The ‘Thought-Fox’ has often been acknowledged as one of the most completely realized and artistically satisfying of the poems in Ted Hughes’s first collection, The Hawk in the Rain. I will become saying that ‘The thought-fox’ is a poem about writing a poem. Its external action takes place in a room late at night where the poet is sitting alone at his desk.
Outside the night is starless, silent, and totally black. But the poet senses a presence which disturbs him. In the first two paragraphs we can observe how the author is describing the environment, a forest in the midnight; he also has in front of him a blank page where his fingers move, and as he says ‘through the window I see no star’. But inside that completely darkness we can find the loneliness.
“Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness”
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: But in the middle of that darkness the author finds something that corrupts his loneliness, it is a fox:
“Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;”
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. Gradually the fox’s eyes appear out of the same formlessness, leading the shadowy movement of its body as it comes closer as the poet says, “Two eyes serve a movement, that now/ And again now, and now, and now”. 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, 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.’ The fox has scented safety. It has come suddenly closer, bearing down upon the poet (and upon the reader). In this part of the poem we can see what color its eyes are:
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business. ..”
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 are following the full poem the ‘visual logic’ of the poem makes us to imagine the fox actually jumping through the eyes of the poet – with whom us (the readers of the poem) is inevitably drawn into identification. That means that 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. The fox is no longer a formless stirring somewhere in the dark depths of the bodily imagination; it has been coaxed out of the darkness and into full consciousness. And all this has been done purely by the imagination. For in reality there is no fox at all, and outside, in the external darkness, nothing has changed: ‘The window is starless still; the clock ticks, / The page is printed.’
“The Thought-Fox” is a poem about writing a poem and not at all about an animal. The fox in the poem is the poetic energy or inspiration that comes out of darkness (the unconscious) and leaves its footprints on snow, the blank white page. But the annual image in the title as well as the movement of the symbolic animal in the poem is not only appropriate in its own context but also consistent with Ted Hughes concept of poetic composition which he compared with the capturing of animals. The Thought-Fox describes the process by which a poem gets written. What a poet needs to write a poem is inspiration. A poet waits for the onrush of an idea through his brain. And, of course, he also needs solitude (loneliness) and silence around him. Solitude and silence are, however, only contributory circumstances. They constitute a favourable environment, while the poem itself comes out of the poet’s head which has been invaded, as it were, by an idea or thought. The idea or thought takes shape in his head like a fox entering a dark forest and then coming out of it suddenly. That is why the phrase “The Thought-Fox” has been used as a title for this poem. The fox symbolizes the thought. The secret, says Hughes, is to “imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. … Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn your self into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic.” This is borne out by the present poem in which a kind of drama goes on between the “I” that imagines and the “I” that perceives.
Finally I have to say that Hughes’s vision has opened in me like a window through which I could know that poetry is always there but we do not know how many things a poem can give to us every time that we read it. Because it depends on the moment we read a poem, where we read a poem, or even if we know the environmental in which a poem was written we can improve ourselves by different ways. But Hughes is always talking of modern civilization as consisting in ‘mental disintegration’. And for that reason I want to show something that Ted Hughes has written, ‘that long after I am gone, as long as a copy of the poem exists, every time anyone reads it the fox will get up somewhere out of the darkness and come walking towards them’. The presence that moves in deep darkness is like a fox touching the twigs and leaves with its nose. The blank page will receive the footprints of the thought-fox in the form of a poem and the page will always be printed.