In Ted Hughes’s “The Thought Fox,” the eponymous fox emerges from a forest at midnight and then walks across the snow, getting closer and closer to the speaker. The journey of the fox from the forest to the speaker is an extended metaphor representing the process of writing a poem.
At first the speaker simply has an impression that “Something else is alive” in the darkness. The darkness here represents the speaker’s mind, and the “Something else alive” represents the very beginnings of an idea for a poem starting to emerge in his mind. The speaker then sees, or imagines he sees, a “fox’s nose” and then “Two eyes.” This gradual emergence of the fox from the forest represents the idea for a poem gradually becoming clearer and taking on shape.
The fox then emerges more fully from the forest and “Sets neat prints into the snow.” The snow here likely represents the blank page or the speaker’s mind which, before the fox emerges, is unmarked. Now that the fox, representing the idea, is emerging more fully, the first words of the poem are being impressed upon the blank page or upon the speaker’s mind.
The fox gets closer and closer to the speaker, setting more and more tracks in the snow, until the speaker can see quite clearly the “widening deepening greenness” of its eye. The fox’s eye here represents the poem coming to life. Indeed, the eyes are often said to be the windows to the soul. It is in the eyes that you can perhaps most clearly see a person’s, or a creature’s personality.
In the final stanza, the fox approaches so close to the speaker that the speaker can smell its “sudden sharp hot stink.” The change from describing visual images to describing a smell indicates the closeness of the fox and also compounds the impression that the fox, like the poem it represents, is a living, breathing creature.
Arguably, Hughes might have chosen any animal to represent this process of writing a poem, so it’s worthwhile thinking about why he chose a fox specifically. The fox is a bright, colorful, and distinctive animal. It usually has a vivid red coat which stands out as especially vivid against a white backdrop. A fox is thus an appropriate choice to represent an idea which emerges vividly and distinctively. Foxes are also primarily nocturnal animals, and perhaps Hughes needed to set this poem at night to represent the darkness of the speaker’s mind before the idea emerges. Foxes are also rather beautiful animals, and there is a certain grace about the way they move. In the same way a good poem should be a beautiful thing, with perhaps an element of grace.