Pike

Overview
I haven’t been teaching iGCSE this year, but remembered this poem as being a really horrible one. However, coming back to it, I find it pretty easy to deconstruct and it’s quite pretty in a disgusting way.

Hughes examines pikes (see picture above) and admires how wonderfully evolved they are for their purpose and presents a picture of contrast between his idea of the danger they pose and its inherent perfection. In addition, he explores how their history, evolution and domination of their environment make humanity seem insignificant.

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Stanzas 1-2Stanzas 3-4Stanzas 5-6Stanzas 7-8Stanzas 9-10Stanza 11
Pike, three inches long, perfect 
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.  

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads- 
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. 

Three we kept behind glass, 
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- 

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet: 
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-  

Stilled legendary depth: 
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,  

Owls hushing the floating woods 
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.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

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.

Ted Hughes

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.

 Themes

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.

Content

There is a lot in this poem, so I will try to be brief here and then a bit more thorough with my close analysis.
Hughes opens with an image of a baby pike (adults are typically around a metre long and can weigh 20kg or so) and openly admires its perfection, which is associated not with typical conceptions of beauty, but instead with being superb killing machines from the off. He pictures them at the surface nipping at flies and then in their element at the bottom of a pond or lake. Notice the dual description of perfection and malevolence continues (we’ll explore this properly below). The final line of the second stanza confirms their significance in and dominance of their habitat as they are huge predators within it – imagine how we would think of t-rex if he was still about today.
The third stanza is a bit creepy. Hughes describes how the pike hides itself in weeds or rotten leaves without moving or making a noise – biding its time before striking with its victim unawares! Again, we return to the idea of its perfection through its nefariously designed features and Hughes stops to appreciate the fact that its whole body seems to be dedicated to its purpose of murdering and then supping on other creatures: no part of it is wasted or designed with anything else in mind, like an athlete completely dedicated to their sport.
Now Hughes focuses in on three babies he has caught and put in a tank. Even in this unnatural habitat they maintain their viciousness and hide in weeds within the tank. When it says he ‘fed fry to them’ this means other smaller fish. However, these babies could be considered fry themselves and so it turns out to be. The three become two and then one as they cannibalise each other in order to survive and grow. This emphasises their ruthlessness, particularly when the poet adds that the one remaining sits with a full stomach and a nasty grin on its face.
The sixth stanza splits in the middle and we now have an image (continuing in the seventh stanza) of two dead pikes he’s caught. The same trait as we witnessed in the babies is present in these two as well, with one jammed down the others throat seemingly having choked it to death.
Now we consider their home: the pond. Although he presents this as being comparatively small with our own towns and villages, he notes the fact that its inhabitants have survived longer than any human settlements or buildings. The depth of this pond is made comparable and probably superior to the depth of English history (as a First Class History graduate with a penchant for the medieval period, I can tell you that English history is one of the most compelling and long lasting you will ever study). He imagines that there are pike that lurk in the depths and have grown so large through their ruthlessness that they cannot move, he wants us to appreciate their grandeur and how they stand above us due to their age.
The final two stanzas are extremely worrying! Hughes continues to fish, but now seems petrified and imagines these pike watching him, through the camouflage of the night, and considering the possibility of having him for dinner.
Phew! That was brief?

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.

Structure

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.

Tone

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.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

5 thoughts on “Pike”

  1. In the section describing the tone of the poem, you said Hunting Snake would provide a suitable comparison. I was told by my english teacher that for CIE English Lit, you don’t have to have any comparison between poems.

    1. I may be wrong, as I haven’t taught it for a year, but I am fairly sure I’m not. You get three questions as options and have to choose either an extract question (with one poem in front of you) or from one of two essay questions which will most likely either be a set comparison between two texts (e.g. Compare the way Summer Farm and Where I Come From do ‘something’) or a free choice of comparison (e.g. Referring to two poems in your selection, explore how nature is viewed… blah blah blah).

      So, you can avoid a comparison if you pick the extract, but there will be at least one comparison option.

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