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.
Curiously, the poem had its origins in one of the most significant events of Hughes’s young life. While he was studying English at the University of Cambridge, Hughes found that studying poetry was having a deleterious effect on his own poetry: he was writing virtually no new poetry, because he felt suffocated by the ‘terrible, suffocating, maternal octopus’ of literary tradition. Poets often have a complex and fraught relationship with literary tradition: see T. S. Eliot’s paradoxical argument that it is only through soaking himself in the tradition of English poetry that a new poet can find his or her distinctive voice, his ‘individual talent’. Hughes’s octopus image (it would be an animal metaphor, of course) suggests that he had a quite different attitude to literary tradition than Eliot, needing to feel free to create his own work.
But it was another animal, the fox, that made up Hughes’s mind for him. While trying to work on a literary-critical essay for his degree, Hughes retired to bed at 2am, having been unable to write the essay. That night, he had a dream that a large fox walked into his room, its eyes filled with pain. It came up to his desk, laid a bleeding hand on the blank page where Hughes had tried and failed to write his essay, and said: ‘Stop this – you are destroying us.’ Hughes, who had a lifelong interest in portents, took this as a sign. In his third year, he transferred from English to anthropology and archaeology – and his poetry-writing took off again. This story probably provided Hughes with the genesis for ‘The Thought-Fox’ – a poem in which Hughes struggles, not to write an analysis of a poem, but the poem itself.
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. Although the world of academic literary criticism was not for him, the reading of previous poets (and especially nature poets) was of great importance for Hughes.
These allusions aside, the language and phrasing of ‘The Thought-Fox’ are curious for their peculiar quality of being at once familiar and strange: they seem to be well-worn phrases but there is something ever so slightly different about them. ‘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.’ Although the poem is written in free verse, Hughes retains the regular form of the quatrain, with each stanza composed of four lines.
‘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?
You can listen to Hughes describing his Cambridge fox-dream, and the genesis of ‘The Thought-Fox’, here.
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.