The Thought-Fox

by Ted Hughes

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Last Updated October 12, 2022.

Inspiration Takes Patience

The speaker discusses the process of writing, drawing particular attention to the loneliness of the creative act. In instances of the pathetic fallacy, the act of projecting one’s own emotions onto one’s environment, he describes the clock as lonely as well as the darkness of the midnight forest which has sprung up in his imagination. 

Loneliness, then, can be understood as a metaphor for the absence of creative inspiration. Thus, the fox, the other living entity in the poem, brings the promise of alleviating the speaker’s solitude and charging him with the inspiration he needs to create his poem. However, the speaker cannot pursue the metaphorical fox or else it could flee from him and be lost within the forest. The speaker must await the fox, letting it approach him slowly and cautiously, in order to benefit from its beauty. 

The speaker has prepared for this moment, sitting quietly at midnight and in the darkness. He is ready for the thought-fox to come, prepared for it to make itself known, and he is willing to do whatever is necessary to coax it out, to allow it to come to him “about its own business” and to endure whatever difficult or unbeautiful truths it might bring with it—its “hot stink.” He must let it be what it wants to be and do what it wants to do on its own time, or else it could run away like a half-formed thought.

The Role of the Other

The poem suggests that artistic inspiration must come from outside the self. Even though the speaker is, in a literal sense, sitting alone at his desk in front of a blank page, he is only able to begin the process of writing by bringing in the outside world through his imagination: “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest.”

The concept of artistic inspiration as an external force, an other who visits the artist, is ancient, and its best-known expression is perhaps the Greek notion of the muse. Hughes gives this concept a new image in the form of the fox, a being the speaker must wait for, attend to, and respect in his effort to write. Although the fox does not literally exist, it illustrates the idea that the artist cannot simply generate ideas by his own volition. Rather, he must rely on the input of the outside world, which is transformed by his imagination into a new work of art.

Creative Focus

The metaphorical scene Hughes depicts in the poem emphasizes the importance of focus in the artistic process. The scene is presented as one the speaker has been through before: he refers in the first line to “this” midnight’s forest as though there have been many others. He returns to this forest of his imagination again and again, awaiting the inspiration brought by the fox. He is absolutely focused on the fox, each of the animal’s movements, keeping incredibly still himself so as not to frighten the fox away. He is aware only of its presence at first, and then he sees its movement, and eventually he can even smell it. He is absolutely focused only on this animal. By the end of the poem, it is clear that this degree of focus is necessary to achieve the desired goal: “The page. . . printed.”

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