Friday, December 10, 2010

"THE THOUGHT-FOX" by Ted Hughes

“The Thought-Fox” was first published in The Hawk in the Rain (1957), a collection which earned from Marianne Moore the following comment: Hughes’ talent is unmistakable, the work has focus, is a glow with feeling, with conscience; sensibility is awake, embodied in appropriate diction.” This collection was judged the best by Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. “The Thought-Fox” is a poem about the very process of writing poetry, and about poetic inspiration. The imaginary fox is a symbol of this inspiration which enters the mind of a poet and leaves its foot­prints in the form of words on a white page.

The poet starts the poem with the words that it is a lonely room in a dark night. Everything is quiet so that the tick-tick sound of the clock impresses upon the persona (the “I” in the poem) the darkness, the silence and loneliness. The persona has a blank page before him and his fingers move on it. Outside it is all dark; even the stars are not there in the sky. Yet deep in the darkness, the persona sees something moving and entering the loneliness.
The presence that moves in deep darkness is like a fox touch­ing the twigs and leaves with its nose. What the persona sees are two eyes that move in the darkness and leave their footprints on the snow. Then a lame, cautious body in the form of an eye comes brilliantly and concentratedly toward the room. With the stink of a fox it enters the hole of the persona’s head. The window is still without stars and is dark and lonely. The clock continues to tick and by now the page, the blank page has received the footprints of the thought-fox in the form of a poem.
The Fox as a Symbol of Thought
The Thought-Fox describes, in an indirect or oblique manner, the process by which a poem gets written. What a poet needs to write a poem is inspiration. A poet waits for the onrush of an idea through his brain. And, of course, he also needs solitude (loneliness) and silence around him. Solitude and silence are, however, only contributory circumstances. They constitute a favourable environment, while the poem itself comes out of the poet’s head which has been invaded, as it were, by an idea or thought. The idea or thought takes shape in his head like a fox entering a dark forest and then coming out of it suddenly. That is why the phrase “The Thought-Fox” has been used as a title for this poem. The fox embodies the thought which a poet expresses in his poem. The fox here serves as a symbol.
Vivid Imagery in the Poem
The Thought-Fox was one of the outstanding poems in the volume called “The Hawk in the Rain”. What is remarkable about this poem, apart from its symbolic statement of the process of poetic composition, is its imagery. We have here a series of images in the poem, from the first line to the last; and every image is a vivid one. The opening line contains the following image: “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest.” Here the poet imagines that he is sitting in a forest at midnight. Then follow the images of the lonely clock, the blank page, and the feeling that something else is also alive around the poet. There are no stars in the sky; and then the poet perceives something intruding upon his loneliness or solitude. Next, a fox’s nose touches a twig and then a leaf. The two eyes of the fox seem to be moving forward. The fox is leaving clear footprints on the snow in the forest. The imagery continues with the eye of the fox “brilliantly, concentratedly,” coming about its own business till it enters the dark hole of the head with “a sudden sharp hot stink of a fox.” The window is starless still; the clock ticks even now; but the page is no longer blank. The page carries a poem written by its author in his own handwriting, even though the word “printed” has been used. The word “printed” is not absolutely inappropriate because ultimately the poem written by its author would get printed.
A Poem without any Popular Appeal
The Thought-Fox has greatly been admired by critics; but it does not have much of an appeal for the average reader. The poem contains an abstract idea which the poet has tried to concretize. We, as average readers, cannot understand why a thought should be personified as a fox. To the popular mind, a fox represents cunning. We have all heard the story of the fox who cheated a crow of a piece of cheese which the crow held in its beak. The fox employed flattery to make the crow open its beak so that the piece of cheese might fall from the beak for the fox to grab it. But in this poem the fox has been elevated to the status of a poetic idea. Nor can we affirm that this poem is remarkable because of its felicity of word and phrase. The only remarkable quality of this poem is its imagery.
Comments by Some of the Critics
A critic expresses the view that in Hughes’s world the only way to come to terms with the animals is not to tame them but to become possessed by them, and that this is what precisely happens in the poem, The Thought-Fox. This critic regards The Thought-Fox as the finest of the five animal poems in the volume entitled “The Hawk in the Rain”. Talking about his childhood passion for capturing animals, Hughes has described the composition of this poem in the following manner:
An animal I never succeeded in keeping alive is the fox. I was always frustrated: twice by a farmer, who killed cubs I had caught before I could get to them, and once by a poultry-keeper who freed my cub while his dog waited. Years after those events I was sitting up late one snowy night in dreary lodgings in London. I had written nothing for a year or so but that night I got the idea I might write something, and I wrote in a few minutes The Thought-Fox; the first animal poem I ever wrote.
The same critic goes on to say that, although The Thought-Fox is a fox of the imagination, it has been presented in the poem with a beautifully solid foxy reality. Continuing his comment, this critic says that, when the fox does come in the poem, it is “coming about its own business”—functioning as a fox—and is welcomed into the vacuum in the human head, the vacuum created when instinct had to vacate a place for excessive thinking:
Till with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
Making a fox-hole out of the human brain shows how Hughes here, as elsewhere in his poems, dismisses sardonically the physical seat of learning. In this case, instinct replaces intellect. In his verbal re-creation of the fox, Hughes disdains strict rhyme and iambic pentameter. Hughes’s rhythm is mimetic, seeking to stimulate the action of the poem. The monosyllables in the above-quoted, memorable lines really suggest the movement of the fox as it approaches the safety of the metaphorical fox-hole. We have here the swift, sudden little trot, then the cautious careful tread, then the confident measured pace. Indeed, Hughes has here given evidence of his remarkable gift for embodying words with animal rhythm. Two of the critics, namely Gifford and Roberts, agreeing with this opinion, say that the mimetic language here works in two ways: It evokes the movements of the fox, and those movements in turn provide an image for the movement of the poem itself. Another critic gives high praise to this poem which, he says, embodies an abstraction suggested by the very title of the poem. The title gives us a clear clue to the poem’s theme which is a “thought” coming to life on the “printed page” like a wild beast invading the poet’s mind. The process, says this critic, is described in exquisite gradations, from the first moment when
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest;
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
After an interval, the living metaphor moves into the poem:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement
The movement is completed in the last stanza:
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.
Something like the effect in this poem of the physical realization of a meaning, quick with its own rank presence, occurs in all the best works of Hughes. Another critic, Seamus Heaney, also has something illuminating to say about this poem. Hughes’s aspiration, in these early poems, says this critic, is to command all the elements which make up the poetic effect in order to bring them within the jurisdiction of his authoritarian voice. The first line of this poem, for instance, is hushed, but it is a hush achieved by the quelling action of the m’s and d’s and t’s: “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest”. The last stanza of the poem, according to this critic, is characterized by the shooting of the monosyllabic consonantal bolts. Yet another critic, Alan Bold, offers the following valuable comment: “Hughes invests his poems with a dream-like quality, a kind of reverie. It is not surprising that such a reverie on a cold winter’s night produced The Thought-Fox.”
"The Thought-Fox" is a poem about writing a poem and not at all about an animal. The fox in the poem is the poetic energy or inspiration that comes out of darkness (the unconscious) and leaves its footprints on snow, the blank white page. But the annual image in the title as well as the movement of the symbolic animal in the poem is not only appropriate in its own context but also consistent with Ted Hughes concept of poetic composition which he compared with the capturing of animals:
The special kind of excitement, the slightly mesmerized and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind, then the outline, the mass and colour and clear final form of it, the unique living reality of it in the midst of the general lifelessness, all that is too familiar to mistake. This is hunting and the poem is a new species of creature, a new specimen of the life outside your own.
The secret, says Hughes, is to "imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. ... Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn your self into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic." This is borne out by the present poem in which a kind of drama goes on between the "I" that imagines and the "I" that perceives. At the beginning of the poem it is the self, the persona that imagines the fox and its slow animal movement which the rhythm of the poem supports; then, toward the end, in a climactic manner, the fox enters the "dark hole of the head" of perceiving persona with the sting in the tail that "the page is printed." The last lines, comments Thomas West, "where we turn to the ticking clock but discover now a printed page reveal an external world of time and long dead imaginings (in print), which feels very distant from the imaginative act, this dark and secret reality of the mind's possession by something akin, in its apartness and its energy, to the jaguar."
Apart from the interesting drama that goes in it, "The Thought-Fox" reveals Ted Hughes' subtle artistry. The very move­ment of the poem is like the movement of a fox in the darkness: The language mimes in sound and rhythm what it describes:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox's nose touches a 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 lone
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow.
As Keith comments, "The poem has already sets neat prints upon the page in the line before we are told that the fox sets them into the snow. The noun 'shadow' has to drag itself across the gap between the lines which separates it from its adjec­tive. And the alliteration of 'lame' and 'lag' upon a long palatal consonant mimes the meaning to a degree which becomes obvious if we try to find a substitute for either word."

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