The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes
The most of Hughes’ poetic work is inspired by nature, particularly the innocent savagery of animals, which he has been fascinated by since a young age. He frequently wrote about the natural world’s contrasts of beauty and violence. Animals serve as a metaphor for his philosophy of life: animals, like humans, struggle for ascendancy and success. The poems “Hawk Roosting” and “Jaguar” both contain examples of this.
Hughes’ childhood dialect remained a constant presence in his poetry, lending a concrete, succinct, emphatic, economical yet powerful texture to his lexicon. The manner of speech elucidates the realities of life and deters self-indulgence.
Hughes’ later work is heavily influenced by myth and the British bardic tradition, but also by modernist, Jungian, and ecological perspectives. He reworked classical and archetypal mythology using a dark subconscious as a starting point.
Among Ted Hughes’s early poems, “The Thought-Fox” holds a special place. Despite the fact that it was not the first poem in Hughes’ first collection, The Hawk in the Rain (published in 1957), he later moved it to the top of his Selected Poems. It is at least partly a poem about writing poetry, or poetic inspiration, as the case may be. He wrote in his collection of radio talks, Poetry in the Making, that he wrote it after a year of not writing. As a result, the fox could be interpreted as a symbol of the poet’s creative powers being renewed. We should be wary of taking everything Hughes says about his own poetry at face value. “The Thought-Fox” was “the first “animal” poem I ever wrote,” he writes in Poetry in the Making. It wasn’t: the year before, he would written and published “The Jaguar” However, this demonstrates that he thought the poem to be particularly significant. When he read it aloud in public, he would begin by telling the audience about a dream he had two years prior, while studying English at Cambridge. In his dream, a burnt and bloody fox the size of a man with human hands entered his room, put a bloody hand on the essay he was writing, and said, “Stop this – you are destroying us.” He may not have been thinking about this dream when he wrote “The Thought-Fox” but it is significant that he later made the connection.
Summary of The Thought Fox
“The Thought-Fox” is one of Hughes’ most celebrated and anthologized poems, appearing in his first collection of poems, The Hawk in the Rain (1957). Many of the stylistic and thematic elements that have come to define Hughes’ poetry can be found in this poem.
This poem, set in the present, draws the reader into a calm and clear midnight world that is neither real nor imagined. The poet, the speaker, is alone near the window, with only the ticking of the clock for company.
The poet at his desk is attempting to write but failing miserably. He senses a second presence –’something more near, though deeper within the darkness, is entering the loneliness.’ The night itself is symbolic of the depths of imagination, representing the idea of dormant genius and the muse, who usually visits at odd hours. When the poet is alone at night, working on his poem, he senses the stirrings of an idea.
Something else is alive and very close in his mind, but it is deep within the interior, perhaps in the subconscious, and it is almost an abstract entity. Words, conscious living words, are the only way to coax it out.
This enigmatic nature of imaginative stirrings is compared to the blurred shadow of a fox moving stealthily through the night’s darkness. The shadow in the night evokes the amorphous and abstract nature of literary inspiration, which, like a fox, enters mysteriously and without warning.
This fox, this hybrid thought-fox, is subjected to the poet’s quiet will, which draws the fox out of the poet’s imagination and onto the page in an almost magical manner.
The presence of the fox symbolises the idea itself, and at first, the poet is unsure what the idea is. As Hughes writes, “a fox’s nose touches twig, leaf,” implying that the fragmented image of the fox’s nose represents only a very basic view of an idea, rather than one that has been stamped out clearly. The fox is shrouded in darkness, and the poet can only see the tip of it; similarly, the muse visits but only leaves him with a fragment of an image to build into a poem. The fox remains half-hidden and elusive throughout the poem, as does the idea, leaving the poet with only wisps of imagery to contend with.
Hughes’ imagery has a softness to it, with his penchant for mythical language shining through as he speaks of the ‘dark snow’ and the ‘eye / a widening deepening greenness.’ Hughes’ imagery has a cinematic quality to it – one can easily imagine the quiet night, the poet at his desk, the fox touching a leaf in a separate shot – and he uses this to evoke the idea of the playful muse, sneaking in and out of the poet’s grasp.
Gradually, the fox emerges from formlessness; a ‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’, indicating that the poet has reached the pinnacle of his musing and has written the poem that has tantalised him all night. The fox appears suddenly, and the idea enters the poet’s mind and is immortalised on the page. The poem and the fox are one and the same.
Another thing to consider is the poem’s structure. Ted Hughes writes at a breakneck pace that heightens the suspense. Only the fox’s nose is visible at first. Then there were two eyes. The choppy punctuation reflects the fox’s/hesitancy, idea’s and the delicate way Ted Hughes writes about the fox leaving prints in the snow is emphasised by the sharp, short phrase’sets neat prints in the snow’.
The Thought-Fox moves almost like clockwork, beginning at an hour crawl and quickening, the image of the fox becoming more concrete, until the final staggering end where the fox comes out in a rush – again, symbolised in the way Hughes writes about it – only to dim back down into quiet – ‘the window is starless still; the clock ticks; / The page is printed’.
Despite the fact that the poem is written in free verse, Hughes adheres to the quatrain form, with each stanza consisting of four lines. ‘The Thought-Fox’ is probably the most well-known poem about poetic inspiration in modern poetry. It is still one of Ted Hughes’ most popular poems among readers.
As the imagined time of midnight approaches, the speaker’s tone is one of mystery and dream-like suspension; the speaker is alone, so all is quiet. It is pitch black. What exactly is this person doing as they transition from the mind to the real world and back?
In the first two stanzas, the air is thick with anticipation. Something is entering the loneliness, but the reader is not given any specifics; in fact, this is not even an objective look at a fox.
This fox, this hybrid thought-fox, is subjected to the poet’s quiet will, which draws the fox out of the poet’s imagination and onto the page in an almost magical manner.
The Thought Fox is a six-stanza poem in which all of the lines are quatrains, with one or two full end rhymes and hints of slant rhyme thrown in for good measure. There is no set metre (in US metre), but the rhythms of the fox as it moves across the page come through through careful punctuation and enjambment (where one line runs into another without losing its sense).
Analysis Of The Thought Fox
The Thought-Fox explores the mystery of creation and suggests to the reader that the act of creation, in this case, the writing of a poem, is sparked by something outside of time and space.
The first two stanzas set the tone for the rest of the poem. They suggest that there is a life process, an energy that exists and moves instinctively through time, hidden within the loneliness and darkness. It currently has no form, shape, or consciousness. It is up to the poet to bring it to life.
The gentle alliterative soft consonant m complements the repeated loneliness, the deeper within darkness (and is similar to the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover). Take note of the long vowels, which help to stretch out time as consciousness awakens.
The soft consonant d and deftly placed punctuation in the third stanza help to keep the pace and rhythm slow. The reader is aware that something is about to happen, but is unsure until line 2, when the fox’s nose emerges, smelling a twig, a leaf in the imagined forest.
This is a fantastic image. The dark snow represents a blank page; poetic energy is about to be released and is currently being released. However, both silence and solitude are required for the fox to form words and progress.
Ted Hughes chose the fox as the poetic impulse because it was a symbol for him and a creature close to his heart. The fox’s silky movements, light measured skips, and quick trot are captured in the poem’s flow and rhythm in the latter half.
The third stanza, which now repeats four times, beautifully reflects the fox’s careful steps, and the reader is taken along into the fourth stanza with the tracks already ‘printed’ in the snow.
As the fox’s shadow, the poetic doubt, moves through the snowy wood, slowing down, being cautious, then bold and always instinctive, the imagery intensifies. This is the poem as it is created by the mind and finger from fictitious material, with the personified fox transformed into words that appear to form on their own.
And as the poet’s vision unmistakably becomes one with the page, the darkness of the mind and Reynard meet once more, the senses alive with a sudden sharp hot fox smell, the real world remains unaffected as the poem is crafted.
Ted Hughes is well-known for his use of animal imagery in his work. The poem’s title is full of animal imagery, with the fox being compared to a writer’s thought process before writing something great. Silence and solitude are required for the fox to move and for the thought to be released. The process of contemplative writing is represented by the fox’s measured and quick steps, and the use of “now” for the four times emphasises the careful steps a fox takes before entering the poet’s head. This process eloquently connotes the formation of more clear and concrete thought. The fox’s shadow is becoming increasingly clear, and its progress through the snowy woods, leaving a beautiful and artistic footprint, indicates that the dim thought has become clear and is being printed on white paper. The blank paper printed with the poet’s poetic creation stands for the white snow with the footprint.
Another Detailed Analysis of The Thought-Fox
The poem “The Thought-Fox” is about writing a poem, and it explains the nature of literary inspiration and creation. The poem’s action takes place at midnight, when the poet is alone at his desk, with only the ticking of the clock for company. The image conjured up is one of silence and solitude, with the poet cut off from the rest of the world, waiting to be transported by his literary imagination. The poet’s imagination is depicted as if creeping silently upon the poet, evoking a sense of stealth:
“Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness Is entering the loneliness:”
Of course, the night is a metaphor for the poet’s more intimate darkness of imagination and creative inspiration, which creeps up on him silently and without warning, “cold, delicately as the dark snow.” The mysterious nature of imaginative stirrings is compared to the indistinct shadow of a fox moving stealthily through the night’s darkness. The shadow in the night evokes the amorphous and abstract nature of literary inspiration, which enters mysteriously and without warning, much like a fox. The fox appears to materialise from the formlessness of the snow; it is a faint shadow against the white that will take the shape “of a body that is bold to come.” Thus, the image of the fox forming is analogous to the process of creative imagination, which gradually takes shape in the poet’s mind to produce a work of art:
Coming about its own business
Till with sudden sharp hot stink of fox It enters the dark hole of the head.”
The fox penetrates the poet’s mind’s deep and intimate darkness, evoking the moment when the desired vision is attained. The poem concludes in the same way it began, with a full circle.
“The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.”
The fox represents the creative process as a near-mystical experience that emerges from nothingness through poetic imagination. “And I suppose that long after I am gone, as long as a copy of the poem exists, every time someone reads it, the fox will rise from the darkness and come walking towards them,” Ted Hughes wrote. Thus, the fox appears to symbolise the epiphanies of reading that embrace the reader as he becomes absorbed in a work of art.
“The Thought Fox” by Ted Hughes embodies the solitude that surrounds a work of art. Hughes’ poem’s final line carries an air of fatalism and wistfulness. For while the final stanza expresses the exhilaration of poetic creation, the final line’s matter-of-factness seems to snap us back to reality, evoking an almost palpable sense of relief that the poem is complete. The blank white page brimming with poetry potential has now been printed, and the writer is well aware that the poem that has been written is always a pale reflection of the poem or poems that could have been written.
The Thought Fox has frequently been hailed as the most fully realised and artistically satisfying poem in Ted Hughes’s first collection, The Hawk in the Rain. Simultaneously, it is one of Hughes’s most frequently anthologized poems. In this essay, I have used what might be considered a fairly routine analysis of this well-known poem to draw attention to an aspect of Hughes’ poetry that is frequently overlooked. My particular interest is in Hughes’s poetic vision’s underlying puritanism and the conflict between violence and tenderness that appears to be engendered directly by this puritanism.
‘The Thought Fox’ is a poem about the process of writing poetry. Its external action occurs in a late-night room where the poet is alone at his desk. Outside, the night is devoid of stars, silent, and completely dark. However, the poet detects an unsettling presence:
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness Is entering the loneliness
The disturbance is not in the external darkness of the night, for the night is a metaphor for the poet’s imagination’s deeper and more intimate darkness, in the depths of which an idea mysteriously stirs. At first, the concept lacks defined contours; it is felt rather than seen–frail and intensely vulnerable. Through the sensitivity of his language, the poet’s task is to coax it out of formlessness and into fuller consciousness. The poem’s distant stirrings are compared to those of an animal–a fox, whose body is invisible but which nervously makes its way forward through the dark undergrowth:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow, A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Within these lines is a half-hidden image of soft snow brushing against the trees as it falls in dark flakes to the ground. The delicate dark snow evokes the fox’s physical reality, which is cold, dark, and damp, twitching moistly and gently against twig and leaf. Thus, the fox’s first characteristic is defined mysteriously, and its wet black nose pulses nervously in the darkness, sensing its way towards us. However, by inverting the simile’s natural order and omitting the sentence’s subject, the poet succeeds in blurring its distinctness, such that the fox emerges slowly from the formlessness of the snow. The fox’s eyes gradually emerge from the same formlessness, leading the shadowy movement of its body as it approaches:
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow. ..
The punctuation and line-endings in the first two lines of this passage disrupt the verse’s rhythm, while also deviating from the rhyme scheme’s predictable path. Thus, both rhythmically and phonetically, the verse mimics the fox’s nervous, unpredictable movement as it delicately advances, then abruptly stops to check the terrain before running on only to stop again. The fox’s tracks in the snow are mirrored by the sounds and rhythm of the line ‘Sets neat prints in the snow’. The first three short words of this line are internal half-rhymes that are as neat, as identical, and as precisely defined as the fox’s paw prints, and these words press gently but distinctly into the soft open vowel of snow. The fox’s body remains indistinct against the snow, a silhouette. However, the phrase ‘lame shadow’ conjures a more precise image of the fox, which freezes alertly in its tracks, holding one front paw in mid-air, and then limps away again like a limping animal. The words ‘bold to come’ are left suspended at the end of the stanza–as if the fox is pausing at the outer edge of some trees. The space between the stanzas is itself the clearing through which the fox shoots, after a brief hesitation: ‘Of a body that is bold to come / Across clearings..’
At this point in the poem, the hesitant rhythm of that single sentence, which has been extended over five stanzas, finally breaks into a deliberate run. The fox has a scent of security. Following its dash across the stanza-break clearing, it has crept closer, bearing down on the poet and the reader:
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business. ..
It is now so close that its two eyes have fused into a single green glare that grows wider and wider as the fox approaches, its eyes aimed directly at ours: ‘Till, with a sudden sharp hot fox smell/It enters the dark hole of the head’. If we follow the poem’s ‘visual logic,’ we are forced to imagine the fox leaping through the poet’s eyes – with whom the reader is inevitably drawn into identification. The fox enters the head’s lair as it would its own, bringing with it its hot, sensual, animal odour and all the excitement and power associated with the achieved vision.
The fox is no longer a shapeless stirring in the dark recesses of the bodily imagination; it has been coaxed into full consciousness. It is no longer nervous or vulnerable, but at ease in the head’s lair, safe from extinction, perfectly created, and forever ensnared on the page. And all of this was accomplished solely through the use of one’s imagination. For there is no fox in reality, and nothing has changed outside, in the external darkness: ‘The window remains starless; the clock ticks, / The page is printed.’ The fox is a metaphor for the poem, and the poem is a metaphor for the fox. ‘And I suppose that long after I am gone, as long as a copy of the poem exists, every time someone reads it, the fox will rise from the darkness and approach them.’
Hughes’ vision’s sublimity and God-like quality can elicit uneasiness. Hughes’s fox, on the other hand, possesses none of the animal’s freedom. It is incapable of rising from the page and walking away to nuzzle its young cubs or engaging in foxy behaviour behind the poet’s back. It is incapable of dying in its own mortal, animal manner. For it is the poet’s creature, wholly owned and possessed by him, almost egotistically fashioned in order to proclaim not its own reality but that of its imaginatively omnipotent creator. (I originally wrote these words before discovering Hughes’ own discussion of the poem in Poetry in the Making: ‘So, you see, my fox is superior to an ordinary fox in some ways. It will live in perpetuity and will never face hunger or hounds. It is always with me. And it was mine. And all of this by vividly imagining it and discovering the living words’.
The final stanza of the poem heightens this sense of unease. For while this stanza clearly conveys the exhilaration of poetic creation, it also appears to convey an almost predatory thrill; as if the fox has been successfully lured into a hunter’s trap. The final line’s bleak matter-of-factness–’The page is printed’–only serves to reinforce the thought-peculiar fox’s death. If there is one sense in which the fox is vividly and immediately alive at the poem’s conclusion, it is only because it has been artfully pinned to the page. The exactitude with which the fox is evoked appears at times almost obsessive. The poem’s studied and exquisitely ‘final’ quality indicates that we are not in the presence of untrained spontaneity, primitive or naive vision. One could argue that Hughes’s poem is written from the perspective of an intellectual–an intellectual who, in defiance of his own ascetic rationalism, feels compelled to seek out and capture an aspect of his own sensual and intuitive identity that he does not possess securely.
Hughes’ poetry is permeated by the conflict of sensibility that Hughes unintentionally dramatises in ‘The Thought Fox.’ On the one hand, his work demonstrates an extraordinary sensuous and sensual generosity that coexists with an uncommon sense of abundance and a capacity for tenderness in contemporary poetry. These characteristics are particularly evident in several of his most mysteriously powerful poems–poems such as ‘Crow’s undersong,’ ‘Littleblood,’ ‘Full moon and little Frieda,’ and ‘Bride and groom lie hidden for three days.’ On the other hand, his poetry–particularly his poetry in Crow–is infamous for the ferocity of its violence, a violence that has been viewed as destructive of all artistic and human values by some critics. Hughes appears to regard his own poetic sensitivity as ‘feminine,’ and his poetry frequently conveys the impression that he can indulge this sensitivity only within a protective shell of hard, steely’masculine’ violence.
This conflict of sensibility appears in such a diminished or suppressed form in ‘The thought-fox’ that it is far from the poem’s most striking feature. However, as I have attempted to demonstrate, the conflict can still be discerned. It is most evident in the tension between the extraordinary sensuous delicacy of the image Hughes uses to describe the fox’s nose and the predatory impulse that appears to underpin the poem – an impulse Hughes has repeatedly compared the act of poetic creation to the process of capturing or killing small animals. Indeed, one could argue that the poem’s final stanza records what amounts to a ritual of tough’manly’ posturing. For in it, the poet may be seen as engaging in an imaginative game in which he attempts to outstare the fox by staring directly into its eyes and refusing to move, flinch, or show any sign of ‘feminine’ weakness.
The fox, on the other hand, does not flinch or deviate from its path. It is almost as if it has successfully completed an initiation ritual to which the poet unconsciously subjected it; the fox, initially nervous, circumspect, and as soft and delicate as the dark snow, has demonstrated that it is not ‘feminine’ at all, but tough, manly, and steely willed ‘brilliantly, concentratedly, going about its own business’. Perhaps it is only under these conditions that the poet can accept its sensuality without anxiety.