading , keeping as pets are several areas that have ignited probing and criticism. Another area, one with which Hughes engages in the collection ‘Moortown Diary’, is the traditional farming of animals.Since the publication of Hughes’s first poetry collection “The Hawk in the Rain,” scholars writing on his animal poems have done so in terms – that betray a humanist mode of intellectual examination. The second kind of thinking – a posthumanist mode of intellectual examination, forms the basis of Hughes’s work which is aimed at broadening critical approaches to Hughes. Posthumanist animal scholar Cary Wolfe examines Hughes’s poetry as two courses of posthumanism – ‘posthumanist posthumanism’ and ‘humanist posthumanism’.A diverse set of humanist posthumanist point of view – one that is more applicable to studying the poetry of Hughes, portrays many of the debates about distinctions between humans and non-humans. The spotlight here is on where the human stops being a non-human animal and on the moral implications of treating animals as if they are not animals. The essay titled “A Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway might be used here to represent this second kind of humanist posthumanism, in which few of the major topics are – the breakdown of boundaries between human and animal, animal-human and machine, blurred lines in the human-animal relationship with evolution and so on. Haraway’s cyborg theory proposes a chimeric, monstrous world of fusions between animal and machine. While the study of cybernetics might not have interested Hughes especially and her writing may not have been known to Hughes, both ought to have a brief mention, for they fall into the group of posthumanist inquiries and they have been used to support rights for nonhuman animals, which do relate to Hughes and to the extraordinary number of poems he dedicates to the other-than-human animal species.One way of achieving such insight is by taking a shamanistic approach to thinking and writing about animals for Hughes the poet. Hughes explains his very old interest in shamanism and the role of animals in it in one of his letters to Moelwyn Merchant in 1990. He said that it was actually shamanism that had helped him see the connection between ‘everything that concerned (him)’, such as his ‘preoccupation with animal life‘, his mythologies and a series of his recurring dreams. Beneath them all, what he found was a “deeper connection between animal life and the divine world – where humans are separated from”.Hughes portrays the picture of modern man, proud of his achievements, but totally at odds from communion with his race and from the world he seems to dominate in the poem ‘Crow’. The dominating crow, much like the hawk in ‘Hawk Roosting’ is almost Hitler-like in its dominating nature. It also strikes a contrast to the raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’, who follows the narrator, is a non-reasoning creature, far from being dominating.9 “Crow is Everyman who will not acknowledge that hates and fears everything within and around him”, according to Caroline and Sagar. The reader may also agree to what Neil Roberts points to Hughes’s insistence that ‘Crow’ should not be seen as belonging to the modern genre of Absurdist Black Comedy, but rather as an attempt to produce a new form of ancient folkloric of the Trickster tale.“Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, / More coiled steel than living”- the famous description of thrushes in ‘The Thrushes’ portrays a common garden bird as mysterious, mechanical and menacing would not have been incompatible in Jean Paul Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’ , one of the existentialist and absurdist novels that were highly fashionable in the early 1960’s,although Hughes’s work is undoubtedly influenced by a conservative nature-writing tradition,in the view of critic Richard Kerridge.The reader might also agree to what Kerridge further observes that a fundamental distinction between his own vision and absurdism was later drawn by Hughes. Reviewing the Yugoslav poet Vasko Popa , he declared that Popa , and several other Eastern European poets, were able to express in their work a vision of elemental life, death and contingency ‘which for artists elsewhere is a prevailing shape of things but only brokenly glimpsed , through the clutter of our civilized liberal confusion.’ These were poets ‘caught in mid-adolescence by the war.’ Popa was a concentration camp survivor. For Hughes, they were ‘among the purest and most wide awake of living poets’, and their vision reminded him of Samuel Beckett’s. But still Hughes found in them something positively diverse. Hughes wants a writing ”as intent as Beckett’s on taking a large disillusioned view of life’s possibility, temporality, materiality and mortality and on finding modern symbolic and modern forms capable of being archetypal yet intensely personal”. But he wants a vision less simple and fatal and more open to passion unguarded by irony, than he is able to find in Beckett’s ironic pity. Keith Sagar argues that Hughes was discarding a vision ‘traditional from the Greeks to Eliot and Beckett.’ – the idea ‘that death owns everything’ , ‘that nothing which does not last forever is of real value, that the achievements of man are mocked by time and cancelled by death.’ The student of literature might feel that Hughes is drawing a contrast between the position of a separated, sarcastic spectator of a strange world, and an eager contributor in that world, a struggler for life, which is also supported by Neil Roberts.A distinctive example of Hughes’s animalizing imagination is “The Thought Fox”. The creative eyes of the working poet look through the window into the midnight forest. A sense of movement outside in the darkness pierces the lonely heart, and the actual fox combines with the one in the poet’s memory, at the point where the eye appears as “A widening deepening greenness”. When these fuse to leap onto the pages by the way of “dark hole in the head”, the usual borders between different worlds disintegrate, and the ‘triple transformation’ is made. Reproduction of the fox’s watchfulness is apparent in the rhythm of the lines – “Two eyes serve a movement, and now/ And again now, and now and now.” In this way, the fox – for it is also being the thought-fox as well as the fox in the text is a totem or shamanic animal with the authority to move unreservedly out of its own corporeal existence into the spiritual or mythic territory at the same time as corresponded as a textual force from beyond, yet obviously articulated within human culture.But the move between the different realms might not be as easy or impulsive as it appears. Richard Webster identified a ‘conflict of sensibility’ in the poem, a tension between ‘the extraordinary sensuous delicacy’ of the fox image and ‘the predatory impulse’ which he sees in the poet’s attempt to capture the animal in the process of poetic creation by having the feminine sensuality of the poem ‘purified by, or subordinated to a tough, rational, artistic will.’ Influenced by Jung, Hughes felt deeply about ‘the separation of the two psychic halves’ and regarded it as a basic human condition in which every human being, including himself was drawn in. Whether influenced or not by Jung’s stress on the importance of symbols as the third ground for the meeting of the two polarized halves, Hughes tried to use animal totems to join the two though his attempt, maybe, according to the reader, did not seem to be very successful at this stage.Hughes evokes the mysterious workings of life-sustaining energy stored in the bodies of powerful animals. In the title poem, “Hawk in the Rain”, descriptions of the hawk suggest that the animal power is internalized into what might resemble the will power of human beings or even mythologized into a kind of universal energy when the hawk becomes ‘the master – /Fulcrum of violence’.The jaguar is another creature in Hughes’s poetry like the hawk which is full of energy,and powerful enough to mesmerize the watching crowd at the zoo. Facing the jaguar as if it were a ‘dream’, the crowd seems to be penetrated by the ‘drills of his eyes’, just as the ‘prison darkness’ is drilled through. The novelist J.M.Coetzee appears to have been deeply impressed by the way Hughes attempted to push his powers of understanding beyond their limit, so much so that his fictional character Elizabeth Costello gives a lengthy lecture about ‘The Jaguar’ , and what she sees as its ‘primitivism’.However,the reader might also observe,that a man and a jaguar can obviously share the relationship of the prey and the predator. Here,it is difficult to imagine the jaguar as a symbol of union between man and nature. Chen Hong in his essay ‘Hughes and Animals’,observes about the poem – “ As far as the poem is concerned, Hughes’s acceptance of primitivism has indeed presented itself in the honour and respect he pays to the jaguar as the totem animal, which is basically a primitive attitude, as well as in his criticism of humans – childlike consumers of caged displays – who are much inferior to the jaguar in terms of energy and completeness of being.”Other poems in the first collection, such as ‘Macaw and Little Miss’ and ‘The Horses’,also visualizes the flow of energy across time and spaces. As in ‘The Jaguar’, the dream in ‘Macaw’ is the point where the psyche of the girl arises to connect the real and the mythological in a latent, desired, sexual force. Whereas, the dream in ‘The Horses’ leads to the imposed piercing of the human mind by the harsh components and the horses’ stoical tolerance of them.Hughes fills his poems with animal images so that his readers are personally formulating their world view when having their feet in the real natural world. When more efforts on reading his animal poems, it is clear that the majority of the poems are not simply about animals, but many references to animals are metaphorical and thought-provoking. For these poems are also connected with human experiences. Giorgio Agamben in his essay ‘The Open’,expertly changes the way about how we perceive humans,animals and language. According to him, instead of establishing a firm dividing line between man and beasts, the idea of language as a human-only skill is a myth to hide the fact that human beings are actually animals too and that animals do actually have a language. In nearly all his poems Hughes strives to spark more thoughts on the typical emphasizing and contradictions of human nature and of nature itself. To some degree,Hughes’s animal poetry has marked the path of the course of his establishment of ecological between man and nature. In ‘Hawk in the Rain’ and ‘Lupercal’, animal figures are used to make implications on Hughes’s kinship with animals and his fuse with Nature’s vital energy.Hughes’s animal poems have been described as “a modern bestiary.” It has also been remarked that “his poetry fastens on to the animal world a cartoonery of human struggle and destiny.” This remark means that Hughes’s motive in writing these animal poems is to ridicule all the struggles going on in the human world.Hughes is interested in animals as creatures deserving of our attention because of their own inherent qualities or flaws. The animals represent one of the important aspects of God’s creation; and each kind of animal has its own distinctive character. At the same time, Hughes, indirectly and symbolically, portrays the contrast, and sometimes the similarity, between animals and mankind. As for struggle and strife, these are as much in evidence among the animals as among human beings, and sometimes even more in evidence because in the world of animals one pike-fish eats another when hungry, and the shark in its brutality bites its own tail, snatching a bit of its own flesh. As for the style which Hughes has employed to describe the animals, it has rightly been described as “unnervingly apt” by some critics. His animal poems are a spectacular and fascinating range of God’s creatures in a mysterious and inscrutable universe.
How Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Present Violence in Their Poetry: “Cut,” “Pike,” “Daddy,” and “View of a Pig”
The theme of violence is commonly identified within both Plath’s and Hughes’ poetry; however, the way in which it is incorporated by the two very different poets contrasts one another, from the use of techniques, the different tones throughout – even down to the subjects and content of the poems. Hughes, as a poet, was considered more ‘popular’ at the time as he was at his peak, as his poetry was viewed as more traditional to the era, because he wrote ingenious poetry about average topics, whereas Plath’s revolutionary ‘confessional’ poetry was less widely read by the oppressed society of the mid-20th century. This is because her poetry was seen as complex, as she wrote about suppressed and sensitive topics such as childbirth, the immense difficulties and struggles of motherhood and her lifelong depression, which the society would have been shocked to read and perhaps made uncomfortable. This results from the conditioning of the society into classifying these topics as ‘taboo’ since childhood, meaning Plath’s poetry was not given nearly as much recognition as she is now, after her death, in our modern and contemporary society.
One poem by Plath in which I will be writing about – ‘Cut’ – explores violence in an almost self-destructive manner which, although is graphic in terms of the imagery created and language used, not as explicit as Hughes’ poetry in the way that he writes about violence in a blunt and inescapable way. The poem, overall, is about Plath in the domesticated setting of a kitchen, inferably making dinner alone, when she suddenly cuts her thumb with the knife she is using, but her follow-up response suggests psychological tensions running deeper than any ordinary one to a kitchen accident. It is arguable that the ‘cut’ she writes about refers not only to her physical one, but perhaps an emotional one that could foreshadow her future suicide.
Plath opens the poem by saying ‘what a thrill’ in description of her feeling towards this injury. It is inferred that she is indulging in self-harm here; and the rest of the poem supports this also, as there is no evidence suggesting that this was actually an injury, as she opens the poem not by stating the injury, but in fact the thrill that she has felt as a result of it. There is a parallel to this suggesting tone of self-harm in her novel ‘The Bell Jar’, which describes the character’s thoughts on self-harm in which the protagonist Esther calls her experience a ‘small, deep thrill’. She also briefly mentions the Klu Klux Klan in a simile comparing them to the medical gauze she uses to cover her cut, which is an American right wing organization which Plath heavily disapproved of. The image of their white uniforms being stained by her blood here is symbolic of the blood of their violent attacks on black people. The inclusion of the colour red prevailing over white here reinforces the theme of violence. White, as a colour, has positive connotations of purity, innocence and virginity whereas red can be interpreted as a negative representative for anger, danger and violence. The theme of violence against others and herself is clear here and also extends to many of her other poems.
However, Hughes incorporates the theme of violence in a much more explicit manner in comparison to his wife Plath. For example in his poem ‘Pike’; which describes the nature of the fish as well as his experience with it. In the first stanza, he describes Pike as being ‘Killers from the egg’. Firstly, his odd use of capitalizing the noun ‘Killer’ suggests an admiration toward the fish’s ability to do so without question or judgement, which explores the theme of violence in an extremely plain and obvious way, and creates a sense of immediate discomfort within the reader, almost giving the effect of victimizing the reader as the Pike’s prey. In addition, he describes their role of being a ‘Killer’ as being pre-determined ‘from the egg’. This implies that the Pike’s job isn’t a choice, but almost its inescapable fate. This simplistic statement is arguably almost like Hughes’ is justifying their taboo acts, as if he possibly relates to them, which is disturbing in its own manner.
He then begins stanza four with a sudden change in focus, and begins to describe his memory of owning three Pike’s in his youth; ‘Three we kept behind glass’. This separation by glass objectifies the Pike and reinforced human power over the Pikes, but could also suggest that the only way we can protect ourselves from the wrath of this creature is by putting it in a tank. He then writes; ‘-Suddenly there were two. Finally one. With a sag belly and a grin…’, which obviously suggests that the Pike have devoured each other in their tank as an act of cannibalism. The hyphen followed by ‘Suddenly’ creates a pause, emphasising the shock of the act and reinforces the unpredictable nature of the Pike and what it can do. The inclusion of full-stops also gives a ‘matter-of-fact’ tone to the poem and creates a statement out of the fact which suggests the undeniable truth of the violent nature of the Pike. The remaining Pike is also described as having a sag belly and ‘a grin’ after killing its peers which the reader can infer as being the absence of any remorse or guilt, creating a disturbing atmosphere.
In contrast, another poem by Plath; ‘Daddy’ also shows themes of violence, but again reflects her pattern of indirect and suggestive violence. The subject of the poem itself is violent – an attack on her dead father (when she was 9) and as a result of her lack of closure, she blames him for ‘leaving’ her when she was so young and therefore couldn’t grasp understanding of the event. She writes; ‘My tongue stuck in my jaw. It stuck in a barb wire snare’ which represents her feeling of inability to express herself around her father, however she uses extremely violent imagery to imply this with her tongue stuck in barbed wire, which has connotations of being a way of physical constriction through inflicting pain on a passersby. The oxymoronic sounds of ‘tongue stuck’ contrast against each other, the soft sound of ‘tongue’ against the harsh consonants in ‘stuck’ which symbolizes her inner conflicting feelings about her father.
She also compares her father to Hitler by describing him with a ‘neat mustache’ and even more references to the Nazis by saying ‘every German was you’ . This use of extreme metaphoric comparison puts emphasis on how negatively she views her father, by referring to him as the ultimate villain and therefore making herself the ultimate victim. A feeling of sympathy is evoked within the reader as it is inferred that she is calling for attention, which has obviously been previously absent in her life.
Hughes again explores violence explicitly in yet another poem of his, following his common theme of animals. However, ‘View of a Pig’ incorporates violence in a different way to his other poems about animals, with less of an admirative tone, but a negative and objectifying one. Overall, the poem is about Hughes looking upon a dead pig which is just lying there. In his opening line, Hughes describes the pig as simply lying ‘dead’. The immediate image of violence created is shocking to the reader in its starkness and brutality and emphasizes how the truth of its death is so inescapable and ‘in-your-face’. He also describes the dead pig as ‘it was like a stack of wheat’, and this simile immediately commodifies the pig, and puts it as less than a life and only as food – just something to be bought and sold.
The Harsh and Brutal Cruelty of the Animal World in ‘Hawk Roosting’.
Surrounded by the wilderness of Mytholmroyd, Hughes’ childhood was greatly influenced by the natural world, and this was significantly reflected in his poetry. Much of Hughes’ literary works depict the sheer power and, indeed, the cruelty of the animal world; and often how it mirrored our own humanity. ‘Hawk Roosting’ is a prime example of Hughes’ fascination of the ‘harsh and brutal cruelty’ of the animal world. The poetic voice of the hawk is merciless and remorseless. In the fourth stanza, it says “I kill where I please”, which epitomizes the brutal cruelty of the world in which it hunts, and the hawk itself. Indeed, the raw reality and honesty of the hawk’s nature (‘no falsifying dream’) only serves to accentuate its ruthlessness, as it is distinctly lacking in compassion or empathy. It is a predator; it lives to kill, and the hawk is perfectly aware of that. Yet, considering this, one could argue that despite the hawk’s conceited persona, it is merely doing what it needs to survive. How can the innate instinct for self-preservation be classified as ‘cruelty’, regardless of the fashion in which it was conducted? Perhaps Hughes, instead, was fascinated by the simplicity of nature -to kill or be killed- and the contrast it holds to the mundane convolution of human lives.
Certainly, Hughes was fascinated by the immense power of nature, which he depicts in an almost godly sense. An example of this is ‘The Horses’, where he describes a sunset as ‘shaking the gulf open’, and includes narrations of ‘big planets hanging’; such celestial and god-like imagery serves to portray the domination that nature holds. This is illustrated also in ‘Hawk Roosting’, as the hawk is convinced of its own omnipotence, complacent in its triumph over what it perceives to be “all mine [his].” The hawk’s belief in its own importance goes beyond arrogance; it is surety. However, there is a certain simplicity in the hawk’s entire world revolving around himself; something that isn’t harsh or brutal, but candidly frank.
In the fifth stanza, the words ‘death’ and ‘living’ are juxtaposed as end focuses, creating a glib antithesis that could reference nature’s core cycle of life and death. Arguably, this cannot be considered ‘cruel’ or ‘brutal’ – the meaning of life and imminence of death is what defines us as a species, and what instinctually motivates animals. The very essence of nature is indiscriminate. Despite this, it is indisputable that there is savagery and brutality within the nature of the hawk, as it declares that its manners are ‘tearing off heads’. This could, perhaps. demonstrate that Hughes was indeed fascinated by the brutality of the animal world, and how it played a part in the balance of nature. Perhaps, by lending a voice to the hawk, it personifies it to the point where it is all too recognizably human.
Indeed, I do believe that Hughes was also fascinated by the brutal cruelty of the human world. It is a common interpretation of ‘Hawk Roosting’ that the poem references political dictatorship through the domineering and tyrannical orientation of the hawk, which emphasizes the faith in humanity’s capacity for cruelty. Hughes graphically describes the effects of human brutality in his poem ‘The Jaguar’, which describes the cruelty of captivity in very human terms. One critic denotes that Hughes “was enchanted by the beauty of the natural world, frequently portraying its cruel and savage temperament in his work as a reflection of his own personal suffering and mystical beliefs – convinced that modern man had lost touch with the primordial side of his nature,” which I agree with entirely. In ‘Hawk Roosting’, Hughes does indeed depict the beauty of the ‘natural world’ through the hawk, as it believes that it took ‘the whole of Creation’ to produce him. This godly imagery focussing on a single bird, for me, creates a sense of awe in the intricacies and perfection in every part of the world, and nature itself, and evokes a delicate sense of beauty.
Furthermore, I believe that Hughes also depicted his constant dissension with the media, and their scrutiny of him through his poem that portray animals in captivity. One could argue that Hughes felt as if he was imprisoned by the prying eyes of the media, as if he were a spectacle for the entertainment of the public, despite his suffering. Hughes was defamed and vilified by the press, and this could influence his representation of caged animals in his poetry. However, controversially, it is also possible that Hughes was writing from his own experience of inflicting suffering on those weaker than him. In light of his alleged abuse of Plath and her subsequent suicide, it could be argued that the predator present in many of his poem is, in fact, him. Either way, Hughes’ depiction of animals in his poetry could be a stark and raw reference to the human potential for brutal cruelty and savagery – and that, perhaps, we are not as different to wild animals as we would like to believe.
 Paula Bardell, http://www.hereinmaine.com/poetry/27779.php