Last Updated January 4, 2024.
“Wolfwatching” by Ted Hughes was published in the poetry collection Wolfwatching in 1989. The poem is set in the modern era and takes place at a London zoo. The speaker, who enters into the perspective of a wolf, reflects on the animal’s captivity and the effects the long days of dullness have had on a wild animal. There are, however, much deeper symbolic meanings within the poem that stretch back to the effects of the two World Wars and reflect on the paradoxes faced by modern people who lead humdrum lives and are nearly as captive as the wolf.
Stanza 1: The Old, White Wolf
As the poem opens, an old wolf, “Woolly-bear white,” listens to the sounds of London. He sniffs the air and looks about with “black peepers.” He has been held captive his whole life, most of his interest focused on a “lump of meat,” and even his eyes are nearly frayed by looking so hard and so long at the “criss-cross embargo,” the wire fence that holds him in.
The wolf yawns. He is tattered and old, worn out by the stares of so many people, and he is so weary that he curls up on the stone of his pen. Yet his curiosity does not rest; there are always new people, noises, and colors. Still, the wolf is useless, merely a “ball of unease” with “leftover scraps and bits of energy.” He shifts around, unable to settle, not much left of his beauty, strength, or life, merely the agonies of boredom.
Stanza 2: An Old Wolf and a Young Wolf
The old wolf stiffly stands up and totters around, going for a drink of water, thinking it might ease him. Then he tries to lie back down but cannot get comfortable. He cowers as he curls up and “Subsides / In a trembling of wolf-pelt he no longer / Knows how to live up to.” He looks like a wolf, but his wolfishness is largely gone.
The scene shifts to a young wolf. He is majestic, and his eyes “beam” with his power. Yet he is bored, waiting “For the chance to live,” but the fence keeps him in. He thinks the noises and the people are temporary as he bides his time. He watches the birds, but they are not a forest.
The young wolf wears the “royalty” of his wolfish ancestry on his back. He spreads his paws on the pebbles and rests his “huge engine” of a head. He is a perfect wolf to be watched and admired, yet he is “A product / Without a market.”
Time passes, and something awful happens. The wolf’s “iron inheritance,” his “incredibly rich will,” is destroyed by boredom and restlessness. His eyes and nose work, but they are nervous. He does not know what he sees and hears, for he is not in the forest. His patience is “suffocating.”
The wolf still knows what he is: a wolf with a wolf’s eyes, ears, and nose. Yet, in the middle of London, everything is hopeless and futile. There is no escape, and his powerful paws lie before him, useless. “He doesn’t know how to use them.” The wolf then rises, his body “purposeful” once again, but the stimulus is only his Keeper coming to freshen up his water.
Stanza 3: A Wolf’s Disillusionment
All the wolf’s dreams of the future, all his possible “prodigious journeys,” have snapped and lay in “a tangled lump.” The wolf’s brain is damaged. His is doggish now, disillusioned, so bored that each yawn poisons him. Even if he tries to frolic, he is hopeless, meaningless, like millions of years of nothing. The world stinks like rotting meat.
Stanza 4: A Wolf’s Nightmare
The wolf is “hanging / Upside down on the wire / Of non-participation.” Perhaps he has tried to escape and been caught on the fence, or perhaps he has merely discovered that his boredom has hung him up in nothingness. He is a “tarot-card,” a mysterious sign that should have meaning. Yet no matter how hard he tries, he is always the “same card,” and nothing changes. His eyes are empty; there is nothing left of him.