Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

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In his essay “Capturing Animals” (Poetry Is, 1967), Ted Hughes recalls his boyhood hunting expeditions with his brother. Hughes’s job was to retrieve the many different creatures that his brother shot. When he was fifteen, however, his attitude to animals changed. He gave up hunting around the same time that he began to write poems.

It was several years before he realized that “my writing poems might be partly a continuation of my earlier pursuit. Now I have no doubt. The special kind of excitement, the slightly mesmerized and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind, then the outline, the mass and color and clear final form of it, the unique living reality of it in the midst of the general lifelessness, all that is too familiar to mistake.” It is hunting, he wrote, and the poem is a new type of creature. “The Thought-Fox” was the first of Hughes’s many animal poems. He says, “It is about a fox, obviously enough, but a fox that is both a fox and not a fox.It is both a fox and a spirit.” The poem is a clear expression of his notion that writing poetry is a kind of hunting, an attempt to capture the unique essence of an experience or an object.

According to Hughes, a poem, like the fox, comes of its own volition. Also like the fox, it comes shyly, “warily,” and step by step. The implication is that it could easily be frightened away at any stage. In fact, in his essay “Learning to Think” (also in Poetry Is), Hughes describes how his experience of angling taught him to write poetry. His technique to catch fish was to keep perfectly still and allow his mind to settle on the float, which would attract the fish. Similarly, the would-be poet must first learn to still his mind on an object in order to catch the myriad thoughts that gradually attach themselves to it.

“The Thought-Fox” embodies Hughes’s vision of poetic creation—that a poem, before it takes on a manifest form on the page, has a life of its own, independent of the individualized self of the poet. The poet’s role is impersonal. He only has to stay quiet and alert, to be receptive to the poem. Then he can capture it as it emerges from the depths of uncreated reality and delicately makes its way into conscious awareness.

Hughes shares his vision of the creative process with the English Romantics, who commonly viewed poets as channels through whom inspiration flowed from a transcendent source. Hughes’s unique contribution to this tradition is his ability to clothe profound metaphysical truths in simple, precise language and concrete images from nature.