‘Telegraph Wires’ belongs to Ted Hughes’s middle-late period, before the publication of Birthday Letters shortly before his death in 1998 but after his classic earlier work such as ‘The Thought-Fox’, Lupercal, ‘Snowdrop’, and, of course, Crow. Published in 1989 in his collection Wolfwatching, ‘Telegraph Wires’ requires some close textual analysis to untangle some of its language and imagery. (You can read ‘Telegraph Wires’ here.)
The title sounds decidedly unHughesian – telegraph wires put us more in mind of Stephen Spender’s pylons, perhaps, than the great Laureate of Darwinian nature. But nature is always there in a Ted Hughes poem, and so it is with ‘Telegraph Wires’. Immediately, we find ourselves among a ‘lonely moor’: it could almost be Wuthering Heights country, the landscape of Emily Brontë but also Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Wuthering Heights’, as well as Hughes’s own homeland, of course (he grew up in Yorkshire). As if the poet (or we, the reader) were able to create this landscape as easily as the telegraph wires were made by man, we are told to ‘Take telegraph wires’ together with that ‘moor’ in order to create something ‘alive’. The hum of the wires is indeed ‘alive in your ear’, and the poem that follows is alive to the sounds of the wires, just as Hughes is alive to the aural potential of his words on the page: towns whisper to each other over the heather, we are told, with ‘heather’ looking back to ‘together’ as well as forwards to ‘weather’. But since the previous line had given us ‘whisper’ and ‘heather’, ‘weather’ feels like an echo, a telegraphing if not a telescoping, of ‘whisper to towns over the heather’.
Indeed, the ‘airs’ of the wires as they hum with electric activity are almost musical, and listen to the musicality of the vowel sounds in ‘unearthly airs / The ear hears, and withers!’ ‘Airs’ turns into ‘hears’ via ‘ear’, but ‘ear’ is also a visual echo of ‘unearthly’, just as ‘withers’ picks up on ‘weather’ from earlier in the poem. More delicate wordplay follows in the following couplet, where the ‘revolving ballroom of space’ is a densely compacted image, with ‘revolving’ suggesting ‘ball’ only for ‘ball’ to morph into ‘ballroom’ before ‘room’ summons ‘space’, playing upon that alternative meaning of the word and encouraging us to note the similarly double meaning of ‘space’ itself (outer or inner?). In the following line, we are back to that ‘moor’, an echo of the ‘lonely moor’ of the poem’s opening line but also a revision and reversal of ‘room’ in ‘ballroom’, as if that (ball)room has completed its rotation and is facing the other way. True enough, a ‘bright face’ (the moon?) draws out the music from the telegraph wires which, the last line grimly tells us, ‘empty human bones.’
How so? One way to interpret that final line is that the telegraph wires are bearers of bad news: they ‘empty human bones’, drain us of our life and our joy, through being the channel through which devastating news of the death of a loved one is delivered.
‘Telegraph Wires’ is written in rhyming couplets, although pararhyme is also used, as often in a Ted Hughes poem: ‘moor’ and ‘ear’, for instance, although also ‘airs’ and ‘withers’. This creates a sense of unease throughout, while also underscoring that delicate interplay of different vowel sounds which Hughes uses to such great effect here, as a means of describing the hum of the telegraph wires. Whilst it is not one of Ted Hughes’s most celebrated poems, ‘Telegraph Wires’ offers another fine example of his masterly use of assonance, pararhyme, and wordplay.