Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 288

The key theme of this poem is the ageless and unchanging violence of nature—something that cannot be tamed by human intervention and which is so elemental that the speaker's "hair [is] frozen" on his head at the recognition of it. The pike the speaker sees in his pond at night are "legendary," watchful; they are a "darkness beneath night's darkness," something "immense," whose power is palpable. It is very clear to the speaker, as he fishes in the wide pool which has endured so many years, that the power, the particular violence, of the pikes within is greater than his own power. There is an aspect to nature which is driven by violence and darkness and is beyond the capacity of humans to control.

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This is indicated throughout the poem. The pike are "killers from the egg," born violent and born sure of their own enormity in their own world, too. Although they are only three inches long at birth, the speaker is sure that they are very conscious of their own "grandeur," such that they feel hundreds of feet long, confident of their own power. The violence of the pikes is emphasized, too, through such words as "jaws" and "clamp." The attempt by the speaker and, we must presume, his friends, to tame three pike ended in disaster: the result was that one of the pikes killed another, leaving only one of the three alive. The speaker has attempted to control the pikes and turn them into something humans can dominate, like a pet. But the violent nature of the pikes cannot be controlled. In the end, their elemental and ageless instincts win out, and they remain as they have always been, uncaring of human desires.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606

As in most of his poetry, in “Pike” Ted Hughes uses the natural world to its fullest advantage as a stage where humans are only one species among many and are clearly not as powerful as they would like to believe. Hughes’s poetry dwells on the innate violence in the natural world and on instinctive predatory behavior; yet, because this behavior is presented in such a manner as to seem uncontrived and natural, Hughes seems to view it as appropriate. Nature as depicted in a poem such a “Pike” shares the perspective of other British poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who described nature as “red in tooth and claw” (In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850). These writers—Hughes included—attempt to reconcile what at first appears to be a horrible violence in nature. Their concern reflects a conflict that has troubled people since Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution offered an explanation for human development that appeared to omit the hand of God. Perhaps humans are no different from a creature such as the pike, driven by impulse and appetite in a universe that follows no moral law but eat or be eaten.

Hughes clearly views the pike as a creature that belongs in its water world, an animal that exemplifies survival of the fittest. The fish is a part of, rather than apart from, the natural world in which it feeds. The pike shares the colors of the water, the weeds, the pond bottom, and the shadows; it is in harmony with and a necessary part of this world, but it is a type of creature—like the shark—that many will view as unwholesome because of its very drive to survive. Hughes clearly believes that the pike belongs where it is and has a “right” to behave as it does, no matter the violence, for it follows a naturally preordained path, instincts that drive it even when the fish is only a three-inch fry: Pike are “Killers from the egg.” Those who find the fish’s appetite and killer instinct unsettling do not see the world as Hughes does; to them, killing to survive is repugnant. Hughes, on the other hand, expresses subtle admiration for the one pike out of three that remained alive in his aquarium prison, having outlived—and eaten—its kin.

If anything, it is the narrator of the poem, the voice that emerges in the last half of the poem, who is out of place in this natural world. This person has not only removed young fish from their natural habitat and imprisoned them in a glass cage but also invaded the pike’s sanctuary to fish for creatures that have outsmarted fishermen for generations, pike that Hughes describes as “too immense to stir.” Gradually the narrator is overcome by fear; the violence that the pike direct at their prey seems to be turned toward him as the fish rises slowly to the surface of the bottomless pond to regard the man who foolishly thinks he will catch the natural killer. By his use of a monastery as the site of this particular pond, Hughes implies that the violent, hungry pike has a divine right to live where it does and, by extension, to behave in the way that it does. By equating the pike with the legendary nature of the monastery pond, he makes it a creature of myth like the dragon: powerful, haughty, and impervious to human needs. It is the narrator, not the fish, who must learn a lesson—that pike behavior is “good” and that nature exists for nature’s sake, not for humankind’s.

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