from Chicago Review, Autumn 2010
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness ...
—Ted Hughes, "The Thought-Fox"
Ted Hughes thought of the poet's vocation as a gift, a kind of supernatural calling. It was based on a privileged shamanic conversation between the acolyte (or the poet) and the divinity. What is regarded as a gift, as Harold Bloom has noted, may also be seen as compensatory for a psychic loss. That loss was the requirement imposed by reality itself: "defacement"—to use Paul de Man's term—or loss of power, the necessary submission to the wishes and requirements of others in the course of social existence. Hughes's poetry arises in conjunction with the problems of subjection and authority. Despite its attempts to locate a space outside or beyond convention, it remains situated in the matrix of losses and restrictions that compose social life. The subjection of abiding by convention is, in Hughes's work, the platform on which his poetic autobiography is based. The problem is that of having to live a life in accordance with conditions that one can suspend imaginatively, but not in reality.
The first and most powerful institution of social authority against which Hughes would seek to define himself was the university. The widely anthologized poem, "The Thought-Fox," which was probably composed in 1955, at the end of Hughes's undergraduate years at Cambridge, relates to the young poet's discovery of how formal education might undermine his vocation. As he wrote to Keith Sagar,
I might say, that I had as much talent for Leavis-style dismantling of texts as anybody else, I even had a special bent for it—nearly a sadistic streak there,—but it seemed to me not only a foolish game but deeply destructive of myself. I think it was something peculiar to Cambridge at that time, that nurtured it, & in particular separated the spirit of surgery & objective analysis from the spirit of husbandry & sympathetic coaching.
A good deal of anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances confirms Hughes's fixation on poetry and its role in his alienation from the university. The incompatibility between poetry writing and academic criticism is a commonplace. Auden, for example, understood this clearly at Oxford in the 30s; Alan Levy quotes the following conversation between the young poet and his tutor: "And what are you going to do, Mr. Auden, when you leave the university?" the tutor inquired. Auden replied: "I am going to be a poet." The don, surprised, observed: "Well, in—in that case, you should find it very useful to have read English." After a "pained" silence, Auden answered: "You don't understand. I am going to be a great poet."
Hughes seems to have reached a similar conclusion. One of his preceptors recalled that he much preferred Dylan Thomas to John Donne, a very natural act of affiliation on the part of an apprentice poet of the 50s, but not, at the time, an indication of a serious devotion to academic literary studies. In the Leavis era, the metaphysical poets were sacrosanct.
Social class was also a factor in Hughes's discomfort at Cambridge. He was born into a lower-middle-class family in an impoverished district of rural Yorkshire whose economy was dependent on weaving and sheep farming. By the 1950s the mills were defunct and the region was plagued by severe unemployment. Hughes was the first member of his family to attend university, and he seemed well-positioned to achieve success and social advancement—as he in fact did. But like D.H. Lawrence (whom he revered), Hughes always felt like an outsider in the urban and upper-class world. "He was never properly civilized, never properly believed in his civilization [i.e., the English class system]," was the withering verdict of A. Alvarez. Aside from parental pressure he had little motivation to be patient with Cambridge. He did not appreciate the urbanity of the University Wits who were then in fashion or for poetry that assumed an attitude of ironic detachment. His disillusionment with academic literary culture and the poets he regarded as representatives of its worldview provided a strong impetus for his own contrarian act of self-fashioning.
"The Thought-Fox" is at the heart of this self-fashioning. According to Hughes, it recounts a vivid dream that led him to abandon academic work in English. He provides an account of this dream in a short essay entitled "The Burnt Fox," adding many details that do not appear in the poem. Hughes had been trying to complete an assignment before falling asleep:
I dreamed I had never left my table and was still sitting there, bent over the lamplit piece of foolscap.... Suddenly my attention was drawn to the door. I thought I had heard something there. As I waited, listening, I saw the door was opening slowly. Then a head came round the edge of the door. It was about the height of a man's head but clearly the head of a fox—though the light over there was dim. The door opened wide and down the short stair and across the room towards me came a figure that was at the same time a skinny man and a fox walking erect on its hind legs. It was a fox, but the size of a wolf. As it approached and came into the light I saw that its body and limbs had just now stepped out of a furnace. Every inch was roasted, smouldering, black-charred, split and bleeding. Its eyes, which were level with mine where I sat, dazzled with the intensity of the pain. It came up until it stood beside me. Then it spread its hand—a human hand as I now saw, but burned and bleeding like the rest of him—flat palm down on the blank space of my page. At the same time it said: "Stop this—you are destroying us." Then as it lifted its hand away I saw the blood-print, like a palmist's specimen, with all the lines and creases, in wet, glistening blood on the page.
The poem is a simpler work than its gloss:
I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
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
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks;
The page is printed.
A parable of poetic inspiration, "The Thought-Fox" leaves out the gothic touches of sizzling flesh, fur, and bloody palms that have a clear rhetorical purpose in the subsequent prose narrative. The fox is here both a physical and a mental apparition, but one that scarcely resembles the comic-book fox-man of the essay. Its presence is established through furtive movements, its shadow on the snow, the "cold" of its nose, and its scent, "a sudden sharp hot stink of fox." Significantly, it does not speak. The poem also leaves unclear the waking context of the dream and even neglects to mention that the "dream" was, in fact, a dream. Despite these differences, the poem and the prose account do share important similarities. Several motifs from the poem—the late hour of the night ("this midnight moment's forest"), the window, the blank paper, the printing of the page—are taken up in "The Burnt Fox" and given a series of rhetorical twists. The final stanzas of "The Thought-Fox" suggest that what appears on the page is a poem. The essay alludes to this, although the writing in "The Burnt Fox" is of a different type: a college assignment that ends in failure. Then again, "The Burnt Fox" plays on another possible meaning of print. The print that appears on the foolscap is the image of an outstretched human hand, a "palmist's specimen" glistening in "blood on the page," commanding the student to stop his work.
What explains the multiple redundancies and divergences of these two texts? The essay, which is a kind of gothic dream narrative, clearly alludes to the poem and presumes the reader's acquaintance with it. But the essay illustrates something different: a failed act of writing that was the precursor to a successful one. Hughes's disillusionment with the study of English literature proved to be a significant episode in his recognition of his poetic vocation. The way in which the essay refers back to the poem gives an imprimatur to the idea that the poem's final line refers to an act of poetic composition. The fox-man's single line of dialogue—"Stop this—you are destroying us"—serves to emphasize this reading: "us" likely refers to poems. The fox-man is another manifestation of the goddess of poetry (a figure familiar to Hughes through his immersion in the work of Robert Graves) with its gender and species curiously transformed. It speaks on behalf of Hughes's art, condemning the poet's academic efforts as a form of self-mutilation.
In a later essay, "Myth and Education," Hughes argues explicitly that modern education is soul destroying because it only allows for imaginative thought to represent the "outer world" (and thus encourages thinking that has instrumental value). But for Hughes, real imagination is tied to the "inner world," and to magic and shamanism. Accordingly it requires the development of mental faculties that have been neglected in Western culture for several centuries. Modern education, by inhibiting the imagination, threatens the creative process. It is especially dangerous for young artists. Hughes was intensely concerned with the problems of educating children and feared that young poets would encounter the same obstacles that had blocked his development. For Hughes, poetry has its root in bodily experience rather than rational reflection. Such a conviction was notably shared by Charles Olson, who memorably described the experience of composition as that of heeding the rhythm of breath. This is what the fox-as-avatar-of-the-poet is doing in "The Thought-Fox": heeding the physical experience of breathing, feeling, and listening. By following intuition rather than logic, the poet allows language to overcome the obstacles imposed by critical reflection.
Although shamanism is not a religion per se, it is a practice that, like poetry, exists alongside and in continuity with religious traditions. It allows for communication with spiritual realms and helps to resolve practical crises by assuring the help of supernatural forces. In contrast to bourgeois literary professionals, poets and shamans are situated, for Hughes, in the same matrix as diviners, astrologers, and psychics—in the disreputable, lower-class world of irrationality and superstition. The shaman's contact with supernatural forces is to some important degree involuntary. "The shaman," Hughes writes, "is 'chosen.'" The central episode in this process of initiation is a dream, in which spirits often appear in animal form. Hughes observes that in shamanistic rituals the acolyte or apprentice inflicts on himself "extraordinary solitary ordeals of fasting and self-mutilation, until a spirit, usually some animal, arrives and becomes henceforth his liaison with the spirit world."
While Hughes was traveling in the United States in the late 50s, he became deeply interested in Native American mythology, and he often incorporated its motifs into his later poetry. (Crow  is based on patterns that appear in Native American creation myths. Animal figures from folktales appear often in Birthday Letters .) It is likely that he also knew about such traditions from his studies in anthropology (in which he received his degree after dropping out of English). The dream-tale of "The Burnt Fox" is therefore in all likelihood less a dream than an embellished fictionalization of an experience construed after the fact as shamanistic, which represented a summons by the muse. It echoes "The Thought-Fox," while making the context more explicit and establishing a connection between the social and the mythopoeic narratives of discovering a vocation.
When one takes "The Burnt Fox" as a palimpsest for "The Thought-Fox" it becomes clear that the two works are intended to be read together and compose a mythical narrative that supports Hughes's sense of vocation. When juxtaposed they connect the origin of the poetic vocation to the problem of modern education itself, with its repression of instinct and its deformation of imaginative life. Hughes chose poetry or felt that it had been chosen for him, and he decided therefore to reject the professional demands implicit in university education and follow a different route to literary success. Hughes's poetry is governed by the requirements of mythopoeic autobiography. He wished to refashion himself both publicly and privately as a poet, and he recognized at every turn the need to convey the illusion that his choice of a poetic vocation was unaffected by social pressure.
Writing poetry of lasting value means not only overcoming conformity, but also the watchfulness of one's own critical faculties; Keats famously called this "negative capability." Hughes's self-critical inhibitions are described in the essay—and alluded to in the beginning of the poem—in the plight of the poor student who cannot complete an assignment. Lifting such a weight requires supernatural assistance, and this need governs Hughes's invocation of the muse or goddess, who arrives in form of the tutelary fox-spirit. The "sudden sharp hot stink" that signals its arrival represents an experience of creativity that is rooted in foreboding but also in the joyous surprise of overcoming. In truth, "The Thought-Fox" is, to borrow Bloom's terms, a poem about poetry working out "its own salvation" through its chosen vessel, a process in which inspiration is not experienced as a gentle visitation but as "terror." This violence helps the poet transcend repression.
Hughes identifies poetry with the fox (that is, with the animal) and also, extending the metaphor, with "lower" orders of experience, with instinctive action. Writing poetry short-circuits the connection between repressed instinct and expression in language, returning to thought a primitive immediacy. The "thought" fox is metaphorically a certain kind of thought and a certain type of intellectual experience based upon intuitive or magical thinking. The impulsive yet purposeful movements of the fox describe the work of the imagination in the act of poetic composition happening in a perpetual present where time is suspended:
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
The prints made in the white, paper-like surface of snow by the fox mimic the lines that the poet calls into existence on the blank page.
Yet "The Thought-Fox" is not just a poem about creative success. It also alerts us to the problematic status of the poetic imagination in Hughes's work, which presents a perpetual conflict between body and mind, matter and form. This dualism is the poem's essential inner drama. Matter and form, like man and animal, confront one another implacably and are finally irreconcilable. The conflicts in Hughes's poems are dualities in perpetual suspension. The poet, meanwhile, is also caught in a vexed position, standing within the poem but also outside it; the call of poetry and the intrusion of the world continually interrupt one another's demands. And while the poet, like Prospero, orchestrates the drama of composition, he is also the captive of its rough magic.
"The Thought-Fox" from Collected Poems, © 2003 by Ted Hughes. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
About the Author
Robert Huddleston was a member of the Chicago Review poetry staff from 1997 to 2000. In 2006 he completed his dissertation entitled "Radicals and Realists: British Poetry from Auden to Heaney." He is the author of numerous articles and reviews as well as poems and translations. He lives and teaches in New York City.
University of Chicago
Editor: V. Joshua Adams
Poetry Editor: Michael Hansen
Fiction Editor: P. Genesius Durica
Nonfiction Editor: Joel Calahan