Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds
The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them-
Suddenly there were two. Finally one
With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb-
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks-
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.
A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them-
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast
But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly toward me, watching.
Ted Hughes (1930-98)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
If you’re interested in the lives and backgrounds of authors, then Ted Hughes is a pretty good one to do some digging around on. Just looking at his picture will tell you that this man has some interesting stories to tell and that square jaw also tells me he was not a man to be messed with.
Anyway, he is one of the more famous poets from your collection. He was known as the poet of the wild due to his fascination with hunting, fishing and being in the great outdoors. Loads of his poetry focuses on the natural world, but we also have to be aware that he often used this to demonstrate something about the nature of man and particularly our instinctual inclinations.
That’s all you need to know to help you get to grips with Pike, but you might also be interested to read about his relationship with another famous poet, Sylvia Plath. A lot of feminists really hate Hughes and demonise him as an abusive husband who drove Plath to suicide (his second wife killed herself as well). I’m not here to make a judgement and it sounds like he wasn’t the nicest husband and indeed had an affair with his second wife, while with Plath, so that can’t have helped. However, Plath had suffered with depression her whole life and the whole relationship was probably pretty turbulent from both sides. Interesting reading though – click here.
Okay, similar to the rest of the collection really. Here is a complex appreciation of the beauty and splendour of nature, mixed in with a critical comment on mankind and human nature. Mankind is put in context next to the history and evolutionary qualities of a fish.
Language and techniques
Right, the first thing we need to talk about is the oxymoronic praise heaped upon the pike. How can something be described as a ‘killer’, ‘malevolent’, a ‘horror’ and yet at the same time be ‘perfect’, possess ‘grandeur’ and be remarked upon for its ‘delicacy’? This isn’t a perfect oxymoron as these are not technically contradictions, but certainly by common association we would not consider something evil to be a perfect specimen.
However, Hughes is making the point that it is perfect for its environment and we are forced to appreciate the beauty of perfection. Notice too, that there are some other descriptive phrases that conjure a image of beauty, with the pike being described as having ‘green tigering the gold’ of its skin (difficult to see from the feature picture above and it’s a bit of a push to say their scales are gold, but Hughes paints it this way) and its movements being compared to ‘dance’. These elevate the pike in our minds as it is associated with the majesty of a tiger, plus the luxury of gold and finally is shown to possess the grace of a dancer.
We also have the idea that these babies are ‘killers from the egg’ and share the same traits as their older brethren right from the get go. This is in terms of appearance, but also attitude (see ‘malevolent grin’) and their instinct to hunt.
Next, I’d comment on the disturbing image of the pike waiting for its prey. This is made all the more creepy due to the fact that throughout the poem we are personifying the pike and imaging its behaviour in the same way we would consider human behaviour. The ‘gloom of their stillness’ makes me think of the pike as a figure shrouded in black, completely static waiting for its victim to come to close unaware. The ‘gloom’ both reflects the mood of the scene and the literal image of a lily pad providing shadow near the top of the pond. All three images of the pike in stanza three create the same effect, the idea of a stalker waiting for their prey.
Hughes returns to the seemingly contradictory portrayal of the poems eponymous hero in the fourth stanza. He provides a vivid piece of imagery describing the jaws as ‘hooked clamp and fangs’, the latter is a word only used to described teeth built for ripping into flesh and the former shows just how tough it would be to disrupt a bite. However, Hughes shows his appreciation, recognising that the whole of this creature’s ‘life [is] subdued to its instrument’ which implies that all other aspects of its life have taken the back seat so that it can perfect the art of killing.
I’ll skim through the next two as the ideas are really repeating what we’ve already covered. We get the idea of ruthlessness from the babies gradually consuming each other and the final one remaining with a ‘grin’ as if it has enjoyed the others’ suffering, contrast this with the way we might think of noble intentions when a lion kills only to eat. This image is repeated with the adults, albeit it a bit more graphically. I think this is significant, but will come back to it.
You’ve also got to deal with this last idea in the eighth to eleventh stanzas. Sticking with the image of Hughes fishing he now explores the natural world and the man-made world philosophically. He tells us the pond and its inhabitants have ‘outlasted’ the ‘monastery’ that it sits beside. Monasteries are typically very old and grand buildings, but in England many have been abandoned and decayed. However, the idea here is that while we may consider our lives and human existence all important, it is made to pale into insignificance next to this relatively small pond, which survives our history.
The line ‘deep as England’ furthers this idea, but also connects the poem explicitly to human existence and struggle – why else would he bother to mention it? He could just as easily used ‘deep as a well’ or something similarly mundane – remember, every word is agonisingly selected for impact in poetry. We’ll explore this in a second.
The pike were previously described as being ‘a hundred feet long in their world’, which demonstrated their dominance and significance in the pond. However, the pike lying at the bottom of this deep pond are referred to twice as ‘immense’. The impact of this repetition is to make the reader consider their significance in relation to our world. These pike have survived and thrived in this pond, while human civilisation or this building has tumbled alongside it.
We are meant to greatly respect the pike, not just for its longevity, but also because it is one scary mother hubbard. The fact he ‘dared not cast’, acted ‘silently’ and he was ‘frozen’ suggest he is in a state of terror, for fear the beast from the depth might come and gobble him up. In the darkness he fears every little noise or splash could be the beast coming to get him. The final two stanzas feel like the build up to a horror movie and you know what happens next. However, it doesn’t here… or does it. ‘Darkness beneath night’s darkness’ is a lovely line creating imagery (does it count as imagery if the imagery is difficult to see, obscured by lack of light and murky water?) of the pike slowly creeping along, unseen with the camouflage of night. The poem ends with the pike ‘watching’ and presumably waiting for its chance.
Okay, let’s go back to the connection with the human world. Why would Hughes bother mentioning it if its not relevant to the poem? What if the poem is not merely setting mankind in its place, as a relatively insignificant chapter in the earth’s history, but really using the pike as a metaphor for mankind. If we take the ruthless and thus rich pike to be a human, we see a race that thrives on violence and doing each other over – which is a pretty good summary of almost all of human history. Thus if we look at the pond being dominated by the ruthless pike can be compared to human history where the monastery (home of learning and faith) has been put to the sword and destroyed in war – perhaps we could also view the fact that the pond predates the monastery as a link to the pike’s/human’s instincts that predate any idea of religion and morality. Is Hughes telling us that this is a feature of humanity as well as the pike? Only the ruthless can be successful and survive?
I also mentioned I’d come back to the repeated imagery of pikes, both babies and adults, eating each other. If the babies are doing it then it can be said to be instinct that is in our genes and the fact they are cannablising merely emphasises the fact that humans screw each other over to get what they want – power, wealth and fame (indicated in the description of the pike at the beginning).
Finally, if we choose to view the poem in this way, what do we make of the ending? I’d take it as either Hughes worrying that the nature instinct of the pike will take over his life, or else worrying that the ruthless streak in others would bring about his demise.
I’d comment on the nature of the language used in the poem. Hughes chooses to fill his poem with simple monosyllablic words (obviously not completely, but enough to make a point of it) that convey the simplistic nature of the pike, dedicated to one purpose, or of our own instincts. Life without the frills.
The other thing I might talk about is the pace of the poem. Notice how many examples of caesura we have when describing the pike. This has a dual effect of allowing us to appreciate the beast, but also feels as if we are tiptoeing around it and builds a sense of tension as we slowly regard this beast from the depths.
Similar to what I’ve just said above. I think it is two tone: (1) quiet awe and appreciation for the perfection of nature; and (2) reserved and respectful due to the inherent danger of this ruthless killing machine. This should sound a little bit like Hunting Snake and would probably provide a suitable comparison.