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Hughes’s Creaturely Creatures
For Ted Hughes, ‘capturing animals and writing poems’ represent ‘different stages of the same fever’ (PM 15). He refers to writing poems as
‘hunts’ and his best as ‘prize catches’ (PM 20–1). Embedded in this is
intolerance for sanitising nature: his natural world insists on its blood
and guts. His ‘Hawk in the Rain’ will ‘mix his heart’s blood with the
mire of the land’ (CP 19), ‘Esther’s Tomcat’ ‘grallochs odd dogs on the
quiet’ (CP 67), when he takes the time to record a ‘View of a Pig’ he is
able to thump its dead body remorselessly (CP 75–6); even in Hughes’s
later poetry, where his vision of nature is often said to have transformed,
we still find the body of a new-born lamb beside its ‘hacked-off head’
(‘February 17th’, CP 519), a poem Hughes often repeated at readings to
dispel any trace of the bucolic among his audience. Why, then, we might
want to ask, should he be so traumatised by a burnt fox?
The answer is in one respect a simply one: the dead animals of his
poems are an imaginatively sympathetic portrayal of the ‘reality’ of nature;
the burnt fox of his dream represents an image of what rationalism can do
to the imagination. The key here is that imagination and nature are, for
Hughes, closely related—if not quite one and the same. His imaginative
work is in sympathy with what he perceives as nature. However, what if
the only reason the dream fox is burnt is because the dream work—in all
of its wisdom—recognises that imagination cannot bring to life a real fox,
that his poetic creatures are really maimed creatures?
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016
D. O’Connor, Ted Hughes and Trauma,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55792-6_2
Two of the most striking features of the burnt fox are its human hands
and voice: tools of poetry. There can be little doubt that Hughes intends
us to recognise the fox as the spirit of poetry. When he repeats this dream
to Keith Sagar he encourages the critic to locate in it the destructiveness
of ‘Leavis-style dismantling of texts’ (LTH 423), yet perhaps what he is
really revealing in repeating this dream (as he often would at poetry readings) is that all of his poetic creatures have stepped through the fire, that it
is impossible to bring a whole, uninjured fox into the mind and onto the
page, that every poem is printed with a bloody hand. Hughes’s creatures
are frustrated creatures. His imagination is traumatised by his inability to
keep captured animals alive. Furthermore, the fox is his poetic familiar;
Ted Hughes’s unwillingness to buy a fox on Chalk Farm Bridge and care
for it as part of his young family in ‘Epiphany’ is the moment at which
his marriage fails, since it cannot contain the ‘mannerless energy’ of both
the fox and the poetic energy it symbolises (CP 1117). As Neil Roberts
writes, ‘Throughout his work the fox is a kind of test of his personal and
poetic integrity’.1 Yet, in an essay where Hughes foregrounds his idea of
writing poetry and capturing animals as being related acts, the fox is an
animal Hughes ‘never succeeded in keeping alive’ (PM 19). ‘I was always
frustrated’ he writes of saving foxes; somehow, too, language always falls
short—which is exactly the message of the tyrant’s whisper of postwar
Hughes’s idea of humanity as divorced from nature (discussed in the
Introduction in relation to the Lacanian ‘split-subject’) is essential to our
understanding of the trauma of the burnt fox apropos of the poet’s verse
creatures. If the intellect destroys the mind’s creatures, then the imagination can ‘heal’ them; consequently, poetry offers a means of reconciling
the division between man and nature. Animals have a ‘certain wisdom’ for
Hughes, they ‘know something special’ (PM 15); he sees writing poems
about animals as a way of gaining this knowledge. However, we can get
a measure of how far this remains an intellectual pursuit by the way in
which he remembers collecting animal figures (something he mentions in
both Poetry in the Making and his Paris Review interview). Hughes had so
many of these lead animals that he claims, with a quaint touch of postwar
Yorkshire domesticity, ‘they went right round our flat-topped fender, nose
to tail, with some over’ (PM 15).2 He prized the accuracy of them; like his
poems, they are a simulacrum, but also something approaching a Platonic
Form, an idealised, completed version of the creature they represent—
beyond death by the virtue of being already finished, creatures that ‘will
live forever […] never suffer from hunger or hounds’ (PM 21). In reference to our supposed premature ancestor, Hughes suggests in ‘Baboons
and Neanderthals’ that ‘the inner world of symbols was intensified, gigantified, and almost supernaturalized by the deprivation of his having been
miscarried, only three-quarters finished, instead of born’ (167); his animals belong to this ‘inner world of symbols’ as a mechanism for compensating for these lost last three months: ‘intensified, gigantified and almost
supernaturalized’ by the lens of the ego. Where man is incomplete, animals offer a symbol of completeness; yet, Hughes offers them a respect
seemingly independent of their worth to man, even tentatively suggesting
that ‘wild animals’ ought to be given the ‘legal status of “fellow citizens”’
(LTH 691). His poems are a tossed coin before it is caught—heads and
tails concurrently: high-minded representations of what animal life means
to man, but more prominently recreations of the bloody, stinking things
themselves. However, the problem for Hughes is that one aspect tends to
destroy the other. If it is too animal it cannot be brought into words; if it
is too intellectual it loses the scent of the animal. In this delicate balance,
his poetry finds an appropriate medium for investigating the animal that
is man, which, of all of his zoo, is Hughes’s chief attraction. As such, his
nature poetry represents a complicated way of recapturing what Hughes
terms the ‘lost life’—humanity’s symbiotic relationship with nature.
We can recognise how poetry may re-capture the ‘lost life’ via the
Lacanian theories of Eric Santner and Slavoj Žižek. The way in which
Hughes uses animals in his poetry is echoed in Santner’s theory of the
‘creaturely’, which is an amalgam of the ideas of Lacan and Martin
Heidegger. Santner’s ‘creatureliness’ offers a counterpart to Hughes’s
‘being alive in the moment’—his idea of what it is to be an animal, and
how that being can found in the human mind. Santner defines ‘creatureliness’ as ‘an index of a traumatic kernel around which the “ego life” of the
other has, at some level, been (dis)organized.’3 Which is to say that ‘creatureliness’ is an uncanny reaction to the ultimately unknowable unconscious of the other—yet a reaction to it nonetheless. Another story in
the Hughes mythology finds him momentarily swapping consciousness
with a fox after a close encounter; it is was ‘this kind of experience’, Sagar
suggests, that Hughes ‘wanted from the natural world […] something so
other as to be totally sacred’.4 The sacred and the traumatic are not particularly distant in Hughes’s work, a world where the tiger ‘blesses with
a fang’ (‘Tiger-psalm’, CP 577–8). If this discussion of traumatic kernels
seems too wilfully theoretical for Hughes’s poetry, then Santner’s account
of ‘Openness’ in the work of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegy may
strengthen the bond (and also, in the process, demonstrate how Hughes
stands in relation to the German poet as a late Modernist). Rilke’s creatures look out into ‘the Open’, which is to say they do not categorise or
name like humans. In this regard, ‘Openness’ is similar to Lacan’s account
of the Real, although Rilke—with a dash of Romanticism not unrecognisable in Hughes’s work—views this consciousness as being occasionally
present in childhood. Santner adds gradations to Rilke’s vision, arguing
(as Hughes does) that different animals experience different levels of
‘openness’, or as Santner calls it, ‘creatureliness’, or Hughes, ‘being alive
in the moment.’ The theorist builds upon Heidegger’s proposition that
animals cannot perceive the significance (in a semiotic sense) of objects,
that they are always mystifying them, unlike man who is ‘world creating’
on account of his ability to perceive signification. Santner suggests that
where this ability fails, man becomes ‘creaturely’:
Where a piece of the human world presents itself as a surplus that both
demands and resists symbolization, that is both inside and outside the “symbolic order” […] that is where we find ourselves in the midst of “natural
history.” What I am calling creaturely life is a dimension of human existence
called into being at such natural historical fissures or caesuras in the space of
meaning. These are the sites of where the struggle for new meaning […] is
at its most intense.5
Hughes’s poetry deliberately attempts to push beyond symbolisation
into such ‘creaturely’ moments. It is often his tinge of Romanticism that
pitches his poems into the ‘creaturely’. Hughes’s obsession with poetry as
a form of truth finds his representations of nature straddling this boundary
between symbolisation and resistance. The natural world of his poetry is
both symbolic of man’s relationship with it, but also attempts to represent
it (be it, even) truthfully. In the Moortown Diary (1979) poem ‘Ravens’
(CP 517–8), for instance, we find the speaker being repeatedly asked by a
child whether a stillborn lamb cried; unwilling to mollify the child’s concern, the speaker eventually replies, ‘Oh yes […] it cried.’ Such care with
the truth is meant to add weight to the concluding vision of the poem,
that the dead lamb is ‘lucky’ to be born on a warm day where ‘The magpies [had] gone quiet with domestic happiness / And skylarks not worrying about anything’. Hughes’s poems often attempt to gull his readers
into believing the anthropomorphism to be truthful, rather than symbolic
or metaphorical. The poet refused to lie about the lamb ‘Born dead /
Twisted like a scarf,’ so why would he be deceitful about untroubled skylarks and happily married magpies? This is the poet as sage voice, informing us that nature is horrific and gentle at once. The dead lamb (not the
only one in Moortown Diary), as a counterbalance to the bucolic ending, is
intended to be real rather than symbolic, ‘Too deadly factual’ as he writes
of the dead creature in ‘A View of a Pig’. These are poems unlike the
main body of his writing, Hughes wants us to believe, since they are diary
entries, ways of ‘getting reasonably close to what is going on, staying close,
and of excluding everything else that might be pressing to interfere with
the watching eye’ (CP 1205). They exclude ‘the poetic process,’ according to the poet, implying that they reject anything that might sully their
honesty and lucidity. Furthermore, the dead lamb is a part of the human
world in that it was a human responsibility, ‘We should have been here, to
help it.’ Yet, this dead lamb demands symbolisation, and we ought to have
no doubt that it is poetry. The way in which Hughes piles on contrasting
similes suggests that it cannot quite be captured exactly, ‘Twisted like a
scarf’, its innards ‘pulled out / In straight lines, like tent ropes’, its ‘belly
opened like a lamb-wool slipper’. These seemingly benign, even humorous, comparisons simultaneously offer the demand and the resistance of
symbolisation. The flippancy of these comparisons even carries some of
the grim comedy that skims off the excess emotion produced by a death
by belittling the dead creature. It is a technique similar to that used much
earlier in his career in ‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’, where jaguar is likened
to ‘a thick Aztec disemboweller’, a ‘gangster’, ‘muttering some mantra,
some drum-song of murder’ spurred on by ‘Cain-brands’ and ‘rounding
some revenge’: all too human (CP 151–2). Hughes does not objectify his
animals, but renders them subjective; he writes in his Letters that ‘I have
never felt much interest in objective description writing for its own sake –
or writing about anything that I couldn’t regard as the “dramatisation” of
a purely internal psychodrama’ (LTH 622). In ‘Ravens’, then, we are not
asked to witness a simple description of a farming incident but an ‘internal
psychodrama’ externalised. The ‘Ravens’ of the title are the speaker and
child as much as the actual raven that ‘bundled itself into air’ at the start
of the poem; they occupy the space where the raven was (literally as well
as figuratively) and in doing so adopt some of the traits that characterise
Hughes’s outlook in Crow: they peer, investigate and find fascination in
dead creatures. What we are left with is a creaturely encounter as the lamb
symbolises the indiscriminate horror of death, but remains recalcitrant,
resistant to symbolisation all the same. Ultimately, since this is a poem
before us and not a dead lamb, ‘Ravens’ tends towards symbolisation; yet
the poem remains suggestive of what Santner refers to as ‘the mute ‘thingness’ of nature’.
It is this tension between demand and resistance that enlivens much
of Hughes’s animal poetry. Where Santner sees such demand and resistance as integral to ‘creatureliness’, Hughes’s contemporary Roland
Barthes offers a theory of its centrality to poetry. The ‘creaturely’ deadlock of Hughes’s poetry can be elucidated by Barthes’ model of ‘infrasignification’. ‘Infra-signification’, which appears in an essay published in
1957 when Hughes was finalising his first collection, is: ‘a pre-semiological
state of language […] [whose] ideal would be to reach not the meaning
of words, but the meaning of things themselves’.6 Barthes proceeds to
argue that poetry ‘stretches the link between signifier and signified’ in an
attempt to attain the ‘transcendent quality of the thing, its natural (not
human) meaning. Hence the essentialist ambitions of poetry, the conviction that it alone catches the thing in itself, inasmuch, precisely, as it wants
to be anti-language’ (‘Myth Today’ 158). This, he argues, is typified by
an ‘apparent lack of order of signs’ that conversely reasserts ‘the poetic
facet of an essential order […] transformed into an empty signifier, which
will serve to signify poetry’ (‘Myth Today’ 159). Thus, the less semiologically structured poetry attempts to be, the more it submits itself to
semiology. This returns us to the essential theoretical (as well as structural)
dichotomy of Hughes’s poetry: his attempt to overreach the difficulties of
‘free intelligence’ reasserts ‘free intelligence’, just as any attempt at ‘infrasignification’ reasserts the textual/linguistic nature of his work.
For example, this is the dichotomy of ‘The Bull Moses’ (CP 74–5),
where the poem wants us to believe that it elucidates the ‘Beyond star’
darkness of the bull’s mind, yet is aware that ‘nothing of our light / Found
any reflection in him’, no matter how much the poet shouts and waves.
What Hughes is doing here is not revealing to his readers the inner mind
of a bull through his words, but expanding the range of poetry, finding a
language capable of conveying the idea of the stillness of this bull’s mind.
This may seem like a rather excessively punctilious point to make, but the
challenge of rediscovering nature is one that Hughes takes very seriously;
there is a note of resignation in the final line of ‘The Bull Moses’, where
the speaker, having opened the door for the bull to pass back into his pen,
‘Closed it after him and pushed the bolt.’ The poem is only another way of
imprisoning the bull, rather than joining it; the poet remains always on the
other side of the gate. Pointing out the use of the gate as a metaphor is to
risk rendering it rather more banal than it actually is: the poem closes after
the bull and insists on its own separateness, and in doing so taps into a deep
root of Hughes’s poetry—this deadlock as to what poetry can achieve. Part
of the traumatic identity of the imaginary creature is that it always remains
other, in spite of the fact that it arises from the poet’s own mind. In this
regard, Hughes’s project is similar to that of his hero’s, D. H. Lawrence,
in that it is aimed at expanding the range of expression of the unconscious;
his unique knot is that whilst animals provide a correlative symbolism, he
also attempts to convey them—as Barthes writes—as the thing in itself.
Joanny Moulin likewise offers this comparison between Hughes and
Barthes; for Moulin, Hughes’s poetry is not simply concerned with infrasignification, but also with what Barthes calls ‘ultra-signification’, which
we may recognise more readily as ‘myth’.7 Barthes’ argument is that
where ‘infra-signification’ sees the poet attempting to tie language back
to ‘the thing itself’, ‘ultra-signification’ or ‘myth’ finds the mythologiser
happy to amplify a pre-existing, primary language. Hughes’s definition
of myth is similar to Barthes’s in that he too considers it as the ur-text of
any culture; he refers to it as a ‘picture language’ that both ‘embodies’
and ‘makes accessible to casual reference the deeper shared understandings which keep us intact as a group’—in other words, a set of signs.8
Moulin argues that Hughes’s poetry operates on both levels (ultra- and
infra-signification)—equally, at its best. This, however, is complicated by
Moulin’s claim that Hughes’s poetry has no awareness of the arbitrariness
of language, that ‘for him […] the concept of the signifier does not make
any sense’: see ‘Crow Goes Hunting’ for evidence to the contrary. If we
refuse to accept that Hughes acknowledges some distance between signifier and signified, then it is difficult to concur with Moulin’s conclusion
that his ‘mythic’ poetry operates on the level of the unconscious, since the
split between conscious and unconscious predicates the gap between signifier and signified. References to Hughes’s ‘mytho-poetics’ also tend to
occlude any clear-sighted consideration of what, if any, mythical incidents
there are in the poet’s work, gesturing towards an ineffable spiritual plain.
If, however, by myth we mean a shared language (which is, incidentally,
how both Hughes and Barthes consider it), then his animals, for instance,
are not mythic because they offer vatic insight into our spiritual destiny,
but because we can recognise something human, or at least something of
our culture, in the condition of his poetic animals. Fixing these insights
in animal form makes a totem of them, attempts to render them as a
universal condition in the shape of a bull or a pike or a fox. The ‘special knowledge’ of his creatures lies in anthropomorphism, which draws
us back into the question of signification. Or rather, the particular deadlock of signification that enlivens Hughes’s poetry: if an animal can tell us
something specific about the human condition, yet is resolutely not part
of the human (cultural) sphere, how can the poet bridge this gap using a
uniquely human tool without producing a maimed, charred creature?
Hughes’s poems are, of course, designed to offer this irresolute meeting
of animal and man. So where a hawk may fulfil its instinctual urges, however hawkishly the poet attempts to think in ‘Hawk Roosting’ he comes
up against the inability to write the consciousness of hawk in the way that,
for instance, James Joyce conveys the mind of Leopold and Molly Bloom
in Ulysses. Yet, far from being a failure, this is when the poems express
‘new meaning’, as Santner writes. Discussing W. G. Sebald, the theorist
observes that:
we get a glimpse of creaturely life not by seeing or imagining animals in ‘the
open’ but by observing them in various states of disorientation (these are,
we might say, animals whose instincts have mutated into drives). What I
have been calling creaturely life, then, does indeed mark our resemblance to
animals, but precisely to animals who have themselves been thrown off the
rails of their nature. (On Creaturely Life 144)
Perhaps we might conclude that ‘thrown off the rails of its nature’ is a
perfectly apposite description for the trauma of Hughes’s burnt fox—it is
traumatic precisely because it is more creaturely than creature. Likewise,
this is how Hughes’s poetic animals appear when language fails to create them as animals ‘in the open’; they are representations of ‘creaturely
life’ because his animals are ‘captured’ by human thought with the same,
disorientating consequences as those of animals removed from their natural territory. Hughes’s animals are ‘thrown off the rails of their nature’
because they are converted into language, made human. He cannot portray instinct through his animals; he can, however, find a human correlative for his idealised, animalistic ‘being alive in the moment’ through the
singular will of his ‘creaturely’ animals.
Which returns us to his burnt fox: here we have a perfect example of
‘creatureliness’—an animal ‘thrown off the rails of [its] nature’. Burnt,
upright, with human hands and human voice, it is nothing if not disoriented; and it stands as the patron saint of Hughes’s poetic animals.
In it, we have a perfect example of ‘an index of a traumatic kernel around
which the “ego life” of the other has, at some level, been (dis)organized.’
It is a neighbour, an other, that makes an ethical demand: ‘Stop this—you
are destroying us.’ The challenge, which Hughes perceived in shamanic
terms, is to bring the animal safely into being. Perhaps what the ‘Burnt
Fox’ suggests is that it is not literary criticism that summons injured animals, but literature itself.
The ‘creaturely’ deadlock of Hughes’s work is most evident in the poems
where language can be seen to be struggling to comprehend its subject:
for Hughes’s animal poems this is where the poem is composed in the
knowledge that it is moving towards both ‘unconscious’ ineffability of
what the animal represents in the human mind and the ineffability of finding a wholly appropriate language for nature. This tension is not merely
a subject or theme in his poetry, but inherent in the very act of writing
poems. Accordingly, capturing animals and writing poems are, for Hughes,
‘different stages of the same fever’, a fever of capturing the ‘vivid life of
their own’ (PM 15). In both instances, it is a case of bringing something
from outside the control of the ego into its realm, whilst retaining the vital
‘life’ that cannot be added or reduced without ‘maiming and perhaps even
killing them’ (PM 15).
It is important, however, to consider this ‘life’ as not physically exterior
but consciously exterior. The poems have a ‘life of their own’ because, like
their animal subjects, they conceal as much as they reveal; they are a negotiation between what is and what cannot be said, between conscious and
unconscious. They are, in one sense, not about animals but are, as Hughes
says, a ‘kind of animal’ themselves: created out of the tension between
expression and the ineffability of the interior ‘vivid life’, what Hughes
refers to as ‘a perfect awareness of being alive in the moment’. The inability of expression is the ‘creaturely’ moment at the heart of these poems.
It is out of its ‘creatureliness’ that ‘The Thought-Fox’ (CP 21) seems
like the archetypal Hughes poem. Hughes claimed that ‘There is a sense
in which every poem that comes off is a description or a dramatization of
its own creation’; such a statement serves as a reminder of how much the
poet has in common with the thinkers such as Barthes that he dismissed,
and this is clearly the case in ‘The Thought-Fox’. Such is his insistence
on the liveliness of the poetic ‘moment’ that his account of the genesis of
‘The Thought-Fox’ in Poetry in the Making avoids any reference to the
burnt fox dream, referring instead to the ‘snowy night in dreary lodgings in London’ that incubated the poem (PM 19). In the way in which
the printed page of the final line is infolded with the fox’s ‘neat prints’
set into the blank page of the snow, the way in which the fox emerges
from the forest of the poet’s imagination and ‘[re-]enters the dark hole of
the head’, ‘The Thought-Fox’ embodies the friction between exterior and
interior that creates the ‘creaturely’ moments of Hughes’s work. Though
he refrains from disturbing his theory of the poetic moment in Poetry in
the Making, he would mention the fox dream as an imaginative source in
his public readings of the poem. Appositely, since as a ‘creaturely’ moment
the poem restages the progress of the ‘Burnt Fox’ dream, recalling its
emergence from another ‘dark hole of the head’ and bloody hand print
onto a different page. Set side by side, ‘The Thought-Fox’ appears as
a lucky charm to counteract any lingering negativity inculcated by the
dream; yet, the poem is far from a clear affirmation of Hughes’s intent
to create ‘living’ creatures in poetry where his dream conjured an injured
one. It is, nonetheless, a perfect example of how he attempted to do so.
Of course, although like much of his early work it is tighter than the bulk
of his oeuvre, many of the technical and thematic hallmarks of his poetry
are also present, noticeably the alliterative music of his lines: ‘I imagine
this midnight’s moment’s forest’. Nonetheless, it is his treatment of his
animal subject that renders this poem so distinctly Hughesian. He writes
of his fox that ‘It is both a fox and a spirit […] the words have made a
body for it and given it somewhere to walk’ (PM 20). Perhaps reflecting on the spectral presence of his creatures and deliberately mixing his
stinks, he claims to be able to ‘conjure a jaguar’ in which the Movement
poets smell ‘a stormtrooper’. ‘The Thought-Fox’ even scents a line from
Christopher Marlowe’s arch-conjuror Dr Faustus: ‘The stars move still;
time runs; the clock will strike’ (V.ii.67) to Hughes’s ‘The window is starless still; the clock ticks / The page is printed.’9 Hughes delights in the
darker art of poetry, constructing a persona as potentially dangerous or
transgressive poet. Yet, if the echo of Marlowe is deliberate, it is wise, since
both lines acknowledge the limits of their powers: Faustus cannot stop
time, Hughes must re-enter the ‘human’ world. If we accept the version
of events that Hughes would offer when reading ‘The Thought-Fox’ later
in his career where the dream of the burnt fox is integral, it is notably
absent from his account of its genesis in Poetry in the Making. In the earlier account he remains to a small extent in the shadow of the Movement
poets, more of a technician than the later, shamanic version himself that
would become his public face.
Discussing his early animal poems, such as ‘The Thought-Fox’, he writes
that these poems do not ‘have anything you could easily call a meaning’
(PM 20)—perhaps, he is inviting us to infer, in the same way that a real fox
cannot be said to occupy meaning. In one sense, what Hughes is claiming
for his poem is that it resists symbolisation, that the network of words have
brought it to life, that the poem is not attempting to signify anything but
simply is, that it is in other words ‘a thing in itself.’ Barthes’ criticism of
the circularity of poetic ‘infra-signification’ applies here, and this becomes
the standard model for the Hughes poem. As Simon Armitage writes: ‘He
made little black marks against clean white pages that somehow detailed
the absolute matter and manner of a bird or an eel or a foal or a wolf or a
bear.’10 It is a duality that Alex Davis evocatively captures where he refers
to ‘The Thought-Fox’ as a ‘paper being’.11
If Hughes’s fox can be said to ‘exist’ it does so because of the tension
between its existence and non-existence. The foregrounding of imagination, ‘I Imagine’, insists upon the poem’s mediating role between unconscious and conscious. The fox as ‘thought’ is posited as having an existence
that is only partially realised through language. Hughes writes that:
If at the time of writing this poem, I had found livelier words, words that
could give me much more vividly its movements […] the fox would probably be even more and alive to me now, that is as I read the poem. (PM 20)
Nonetheless, the fox’s arrival is specifically set in contrast to the ego’s
world: its lonely clock and ‘blank page’. The ‘blank page’, which becomes
‘printed’ with the imaginary fox-paws and the poem itself, is the medium
through which both ego and unconscious can simultaneously (and contradictorily) exist. Hence, the poem itself becomes this medium as the
printed page (‘little black marks against clean white pages’): a resolution
between ego and unconscious. It demands an acknowledged suspension
of disbelief in order for the fox to emerge from the dark that is both the
night and the imaginative mind. It is this foregrounding of imagination
that makes ‘The Thought-Fox’ such an original poem, as well as being a
template for what Hughes tries to achieve through his animal and landscape poetry. His concern with what he calls the ‘lost life’, of the emergence of nature from culture, distinguishes his poetry of ‘nature’ from
that of other poets. A more prominent distinction can be made, however,
in what Armitage calls his ‘magic’ ability to detail the ‘matter and manner’
of his animal subjects (xiv).
To return to the poem then, without the ego’s permission, no fox exists;
yet the imaginary fox also appears to insist upon its existence: ‘Something
else is alive’. Imagination has called it into being, and yet the fox appears
to arrive of its own volition. Neil Roberts appositely observes that ‘Hughes
does everything possible to suggest that the agency of creating the poem
has passed from the speaker to the fox’; but if we consider the fox to be
a part of the speaker, then the agency of creation is shared by both the
speaker’s ego and unconscious.12 If the fox is moving towards the speaker
from his unconscious, then the speaker is likewise moving towards the fox.
This is structurally fundamental to the poem as the fox becomes increasingly apparent, from ‘something else’ to ‘something more near’ to its facial
features, its prints, then its body and shadow, and then one eye that is a
‘widening deepening greenness’, as synecdoche, conveys the whole fox’s
approach and entrance into the ‘dark hole of the head’. All of this is contained in a single sentence, predominantly structured by a series of colons,
with each colon representing the start of a new phase in getting closer to the
emerging fox. Every section is a further stage in a mise en abyme, as if the
speaker were digging through psychological strata to reach an immutable
being, symbolised by Hughes’s ahistorical animals: ‘creaturely’ moments.
The ‘clock’s loneliness’ returns us to the essential challenge of ‘Baboons
and Neanderthals’: it is emblematic of loneliness because it is, almost metonymically, symbolic of man’s ineluctably subjective loneliness. Indeed,
‘loneliness’ is an important word in Hughesian man/animal relations, and
likewise apropos of language, since the trauma of both is one, in part,
of isolation. In ‘The Horses’ (CP 22) this complex is neatly captured in
the reflexivity of the line ‘May I still meet my memory in so lonely a
place’, since it can refer to both the rural stop where the poet witnessed
the horses and also the ‘din of the crowded streets’. In both instances
this is a trauma of communication: there is no language to with which to
communicate with the horses, ‘Grey silent fragments // Of a grey silent
world’; likewise there is opportunity in the city to enjoy whatever the rural
encounter afforded the poet. Perhaps we could even go as far as to suggest (tentatively, you may have noticed) that the trauma of semiology that
underpins so much of twentieth-century theory is one of communication,
of its failure—of otherness, animals being the ultimate representation of
which in Hughes’s work. The clock of ‘The Thought-Fox’ is a little clichéd as such an existential prop, but it is nonetheless an acknowledgement
of time and finite existence separating man further from animals. The fox
is undoubtedly ‘alive in the moment’, its animal existence measured in a
series of nows, contrasting the human sense of reflection that traces its
presence in the past-tense of the ‘printed’ page. It is a suspension of time
in the ‘midnight moment’s forest’ (the witching hour): it opens a spatial
landscape from a temporal frame, just as the fox’s existence is marked spatially through movement rather than through time. The poem is a clash
of finite and infinite, between ego and unconscious. What is especially
revealing about ‘The Thought-Fox’ as an archetype for Hughes’s poems is
the way in which the fox is projected (‘I imagine this midnight moment’s
forest’) and then returns to the ‘dark hole of the head’; the poetry’s relationship with its creatures is reciprocal, as they open space for it and it
opens space for them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Hughes’s fishing poems. One
might think that the kind of sympathetic mind that reels from the dreaming vision of a charred fox might baulk at the sight of a fish hauled up from
its natural habitat by a hook and struggling with all that remains of its life
to return; not so. In fact, fishing represents for Hughes the very opposite
of trauma. Questioned by Terry Gifford as to how he can ethically justify
his penchant for fishing, Hughes mounts the soapbox and replies:
When I want to kill and eat a salmon I sink myself up to the fontanelle in
evolution’s mutual predation system within which every cell has been fashioned and tap it on the head knowing that at least it is not […] dangling for
a day on a long line or cut to ribbons in a gill net or hauled out en masse to
die of suffocation under a heap of its own juveniles. (LTH 658–60)
Perhaps if we are to accuse Hughes of inconsistency it is in not butchering his own meat (though he did once punch a pig), as this view at least
coheres with his idea of man not being entirely separated from nature,
still maintaining some tangible contact with what we could describe as
the sporting element of the food-chain that defines ‘mutual predation.’
In fact, this is exactly the same approach Hughes takes to poetry: it is a
mitigation of culture through culture. Fishing, then, is a metaphor for
poetry that Hughes readily adopts; like ‘The Thought-Fox’, ‘Go Fishing’
(CP 652) offers a similar ars poetica for the second half of Hughes’s career.
The present tense of the poem instructs the reader to ‘Join water, wade
in underbeing’ as the fisherman does, to ‘Lose words’ and be ‘assumed’
into the river as a cure for ‘creation’. This act of dissolution continues,
with the invocation to become as limpid as the water on a journey towards
rebirth: to ‘crawl’ back to a world that is ‘nameless’, to find a sense of
bodily coherence; finally to ‘Try to speak and nearly succeed’. The trouble
is, as Hughes writes in a letter, that ‘angling, (like farming) is absolutely
non-verbal […] it becomes physically difficult to recover any freedom
of language for quite a while.’13 Like the fox that emerges boldly into
words but is nervous enough to leave the actual fox behind, ‘Go Fishing’
acknowledges that something of this experience cannot be translated, that
the speech of a poem can only ‘nearly succeed’. All of Hughes’s linguistic
hallmarks are evident: the hyphenated compounds, the usual alliteration
and assonance such as ‘the soft sun shock’, and his fine vowel music in
phrases such as ‘wade in underbeing’. The fluvial music of the poem is
technically impeccable, each phrase mirroring the suggested condition.
The deliquescence of the appeal to become a ‘drift / Of water-mesh’, for
instance, is wonderfully captured, slung with long vowels where ‘drift’
floats across the line-break. Yet these, as Barthes would argue, serve to
reassert the poeticism of the language.
Like darkness, water serves as a useful metaphorical border between the
human and animal worlds for Hughes. To bring an aquatic creature out of
water is to find it in a decidedly ‘creaturely’ state. Yet, as ‘Go Fishing’ suggests, this is also a site of exchange: where the fish becomes ‘creaturely’, in
Santner’s sense, the poet becomes creaturely in the sense that he becomes
‘alive in the moment’, attuned to nature (it is in this overlap that we can
see how Santner’s and Hughes’s ideas cohere). The fisherman poet is,
then, like the otter who ‘belongs // In double robbery and concealment’,
being of neither land nor water but of the space between a stanza break,
the space between two rooms (CP 79–80). Much like a poet, ‘He keeps
fat in the limpid integument // Reflections live on’, existing elsewhere.
Yet, as vitalised as Hughes portrays his liminal creature, he cannot allow
it to survive, to succeed in outrunning the hunt; it ‘reverts to nothing
at all, / To this long pelt over the back of a chair.’ The pelt is a tangible
remainder of an imagined otter, hence ‘this long pelt’ and ‘An Otter’. If
the poem reconciles the difference between the two, it is only in acknowledging that the otter dies as soon as it becomes a cultural artefact, that it
has to maintain its amphibious, border-crossing life in order to offer some
sense of ‘being alive in the moment’. This is often the case with Hughes’s
poems—whatever counteraction the poem offers to the trauma of the split
subject ends in the poem itself. In ‘The Thought-Fox’ the creature shifts
from the present tense (a series of ‘nows’) to the past tense, ‘The page is
printed’; in ‘Go Fishing’ the experience cannot be properly translated—
the end of the poem suggests that the poem itself is a failure of expression,
that it nearly succeeds.
Fishing and writing were dangerously close activities for Hughes’s poetic
career, since he felt fishing to be ‘a substitute symbolic activity that shortcircuits the need to write’, as he says to Anne Stevenson in the Autumn of
1986: ‘the whole motive of writing finds perfect and satisfying expression
in fishing’ (LTH 521–2). What both fishing and writing poetry offer is an
encounter with the lost life, a frisson with the Real, that finish with a completed artefact: dead fish and poems. The two, perhaps, are not so different, and I am willing to wager that although Hughes enjoyed eating fish
and reading poems, he gained more from fishing and writing poetry. The
experience of the hunter—since he conceives of writing as a correlative to
hunting—is closer to the ‘lost life’ than that of the consumer. This is part
of the reason why ‘Pike’ (CP 84–6) ends on a cliffhanger, as whatever it
is that is freed by the ‘Darkness beneath night’s darkness’ rises towards
the poet, ‘watching’—it is the moment of live contact that appeals. Here,
again, we find the same tension as Hughes tries to document ‘perfect /
Pike in all parts,’ only to be forced by limits of language to move from
accurate description into something else—imaginary pike ‘too immense to
stir’. ‘Pike’ is explicit about this idea of fishing as a metaphor for poetry,
where poetry is a raid on the unconscious. The metaphorical fishing in
‘Pike’ short-circuits the semiological order by presenting the imagined
pike as real pike, imagined. In other words, the ‘real’ (unseen) pike of the
pond are what Barthes calls ‘the thing in itself’, by being repositioned in
the poem as somehow both imaginary and real. The knot is inextricable:
the pike are real insofar as they are believed to be (imagined as) living
in the pond, and they are imagined insofar as they are a real experience
‘silently cast and fished / With the hair frozen on my head’. This dualism
is neatly contained in the pun on ‘eye’ (as with ‘The Hawk in the Rain’):
‘for what eye might move’ is both the imaginary eye of the fish in the pond
and the ‘I’ of the narrator who ‘fishes’ himself from ‘the darkness beneath
night’s darkness’, in other words, from the unconscious. The pun offers
internal and external simultaneously, finding the outer world of the ‘eye’
mirrored in the poet’s inner world. Fishing the imaginary pike of the end
of the poem is, then, a frustrated act of symbolic contact with this ‘primordial’ self—a ‘creaturely’ moment. Once again we encounter an animal
that demands and resists representation, that seems recalcitrant to poetry,
attempting to evade language, and yet can be nothing else.
To return to the original question as to why Hughes is so perturbed by
the manifestation of this burnt fox, we can see how it offers a paradigm
of writing about animals that operates in his poetry, and even threatens
his poetry. His poems bring creatures out of their natural habitat in order
to investigate them in a move that parallels the Freudian process—these
are apparitions of the unconscious. However, to bring a fox out of a dark
wood or a fish out of a river is to render it ‘creaturely.’ It is a clash of culture
and nature, the return of the repressed. The ‘burnt fox’ is traumatised by
stepping into the world of Pembroke College, a cultured world where its
wildness does not belong (or so the principle goes). In this way, Hughes
is very much part of the current of his time. If a fish is caught from the
unconscious, it is a monstrous pike; if a symptom is recognised to reveal an
unconscious desire, it is the monstrous desire to kill your father or some
other shame of the id. Indeed, this is exactly the claim Hughes makes in
declaring himself to have ‘opened negotiations with whatever happened
to be out there,’ once again utilising the external metaphor (forest, river)
to represent the internal (unconscious).14 What haunts Hughes’s poetry
is the fear that any inward glance will uncover ‘an animal crawling and
decomposing in a hell’—the urgent effort of Hughes’s animal poems is
to rescue this creature by finding correlatives in pike and otters, bulls and
foxes. Freud’s interest in trauma, which set the tone for theory over the
next century, is reflected in Hughes’s poetry—albeit the social, anthropological Freud of Totem and Taboo rather than the Freud of private trauma.
We can see how central the trauma of the id is where Žižek writes apropos
of Lacan’s maxim that the unconscious is structured like a language:
The unconscious is not the preserve of the wild drives that have to be tamed
by the ego, but the site where a traumatic truth speaks out. Therein lies
Lacan’s version of Freud’s motto Wo es war, soll ich werden (Where it was,
I am to become): not ‘The ego should conquer the id’, the site of the
unconscious drives, but ‘I should dare to approach the site of my truth.’
What awaits me ‘there’ is not a deep Truth that I have to identify with, but
an unbearable truth I have to live with.15
The burnt fox is not to be tamed, but to be lived with. Yet, as ‘Epiphany’
(CP 1116) asks of the fox cub offered up for domesticity for a pound on
Chalk Farm Bridge: ‘What would we do with an unpredictable / Powerful,
bounding fox?’
1. Neil Roberts, ‘Ted Hughes’s Fox’, paper given at The Second Ted
Hughes Weekend, Doonreagan, Ireland (12/7/14).
2. ‘My earliest memories are of the lead animal toys you could buy in
those days, wonderfully accurate models. Throughout my childhood I
collected these.’ Interview with Drue Heinz, ‘Ted Hughes: The art of
poetry LXXI’, The Paris Review, Spring 1995, vol. 37, issue 4: 55–94,
accessed at [16/7/14].
3. Eric L. Santner, On Creaturely Life (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2006): xiii.
4. See The Laughter of Foxes: 42.
5. On Creaturely Life: xv.
6. Roland Barthes, ‘Myth Today’ in Mythologies, (trans.) Annette Lavers,
new edn. (London: Vintage, 2009): 131–87; 158.
7. Joanny Moulin, ‘Hughes with Barthes: Myth-Poetic Icons’,
Symposium Paper – Contribution to the E. S. S. E. Conference in
Glasgow September 1995, accessed at
8. Ted Hughes, ‘Myths, Metres, Rhythms’ in WP: 310–72; 310.
9. Christopher Marlowe, Dr Faustus (A-text), David Bevington and Eric
Rasmussen (eds.), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998): 181.
10. Ted Hughes: Poems Selected by Simon Armitage (London: Faber and
Faber, 2000): xiv-xv.
11. Alex Davis, ‘Hughes and Post-Modernism’ in New Casebooks: Ted
Hughes, ed. Terry Gifford (London: Palgrave, 2015): 25–39; 28.
12. Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (London: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2006): 21.
13. Letter to Karl Miller, 11 June 1980, shortly before a fishing trip to
Alaska that informed parts of River, LTH: 433.
14. ‘Ted Hughes and Crow’ (1970), interview with Ekbert Faas in The
Unaccommodated Universe: 197–208; 201.
15. Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan: 3.
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