I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
Ted Hughes (1930 - 1998)
This poem was included in ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ publication (1957) which brought prominence to Ted Hughes as a poet.
Animals, especially a fox, were significant to Ted Hughes. As a boy he spent many hours with his older brother hunting and shooting animals. When he was preparing an essay late at night he fell asleep and had a dream involving a fox.
This is how he described that moment – ‘the door opened, and a creature came in with a fox’s head and a long skinny fox’s body – but erect and with huge hands. He had escaped from a fire – the smell of burning hair was strong and his skin was charred and in places cracking, bleeding freshly through the splits. He came across. and set his hand on the page and said “Stop this. You are destroying us.” He lifted his hand away and the blood-print stayed on the page. The hands, in particular, were terribly burnt.’
Hughes listened to this dream and immediately stopped writing ‘teacher-pleasing’ essays. In a way this poem is a partial recollection of that fox dream. He clearly states the nature of the creative process. The fact that a poem cannot be summoned or controlled but awaits the arrival of the words from the forest of the mind. And when Hughes gave a talk, he compared the writing of his poetry to the capture of animals.
Looking at each stanza …
S1 … The midnight dark is equated to his imagination, this is equated to his mind as he processes his thoughts. Thoughts are the initial keys to the creative work. They are alive and he is searching through the forest for something. There is little else happening apart from the lonely tick of a clock. And the blank page awaits. Well, you do need full focus and time to yourself to release that internal creativity.
S2 … Through the window of his mind something is happening. There is a stirring albeit of an imperceptible intuitive feeling within. The fox or the words are about to break into the loneliness. When TH was writing these words his dream above must have come alive again.
S3 … What is this animal? That is the question – what is this poem that is being formed? It comes out of the cold slowly making movement. The touches twig, leaf mirrors the soft pad of the paws. And the fox’s nose touches snow or should we say the blank paper is touched with its invisible inking. From his thought the words will eventuate. But there is much repetition in this creative process as seen in the repetition in the last line of the stanza. And the ‘eyes seeing’ can be likened to his mind in realising the full extent of his creative thought. Seeing or expanding what he wanted to convey.
S4 … And then there are prints in the snow. There are actual words on the blank sheet. And something bold takes place. A poet must be bold and address the wild nature of the animal.
S5 … Out of the black dark of night there is a greenness. Green indicating growth in the materialisation of the poem. And it is coming out of its own business. The visitation of this animal, this poem, has now to be articulated in the form of transference to words. A poet tries to capture such visitations when they occur. And if they occur at night while in darkness and in bed, the morning light often dissolves the once promising thoughts.
S6 … This hot stink creative happening occurs. It indicates something dramatic and something immediate, something impressive hopefully. There is a sense of completion – the page is printed. The initial wording often takes much work in finalisation.
Later in his life, in 1960, a fox cub came into his life. At the time he was still in his marriage with Sylvia Plath. He was walking in London over Chalk Farm Bridge when he saw a young man with a fox cub under his coat. The man had brought it into the city to sell. TH could have bought it for a pound but there was no place for it in the home. In fact, Sylvia had recently given birth to their daughter Freida.
The last lines from the poem Epiphany in Birthday Letters (1998), where this event is described, show the difficulties at that time in blending his domestic family life with that of creative writing as a poet.
If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox
Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage –
I would not have failed the test. Would you have failed it?
But I failed. Our marriage had failed.
Epiphany – a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization.
In these lines a fox can be equated to many other activities that are compromised in relationships – would you have failed it?