By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Snowdrop’ is a short poem by Ted Hughes (1930-98), perhaps the greatest nature poet writing in English during the entire twentieth century. Only Edward Thomas can match Hughes for the attention to detail and the powerful yet unsentimental treatment of the natural world (and notably, Hughes called Thomas ‘the father of us all’). You can read ‘Snowdrop’ here before proceeding to our brief analysis of the poem below.
A fine winter poem, this. ‘Snowdrop’ was published in Ted Hughes’s second collection of poems, Lupercal, in 1960. In just eight lines of couplets – which don’t rhyme in the traditional sense, but instead utilise pararhyme and consonance (tight/heart, brass/darkness, minds/ends, month/metal), a favourite device of Hughes’s – the poet sets the winter scene.
In summary, we get: a mouse hibernating, the earth (soil) but also the whole Earth (‘the globe’) wrapped tight around its very heart that is ‘dulled’ or slowed down because it is ‘wintering’ or hibernating during the cold season.
We then get two more animals, the weasel and the crow, moving through the darkness of the winter landscape (when there is little natural light); these creatures are ‘not in their right minds’, the seasons having affected their own patterns of behaviour as much as they have the mouse.
It is only in the sixth line, as we approach the final couplet, that Hughes turns to the snowdrop itself, personifying it and gendering it as ‘she’ and giving it agency (‘pursues her ends’), describing it as a match for the brutal time of year in which the snowdrop flourishes (‘the stars of this month’).
Rather than giving us an idyllic or sentimental poem about the fragile or delicate beauty of the snowdrop, Hughes describes the flower in terms that recall the predatory weasel and crow, with the snowdrop’s ‘pale head heavy as metal’ (that last word so near, and yet so far, from ‘petal’) picking up on the weasel and crow which look as if they have been ‘moulded in brass’.
Snowdrops flourish in the winter, earlier than many spring flowers. So there is something hardy about them, which is belied by their delicate, pale appearance. As so often in his poetry, Ted Hughes here addresses this aspect of the flower: nature, for Hughes, is a theatre of hardship and brutality, and if one theme permeates his work more than any other, it is survival. The snowdrop thrives and survives even while the mouse is hibernating deep in the earth – the same earth which fosters the growth of the flower.
Much twentieth-century poetry is ‘classical’ rather than ‘romantic’ in outlook. This binary is the invention of T. E. Hulme, arguably the first modern poet in English, and his idea that modern poetry should be classical – that is, it should reflect the groundedness of all life, but especially human life, and reflect this in down-to-earth language – can be seen in much poetry written in the last hundred years or so. For Hulme, man is ‘mixed up with earth’: grounded, limited, unable to fly away.
This limited and limiting view of mankind – and nature more generally – is reflected in Hughes’s ‘Snowdrop’: we can analyse that reference to hibernation in the first two lines as classical in tone, not only because the whole world (the Earth, if you will) is shrunk down (‘the globe shrunk tight’) but because the mouse, in hibernating in the soil, is literally ‘mixed up with earth’ – and even the word ‘heart’, in the second line, is a mixing-up of ‘earth’, in the kind of anagrammatic wordplay of which Hughes was fond.
‘Snowdrop’ reads almost like a belated imagist poem – the sort that Hulme, or one of his followers such as H. D. or Richard Aldington, might have written. But at the same time, it is also a quintessential Ted Hughes poem, in its view of nature as a world of hardship and survival. Even a poem about a snowdrop is far from ‘flowery’ in Ted Hughes’s hands.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.