The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

“The Thought-Fox” is a poem of twenty-four lines divided into six stanzas. The title tells the reader that the poet is drawing an analogy between a thought—specifically, in this case, a poetic composition—and a fox.

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The poet speaks in the first person and in his own persona. He begins by evoking the silence and mystery of a forest at midnight. An atmosphere of suspense is created as one becomes aware of “something else” that is alive in the imaginary forest outside. The world of the forest is set against the world of the room where the poet is working, characterized only by the presence of a clock and the poet’s as yet blank paper.

The second stanza intensifies the suspense. The poet shifts his perspective, taking the reader’s awareness outside the room as he looks through the window into the black, starless night. The “something” is approaching, beginning to solidify out of the darkness. The third stanza gives the first tangible sense of the creature in the form of the fox’s cold nose investigating the surrounding twigs and leaves.

The poet introduces the fox into the reader’s sensory field in parts: a nose, then two eyes, as the fox stealthily moves between the trees of the silent, snowbound forest, then the whole body as it flashes across clearings. The fox in its literal sense as a fox is fully realized by the fifth stanza; it is “Brilliantly, concentratedly,/ Coming about its own business.”

The final stanza is a sudden and shocking transition back to the fox as a metaphor for thought. “With a sudden sharp hot stink of fox/ It enters the dark hole of the head.” The reader is reminded that, although the poet has presented a vivid picture of a fox, he was all the time comparing it with the creative process. Like the fox in the darkness of the forest, a thought begins in the subconscious mind as a vague sense or movement. As it rises to the conscious level of the mind, it becomes increasingly concrete and definite, until it finally “enters the dark hole of the head” as a conscious, coherent thought.

The reader is brought back to the poet’s room with a reference to the window, “starless still.” One senses the unbounded, uncreated reality that underlies individualized creation, unchanged and undiminished by the ever-changing manifestations that emerge from it. The ticking of the clock brings one back from the timeless world of the imagination to the world of time and space. “The page is printed” states that the thought has taken its final form—as the very poem that is before the reader. The poet has witnessed the act of his own poetic creation. Thus the poem is reflexive; it is a poem about its own composition.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583

Ted Hughes extends his central metaphor of fox-as-thought with great skill. Although the fox is symbolic of poetic creation, the reader is able to maintain a strong sense of it as a “real” fox. Even when Hughes is conveying abstract ideas, he uses precise detail and concrete sensory images from the natural world.

Hughes often uses strong contrasts to convey his notion of nature as interacting opposites: life and death, light and dark, predator and prey. The main contrast in this poem is between the intense vitality of the imagination (the world of the fox) and the impersonal vacancy of the poet’s self and environment. The unidentified “something else” in the forest seems more real, more alive than anything in the room, including the poet. More human feeling is accorded to the clock in its “loneliness” than to the poet. He is defined in negatives, in absent terms. There is a disembodied quality to the image of the blank notepaper “where my fingers move,” as if the fingers had a life of their own and were acting independently.

The abstract phenomenon of the creative process is made into a living creature of independent will. “Something more near” than the starless night, yet “deeper within darkness,” solidifies out of the blackness. This apparent contradiction, of something being real yet elusive, is descriptive of an idea at its genesis. One is aware of the idea’s existence, yet it has not yet gained sufficient definition for one to grasp it. The atmosphere of suspense relaxes into the first concrete sensory images of the fox—the cold touch of its nose, then “two eyes”—as the fox edges cautiously into vision. In the beats of “now,/ And again now, and now,” and the three consecutive strong stresses of “sets neat prints,” one hears the rhythm of the fox’s tentative steps.

Hughes often uses alliteration (repetition of consonants) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds within words) to add an incantatory quality to his verse and to bring images to life. In the alliteration of “touches twig, leaf,” one feels the delicacy of the fox’s nose investigating its environment. The strong sounds of “Of a body that is bold to come/ Across clearings,” together with the positioning of “Across clearings” at the start of a new stanza, give a sense of sudden energy as the fox emerges into the open.

The most memorable image forms the poem’s climax: “With a sudden sharp hot stink of fox/ It enters the dark hole of the head.” The fox has realized its symbolic status as metaphor for thought. The thought fills the expectant vacancy that has been the poet’s consciousness until now. The image is intensely violent, evoking speed, flavor, temperature, and smell.

Two images introduced at the poem’s beginning and repeated at the end reflect its circular journey: from the everyday world, into the imaginative world, then back into the everyday world enriched by the gift of the imagination, the poetic composition. The image of the still-ticking clock, echoing the third line of the poem, recalls one to the world of time and space into which creation manifests. “The window is starless still,” also a repeated image, brings one back full circle to the unchanging eternity that preceded the coming of the thought-fox and continues undiminished after the event. “The page is printed”—referring to the page one has read—resolves the central metaphor. The thought-fox has found its fulfillment in the completed poem.

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Themes