Ted Hughes is perhaps most popularly remembered for his fated, tumultuous marriage to Sylvia Plath. This is understandable but unfortunate, as he was a brilliant artist in his own right. He was known for his dramatic depictions of plants and animals, imbuing the image of a still pond or a cornered mouse with a Shakespearean maximalism.
To get a sense of how he achieves this effect, we can look at one of Hughes’s more famous poems, “To Paint a Water-Lily.” It is relatively short and available online, so we will undertake a close reading of the poem in its entirety. Our focus here will be on the dynamic, kinetic qualities present—the sense of motion and energy.
Hughes begins by emphasizing stability. Words like “level,” “Roofs,” “chamber,” and “paves” evoke permanence by calling to mind the image of a man-made structure. The pace immediately picks up in the next line: “The flies’ furious arena.” “Flies” does double work here, both bringing forth the chaotic image of a cloud of flies and breaking up the dense, heavy diction of the first couplet. These, we learn, are “the two minds of this lady.” Note also the choice of end words. Leaves and paves are slow, long monosyllables; study and lady are faster, two-syllable words. By modulating the pace at which the poem itself is read, Hughes further underlines the contrast between tranquility and chaos.
In the next couplet, Hughes asks us to observe the “air’s dragonfly / That eats meat, that bullets by.” He wants us to see the dragonfly as a vicious predator, overcoming its quarries with blinding speed, so he uses active verbs to give it something to do. The water-lily “Roofs” and “paves”; the terrible dragonfly “eats meat” and “bullets by.” The chaos continues in the following couplet, where things suddenly come to a halt: “stands in space to take aim.” Calling back to the use of “bullets” immediately prior, the phrase “take aim” now places us in the middle of a war zone.
Think of any successful large-scale battle scene in any big-budget Hollywood film. A similar effect is achieved in a similar way. Hughes moves between normal speed and slow motion, and pulls the reader’s eye from one place to another in an erratic, chaotic fashion.
A couplet later, Hughes writes that the “colours of these flies // Rainbow their arcs, spark or settle / Cooling like beads of molten metal.” Here, Hughes once again uses active verbs to great effect. One way of making something fundamentally passive (i.e., being shone upon by the sun) more dynamic and evocative is to favor the use of active verbs. Suddenly, a mundane observation—that dragonflies look like rainbows in the sun—has become an explosion of action, bringing to mind an active foundry, or a fireworks display, or an aerial dogfight. This is the poem’s crescendo.
We are led back down by the rainbows to the floor of the pond, where the poem’s pace immediately and violently changes once more. Note again the active verb choice: “Prehistoric bedragoned times / Crawl that darkness with Latin names.” If colors can rainbow through the air, then times can certainly crawl through the dark. The creatures who dwell here are slow, implacable, undying, and hideous: compare the active “eats meat” with the passive “Jaws for heads.” One is not necessarily less intimidating, less suggestive of violence than the other, but one is meant to convey motion and the other to convey a kind of creeping dread. Each is made more effective by the presence of the other.
As the poem concludes, we return from the bottom of the pond to the water’s surface. Here, Hughes makes the significance of the title explicit. To paint the water-lily, you must capture “her” stillness. To capture her stillness, you must place her in relation to the hidden chaos around her. Hughes enacts just such a depiction by expertly figuring that chaos through effective, deliberate choices in his diction and prosody.
For further reading, Hughes’s poems “The Cat and the Mouse” and “The Jaguar” are recommended. There, one can find Hughes deploying many of the same techniques that he does in “Water-Lily” in pursuit of comparable ends. Both are included in the further reading section below.