But, in Hughes’s eyes, violence though painful and very often fatal, is also a guarantee of energy and of life. When Hughes looks at the caged jaguar, hurrying enraged through prison-darkness, he finds victory in the beast’s untamed will: “His stride is wildernesses of freedom.” The cage is no more a cage to this beast than a prison-cell is to a visionary or an idealistic dreamer. Beast and visionary are linked together by Hughes because the will of both of them triumphs over the circumstances in which they exist. In The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar, Hughes goes further, and finds triumph in a moment of martyrdom. Here we find that the fire burns the muscles and the bones of a man but that his spirit rises superior to his suffering. The bishop’s victory is one of pure stoicism, creating in the flames a timeless moment of glory. The spirit of the man continues to live long after his flesh has been consumed.
Violence, Painful, But also a Guarantee of Energy
Violence, and brutal violence at that, is certainly one of the dominant themes in the poetry of Ted Hughes. This poet is fascinated by violence; he is fascinated by all kinds of violence—violence in love as well as in hatred, violence in the jungle, violence in the arena, violence in a battle, and violence in the form of murder and sudden death.
Violence, Depicted in the Animal Poems
The theme of violence finds a most vivid expression in the animal poems of Hughes. That Morning, Full Moon and Little Frieda, The Jaguar, Second Glance at a Jaguar, Pike; Hawk Roosting; Thrushes—these are all poems depicting the cruelty, the fierceness, and the violence which are inseparable from the world of Nature. Hughes sees even more clearly and unambiguously than Tennyson did; “Nature red in tooth and claw.” In The Jaguar, for instance, we are made to visualize a beast hurrying enraged through prison darkness, not in boredom, but with a stride which represents vast, unlimited freedom. By contrast with the fierceness of a caged jaguar, the boa-constrictor’s coil is a fossil. In Pike, we are told that the pike-fish are “killers from the egg”, meaning that their killer-instinct is basic to their nature. A pike-fish would kill and eat up one of its own tribe if it can get nothing else to satisfy its appetite. “And indeed they spare nobody,” meaning that the pike-fish make no distinctions when it comes to eating. No poet of the past had been able to convey the murderousness of Nature with such economy and such effect as Hughes has done through these poems. In Hawk Roosting, the bird says to himself: “I kill where I please because it is all mine.” And he further says; “My manners are tearing off heads.” In Thrushes we read that these birds move about with “a bounce and a stab” to catch hold of some insect in the grass, and that they do so without the least delay or hesitation. The cruel hunger of the thrushes reminds the poet of the shark’s mouth which bites its own tail. The thrushes possess a “bullet and automatic purpose” which impels them to accomplish their brutal function. “Hughes’s view of Nature is Nazi, not Wordsworthian”, says M.L. Rosenthal.
Violence in Battle and War
Then there are other poems depicting cruelty and violence. There is the Bayonet Charge in which we read about the “bullets smacking the belly out of the air” and of “a green hedge that dazzled with rifle fire.” Later in the poem we are made to visualize a soldier “plunging past with his bayonet toward the green hedge,” and forgetting king, honour, human dignity, etcetera. Then we have the poem Six Young Men which is about a photograph of six young men who went to the war and were all killed. Grief for Dead Soldiers is another poem about the death of soldiers in action, every soldier dying a separate death. Of course, in both these poems the deaths are also depicted as heroic as well as tragic; and both these poems arouse our pity and grief. But in both of them the cruelty and the violence are kept in the forefront.
The Psychological Basic for the Violent Imagery in Hughes’s Poetry
One of the critics, John Lucas in his Modern English Poetry, has expressed the opinion that poetry should take risks because poetry is a “murderous art.” According to this critic, the only English poet who fulfils this condition is Ted Hughes who seems to him to have broken new ground by dealing with the dark, psychic, violent forces latent in modern life. On the contrary, M.G. Ramanan has expressed the view that Hughes’s violent imagery in his poems shows the continuance of the imperialistic sense of power among the English people. According to this critic, Hughes’s violent imagery is closely allied with authoritarian politics. It is significant in this context that Hughes was appointed the Poet Laureate by the government of Mrs. Thatcher who was an authoritarian Prime Minister. In any case, nobody doubts that Hughes’s poetry, both at its best and worst, shows a preoccupation with violence. The poem Thrushes begins with a picture of the terrifying thrushes on the lawn. Of course, Hughes has a right to write a poem such as Thrushes because through it he can explore the lust for power and violence which is part of the story of twentieth-century experience, and perhaps of all human experience. Certainly, Hawk Roosting is about the egotism of a single-minded concern with a violence which seeks no justification for itself. The hawk in this poem says that nothing has changed since his life began, that his eye has permitted no change, and that he is going to keep things like this. The hawk’s view may seem to the readers to be absurd; but that is the point of view of the hawk, and surely this point of view reflect the point of view of many politicians and many governments who are equally absurd in their thinking.
Violence as an Expression of Identity
But it is not only the egotism of violence which interests Hughes. At the heart of much of his poetry is violence as a pure expression of spirit, violence as an assertion of identity. In this connection, the closing lines of the poem Pike are significant. The pond where the narrator in this poem fished was “as deep as England.” This pond held pike “too immense to stir”, so immense and old that after nightfall he dared not continue fishing. A darkness released by the darkness of the night seemed to him to be rising slowly towards him. In these lines, the darkness is expressed through the rapacious pike. The narrator’s dream here is a dream of violence. This is not without a basis because the England people have always been more aggressive and war-like than they think, and the imperialism which our Indian critic has talked about in connection with Hughes is really dear to the heart of England.
Other Aspects of the Violence in Hughes’s Poetry
Hughes certainly seems to be endorsing this violence and the imperialism which it seems to convey. Through his pictures of the ruthless predatoriness of the thrushes, the hawk, and the pike, Hughes seems to be saying that there is no alternative to this violence. And Hughes is very skilful in handling this theme because the very style of these poems suits the subject. And yet there is something objectionable about Hughes’s use of birds and fish to deal with issues as complex as the history and use of power, authority, and violence. Hughes often does this sort of thing. In the poem called Thistles, for example, he describes the plants as “like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects/Every one manages a plume of blood.” The thistles become a metaphor for England’s Viking inheritance which consists of weaponry and warrior-dom. And nothing has changed since those plants grew: “Their sons appear/Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.” This kind of apprehension of a violence latent in English history is not without some justification. According to an eminent critic, A.E. Dyson, the quality of violence, which many of the English novelists explore as moralists, is presented in Hughes’s poem in a manner which makes us more alive to what certain forces in modern politics and life really are.
Nothing Monotonous About Hughes’s Concern With Violence
However, we do not agree with the opinion that Hughes’s habitual concern with violence is monotonous, or that it becomes some sort of handicap to Hughes in the writing of his poetry. In each one of the poems dealing with the theme of violence or depicting violence in one form or the other, Hughes shows himself to be a great and gifted maker of memorable images, and taut, packed lines.