What is the meaning of Ted Hughes's poem "The Jaguar"?

"The Jaguar" describes a zoo and how the life of these animals is different in captivity than it would be in their natural habitat. The jaguar is interesting, acting more in tune with his nature despite being caged. The poem could be interpreted in many ways. It could be about the jaguar's wild spirit that persists despite the spirit-breaking zoo and the type of visionary who can make a prison a source of creativity.

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The primary meaning of Ted Hughes's poem "The Jaguar," as I understand it, is that animals do not belong in zoos, and yet humans are continually drawn to and "mesmerized" by animals like the mighty jaguar.

The first several stanzas of Hughes's poem emphasize the "indolence," laziness, and general lassitude of most of the animals in the zoo. The parrots are strutting about, trying to attract the attention of passing visitors, hoping to be fed. Meanwhile, the lion, tiger, and boa constrictor are "fatigued" and lie so still that the cages appear empty to those who pass. These animals are not able to fulfil their natural roles in this zoo. As such, the fact that they are in a zoo is of no benefit either to them or to the humans who come to see them and are bored by their stillness. Why do we cage animals, when it is to the detriment of the animals themselves and causes them to behave in a way that is uninteresting to human beings, their wildness stamped out?

The jaguar, of course, is an exception in this instance—the passing children are desperate to "stare" at him, because the "freedom" in his stride is still visible and palpable, despite the fact that he is caged. The jaguar still "spins" around his enclosure: his nature is such that it cannot be trampled underneath the heel of imprisonment.

Still, it is clear that this is imprisonment for the jaguar. The animal is kept in "prison darkness," on a "short fierce fuse." He is still mobile not because he is in his natural habitat but because he is "enraged." Like a "visionary," he can see what lies beyond the bars; he continues to move as if he will one day escape. In some ways, though, this is even sadder than the indolence of the lions who have accepted their fate. The caged jaguar, a magnificent animal filled with fury, will never be returned to the "wildernesses" of which he dreams.

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Okay, lets take this step by step.  Here's one way to look at it:

The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.

The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut

Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the

nut.

Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion

Lie still as the sun.

In this first stanza we are shown a group of very different animals.  The apes are lounging around, the parrots are squawking, trying to get nuts from passers-by, and the lion and tiger are tired from being lazy.  These are not animals that are naturally found together...parrots, lions, and tigers all come from different continents. And none of these habitats have "strollers."  These facts let us know that the animals are probably part of some kind of zoo.

The boa-constrictor’s coil

Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or

Stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw.

It might be painted on a nursery wall

There is not a lot of "life" going on here (about as much as a painting)...the critters are lethargic and most seem to be sleeping and the snake is so still it might as well be dead stone!  The only way you know they are alive is because the place has a stink to it.

But who runs like the rest past these arrives

At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,

As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged

Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes On a short fierce fuse.

People aren't much interested in seeing these sluggy animals, either.  They hurry past the cages indifferently.  There is a crowd, though, around the jaguar enclosure.  The jaguar is more interesting to watch because it is showing signs of its nature: it paces, angrily, "rebelling" against the cage.  People are mesmerized by its vitality.

Not in boredom—

The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,

By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear—

He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him More than to the visionary his cell:

Despite the fact that the jaguar is physically in a cage, it is not in one mentally or "spiritually."  It's nature cannot be held in check.  The bars stop him, but they do not "cage" his spirt.  The wildness is in his blood.  He is no more tamed by the cage than a great human thinker's mind would be in jail.

His stride is wildernesses of freedom:

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.

Over the cage floor the horizons come.

His walk is the essence of wildness and freedom.  The world is compelled by his powerful paws and the inner freedom of the Jaguar is not diluted.

So what does it mean?  You would have to decide for yourself.  It might be about the stoic nature of the jaguar, or about the spirit-breaking that goes on in zoos.  It might be about humanity's interest in observing the wild (something largely driven out of ourselves) or about never giving up or giving in.  Or maybe it is about all of these things.  That's the beauty of poetry!

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