The first line of this very short and thought-provoking poem is “The ivory gods and the ebony gods.”
To help you get started in your analysis of themes and literary devices in this work, let us begin with the poet’s lowercase use and plural form of the word “gods.” From this one word we may infer that he has in mind “false gods,” the term used in the Bible for idols. The word is also traditionally lowercased when referring to the deities of mythology. (By contrast, in his poem “God” Hughes capitalizes the word within the poem, which indicates to me that he is referring to the supreme being.)
False gods suggest a theme of false values or pursuits and concerns in life that are superficial and without long-term merit. Using the literary device of repetition, Hughes tells us not once, but twice, that the gods are made out of ivory, ebony, diamond, and jade. Ivory (white elephant or rhino tusk) and ebony (a very dark wood) may be metaphors for race and, by extension, racism. Diamond and jade may represent materialism or wealth. Both of these materials are desired for their ornamental value and may also be intended as metaphors for superficial values. (Recall that metaphor is a literary device.)
The poet tells us that the idols “sit silently on their temple shelves.” In other words, they are nothing more than objects with no power of their own—an idea expressed through the literary device of personification. Why do you think that people are afraid of these “silly puppet gods” that “people themselves have made”?
There are many angles of fear in racism, and the pursuit of material things can lead to the fear of never having enough. The poem is certainly open to other interpretations, and your own ideas, however different, about the meaning of “Gods” will be well worth sharing in your assignment.