The imagery in these poems is at once graphic and realistic; and the language which Hughes has employed in describing the various animals shows a striking originality and felicity. The emphasis in this imagery is on the vitality or energy of the animals concerned and also on the violence, the fierceness, and the cruelty of most of those animals. This animal imagery, with its emphasis on the destructive powers of certain animals, has largely contributed to Hughes’s reputation or notoriety as a poet specializing in the poetry of violence. At the same time, it has to be noted that, while the primary purpose of this animal imagery is to convey to us Hughes’s visual impressions of the animals whom he has actually observed, there is a symbolic purpose behind this imagery also.
The Four-fold Appeal of Hughes’s Animal Imagery
Hughes’s animal poems are among the best in his work, and among the finest in the whole range of English poetry. The imagery in these poems has its own appeal. This imagery shows Hughes’s enormous powers of observation and an exceptional capacity to embody his observations in words.
The Imagery in the Poem Called The Jaguar
In almost every poem, Hughes has pictured most vividly the various physical features of the particular animal he is dealing with. In the poem The Jaguar, for instance, the animal concerned is depicted as brimming with energy, thus offering a contrast to some of the other animals in the zoo. The jaguar has eyes which are sharp and penetrating, and which are almost blind because of the fire of rage in them. The jaguar is deaf of ear because of “the bang of blood in the brain.” He whirls about in his cage which is no cage to him. His stride is indicative of his feeling that he is absolutely free even though the bars of the cage do not allow him to move out of his prison. He feels so free and strong that the world seems to roll like a ball under the thrust of his heel. Here, then, is an example of Hughes’s visual imagination, and his capacity to record his impressions in the kind of language which no other poet has ever used in this context: “by the bang of blood in the brain”; “the drills” of his eyes, “his stride is wildernesses of freedom”—these are striking words and phrases. Then, in the same poem, other animals too have fire, or they strut like cheap prostitutes to attract the visitors; the tiger and the lion lie still; and the boa=constrictor’s coil looks like a fossil.
The Imagery in the Two Poems About the Hawk
There are two poems by Hughes about the hawk: The Hawk in the Rain and Hawk Roosting. In the first poem, the hawk is depicted as perched effortlessly at a height with his still eye, and with his wings holding all creation in a weightless quiet. This hawk is steady as “a hallucination in the streaming air”. In the final stanza of this poem the hawk’s ultimate fate is described in striking language: “the ponderous shires crash on him.” In the other poem, it is the fierceness and cruelty of the hawk which are emphasized. The hawk can kill where he pleases because the whole world is his domain. To tear off heads is a routine performance by him. He is an arbiter of life and death. “The allotment of death” is his privilege. The one path of his flight lies directly through the bones of the living. Rarely has any poet described the killer-hawk in this kind of metaphorical style.
A Description of the Violence and Destructiveness of Thrushes
The poem Thrushes is also characterized by the same kind of vivid and realistic imagery. Here the violence and ferocity of the birds has most vividly been conveyed to us through the use of forceful vocabulary and striking combinations of words. The thrushes are terrifying; they are more coiled steel than living creatures; they have a dark deadly eye. They operate suddenly, with a bounce and a stab, dragging out some writhing insect which is to serve as their morsel of food. There is nothing sluggish about their movements. “Nothing but bounce and stab and a ravening second”. They have a bullet and automatic purpose, and they are no less full of energy than Mozart’s brain and the shark’s mouth. The swiftness of purpose of these thrushes is contrasted with the dilatoriness and procrastinations of human beings.
The symbolic Significance of This Imagery: the Denigration of Man
The symbolic significance of the imagery in these animal poems can simply not be ignored. It is the symbolic significance which imparts to this imagery a certain depth and profundity. Hughes does not write about animals as if he regarded them as mere animal. He finds in them certain qualities which link them to human life. The symbolic animal imagery thus yields a significance which can enhance our understanding of ourselves. Hughes believed that the strength of animals lay in their instinct and precise function. The animals, according to him, are much more adapted to their environment than human beings. Thus in the poem The Hawk in the Rain, the bird sits effortlessly at a height, while the speaker in the poem is assailed by the ferocious wind which thumbs his eyes, throws his breath, and tackles his heart, while the rain hacks his head to the bone. Thus Hughes puts a human being at a disadvantage by comparison with a bird. Besides, Hughes also believed that animals were not, like man, undermined by a false morality or incapacitated by doubt. A hawk is a hawk, whereas a an has ambitions to be God-like and is therefore permanently frustrated. A hawk is always in its own element even when it dies an elemental death. In the poem The Jaguar it is made clear to us that, while man may imprison and animal, he cannot imprison an animal’s energy and instinct, especially the energy and instinct of jaguar. Even in a man-made cage, a jaguar remains true to itself. Evidently Hughes believes that human beings are more caged in their domestic and social environment than animals are in their cages. The Thought-Fox is also partly an animal poem, in which the poet’s inspiration is compared to a fox making a sudden and silent entry into his head. In this case, instinct replaces intellect. In the poem The Horses, the ten horses are timeless; they inhabit their own world. They are “grey, silent fragments of a grey silent world.” These horses can fully cope with the freezing cold of the morning while the poet is unable to do so. The speaker in this poem, who is undoubtedly Hughes himself, expresses his own inability to cope with the elements, while the horses stand in a close relationship with those elements. The horses are as patient as the horizons; and they endure. Hughes has here made a credo out of the example of the horses. Like them, he wants to inhabit a timeless world and be tested by the elements. In the poem Hawk Roosting the poet does not praise the hawk so much as he denigrates man by comparison. The hawk is here seen as vastly superior to man who is unable to accept Nature for what it is and, instead, tries to tame it by giving it philosophical names. The hawk does not have man’s debilitating intellectuality or man’s slavish obedience to rules.
The Symbolic Meaning of the Imagery in Thrushes
The same point is made in the poem Thrushes. These birds perform their murderous function instinctively. Their bullet and automatic purpose puts them on a level with Mozart’s brain and the shark’s mouth. But man, by comparison with these birds, proves only his inferiority. Man is here reduced to a physically barren life in his ivory tower, carving at a tiny ivory ornament for years.