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.