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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

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Wodwo is Hughes's 1967 collection of poetry, and draws its title from this poem. A "wodwo" is a "wild man," a creature somewhere between elves and fairies and actual humans. One way to understand the wodwo is to think of it as a representation of primal masculinity, or "maleness" in a state before civilization. Hughes's poem is told from the point of view of a wodwo and is an effort to answer the question posed at the start: "What am I?"

Hughes's poem works on several levels. One of the most striking aspects of the poem is its evocation of the natural world. The wodwo's compulsive exploration of the natural world is described with potent sensory imagery: it is "nosing here, turning the leaves over, following a faint stain on the air"; this attention grants him knowledge of "the frog's most secret interior," but this causes him to wonder about his separateness from nature:

Do these weeds / know me and name me to each other have they / seen me before do I fit in their world?

This part of the poem seems to be to suggest that in posing the "What am I?" question, the wodwo already seems to have become self-conscious.

The poem then turns to considering the origin of the wodwo and the nature of freedom. When the wodwo notes that "I seem / separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped / out of nothing," he is articulating a basic paradox of existence: as a conscious being, he understands himself to be different from nature, but he cannot account for how this difference has happened. He seems to have been "dropped out of nothing"—there are "no threads / fastening me to anything I can go anywhere." In a way, it is this freedom that comes to define the woodwo; he finds that "if I go / to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees / till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me," as if his "shape" can be measured not by physical size but the degree to which he can move or shape the natural world. It is as if his growing consciousness of himself has become an organizing principle for all existence: "for the moment if I / sit still how everything / stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre."

It's hard not to read this poem—the centerpiece of Hughes's first collection after the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath—as a kind of response to the feminine energy in her posthumous collection Ariel, the publication of which was overseen by Hughes. The wodwo's supposition that he is the focus of attention while also helpless before his instinctive need to explore the natural world also sums up a particular view of masculinity: one that is supremely self-conscious and ego-driven, while at the same time, spurred on by unconscious desires. This poem, then, is perhaps less of a declaration of what it is to be "male," than a description of the poet's internal state.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

“Wodwo” is a poem of twenty-eight lines written in free verse. The poet is writing in the first person but in the persona of the Wodwo, which he describes in his essay “Learning to Think” (Poetry Is, 1970) as “some sort of goblin creaturea sort of half-man half-animal spirit of the forests.”

The Wodwo is not addressing the reader. Rather, the poem shows the stream of consciousness of the Wodwo. It mumbles to itself in the way that very young children or old people sometimes do, talking themselves through the processes of living and thinking. The poem begins with the Wodwo asking, “What am I?” The question is central to the poem and recurs in various modifications throughout. The reader sees the Wodwo rooting through leaves and following a scent to the river. It dives in, and one gains the first sense of how its exceptionally primitive consciousness experiences the world around it.

When it dives into water, it is actually upside down looking at the river bed, but it can only conceive that it is the river bed which is upside down above it. It is unable to connect the way things appear with the vantage point from which it is looking at them. As soon as it is under water, it forgets that fact and asks what it is doing “here in mid-air.” The Wodwo notices a frog and asks itself why it finds the frog interesting “as I inspect its most secret/ interior and make it my own.” This may be a chillingly intimate reference to the Wodwo’s eating the frog. It asks whether the weeds have seen it before. Unlike them, it is “not rooted but dropped/ out of nothing casually”: It knows neither where it comes from nor where it belongs.

As the Wodwo picks bits of bark off a rotten stump, it questions why it does so, since the act gives it no pleasure and is of no use. Its own action seems to have happened to it at random: “me and doing that have coincided very queerly.” This brings it again to the question of self-identity; it wonders what its name is, whether it is the first of its kind, and what its shape is.

After walking past the trees, the Wodwo sits still. It assumes in this moment, with childlike perception, that everything stops to watch it, inferring that “I am the exact centre.” It cannot sustain this reflection for long. Its attention is taken up again by the masses of roots before it and by the water, though it seems baffled as to how the water has appeared once more. In stream-of-consciousness tradition, the poem has an open ending: “I’ll go on looking,” says the Wodwo—though for what, it does not know.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

Many of the poem’s verbs are in the present continuous form—“Nosing here, turning leaves over/ following a faint stain on the air”—conveying the Wodwo’s limited perception, confined to the object right in front of its nose at any point. The run-on lines, in which a sentence or phrase runs from one line to the next without significant pause, as well as the lack of punctuation emphasize the stream-of-consciousness form of the poem. The bewildered Wodwo’s impressions follow one after another without reflection other than its bewilderment at what it is.

It is significant that the only form of punctuation is the question mark, as the Wodwo questions its own nature and the reasons it does what it does. It never gives itself time to find any answers, however, as immediately after it has asked the question, its attention passes back to a frog or to the roots or weeds in its environment.

Ted Hughes acknowledges the influence of Anglo-Saxon poetry on his work. “Wodwo” is a typical example, both in terms of its language—short, concrete words of one or two syllables are favored above longer, abstract, Latinate ones—and in terms of its patterns of alliteration (repetition of initial consonants). The Anglo-Saxon poets divided lines into two parts, with one pair of similar sounds in the first half and one pair in the second. The result was a vigorous narrative style that carried the listener along for substantial periods of oral recitation. Hughes often uses alliteration in “Wodwo” to tie a phrase together and to enrich the sound qualities of the verse, as in “coincided very queerly,” “the glassy grain of water” and “know me and name me.”

Repetition of words or phrases is another common device in the poem. Lines such as “if I go/ to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees” and “but there’s all this what is it roots/ roots roots roots” emphasize the Wodwo’s manner of perception, a disconnected series of sensory impressions. The repetition of “very queerly” in the last line’s “very queer” almost renders the phrase a motto for the Wodwo in its wonder and bewilderment.

For the most part, the language of the poem is straightforward and colloquial. The poem’s few metaphors are typical of Hughes’s style in that they are precise concretizations in simple language of more intangible experiences. Describing a smell as “a faint stain on the air” gives it a visible quality. The Wodwo’s splitting “the glassy grain of water” adds a solidity to this liquid element. His observation that he has no threads fastening him to anything directly conveys his lack of connectedness with his world.