and the poetry of Ted Hughes
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
THE ‘THOUGHT-FOX’ HAS
often been acknowledged as one of the most
completely realised and artistically satisfying of the poems in Ted
Hughes’s first collection, The Hawk in the Rain. At the same time
it is one of the most frequently anthologised of all Hughes’s poems. In
this essay I have set out to use what might be regarded as a very ordinary
analysis of this familiar poem in order to focus attention on an aspect of
Hughes’s poetry which is sometimes neglected. My particular interest is in
the underlying puritanism of Hughes’s poetic vision and in the conflict
between violence and tenderness which seems to be directly engendered by
Through the window I see no star:
Though deeper within darkness
The disturbance is not in the external darkness of the night, for the night is itself a metaphor for the deeper and more intimate darkness of the poet’s imagination in whose depths an idea is mysteriously stirring. At first the idea has no clear outlines; it is not seen but felt – frail and intensely vulnerable. The poet’s task is to coax it out of formlessness and into fuller consciousness by the sensitivity of his language. The remote stirrings of the poem are compared to the stirrings of an animal – a fox, whose body is invisible, but which feels its way forward nervously through the dark undergrowth:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf; The half-hidden image which is contained within these lines is of soft snow brushing against the trees as it falls in dark flakes to the ground. The idea of the delicate dark snow evokes the physical reality of the fox’s nose which is itself cold, dark and damp, twitching moistly and gently against twig and leaf. In this way the first feature of the fox is mysteriously defined and its wet black nose is nervously alive in the darkness, feeling its way towards us. But by inverting the natural order of the simile, and withholding the subject of the sentence, the poet succeeds in blurring its distinctness so that the fox emerges only slowly out of the formlessness of the snow. Gradually the fox’s eyes appear out of the same formlessness, leading the shadowy movement of its body as it comes closer:
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
Sets neat prints into the snow
In the first two lines of this passage the rhythm of the verse is broken
by the punctuation and the line-endings, while at the same time what
seemed the predictable course of the rhyme-scheme is deliberately departed
from. Both rhythmically and phonetically the verse thus mimes the nervous,
unpredictable movement of the fox as it delicately steps forward, then
stops suddenly to check the terrain before it runs on only to stop again.
The tracks which the fox leaves in the snow are themselves duplicated by
the sounds and rhythm of the line ‘Sets neat prints into the snow’. The
first three short words of this line are internal half-rhymes, as neat, as
identical and as sharply outlined as the fox’s paw-marks, and these words
press down gently but distinctly into the soft open vowel of ‘snow’. The
fox’s body remains indistinct, a silhouette against the snow. But the
phrase ‘lame shadow’ itself evokes a more precise image of the fox, as it
freezes alertly in its tracks, holding one front-paw in mid-air, and then
moves off again like a limping animal. At the end of the stanza the words
‘bold to come’ are left suspended – as though the fox is pausing at the
outer edge of some trees. The gap between the stanzas is itself the
clearing which the fox, after hesitating warily, suddenly shoots across:
‘Of a body that is bold to come / Across clearings. ..’
It is so close now that its two eyes have merged into a single green glare
which grows wider and wider as the fox comes nearer, its eyes heading
directly towards ours: ‘Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox / It
enters the dark hole of the head’. If we follow the ‘visual logic’ of the
poem we are compelled to imagine the fox actually jumping through the eyes
of the poet – with whom the reader of the poem is inevitably drawn into
identification. The fox enters the lair of the head as it would enter its
own lair, bringing with it the hot, sensual, animal reek of its body and
all the excitement and power of the achieved vision.
After discussing ‘The thought-fox’ in his book The Art of Ted Hughes,
Keith Sagar writes: ‘Suddenly, out of the unknown, there it is, with
all the characteristics of a living thing – “a sudden sharp hot stink of
fox”. A simple trick like pulling a kicking rabbit from a hat, but only a
true poet can do it’.
In this particular instance it seems to me that the simile
Sagar uses betrays him into an inappropriate critical response. His
comparison may be apt in one respect, for it is certainly true that there
is a powerful element of magic in the poem. But this magic has little to
do with party-conjurors who pull rabbits out of top-hats. It is more like
the sublime and awesome magic which is contained in the myth of creation,
where God creates living beings out of nothingness by the mere fiat
of his imagination.
In this respect Hughes’s vision is perhaps most nearly akin to that of D.
H. Lawrence, who was also an intellectual in rebellion against his own
rationalism, a puritan who never ceased to quarrel with his own
puritanism. But Lawrence’s animal poems, as some critics have observed,
are very different from those of Hughes. Lawrence has a much greater
respect for the integrity and independence of the animals he writes about.
In ‘Snake’ he expresses remorse for the rationalistic, ‘educated’ violence
which he inflicts on the animal. And at the end of the poem he is able, as
it were, retrospectively to allow his dark sexual, sensual, animal
alter ego to crawl off into the bowels of the earth, there to reign
alone and supreme in a kingdom where Lawrence recognises he can have no
part. Hughes, in ‘The thought-fox’ at least, cannot do this. It would seem
that, possessing his own sensual identity even less securely than
Lawrence, he needs the ‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’ to pump up the
attenuated sense he has of the reality of his own body and his own
feelings. And so he pins the fox upon the page with the cruel purity of
artistic form and locates its lair inside his own head. And the fox lives
triumphantly as an idea – as a part of the poet’s own identity – but dies
as a fox.
The same conflict of sensibility which is unconsciously dramatised in ‘The thought-fox’ also appears, in an implicit form, in one of the finest and most powerful poems in Lupercal, ‘Snowdrop’:
Now is the globe shrunk tight
The poem begins by evoking, from the still and tiny perspective of the hibernating mouse, a vast intimacy with the tightening body of the earth. But the numbness of ‘wintering heart’ undermines the emotional security which might be conveyed by the initial image. The next lines introduce a harsh predatory derangement into nature through which two conventionally threatening animals, the weasel and the crow, move ‘as if moulded in brass’ .It is only at this point, after a sense of petrified and frozen vitality has been established, that the snowdrop is, as it were, ‘noticed’ by the poem. What might be described as a conventional and sentimental personification of the snowdrop is actually intensified by the fact that ‘she’ can be identified only from the title. This lends to the pronoun a mysterious power through which the poem gestures towards an affirmation of ‘feminine’ frailty and its ability to survive even the cruel rigour of winter. But before this gesture can even be completed it is overlaid by an evocation of violent striving:
She, too, pursues her ends,
Thebeauty of this poem resides precisely in the way that a complex emotional ambivalence is reflected through language. But if we can withdraw ourselves from the influence of the spell which the poem undoubtedly casts, the vision of the snowdrop cannot but seem an alien one. What seems strange about the poem is the lack of any recognition that the snowdrop survives not because of any hidden reserves of massive evolutionary strength or will, but precisely because of its frailty – its evolutionary vitality is owed directly to the very delicacy, softness and flexibility of its structure. In Hughes’s poem the purposeless and consciousless snowdrop comes very near to being a little Schopenhauer philosophising in the rose-garden, a little Stalin striving to disguise an unmanly and maidenly blush behind a hard coat of assumed steel. We might well be reminded of Hughes’s own account of the intentions which lay behind his poem ‘Hawk roosting’. ‘Actually what I had in mind’, Hughes has said, ‘was that in this hawk Nature is thinking … I intended some creator like the Jehovah in Job but more feminine.’ But, as Hughes himself is obliged to confess, ‘He doesn’t sound like Isis, mother of the gods, which he is. He sounds like Hitler’s familiar spirit.’ In an attempt to account for the gap between intention and performance Hughes invokes cultural history: ‘When Christianity kicked the devil out of Job what they actually kicked out was Nature. ..and nature became the devil.’ This piece of rationalisation, however, seems all too like an attempt to externalise a conflict of sensibility which is profoundly internal. The conflict in question is the same as that which may be divined both in ‘The thought-fox’ and in ‘Snowdrop’, in which a frail sensuousness which might be characterised as , ‘feminine’ can be accepted only after it has been subordinated to a tough and rational will.
The conflict between violence and tenderness which is present in an oblique form throughout Hughes’ early poetry is one that is in no sense healed or resolved in his later work. Indeed it might be suggested that much of the poetic and emotional charge of this later work comes directly from an intensification of this conflict and an increasingly explicit polarisation of its terms. The repressed tenderness of ‘Snowdrop’ or the tough steely sensibility which is expressed in ‘Thrushes’, with its idealisation of the ‘bullet and automatic / Purpose’ of instinctual life, is seemingly very different to the all but unprotected sensuous delicacy of ‘Littleblood’, the poem with which Hughes ends Crow:
O littleblood, little boneless little skinless
But this poem must ultimately be located within the larger context which is provided by the Crow poems. This context is one of a massive unleashing of sadistic violence -a violence which is never endorsed by Hughes but which, nevertheless, seems to provide a kind of necessary psychological armour within which alone tenderness can be liberated without anxiety.
In pointing to the role which is played by a particular conflict of sensibility in Hughes’s poetry I am not in any way seeking to undermine the case which can – and should – be made for what would conventionally be called Hughes’s poetic ‘greatness’. Indeed, my intention is almost the reverse of this. For it seems to me that one of the factors which moderates or diminishes the imaginative power of some of Hughes’s early poetry is precisely the way in which an acute conflict which is central to his own poetic sensibility tends to be disguised or, suppressed. In Crow, which I take to be Hughes’s most extraordinary poetic achievement to date, Hughes, almost for the first time, assumes imaginative responsibility for the puritanical violence which is present in his poetry from the very beginnings. In doing so he seems to take full possession of his own poetic powers. It is as though a conflict which had, until that point, led a shadowy and underworld existence, is suddenly cracked open in order to disgorge not only its own violence but also all that imaginative wealth and vitality which had been half locked up within it.
The most obvious precedent for such a violent eruption of imaginative powers is that which is provided by Shakespeare, and perhaps above all by King Lear. Lear is a play of extraordinary violence whose persistent image, as Caroline Spurgeon has observed, is that ‘of a human body in anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, dislocated, flayed, gashed, scalded, tortured, and finally broken on the rack’. But at the same time it is a play about a man who struggles to repossess his own tenderness and emotional vitality and to weep those tears which, at the beginning of the play, he contemptuously dismisses as soft, weak and womanly. The same conflict reappears throughout Shakespeare’s poetry.
We have only to recall Lady Macbeth’s renunciation of her own ‘soft’ maternal impulses in order to appreciate the fluency of Shakespeare’s own imaginative access to this conflict and the disturbing cruelty of its terms:
I have given suck, and know
The intense conflict between violence and tenderness which is expressed inthese lines is, of course, in no sense one which will be found only in the poetic vision of Hughes and Shakespeare. It is present in poetry from the Old Testament onwards and indeed it might reasonably be regarded as a universal conflict, within which are contained and expressed some of the most fundamental characteristics of the human identity.
Any full investigation of the conflict and of its cultural significance would inevitably need to take account both of what Mark Spilka has called ‘Lawrence’s quarrel with tenderness’ and of Ian Suttie’s discussion of the extent and rigour of the ‘taboo on tenderness’ in our own culture. But such an investigation would also need to take into consideration a much larger cultural context, and perhaps above all to examine the way in which the Christian ideal of love has itself traditionally been expressed within the medium of violent apocalyptic fantasies.
The investigation which I describe is clearly beyond the scope of this essay. My more modest aim here has been to draw attention to the role which is played by this conflict in two of the most hauntingly powerful of Ted Hughes’s early poems and to suggest that Hughes’s poetic powers are fully realised not when this conflict is resolved but when it is unleashed in its most violent form.
In taking this approach I am motivated in part by the feeling that the discussion of Hughes’s poetry has sometimes been too much in thrall to a powerful cultural image of Hughes’s poetic personality – one which he himself has tended to project. In this image Hughes is above all an isolated and embattled figure who has set himself against the entire course both of modern poetry and of modern history .He is rather like the hero in one of his most powerful poems ‘Stealing trout on a May morning’, resolutely and stubbornly wading upstream, his feet rooted in the primeval strength of the river’s bed as the whole course of modern history and modern puritanical rationalism floods violently past him in the opposite direction, bearing with it what Hughes himself has called ‘mental disintegration … under the super-ego of Moses … and the self-anaesthetising schizophrenia of St Paul’, and leaving him in secure possession of that ancient and archaic imaginative energy which he invokes in his poetry.
The alternative to this Romantic view of Hughes’s poetic personality is to
see Hughes’s poetry as essentially the poetry of an intellectual, an
intellectual who is subject to the rigours of ‘puritanical rationalism’
just as much as any other intellectual but who, instead of submitting to
those rigours, fights against them with that stubborn and intransigent
resolution which belongs only to the puritan soul.
 Ted Hughes, Poetry in the Making (Faber, 1967), p. 20.
 Keith Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes (CambridgeUniversity Press, 1979), p. 19
 See Poetry in the Making, chapter 1
 Interview with Ekbert Faas, 1970. Reprinted in Faas, Ted Hughes: the Unaccommodated Universe (Black Sparrow Press, 1980), p. 197
Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery (1935), p. 339
 Mark Spilka, ‘Lawrence’s quarrel with tenderness’, Critical Quarterly, vol. 9, No. 4 (winter 1967). Ian D. Suttie, The Origins of Love and Hate (Penguin, 1960), especially. chapter 6.
First published in Critical Quarterly, vol, 26, no. 4 Winter 1984
……………………………………………………………………© Richard Webster, 2002