The Variety of Animals; and the Originality of Treatment
According to an eminent critic, no poet has observed animals more accurately than Ted Hughes has done; and Hughes’s depiction of the animals observed is remarkable vivid, startling, and yet truthful. The animals actually observed and described by Ted Hughes in his poems cover a wide range.
The hawk, the thrush, the pike, the jaguar, the skylark, the horse, the cat, the mouse, the bull, the pig, the otter, the bullfrog, and several others figure in his poems. Indeed, we can say that the world of animals is Hughes’s favourite territory. But it is not just the original kind of description of animals which makes Hughes’s poetry unique. What makes it really unique is the symbolic significance which he discovers in the animals whom he observes and describes. Of course the ancient Greek fables, known as Aesop’s Fables, have existed for centuries, and these fables depict animals in a way which throws a flood of light on human nature. And yet Hughes’s treatment of the animals is different: it is highly poetic, highly fanciful, highly symbolic, highly significant, highly expressive, highly illuminating, and highly “modern” both in content and in style. His descriptions of animals contain numerous metaphors; and these metaphors relate a particular animal to all the other creatures and also to human experiences and human concepts. His poems embody in a most intense form the typical stresses and contradiction of human nature and also of Nature with a capital N. Hughes’s animal poetry naturally reminds us of D.H. Lawrence who too was a great animal-lover. However, Hughes’s point of view or his way of looking at animals is clearly distinguishable from Lawrence’s Hawk Roosting
The poem which really established Hughes’s reputation as a poet of the world of animals is Hawk Roosting. Subsequently this poem figured in most of the anthologies. The poem depicts a hawk’s eye-view of the world. The hawk believes that trees, air, sun, and earth are there only for his convenience; that the purpose of Creation was solely to produce him; that the world revolves at his bidding; and that all other creatures exist only as his prey. This egoistical hawk says:
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot …..
Thus the poem reveals to us the hawk’s own peculiar point of view and his peculiar consciousness. However, at a deeper level, the hawk becomes a mouthpiece of Nature itself. Tennyson spoke of Nature “red in tooth and claw”; and he felt very unhappy about the cruelty that he saw in nature. He therefore asked: “Are God and nature then at strife?” But Hughes does not feel the anguish which Tennyson felt. Nor does he wholly admire nature as D.H. Lawrence does. In fact, in all his poems about animals Hughes tries to fuse both his admiration for Nature and his horror of Nature into a single response which might be described as “awe”.
The poem about the otter is less a description of an otter than an invocation of the spirit of an otter. The otter is depicted as almost the opposite of the hawk who rules the air with a feeling of authority. However, the otter, like the hawk, is a predator. An otter can put an abrupt end to the life of a trout though, from the time of the arrival of man on the scene with his trained dogs, he himself has also become a prey. Symbolically speaking, the otter, “crying without answer for his lost paradise”, is surely, to some extent, an image of the dualism in man. The otter, like man, is neither wholly body nor wholly spirit, neither wholly beast nor wholly angel; and, like man, he too is yearning for his Eden home where death not exist.
The Bull Moses
The speaker in the poem, The Bull Moses, keenly perceives the presence of the bull and so he says:
But the warm weight of his breathing,
The ammoniac reek of his litter, the hotly tongued
Mash of his cud, steamed against me.
The speaker then dwells upon some of the other features of the bull; the brow which looks like masonry, and the deep-keeled neck. The bull seems to the speaker to belong to another world, beyond the world of human consciousness. In fact, the bull seems to stand at the meeting-point of the two worlds. There was a time, says the speaker, when bulls were uncontrolled by any power. But now the farmer leads the bull to the pond to drink and to smell the air. The bull has to obey every movement of the farmer. He has to submit to a life of servitude. Of course, within the bull sleeps “the locked black of his powers” which nothing could hold in check in case the bull were to revolt. But he does not revolt because he has no awareness of any restraint or slavery. In this respect, he resembles the jaguar about whom Hughes had written that his stride meant “wildernesses of freedom” and that “the world rolled under the long thrust of his heel.” The bull, which in this poem has the name Moses, resembles a visionary or dreamer confined to a cell, but not treating the cell as a prison. The consciousness of Moses is a racial consciousness. What redeems his servitude is that he “wombs”, that is, he fills the wombs of many cows with his progeny. Moses is only a link in the unbroken continuity from his wild ancestors to his wild descendants because a time would come when man would cease to rule. Moses is progenitor, a patriarch; and, like the Biblical Moses, he beholds the Promised Land which he will never himself enter, feeling satisfied that, simply by ensuring the continuity of the race, he has played his part. His descendants will escape from servitude, and inherit the earth. Providence will see to that. Only Hughes could have written such a poem about a bull. The original and vivid picture of a bull is combined in this poem with a symbolic view of the animal. The human figures in the poem, the speaker and the farmer, certainly enhance the poem’s interest because, without human beings, there would be nobody to behold the animals and to interpret the meaning of their existence. At the same time the gulf between man and animal represents also the gulf between civilized man and man’s animal self.
Another poem which deserves consideration is Pike. (The pike is a kind of fish). The first four stanzas of this poem contain a description of the pike; and, as is usual with Hughes, the description is remarkable original and graphic. The pike is a “killer” from the very egg in which it existed before it came into the world. The pike has a malevolent grin; and it dances on the surface of the water among the flies, or moves over a bed of emerald. The pike feels stunned by its own grandeur. Though it is not a long creature, yet in terms of its own watery world, it is a hundred feet long. It has jaws which, with their hooked clamp and fangs, cannot be changed in their shape or in their fierceness at this date in its existence. The next three stanzas of the poem contain two wonderfully economical anecdotes. There was three pikes kept in a glass-jar. Not having been fed, the three were first reduced to two and then to only one. In other words, the pikes are capable of eating one another in their hungry state. The poem ends with the speaker or the narrator describing his terror while fishing at night. In fact, he is no longer fishing for pike but for the nameless horror which night’s darkness produces from the depth of his dream or from his unconscious mind. Thus, in this poem, the ferocity of the pike, despite its small size, gives rise to feelings of terror and awe.
Killing of Animals by Each Other, Inevitable
In a letter, Hughes wrote that he did not mind killing as such because he believed in wrath and the gnashing of teeth. He also said that the tiger, the hawk, and the weasel were beautiful things to him and that, if they attacked and ate up the dove and the hare, it was God’s will and a consummation which brought two extreme together and made a perfect one from the duality. Hughes comes very close to this position in this poem, Crow’s Table Talk. Hughes actually lives through the fear, the pain, and the sorrow which some of his animals have to endure.
The Significance of the Crow Poems
Then, of course, there are the Crow poems. The Crow in these poems has been regarded by critics as a trickster though he is, in the poems themselves, sometimes identified with Prometheus and other heroes. In course of time, the Crow seems to be approaching merely a human status, though he does not really become a human being but remains a crow. The first seven poems in this sequence depict the birth of the Crow into earthly life; and it is a most reluctant and painful birth. Indeed, the lineage of the Crow is a piece of mockery: God begets Nothing, who begets Never, who begets Crow.
Here and elsewhere in these poems, a critic tells us, Hughes undermines the Christian beliefs and feels a child’s naughty delight in doing so. Indeed, Hughes makes a sacrilegious use of ancient myths in the writing of his poems under the heading of “Crow.” However, the crow poems are not really animal poems. Taken together, and even if each is considered separately, they are a satire on God’s creation f this universe and of mankind. The poet is really mocking at God’s universe and at mankind, with the Crow serving the poet merely as a medium of that mockery or satire.
Two Poems About the Jaguar
There are a number of other animal poems too which deserve notice. The Jaguar and Second Glance at a Jaguar are famous poems. In the first poem, the jaguar is depicted as a fierce beast who remains absolutely unaffected by his imprisonment in a cage among the other cages at a zoo. This jaguar is not in the least bored with his imprisonment; there is a kind of fire in his eyes; there is “a bang of blood in his brain”; and “his stride is wildernesses of freedom.” In the second poem, the jaguar has lost none of his fierceness or wild energy or fearlessness. His head is like the worn-down stump of another whole jaguar, and his body is just the engine shoving the head forward. He coils and he flourishes his blackjack tail as if looking for a target. Indeed, the two poems together, and even each separately, produce a frightening effect on us. The jaguar in both the poems symbolizes Nature in all its wildness, its fury, its destructiveness, and also its splendour.
Thrushes is another poem, very much of the same kind. Hughes depicts the thrushes on the lawn as terrifying creatures. This bird is depicted as an embodiment of “bounce and stab,” without “any indolent procrastinations.” There seems to be an automatic purpose behind its swift movements which remind the poet of a bullet and of the shark’s mouth that “hungers down the blood-smell even to a leak of its own/Side and devouring of itself.” Hughes is here, as elsewhere trying to impress upon us the uncontrollable energies of Nature. If we think of man at this moment, he would surely appear to be a puny creature by the side of these energies.
But The Horses is an altogether different kind of poem. Here we see animals who look grand tin their very gentleness and passivity. No wild force is depicted in this poem. There is stillness all around the poet when he sees ten horses looking huge but absolutely still and motionless; “Megalith-still.”
They breathed, making no move,
With draped manes and titled hind-hooves,
Making no sound.
The poet then contrasts the stillness and the silence of these horses with the din of the crowded streets, though the comparison comes only towards the end, and is made in only a few words. Here it is the gentle quality of the non-human world that has been brought into focus. On the one hand are the fierceness and wildness of the jaguar and the hawk, and on the other are the patience and the silence of the horses.
A Modern Bestiary
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 purpose in writing these animal poems is to ridicule, and to mock at, all the struggle and strife which are going on in the human world. But we do not accept this interpretation. 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 identity and its distinctive character. At the same time, Hughes, indirectly and symbolically, depicts 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.” For instance:
Skinful of bowls, he bowls them,
The hip going in and out of joint …..
At every stride he has to turn a corner
In himself and correct it….
It is thus he has portrayed the caged jaguar. On the whole, his animal poems are a formidable, awful, spectacular, and fascinating array of God’s creatures in a universe which is mysterious and inscrutable.