This is rightly one of Hughes’s most popular poems and he has called it a favorite one of his poetry. The beauty and aptness of its movement could never have been predicted from most of the poems in The Hawk in the Rain—even The Thought-Fox’ is mechanical in comparison. It is rare to find such freedom of line accompanied by such appropriateness and inevitability, so that it seems to have a form as tight as a sonnet—the whole evening in one long line, the listening child who is the focus of it in a balancing short one; the ‘mirror’ poised between the water of which it is composed and the star that it reflects; the herd of cows in a long, lazy line that nevertheless doesn’t fall apart.
The humor that belongs to the wonder is there throughout: in ‘tempt’; in the cows being communally the river and individually the boulders that impede its progress; and above all in the final two lines, where something of the artist’s wonder at the life of his work, the moon’s ancient divinity, the child’s suddenness and wholeness of attention, combine in a delicacy of suggestion that really does defy analysis. But what the poem’s subtext reveals is the innocence of the Frieda contrasted with the experience of her father as the very first lines form the keynote:
“A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch”
The evening has shrunk not only because the light is failing but also because, as it does so, time seems to slow down, as it approaches that crucial moment of nightfall, dewfall, the first tremor of the first star. And the poet is aware that his daughter is the hand; pointing to that moment because she is utterly open, without defenses, without distracting consciousness of past and future, to the scene, her fine web of senses perfectly tuned to it, tense as a spider’s web, brimming as a lifted pail. The cows, too, are part of the scene, the condensation from their ‘warm wreaths of breath’ falling like dew on the hedges, their udders brimming like the pail of water, their blood like a river flowing darkly through, bringing fertility, their bony haunches like boulders ballasting the moment, balancing its fragility and delicacy with permanence and solidity. Perhaps it needs the child to register and hold all this because the poet cannot open himself, cannot jettison his knowledge of past and future, his knowledge that blood can be spilled as easily as milk and run in rivers outside the body, that boulders in a river are dangerous, that darkness is dangerous, that the moon is a fickle murderous goddess. The poem as we have it holds all this at bay, submerges all darker knowledge which might disturb the perfect harmony of man and nature the child experiences.
“Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’
The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed”
The persona of “Full Moon and Little Frieda” views the child as a “mirror,” a brimming pail of offering, who gazes at the moon, the largest reflecting object in the cosmos available to the naked eye. The resulting astonishment at the recognition of an identity of mirroring artworks is very striking and describes another experience of the undifferentiated original essence of the cosmos, at times called by Buddhist poets the “full moon of suchness.” When little Frieda speaks the word “moon,” one of the first words she ever articulated as a toddler, subject and object, self and environment merge in ecstatic recognition of self-in-other, in the clarity of spotless, mutually reflecting mirrors. The cows that loop the hedges “with their warm wreaths of breath” earlier in the poem convey an almost nativity-scene sense of the purity and supportiveness of a benign nature in attendance. The cows, sacred in Oriental symbology as representations of the plenitude of creation, are an apt background for Frieda’s offering of self as a brimming pail of youthful purity to an equally pure moonlight. In ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’, for the first time, there is a moment of harmony.
The poem testifies in its delicacy of utterance, its utterly fresh sense of wonder, to the possibility of knowing ‘the redeemed life of joy’ in normal daily experience, when, with an unspectacular access of grace, the elements of a scene – human, animal, domestic, rural, cosmic – suddenly cohere to express a plenitude, all the ‘malicious negatives’ miraculously melted away. There is no self-consciousness to close her, she points at the moon with an amazement the moon can only reciprocate, like an artist whose work has come to life or perfectly reflects the life of its creator who has created innocent and experience at the same time. But the conflict goes hand in hand where The river of blood, can actually be a river, but he’s personifying this river into the lives of himself and Frieda , and the dark past they’ve since had to overcome (Sylvia’s suicide) . So he’s saying how dangerous it is, with boulders and blood. But then he says it’s balancing unspilled milk, saying that for this moment, this peaceful moment in the country, life is balanced, it’s calm. Their bond (which must be strong after withstanding everything the two have gone through) is so great, and the moment that they’re in is so beautiful, that even the moon stood back in awe. The poem is really picturesque and imagist along with the theme of masculinity:
“A pail lifted, still and brimming—mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor”
The theme of masculinity versus femininity is continued with some of the imagery in Full Moon and Little Frieda. For example, the pail full of water is described as a “mirror”, an object which usually has feminine connotations. The full phrase has possible religious implications -“mirror/ To tempt a first star to tremor.” The specific use of the word “tempt” could suggest the temptation of Eve in The Bible. With the religious and nature imagery in both poems, this is not surprising. As Eve arguably caused the rift between mankind and nature, feminists would undoubtedly argue that Hughes is trying to blame women for this rift. However, I believe that Hughes is presenting us with the repair of the relationship between mankind and nature.
I think this is a crucial poem in the Hughes’ canon – one of his most arresting, strange, and moving. Central to Hughes’ poetic vision is the extraordinary strangeness, otherness, of nature, and the miracle of our complex response to it. And this poem presents that most directly. This is a tremendous moment, because Little Frieda is either responding to the moon or to the cows, and there’s no way of telling which. She’s just giving a response so human, so innocent, so touching, that it transforms everything, tying together the earth and the heavens, instinctively, naturally and miraculously. Frieda’s cry transforms and fulfils the whole scene. It is a miracle, a true miracle, by which humanity understands, recognizes and blesses this strange nature which is otherwise so alien.