"The Stag" is a poem consisting of six stanzas. Each stanza consist of six lines of free verse. There is no regular pattern of rhyme or meter. The poem is written in the third person, but the point of view gradually shifts from an external one, looking at the actions of both people and animal, to one that gives us access to the feelings of the stag as it is hunted. Perhaps the key theme is that whether we are the people who admire the stag as magnificent or those who hunt it, we are turning the stag into a spectacle, rather than considering it as something with its own interiority. This theme of discovery of the inner nature of animals, who are portrayed as fierce and inhuman, is common in the work of Hughes.
The poem itself describes spectators, hunters, the hounds, and the stag itself in Exmoor, an area of southwest England, on a rainy autumn day. Hunting with hounds in Britain is a traditionally aristocratic sport and has become increasingly controversial because many people see it as a form of cruelty to animals, simply providing entertainment for the wealthy.
The tension of the poem "The Stag" by Ted Hughes is, of course, between man and nature. This tension mounts with the arrival in the first stanza of the "traffic jam" of men who are in disharmony, scrambling, with children crying, fighting, and tangling. In contrast to this is the cry of hounds; in contrast, each stanza ends with a simple,flowing, natural sentence about the stag: "The stag ran through the forest" or "The stag loped through his favourite valley."
The convergence of the unnatural "blue horseman" who is "[S]odden nearly black, on sodden horses" upon "the brown impassable river" conveys the unharmonious nature of those involved in the hunt of the noble stag.
As they begin to chase the stag, his graceful gait and calm beauty quickly reveal the terror created within him by the hunters who force him to "drop[ped] into a strange country." The invasion of the farmers and hunters and dogs create a ritualized violence. Indeed, the theme of man's destructive violence against nature is apparent.