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.
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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, […]