The Hawk in the Rain – Ted Hughes – Analysis

Looking in detail at one of Ted Hughes’ most famous poemsThe Hawk in the Rain – Ted Hughes (from The Hawk in the Rain 1957)

A line-by-line progressive commentary …

Hawk and Rain are the two operative words in the title.

I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up

I can imagine Ted Hughes walking along the edge of a ploughed field in Yorkshire on a rain filled day. The nature of the rain is clearly stated by the two alliterative words drown and drumming. It is heavy – enough to drown and persistent and dominating as the continual sound of a drum. There is no tin roof sound, but we don’t know what noise is being made against the clothing Ted might be wearing. There is a nice pause after I drag up, enjambment text, text which must flow on to the next line … to be continued … as the rain continues. It gives us time to absorb the on-going background to the poem.

Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth's mouth,

We now have a picture of movement, of difficulty in walking and the earth becomes a mouth swallowing, what it is exactly swallowing besides water is not known at this stage.

From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk

It is now quite clear that the sodden ground is engulfing Ted. The alliterative clutching clay gives personification to the earth. If you say these two words it has a sticky feel and my each has an awkward construct.

Ted now extends his thoughts to the grave and the ground that will inevitably conquer him. The earth has this habit of taking or absorbing people. But the hawk … again we have enjambment text which must continue, this time to the text of the second stanza.

Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,

Eye and height define the hawk. In great contrast to Ted who has been focusing on the ground. The hawk has the entire world below him and moreover it is effortless for him to hover in adverse conditions. His eye is still in contrast to the wind and rain.

Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges,

We do not know what has drawn Ted to look at the sky but in doing so we sense a degree of envy for the Hawk while the wind destroys below. By choosing hallucination Ted wonders whether this is real and whether the hawk can resist nature in this way.

Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,
And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs,

Emphasis is given to what is happening at Ted’s level, the wind and the rain taking on the dimension of a murderer, and then he returns his vision to the hawk. We must wait after hangs to go to the next line.

The diamond point of will that polestars
The sea drowner's endurance: And I,

The ability of the hawk to withstand the weather is emphasised by taking the diamond shape confronting the wind and that diamonds are used for cutting. Polestars is a wonderful choice of word it gives eye to the sky and the polestar is a guide and safety symbol. It is used as a verb giving action to the scene. The weather is such that anyone caught at sea is likely to have a most unpleasant time. Then returning to Ted’s predicament, the stanza ends with another pause. It is though the background rain continually interrupts.

Bloodily grabbed dazed last-moment-counting
Morsel in the earth's mouth, strain to the master- 
Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still. 
That maybe in his own time meets the weather

The stanza splits in two again between the hawk and Ted. Ted is about to be devoured akin to the hawk devouring a morsel from the ground. The key word in this stanza is master fulcrum. Fulcrum – the support, or point of rest, on which a lever turns in moving a body.

In the last line consideration is given to the mortality of the hawk and a question is started with a pause at the end of the stanza.

Coming the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside-down, 
Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him, 
The horizon trap him; the round angelic eye 
Smashed, mix his heart's blood with the mire of the land.

In time the hawk will be caught by nature and meet the same fate and the earth will conquer. The ponderous shires crash on him. This bottom-up expression gives strength to the power of the earth to greet the fate of the hawk. Note how this links to the wrong way in the first line.

The angelic eye shows the beauty of the hawk and gives religious tones as of the falling of an angel – even the most perfect of creatures will meet the fate of all – a cry on the nature of nature from one who had so great an affinity with natural world.

Going back to the first line and the first words … I drown in the drumming. This could be translated to life and time. And time is mentioned later in the poem when the hawk meets his downfall – in his own time meets the weather. A negative thought that we are all drowning or dying but drumming does have that repetitive nature like the ticking of a clock. Indeed, we will all be caught by nature and from nature return. There seems to be an emphasis on violence in nature, so again a negativity in the poem. But of course, there is beauty in nature even if the vase is shattered one way or another.

So, ending on a positive, it is good to appreciate beauty and have an angelic view of life. And a case of going back to whence we came giving thanks for existence.

Today the weathering of life has taken on a new dimension as we come to terms with our treatment of the environment and how nature adjusts. Rains and storms have certainly been a feature in recent months across eastern Australia.

The Thought-Fox – Ted Hughes – Analysis

The Thought-Fox
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,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
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.

Footnote …

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?

Ted Hughes on Wikipedia

Mental Issues and Poetry – Ted Hughes

Few would argue that Sylvia Plath did not have a severe mental condition. This was probably manic depression which came to be known as bi-polar.

Her mental issues are evident in some of her poetry. Some might say that the greatness of her words might not have been so had she not been so afflicted. Many years later, after her suicide in 1963, ‘Birthday Letters’ was published by Ted Hughes at great acclaim. Ted Hughes had a brilliance with words and this is clearly evident in these poems when dealing with the strong bi-polar induced behaviours associated in living with Sylvia before the breakup of their marriage.

Here are two examples from ‘Birthday Letters’ of such expression …

From The Rabbit Catcher

It was May. How had it started? What
Had bared our edges? What quirky twist
Of the moon’s blade had set us, so early in the day,
Bleeding each other? What had I done? I had
Somehow misunderstood. Inaccessible
In your dybbuk fury, babies
Hurled into the car, you drove. We surely
Had been intending a day’s outing,
Somewhere on the coast, an exploration—
So you started driving.

What I remember
Is thinking: She’ll do something crazy …

and from … Suttee
perhaps the most disturbing of all the poems in ‘Birthday Letters‘.

Suttee = a former practice in India whereby a widow threw herself on to her husband’s funeral pyre.

Looking at the opening lines of the first stanza …

In the myth of your first death our deity
was yourself resurrected.
Yourself reborn. The holy one.
Day in day out that was our worship -
tending the white birth-bed of your re-birth,
the unforthcoming delivery, the all but born,
the ought-by-now-to-be-reborn.

An understanding of the life of SP is warranted to put these lines in context. SP tried to commit suicide when she was twenty by taking an overdose in a cellar. She was found after three days and recovered. She also had a mental fixation associated with the death of her father when she was 8 years old.

You might regard it farfetched that a suttee type connection involved her suicide attempt in relation to her father. However there could be an implication in the words of TH.

Of more importance the resurrection to a new life, and a new birth. This was their marriage God that never did quite happen. But something that both SP and TH worshiped in their on-going daily life.

And the concluding lines to the poem illustrate that outcome in dramatic fashion …

Both of us consumed
By the old child in the new birth …
Babe of dark flames and screams
That sucked the oxygen out of both of us.

Of course Lady Lazarus herself has a very strong poetic response, looking at the last stanza of that poem …

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

A link to information on ‘Birthday Letters’ – Birthday Letters – Wikipedia

A link to Ted Hughes on Wikipedia – Ted Hughes – Wikipedia

Old Age Gets Up – Ted Hughes – Comments

Old Age Gets Up

Stirs its ashes and embers, its burnt sticks

An eye powdered over, half melted and solid again
Ideas that collapse
At the first touch of attention

The light at the window, so square and so same
So full-strong as ever, the window frame
A scaffold in space, for eyes to lean on

Supporting the body, shaped to its old work
Making small movements in gray air
Numbed from the blurred accident
Of having lived, the fatal, real injury
Under the amnesia

Something tries to save itself-searches
For defenses-but words evade
Like flies with their own notions

Old age slowly gets dressed
Heavily dosed with death's night
Sits on the bed's edge

Pulls its pieces together

Ted Hughes (1930 - 1998)

The difficulty in awaking to the day when old = how to give life to burnt sticks? Can a little flame be resurrected … in due course maybe?

The eyes a little hard to adjust to daylight … they maybe half-melted but we must be thankful that they do eventually adjust … at the same time those early morning thoughts are quick to fade away … focusing on the day and remembering in the opening haze of early awareness

The window frame is compared with old age … strong, long lasting condition, never changes each day, will be around for many years, centuries maybe

All is gray with no colour to the day. And then that beautiful cynical statement on age deterioration ‘Numbed from the blurred accident / Of having lived, …’ and perhaps that inescapable condition of losing memory … and emphasis on how sad this is … being a real injury – like a broken leg … and later words evade like flies with their own notions … highlights the difficulty the mind has in focusing on words when there is lost recall and searching is in place

The window frame is seen as a scaffold … it is a strong metaphor dictating the emotional feeling of the aged associated with impending death? … time leads us all to the ‘scaffold’

something tries to save itself … a wonderful personification … and to survive to get up, movements are slow … and that slow awaking coming alive … heavily dosed with death’s night … coming to the end of life, equated to night … however, eventually some success in the sitting on the edge of the bed and the pieces have been put together for the body to function.

A little depressive and a bit of a bleak view of life; but you must give credit to the creative words in generating the groping of awareness in early morning awaking.

Ted Hughes on Wikipedia …
He was Poet Laureate in 1984 and held the office until his death

Bowled Over – Ted Hughes – Analysis

Bowled Over

By kiss of death, bullet on brow,
No more life can overpower
That first infatuation, world cannot
Ever be harder or clearer or come
Closer than when it arrived there

Spinning its patched fields, churches
Trees where nightingales sang in broad daylight
And vast flaring blue skirts of sea –
Then sudden insubordination
Of boredom and sleep

When the eyes could not find their keys
Or the neck remember what mother whispered
Or the body stand to its word.

Desertion in the face of a bullet!

Buried without honours.

Ted Hughes 1930 – 1998 (fromWodwo, 1967)

Wodwo – the first release from Ted Hughes following the death of Sylvia Plath in February 1963.

Looking at this poem in the context of the personal life of TH and SP and not just the loss of first love euphoria …

S1 … well that first intense feeling of love, falling in love when young and foolish, never to come again perhaps – in short being bowled over (apt cricket words for a Yorkshire man) – and a knock-out blow as in a kiss of death or bullet on the brow … this is a reflection looking back to that feeling – and what a feeling it was – the world never harder never clearer – my immediate thoughts on that first encounter of TH with SP, reflecting back some four years after her death … would that feeling ever come again … a very hard road after the death of SP and the catering for his two children from their marriage

S2 … this is what it is all about … love sending the mind spinning – a dizzy feeling as the environment adjusts to the euphoria and nightingales sing in daylight … shows how the world changes with emotional state – but then the last two lines – insubordination, disobedience, a rebellion boredom and sleep … the coming down from the hilltop … putting into the context of his broken marriage a self-disobedience (but living with SP and her mental instability not easy)

S3 … the resultant effect of his disobedience – eyes could not find their keys – what a wonderful way of saying that he could never unlock the door to the way it was … and
the neck never able to remember – thinking of the comfort of a mother to a boy in bed who could not rest … and then in terms of words – false to the word, false to the word of love by his disobedience

S4 … desertion in the face of a bullet (love) … perhaps this maybe the way he feels … well it was his initiative when he left SP – however, he didn’t completely desert her and cared very much for her well-being and helped her find accommodation in London

S5 … Buried without honours … a sense of depression on the way things had turned out … perhaps a wish he had stayed with SP – especially after the aftermath resultant from her tragic death … love buried without honours.

Independent of the personal context of TH and SP. This poem is a look back on the common life experience of first love euphoria after the relationship has ended for whatever reason. The relationship always remains part of us in some form or other. Whether it is buried without honours or carried forward as a latent embellishment is another matter.

TH served as  UK Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. A link to Ted Hughes on Wikipedia.

Moors – Ted Hughes – Analysis


Are a stage for the performance of heaven.
Any audience is incidental.

A chess-world of top heavy Kings and Queens
Circling in stilted majesty
Tremble the bog-cotton
Under the sweep of their robes.

Fools in sunny motley tumble across,
A laughter – fading in full view
To grass tips tapping at stones.

The witch-brew boiling in the sky-vat
Spins electrical terrors
In the eyes of sheep.

Fleeing wraith-lovers twist and collapse
In death-pack languor
To bedew harebells
On the spoil-heaps of quarries.

Wounded champions lurch out of sunset
To gurgle their last gleams into pot-holes.

Shattered bowed armies, huddling leaderless
Escape from a world
Where snipe work late.

Ted Hughes

This is a poem taken from a series of poems based on a set Yorkshire photos given to TH by Fay Goodwin (a photographer and contemporary) … ‘Remnants of Elmet’ … The Calder valley west of Halifax … was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall … an inhabitable wilderness which became the cradle for the industrial revolution … before the mills and chapels died and the population changed.

This is an example of ‘ekphrastic poetry’ where a poem is in response to another artistic form – in this case a photograph. It would be interesting to compare the imagery invoked by the words and Fay Goodwin’s photo.

What a wonderful first line … ‘Are a stage for the performance of heaven’ … the moors being a lonely land much untouched by man having the sky to itself and all the sky has to offer … very much in evidence on wild fury days … and ‘Any audience is incidental’ … a great place to encounter nature and to get away from the madding crowd.

The stones are displayed as a disordered set of chess pieces – again it would be interesting to see the photograph. They are all kings and queens so one might assume they are all large and of equal size. The stones obviously have supporting stones in the way they are presented. Stilted majestystilt = a long post or column that is used with others to support a building above ground level. And it appears they are seated on unstable ground – ‘tremble the bog-cotton’.

‘Fools in sunny motley’ implies that some visitors to the moor are ill-prepared for the nature of the moor. And the weather is likened to a witch brew the sky a vat. And as the weather intensifies with clouds collapsing it appears some rain touches harebells that grow near the discarded heaps from old quarries.

The last two stanzas give the impression of a disappearing moor as daylight swallows the stones … as they merge together without a leader. A time when snipe are busy … ‘snipe work late’ … I guess TH would know about this as he was very familiar with this part of the world. A nice closing line giving a sense of foreboding.