Torn Richness – the Poetry of Ted Hughes 1

This is a first slightly edited extract from a talk I gave in Padiham Unitarian Chapel on the 9th June 2018 as part of a celebration of the writing of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. It focuses on “The Thought-Fox”, which you can find here.
You can link to a video of Theresa Sowerby’s talk on Sylvia Plath here and to my talk on Hughes here .


In Poetry in the Making Hughes compares his love of capturing animals as a child with the writing of poetry. He says

Maybe my concern has been to capture not animals particularly and not poems, but simply things which have a vivid life of their own outside mine.

In the first poem I want to read, Hughes presents himself almost purely as medium, as experiencing an encounter with something living outside himself. “The Thought-Fox”, from his first collection. In it, he presents poetic creation as the drama of a mysterious encounter in a place of strangeness and adventure like the forests of medieval romances.

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest.
Something else is alive

There’s something almost magical about the way he makes us feel that this drama will be important before we get to it. He speaks slowly, as if in a raptly attentive trance. Repetition of the “m” sound combines softness with insistence. By drawing us into this very focused state of mind Hughes heightens the impact of the sensuous particulars when they do come. He makes the reader experience something like the way the writer feels the presence of the poetic idea before seeing it at all clearly.

Suddenly, in stanza three, clear perceptions replace the sixth sense awareness of a mysterious presence. Hughes uses simple words but they spring a series of surprises in the way they come together, making us imagine the fox from quickly changing angles. One of the biggest surprises is the way we feel it by touch before we see it with our eyes. In real life it would be the other way round in almost all imaginable circumstances, but this is a thought-fox dawning in our minds, not a fox physically seen in the outside world.

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf

It’s as if we’ve become the twigs and leaves of the forest, feeling the nose in the same way as they’ve been feeling the soft wet flakes of snow. What makes the impression so vivid is the rhythm. Because of the way adjacent stressed syllables push apart from each other there are tiny pauses between “cold” and “delicately”, “dark” and “snow”, “nose” and “touches”, “twig” and “leaf”. When you speak the poem aloud you’re particularly aware of these pauses, experiencing them as marked adjustments in the muscles of mouth and tongue. They create an equivalent of the sensitive touching and withdrawing of the fox’s explorations in our own bodies. With “Warily a lame / shadow lags by stump and in hollow” I think there’s a kind of shimmering between imagining things from the viewpoint of the fox, on the one hand, and seeing the fox as an external object on the other. When the creature comes completely into focus with its “sharp hot stink of fox” it seems disturbingly alien, and that adds to the sense of it as something that, in Hughes’s words, has a vivid life of its own outside his life.





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