Ted Hughes famously quoted “What excites my imagination is the war between vitality and death”. This is a key factor in the effectiveness of nearly all of Hughes’ early work – the stark contrast between life and death, vitality and lethargy. In poems such as “The Jaguar”, “Roarers in a Ring” and “Six Young Men”, there is a severe and often brutally sudden transition between the two extremes. I found all of these poems, particularly “The Jaguar”, intriguing and enthralling; the respect that Hughes has for animals and humans who live their lives to the full is admirably enormous.
In “The Jaguar”, the poet describes his disregard for the majority of the animals in the zoo he visits because they have accepted captivity and surrendered to a life free from care, excitement and interest. Most of the animals have lost the magic of their natural instincts. He disdainfully describes them with words like “indolence” and “sloth” and uses the simile “like cheap tarts” to describe the parrots. This insinuates that they are willing to “strut” and show off to anyone, as they have lost any sense of pride and self worth they once had.Order now
However, there is one creature that excites and captivates the crowds, and as the title of the poem suggests, has also left a lasting impact on Hughes. Instead of lazing around idly, the sleek black Jaguar “spins from the bars” and “hurries enraged”. Despite being deprived of his natural environment and his freedom, the Jaguar is full of movement, actively bursting with power and energy. Hughes is markedly enthralled by the way that the Jaguar seems to create his own space, even within the confinement of his cage â€“ describing the creature as having the world rolling “under the long thrust of his heel”.
Hughes uses powerful and potent images such as “the drills of his eyes” and “the prison darkness” to make the poem come alive. The poem has an underlining high regard for the Jaguar; it is clear he retains his sense of dignity and power and is still very much a wild beast. He has certainly not accepted his life in captivity. Hughes accentuates the difference between the Jaguar and the other animals by describing the reactions of the crowd, who stare mesmerised at the Jaguar “as a child at a dream”.
This simile is effective as it creates a real sense of awe and amazement; children cannot often be captivated so strongly, suggesting the subject is something truly incredible. Contrarily, he implies that the majority of the cages contain nothing but “sleeping straw”, and visitors tend to rush past such animals without even noticing their existence. As well as the movements of the crowds, the difference between lively and lethargic is very much highlighted by the metaphorical language used.
The curl of a snakes body is described as a fossil â€“ not only appropriate because of the coiled shape but also because it gives the impression of being very old and in a state of inertia. Similarly, the apes are of no interest to the crowds because their only motions are idle actions to pass the time; they merely “yawn and adore their fleas in the sun”. To my surprise, even the tigers and the lions are too “fatigued with indolence” to excite an audience. The simile “still as the sun” demonstrates the arrogance and immovability of the Lions, and also illustrates their colour.
All these static, lazy images are countered by the rage, strength and ferocity of the Jaguar who does not limit his spirit to the boundaries of his cage. The pace and rhythm of the poem is quite fast with short sharp words, often monosyllable to stress the simplicity of the trouble-free animals. In contrast, the pace slows down in the third verse when talking about the Jaguar, with considerably longer sentences and words such as ‘mesmerised’. “Roarers in a Ring” is a more subtle observation, in the form of a narrative.
It is Christmas Eve and a group of farmers are attempting to conceal their sorrow with alcohol and false laughter. The situation the poet describes is immediately identifiable, making it all the more hard-hitting. The poem begins on a cold note, describing a starving fox – a symbol of the harsh realities of nature and death. Descriptions like “The moor foamed like a white running sea” create an atmosphere that is bleak, cold and uninviting. In the second verse the farmers huddle around a fire, which instead of sounding cosy, sounds as if they are hiding from the outside world.
Later, it is suggested that their unceasing laughter is not genuine but is like a ball being tossed in the air. Instead of actually being happy they are forcing themselves to laugh because there is nothing else they can do, and ultimately because they are afraid. The poet talks as if he is watching them and says, “You would have thought that if they did not laugh, they must weep”. He is saying that they are scared to drop the pretence of joviality, as they don’t want to face the prospect of sober misery.
Thinking rather than laughing loudly means they must realise what their fate is â€“ “lest silence drink blood”. In contrast to the way they toss laughter, and their lives up, towards the end of the poem there is a strong feeling of downward movement, with lines like “bottomless black silence through which it fell” and “blindly, rowdily balanced, took their fall”. Despite their apparent liveliness, there is a constant undertone of sorrow. In the sixth verse the poet depicts how the farmer’s “grand bellies shook” and then suddenly the line “Oh their flesh would drop to dust at the first sober look”.
This cruelly reminds the reader how vulnerable and weak they are compared to the sharpness of the “air new as a razor” and the power of the moor and the world in general. The poem draws to an end with the deaths of the farmers, and pointedly closes with the insignificance of this; as the world “went whirling still” â€“ it carries on unchanged by their absence. Another of Ted Hughes’ poems entitled “Six Young Men” displays a more direct change from descriptions of the life and the men’s enthusiasm to their tragic deaths in the First World War.
The poem observes a photograph taken forty years ago which pictures the six men who died only months later. The men’s expressions are timeless and although the men are very much dead, the photo is undoubtedly alive The men were at the peak of their lives and the contrast between their vigour and anticipation with the tragedy of their death is shocking. Hughes describes each of the young men in turn by how they looked in a photograph, their beautiful surroundings, their camaraderie and lust for life itself.
However, at the end of each verse, a brief yet cuttingly effective line reminds the reader of the men’s fate â€“ “their faces are four decades under the ground” ends the second verse and “Forty years rotting into soil” ends the fourth. This pattern is repeated, as the poet touchingly recalls how their clothes would not be fashionable today, but at the time their shoes shone, which reflects their respectability. It also makes an alarming contrast as in life they had taken pride in their appearance but in death, they have spent forty years “rotting in the soil”.
There is a more detailed description of how the men died and Hughes reveals that he knew them and also the scene in the picture. It makes the reader wonder what relationship he was to them. I speculated whether he had lost all these friends in the war. Was he the one behind the lens who had taken the picture? The poem reflects on the passing of time, and it is states that nothing lasts. The tone of the poem is bitter but invariably becomes more softly spoken when Hughes is recalling memories of the men going on a “Sunday jaunt”.
He reflects on the irony of their lives and talks about the “mangled last agony” one of the men suffered in hospital, while for some “nobody knows what they came to”. In the last verse, the poet claims that “six celluloid smiles” are no less alive than any man, but at the same no less dead than a prehistoric creature. Hughes feels very strongly about the photograph; it is a paradox, a contradiction that that they should be smiling, when with hindsight he sees too many reasons why they should not.
Hughes remembers them twice â€“ in death shot by rifle or trying to save a friend, and preserved in his cherished photograph which has not wrinkled their faces or hands, and they live in his memory, young forever. All of these poems touch on “the contrast between vitality and death”, either comparing the two directly, or focusing mainly on one of them. It is obvious that Hughes found victory in the untamed will of the Jaguar, and admiration for the remarkable lust each of the “Six young men” had for life â€“ whereas he scorned at the farmers who led pitiful, timid lives which ended as uneventfully as they had existed.