What is Hughes's poem "Song" about? I had previously assumed it was an ode to Sylvia Plath, but then found out that he had written the poem before he met her. 

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This is a love poem addressed to an unidentified woman the narrator adores from afar, although she does not notice him. She acts as his muse, lighting up the world for him—or turning it to ice or dust as she turns away from him.

Hughes puts this woman on a...

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This is a love poem addressed to an unidentified woman the narrator adores from afar, although she does not notice him. She acts as his muse, lighting up the world for him—or turning it to ice or dust as she turns away from him.

Hughes puts this woman on a pedestal, addressing her in chivalric terms as "O Lady" at the beginning of each verse. The "O" communicates the depth of emotion he feels for her. At the same time, given the lack of contact they have, he is idealizing her: he does not really know her, beyond that she is beautiful.

He says of her that the moon "blessed" her, and the "stars swam for eyes in [her] face." Likening a lover's eyes to stars is a conventional image (think of Romeo and Juliet or "She Walks in Beauty Like the Night") but Hughes complicates this image by calling them "difficult" stars—perhaps he has trouble reading the expression in her eyes or they are sometimes moody. He stands in her shadow as the adoring lover, but when her shadow turns from him, it becomes "ice" to him.

He repeats the same ideas in the next two stanzas, saying the sea "caressed" her, making her a "marble [statute] of foam," an interesting image that juxtaposes opposites, but she is "dumb" and like a "tomb" as far as communicating with the narrator is concerned. She will neither die in his heart nor "come home" to him. In the third stanza, he notes that the wind "kissed" her, giving her a beautiful voice, but not for him.

He says that when he has finally lost her—the meaning is ambiguous, but one reading would be has finally given up on her—the world and all the beauties in it that she animates will seem like waste and dust.

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Hughes wrote "Song" when he was only nineteen, which means that it's one of his earliest poems. The poem shows Hughes's longstanding interest in mythology and ancient depictions of goddesses (he studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge). Similar to ancient Greek poetry, "Song" is a kind of invocation to a goddess-like "lady" or muse. Hughes uses this muse to explore the uncertain and mercurial nature of artistic inspiration and the writing life, and the power that writing holds over him. The speaker says, "The difficult stars swam for eyes in your face; / You stood, and your shadow was my place: / You turned, your shadow turned to ice O my lady." Like "difficult stars" or a shadow that can quickly turn to ice, a writer's inspiration is depicted as a strange and hard-to-grasp phenomenon. The lines "You were a marble of foam, but dumb. / When will the stone open its tomb? / When will the waves give over their foam?" describe the beautiful, intoxicating, and yet maddening and inaccessible nature of writing and artistic inspiration.

The poem's lady could also represent the fickle and passionate nature of romantic relationships. The poem's final lines, "And my head, worn out with love, at rest / In my hands, and my hands full of dust, O my lady," leave us with images of emptiness and fatigue. These lines work for both interpretations of the poem--the lady as muse or as romantic lover. The poem's speaker is left with a worn-out head and "hands full of dust," just as an artist and a lover are left alone with their grief when their lady leaves.

This poem is also a strong representation of Hughes's style. While most other poets of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s wrote in styles rooted in the modern, Hughes's style often bordered on the Shakespearean in tone and language. Many critics dismissed "Song" as overwrought. However, the poem still features classic imagery that represents a dramatic departure from the work of other poets during this time.

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