NOTES ON READING AND UNDERSTANDING A TED HUGHES POEM


“I am about to teach one of Ted Hughes’ poems to my class but other teachers have told me that my interpretation of the poem is wrong.”

There is never one correct interpretation of a poem. In a letter to Keith Sagar, Ted Hughes wrote: “Finally poems belong to the reader – just as houses belong to those who live in them not to the builder” (THL 23 May 1974). He also wrote that “words are tools” and that “a word has its own little solar system of meanings” (‘Poetry In The Making’, WP, Faber, 1994, p.19). Clearly, then, some words will have more importance to one reader than to another, depending on each reader’s background and experience. One reader is likely to see things in the poem which another reader might not notice. Ted’s own comment on this was that his “first principle concerning the interpretation of any poem is to let it mean whatever it can – to any reader, since every head will find its own meaning in any shapely collection of images.” (WP 261).

This does not mean that the meaning of a poem is arbitrary, only that people may notice and respond to different things in the poem. Ted’s poem ‘Do Not Pick up the Telephone’ (THCP 585), for example, was written after some devastating bad news had been transmitted by a phone call. Readers who know this will hear the horror, fear and anger in the poem. Teenagers who have constant arguments with parents about monopolizing the family telephone, however, may understand the poem quite differently. They may see the poem as expressing rather comic parental exaggeration designed to deter them from using the telephone. And if they rely on the phone for communication with their friends, they will certainly respond to the lines “Your silences are as bad/ when you are needed”. Nevertheless, there are feelings and emotions conveyed by particular words and by the particular images in the poem to which everyone will respond in a similar way, and it is the skill of the poet in shaping the poem so as to evoke these responses which is important.

Provided students look closely at the poem and base their arguments about its meaning on that close reading, then their different interpretations are likely to be valid. It is important, however, that they appreciate how, and why, others interpret the poem differently.

Ted’s own approach, when asked to interpret his poems was, he said, to attempt to provide factual support, rather than interpretation or evaluation. He discusses his own experience of failing to communicate his meaning in his long essay, ‘Myths, Metres, Rhythms’ (WP, Faber, 1994. pp.310-319)

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“I do not have a background in English literature but have been asked to write an essay about the images of nature present in Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Relic’ (THCP 78). Can you suggest how I should approach this?”

Consider the first 5 lines of the poem:

I found this jawbone at the sea’s edge
There, crabs, dogfish, broken by the breakers or tossed
To flap for half an hour and turn to a crust
Continue the beginning. The deeps are cold:
In that darkness camaraderie does not hold:


Think of the sea and the deep, cold, dark unknown of it. Mankind has explored only a tiny part of its topmost levels. Deep down live strange, grotesque creatures (you may have seen pictures of them) most of which are very ancient and very primitive. All of them are adapted to attracting prey and eating it in order to survive (“camaraderie does not hold”: there is no friendship there).

Remember that our evolutionary ancestors came from the sea, so the sea, in a way, is in our blood – it was our beginning – and creatures which die and “turn to a crust” repeat the natural cycle of creation and destruction. ‘Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust’, as the old funeral service says: in ‘Relic’ it is fish to bones to crumbling sea crust.

Now read the lines again and note what pictures they prompt in your imagination and what thoughts you have about them. Can you see the animals flapping, like stranded fish, in the shallows? Now think about these questions:

What words does Hughes use to help you see this picture?
How does the poem make you feel about the depths of the sea? Is it friendly or frightening?
Are there words and pictures in the poem which convey this to you?
How does Hughes link these images with human feelings?
Camaraderie”, for example is a human feeling – is it appropriate to apply such feelings to animals or is it unrealistic?. We might think that dogs, perhaps, or dolphins, show camaraderie but is it scientifically true or just our interpretation?

Nothing touches but, clutching, devours. And the jaws,/ Before they are satisfied or their stretched purpose / Slacken, go down jaws; go gnawn bare”.

Do animals feel sorry when they kill something in order to eat it? Don’t dolphins eat other fish? It is not a fact of nature that we all have to eat to survive?
Why did Hughes choose to write about jawbones in this poem? Think of the pictures of deep-sea fish, and sharks, and other big predatory fish - what do you notice most, and fear perhaps?

Jaws/ Eat and are finished and the jawbone comes to the beach: / This is the sea’s achievement;”. The sea, too, destroys, breaks down and returns all things to their bare essentials – their origins. What, originally, were the shells, vertebrae etc. that we find on the beach?

This curved jawbone did not laugh / But gripped, gripped and is now a cenotaph”. How does the word ‘gripped’ make you feel? Why does Hughes use it in this poem? Is the sea friendly or frightening? What is a cenotaph? Cenotaphs are often associated with those who died in wars. Why might this be appropriate in this poem?

Why are the bones “the spars of purposes / that failed “? This is a difficult question to answer and maybe the poet has not made his meaning clear enough. Perhaps the poet was imagining the evolutionary tree with its many branches (like spars), some of which lead to dead ends. Or perhaps the bones are just those of creatures which were once intent on eating to stay alive but which were themselves eaten, or simply died. Time – birth, life, death – goes on in a continuous circle -  ‘eating its tail’  – and every atom is recycled, devoured, broken down in some way and reused. Some creatures are more successful and more adaptable than others – and higher up the food chain.

Does “far from the surface” mean more than just ‘in the depths of the sea’? Or, since it finishes the sentence about purposes that failed, does it refer to Nature’s purposes, which are hidden from us?

What is a relic? Look up the word in the dictionary. Is this a good choice of word for the title of this poem – does it give you other ideas about things this poem might be trying to say?

Most importantly – how does the poet make (or try to make) this poem work? What words (each is chosen very carefully by the poet), and sounds (harsh sounds like ‘gripped’: soft sounds like all the ‘s’ sounds which imitate the sound of the sea), and images, rhythms and feelings etc. does he use?

You could also look up John Donne’s poem ‘The Relic’ (you will probably find it on the Internet). Donne was an Elizabethan poet and Hughes was very familiar with his poetry. Donne’s poem is about a dead lover’s bones and is very different to Ted’s poem in mood.

In the end, a poem is what YOU make of it after you have read it very carefully, and perhaps you should comment on the fact that some ideas in the poem are obscure and that if this puzzles the reader it may well be a fault in the poem. Ted could certainly say things very clearly when he wanted to, but sometimes he expected his readers to share his own extensive knowledge of, for example, fish and fishing, which he loved. He did once contemplate doing a degree in Marine Biology, so he was interested in it and knew a lot about it. He discusses his own experience of failing to communicate his meaning in a poem in his long essay, ‘Myths, Metres, Rhythms’ (WP, Faber, 1994. pp.310-319).

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“I have been asked to discuss the metre and rhythms of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Wind’ (THCP 36). How do I do this?”

Ted Hughes’ own discussion of poetic metre can be found in his essay ‘Two Musical Traditions’ (WP, Faber, 1994. pp.320 -330) but this essay is quite difficult for a beginner and will mean more to readers who already know a little about poetry analysis. If you are new to poetry analysis, the following may help:

First, read the poem ‘Wind’ out loud to yourself line by line.

Imagine you are singing each line, or dancing to it. In each word, mark the syllable or syllables on which you would place some natural stress as you sing it.

In the first line of ‘Wind’, for example, each word has only one syllable and the stresses fall like this (the heavy stress is underlined):

This house has been far out at sea all night
De dum, de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum  (read it aloud and hear the rhythm).

If you find that the second line of ‘Wind’ is not as easy to do this with, go on to the third and fourth lines, then come back to the second line later. You will find that there is a fairly simple, even rhythm to most of the lines. 

If you count the number of stressed (or heavy) syllables in each line, this will tell you how many beats there are in the line. It’s like beats to a bar in music. Look at the first line again:

This house/ has been/ far out/ at sea/ all night”.
There are five heavy beats, so this rhythm is called penta (meaning 5) metre (meaning rhythm) – ie. the metre is  ‘pentameter’.

The repeated pattern on one light and one heavy stress (light-heavy/ light-heavy,/ light-heavy/ light-heavy/ light-heavy) is called an iambic pattern. The metre is, therefore, known as ‘iambic pentameter’.

Shakespeare used iambic pentameter a great deal in some of his most famous speeches e.g. “The quality of mercy is not strained” (“The qua/-li- ty/ of mer/-cy is/ not strained”). Note that each syllable is stressed or not stressed – not just whole words.

Try the same thing with each line of ‘Wind’. If the line does not seem to have an even beat, that may be because the poet wants a particular word or phrase to stand out. This is the way that poets choose to influence us as we read the poem and to influence our understanding and feelings about the poem. If we read poems aloud, we hear the rhythms (whether we listen for them or not) and our ear picks up differences that change the way we feel about the poem. Iambic pentameter is close to our natural speech patterns and suits the descriptive nature of  Hughes’ poem (the speaker in the poem is telling us about the wind). The even, galloping rhythm of the poem also conveys something of the energy of a strong wind.

Don’t let trying to work out the metres and rhythms of a poem spoil the poem for you. The important thing is to get the feeling of the poem and to respond to the way the poet paints a picture and conveys sounds and feelings. How he chooses to do this is an expression of his skill and expertise as a poet.


© Ann Skea 2008. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com


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