Last Updated on October 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504
In this poem, Hughes uses the central metaphor of the eponymous fox to describe the writer’s process of experiencing poetic inspiration and then writing the resulting poem down on the page. His imagination is represented by the midnight forest, a related metaphor that describes the fox’s home. At first, the speaker jumps back and forth between his external reality—it is midnight, dark, starless, and lonely with only his clock and the blank page in front of him—and the world within his imagination, where the darkness is populated by trees and his sense that the fox is somewhere nearby.
The fox moves “delicately,” as a new idea just beginning to form within the speaker’s mind might approach, gradually becoming more and more clear. Its nose is cold as it touches twigs and leaves, its eyes flash in the darkness, and it makes little footprints in the snow. Details slowly accumulate around the fox, giving it more reality, just as a newly formed thought becomes more concrete and particular as it matures.
At first, the speaker only sees the fox’s shadow but can then see the fox’s body, until, suddenly, he can smell the fox’s “hot stink” when it is very near, an idea or text almost fully formed in the writer’s head. Again, the fox’s movement from shadow to sensible body, from vagueness to concreteness, represents the movement of a creative thought from dim initial conception to full realization. It is notable that, at first, the “Something” the speaker detects could be anything at all, but gradually the possibilities diminish until what remains is the particular fact of the fox, with its “stink.” Likewise, the speaker’s “blank page” could theoretically yield any poem, but as the creative process unfolds, with one choice leading to another and another, the field of all possible poems narrows more and more until the process is complete, and the poet is left with the actuality of the “page. . . printed.”
This metaphor seems to limit how much the writer can really do to affect his or her own inspiration and process. The writer can, as this writer does, prepare himself and go willingly into the midnight forest of his imagination. The writer can patiently await the fox, allowing the fox—like a new idea—to roam freely, to give it space so as not to disturb its wanderings and the details that accumulate around it. The writer can do all of this, but it is still possible that he might frighten the fox away, or even that the fox will not come at all. The writer, then, is rather at the mercy of the fox, a representation of his ideas and inspiration, instead of the other way around. This suggests that the artist has relatively little control over the process—and perhaps less than one might expect or hope. As Hughes frames it, there is a great element of chance and even mystery in how the artistic process takes place.