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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229

Ted Hughes' poem "Pike" has as its subject a species of freshwater fish that the poet used to encounter when fishing at a large old pond in England. The poet highlights both the pike's predatory nature and his grandeur.

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The poem's sixteen stanzas begin with a physical description of the pike: it's "three inches long" with "green tigering the gold" (an especially poetic way to describe stripes). The poem quickly moves to an assertion of the pike's awe-inspiring predatory nature, calling the species "killers from the egg." Nevertheless, there is a disjunction between their outward appearance "danc[ing] on the surface" of a pond and what the author ascribes as their evil inner nature. The poet insists that the pike's grin is "malevolent." Having made bold to keep three of these fish in captivity ("behind glass"), the poet is able to observe firsthand the unique danger that each of these fish poses to one another; they are cannibals who eat one another. The poet graphically explains that "one jammed past its gills down the other's gullet."

The poem then zooms out to their territory—a pond at the site of a monastery that no longer exists. The pike, the poet suggests, is ageless to the extent that it outlives its territory. On a formal level, the poem employs alliteration and an occasional internal rhyme ("perfect pike in all parts").

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

“Pike” is written in free verse and consists of forty-four lines divided into eleven stanzas. The title focuses immediate attention on the creature under scrutiny and on the natural world, which informs most of Ted Hughes’s work. The poem can be divided into three sections or perspectives.

The first section, stanzas 1 and 2, sets the scene, depicting the voracious, ruthless nature of this fish and establishing its green water world. In these first stanzas, Hughes maintains an objective narrative perspective in which the fish and its environment occupy the center of attention.

The next section, the third through seventh stanzas, begins a consideration of the predatory nature of the pike and describes it as it moves through a green, gold, shadowy habitat. No sounds disturb the quiet of the fish’s waiting expectation beneath the water’s surface. In stanzas 3 and 4, Hughes graphically describes the fish’s “jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs” and makes the reader sense the pike’s ruthless nature as it lurks silently waiting in the weeds for its prey. In stanzas 5 and 6, he heightens this vision by describing what happened when he kept three small pike captive in an aquarium: The ruthless fish preyed upon one another until only one remained, “with a sag belly and the grin it was born with.” Hughes juxtaposes a second scene of the pike as unstoppable predator by concluding this section with the image of two dead, six-pound, two-foot-long pikes lying on a river bank, one jammed down the gullet of the other. Even in death these fish are portrayed as grimly determined.

The final section, stanzas 8 through 11, brings the narrator into direct contact with this coldly grim predator. Here Hughes describes the evening encounter he had while casting for pike on an ancient, quiet monastery pond. Set in the waning twilight, this section recapitulates the skulking, waiting nature of the submarine predator and makes the reader experience the fear that the pike engenders, even in the man standing safely on the bank—afraid to fish for what he imagines to be monstrous pike, yet unable not to.

The last stanza of “Pike” concludes with an image of the silent fish slowly surfacing to consider the fisherman who has dared disturb its nighttime lair with his puny fly casting. It is clear from Hughes’s choice of detail that this world, both pond and bank, belongs to the menacing pike and that the narrator violates the fish’s domain at his peril.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

The conversational tone of “Pike” serves as an effective device for Hughes to heighten the tension and impact of the poem’s violence. Hughes’s choice of language is simple, with few polysyllabic words; his phrases are stark, almost bare—without the frills that people seem to need in order to escape from the brutal realities of living. Such simplicity allows Hughes to make “Pike” a highly visual poem; his descriptions evoke sharp images for the reader in which the fish becomes tangible. One can see the water, see the weeds, and sense the presence of the pike as it blends in, waiting to lunge at its unsuspecting quarry. The descriptions are rhythmic, lulling the reader and allowing the final stanzas to take on additional sinister import.

Hughes skillfully juxtaposes the natural with the human world, pairing the images of the fish floating patiently in its natural element with those of an artificial world that imprisons the creature for the cruel or whimsical purposes of the human that has captured it. Because Hughes contrasts what he regards as naturally appropriate, such as the pike’s very existence, which he describes as “A life subdued to its instrument,” with the next section in which the pike eat one another in the tank, the poet is able to call into question the behavior of the people who captured the fish in the first place.

By focusing on the expression of the pike—as a grinning set of hungry, vicelike jaws—Hughes increases the uneasiness that many people feel when they must witness the raw hunger and power of natural impulse. Repeatedly, in each section of “Pike,” Hughes draws his readers’ attention to the fish’s mouth: a grin, open and waiting in the weeds, smiling with a full belly—still determined in death, locked around the body of its kin. Because the fish is depicted as lurking, shadowed, and mysterious, the choice of the word “grin” to describe its expression is jarring and disconcerting. Nothing about the pike, which Hughes clearly respects and even admires, makes this image one with which the reader will be comfortable.

Finally, Hughes leaves the reader with the impression that the fisherman, not the pike, is the real intruder, perhaps even the only source of true violence in the natural world. By doing so, the poet invites the reader to examine his or her attitudes about the natural world, about who or what has the “right” to behave in a particular way. It is the narrator, not the pike, who feels fear; the pike, on the other hand, rises to the surface prepared to stare down this intruder.

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