A critical reading of a poem about poetic inspiration
‘The Thought-Fox’ is one of the most famous poems by Ted Hughes (1930-98). It is also one of the most celebrated poetic accounts of the act of writing poetry, or rather, more accurately, trying to write poetry and the arrival of inspiration. You can read ‘The Thought-Fox’ here. Below we sketch out our interpretation of the poem, analysing its language and meaning.
‘The Thought-Fox’ explores and analyses the writer’s struggle for inspiration, which is depicted in the poem by the fox. In summary, the speaker of the poem sits and tries to write a poem, the sound of the ticking clock and the blank page before him taunting him. He casts around for inspiration, but rejects the typical poetic trope of the stars (‘I see no star’), instead sensing the arrival of a fox into his ‘loneliness’. The fox is described in terms of its nose, its eyes, its paws leaving prints in the snow (the whiteness of the snow similar to the blankness of the white page in front of the poet), suggesting that the poet’s imagining of the creature is coming in partial details, much as inspiration often arrives gradually though vividly. (Unless you’re Archimedes, there is no Eureka moment – or not many.) The poem ends with the whole fox becoming fully formed in the poet’s mind’s eye – or rather not just his eye but his nose too (‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’). The poet successfully writes his poem, as if printing his words across the white page is simply a case of mirroring the paw-prints of the animal across the snow. The window remains ‘starless’: old-fashioned and clichéd poetic tropes were not required here. The poem is written – as, indeed, ‘The Thought-Fox’, a truly meta-poem, is now complete.
One of the most striking things about Hughes’s poem is the subtle way in which it summons up classic animal poems by previous poets. In the description of the fox’s eyes, we can glimpse the burning eyes of Blake’s ‘Tyger’; and in that opening line, ‘I imagine this midnight moment’s forest’, it is possible to detect an echo of the opening line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s celebrated poem ‘The Windhover’: ‘I caught this morning morning’s minion…’ It is fitting that, in a poem about trying to write a poem, Hughes should suggest the achievements of previous poets who, before him, found themselves faced with a similar challenge of how to write a new poem in one’s own style.
‘Coming about its own business’ subtly alters, and renders strange, the common form of the idiom (going about one’s own business), while ‘hole of the head’ stands between ‘whole of the head’ (suggesting the way in which the thought-fox’s presence fills and occupies the poet’s mind) and ‘hole in the head’ (something useless, which, until the fox’s arrival, the poet’s mind largely was, empty of ideas as it was).
The poem’s unrhymed free verse structure allows rhyme to come knocking at the door in the form of eye-rhyme (snow/now, eye/concentratedly), half-rhyme (fox/ticks), and repetition (now/now), with snow merging into the moment of now, which is lingered on a moment (with now repeated at the end of two successive lines, as well as twice more within the line), before melting back into snow. Things are flitting, tenuous: ‘movement’ offers a slight revision of ‘moment’ (‘midnight moment’s forest’), while the fox’s ‘prints’ in the snow foreshadow the act of printing the poem on the page: ‘The page is printed.’
‘The Thought-Fox’ is probably modern poetry’s best-known poem about poetic inspiration. It remains one of Ted Hughes’s most popular poems with readers. What do you think of ‘The Thought-Fox’, and what would you add to our analysis?
If you found this post helpful, we’ve offered some tips on close reading poetry here, and some advice on how to write a better English Literature essay here.
Image: Fox in snow by Rob Lee, 2006; via Wikimedia Commons.
After the war, Britain was an economic and cultural mess. The Second World War had pushed it into crushing debt and that, combined with the moral-lowering problem of losing their colonies, led to fewer jobs, and thus to poets whose body of work dealt primarily with the issues of loss of faith and hopelessness. Ted Hughes, who wrote The Thought-Fox, was one of those poets. Born in Yorkshire, Ted Hughes was the son of an avid countryman who fought in the war as part of the Lancashire Fusiliers. He had a great interest in animals, which feature heavily in a lot of his poems, and went so far as to work at a zoo after University.
Ted Hughes was married to Sylvia Plath until his affair in 1962. Only a year later, Sylvia Plath would take her own life, leaving behind feminist fans to hound Hughes after her death, and chisel his name off her headstone.
The Thought-Fox Summary
Paradoxically, a lot of Ted Hughes’ poetry reaches back to muse and author models, favouring an old-fashioned format which was ridiculed by other poets. While Movement poetry was a closed system, a down-to-earth, humanistic approach to poetry, Hughes wrote with mystical language, and the idea of something more. As Hughes himself said, “One of the things those poets had in common I think was the post-war mood of having ha enough … enough rhetoric, enough overweening push of any kind, enough of the dark gods, enough of the id, enough of the Angelic powers and the heroic efforts to make new worlds. They’d seen it all turn into death-camps and atomic bombs. All they wanted was to get back in civvies and get home to the wife and kids and for the rest of their lives not a thing was going to interfere with a nice cigarette and a nice view of the park …. Now I came a bit later. I hadn’t had enough. I was all for opening negotiations with whatever happened to be out there.”
The Thought-Fox, which you can read in full here, takes this approach to poetry. It is a poem about the writing of a poem, utilizing the symbol of the fox to stand for the idea of the muse: fleeting and quick, it haunts the poet-writer, disturbing his quiet night.
The Thought-Fox Analysis
The Thought-Fox starts on a silent, clear night. The poet, sitting alone at his desk, attempts to write, but has no luck with it. He senses a second presence – ‘something more near / though deeper within darkness / is entering the loneliness’. Here, the night itself is symbolic of the depths of imagination, standing for the idea of dormant genius, and the muse, which typically visits at unorthodox hours. The poet is alone at night, laboring over his poem, when he feels the stirrings of an idea.
The idea itself is symbolized by the fox’s presence, and at first, it is not clear what the idea is, to the poet. As Hughes writes, ‘a fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;’ showing, through the fragmented image of the fox’s nose, that it is only a very basic view of an idea, not one stamped out clearly. The fox is shrouded in darkness; only the pinnacle of it can be seen by the watchful poet, and likewise, 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 entire poem; the idea, likewise, remains half-hidden to the poet, allowing him only wisps of imagery to contend with. There is a certain softness about the way that Hughes writes his imagery: his penchant for mythical language comes through in spades as he talks about the ‘dark snow’, the ‘eye / a widening deepening greenness’. Hughes has an almost cinematic quality of imagery – one can very easily imagine the quiet night, the poet at his desk, the fox touching a leaf in a separate shot – and he uses this to further evoke the idea of the playful muse, sneaking in, and sneaking out of the poet’s grasp.
Gradually, the fox emerges out of formlessness; a ‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’, thus showing that the poet has reached the peak of his musing, and has managed to write the poem that has tantalized him throughout the night. The fox is suddenly visible, the idea is suddenly within the poet’s mind, and has been immortalized on the page. The poem and the fox exist as one entity.
Another thing to note is the very pattern of the poem itself. Ted Hughes writes with a pace that heightens the anticipation. At the start, only the fox’s nose is visible. Then two eyes. The choppy punctuation shows the hesitancy of the fox/idea, the delicate way that Ted Hughes writes about the fox leaving prints in the snow is further emphasized by the sharp, short phrase ‘sets neat prints in the snow’. The Thought-Fox moves almost like clockwork, starting out 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, symbolized in the way that Hughes writes about it – only to dim back down into quiet – ‘the window is starless still; the clock ticks; / The page is printed’.
Hughes wrote, on this poem, ‘And I suppose that long after I am gone, as long as a copy of the poem exists, every time anyone reads it the fox will get up somewhere out of the darkness and come walking towards them’.
Ted Hughes is known as the poet of the ‘will to live’, and his primary interest tends to be the idea of animals as lords of life and death, on par with gods. He writes, ‘My interest in animals began when I began. My memory goes back pretty clearly to my third year, and by then I had so many of the toy lead animals you could buy in shops that they went right round our flat topped fore place fender nose to tail’.
He was born in Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire, on the 17th of August 1930, and became the Poet Laureate of England from 1984 until his death in 1998.